Silent Movie Review: “The Covered Wagon”

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In cinema history it is the Ur Western.

Yes, “The Great Train Robbery” was the first “film” and it is fitting that it too, was a Western. But “The Covered Wagon” established the tropes, the conventions, the action beats and archetypes that carried John Ford and John Wayne, Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway, Clint Eastwood and the Coens through a century of Western cinema.

The stoic Westerner — a good-bad man with a tainted past, looking for a reset on the American Frontier — the dewy Eastern flower, soon to be hardened her odyssey across The Plains — the scheming rival, the colorful comic “trailblazer” — cattle and horses and oxen pulling Conestoga wagons across dry, dusty flatlands, over mesas and up mountains, from Westport Landing (Kansas City) to Oregon — it all began with “The Covered Wagon.”

There’s a wide river to ford, buffalo, Indian raids, fistfights and gunplay and the distraction of “Thar’s GOLD in them thar Hills!” (California)

It’s all here in a film released in 1924.

I caught James Cruze’s jaunty “The Covered Wagon” in a Florida cinema that opened in 1924. No, I wasn’t there on opening night, thank you. Accompanied by a pianist rattling through a repertoire that included classical music snippets, “Oh! Susanna!,” “Bonanza” and “Rawhide” themes — and “Mighty Mouse” — it was a presentation that showcased the film’s dazzling, almost documentary-real detail and production design, its vast scope and dated humor and startling, chaotic action.

And the damned thing still works.

We see two massive wagon trains, white canvas tops stretching out into the distance, forming up for the joint crossing — one led by Wingate (Charles Ogle, born just after the Civil War), the other by Will Banion (J. Warren Kerrigan, who starred in the silent version of “Captain Blood,” and had the title role in “Samson”).

They’re under the ostensible “command” of Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale), who has earnest designs on Wingate’s pretty daughter Molly (Lois Wilson, who worked into the TV soap opera era).

It’s obvious that Mexican War vet Banion and his trusty/ornery trailblazer Jackson (The Scot Ernest Torrence, a veteran heavy in silent films) is the one who will get this train through, obvious that Molly will fall for his manliness and obvious — by his raccoon eye-makeup that Woodhull will do whatever he can to keep them from coupling.

Little Jed Wingate (Johnny Fox) is along for the ride, picking at his banjo, offering a “chaw” to any pioneer what needs it.

I’ve seen scores of silent films in such settings — accompanied by a pianist, organist or local symphony raising funds with a special benefit showing. “Phantom of the Opera,” “The General,” Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, Fairbanks — all impressive.

But while “The Covered Wagon” isn’t a silent John Ford Western or directed by one of the acknowledged masters of the medium, isn’t one of the widely known antecedents to the most American of movie genres, it’s impressive in ways that any film buff can appreciate.

Just 75 years removed from the events of the 1848 setting of the film, Paramount was able to shoot this movie in Utah by asking to borrow any covered wagons still in the families of the state’s second and third generation Latter Day Saints.

That “recent history” and authenticity carries over to the costumes — worn, lived in leathers, a wide assortment of hats, rough homespun fabrics.

The hero doesn’t wear a gun, as that practice was more a Civil War era innovation.

The script is corny by modern standards, lots of talk of “Empire Builders” heading West, the implied Manifest Destiny that came with that and showing off what would become known as “The Plow that Broke the Plains.”

But real Native Americans are seen inveighing against such a plow in their encampments, this “monster weapon” that would take their land, fence off their lifestyle and chase away the buffalo. The tribes are given their motivation for fighting back, reinforced by wagon train treachery, even in a movie filmed in 1923 and released in 1924.

The fights aren’t photographed in close-ups, but in wide, chaotic tumbles, dust clouding the screen as brawlers or settlers circling the wagons and fighting off a tribal attack, all with the feel of silent newsreel footage.

The only “name” in the cast that most film fans will recognize is Hale, 15 years before playing Little John to Errol Flynn’s definitive Robin Hood. He gives fair value as a solid villain, not even close to the over-the-top such characters were played in B-movies.

The acting has its share of swooning, glowering and mugging for the camera — close-ups are paler than the somewhat contrast-free and washed out wide shots.

It’s a talky silent movie — too many intertitles giving us exposition we can figure out with the visuals, lots of pauses for jokes — most of them in Jackson’s drawling argot.

“A fight now would disorganate this here train!”

But here’s an “opening of the West” Western that captures the immense challenges of such a quest, almost by accident. The “forts” were adobe built, not wooden stockades seen in so many later Westerns (no trees). The world was small in this pre-49er era. Jim Bridger and Kit Carson make appearances.

The movie doesn’t dwell much on just how terrifying a river crossing could be to humans and the livestock they often drowned in the attempt.

Such scenes, and a couple of early cinema stunts — no camera tricks, just good horsemen pulling off daring japes — keep the fact that while this pre-Production Code romance was chaste in the extreme, it was also pre-oversight by the now somewhat discredited Humane Society. I grimaced at every hint that something bad might have happened in the assorted animal melees.

It’s not high cinematic art, but very few were making movies of that standard in the early 20s, not in genre pics for mass Midwestern, Western and Southern consumption.

But “The Covered Wagon” is much more than merely “the first” to show us the West this way. It has a freshness about it that belies a movie upon whose frame almost every genre pic that followed was built on. And if Utah native and “Great Gabbo” director James Cruze isn’t one of the acknowledged geniuses of the early cinema, he at least can be remembered for insisting on an authenticity that later filmmakers drifted further and further from as the genre matured.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: Pre-code violence, alcohol abuse, child tobacco use

Cast: J. Warren Kerrigan, Lois Wilson, Alan Hale, Ernest Torrence, Tully Marshall

Credits: Directed by James Cruze, script by Jack Cunningham based on the Emerson Hough novel. A Kino Classics/Paramount release.

Running time: 1:38

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