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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 Union Pacific.

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.

John Ford's 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.


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