Lois Wilson (Molly Wingate), J. Warren Kerrigan (Will Banion),
Ernest Torrence (Bill Jackson), Charles Ogle (Jesse Wingate),
Ethel Wales (Mrs. Wingate), Alan Hale (Sam Woodhull), Tully Marshall
(Jim Bridger), Guy Oliver (Joe Dunstan), John Fox (Jed Wingate)
Jesse Wingate is the wagonmaster for "the mightiest caravan
that was ever to crawl across the Valley Platte. . .," a
huge wagon train gathering at Westport, Missouri, in May of 1848,
and bound for new and better opportunities 2,000 miles away in
With Wingate are his wife and pretty daughter, Molly. His
"first lieutenant" on the wagon train is Sam Woodhull
who seems to have somewhat of an unspoken agreement with Molly
that they will be married.
Along comes Will Banion with sidekick Bill Jackson, a crusty
old cowboy who likes tobacco, liquor and a good fight. Banion
is the leader of the "Liberty boys," a large contingent
of wagons that is joining Wingate's group for the trek west.
Tension is created immediately
between Woodhull and Banion when Woodhull points out that Banion
was kicked out of the military for stealing cattle. Wingate asserts
his authority as wagonmaster and gives Banion the menial job of
herding horses at the rear of the train. Banion readily agrees
with no complaint.
The tension is intensified when Woodhull recognizes Molly's
interest in Banion. Her interest is first piqued when she sees
Banion help a little girl repair her broken doll. She is immediately
won over by his kindness. The men finally have a confrontation
when Banion has to rescue Molly on a runaway horse. Woodhull tries
to pull a gun on Banion while his back is turned, but ever faithful
Bill Jackson steps in to save his friend.
The trip is arduous with the wagon train covering only 12
miles a day. Many of the pioneers decide the trip is too difficult
and turn back. However, their biggest test comes when they must
cross the North Fork of the Platte River. Banion tells Wingate
he will drown the horses if he doesn't cross at a different point
on the river. Woodhull calls Banion a coward, and the sparks begin
to fly. The two men end up in a "free" fight, that is,
one in which anything goes. Banion wins but disappoints Jackson
when he doesn't gouge Woodhull's eyes out while he had the chance.
The friction between Woodhull and Banion has caused a split
among the pioneers, and Wingate suggests Banion should take his
group and continue the journey on their own.
Jim Bridger, a scout and good friend of Banion and Jackson,
joins them shortly after they cross the river. He says he will
continue with them until they reach his home, Fort Bridger. By
early October, both groups reach the Fort.
Meanwhile, Woodhull has convinced Wingate that a man such
as Banion who has been kicked out of the army and branded a thief
should not associate with Molly. Wingate orders Banion to stay
away from his daughter. Banion, of course, offers no argument.
While at Fort Bridger, word comes that gold has been discovered
in California. Banion and his group decide that is where they
Wingate's wagon train moves into a box canyon, and preparations
begin for Molly and Woodhull to be married. On the evening they
are to be married. Bridger tells Molly he has learned that Banion
was wrongly accused, and the army has reinstated him. Just as
Molly is telling Woodhull she is going to find Banion, the wagon
train is attacked by Indians. Molly's little brother, Jed, slips
past the Indians and finds Banion and his group who return to
save the wagon train.
After the attack, Banion leaves again, and many of Wingate's
group also quit the wagon train for the promise of wealth in California.
Woodhull is one of these. So, with a much smaller group than they
had when the journey began five months earlier, Molly, her father
and the wagon train complete the last leg of the trip to Oregon.
Banion, meanwhile, has struck it rich in California. However,
unknown to him, Woodhull has sworn to find him and kill him.
Bill Jackson had stayed behind at Fort Bridger to nurse Jim
Bridger back to health after he was injured in the Indian attack.
One day he finds Banion at his remote cabin in California panning
for gold. The two are glad to see each other and go in the cabin
to prepare something to eat. What the two men don't realize is
Woodhull has just located the cabin and is waiting outside to
kill Banion. However, Bill Jackson comes to the rescue and saves
his friend by killing Woodhull first.
The story comes to happy ending when Banion, obviously dressed
as a wealthy man, arrives at Molly's homestead in Oregon, ready
to claim her for his wife.
