A great caravan of covered wagons, filled with hearty pioneers and their families and possessions, are waiting for the Spring “jump off” at Westport Landing, now Kansas City. The time is 1848, and the destination is far-off Oregon, in The Covered Wagon (1923), the first big-budget Western epic. Where countless pilgrims fell, a love triangle flourishes, as Molly Wingate (Lois Wilson) must choose between the brutish Sam (Alan Hale) and the dashing Will (J. Warren Kerrigan). Complicating her decision are the perils of the trail: a mile-wide river, prairie fire, heavy snowfall, a buffalo stampede, crippling hunger, and Native American attacks. Boasting a cast of thousands and an unparalleled commitment to authenticity, The Covered Wagon was an enormous box-office success in 1923 and became one of the major milestones in the history of the Western.
What We Thought:
When you watch The Covered Wagon nowadays you have to keep in mind when it was made. In today’s PC, everyone is offended at something world, the film would be harshly criticized. It’s a silent film without dialogue, just a musical score. It uses printed words on-screen to show you what the characters are saying. Some of those characters speak broken English or at least Southern style English with words like git etc. Native Americans are called Injuns and look like savages. With today’s lack of perspective on history and previous times, people would be outraged over it.
But if you do watch the film with perspective, it’s a pretty amazing film. The size and scope for a film from the 1920s is mind-blowing. They have tons of people with wide shots and loads of wagons and horses. A good Western always has big size and scope and this is the granddaddy of them all. I can see why it was a box office success back in the day, no one had ever seen anything like it before.
As someone who grew up on Westerns and loves the genre, I can appreciate what this film did historically. It comes across as just another westward ho, cowboys vs. Indians film, but that’s because it pretty much created that type of storytelling. It has hundreds of families going west where they face the Savaged Redmen. People die on the way showing the audience just how tough of a journey it truly was. It has everything we want in a Western because it laid the groundwork for it.
As someone who has done some acting in their life as well, I respect the hell out of the actors in the film who didn’t deliver dialogue to an audience, but had to use their faces and body to show their emotions. Silent acting is such a different beast compared to stage or film acting. Facial expressions and movements are so bigger and much more expressive to sell to the audience what they want them to feel. Lois Wilson, the female love interest, has such a classic silent film look about her. Her face is highly featured and she looks nothing like today’s Hollywood starlets which is great in my book. She was kind of a babe back in the day!
The Covered Wagon is a historically important film that film nerds need to see if they haven’t already. It’s a hard sell in today’s “I’m offended” world, but for those who can appreciate what came before them, it’s a must watch. I was blown away by the size of a film made during a time I don’t expect to see blockbuster style filmmaking.
Starring J. Warren Kerrigan, Lois Wilson, Alan Hale
- 1920x1080p (Blu-ray)
- 98 minutes
- Silent with Score (2.0 Stereo)
- Not Rated
- Audio Commentary by Film Historian Toby Roan
- Booklet Essay by Film Scholar Matt Hauske
- “The Pie-Covered Wagon”, a 1932 one-reel spoof starring Shirley Temple
- Wurlitzer Organ Score by Gaylord Carter