Fighting Caravans (1931) Poster

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Antique Western Worth Remembering
Ron Oliver29 January 2005
During the Civil War, FIGHTING CARAVANS of freight wagons make their way West, crossing hostile Indian country.

This sturdy Zane Grey Western, largely forgotten over the decades, offers some fine entertainment with its good performances and vivid location filming. The number of wagons, livestock and extras used show that Paramount Studios paid out a fair few pennies for decent production values. The dramatic struggles across the wilderness and a rousing Indian attack help punch up the action considerably.

Laconic Gary Cooper stars as the trail guide helping to lead the teamsters and settlers through dangerous territory. Hot-tempered Lili Damita plays a solitary French maiden driving her wagon West. Their intermittent romance is completely predictable, but the two young performers make it all very watchable.

Stealing their every scene are a pair of old pros from the Silent days: Ernest Torrence & Tully Marshall. Playing a couple of grizzled, drunken, women-hating trail guides--as well as Coop's best buddies--they are very amusing in their attempts to break-up the budding romance between their protégé and the troubling Miss Damita.

Rotund Eugene Palette is on hand as a lovelorn member of the wagon train. Charles Winninger enlivens the film's opening minutes as the blustery Marshal of Independence, Missouri.

Movie mavens will recognize sweet Jane Darwell as a pioneer and Iron Eyes Cody as a Fort Indian in search of firewater, both uncredited.
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The Importance of Being Ernest
wes-connors20 April 2008
In Missouri, during the Civil War, "high, wide, and handsome" Gary Cooper (as Clint Belmet) gets a little jail cell shut-eye. Awakening, he moseys over to the local saloon, where he is held at gunpoint by the town's drunken sheriff. Mr. Cooper's guardians, Ernest Torrence (as Bill Jackson) and Tully Marshall (as Jim Bridger), secure his release by convincing French lass Lili Damita (as Felice) to pretend she is Cooper's wife. Then, the quartet join a caravan to California. A real romance begins to bloom between Ms. Damita; but, Mr. Torrence and Mr. Tully want Cooper's bachelorhood preserved. Along the way, Indians (Native Americans) lurk…

Old pros Torrence and Marshall are "Fighting Caravans" main attraction. They were responsible for many memorable character roles (mostly) in silent films (mostly); and they are in excellent form, reprising their "Covered Wagon" roles. Cooper obviously enjoys working with them. Ms. Damita is cute and effective. The production levels are relatively high, leading to the obligatory ending battle; but, the performances make it entertaining. Unnecessarily re-made as "Wagon Wheels" (1934), with stock footage and Randolph Scott.

******* Fighting Caravans (2/1/31) Otto Brower, David Burton ~ Gary Cooper, Ernest Torrence, Tully Marshall
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Witty and action packed ancient oater
jmh235010 August 2004
let's weigh the merits of this film: (1) a strikingly handsome (and tall), youthful Gary Cooper -- this is the opportunity to see a giant screen legend when he was a vibrant young newcomer! This alone merits seeing this movie. (2) The dialogue is witty, pithy and fun -- in fact, give me the screenwriter from 1931 over most of today's movies!. (3) There is a lot of fast-paced and exciting western action (and the stuntwork is just plain fun to watch). Yes, this was relatively early movie making, and in some ways it shows, but that also provides tremendous enjoyment for the film buff. Watch it with a light heart, but with reverence for the old films, and I think you can't help but enjoy it.
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Interesting perceptions of an early Western period.
rsoonsa10 February 2002
This film, Originally titled BLAZING ARROWS, is the first of several based upon a Zane Grey novel published only two years prior, and the version that is most faithful to the book, while being one of the largest budgeted Westerns of the early sound era, with the viewer advised to remember that the period of the narrative (1862) antedated its audience only to the extent that the Great Depression does to spectators today. The story tells of a caravan of freight wagons journeying from Independence, Missouri, to the West Coast during a pre-railroad time, with settlers accompanying, and the procession's four month struggle with hostile Indians, very harsh winter weather, forbidding terrain and renegade betrayal, and is particularly full of interesting detail as to the methods of the freightmen and their metier. Gary Cooper portrays Clint Belmet, a Missouri guide who has been reared and trained as a member of a successive generation of scouts and trappers by two veterans of the breed, Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall), who are unaware that their way of life is to be ended by an advancing intracontinental rail system, only temporarily slowed by the War Between the States. Because of plot circumstances, Belmet must pretend to be married to a lone traveller, Felice (Lily Damita), and their seesaw relationship provides one of the main themes of a wideranging scenario, with Belmet and his mentors trumpeting of the glories of their fading way of life while Felice seeks to inculcate within her swain a sense of domestic virtue. The cinematography of Lee Garmes is very effective with its images of the travails of the wagon train and his work is not compromised by the editing which is crisp and appropriate for a film as episodic as is this one. The work's most serious failing is a lack of a consistent point of view, as it is essentially a comedy, due largely to a highly effectual performance from Torrence, here permitted to utilize his native Scottish burr to its fullest, and is somewhat reduced in impact during scenes of action and romance as a result of only cursory emphasis upon each.
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Westward Ho, the Wagons
bkoganbing15 August 2006
In the early days of sound Paramount purchased a number of Zene Grey stories to be filmed, mostly as B picture attractions and done by their rising new B picture cowboy, Randolph Scott. Fighting Caravans however got the A picture treatment and starred Gary Cooper.