It seems the trendy thing to do to find fault with "The
Covered Wagon," and James Cruze, its director, in particular.
But "The Covered Wagon" is an overall good film. It
gives a realistic-looking portrayal of this period in American
history and does it with charm, passion, emotion and intensity.
Notice I didn't say the film gave a "realistic"
portrayal of this period in American history - I said "realistic-looking."
There's a difference. Supposedly, those who really know the old
west (William S. Hart was one of the film's critics) are able
to find many flaws in the story. However, how many among us, or
even audiences in 1923, know enough detail to spot these flaws?
Do they interfere with the story? Williams S. Hart criticized
the film for having oxen cross the deep river with their yokes
on. Does this make that part of the film any less dramatic? Personally
I was on the edge of my seat, not only because of the story line,
but wondering how many accidents took place during the filming
of this sequence!
The only person connected with the film to receive more criticism
than Cruze is J. Warren Kerrigan who portrays Will Banion. Kerrigan
had been around movies since 1914 and, in 1923, was considered
a "veteran" of motion pictures. Admittedly he does not
look the proper romantic lead for Lois Wilson nor is his portrayal
of Will Banion a particularly stirring one. But there's more casting
at fault here than Kerrigan's portrayal. He gives the part a good
Lois Wilson is given mild praise at best, but she is lovely
and appears to give the role of Molly all that is required of
her. Again I wouldn't criticize the portrayal as much as I would,
not the casting this time, but the writing.
Alan Hale turns in a good performance as Sam Woodhull. He
is menacing enough and makes us dislike his villainy with a delightful
The two who get top honors in the film are Ernest Torrence
and John Fox, however, a lot of that is due to the fact that they
are two well-written parts.
For example, when Torrence's character, Bill Jackson, fishes
an unrecognizable muddy soul out of some quicksand where he is
up to his neck and learns it is Woodhull, he takes him back to
the edge of the bog to throw him back in! Banion comes along and
stops the misdeed, to which Jackson replies, "Will Banion,
ye're a natural-born, ingrain fool - Proverdence planted this
critter here fer us t' throw back in agin!" Now how could
you not like a character like that?
And John Fox, who plays Molly's younger brother, Jed, portrays
a youngster of maybe 12 or 13, but he chews tobacco, plays the
banjo, and spits tobacco juice between choruses of "Oh, Susanna."
And when the Indians attack, who rides through the danger to summon
the rescuers? Jed, of course. So how could you not like this young
boy? Yes, the writing makes a difference.
Karl Brown's photography has been praised highly and deservedly
so. The panoramas of the plains as the wagons snake off into the
distant hills are gorgeous. The night scenes around the campfires
are naturally lit and crisp. The film's photography is not fancy,
but it isn't stagey either. It' s just pleasing to the eye.
Finally, Cruze is the one given the credit for the film's
success and/or for its flaws. Taken in the context of 1923, it's
an amazingly good film, and obviously the audiences of that day
thought so. Weaving a story of relationships within an epic is
a challenge in balance. Cruze does it well. Certainly better westerns
have come along since, but Cruze established the standard by which
all other western epics were measured.
It must be kept in mind, too, that "The Covered Wagon"
was the biggest hit of 1923. Cruze must have done something right,
and, contrary to what is sometimes written about him, "The
Covered Wagon" was not his one and only success. During the
next few years he was a very successful and sought-after director
and produced "hits" such as "Old Ironsides,"
"Hollywood," and "Merton of the Movies." In
1926, he was named one of the top 10 directors. By the end of
the 1920's, however, his decline had begun.
"The Covered Wagon" ranks as one of the better movies
from the silent era with clearly defined good guys and bad guys,
fist fights, a pretty girl for a love interest, an Indian attack,
struggles against nature, and a happy ending. Why would anyone
want to look for petty things to complain about?
Note about the film
A study, reported in "An Evening's Entertainment: The
Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928" by Richard
Koszarski (University of California Press, 1994), took available
data on ticket sales, exhibitors' reports and other information,
and attempted to provide an approximate ranking of the most popular
films of 1922-1927. "The Covered Wagon" ranked first
copyright 1998 by Tim Lussier. All rights