Warner Archives has released John Ford’s 1950 masterpiece Wagon Master on Blu Ray. The film doesn’t contain any Ford’s usual stars (John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara), instead, he gives his stock company an opportunity to carry a movie and the cast uniformly shines. Ford starts with a misunderstood banished minority and sends them on a pilgrimage and in the process creates a world of tolerance and community that may never have existed, but one that should.
The Production: 5/5
Wagon Master opens with a pre-credit sequence of the lawless Clegg gang robbing a Wingate Express Company office. As they exit a clerk unwisely fires a gun and wounds Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper), the twisted patriarch of the gang. The gang comes back into the bank where one of the ‘boys’ hands the older man a double-barrel shotgun which he unloads into the pleading man. For a family movie, it’s a pretty brutal scene and a powerful opening. What makes it so brutal is the casualness of the act – it’s not a rash action, but a joyfully sadistic one – it’s clear that this gang likes to inflict fear and pain. Uncle Shiloh murders the man with less thought than killing an insect. The scene could be out of a Peckinpah movie.
After the credits, we meet Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey, Jr.), two wandering wild horse traders. The two are headed into Crystal City to sell their latest roundup. Sandy, the simpler of the two figures out how much they will get if they charge thirty dollars for each horse.
In town, a group of Mormons led by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) is being run out of town by the townspeople. Wiggs offers to buy the horses from the boys at the inflated price of fifty dollars a head and throw in an extra hundred dollars if Travis and Sandy are willing to guide the Mormons to the San Juan River country. Travis demurs saying the road is too treacherous for wagon passage. Because of persistent persecution, the Mormons are unable to go back and must continue west to unsettled land to start a community of their own.
Travis and Sandy sit on a fence (a wonderful visual metaphor) watching the pilgrims exit in the wrong direction. Travis tries to justify their inaction. Spontaneously as Sandy starts singing, the two decide to shepherd the flock to the promised land. This is one of those Fordian scenes that I love as it simply communicates a major Ford theme, that of duty vs. desire. The boys are ‘wild’ like the horses they catch, they have no attachments and no commitments. Travis wants to relax and spend his time and hard-earned money gambling. But in spite of their desire, they cannot watch innocent people go to their likely deaths.
Wagon Master is a pioneer road movie. There isn’t much more plot, but there are three key encounters that test the community.
The first is with Dr. A Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) and his traveling medicine show. Locksley is accompanied by two women ‘entertainers’, Denver (Joanne Dru) and Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford). Stranded without water the troupe has been living on Hall’s elixir for the past few days and is stewed to the gills. The righteous Mormons must decide, like Travis and Sandy, to aid the helpless or banish to almost certain death like their persecutors did to them. The community is divided.
The older, conservative members want to give supplies to the immoral show people and send them on their way unprotected. It is Elder Wiggs, a late convert, who defends the entertainers. By showing the conflict within the Mormon community, Ford shows that even those misjudged such as the Mormons are capable of prejudice and that it takes a person who has sinned like Wiggs to really understand tolerance.
It is during a community dance that the Mormons encounter their greatest threat – the degenerate Cleggs. The Cleggs are a perversion of traditional family or community values – they could very well be a family out a horror movie – they could also serve as a template for the Hammonds in Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. Their threat at first is not obvious, even dismissed as an annoyance as Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) shows her displeasure at being ordered to cook for the family. But it doesn’t take long for the Cleggs to show their true colors as they take the weaponless wagon train hostage.
The third encounter is with a tribe of Native Americans. In a conventional western this sequence would be the most threatening but not in an artist like Ford’s hands. Instead of fighting we see two wary communities united in their roles as outsiders. The only conflict between the two groups is when one of the Cleggs rapes a Native American girl and as punishment, the Mormons flog the rapist.
One of the beauties of a Ford movie, unlike the precision of movies by directors like Lang or Hitchcock which is another kind of beauty, is the sense of spontaneity that makes the film feel like it’s happening before our very eyes as we watch. There are always little touches in Ford that distinguish him from other filmmakers. Watching Ben Johnson interact with the horses is poetic; even the way Johnson relaxes while sitting on his horse has a relaxed beauty.
There’s also a moment after the Cleggs have made the intentions clear when Wiggs, Travis, and Sandy are alone when Wiggs confesses his fear of the outlaws to the boys but vows to not let his fellow Mormons see it. This scene again is typical Ford as it shows us men under great pressure who know that keeping that fear to themselves is what’s best for the community.
While Travis and Sandy are guardian angels, they are not perfect. Travis inflates the price of the horses even though he knows the Mormons are not in a position to bargain. I love the scene when Wiggs is interviewing the boys, trying to get a sense of their character and Travis’ complete honesty to the questions. He’s so guileless that lying doesn’t even occur to him.
In the commentary with Harry Carey, Jr. Peter Bogdanovich repeatedly talks about the film’s perfection and simplicity. While I’m with Bogdanovich about the film’s perfection, I take issue with the film’s simplicity. Stylistically the film is not flashy, but it is perfectly shot by the relatively unknown and vastly underrated cinematographer Bert Glennon (The House of Wax, Desperate Journey, Swiss Miss). There isn’t a wasted shot or camera move in the film. As Bogdanovich points out, it looks like a silent film. And while it doesn’t seem as big as other Ford films like The Grapes of Wrath or The Searchers, I think thematically there is quite a bit going on in the film. This is due to the low-key script by Ford regular screenwriter Frank Nugent and his son Patrick Ford that doesn’t draw attention to its themes.