Cooper plays a young hell raising scout who's been taught the ways of the woods by two grizzled old timers, Ernest Torrence and Tully Marshall. All three of them sign on to guide a wagon train in the 1860s west. Adding to the attraction for Cooper is pretty young Lily Damita who earlier on pretended to be his wife to get him out of trouble with a sheriff.

A lot of the same ground was covered by Twentieth Century Fox the year before with The Big Trail and its new star John Wayne. The Big Trail however failed to find its audience, but Fighting Caravans with proved box office star Cooper showed a respectable profit for Paramount-Publix as the white mountain studio was called at that time. Of course both films owe plenty to James Cruze's silent classic, The Covered Wagon.

Like in The Big Trail the villain here is a renegade white man, stirring up the Indians. The very rousing attack on the wagon train during the climax had elements of it borrowed over 20 years later in the James Stewart western, Bend of the River.

A whole lot of Gary Cooper's early sound films for some reason are never shown. Possible that prints no longer exist. Though Fighting Caravans is not a great film, it's an entertaining one. In fact a few years later it was remade by Randolph Scott in Wagon Wheels where that film used all kinds of stock footage from this one.
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Paramount's curio sequel to THE COVERED WAGON
patrick.hunter14 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
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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Fighting Caravans, Well Worth Seeing
puzzled-44 June 2007
Quick and amusing dialogue, fun characters, great location shooting, and high production values for the time, I was very happy to stumble upon this wonderful old film. I found it thoroughly entertaining.

Seeing the charismatic glow of a skinny young Gary Cooper makes me regret that he adopted such a dull and wooden persona later in his career.

A lot of the negative critiques of this film here seem to be based on superficial criticisms of the look and pacing of movies of this era, and not with the movie itself. If a movie is engaging, one soon gets used to the shortcomings of the time when early talkies were still finding their way with dialogue delivery and pacing. In fact, I thought they did a pretty good job here. While it is somewhat episodic, the performances are sensitive, and it does give us a rich and convincing glimpse of the wagon train era, even with the white man's simplistic perspective of Native American culture.
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"I understand Indians ain't got no use for blondes, no way."
classicsoncall18 September 2004
Warning: Spoilers
The Gary Cooper of "Fighting Caravans" is certainly not the Gary Cooper of "High Noon", nor is his future star quality evident here. In this film, Cooper is as green and naive as the Clint Belmet character he portrays. To avoid arrest on a trumped up charge, he poses as an intended groom for French lovely Felice (Lily Damita), who is intent on finding passage to California on a wagon train from Independence, Missouri to Sacramento. Clint has been trained in the ways of frontier life by two grizzled veterans, Bridger and Jackson, and they don't exactly cotton to the budding romance they see unfolding - "Here's hopin' she finds a husband somewhere's else".

Based on a Zane Grey novel and set right in the middle of the Civil War, the film moves unevenly from it's unlikely premise, to a temporary stop at an Army fort while it's troop marches on to Vicksburg to hook up with General Grant. Throughout it's dangerous journey in the middle of hostile Indian territory, Cooper proves his worth and finally wins his lady's heart by rescuing her from a runaway wagon. See it both for Gary Cooper's early starring performance and for it's early Western treatment in the relatively new "talkie" format, but don't expect an epic.
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A Rival to "The Big Trail"
loza-14 May 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This is supposed to be based on Zane Grey's novel of the same name. Having read the novel, the link between the two is pretty tenuous.

During the Civil War, a wagon train makes the journey from Independence to Sacramento, fighting the elements and the Native Americans along the way.

At the time it was released it was compared to "The Big Trail", and that is the film that came to mind when i first saw "Fighting caravans." "The Big Trail" had striking vistas - utterly unforgettable -with attention to detail - the only western I have seen with covered wagons pulled by oxen - as many wagons would have been. "The Big Trail" was short on subplot and characterisation; the acting in it was not up to much either. "Fighting Caravans" might not have the oxen, but it has the subplots and the good acting.

