A live action drama based on Mary Jane Carr’s 1934 novel Children of the Covered Wagon: A Story of the Old Oregon Trail and loosely on United States history, Disney’s Westward Ho, the Wagons! was theatrically released on December 20, 1956. The film is ninety-five minutes in length.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a large group travels via horse-drawn wagons towards Oregon, encountering potentially hostile tribes of Pawnee and Sioux along the way. The adults on this journey include Dr. John Grayson (Fess Parker), Laura Thompson (Kathleen Crowley), Hank Breckenridge (Jeff York), Obie Foster (Morgan Woodward), and Spencer Armitage (Leslie Bradley); and the children include Dan Thompson (David Stollery), Myra Thompson (Karen Pendleton), Bobo Stephen (Doreen Tracey), Jerry Stephen (Cubby O’Brien), and Jim Stephen (Tommy Cole). Grayson has the most significant role among the adult characters, while Dan and Myra have the leading roles among the children, Dan in the film’s first half with the Pawnees and Myra towards the end with the Sioux.
The action in Westward Ho, the Wagons! is a bit disjointed. Essentially, the pioneers encounter problems with the Pawnees and then encounter different problems with the Sioux along their path to Oregon. We are never told where the pioneers are traveling from, what their plans are once they reach Oregon, and really even who they are; we learn their names and some of their occupations—Grayson is a doctor, and Armitage is a speculator—but not much else. The film might have been improved had the problems with either of the tribes been further developed or had the events that occurred before and after those shown in the film been included and developed.
The United States first gained claim to land in the Oregon Territory via the Adams-Onis (Transcontinental) Treaty of 1819. Through this treaty, which Spanish Minister to the United States Luis de Onis negotiated with United States Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Spain ceded both its claims to the Oregon Territory and its claims to the Floridas in exchange for claims to disputed territory in Texas. The treaty gave the United States direct access to the Pacific Ocean for the first time and was crucial to the formation of the Monroe Doctrine and the Orient trade. (1) Even with Spain pacified, however, the United States and Great Britain quarreled over Oregon, a debate that was finally settled through the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which set the modern border between Washington State and Canada. (2)
Westward Ho, the Wagons! features several lyrical numbers, which, though catchy, are not quite as good as the songs from some other Disney westerns. Among said westerns, I would rank the two Davy Crockett films, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956); Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978); and the two Apple Dumpling Gang films, The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), as musically superior to Westward Ho, the Wagons!
Performed immediately following the opening credits and again in the movie’s last scene, “Westward Ho the Wagons!” is a soothing number that voices the end goal of the travelers: to reach Oregon. The frontier setting in the first scene is seemingly an amalgamation of actual terrain and skies, and matte paintings by the great Disney matte artist Peter Ellenshaw.
“The Ballad of John Colter” is another soothing tune, performed by Grayson as an evening story to the group’s children about the mountain man John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition who later discovered a geyser in modern-day Wyoming and survived capture from the Blackfeet Indians. This number is a poor man’s version of the theme song from the Davy Crockett films, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”; “John Colter” is definitely not as iconic as “Davy Crockett,” but the former song grew on me when watching the film a second time.
“Pioneer’s Prayer” is a beautiful chant performed during a sermon as the pioneers prepare to embark on a treacherous quest to save Dan.
“I’m Lonely My Darlin’” is a smooth love song sung by Grayson and Laura Thompson while encamped at Fort Laramie.
Additionally, suspenseful background music is well utilized to augment the intensity while Grayson and Dan prepare to reclaim the group’s horses from the Pawnees and when Dan attempts to escape from the Pawnee encampment late at night.
By virtue of the interplay between the pioneers and the Pawnees and the pioneers and the Sioux, Westward Ho, the Wagons! offers plenty of action scenes, the most exciting segment coming towards the middle of the film as the families are attacked by Pawnees while traveling through open terrain. Although the generic description of another American history-based film released by Disney in 1956, The Great Locomotive Chase, may sound more enticing because of that movie’s runaway train concept, Westward Ho, the Wagons! is the more exciting effort.
An arrow fired by a Pawnee ironically comes within a foot of hitting Breckenridge in the head while he tells the children a story about how a Pawnee arrow once came within a foot of hitting him in the head. This déjà vu moment ends story time and puts the travelers into defensive mode.
One of the children partners with a shaggy dog at a square dance.
The children successfully convince the head of Fort Laramie, Bissonette (Sebastian Cabot), to trade them finished buffalo robes for buffalo hide. Although Bissonette declares the exchange a fair deal, one senses that he is just being nice to the youngsters—his voiced sounds perturbed, and both he and his dog react negatively to the odor of the hides.
Relationship to Other Disney Films
Westward Ho, the Wagons! was the fourth of six Disney films to feature Fess Parker, who was named a Disney Legend in 1991. Parker had previously appeared in Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, The Great Locomotive Chase, and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates for Disney, and he subsequently contributed to Old Yeller (1957) and The Light in the Forest (1958) for the studio.
Westward Ho, the Wagons! was the third of six Disney films to feature Jeff York. York had previously appeared in The Great Locomotive Chase and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates for Disney, and he subsequently contributed to Johnny Tremain (1957), Old Yeller, and Savage Sam (1963) for the studio.
Sebastian Cabot subsequently contributed to Johnny Tremain, The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) for Disney. Cabot was the narrator for the four shorts in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
Doreen Tracey, Cubby O’Brien, Tommy Cole, and Karen Pendleton all appeared regularly on Walt Disney’s hit television program “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
In the Parks
The American West is the theme for the respective “Frontierland” sections at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and the Disneyland Parks in California and Paris. The “Westernland” section at Tokyo Disneyland Park and the “Grizzly Gulch” section at Hong Kong Disneyland Park have a similar theme.
The “Wilderness Lodge” at Walt Disney World, the “Grand Californian Hotel and Spa” at the Disneyland Resort, and the “Sequoia Lodge” at Disneyland Resort Paris are themed after lodges one might encounter in the Pacific Northwest. Furthermore, camping accommodations are available at Walt Disney World’s “Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground” and at Disneyland Paris’s “Davy Crockett Ranch.”
Westward Ho, the Wagons! is entertaining enough and features an above-average soundtrack, but the effort may have been better suited to distribution as installments on Walt Disney’s “Disneyland” television series rather than as a theatrically-released movie.
1) William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 1-3.
2) William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, 5th ed. (New York: Gramercy Books, 2001), 169-70.
What do you think of Westward Ho, the Wagons!? Let me know in the comments!
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I'm a huge fan of the various Disney theme parks and movies. I've made several trips to both Walt Disney World and Disneyland with my family.
Additionally, I'm interested in sports and American history.