Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Wagon-Train Western

 

Wagons roll!

 

I have been prompted by reading Kim Newman’s book Wild West Movies (review of that when I have finished it) to write a sort of overview of the wagon- train Western. As you may know, Newman deals with Western movies thematically and historically, writing about 18th century pre-Westerns, for example, mountain men pictures, Civil War Westerns and so on – and he has a section on Oregon Trail ones. Over the years on Jeff Arnold’s West we’ve considered many such pictures, including most of the ‘main’ ones (titles with livelinks will take you to those reviews), and so maybe it’s time for a retrospective.

 

 

There were wagon-train Westerns right from the silent days, such as the William S Hart picture Wagon Tracks in 1919, which director Lambert Hillyer claimed was the unacknowledged inspiration for the famous The Covered Wagon four years later, and they are still happening in our own century – Meek’s Cutoff dates from 2010.

 

Why is this? Why are they so persistent or resilient?

 

If the Western is about anything, if it has a common theme at all, it is the ‘taming’ of the wild frontier, the push westward, battling Indians and outlaws, in order to settle and farm. Brave heroes, and of course their guns, are required to carry this out but eventually they will succeed. That was how the West was won, to coin a phrase (and How the West Was Won duly had its wagon-train segment).

 

This is Monument Valley, chaps. We’ve gone the wrong way!

 

What could be more in keeping with that theme than stories about settlers moving West in wagon trains?

 

There was also something of the ‘Grand Hotel’ or ‘Ship of Fools’ plot about such pictures in the sense that you have a closed or isolated community under threat. The community was very large, to judge by the epic wagon-train films, with huge numbers of wagons, but the characters who figured, with speaking parts anyway, were usually very limited in number, for dramatic reasons. And they were ‘alone’ out there on the prairies. Thank goodness there was a classic savvy Westerner to guide and protect them, usually a tough wagon master or skillful scout.

 

Many such pictures are quite ‘early’ Westerns, because these treks happened largely in the pre-Civil War period, from the 1840s on, though many Western movies featured post-1865 wagon trains too. The props department had more clothes and guns for that period.

 

A priori, a wagon-train Western is unlikely to be a fast-moving action picture. Those Conestogas were often drawn by oxen, so speed limits were not required on the Oregon Trail. And much of the journey was tedious and tiring as well as slow. Accidents and disease were the biggest killers. So Hollywood had to pep the treks up a bit, with Indian attacks, outlaws, skullduggery, and, sigh, endless wretched romances.

 

 

Actually, historian John D Unruh in The Plains Across calculates that of approximately 10,000 deaths that occurred during the whole of the westward expansion, only 362 (3.6%) could be attributed to Indians. But that doesn’t make for a good Western.

 

That Bill Hart picture was ‘seminal’ in several ways. Buckskin Hamilton (Hart) is elected cap’n of a wagon train heading off down the Santa Fe Trail. There are what became the usual wagon-train adventures: the wagon carrying the water crashes and there is a prolonged period of heat and thirst – Buck gives his precious water ration to his dogs, horse and mule, and the heroine, Jane (Jane Novak), looks admiringly on, “understanding for the first time what true manhood means.” There are villains, obviously. Buck takes them out on foot into the desert, without water, until they admit their guilt. Meanwhile, the Kiowa have taken a hand. They, “insolent but inclined to be friendly”, have come to the wagon train and one pioneer has shot dead a brave who was fingering the shawl of his wife. The Kiowa demand a life for a life, or they will attack at dawn and annihilate the travelers but Buck’s canny knowhow saves the day. In fact it doesn’t all end in wedded bliss. They get to Santa Fe and you think Buck and Jane are going to live happily ever after but nay, Buck shakes her hand, says, “Good-bye, Miss” and sets off back to lead another wagon train, a solitary rider on the Western plains, “the Empire builder”.

 

 

And that notion of ‘empire’ is a key part of it. America is building its own empire, not in far-flung climes like the Brits in India and such but on its own continent.

 

Paramount’s The Covered Wagon in 1923 is, seen today, an overlong and stodgy picture (its director James Cruze saw little point in moving a camera once he’d placed it and didn’t care for editing) with an appropriately slow-moving plot and a rather silly romance taking up too much of it. The narrative is pretty banal and does not really address the epic scope of the great trans-continental treks and the settlement of the frontier lands. The fact remains that it was a massive film which became the standard for the epic Western of the rest of the silent era – very many reviews of other pictures compared them to  the grandeur and spectacle of The Covered Wagon. Indeed, The Covered Wagon takes its place as one of the most influential Westerns of all time and contributed enormously to the genre. Variety called it “a picture which will live down through the ages as a triumph.” Famous drama critic Clayton Hamilton said that the heroic spectacle was exhilarating and “makes us proud to be American.”

