on 3 September 2010
Wagon Master is one of John Ford's lesser known westerns - but reputed to be among his most satisfying pieces of work - one in which he felt he had captured the very essence of the genre.
The film is actually a simple story, straightforward and formulaic. A wagon train of Mormons led by (Ward Bond) are heading off to a new life and persuade a couple of cowhands (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey jr) to assist by leading the way and taking charge of the wagon train. On the way they encounter a travelling medicine show and also attract a bunch of villains who are being sought by a posse following a shooting. A troop of Navaho Indians put in a token appearance also. You will have seen it all before, but what makes the movie standout is the brilliant atmospheric photography and the horses, dust of the trail and the rolling, jolting wagons, all superbly captured on film. There is not a lot of violence and what there is not especially graphic. It was probably a Saturday afternoon `U' on release.
The film has no major star, only actors that usually appeared in the also rans lists. A very youthful James Arness, who was some years later to play the lead in the TV series `Gunsmoke' appears in the
gang of crooks. The horsemanship of Johnson and Carey is splendid - Johnson especially, as would be expected from a horseman who was a rodeo star before he even began appearing in films. Ward Bond of course appeared in many a western, both in cinema and TV series. If you like 50s westerns and especially the work of John Ford, you will have nothing but pleasure by catching up on this one!
on 19 February 2015
John Ford contributed more to the Western genre than any other film director. He directed a grand total of 57 Westerns from 1917 through to 1964. Broken down he directed 41 silent features from Tornedo (1917) through to 3 Bad Men (1926) and 16 talkies from Stagecoach (1939) through to Cheyenne Autumn (1964). He was there at the birth of cinema and it is no exaggeration to say that the man defined the genre, his films laying down the 'classic' rules which all Western directors after him took up and modified. It is therefore important to look closely at Ford's work if we are to really understand and appreciate the genre. The famous "revisionist" Westerns from the 50s onwards of Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Robert Aldrich, Sam Peckinpah et al mean nothing if we don't appreciate the fact that they revised the textbook as written by Ford, a textbook which he himself revised in iconic statements such as The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
For me two enduring pre-occupations dominate the Western genre: First, the celebration (the commemoration even) of the very creation of the USA as a nation in the past and second, a running commentary on the state of the nation in the present. Ford concentrated more on the first of these and the revisionists that came after him concentrated on the second though of course both are always inter-related. The year 1950 saw the release of two important Westerns. The first of these was Anthony Mann's Winchester '73, the first in his Jimmy Stewart cycle which is generally acknowledged as the moment when psychological complexity was introduced to the Western to a hitherto unprecedented degree. The neuroses of the main characters played by Stewart in these films seemed to reflect the shifting uncertainties of American civilization (Philip French talks about "an underlying drive towards anarchy and disintegration, a feeling that the inhabitants of America have a tenuous grip upon their continent") as shaped by the prevailing 50s current of anti-communist paranoia, McCarthyist witch-hunting, awakening civil rights protest and the fear of nuclear apocalypse which had been kick-started out of the ashes of World War Two and by consequent American involvement in the Korean War. Indeed, Fred Zinnemann's High Noon which came out in 1952 is often held up as an allegory on that conflict as well as a reaction against McCarthyism. The second important 1950 Western was Ford's Wagon Master, a film which celebrates one essential part of American creation mythology - European colonizers in their covered wagons pushing westward in pursuit of their "Manifest Destiny" to make the USA what it is today.
Throughout his career Ford effectively analyzed and set in stone the various elements that made up the Western genre's statement of this creation mythology - starting with the wars of independence (Guns Along the Mohawk) going down the wagon train (Wagon Master) or the railroad (The Iron Horse) to the wars against the Amerindians (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) and then to the frontier Westerns celebrating the founding of civilization in the Wild West where the enemy wasn't so much the Indians, but the unscrupulous members of settler communities and outlaws both in towns and on the range (My Darling Clementine, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 3 Godfathers). Beyond that there is the civil war Western (The Horse Soldiers), the racialist Western (The Searchers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge) and then the apologist (I am sorry to the Indians) Western (Cheyenne Autumn). The `Western as a creation myth' means that the best of them deal with something that lies sacred within the American soul. Far from just being shoot 'em up escapist action, they document what past generations went through in order to make the country what it is today. In that sense they are endowed with a mythic aura which remains somehow "holy." Nowhere in the Ford canon is this holy mythic aura stated more clearly than in Wagon Master.
