Every extravaganza that appears is boomed as the "greatest spectacle in the history of moving-pictures", but "The Covered Wagon" really deserves a place in the front rank.
Once you forgive the producer of this film for his selection of some of the members of his cast, you can expend any amount of superlatives of praise upon the film.
The story is a pretty strict adaptation of the novel of the same name by Emerson Hough, and is what advertisers love to call red-blooded. The romantic part of the story deals with Molly Wingate, whose parents are determined that she will marry the unattractive Sam Woodhull, but who has decided in her own mind that she much prefers the more heroic and less blustering Will Banion. Therefore the major characters have still other worries all the way out from Westport Landing to Oregon than Indians, starvation, freezing, floods, and homesickness. The villain as usual spends his time trying to get a good clean shot at the hero, and the hero spends his time rescuing the fair Molly from death in its several forms. The villain is just about to marry the unhappy lady when the Indians save the situation by attacking the camp. From this point the fall of Sam Woodhull is meteoric and he meets his death in a last attempt to shoot down his successful rival.
But when all is said and done, the thing that makes the picture is the excellent rendering of the scenes of historic interest. Historically the story is that of the privations of one of the many bands of pioneers that struck out for the west coast in those memorable years 1848-49. There is a very good touch at the beginning when the great, long column of clumsy schooners is waiting for the command to be off. The leader of the expedition hands his boy a great bull-whip and as the youngster cracks it over the backs of the first yoke of oxen his father tells him to remember that he started the first expedition to Oregon back in '48. The scene at the crossing of the Platte River is beautifully done, and gives more of a thrill than any of the other big moments, and there were many. In the Indian dances and fights it is a relief to see real Indians, and men who know what a horse looks like close to. It was interesting to see the many causes of a steadily decreasing number in the train. Some through fear of homesickness turned back, others died from sickness or privation, many were killed by the Indians and a great number bolted for California at the whisper of the word--Gold. Ploughs were thrown down by the wayside and you see the creeping wagons divide into two streams, with the very few going northwest. And the arrival at the long sought-for goal is, wonder of wonders, portrayed in a very simple and unaffected manner. The first snow of the winter is falling as the exhausted group reach the lonely settler's cabin which is Oregon, and henceforth home.
Jim Bridger, the famous scout and liar, and his friend Jackson are wonderfully portrayed. The scene where they get "lickered up" together, and then each take a shot at a mug of whiskey perched on the other's head, just to snow that a man can always trust an old friend, is perfect. We fear though that the hero and the villain left us totally unconvinced. Will Banion was about as graceful as the average opera star, and Sam Woodhull was just too lazy to live. The cast was not up to the setting as a whole, and this seems a shame. However the setting is the important thing in this picture and that is done remarkably finely. The thing of most significance being that none of the big scenes are obviously manufactured--nothing seems consciously thrown in. It certainly ranks first on the list of fig films which Boston has seen this winter.