One of the film’s themes is commitment and responsibility. Travis and Sandy and the Cleggs are flip sides of the same coin. The film is about the maturation of Travis and Sandy. They must choose from the different role models presented how they want to live.
The Cleggs are untamed and it isn’t coincidental that there are no women with them. The Cleggs have no respect for anyone or anything. They’ve been in the wild for so long they are incapable of being civilized or living within a community. The Mormons are outcasts but represent stability and community.
Travis and Sandy are also untamed at the start of the film but form ties to the pilgrims mainly through their attraction to two women; Travis with Denver and Sandy with Prudence (Kathleen O’Malley), thereby becoming civilized and accepted into the community.
Ford is also an ironist. When the Mormons first meet the Cleggs they are more welcomed than the show people because they appear to be ‘normal’ than the unredeemable show people. Ford doesn’t sentimentalize the show people, as Dr. Hall initially comes off as a pompous and effete dandy. Denver is also contemptuous of the Mormons and Travis at the start as she makes fun of the style and size of the more sensible shoes Travis has borrowed and offered to Denver as she walks across the craggy landscape.
Later the Cleggs laugh at the attempts of the Mormons to navigate their wagons over rocky terrain. Uncle Shiloh is incapable of thinking of something grander or higher than his own self-interest. It is Dr. Hall of all people who is willing to potentially sacrifice his life in an attempt to successfully cross the rugged terrain. This action earns Dr. Hall respect within the community that the Cleggs could never achieve.
As I stated at the beginning of the review, there are no major stars in the film, but all of the performances are wonderful. I think major stars in the leads would have weighed the film down. Ben Johnson is an ex-rodeo rider who broke into films through stunt work. He has an awkward natural quality that is perfect. Harry Carey, Jr. grew up around movies and his performance is more ‘actorly’ than Johnson’s but no less winning. The two make a wonderful team. It’s too bad the movie lost money on its initial release as its financial failure probably doomed any future pairings of the two actors.
Ward Bond is one of those actors who over the course of his career grew into a fine film actor with far greater range than one would suspect. He’s capable of playing warm, fatherly characters as well as slimy villains. He is perfect as the imperfect Elder Wiggs. And then there’s Charles Kemper as Uncle Shiloh. A variation of Walter Brennan’s Ike Clanton from Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Kemper’s Uncle Shiloh is so disgustingly self-centered that his last play for survival is both pathetic and comic.
The rest of the cast is composed of Ford regulars like Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Hank Worden, and never to be overlooked Francis Ford, the director’s brother. Who doesn’t want to spend 90 minutes with these actors? Young James Arness even pops up as one of the mutant Clegg boys – there’s a brief moment when Johnson is looking at Arness and Worden like they’re from another planet (this was before Arness was from another world). His expression is priceless. All give vivid performances.
Ford uses music so pervasively in Wagon Master that it almost feels like a musical with the songs playing over montages of the moving wagon train instead of conventional musical numbers. The score by long-time Ford composer Richard Hageman (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Fugitive, The Long Voyage Home) is appropriate. The songs by Stan Jones (The Searchers opening song) and sung by The Sons of the Pioneers are marvelous and create a rousing feel to the otherwise silent montages of the wagon train crossing rivers and drudging across the dessert.
3D Rating: NA
Warner Archives has done its usual masterful job on this transfer. I’ve seen Wagon Master projected on film and on laser disc, and DVD. It has always looked pretty good. This is no exception and it shows Bert Glennon’s beautiful carefully crafted black and white (and many shades in between) images. There are few nicks and scratches to be found.
The soundtrack sounds great as well. Dialogue is always clear and understandable, and music is loud and robust. Ford isn’t always given credit for his use of sound, but there are added sound effects that add immeasurably to help create atmosphere – an element that Ford in late-life interviews credited Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck with teaching him.
Special Features: 3/5
The only special feature is the commentary with Peter Bognadovich and Harry Carey, Jr. I admire Bogdanovich as a director but even more as a critic, his collection of director interviews, Who the Devil Made It? is essential. Unfortunately, I don’t think he guides this commentary particularly well – perhaps it’s one of those instances where he’s just too emotionally close to the material? Carey is great, it’s like listening to an old man reminisce as he watches 50-year-old home movies. Some of his observations are touching. But Bogdanovich often refrains from asking direct questions, so in some ways, it seems like a missed opportunity. But Carey’s stories are mostly delightful.
John Ford is my favorite film director. As pretentious as this sounds, I think he’s the Shakespeare of American cinema. Not all of his films are great. There are a couple I could do without, but even those have moments of grace and beauty. No American director deals with the ambiguity of the passage of time and history as effectively as Ford does. Ford made great individual movies but when one looks at the complete filmography it becomes staggering at how the films, great and minor, add up to a total that I think is unmatched in American film. Wagon Master is a great film. It’s tempting to call it simple, but I would call it subtle and deliberate and it shows a master at the peak of his craft.
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