 

 

The covered wagons for the movie gathered by the studio from all over the Southwest were not replicas but real ones. They were cherished heirlooms and the producers offered their owners $2 a day and feed for the stock if they would bring their vehicles to the motion picture. Most of the extras seen on the film were the families who owned the wagons and were perfectly at home driving them. And these silent wagon-train Westerns were of course seen by many people still alive who had actually made the great trek westward.

 

 

The movie is heavy with symbolism, notably of the plow. Jesse Wingate, leader of the wagon train (Charles Ogle), often grips the handle of his and talks (on the intertitle cards) glowingly of turning the virgin soil of Oregon. Abandoned plows by the side of the trail are a sign of the weakness of those decadent souls who decided on a career panning for gold in California rather than becoming decent farmers in Oregon. Most movies of this kind told of the heroic journey to break new soil and turn the wilderness into a garden, whereas gold generally got a bad press in Westerns. Most movie treks go to Oregon, not California, and they are peopled by farmers, not miners or panners.

 

Fox replied the year after The Covered Wagon with John Ford’s The Iron Horse, with perhaps a hint that just as snazzy trains had replaced sluggish wagons for spanning the continent, so Fox’s film had superseded Paramount’s, but Fox nevertheless made its own epic wagon-train picture at the end of the decade when Raoul Walsh directed the huge early talkie The Big Trail.

 

 

Monumentally expensive and released just as the Great Depression hit, The Big Trail was a commercial disaster. It was also only moderately good, to be blunt, with, again, all the usual tropes – Indians, villains, romance – and indifferent writing and acting. But like The Covered Wagon, it certainly had scope. Some of the photography is very fine: Indians on hilltops, moving buffalo, Californian redwoods at the end. It’s impressive. It was shot in the Grand Teton pass, Yellowstone, The Sequoia National Park, in Montana, Oregon, and Yuma.

 

 

The first choice to star in The Big Trail was Gary Cooper but he was unavailable, so the lead role went to a young prop boy who would become famous as John Wayne. But in 1931 Paramount came back at Fox again, with Coop, in Fighting Caravans. This was technically superior to The Big Trail. The sound was better and the acting less heavy-handed and obvious, though hardly subtle by later standards. It’s not such an ambitious film as The Big Trail and there is a cast of hundreds rather than thousands – the Depression was on, after all. Still, it’s impressive enough and there are the by now standard river crossings and Indian attacks. Ernest Torrence and Tully Marshall are back from The Covered Wagon for some comic relief. It’s a pretty run-of-the-range picture generally, to be frank, but it has its moments.

 

Not Coop’s finest hour

 

The same year RKO released its epic Cimarron, from the Edna Ferber novel. This was more of a lengthy soap, if truth be told, but the early shots of the settlers in wagons, and notably the land rush, the picture’s most famous scenes, do qualify the film for at least a mention in the wagon-train picture category. There are many movies which feature a wagon train but I’m not dealing with here because they are not principally about the trek West – Red River, for example, but that was a cattle-drive Western, not a wagon-train one.

 

Red River starts like a wagon-train Western but isn’t

 

Paramount made a series of Zane Grey stories, to which they purchased the rights from Grey, first as silent movies, often with Jack Holt, and then they remade them in the 1930s as talkies, often with Randolph Scott. Such a one was Wagon Wheels in 1934, and this became virtually a remake of Fighting Caravans, re-using a lot of the footage and even obliging Randy to wear the same (rather unbecoming) costume as Coop so that the footage would match. But Wagon Wheels was a much more modest picture, a one-hour programmer in fact. Raymond Hatton and Olin Howland take the Torrence/Marshall parts. It’s the sort of picture you’d watch these days if you are a ‘completist’ and feel the need to see every Western possible, but for no other reason.

 

Not Randy’s finest hour either

 

Still, it shows how resilient and popular the wagon-train Western was.

