Lionsgate // 1931 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // April 14th, 2006
Fighting Plainsmen Build the West!
The most famous tumbleweed author who ever lived, Zane Grey, wrote over 100 books in his lifetime, virtually pioneering the western fiction genre and becoming a major figure in pulp writing. He was such a successful figure that in the 1930s and '40s, studios found that simply attaching Grey's name to a quickie low budget western would always garner an interested audience -- no matter who the stars were, or how poorly the film turned out. Released by Lionsgate as part of their "Zane Grey Western Classics" line, the Grey-adapted Fighting Caravans is one such low-budget oater, a Civil War-set wagon train movie starring western leading man Gary Cooper.
Clint Belmet (Gary Cooper, High Noon) is a frontier scout charged with making sure a wagon train of supplies bound for California arrives. Before his long journey, Clint meets French maiden Felice (Lily Damita, Brewster's Millions), a headstrong young woman who pretends to be his wife so she accompany the train. Unfortunately, the road to Sacramento is fraught with danger-Indians are on the warpath, and there are ruthless traders who remain intent on stealing their shipment.
The latest volume in Lionsgate's middling "Zane Grey Western Classics" series, Fighting Caravans is a 70-year old yawn that smells suspiciously like it's been scraped off the stable floor. Instead of gunfights and wild hijinks on the dusty trail, this flimsy film substitutes a saddlebag full of overwrought melodrama as Clint and Felice fall in and out of love with maddening frequency. A heartstring-tugging score underlies every scene of embarrassing acting from everyone but Cooper, and the film is chock full of by-the-numbers plotting and depressingly self-conscious historical references. There are a few barroom brawls and a final, long overdue Old West shoot-out, but even the action set-pieces come off about as unexciting and phony as possible, silly slapstick affairs with stunt men falling in water troughs-you know the kind of cornball antics I'm talking about.
Even ignoring the paper-thin plot, Fighting Caravans feels more like a parody of western films rather than the real McCoy. The characters are incredibly broadly drawn, with most of the humor coming from a pair of distinctly unfunny false-bearded drunkards who advise Clint through his tumultuous relationship. There are some actual laugh-worthy moments interspersed throughout the film (such as one scene with an older woman on the train telling a group of young girls not to bother with any of the men on the journey, and that they should save themselves for rich gold miners at their destination) but these rays of sunshine are too little too late. The film is one big Western snooze, where the possibility of entertainment is like an constantly shifting mirage in the distance -- you can almost taste it, but you just never get there.
Cooper is the only reason to bother with this film. He plays an extremely earnest lothario who quickly gets sparks flying with his love interest. When their sham marriage is revealed to the others, though, Felice flies off the handle (by shouting in entirely made-up French!) and it's predictably up to Clint to get back in her good graces. Again. And again. He does a fine job with a bad part, though, and some of the overwrought dialogue even sounds just about right when it's coming out of Cooper's mouth. Too bad he's surrounded by C-level character actors who aren't worthy to carry his fringed holster.
Like most of the other "Zane Grey Western Classics" of this vintage, the full frame, black and white Fighting Caravans looks like it's been on the trail for far too long. It's pretty fuzzy, with nicks and scratches that constantly crop up throughout the running time. The mono soundtrack gets the job done, but little more-underlying hiss and distorted high frequencies detract somewhat from the dialogue.
You wouldn't think that Lionsgate would have included any extras on this release, but perhaps the short length of the feature twigged their conscience. To help beef up this disc, they've included three short featurettes that are found on each entry in the "Zane Grey Western Classics" line. "Outdoor Adventures" is a tedious, 45-minute travelogue of Grey's fishing excursions narrated in excitable newsreel style. It's introduced by the author's son, Loren, but it's completely skippable, especially considering that the "Fisherman's Pluck," a short 9-minute film about pretty much the same thing is much easier to digest. Finally, there's a decent biography of Grey called "An American Legend" that traces the infamous author's life and love of the outdoors. It's not in the greatest shape, since it was shot for TV in the 1980s, but it's relatively interesting, clocking in at about half an hour.
Those familiar with the Zane Grey western series know it's a decidedly mixed bag-an expected pitfall when you amass a series of DVDs featuring films bound together only by Grey's name on the credits. Fighting Caravans is one of the worst: a stagy, pasteboard western that skimps on the action, and has little more than Cooper's presence to recommend it.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1931
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Outdoor Adventures
* Fisherman's Pluck
* An American Legend