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First Hollywood epic Western was shot in Utah with pioneers as extras

Posted at 5:51 PM, Jul 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-23 19:52:51-04

MILLARD COUNTY, Utah — "The Covered Wagon" wasn't the first Western from Hollywood studios, but it was the first big-budget Western epic, and as such, it's one of the most influential movies of the silent era.

It was filmed on a little reservoir outside of Garrison, Utah. The population at the time: 109.

Film critic Roger Moore wrote:

“The Covered Wagon” established the tropes, the conventions, the action beats and archetypes that carried John Ford and John Wayne, Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway, Clint Eastwood and the Coens through a century of Western cinema.

The BBC Documentary series "Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film" focused on "The Covered Wagon" in its episode about Westerns, interviewing one of the films stars, Lois Wilson.

Of all the places in the world, this mega budget Hollywood production with hundreds of extras was filmed on the eastern edge of Millard County around Pruess Lake, a little reservoir outside the tiny community of Garrison.

Production began in October of 1922. The BBC chronicled its production and place in movie history in 1980.

"They advertised all through the West for anyone who had a Conestoga wagon. They would be given, I believe, $2 a day and their stock fed, and they would be in this great picture," Wilson said.

The Beaver County News covered the production in a number of articles. (Garrison is in Millard County, but Milford, in Beaver County, is the closest larger Utah town, though it is still 70 miles away.)

They interviewed the film's chief photographer, Karl Brown.

"Now do you realize the location chosen was the best in the United States?" Brown said. "By placing the camera in one position and by changing its direction, seven different scenes with entirely different backgrounds may be taken."

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The scenes represented every point on the journey from Kansas City to Oregon, all filmed outside of Garrison except for a bison hunt filmed on Antelope Island.

Pruess Lake stood in as the North Platte River, and local extras drove hundreds of covered wagons across it. The nearby peaks now in Great Basin National Park substituted for the Rockies and Sierra. The nearby arroyos were the badlands.

There are troubling parts of the movie, most notably the characterization of Native Americans, 500 of whom were extras portrayed as primitive aggressors and obstacles to American expansion. They tracked the wagon train and attacked it without warning.

Even in the 1980 documentary, the subject didn't raise eyebrows. Col. Tim McCoy, the man charged with "Rounding up" 500 "Indians," was interviewed.

"I took leave, went down, and I arrived on location with two solid trainloads of Indians. I had Indians, squaws, papooses, horses, dogs, teepees, the whole works," McCoy said.

Almost 100 years old now, some of the extras in the film were pioneers themselves, and others were one generation removed. In fact, the film's director, James Cruz, was the son of Latter-day Saint pioneers in Utah, according to the BBC documentary.

The movie is in the public domain and can be viewed for free on YouTube. The extras in it are closer in time to the pioneers they portray than with us.