 

For some reason best known to Hollywood producers Mormons were frequent drivers of those wagons as they drove West to find new lands and a place to practice their religion unmolested. Fox continued its rivalry with Paramount in 1940 by releasing the $2.5m-budget Brigham Young directed by Henry Hathaway, with big star Tyrone Power in the lead (though not as Young; that was Dean Jagger). Big Westerns for grown-ups had come back into fashion, and Fox had done well with Power as Jesse James the year before. Sadly, though, this one was a bit of a flop. In their book The Hollywood Hall of Shame, about commercial screen failures, Michael and Henry Medved wrote, “Twentieth Century-Fox tried to emphasize its star power and to downplay the religious elements (eventually re-titling it Brigham Young, Frontiersman), but the picture still failed, even in Utah.” I would say that it fits in well with the other wagon-train pix because while the film definitely has its weaknesses, as a visual spectacle it is truly remarkable, and worth seeing for this alone.

 

 

In 1946 MGM had some Mormon wagon-trainers when Bad Bascomb (a not underacting Wallace Beery) joins the train and steals the gold they have brought along but is finally redeemed when he befriends a little girl then risks his life for the Mormons even though he knows it will mean the loss of his freedom. Bad Bascomb (still to be reviewed: “so much to do, so little time,” last words of Cecil Rhodes) was another less-than-great Western but another good-looking picture, despite Metro’s penchant for studio shots with back-projection.

 

 

And then most famously, in 1950 Mormons populated John Ford’s wagon train in RKO’s Wagon Master. Wagon Master (aka Wagonmaster) is actually one of my all-time favorite Ford Westerns. It’s an absolute gem. Ford chose not to cast Wayne or another big star as the heroic wagon master but instead to have two ‘ordinary’ cowboys do it, using character actors, the very good Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. “We hired as wagon masters, not gunfighters,” one says. Somehow this makes them even more heroic when they finally do confront the bad guys – in this one there are no Indian attacks but the threat comes from larger than life outlaw Uncle Shiloh Clegg (an excellent Charles Kemper) and his lowlife sons (James Arness, Fred Libby and Mickey Simpson). Ford’s Mormons, led by Ward Bond, aren’t at all fanatical religious types but cheery folk who seem to stop their wagon train every ten miles or so for a dance, including one with the Indians. Once again there are some splendid (Bert Glennon) black & white shots of the wagons and the terrain. It’s a terrific film.

 

 

 

If they weren’t Mormons, Hollywood sometimes tried to ring the changes (perhaps they were looking for something new to pep the sub-genre up) by having the wagoneers be Basques (Thunder in the Sun, Paramount again, 1959) or African-Americans (Buck and the Preacher, Columbia, 1972). Jeff Chandler and Sidney Poitier were the brave and savvy wagon masters in those.

 

But mostly the sturdy settlers heading West Hollywood showed were pretty WASPish.

 

By 1836, the Oregon Trail, pioneered by fur traders and trappers, was opened to wagon traffic as far as Fort Hall, Idaho, and by the 1840s it gave wagon access to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. From the 1840s, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 settlers made the trek. Parts of the trail were used by travelers to California, to Utah (especially by Mormons), and the Bozeman Trail, which connected with the goldfields of southern Montana, whose users turned off, while the true believers, as it were, went on to Oregon. Of course use of the trail declined when the trans-continental railroad was built in the 1860s, which made the journey quicker and safer.

 

 

In fact several wagon-train Westerns were actually titled The Oregon Trail, or similar. In 1923 Art Acord led a wagon train in the Universal chapter play The Oregon Trail, and in 1928 Art Mix (Victor Adamson) directed, wrote and starred in (as Calamity Joe) The Old Oregon Trail, in which the traveling settlers are attacked by outlaws. In 1939 Johnny Mack Brown and Fuzzy Knight were hired to stop such outlaws attacking the wagon trains in The Oregon Trail, for Universal again. There was also Republic’s picture of 1936, The Oregon Trail, in which John Wayne played a retired army captain who vows to hunt down his daddy’s killer. Sadly, it is a lost film with no known prints remaining. Monte Hale went Along the Oregon Trail in 1947.

 

Lost

 

Then in 1959 Fred MacMurray’s last (and worst, I’d say) Western was another Fox picture, yet again The Oregon Trail. It’s a straight “Wagons roll!” movie with the usual clichés, such as Indian attacks, thirst and so on. On the train are rogue-dreamer John Carradine (quite amusing), with a cargo of apple trees; a ‘settler’ who is obviously an Army captain (William Bishop, very bland); a wholesome family which includes a young girl, naturally, Prudence (unknown Nina Shipman in her only Western); and the usual assortment of settlers. The train boss is Henry Hull, who only ever had two styles of performance, overacting and overacting wildly. His demise is hilariously badly handled by actor and director. Pretty bad, this one.

