— Joe Franklin, describing this film
The plot concerns a group of pioneers who travel west on the Oregon Trail in 1848. Our hero is Will Bannion, a clean-cut, all-American veteran of the Mexican-American War. He comes with a sidekick in the form of Bill Jackson, a gruff and cynical frontiersman. Will's love interest is Molly Wingate, the wagon master's daughter. But the normal hardships of the trail are not their only problems. The villainous Sam Woodhull, second-in-command of the wagon train and Molly's Disposable Fiancé, is determined to destroy Will at all costs.
This was the highest grossing film of the year 1923, and was popular enough to inspire parodies like The Uncovered Wagon, The Covered Schooner, and Two Wagons: Both Covered. Additionally, President Warren Harding declared The Covered Wagon to be his favorite movie.
Like other films released in 1923, The Covered Wagon entered the Public Domain in 2019.
This film has the examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Jim Bridger spends much of his screen time getting sloshed. He's such an alcoholic that he actually forgets things when he's sober and has to get drunk again in order to remember them. Note this was all filmed while Prohibition was in effect in Real Life.
- Birth/Death Juxtaposition: Right after the death of "ol' Mrs. Wattles," another pioneer woman gives birth to a baby.
- The Cavalry: Near the end, Will and several men ride in to save the others from the Indians.
- Empathy Doll Shot: In an early scene, Will repairs a doll for a sad little girl. Much later, following an Indian attack, he finds that same doll lying on the ground, implying the little girl was killed.
- Eye Scream: During a fistfight, Will is encouraged to poke out Sam's eyes, but he refuses to do it 'cause he's the good guy.
- Forty Niner: As the characters travel west on the Oregon Trail, they receive early word of the Gold Rush in California. Each character then has to decide whether to continue on to Oregon, or to head for the gold fields of California. The film presents it as a choice between Call to Agriculture and Gold Fever.
- Funetik Aksent: Used in the intertitles to capture the characters' dialect
- One Steve Limit: Averted. There are two character named William: Will Banion and Bill Jackson.
- Overprotective Dad: Molly's dad wants Will to stay away from her after he hears that he was kicked out of the army for stealing cattle. He also wants her to marry Sam.
- Historical-Domain Character: Jim Bridger shows up. He's an old friend of Banion and Jackson, naturally.
- If I Can't Have You...: "I know you'll never marry me - and, if I can find Banion, you'll never marry him either!"
- Kid Sidekick: Molly's little brother Jed
- Love Triangle: It wouldn't be a historical epic without a love triangle, now would it? In this case, Molly has to choose between good guy Will and bad guy Sam.
- No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Jesse Wingate, the leader of the wagon train and Molly's father, is evidently a fictionalized Jesse Applegate.
- No Man of Woman Born: "No man could get through." But a small boy can.
- Nobody Calls Me "Chicken"!: When Sam calls Will a coward, it leads to a fistfight.
- Pay Evil unto Evil: Bill Jackson's recommended approach to dealing with Sam. He's the one who wanted Will to gouge out Sam's eyes. When Sam is the only survivor of an Indian massacre, Bill helpfully points out that this is the perfect opportunity to kill Sam and blame it on the Indians. Ever the magnanimous hero, Will turns down these suggestions. In Will and Sam's final confrontation, Bill finally has his way:Bill: Sorry, Will - knowed ye was sot on sparin' that critter - but some bacon grease got on my finger an' it slipped.
- The Savage Indian: Downplayed. The Indians get to articulate some reasons why they don't want the white man coming out west and the movie never bothers to rebut their concerns, but we're still expected to root against them. There are two Indian attacks during the course of the film. The first one was provoked by Sam shooting an Indian for no reason, but the second one had no explicit provocation from the settlers.
- The Siege: At the end of the movie, with the hostile Indians
- Stay in the Kitchen: It's actually our hero, Will, who tells Molly that she can't ride his horse because "he's not safe for a woman." Meanwhile, it's the bad guy, Sam, who encourages her to "show him you can ride any horse." Naturally, this doesn't work out for her, and Will has to ride to her rescue.
- The Wild West: The setting, of course.
- William Telling: Done with a beer mug
- Young Future Famous People: When word arrives that Will has been cleared of cattle theft, it's briefly mentioned that this is the result of a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln taking up the case.