The 1920s Big Budget Westerns
Historical themes such as the railroad
building or wagon trains west are regular storylines in big budget
Westerns. Many historical themes require money to properly tell the tale.
The screenwriter bases their story on actual events for the biggest films
of the 1920s and early 1930s, such as The Covered Wagon, The Iron
Horse, The Big Trail, Cimarron, The Plainsman, Wells Fargo, and
The first Western epic, The Covered
Wagon (1923), aims to be as different from the current Tom Mix
and other Western stars. However, it does not completely abandon the
storyline and popular stereotypes. It tells the story of a wagon train
going west just after the gold strike in California in 1848. Two
wagon trains meet near present day Kansas City, and unite in their
westward journey to Oregon. On their travels, the pilgrims experience
desert heat, mountain snow, hunger, and Indian attack.
To make matters
worse, a love triangle ripens, as pretty Molly (Lois Wilson) must
chose between Sam (Alan Hale), a brute, and Will (J. Warren
Kerrigan), the dashing captain of the other caravan. However, Will
must overcome a closet skeleton and win Molly's heart. The film�s
climactic moment is when the travelers� split between those when choose
gold diggings and quick money, and those who decide to continue to Oregon
to settle the land.
Following the success of Cecil
B. DeMille's feature length Western The Squaw Man (1914), William
S. Hart begins making feature length pictures. By 1917, when John Ford
make his first five - reel Western, Straight Shooting, feature
films are common. The Covered Wagon goes further. When released, it
is ten reels long and at $782,000 (about $9 million at 2002 prices). Up to
1923, it is the most expensive Western produced. Its big set�s include
400 wagons crossing a river by 400 wagons, a buffalo hunt and the Indian
attack on the wagon train. They may have been common in other Westerns but
this time they were more spectacular. If director James Cruze
appears a dull director, his the location work, the most elaborate its
time, is impressive.
makes The Iron Horse (1924) for Fox and it has an epic topic of
crossing the continent. It is Ford�s best Western to this point.
He makes the Western Three Bad Men (1926) and is the only Western
he directs until Stagecoach (1939).
Paramount Pictures follows up The
Covered Wagon with another large - scale drama, North Of 36. Paramount
bases this new movie on an Emerson Hough (the writer for The
Covered Wagon) novel. The budget does not match the scale of The
Covered Wagon, however, it is considerable at $ 350,000 or $ 4,200,000
in 2002 dollars. The one memorable scene is a 4,000 head of cattle
crossing a river.
Production of the epic Westerns is the
exception. The history of the Western in the 1920s is, as it has always
been, largely the history of films Hollywood cranks out year after year to
their traditional pattern. Between 1926 and 1967, except for a brief
period in the early 1930s, Westerns time after time form about one-fourth
of all Hollywood feature films. The Western, with a highly prescribed
subject matter and a steady market, is the core of Hollywood.