Filming The Covered Wagon, 1923

Western epics marked a movement away from the melodramatic and sentimental conventions of earlier Westerns, and a movement towards in interest in the history and problems of the region. The first epic was The Covered Wagon produced by James Cruze in 1923. The film attempts to recreate the events of 1848, and although it is decidedly romantic, it is generally credited as more authentic than many of the Western potboilers which preceded it. Cruze had grown up in Utah, where the picture was filmed, and remembered seeing the covered wagons as a boy, as well as hearing his grandfather talk about his own travels during that period. In order to make the film, Cruze had to advertise for Conestoga wagons; families which lent their already-heirloom wagons during filming were paid two dollars a day. The film simulated prairie fires, Indian attack, Cavalry rescues, and the adventures of frontier scouts. In one memorable sequence, the wagons had to cross a river, and the actors faced many of the same trials as did the original pioneers--the wagons proved too heavy and two of the horses drowned. The crew had to unload all the gear, fix barrels to the sides of the wagons for buoyancy, and fire rifles to startle the horses and get the wagons and cattle across. (1) The public reception for the picture was enormous, and it is credited with single-handedly revitalizing the Western. In 1923 only fifty Westerns were made, but a year after The Covered Wagon's release, three times as many Westerns were produced. (2)

Filming the completion of the transcontinental railroad

The Iron Horse was one of those Westerns produced in 1924. John Ford's epic treatment of the building of the transcontinental railroad was created with an eye for historical detail. Ford used 35 Chinese men as extras in the film, noteworthy because these thirty-five had actually worked on the old railroad crews some fifty years earlier. The Old West was recreated off camera as well; the film was made in Nevada in winter, and was the largest movement of people and equipment for an on-location project from Hollywood. There was no heat on the train, and so the actors were forced to live in the sets they built; reconstruction became reality during filming, right down to bootleggers and fights on the set.

Critics of the day celebrated the film's sense of drive and national achievement. A New York Times editorial declared, "this ambitious production dwelt trenchantly upon the indominatable energy, resourcefulness, and courage of those who spanned the continent with steel. Little does one realize in these days of modern comforts, the tirelessness of those Americans who shed their life's blood with a smile in the race to get first to the goal with rails and ties...an instructive and inspiring film, one which should make every American proud." (3) The audience, however, seemed to value Ford's film for its action and dramatic elements, and so the 'historically accurate epic' gave way to later epics like Universal's The Flaming Frontier, which was a star-studded reenactment of the Custer massacre.

The last of the Western epics was 1926's The Winning of Barbara Worth which dealt with the reclamation of the desert for farming in southern California's Imperial Valley, one of the last great pioneer endeavors in settling the West. The movie was made in the Blackrock desert of Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho; there the actors faced many ofthe same hardships as had the original settlers, including the dust storms and 'baby tornadoes' which could destroy buildings. Every rancher, horse, and cowboy in the area was hired during filming. The film recreated the great flood of 1906, when the Colorado River wiped out numerous desert settlements, and in a commentary on the effect of the industrial economy on Western farming, the audience discovers that the flood is the fault of a crooked speculator whose greed caused a weakness in the dam; in typical Western justice, the flood drowns him.

The silent Westerns are unique among twentieth century forms of the Western in that they operate so close to history--the hiring of the 'last' cowboys and railroad builders, the filming of some of the last great cattle drives, and the recreation of events only a decade or two past. More and more, the landscape of the Old West would exist in the realm of myth.

The film Western would become a thing of the past for a time as well. The film industry discovered a new brand of hero after Charles Lindberg made his 1927 transAtlantic flight, one whose daring was more connected with modern machinery and modern society. The technological advance of the "talkies" would prove to be the genre's undoing for a period, too, as many of the cowboys-turned-actors were dismissed as unsuitable for speaking roles.

The images of the mythic West examined by Henry Nash Smith in Virgin Land were images which could operate separate from the reader in space, but not in time; the "Old West" was alive in the nineteenth century, if thousands of miles distant. The twentieth century Western looks not to one coast of the country, but over its shoulder at something in the past, beginning with the silent Western. What this says about us as a nation--how we see ourselves, what we value, what we seek to correct--is a rich source of information about the America we live in.

The Silent Western: Home Page


Notes

1   Thames Television, Out West, VHS videotape.

2   William K. Everson, American Silent Film, 255.

3   Quoted in George C. Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness: A History of Silent Film, 301.