Fighting Caravans (1931)

Directed by: Otto Brower and David Burton

Gary Cooper plays Clint Belmet, a greenhorn frontier scout operating under the tutelage of a couple of wise old dogs. Cooper and the old dogs are charged with leading a train of freight wagons across the Country to sunny California. One of the dogs is played by a Scottish actor called Ernest Torrence, he really is the glue that holds the film together, and he delivers his lines in a brusque poetic manner. His voice reminds me a lot of the late Rugby commentator Bill McLaren.

We’re introduced to Belmet at a point where he finds himself behind bars and under threat of spending thirty days in jail due to his roguish actions. Thinking on his feet the wily Scotsman Ernest Torrence convinces a sultry French siren called Felice played by Errol Flynn’s future wife Lili Damita to pretend she is newly engaged to Belmet in order to get him pardoned by the town’s Sheriff. Felice is a lonely traveller hoping to make a new life in California and willingly goes along with the scam, in order to stay with the train. Throughout the film Belmet’s two colleagues prevent him from falling for Felice’s Gallic charms.

After the humorous beginning the trail trudges on. Despite the film running in at eighty minutes there is a great deal of irreverent prattle and plenty of plodding which makes for tedious viewing. The journey doesn’t seem to be much of a struggle, and it isn’t until the moment those dastardly Comanche’s drop by for big ol’ gun battle that the risk factor amps up several levels with arrows flying, damsels screaming and bodies falling.

Though Fighting Caravans contains some wonderfully shot scenes, such as the train crossing a river towards the end of movie, the film is quite a slog to sit through. I think this is mostly because Gary Cooper is such a dull, leaching screen presence. Whereas Ernest Torrence and Lili Damita are quite captivating performers, Cooper in comparison has no magnetism. I was disappointed by this, because compared to John Wayne and Gene Autrey in the recent nineteen thirties westerns that I have covered, Cooper is by far the weakest actor, and this is despite John Wayne delivering his lines in Randy Rides Alone like a voiceover artist for a local hospital radio station that has just came back from a Ayahuasca trip.

I think the most interesting thing connected to this film is that I discovered by way of Wikipedia that Errol Flynn and Lili Damita’s son Sean was a freelance photo journalist who disappeared in Cambodia whilst covering the Vietnam War. His photography is certainly worth seeking out.

– RJW
5/10

Fighting Caravans on IMDB
Buy Fighting Caravans [1931] [DVD]

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