In this film Ford single-mindedly depicts a phenomenon rather than a drama with sharply delineated individual characters. He rejects movie stars (who would have brought distracting baggage with them) in favor of his own stock company of players so focusing our attention on the group and their wagon train wending its way from Chrystal City across the Rockies to the San Juan River in southern Utah where they intend to found a settlement. The "holy mythic aura" is cast by Ford electing to base his film loosely on the real life "Hole in the Rock" expedition of 1879-80 which makes his wagon train a group of Mormons so giving ecclesiastical zeal to their search for a promised land, their Eden which the Lord has decreed is theirs for the taking. Ward Bond is the wagon train leader Elder Wiggs who hires wagon master Travis Blue (Ben Johnson) and his sidekick Sandy Owens (Harry Carey Jr.) to guide "his people" across the wilderness. The usual obstacles materialize by way of genre ritual - a band of Navajo Indians and a group of outlaws in flight from a bank robbery we see at the beginning of the picture inserted as a (then) novelty pre-credit sequence. The Indians prove to be indicators that 'civilization' has already taken root when it's discovered the Navajo chief (Ford regular Jim Thorpe) has already converted to the Mormon faith and the confrontation is resolved in a squaw dance. The outlaw group led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper, the only non-Ford regular in the cast) is more difficult to shake off, but Travis and Sandy prove up to the task when given the chance. Then there's the medicine troupe and their wagon which they find stuck in the dust out of water and drunk as skunks, whisky being the only liquid they had to keep them alive. Here we meet a quack 'doctor', Locksley Hall (named after a Tennyson poem) and played by Alan Mowbray the same way he played the Shakepeare actor in the earlier My Darling Clementine. With him is Denver (Joanne Dru), an 'entertainer' (re prostitute) hitching a ride having been kicked out of town. In fact all these people have been brought together in 'God's wilderness' for having been drummed out of a 'civilization' that won't admit them - the Mormons, the two horse traders cum wagon masters, the outlaws, the whore and the quack 'medicine man'. This is Ford's comment on the whole American people having been drummed out of Europe where they couldn't fit in. They find the whole north American continent offering itself as a land of opportunity where the 'American Dream' can come true for those willing to work hard for it. Even for criminals the opportunity for moral renewal, for personal regeneration is waiting to be taken up. On the largest scale religious people who have been denied the right to practice in their homelands can find a new place where they can practice freely with other like-minded people, while on the smallest, a woman damned to the world's oldest profession in one place can settle down with a rancher and begin again in another. Such is the idea of the Great West as the place for moral rehabilitation where the human spirit is given the freedom to soar high and achieve. Make no mistake, this is the potent ideology underpinning "Manifest Destiny" and is exactly the thing that Ford celebrates in this film.
