Mar 13, 2024 - Things to Do

How "The Covered Wagon," Utah's first movie, took Westerns to a new level

Actors Lois Wilson and J. Warren Kerrigan in "The Covered Wagon" (1923). Image via YouTube

Actors Lois Wilson and J. Warren Kerrigan in "The Covered Wagon" (1923). Image via YouTube

We need to talk about the movie that started the centennial celebration of Utah filmmaking: "The Covered Wagon," a silent Western directed by James Cruze and released nationally in 1924.

Why it matters: When production began in 1922, the film industry was awash in scandal and crime.

  • Hollywood bigwigs wanted "a picture with a tremendous theme of Americanism" to clean up its image.
  • Accordingly, Cruze's opening title card begins: "The blood of America is the blood of pioneers — the blood of lion-hearted men and women who carved a splendid civilization out of an uncharted wilderness."

Zoom in: Cruze grew up in Ogden and his return to Utah was big news. Filming locations included Antelope Island, Beaver County, and Eastern Nevada.

Fun fact: President Warren G. Harding loved the film and invited the U.S. Supreme Court, military leaders, and members of Congress to a White House screening.

My thought bubble: Cruze hoped to "elevate" the Western to "epic" status — and "The Covered Wagon" succeeds, despite its simplistic plot.

  • Scenes like the crossing of the Platte River and the Pawnee battle are truly sweeping. It's hard to imagine how Cruze coordinated hundreds of actors and animals in locations that are intimidatingly remote to this day, without modern equipment.

Quick takes

Best actor: Ernest Torrence steals the show as the hero's sidekick.

Thrilling: The bison hunt, filmed over three or four days on Antelope Island, is unquestionably the best scene.

Cringe: The film treats its Indigenous characters better than I would have expected from a 1923 Western — but it's still a 1923 Western.

  • Cruze did hire Indigenous actors, which Life magazine praised upon the film's New York premiere. It's unclear what they were paid, though.
  • Some older recruits refused the gig because they thought it was another ploy to break up their reservations. Upon learning of the Antelope Island scene, others backed out for fear they would drown in the Great Salt Lake.

The meet-cute: Honestly? Hot.

  • Lois Wilson and J. Warren Kerrigan have good chemistry.

PETA alert: We see a horse fall off a cliff.

Uhhh: A child actor, about 11, offers Torrence some "chaw" and then bites off a wad himself.

The dance scene: Sucks. This is not a Busby Berkeley hoe down.

Comic relief: Jim Bridger's slapstick is tonally odd, but the dialogue cards' frequent use of "licker" is worth it.

How to watch: It's in the public domain and can be viewed on YouTube.

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