March 23, 2018
The Covered Wagon – US, 1923
Sometimes a film is more important historically than it is qualitatively. Perhaps it is the first film of a director later regarded as a cinematic genius or the screen debut of someone later considered to be one of cinema’s greatest leading ladies. In the case of The Covered Wagon, it is its status as Hollywood’s “first big budget Western epic,” and for that, it has rightfully earned a place in the rather long list of influential films. However, I highly doubt it will appear on anyone’s list of the greatest films of all time or even for the year in which it was released. I base this notion entirely on one thing: the film’s particularly weak and banal narrative.
Seen through the eyes of audiences in 1923, the film must have been somewhat of a revelation. There, on screen before them, was a trek across hostile and unforgiving terrain, a duel with Mother Nature, and a race to stave off both starvation and the madness that generally accompanies a journey of this sort. Director James Cruze includes moments that I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of – the realization that the journey will take the settlers across a long, deep, fast-moving river, through punishing winter months, and in the crosshairs of those hell-bent on preventing them from tearing apart their land with the plow, a device that is spoken of as being pure evil. That Cruze films some of these scenes from a distance and without the right amount of drama or emotion speaks of both the infancy of the genre and, I can only surmise, the continuing development of Cruze as a director. (He had made at least 18 films prior to The Covered Wagon, none of which I’ve seen, and had been appearing onscreen since 1911. A scene in which he appeared as an American Indian in The Covered Wagon ended up on the cutting room floor.)
The Covered Wagon attempts to tell two tales concurrently. The first – and by far more interesting one – is the story of the West’s early settlers, ordinary people who took on a truly extraordinary task. From this storyline, we learn of the size of the caravans that made the journey and that many of them did not make it to the promised land. Some turned back after getting a true sense of the monstrous task in front of them; others perished from hunger or sickness, and it was up to those chosen to lead the expedition to inspire confidence in his followers that the journey would be worth it in the end. In one scene, we learn that the caravan only travels twelve miles a day, making their journey from modern-day Kansas City to Oregon one that will take them at least 137 days to complete. Think about that for a moment.
The first’s second narrative will be nothing new to contemporary moviegoers, for they are likely accustomed to seeing historical events through the eyes of young lovers. Wings did this for World War I, as did J’Accuse; Pearl Harbor did it for World War II, just as For Whom the Bell Tolls did for the Spanish Civil War. To this category, we could also add Titanic. For the plot device to work, the relationship must be given ample screen time to grow and mature. We should see them meet, hear their awkward first encounters, and recognize the first signs of love. Then we should be able to ascertain just how much they are meant to be together and how lost they will be if they are ever separated. The Covered Wagon denies us many of these. Sure, we get a few furtive glances and some scenes of dialogue between the two, but nothing that makes you declare their relationship to be a love that cannot be denied or that would justify the abandoning of one engagement for the chance of another.
The two characters in question are Will Banian (J. Warren Kerrigan) and Molly Wingate (Lois Wilson). When the film begins, Molly is engaged to Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale), though for the life of me I cannot figure out why. Will, with his dashing good looks, superb fighting skills, and genuine concern for humankind, easily catches Molly’s attention, and Sam vows to put an end to Will’s life because of it. And that, in a nutshell, is that. This storyline has so little going for it that it introduces two side characters who seem to be there just for levity, Will’s right-hand man William Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and a trader named Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall). I found William the more interesting of the characters, simply because he has moments in which you wonder just how much ruthlessness he is capable of while also proving himself to be as loyal a friend to Will as anyone could ever imagine. I had more reservations about Joe. The character is neither necessary nor appropriate. In a film about people in constant peril, it just seems wrong to be asked to laugh at drunken hijinks.
I wanted to like The Covered Wagon, to praise it to high heaven and declare it to be not simply an original, but also a genuinely brilliant standard-bearer for the genre. Sadly, I cannot proclaim the later. The film has its fair share of powerful moments, but too many of those concern the fate of the caravan and not that of Will, Molly, or Sam. It reminded me of Gangs of New York in that regard, for in that movie too the back story resonated far more than its main narrative. When The Covered Wagon focused on the group and their collective struggles, I was riveted. When it pointed its lens at the love triangle, I found myself distracted, and my mind eventually began to wander. And just where did it wander to? To the story I wished I was seeing – to the confusion, the desperation, the true toll of the journey on the psyche of the travelers, and to those lives lost and those entering the world under the harshest of conditions. That’s the story I wanted to see. What I got was something that is now considered routine and unoriginal. Sometimes a love story just gets in the way. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber)
2 and a half stars