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The Covered Wagon Keeps Rolling
Hal Schindler
Published: Category: category Page: page

In 1922 film mogul Jesse L. Lasky was looking for someone to direct a western, Emerson Hough's The Covered Wagon. Lasky picked James Cruze, an Ogdenite whose Danish parents had themselves come across the plains with the Mormon pioneers to settle in Utah. And Cruze (real name Jens Cruz Bose) rode the "covered wagon" to fame and fortune as director of what is now considered the first epic motion picture western.

Motion picture historian Kevin Brownlow said Lasky thought Cruze the Dane, with his powerful build and black eyes, was part Indian. It was a lucky break for the Utahn; he was perfectly suited for the project. Covered wagons were something he knew from his childhood. And because of a promise made by Cruze, Bannock Indians on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho were among the first in America to see the two-hour silent film blockbuster, produced at a cost of $782,000. Box office receipts from just two theaters in New York and Hollywood ultimately paid for the picture. By 1932 the worldwide gross reached an astonishing $3.8 million, and as late as 1935 it was still listed as one of the five top grossing films of all time. Today, despite some negative loss due to nitrate-base film deterioration, The Covered Wagon remains a silent film classic.

In many respects, the movie, adapted from Hough's novel, was a series of paradoxes. Cruze, at thirty-eight, had directed several small westerns before the Wagon but was considered incapable of creating sustained suspense on the screen. In fact, many critics felt he was a plodding, uninspired director; yet after the explosive debut of The Covered Wagon, he found himself the highest paid director in Hollywood, and two national polls in 1926 and 1928 rated this former Utahn among the world's ten greatest directors. Cruze was paid $250 a week before The Covered Wagon, and $400 a week during the filming. After its premiere he received offers of $1,500 a week, but Lasky wouldn't free him from his contract.

It was considered almost a documentary, describing in accurate detail the hardships of emigrant companies traveling overland in the mid-1800s. Yet on its release, The Covered Wagon was lambasted by cowboys and ex-soldiers for its flawed history. Among the complaints, army veterans said ox trains never swam rivers with neck yokes on; that wagon trains did not camp for the night in box canyons (one of the film's most sensational action scenes is that of an Indian attack on wagons trapped in a box canyon; and that Jim Bridger, depicted as the wagon train scout, would not have permitted such a camp.

There was also a hullabaloo about four hundred wagons traveling across the plains in a single caravan. "That could not have been possible," said old-timers, who asked, "Where would the oxen and horses find pasture?" The largest number of wagons known to travel together was sixty-five, and they divided in three columns five miles apart. All of these arguments were used by the army to deny the film's inclusion in archives of the U.S. War Department.

Lasky had purchased screen rights to The Covered Wagon on the basis of a synopsis, but in reading Hough's novel while on a train trip to the West Coast, Lasky was mesmerized by the sweep of the story, which depicted hardships of overland travel in canvas-covered prairie schooners eighty years earlier. First serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, the story was a popular success and moviegoers waited for the film version with as much anticipation as they later would have for Gone with the Wind. Lasky was impressed with it and decided it would not be just another western potboiler on a $100,000 budget. "No sir, this is going to be the greatest movie we've made."

To play the role of heroine Molly Wingate, Cruze signed Lois Wilson; for his leading man he chose J. Warren Kerrigan to play  Will Banion; and Alan Hale Sr. was cast as the villain, Sam Woodhull. Ernest Torrence played Jackson, a tough old trader, and Tully Marshall was cast as Jim Bridger.

Cruze negotiated with Otto Meek, owner of the Baker Ranch, a 200,000-acre spread in the Snake River Valley of Nevada eighty-five miles from the nearest railroad at Milford, Utah. A huge lake on the property was banked and an outlet formed to shoot the wagon-crossing sequences over the "Platte River." With a company of 127 and a large staff of carpenters and technicians, Cruze recruited almost a thousand extras from the district, some coming as far as three hundred miles for ten dollars a day. He enlisted the help of Colonel Tim McCoy as technical advisor and liaison with the tribes to sign 750 Indians from Fort Hall. McCoy was perhaps tone of the most expert sign-language talkers of his time, and the Indians trusted him implicitly. Cruze also promised the Indians would see the film when it was finished.