Gary Cooper, Ernest Torrence and Tully Marshall play the parts of three scouts. The latter two try to prevent Cooper from falling in love with Damita, who, as she is on her own, is constantly needing help. The acting of all four is superb. Ernest Torrence has the best part, so he turns in the best performance - head and shoulders above anybody else.

And yet, if I had a choice between which of the two films I would watch, it would be "The Big Trail" every time. You see, in spite of the TBT's shortcomings, it is efficiently directed. "Fighting Caravans" however, is badly put together in the cutting room, especially in the first third of the film.

It is worth watching just to see Ernest Torrance in action.
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Big, splashy--but not particularly good
fredcdobbs530 May 2014
"Fighting Caravans", while an "A" picture in presentation, is a "B" picture in spirit. Even allowing for the fact that talkies had only been around for a few years when this film came out in 1931, it's still very much rooted in silent-era melodrama, even though some comedy scenes between veterans Ernest Torrance and Tully Marshall are injected in an attempt to lighten things up. Gary Cooper is effective, if still a bit hesitant in delivering his lines, and his love interest Lili Damita is pretty and sexy but wildly miscast and not up to the job. The film had two directors, and it's painfully obvious which one did what--David Burton, a Russian émigré brought out from the Broadway stage, directed the non-action scenes and his background shows in the unimaginative staging (this was only his third film as a director) and overexaggerated acting. Co-director Otto Brower was an action specialist and second-unit director, and while he did some excellent work later in his career (he worked on 1946's "Duel in the Sun", 1944's "Buffalo Bill" and 1939's "Jesse James", among dozens of others), the climactic Indian attack in this film is actually pretty ineptly staged; although there are a lot of Indians riding around, whooping and getting shot off their horses, it's not particularly exciting or even involving and, in addition, is very poorly edited.

If Paramount meant this picture to be its answer to "The Big Trail", "The Iron Horse" or "The Covered Wagon", it fails badly. It has its moments (there's a good bar brawl about halfway through the picture) and Torrance and Marshall work well together, but all in all, it's just a "B" picture in everything but budget, and not as good as many others that cost far less. Worth a watch once, maybe, but not more than that.
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Watchable, but just barely
marxsarx15 February 2003
"The old time west is passing," says one of the characters in "Fighting Caravans." This early 'talkie' is also one of the earliest 'big budget' westerns from what I read. Unfortunately, this is a B Movie all the way, and not that entertaining either. A young Gary Cooper plays a scout of some sort who is working for a wagon train caravan carrying freight from Missouri to Sacramento, California in the 1860's during the civil war and right before the railroads had been built throughout the west. There is hardship, danger, Indians, romance and cornball humor in this vintage western. Somehow, when you mix them all up together, the recipe isn't all that tasty. The humor is obnoxious at times and the acting, even Gary Cooper's, is noticeably weak during some scenes. This movie tries to be several different types of movies all rolled in to one and it doesn't pull it off. Interestingly enough, there are moments in the film where it is evident that the style of acting and camera work from silent films is still being used. It is a bit fascinating to see how an early 1930's filmmaker portrayed the 1860's. I'd say pass on this movie unless you are a Gary Cooper fan or a hard core fan of early westerns. 61/100.
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Very entertaining Western!
jackmathys11 September 2018
Good performances all around. A simple story told well. And a captivating female lead.
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Early Pre-Code Western Scored Big With Me
verbusen9 September 2017
Warning: Spoilers
OK, so why do I mention that it's pre-code? Well, how many pre-1965 westerns have white men getting hooked up with Native American women as a GOOD THING? How about the line where "Indians have no use for blond women"? Even having a foreigner getting hitched to all-American Gary Cooper in the West could be frowned upon in some circles in the 1930's. So, we have a pre-code western here. I love pre-code films just to catch a line or so that is not considered family friendly. I happen to watch a lot of different media, with pre-code old films being one of my interests for entertainment, I also watch adult themed cartoons like Family Guy. On the Cartoon Channel at night they play mature cartoons and one of them is called "The Venture Brothers". In that show they have a spoof of an elderly Sean Connery superhero and I swear that Ernest Torrence (who steals the show here) was the inspiration for the character and the voice! Seems like some off coloured jokes going on but I could be wrong. I give it a 7, highlights are pre-code and higher production standards then a B flick. However, the audio is often bad and the version I watched looked really chopped up on Retro TV. Probably not a good thing to give it a higher rating, it's no The Searchers but was fun and my wife even was into it, so maybe a good date flick for an old western film. 7 of 10.
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Western clichés, manifest destiny, some good photography
netwallah17 May 2004
Warning: Spoilers
The story is stunningly trite, which is not unusual for Zane Gray novels. Two hard-drinking, grizzled scouts, big Scots-accented Bill Jackson and squirrelly little Jim Bridger have raised a handsome young orphan scout Clint Belmet. They conspire to get him out of some sort of trouble in Independence, Kansas, by convincing a pretty young French woman, Felice, to pretend to be Clint's wife. She is setting out across the country with a wagon train to supply the California settlement, and the scouts go along, and pretty soon there's a romance, which Jackson & Bridger loathe and try to foil. Clint nothing more than a giant boy. The caravan is menaced by a war band of Plains Indians, egged on by an evil turncoat white man. The photography is sometimes nice, and the character actors chew the scenery admirably. Gary Cooper is very handsome, and his face more expressive than in some later films, and Lily Damita at times is quite lovely. The story depends on several stupid premises: Clint must grow up and settle down, because the old west is finished (especially when his two mentors die), and after a while he accepts it. Worse yet, the assumptions made by the story and especially the summary titles all rest grotesquely on the doctrine of manifest destiny, which renders Indians savage killers struggling futilely against inevitable progress, and the "pioneers" are heroes, of course. Still, the movie is worth seeing as a curiosity, a slightly embarrassing statement of the values of the 30s.
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Probably the audience was awed in 1931 because talkies were still new, but for 2004, the movie is a dud.
George0411 April 2004
The motion picture was, in all likelihood, made in the year 1930 and released in 1931. I would surmise that talking motion pictures had great difficulty in making the transition from the silent era. Nevertheless, this particular Zane Grey plot appears to be very weak. Also, Gary Cooper was probably just learning to act. The result is something that would not be acceptable by today's standards. For 1931, maybe. For 2004, not acceptable. Some of the actors performed well. Sadly, the Indians always get the short end in these early westerns. They were living on the land long before the white man came, but according to twisted history, they had no right to defend themselves.
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Aside from a very young Gary Cooper and a chance to see Mrs. Flynn and a seemingly gay subplot, not a lot to recommend it
MartinHafer20 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This is a very old and cheaply made film--a typical low-budget B-Western in so many ways. Gary Cooper was not yet a star and this film is highly reminiscent of the early films of John Wayne that were done for "poverty row" studios. With both actors, their familiar style and persona were still not completely formed. This incarnation of Gary Cooper doesn't seem exactly like the Cooper of just a few years later (he talks faster in this early film, among other things).