 

Plenty of wagons anyway

 

There was a 2015 comedy musical The Trail to Oregon. There was a TV documentary The Oregon Trail in 1993. And of course if we are talking about TV there was Universal Television’s The Oregon Trail on NBC 1976 – 78, with Rod Taylor being tough ‘n’ heroic.

 

But naturally, wagon trains on TV all had to give way to the big daddy of them all, Wagon Train, which aired on NBC, then ABC, for a total of eight seasons from 1957 – 1965 (it certainly took them a long time to get there), often at number 1 in the Nielsen ratings. It was said to have been influenced by The Big Trail and Wagon Master, especially the latter, obviously. Pretty well anyone who was a Western anyone guest-starred on it and the titles highlighted the guests, The So-and-So Story. As a favor to the show’s sort-of ‘owner’ Ward Bond, John Ford helmed one, which we have reviewed, The Colter Craven Story. Most episodes were directed by Virgil W Vogel, with Jerry Hopper, Joseph Pevney and Allen H Miner also being regulars. There was a huge team of writers. I was an addict at the time.

 

 

But back on the big screen, we must mention the film which in my view, with Wagon Master, was the finest of them all, and that’s MGM’s Westward the Women, directed by William A Wellman in 1951. As I said in my review, “Amusing, very skillfully directed, thoughtful, exciting, artfully photographed and with a strong cast, Westward the Women is a fine movie.” It’s quite a feminist film for the early 50s in the sense that most of the protagonists are women, strong women, and they do everything the men can do and sometimes better. True, the instigator and leader of the train (John McIntire, later to replace Ward Bond on Wagon Train, and Robert Taylor) are dominant men but these men come gradually to appreciate and admire the women’s grit. The film is a sort of hymn to the virtues of frontier women, their heroism and endurance, their courage and their desire for freedom.

 

You pull this here. It’s called a trigger.

 

I can’t discuss all the wagon-train Westerns there were because there were so many, and this post is already quite long enough, but I think I would pick out a few more, three from the 1950s and two from the 60s.

 

Anthony Mann’s Universal picture Bend of the River is principally about settlers in Oregon. Borden Chase did the script, using Bill Gulick’s 1950 novel Bend of the Snake, and the screenplay is tight, doesn’t waste words and is exciting. The story tells of a wagon train of decent farmers led by Jay Flippen and guided by ex-border raider (guerrilla terrorist if you prefer) Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart), a classic Mannish ‘man with a past’. The farmers settle in the high country near Portland, Oregon but are cheated by a crook out of vital supplies, without which they cannot last the winter. Stewart rides back down to Portland to get them and is duly heroic. That’s the plot. It’s not a ‘pure’ wagon-train Western, I suppose, but is enough of one to get a mention.

 

Wagon trainers Jay and Julia

 

Fox’s The Last Wagon in 1956, directed by Delmer Daves, was much more of one, as the title suggests. Daves elicited strong performances from the cast , notably Richard Widmark, good pacing and tension, some thought-provoking and, for the time, quite daring content, and in particular (the most positive aspect of the movie) the great look of it. Shot by Wilfred M Cline in CinemaScope, its Sedona AZ locations glow with widescreen beauty. It’s really impressive, and tragic that most of us only see it on TV or on a modest DVD on a small screen. In fact all Daves Westerns were visually fine, even the lesser ones like Drum Beat. Herb Fagen in The Encyclopedia of the Western, rightly says, “The film never received the critical acclaim it deserved.” Indeed, The New York Times called it “A familiar and unexciting journey across a plateau of western clichés”. The reviewer added, “The Apaches who threaten the group are about as stupid and indifferent as any Indians we’ve ever seen in a film. Richard Widmark plays the hero with an air of weary truculence, and Felicia Farr is monotonously respectful as the survivor who falls in love with him.” Personally, I find this crit unjust. Or at least I disagree with it.

 

 

And then the same year Disney had Fess Parker boss a wagon train in Westward Ho, the Wagons, directed by William Beaudine, OK if you like Disney, I suppose. One day I might review it if I can summon up the energy.

