The Covered Wagon [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (18th February 2018).
The Film

In 1848 at Westport Landing (present day Kansas City), two great wagon caravans of pioneers meet for a journey west to Oregon: the first lead by pious Jesse Wingate (Charles Ogle of the Thomas Edison-produced Frankenstein) and the other from Missouri lead by Mexican War veteran Will Banion (Samson's J. Warren Kerrigan). Amiable Banion surrenders leadership to Wingate's lieutenant Sam Woodhull (They Drive by Night's Alan Hale) while providing ornery but experienced guide William Jackson (Steamboat Bill Jr.'s Ernest Torrence). Upon hearing of the caravan headed in their direction, the Pawnees fear that the "Pale Face" with their plows will "bury the buffalo, uproot the forest, and level the mountain." The strain of the journey leads to some deaths among the older travelers while others decide to turn back despite the promise of land to farm in Oregon. Although betrothed to Sam, Wingate's daughter Molly (School for Girls' Lois Wilson) starts to fall for Will; and Will showing up Sam with both the superior of his knowledge and level-headedness of his approach does little to quell the other man's growing jealousy. When Sam learns that Will was kicked out of the army for stealing cattle, he tells Wingate who forbids Will to see his daughter while Molly honors her engagement to Sam by also refusing to see Will again. When they reach the North Fork ferry crossing run by Indians, their charge of ten dollars per wagon and learning that it will take two months to get all of them across leads to a disagreement between Sam and Will about how to proceed that they settle with a no holds barred fistfight. Will wins but refuses to finish Sam off despite encouragement from Jackson and the rest of the crowd, and Molly is also shocked at his brutality. Wingate and Will decide that it is best for the two caravans to part ways, with Wingate and company heading up further to a shallower place in the river to cross. Eager to avenge himself on Will, Sam crosses using the ferry but then refuses to pay the Indians and shoots one of them when he persists, leading to a full scale attack on the caravan. Will and his party have stopped at Fort Bridger where trader Jim Bridger (The Cat and the Canary's Tully Marshall) lives peacefully with two Indian wives "Blast Your Hide" and "Dang Your Eyes" where he learns that the army has determined his cattle theft was a commandeering of food for his starving regiment and he has been reinstated into the army, allowing him to literally come to the embattled caravan with the cavalry. The journey farther west is fraught with further dangers, including more threat of attack, the first snowfall, and man's greed as the California gold rush has many of Wingate's flock wanting to head to "Californy" with Will's caravan. When Sam realizes that Molly does not want to marry him, he vows to make sure that Will cannot marry her either.

Based on the popular novel by Emerson Hough, The Covered Wagon offers up some truly awe-inspiring sprawling compositions of a cast of thousands including tribes whose cooperation was secured by sign-language talker and future western film star Tim McCoy (The Western Code) recreating events in a long stretch of Nevada that was at the time one of the few places outside of national parks that still looked as much of the west had only a half of a century before. However epic the scope, it is not a historical drama but a conventional western with a romantic subplot, some draggy comic relief during the Fort Bridger segment, and an Indian attack while the hardships the caravan encountered are addressed but not lingered upon for the purposes of suspense and resolved as briskly as a game of "Oregon Trail". What differentiates the film from the likes of Stagecoach is its depiction of the Indians who are not a single monolithic mass, have allowed Bridger to move about the territory unmolested and to intermarry because he is a trader and not a plowman, and the motivation for their attack not in what the caravan will inevitably do their land but in response to a very specific incident (even shoot-first Jackson surmises that Sam must have done something to provoke them). The film is more interesting as a cinematic achievement of the silent film era more so than as a drama or adventure.


One of the few Paramount's silent films that the studio did not neglect during the video age with a digitally restored VHS tape edition in the nineties, The Covered Wagon comes to Blu-ray in a high bitrate 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer presumably derived from the film materials for that earlier restoration. The near hundred year old film has some faint scratches and marks but looks quite strong throughout with striking detail in the natural locations and the textures of clothing that may not look quite like the film was photographed yesteday but not unlike what we might expect for a restoration of a studio film half its age.


The Wurlitzer score recorded by Gaylord Carter for the VHS edition is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo weaving the song "Oh! Susanna" throughout - as it is visually quoted in the film with sheet music - with some vague interpolations of "Greensleeves" for Molly, traditional accompaniment to the action scenes, as well as occasional musical interpretations of certain effects like a character playing the banjo onscreen or another blowing a horn. The intertitles are original with some optically dissolving over the the action.


The audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan is as researched and informative as we have come to expect from his efforts, revealing that producer Jesse L. Lasky (The Last Command) optioned the book with the desire to elevate the western from the potboiler status of the likes of Tom Mix (Destry Rides Again). He describes the shoot in Snake Valley, Nevada on a two hundred thousand acre ranch with thousands of extras camping and living there for ten dollars per day, watching rushes and putting on shows to entertain one another during downtime (the Native American tribes actually did camp there in their teepees). Many of the covered wagons were genuine heirlooms supplied by the families that owned them who were also among the extras. Roan also discusses the careers of the cast and crew, including cinematographer Karl Brown - who would move into screenwriting at the end of the silent days and end his career writing for Death Valley Days - and part Morman-part Ute Indian actor/director James Cruze (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) who was brought in to replace George Melford (The Sheik) early on in pre-production as the scope of the project was enlarged. The disc also includes the 1923 one reel spoof The Pie-Covered Wagon with Shirley Temple. Enclosed with the disc is a booklet with an essay by Matt Hauske. The cover is reversible.



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