To fully appreciate FIGHTING CARAVANS, one must know a little about THE COVERED WAGON, released in 1923 and the first Western epic. For decades this silent movie was hailed as the finest Western ever, and even in 1968, Bosley Crowther's popular book, THE GREAT FILMS, listed it as one of fifty greatest motion pictures. Few would claim that today, although it is still an entertaining silent. What remains undeniable is THE COVERED WAGON's influence. Other big-budget Westerns soon followed, and, by the talking era, Fox released THE BIG TRAIL (a virtual remake of THE COVERED WAGON) and Paramount released FIGHTING CARAVANS (a virtual sequel).
Those of us who love THE COVERED WAGON adore the two lead supporting characters: trackers Bill Jackson and Jim Bridger, played by Ernest Torrence and Tully Marshall. They play them again in this film, only now they're older, because FIGHTING CARAVANS was filmed eight years after, and their increased age actually adds a curious poignancy.
Slightly different from the plot conflicts in THE COVERED WAGON, this sequel hinges on whether Jackson and Bridger can both persuade their new, handsome protégé to continue tracking with them and not settle down to marry. However, just as the two have aged, so has the west. With the trains being connected, it is obvious that the trackers will no longer be needed. Not surprisingly for a Western with this sort of elegiaic theme, both Jackson and Bridger die in the film's climax, fighting renegades and Indians. (This, of course, was not how the actual Jim Bridger ended his days, and, yes, the film's portrayal of Native Americans is not accurate either.)
Lili Damita, who would later become the first Mrs. Errol Flynn, had one of her best roles as the civilizing influence on the young handsome tracker, convincing him to veer away from a profession that would die with changing times. Gary Cooper plays the young tracker, and he wears buckskin far better than J. Warren Kerrigan did in THE COVERED WAGON. Cooper, in fact, plays another of his callow rakes he did so often in the early thirties, from THE VIRGINIAN to IF I HAD A MILLION to even A FAREWELL TO ARMS, and it's always odd to see him play such parts before Mr. Deeds would change his image afterward.
Roughly the same year as this film, MGM released BILLY THE KID, Fox released THE BIG TRAIL, and R.K.O. released CIMMARON; all were very expensive, very spectacular Westerns. FIGHTING CARAVANS was Paramount's contender with these others, and it was a film so big, with so much location work, that two directors were ultimately required. Like the other big Westerns of its time, it contains crude, almost amateur-like, moments. One could even complain that the broad acting of the early talkies is totally at odds with a Western---a genre that traditionally relies on laconic, expressionless characters. However, for those who love curios, for those who love film history and Western history, and for those who love THE COVERED WAGON, this film is a charm.
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