 

As for the 1960s, I think we ought to cite two, though IMHO they were both pretty bad. United Artists’ The Way West in 1967 shaped up to be a classic wagon-train Western, from an AB Guthrie novel about 1840s Oregon Trailers, with a megabudget and big stars, all the trimmings, you might say, but trimmings tend to be associated with a turkey, and this was one. A lot of the poor quality was down to second-rate director AV McLaglen. As Kim Newman says, “McLaglen’s stodgy direction catches all too well the feel of Cruze’s work on The Covered Wagon.” The New York Times’s “a familiar and unexciting journey across a plateau of western clichés” should have been saved for this picture.

 

A dud

 

And last, and among the least, Paramount’s uncomic and unmusical comedy-musical Paint Your Wagon attempted to apply those genres to the wagon-train Western, with signal lack of success, both commercial and artistic. Newman calls it “the draggiest of all the wagon train epics … in which non-singers Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood gun down the Lerner and Lowe score.” It was another dud.

 

A turkey

 

So the 60s weren’t the high water mark of the wagon-train Western, I fear. Luckily we have the early 50s to fall back on.

 

Well, I think we’ve finally go to our destination, dear settlers. Offload that plow from the prairie schooner and start tilling.

 

 

 

20 Responses

  1. One more excellent review ! The wagon like the stagecoach and the railroad is quintessential of the western, motion and distance being quintessential of the United States; a wagon train being a community in motion to reach the promised land (WILLAmette valley by the way), in pursuit of happiness etc… Westward the Women, Wagon Master, The Last Wagon and Bend of the River form a very remarkable quartet. You may have added a few words on the most recent examples such as Meeks Cutoff or 2005 Steven Spielberg production Into the West mini serie’s Episode 2 : “Manifest Destiny” with Beau Bridges, Jessica Capshaw and Keri Russell is mainly focused on a wagon train too. Of course I fully understand that your goal is not to establish an exhaustive list but it is interesting to notice that the theme is still more or less en vogue.
    The Mormons were mostly using carts. The Santa Fe trail was primarily a trading trail, not an emigrant one, they were using wagons for the goods though.
    By an association of ideas your Cecil Rhodes’ quote made me think of the Boers’ Great Trek and Henry King’s 1955 Untamed, shot mostly on location in South Africa, starring Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Richard Egan, Agnes Moorehead (!), Hope Emerson and
    Brad Dexter, a pretty good cast for a western set in Africa…! Maybe some good reason to add it to your “foreign” westerns one day. I have watched it only once decades ago…

    1. Thank you! Also for the spelling error (now corrected).
      Yes, I’ve been mulling over a survey of non-American Westerns. There were many. Of course it begs the question When is a Western not a Western?, but somehow you just sort of know, don’t you!

  2. The Big Trail was alright, with John Wayne and Marguerite Churchill both a lot better than that, especially Marguerite.

    1. Given the huge budget and the hype, it should have been better, but it wasn’t bad. I agree that Marguerite was the best thing about it. Wayne was winning but still had a lot ot learn.

      1. I agree. The widescreen Blu ray is pretty impressive. Walsh had command of that widescreen over twenty years before anybody else. Churchill was quite wonderful and Wayne was still green but it’s really something to see him so young.

  3. Wagon Train has always been and always will be one if my favorites. I watch it everyday, all day. You couldn’t get any better television viewing than.Wagon Train.❤️❤️❤️

  4. As a child, I saw what I thought was a wagon train western in which the white survivors were told by the triumphant Indians to ‘go to the east’, where they happen upon a previously massacred cavalry troop. Damned if I can recall its title.

  5. Jeff I am surprised not to find an article of yours about the train(s) in western … I was so sure having read it a while ago though.
    If, in your index, you have regroup for instance the actors or the studios all the specifics and themes making a western are all spread all along the index by alphabetical order such as colt (45), derringer, forts, saloon or stagecoach or wagon train etc. I did not find “trains” until I get back to the index one more time and suddenly found by accident… railroads…!
    Don’t you think it would be more logical to have a section in the index grouping all these (essential) texts instead of having them somehow scattered and almost lost among the films?
    Of course it is just a suggestion.

    1. I might do a new essay on railroads. I have mentioned them in reviews of various railroad-related Westerns.
      I have now updated the index as per your suggestion. You can find the various articles listed under ‘Aspects of the Western’ and also ‘Essays’.

      1. Super! Just waiting at Lumière institute for James Stewart, Walter Brennan and John Mc Intire… Have an excellent week-end

          1. Damned ! I mentioned it because I found it under M for music in the “normal” index… but I did not check elsewhere.

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