Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I think I saw Wagon Master in 1970 when Robert S. Birchard showed his print at UCLA. At the time John Ford was just a name to me but I put things together very quickly when I realized that Sam Peckinpah had followed in the Ford tradition -- at the time I was crazy about The Wild Bunch and this old B&W picture not only starred a very young Ben Johnson, it used the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River?" Perhaps this Peckinpah was really just restating the work of a previous director in his own way ...
Wagon Master is a simple and heartfelt cowboys 'n' settlers story with a gentle touch; Ford produced it himself and avoided having a big star so make the experience as pleasant as possible. Here's where we find out what kind of film John Ford makes when he has his way -- it turns out to be a simple story done in a style resembling a silent movie. 1 If you like "pure" westerns that showcase good horse riding and other cowboy skills, Wagon Master is a must-see title.
A group of Mormon settlers led by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) is happy when a pair of desert-savvy cowboys signs on to help them cross the desert to the "promised land" of the San Juan River. Travis Blue and Sandy (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) agree to guide the wagon train simply because the Mormons can't make it on their own; Sandy's also interested in one of the Mormon daughters, Prudence Perkins (Kathleen O'Malley). In addition to the usual cross-country problems -- Indians, a shortage of water -- the wagon train picks up a trio of abandoned show people. Dr. A.Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) sells snake oil, while his consort Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) drinks heavily. Also part of the troupe is Denver (Joanne Dru), a showgirl of dubious reputation. Trouble comes when the murdering Clegg gang uses the wagon train as a place to hide out from the law. Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper, great in his final movie On Dangerous Ground) can barely control his animalistic sons, one of whom puts the entire wagon train in danger when he rapes an Indian woman.
I wouldn't doubt that college students of today might think Wagon Master to be a corny fossil, as did some in the UCLA audience I saw it with. John Ford liberally applies songs by The Sons of the Pioneers, a mellow western group very popular in the postwar period. Any montage of wagons rolling will cue an old-fashioned melody, and Ford is also fond of stopping the movie dead for square dancing scenes. "The Chuckawalla Swing" is about as un-cool a song as one can imagine, and leaves out viewers who can't appreciate the styles of the past. 2
Wagon Master is excellent filmmaking just the same. Ford establishes his characters with ease and gets a fine performance from Ben Johnson, a star rodeo performer who rides a horse across broken ground like he was spreading butter on toast. Once the Ward Bond character shames his brethren into accepting the "fallen" show folk as acceptable fellow travelers, the Mormons come off as good people. Just the same Ford emphasizes telling portrait close-ups of Mormon women looking at the Navajos with fear and hatred. Sandy discreetly courts young Prudence, and even ends up riding a wagon with her at the end of the film, which seems a rather tolerant interpretation of the creed.
This is also a good film for Ward Bond, as a communal leader who knows he's not up to every challenge. It's interesting that no really dominant hero emerges from the story, no John Wayne character that can brush problems aside. The wagon train is the star. Ford gives star Joanne Dru some good scenes but doesn't allow her to take the movie away either -- her Denver never even gets to kiss Ben Johnson.
What we do get is shot after beautiful shot (courtesy cinematographer Bert Glennon) of horses and wagons in action as authentic as the experts can provide. With stunt coordinator Cliff Lyons handling the livestock Ford gets a great many glorious images of wagon teams straining to climb hills, along with some excellent horse falls (intentional and accidental). Hollywood in 1950 had the experience to stage wonderful western action and the best of the best are on view here. We're told that in one fight scene a dog just decided to run in and bite Ward Bond on the leg, tearing his pants. Ford leaves it in.
But what Wagon Master captures best is a certain "western feel" that was a big part of America at that time. I caught only a little bit of it as I grew up later in the 1950s. Travis and Sandy sit on a fence haggling over the price of a horse, in blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up. Frankly, it's a feeling of being clean, decent and part of the natural landscape, working in an outdoors with plenty of elbow room and not too many rules. It's the freedom we 50s kids had when we could just set up camp in whatever vacant lot we came across, or cut through people's property on the way to school without encountering fences and no-trespassing signs. The world belonged to us and we had plenty of space to play unsupervised. While it lasted.
Ford must have considered Wagon Master a kind of vacation from Hollywood pressure, a return to filmmaking as he loved it back in the 1920s, when everyone had fun. His bad guys the Cleggs are pretty rotten types (James Arness and Hank Worden among them) that threaten the settlers with death. But neither of our cowboy heroes considers himself the gunslinger type. Travis says he only draws on snakes, not people, and when he's forced to fight he throws his gun away afterward. That's also a feeling I felt from the men in my family, all ex-soldiers. The war was over and done with; as far as they were concerned victory and peace would last forever. They were raising kids and wanted no part of anything violent. That pacifistic streak is present in Wagon Master and makes it a sentimental favorite.
We're very grateful that Warner Home Entertainment has given Wagon Master an official DVD release as it completes their holdings of John Ford westerns. The B&W image is excellent throughout and the sound is very clear. An optional Spanish language audio track is a real curiosity, as it sounds like an original and is very well done.
Another strong reason to grab this release is its unique commentary track. Peter Bogdanovich hosts, and plays back some of his tapes of John Ford answering career questions from a 1966 audio interview -- Ford contrasts silent-movie work to the then-popular Batman TV show. Sharing the track is Harry Carey Jr., who provides a fountain of incidental information on subjects ranging from the actors to Ford's direction (he was in a happy mood throughout the filming), to the individual horses used on the film -- after sixty years, he even remembers the horses' names and personalities! Carey Jr. doesn't have a star attitude and plainly states that he considers the nine pictures he did for him a very important part of his life. He also offers inside information on Ben Johnson, who he describes as a natural athlete and an amazing horseman.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wagon Master rates:
Supplements: Commentary with Peter Bogdanovich, Harry Carey Jr.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 11, 2009
1. This observation pointed out by Peter Bogdanovich in the commentary.
2. No matter what one does, whenever The Searchers is screened somebody laughs at the title song.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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