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New book! 50 movies to start your discovery of Old Hollywood

(Re)discover the first epic Western movie from 100 years ago

"The Covered Wagon" is not as well known today as some classic movies, but the silent movie is considered the first big budget epic Western, or as Variety said at its 1923 release: "It is the biggest thing since Griffith made 'The Birth of a Nation.'"

The movie was one of the era's top box office hits, premiering in New York on March 16, 1923. Even Warren G. Harding, president at the time, screened it at the White House and sent an endorsement. It was also ground-breaking in the ambitious scale in its production of the tale of the pioneers heading West across the United States in the 1840s. 

The plot of "The Covered Wagon" covers ground that will be well-trod in later Westerns: A wagon train sets out in 1848 for Oregon territory and encounters treacherous river crossings, internal power struggles, prairie fires, Indian attacks, an action-packed buffalo hunt, gold fever and more. 

J. Warren Kerrigan and Lois Wilson
J. Warren Kerrigan and Lois Wilson

J. Warren Kerrigan plays Will, the surefooted Westerner with a secret in his past who joins the wagon train to help the pioneers. Sam is one of the wagon train would-be settlers who antagonizes Will and whose underhanded ways put the rest in danger. Molly (Lois Wilson) is the "mighty nice gal" caught in the middle of both men's affections. Sam is played by Alan Hale, a name modern mass audiences may recognize because of his son: Alan Hale Jr., who played the Skipper on TV's "Gilligan's Island." The family resemblance is striking.

Will's grizzled sidekick with acerbic one-liners (played by Ernest Torrence) is almost a prototype of what will be a later Western sidekick staple of the Walter Brennan or Walter Huston variety. 

Shot on location

But the big star of "The Covered Wagon" is the big vistas. 

Filmed on location in Nevada and Utah, "The Covered Wagon" brought the majestic scenery and Western landscape to a fascinated movie audience. 

"'The Covered Wagon' was months in the making with its cost said to have been in the neighborhood of $800,000," reported Variety in a story on its release in 1923. 

"The Covered Wagon" filming on location
"The Covered Wagon" filming on location

The Paramount Pictures production tried to weave some accurate historical detail in its shoot (at least according to advertising and news stories at the time). The director James Cruze worked with state historical societies for props including actual covered wagons used to cross the West and some pioneer descendants as extras, according to some reports. 

A program from a special screening of the movie described how the Nevada Historical Society, for example, supplied wagons and even buffalo(!)

It even helped with filming the buffalo hunt sequence for accuracy, with some near casualties. 

As the movie program describes:

Karl Brown, the chief cameraman, wanted to experiment with a close-up of a buffalo, so the punchers roped a big bull and brought him in. Karl and his assistant with the camera were in a wagon drawn by a team of horses. "Turn the buffalo loose and then rope him right near," said Brown. The cow punchers turned the buffalo loose and the buffalo turned loose on his own account. He went for the horses. The latter turned quickly and spilled Brown right under the bison's heels. Old Ed Jones, a movie actor, a puncher and a dead shot, calmly sighed with his sawed-off Winchester, from his hip, shot between horses, men, cameras and wagon -- a space about a foot in diameter -- and brought down the buffalo. It saved Brown's life probably and that's how they had buffalo meat the first day in camp.

"Take all the wild west shows and combine them and you get some idea of what it was like," read the program. "Those actors never worked so hard in their lives before or never will again -- for they don't make pictures like this more than once in a lifetime."

Critical and box office favorite

Director Cruze's intent, according to producers later, was to elevate the Western into an "important picture." Westerns on screen flourished, of course, before 1923, but none to that point had been afforded the production and status of "The Covered Wagon."

The movie was also a fan favorite, though. Various box office estimates have it as one of the highest-grossing movies of the 1920s, with $3.5 million in U.S. ticket sales its year of release, second only to the behemoth "The Ten Commandments."

"The Covered Wagon" was still in the pop culture enough a decade later for Shirley Temple to star in a parody of it, the 1932 short "The Pie-Covered Wagon."

It's interesting to consider that less time had passed between the real wagon train era of the 1840s and the movie release date (approximately 75 years) than between the movie release date and now (we're marking its 100th anniversary in 2023). 

While it's usually shut out of the top lists of great early cinema, "The Covered Wagon" is an action-packed tale and cinematic feast, both for its time and now 100 years later. 

Watch the full movie of "The Covered Wagon" (1923) for free (now in public domain) or buy the DVD at Amazon: