Author and naturalist Zane Grey has been called the "greatest storyteller of the American West," drawing on his colorful past and rich life experiences to capture the elusive spirit of the "Old West" in the written word. In 1872 Pearl Zane Gray was born in Zanesville, Ohio, a town named for his mother's ancestors who settled it. Growing up, he took great delight in fishing and the American pastime, baseball. The latter would lead to a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in dentistry, and a brief stint in the minor leagues. It was after a fateful hunting trip to Arizona that Gray fell head over heels for the Western frontier and its history and, with the support of his wife, turned his attention to writing full time. Under the pen name Zane Grey he would go on to popularize the western genre in literature and become one of the first millionaire authors.
Throughout the teens, '20s and '30s, Grey had at least one bestseller in the top ten at any given time and like most successful writers, his works inspired several films. Many of the earliest adaptations were made during the silent era and were produced by Zane's own motion picture company, which he later sold to Paramount Pictures who would then go on to adapt dozens of Grey's works. Fighting Caravans (1931), starring a young Gary Cooper, was one of these and at the time was the highest budgeted western ever made. Cooper had successfully made the transition from silent to talking pictures and his star was rising. He had some experience in western pictures and had even starred in the silent film adaptation of Grey's novel Nevada.
Cooper plays ace scout Clint Belmet who, along with his fellow trackers Bill (Ernest Torrence) and Jim (Tully Marshall), must lead a wagon train of settlers, trappers and traders from Missouri to California. There's only one problem, the local sheriff has arrested Clint on a trumped up charge. Bill and Jim find Felice (Lily Damita), a tough French girl whose father passed away shortly before she set out, and tell her that she won't be able to join the wagon train unless she has a man with her. They trick her into pretending to be Clint's wife so the sheriff will drop the charges and then she can join the caravan. Clint is released and he and Felice keep up their ruse as they leave town. Sick of doing all the work, Bill and Jim reveal that the two aren't married, but they hurt Felice in the process since she thinks that Clint was in on the charade.
Over the course of the journey Clint and Felice develop a mutual attraction, but Bill and Jim are always on hand to douse the flames of love. It turns out that the two old-timers, who found Clint as an orphan and raised him as their own, are jealous of Felice and her growing hold over him. Set in 1864, they also talk about the coming of the transcontinental railroad and how it will change their lives forever. After Clint runs off to "clear his head," the two world weary scouts realize that what Felice can offer Clint, a new life and a family, is much more than they ever could. They eventually find him and on the way back discover that one of the traders, Murdock (Fred Kohler), has conspired with the Indians to wipe out the settlers for his personal gain. The scouts warn the wagon train of the impending attack and help defend the caravan.
While much of Zane Grey's Fighting Caravans plays like a B picture today, hampered by the point and shoot style carried over from the silent era, it was actually one of the most expensive westerns of it's time. Fighting Caravans was shot on location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and takes full advantage of the amazing scenery at its disposal. From mountain vistas to rolling plains, through the mud and the snow, it must have been truly spectacular in its day. Co-directors Otto Brower and David Burton actually shot so much footage, that much was used as B-roll for some of Paramount's later westerns, including 1934's Wagon Wheels, which was a remake of Fighting Caravans starring Randolph Scott.
Picture: This movie is presented in a 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio, with minor edge enhancement and a crisp B&W picture, but as a full restoration wasn't performed there are still a number of places the film shows it's age.
Audio: This film is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital Mono.
Extras: Lions Gate Entertainment has included some nice Extras on this DVD, including "Outdoor Adventures," which was filmed during two of Grey's extended fishing expeditions and is introduced by his son Loren Grey, another shorter fishing film "Fisherman's Pluck" and the biography, "Zane Grey: An American Legend." "Outdoor Adventures" and "Fisherman's Pluck" are in B&W, while "An American Legend" is in color, but all of these shorts show their age.
Conclusion: Slowly but surely, Lions Gate Entertainment has been releasing a worthy library of classic westerns at surprisingly reasonable prices. Unlike some of their previous releases, Santa Fe Stampede for example, they've even provided a nice assortment of extras offering up some background information on author Zane Grey and his contributions to America's "Western" culture. I'd easily recommend Fighting Caravans to any western lover and think it would make a good rental for the curious.