The celebration is achieved through the depiction of basic Western ritual situations (the wagon train moving along a giant river through a dangerous rocky waste, a hoedown, romantic complications for our two wagon masters, the before-said confrontations between Indians and then outlaws, the charitable help rendered strangers on the way) rendered through astonishing cinematography courtesy of Bert Glennon. The film is justly admired for its awesome depiction of Professor Valley (with some stage work done in Monument Valley). With little dramatic incident to relate, the film often simply stops to admire the scenery, but when we realize that the impressive buttes and mesas are described as 'cathedral-like' we understand the holy mythic aura that Ford is so focused on establishing. The images are backed up with a quasi-religious score by Richard Hageman interspersed with bursts from the vocal group "Sons of the Pioneers". Distracting sentimental hogwash in Ford's previous Western Rio Grande, here they are given the right setting and the effect is marvelous. Then there is the usage of famous Mormon hymns, especially the classic "Come, Come, Ye saints" and of folk dance in the hoedown, a riotous celebration of good humor and frontier spirit that puts many a dance in other Westerns to shame. Indeed, Wagon Master is virtually structured as an 88 minute song and dance celebration. When Travis and Sandy agree to help the Mormons they do not talk through an agreement, they sing it! And when the wagon train reaches water after several long dry days the celebratory hoedown is interrupted only by the appearance of the outlaws and then immediately starts up again when they have been removed. The film has no story other than a journey from A to B and the final montage of images simply repeats what we have already seen mixed in with new footage of the train moving on. Ford's magnificent statement of hope and promise for a new future, a new America, achieves a poetic intensity of epic proportions which nullifies the need to satisfy traditional notions like telling a story.
Ford's visual poem obviously centers itself on a celebration of creation mythology, but it doesn't totally lose sight of present times. Interestingly, by making his pioneers Mormons Ford makes a kind of pacifist statement. None of them carry guns, something which runs counter to historical accuracy. We do know that Mormons on the "Hole in the Rock" expedition did carry guns and used them when they had to. By taking their guns away, Ford is on one level emphasizing the religious undertow to the whole pioneer experience, that civilization equals the absence of guns, and on another level he is perhaps expressing the general feeling of Americans in 1950. After World War Two and just before the Korean War was about to start in earnest, people were fed up with guns, fed up with seeing or hearing about other Americans dying. Note the only guns on the train are possessed by the wagon masters and after one is used to remove the outlaw element, Travis throws it away in surely a gesture of pacifism. I don't suggest for one minute Ford really thinks people can all live in one big happy community in God's garden without the need for guns, but I am suggesting that in this film Ford is expressing the 'hope' at least that such a future can be achieved along with the hope that every other element of "Manifest Destiny" can also be achieved for those struggling to attain it. The contrast between the purity of hope expressed in this film and the neurotic undertow of Mann's Winchester '73 of the same year couldn't be greater. Ford's film undeniable looks backwards, but it also at least acknowledges the present climate as well.
Wagon Master was a commercial flop when it was released. No stars, no story, no dramatic tension, indeed nothing that Western lovers were used to in 1950, so the film quietly came and went. Winchester '73 on the other hand was a huge hit, so that tells us which hit a public nerve the most. However, the effect of Wagon Master should be more correctly assessed through the TV series it inspired. Wagon Train was a huge hit running from 1957-1965 and Ward Bond starred in it from beginning to end. We mustn't underestimate the power of series like this and later ones like Maverick and Rawhide to indent creation mythology deeply within the American psyche. Ford's film may have seemed minor at the time, but its long term effect was vast.
Wagon Master is a visual poem and it relies heavily on its outstanding cinematography and excellent sound. It needs to be seen in the cinema in a top print for it to be really appreciated. The Universal DVD that I have attached this review to is said to be very good, the picture sharp (aspect ratio: 4:3) and the sound OK. The DVD comes with a commentary by Peter Bogdanovich who claims the film is Ford's masterpiece. I think it's a masterpiece, but one of many. Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and especially The Searchers are all extraordinary for different reasons. Buyers should be warned I think not to buy the cheap version of Wagon Master that I have reviewed here, which seems to be a Korean copy and looks and sounds simply awful. I have based my review on a viewing I caught in a Tokyo cinema a few years ago and have used this insipid DVD as a reminder more than anything else. Go for the Universal DVD, or better still try and get it on Blu ray. It's a poetic Western experience like no other.