While others collected, rented, borrowed, or built some five hundred wagons to be used, Cruze took a second camera unit to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake to film buffalo sequences. Always contrary beasts, the animals took three day of tough wrangling just to get them to run past the camera.

"Winds, blizzards, floods, heat, alkali dust, we had to work through it all," Lasky recalled. When the lake dam burst and the camp flooded, a terrific snow fell and Cruze had it written into the script. The wagon train formed a caravan three miles long. "Eight trucks a day carried supplies to the two or three thousand people in camp." Indians were transported with bag and baggage. Hundreds of head of stock, all kinds of foodstuffs, lumber, and fifty carloads of equipment were hauled from the Lasky studio. Leading lady Lois Wilson suffered frostbite in the snowstorm and the crew ran out of supplies and lived on apples and baked beans until provisions could be shipped in. The company remained on location for eight weeks, during which time Cruze had a replica of the Fort Bridger trading post constructed. Expenses ran to $12,000 a day.

The scenario established a wagon train heading for Oregon. During its formation, the villain, Sam Woodhull (Hale) falls for Molly (Wilson), who is in love with Banion (Kerrigan). The rivalry ends in a fight when the wagon train is about to ford the Platte. When asked by Plains Indians to pay an honest debt for ferrying him safely across the river, Woodhull kills one and brings the wrath of the tribe down on the emigrant train. The caravan divides, part headed for Oregon, the rest to California. In the denouement, Woodhull tries to kill Banion, but is himself shot by Bridger (Tully Marshall).

In the original cut the story ends with emigrants continuing to Oregon and California, but when Lasky saw the finished movie he had the ending rewritten to show both the Oregon and California groups reaching their destinations. That meant the company, three months after returning to Hollywood, would have to resume location filming in Sonora, California. The wagon train itself had become a star with a personality of its own. The wagons had to be rebuilt since the old ones had been discarded, broken up, or sold in Nevada, the new ending cost big dollars, but it gave the picture its final hurrah.

It premiered at the Criterion in New York and Grauman's in Hollywood. But there was that promise Cruze had made to the Indian extras--that they would be among the first to see it. He arranged a special print to be shipped by railroad to Pocatello, in mid-May 1923, for the sole purpose of screening the silent epic for the Bannocks at the Fort Hall Reservation. It would be shown only to members of the tribe, then returned by express to New York.

George E. Carpenter, who wrote the story for the Salt Lake Tribune, described the event: "It appeared that all roads led to Fort Hall. From all points of the compass came blanketed Indians astride ponies, some in autos, ranging from a ruddy Stutz to a plebian 'Henry' [Ford]; others on foot." It was standing-room-only at the school auditorium, and it was obvious a second night's screening would be needed; and then it was doubtful everyone could be accommodated. "Joe Rainey, seventy-two years of age, an old time Custer scout who was present at the historic massacre, attended both shows, renewing his youth--in fact, all the Indians who were in the picture took in the big show both evenings as guests of honor."

During the screening the audience kept up a running fire of chatter, laughing heartily at the "shooting match between the scout, Jackson, and Jim Bridger, played respectively, by Torrence, and Marshall, who at times run away with the  picture." The horses and livestock, too, came in for enthusiastic identification, according to reporter Carpenter, with Kerrigan's big black horse the center of attraction." We asked one of the Bannocks who took part in the picture and that night saw himself as others saw him, for the first time what he thought of it. Did he say 'Humph! Heap big show!' He did not, because this is his sentiment verbatim, delivered in fair English: I am glad I helped, because now all over the world, people will see Indians and what they did.'"

William Donner, superintendent of the Fort Hall Reservation, said, "If this picture will have caused a better understanding of hardships and wrong suffered by both races it will have performed a great mission."

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