Wagon Master (1950)
“John Ford’s lusty successor to “Fort Apache” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon””
Wagon Master (1950)
Director: John Ford
Cast: Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr.
Synopsis: Two young drifters guide a Mormon wagon train to the San Juan Valley and encounter cutthroats, Indians, geography, and moral challenges on the journey.
The fact that John Ford’s 1950 Western Wagon Master lacked a leading man of the stature of John Wayne, and was released the same year as Rio Grande and one year after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, might go some way to explaining why it’s often overlooked these days. There’s no doubt, though, that this lyrical contemplation of the hardships suffered by a group of Mormon settlers as they trek across the desert under the guidance of a pair of horse traders is every bit as good as its more illustrious brothers.
Former stunt rider Ben Johnson (3 Godfathers, The Last Picture Show), a fine character actor who never possessed the necessary charisma to succeed as a leading man, claims the role one would normally expect to be taken by Wayne. He plays Travis Blue, a horse trader who, with is partner Sandy (Harry Carey Jr – The Great Locomotive Chase, Gremlins), accepts an offer from reformed hellraiser Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond – The Grapes of Wrath) to guide a group of Mormon settlers across the desert to the San Juan Valley. Not long after embarking on their arduous trek, the party stumbles upon the three members of a broken-down “hoochie-coochie” show, one of whom, the spirited Denver (Joanne Dru) provides some convenient love interest for Travis. Even further into the desert, the party’s path crosses that of the deadly Cleggs, a gang of outlaws whom we first meet shooting a hapless victim in a curiously disconnected pre-credits sequence. The elder Clegg (Charles Klemper) was wounded in that early shoot-out, and the gang imposes upon the party’s religious charity to hide themselves from a pursuing posse.
The pleasure to be found from watching Wagon Master isn’t from the plot, as reliable as it is, but from the interplay of its characters and the haunting, awe-inspiring beauty of its Monument Valley locations. The characters are outcasts, covering all parts of the spectrum: horse traders routinely suspected of rustling, members of a religious order looked upon with mistrust and contempt by the residents who run them out of a town in which they stop for supplies, tawdry performers scratching out a meagre living performing in a succession of anonymous one-horse towns, and opportunistic outlaws who see the kindness of others as a weakness to be exploited. But instead of using these disparate characters to manage conventional situations of conflict, Ford allows the tensions to simmer in the background for much of the film as they all observe an uneasy alliance while the wagon train struggles to cope with the rigours of the journey.
Charles Kemper, who lost his life in a road accident a month after Wagon Master was released, provides a chillingly measured menace as the calculating head of the Clegg clan; the jangling of his spurs precedes his arrival on the screen, masterfully conveying the growing psychological strain his presence places upon the settlers as the film approaches its conclusion, and Travis’s reluctance to take on the Cleggs until his hand is forced serves to ratchet up the tension even further. Unfortunately, his passive nature, underscored by Johnson’s weak screen presence, adds an element of frustration that is never really satisfactorily resolved. After all, it’s only when Sandy makes things happen that Travis finally takes a stand. It’s perhaps for this reason that Wayne either passed on, or was never offered, the role, as the strength of his character would have been completely at odds with the passivity of Travis’s.
(Reviewed 15th August 2015)