To the Indians in James Cruze‘s The Covered Wagon, a 1923 silent film, the plow is a white man’s weapon for devastating the land. But in truth the plow is a symbol for technological and material progress, progress those in the wagon caravans here, headed for Oregon, are hopeful of achieving.
Nothing captures Old West (though pre-Civil War) naturalism like a plains-dominated silent movie. And in this Western, naturalism is bolstered by some grim aggressiveness. Its protag, Will Banion (J. Warren Kerrigan), is reputed to be a cattle thief but is actually a decent man who will be exonerated. Not so Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale), Will’s rival, whose wild violence surpasses that of the Indians. I repeat: grim aggressiveness. Woodhull murders an Indian who rightly demands payment for a ferry ride. Pretty Molly Wingate (Lois Wilson) is the first one hit by a brave’s arrow in a nascent attack. No small amount of honesty in all this. Cruze holds the movie, an epic, together with careful directing, with effective camera use; and the intelligent editing of Dorothy Arzner shapes the picture as well. Notwithstanding it’s too bad two horses had to drown in a river-crossing scene, my eyes were glued to the grand images in The Covered Wagon.