Judge Paul Corupe's wagon party usually died of dysentery around Fort Laramie.
Oregon trail, stretching far away…
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. Released by Lionsgate as part of their "Zane Grey Western Classics" line, 1934's Wagon Wheels is another entry in the series—a run-of-the-mill "cowboys and Indians" epic featuring a young Randolph Scott.
Facts of the Case
Frontiersmen Cliff Belnet (Randolph Scott, A Lawless Street), James Burch (Raymond Hatton, Arizona Bound), and Bill O'Leary (Olin Howland, Santa Fe) are charged with the safe passage of a cross-country wagon train immigrating to Oregon, but they've got their work cut out for them. The disreputable Murdock (Monte Blue, Hangman's Knot), a half-Indian fur trader, wants to stop the settlers from reaching their destination and mucking up his livelihood. He rallies a posse of tomahawk-wielding Indians to prevent the wagon train from reaching its destination, but Belnet and the others easily fend off their attack. As they cross the Rockies and near their destination, however, the Native Americans regroup and launch a second, more vicious assault.
Randolph Scott was a fairly popular b-western hero from the 1940s through to the late 1950s, achieving his greatest popularity with a series of films that matched him with director Budd Boetticher, starting with 1956's Seven Men from Now. Wagon Wheels, however, is the kind of western he first built his reputation on, a dated wagon train story that stars the young, lantern-jawed Scott at his most charismatic.
Like many films from the 1930s, Wagon Wheels tries to be all things for all audiences, interspersing the western action with corny comedy relief and several Broadway-style songs that are a poor match for the historical era. The wagon train plot is about as standard as they come, with romantic interest provided by Scott's sudden attraction to a determined single mother—played with grit by Gail Patrick—and her too-precocious son. The film's Indian attacks aren't very impressive either, mostly filmed at night using war whoop sound effects and the occasional arrow to convince the audience that the wagons are under heavy siege as they make their way along the Oregon Trail.
Most viewers familiar with later Randolph Scott films will be surprised by his youthful appearance in Wagon Wheels. Though it's really more of an ensemble cast, with Scott only one of three heroes on screen, he easily dominates the action when it's his turn at the story's reigns, getting into a few fist fights and keeping the antsy settlers focused on their long journey. Scott was never much of an actor, but he is an imposing, charismatic hero in this film, and in the world of the b-western, that's often more than enough.
Too bad, then, that the film looks so terrible. Presented in a full frame, black and white transfer, Wagon Wheels is extraordinarily fuzzy and soft. Print damage is a problem too, as splices ruin lines of dialogue, jump cuts abound, and significant artifacts plague the feature. The mono soundtrack is likewise hampered by a heavy dose of hiss, and distortion often obscures the dialogue beyond the point of audibility. Most of the problems with the print are assuredly age related, but no restoration attempts have been made, and Wagon Wheels looks and sounds like a bad public domain VHS transfer.
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 nine-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.
An innocuous tumbleweed programmer, Wagon Wheels is a fairly average Wild West B-movie timewaster, but it's sabotaged by an atrocious transfer, making it difficult to recommend. Do yourself a favor and lasso yourself something else next time you're in the video store, pardner.
Lionsgate is guilty of poor presentation, and are to be hogtied and branded with the DVD Verdict logo.
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