This time out in our series of reviewing the highest-grossing film of every year since 1915 to present-day we reach 1923 and it’s top grosser the long-forgotten The Covered Wagon. Let’s get into it, shall we?
Multiple wagon caravans join together in the desert heartland of American to push West towards Oregon to start a new life. This massive train unwittingly crosses the path of the Native Americans who are wary of their desires and seek to stop the further exploitation of their land. Will Banion (J. Warren Kerrigan) the captain of one of the caravans falls for the unwillingly engaged Molly (Lois Wilson) to the dastardly Sam, will love prevail in this dangerous journey?
Sadly we have a film that appears to have been forgotten by audiences, and I cannot quite understand as to why. One thing that did strike me about The Covered Wagons is how influential it obviously was to other Westerns for the next 90 sum years. The standard clichés are here, for the first time we see the wagon train crossing America while being attacked by Native Americans, the circling of the wagons for protection upon waves of attacks and siege.
But do not let us forget about our hero of the piece falling in love with someone from the wagon train and needing to be there to save her while the standard rich villain looms over proceedings. Add in a comical (but useful) sidekick and we have the standard plotline for a large number of Westerns.
Character-wise, sadly everyone came across as just too bland and for a film that really requires a strong lead, it is a pretty big shame. The performance of J. Warren Kerrigan is an utter disappointment. At no point do you believe his character. Lois Wilson fairs much better and when she gets the chance to perform, she does very well. Sadly the script was not as kind to her as it could have been and she rarely gets moments to shine. The standout of the film is the giant presence of Ernest Torrence as scout William Jackson. When he is onscreen he utterly dominates it, in truth he is the hero of the film as he assists in getting the wagon through terrain and is able to use his friendships to get by with fewer difficulties. He even saves Will Banion at the end of the film. He was the main acting takeaway for me and one that I will assuredly look at his other films for.
For some reason, the plot had the legendary mountain man Jim Bridger in the film. They further decided to use him as a comedy tool which is utterly bewildering. This portrayal caused his sole surviving child to sue for libel against the filmmakers, which after seeing how they portrayed him, I am not too surprised about, to be honest!
The cast is let down by a substandard script, especially when this is an adaption and the novel is far more compelling. But, this was the first attempt at a Western film at this level of budget and some forgiveness is perhaps warranted. Melodrama and comedy was thrown into the film to assist with its marketability when it would have been better used to have the film be a straight drama. Other westerns fixed this issue, but the remnants of some of these now influential decisions remain to this day.
Plot points are brought up and dropped in the blink of an eye. Banion apparently stole cattle while he was in the army, so how did he manage to wrangle a job as being the captain of a train. Was that not punishable by death back then? Lots of questions, few answers. With Cruze being part Native American he wisely cast actual Native Americans in those roles. Which, to be honest, was a relief. When I first saw them I was worried for a few seconds. Happily, I was worried about nothing.
Apart from Ernest Torrence the stand out from the film is the cinematography as the film was shot on locations and not in sound stages which allowed James Cruze to position his camera as wide as possible to have these wonderful shots of the West. The fight scenes are bizarrely shot wide as well, and in an era where close up was being used, it is a strange choice. This takes away from the chaos of the fights between the wagon train and the Native Americans as we just see a lot of running and riding about. Simple close-ups would allow the audience to actually see what was going on. But, as said the travel sequences are beautiful. For the first time, audiences would have been able to see these areas on film and could very well be one of the reasons for its success.
As mentioned at the very beginning of the post, The Covered Wagon is often forgotten and there are clear reasons as to why. The majority of the cast are fairly lacklustre, as well as the action sequences not being on par as it should. But, its influence on the Western genre is undeniable.
To go back to our previous entries check them out below.
Reviewing the highest-grossing film of every year: 1915 – The Birth of a Nation
Reviewing the highest-grossing film of the year (1916): 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Reviewing the highest-grossing film of the year (1917): A Romance of the Redwoods
Reviewing the highest-grossing film of the year (1918): Mickey
Highest Grossing Films of each year: 1920 – Way Down East
Highest Grossing Films of each year: 1921 – The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse
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