However, unlike the average B-movie of the era, there are at least a few interesting elements that make the film unique (if not good). If you ever want to see the woman that was married to Errol Flynn for seven years, this is your chance. Lili Damita stars as the female love interest and this is a very, very odd casting choice, as she has a heavy accent (she was French) and wasn't even close to being "movie star pretty". Incidentally, she was also married to director Michael Curtiz.

But for me, the most memorable and weird aspect of the film is the seemingly gay subplot--sort of like a BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN from the 1930s (and we thought this was a NEW idea). Gary Cooper's character was raised by two men who hate women and do everything they can through much of the film to keep Cooper clear of females. This misogyny alone doesn't necessarily mean much, but there are so many clues throughout the film that indicate the makers of the film really were trying to portray them as a gay couple. In particular, towards the end, when one of them is killed, the other is shot by an arrow and holds off dying long enough to crawl over to the body of his fallen friend and then falls--with his arms cradled around him! This was pretty edgy stuff for the time and I think this makes this dull film really fascinating today! As far as Cooper and the plot go, the film is a bit of a disappointment and very skip-able. Unless you are curious about Damita or the homosexual undertones, do yourself a favor and find a better Western.
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Somewhat dull, but at times interesting western
jeremy329 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The main flaw to this movie is Gary Cooper. He was a great actor, but in this film appears to be in a not-yet-mature stage in his career. Cooper plays a lanky happy-go-lucky cowboy, who can turn the wrong direction or the right direction at this point in his young life. The heroine is a tough woman, but who still has a woman's heart. She can be very tough, but still expects to be treated right by a man. Instead of seeing what a great wife and partner for life she would be, Cooper's character struggles with many dilemmas before choosing this path. The best characters in the film are two older men, who are scouts. They are a dying breed and the coming of the railroad threatens to destroy their livelihoods. They are very selfish and want to keep their young apprentice (Cooper) under their wings. They try everything to destroy the budding romance between the hero and heroine. In the end, they realize that they have been fools, and decide that supporting the romance is after all the best solution. I liked the fact that the Native Americans were portrayed with some sensitivity. This was 1931. The main bad guy was white. While continuing some of the stereotypes about Native Americans - that they are brutal, the movie was at least light-hearted and comical, rather than pursuing an agenda of hatred towards the Native Americans. The ending was nice. Everybody finds love. Even an older man finds a Native American bride.
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