Wagon Master is directed by John Ford who also wrote the story from which Patrick Ford and Frank S. Nugent adapted the screenplay. It stars Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr. and Joanne Dru. Richard Hageman scores the music and Bert Glennon is the photographer. Plot finds Mormon Elder Wiggs (Bond) hiring Travis Blue (Johnson) and Sandy Owens (Carey) to guide his communal Mormon group across the West to the San Juan River country in southeastern Utah Territory, in 1849. Along the way they encounter a wagonload of circus folk, stuck in limbo after their mule had scarpered. Evidently all boozed up, Elder still agrees to let them join his travel party. All is going well until the arrival of the Cleggs, a family of criminals on the run from the law......
Filmed in black & white, shot in under a month and made for under a million dollars, Wagon Master is a classic John Ford picture. Said to be one of his personal favourite film`s, it looks on the surface to be a minor work in the great director`s oeuvre. Lacking some of the star power that goes with some of his critically acclaimed movies, Wagon Master triumphs because it`s kept simple, where, a tight acting circle are given a lean and literate script to work from. The thematics at play are classic Ford, a community in the West are driven by their goals, but obstacles are inevitably put in the way to alter the equilibrium. All played out with lyrical photography, on the money music and some of that knowing gentle Ford comedy.
As warm as a summers day and as close to Ford`s view of the West as they come, Wagon Master comes highly recommended to Western and Ford purists. 8/10
on 20 October 2013
Ford's favourite of his own films apparently. Perhaps because of its 'purity'. Very little happens and it's all quite predictable but at the same time full of Fordian archetypes. Ben Johnson is a slow-talking charismatic hero eking out an honest living trading horses with Harry Carey jr., fresh-faced and only a little bit hot-headed. Joanna Dru is the gal with a past (though it's not dwelt on) and Alan Mowbray reprises (sort of) his character from 'My Darling Clementine' with amusing aplomb. Them Cleggses are the Clantons by a different name: stupid, vicious and part of a Wild West underclass led by filthy Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper). Ward Bond (great) is a Mormon convert, decent and manly, who struggles to control his desire to cuss (comedy!). Jane Darwell does her smiling beatifically at the thought of the promised land bit, as the Mormon wagon-train heads west. Mormons? I guess its that they ain't armed which is the special touch - how to survive in the land of the gun without one. Well, that's part of the denouement. Sometimes the photography looks like Ansel Adams did it. The soundtrack songs are at times atmospheric additions worth having, sometimes they get on your nerves a bit. You could make a case for classic status, but perhaps just too pared down for that. Acting generally excellent.
I came across this film by chance and am certainly glad to have watched it. The film and story is simple as are the characters who are honest, which is to say, true to themselves and quite down to earth - no hi-fallutin' values here except basic decency and how good can manage to overcome evil. In this film, evil is pretty well represented as thoughtless, callous and completely self serving abuse of good people for no reason other than to escape justice and for sport. Several and disparate types of people come together and join a wagon train, working together: a group of mormons, travelling players and a couple of cowboys who are to act as guides. The badmen do their job well, entering the story, seemingly, by chance and intimidating the homely folks in the wagon train in a realistic portrayal of menace and power. That good, in the end, prevails, serves justice well and the story that builds to this point is well played out within the dessert trail with nowhere to go and no obvious means of escape. This is a different sort of western, closer to earlier films in the genre, but shot with the experience of a master film-maker.
on 30 March 2015
I have only seen the film once so far, and I enjoyed it . But I don't yet feel so familiar with it that I can really weigh it up. I do not anticipate it will be a favourite western of mine. I repeatedly watch "Angel and the Badman" which I think most people are not aware of, but it's a very good western and well crafted. In our family, my children and I watch it at least a couple of times a year. And of course, Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, The Searchers, Red River and Shane are the creme de la creme.Lonesome Dove is of course excellent and beautifully made, but the film with the best will in the world cannot do justice to Larry McMurtry's book, because a film cannot get inside somebody's head, to know precisely what he is thinking. The book does this and it aids a reader's understanding and rounds out character. Nevertheless Gus McCrae is lovable and kind and "Lonesome Dove" and "Return to Lonesome Dove" are worthy films, as are "Broken Trail" and "Open Range" which both star Robert Duval.