Wagon Master


Available via Warner Archive;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Ward Bond.

For a Western that’s in all ways modest (quality excepted), 1950’s Wagon Master is rated extraordinarily high in the John Ford canon by people who know or knew. Joseph McBride, author of Searching for John Ford (the definitive bio, though there are multiple really good ones), says he currently rates They Were Expendable and Wagon Master as his two favorite Fords from a directorial career that merely spanned 1917 to 1966 (longer if you count his 47-minute, barely and posthumously released, Chesty Puller documentary). And when he was alive, my late NYU prof William K. Everson used to rate it close to the top of the entire genre, an extraordinary accolade given how many Westerns there’ve been, maybe half of which were in Everson’s apartment (an exaggeration, but sometimes I wondered).

In lieu of superstars like John Wayne or Henry Fonda, who usually had the leads in Ford’s output from the immediate postwar period, top billing here goes to Ben Johnson — who two decades later would win a supporting Oscar for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show but at this point was basically an extraordinary horseman who proved to be a natural actor when Ford first put him in front of the camera. If Wagon Master proves nothing else, it’s that Johnson was probably the definitive actor in screen history when it came to saying “I reckon” with full precision and authority.

Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. play two young horse traders hired by a small group of Mormons to lead them out of a forced exit from town (read: prejudiced locals) to Utah’s San Juan Valley. Aside from comely Kathleen O’Malley as a forced trekker who catches Carey’s eye, the cast of Mormon principals is much less suggestive of a future Mitt Romney gene pool than it is of Ford regulars with lived-in faces: Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Jane Darwell and Francis Ford (another case of Francis’s kid brother casting him as either a drunk or someone playing with a 32-card deck). Bond’s character is subordinate to, or at most a kind of co-equal of, the more geographically savvy Johnson, but he’s unquestionably an authoritative figure. Enough so, in fact, that it’s been noted that this picture later inspired NBC to launch TV’s “Wagon Train” in 1957 with Bond, an enormous success (even Ford himself directed one episode) that continued with John McIntire as lead when Bond died suddenly of a heart attack in the fall of 1960 (for trivia types, the same day as the deaths of Mack Sennett and singer Johnny Horton).

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For just short of half of its running time, the movie is mostly gentle Ford-ian good humor, good nature and good spirits, photographed to the max in Monument Valley and relatively near-about points by Bert Glennon, whose work for the director spanned The Prisoner of Shark Island to Sergeant Rutledge and included Stagecoach. But as we’ve seen during the film’s very opening scene, trouble looms thanks to a fatal bank robbery committed by a clan that’s even more idiosyncratic (and certainly more imbecilic) than Walter Brennan’s Clanton “family unit” in My Darling Clementine. This stickup is the only pre-credits sequence I can recall ever seeing in a Ford movie, and it serves the purpose of keeping us from getting too comfortable with Ford’s narrative deviations.

The key subplot here, which becomes a major one, deals with the Mormons’ on-the-trail meet-up with some affable grifters who operate a traveling medicine show — a small array led by Alan Mowbray as an amusingly effete type who appears to do as little work as possible and treats standing up as a strain. They, too, have been asked to leave town by so-called community leaders, which gives them an odd affinity with their unlikely new acquaintances. Joanne Dru, direct from Howard Hawks’s Red River and Ford’s own She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, supplies the troupe’s glamour but probably won’t for long if she keeps slurping the bottles of the so-called elixir that Mowbray pushes to gullible locals.

You’ll note that Ford almost always photographs Dru in interesting ways, slightly off angle or displaying unexpected body language. It’s less a case of sexual provocation in mind but merely in ways that never fail to surprise the eye — which kind of synchs up with what Carey Jr. tells Peter Bogdanovich on an invaluable voiceover commentary (punctuated by the latter’s old audio interview tapes with Ford) carried over on this Blu-ray from the vintage original DVD version. With outstanding recall, Carey talks about how Ford would frequently take the time to rearrange actors’ costuming (hats, in particular), and that messing with adjustments after Ford had the visual effect he was after was a great way to die.

The outlaw leader is played by Charles Kemper, an actor whose comic dimension might have made him a subsequent natural for Ford’s stock company were it not for his death in a road accident a couple months after Wagon Master’s release (Kemper is also memorable in his final film: Nicholas Ray’s incessantly haunting On Dangerous Ground). Compared to the fruit of his loins on full display here, Kemper’s characterization is almost urbane. The actors playing his sons include Hank Worden, later “Mose” in The Searchers, so you know right there that no one is going appoint him as Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Another is a pre-Thing James Arness in full contrast to the authority he later brought to Matt Dillon — in other words something of a vacant dunce who may not even have the intelligence of The Thing. There’s also one son who looks fairly normal and presentable. He’s a rapist.

Wagon Master was the last film Ford made under his Argosy Pictures production deal with RKO, though 1953’s equally personal The Sun Shines Bright would carry the Argosy banner over at Republic Pictures. Along with an occasional documentary and slightly more frequent TV work, Sun and The Rising of the Moon and Gideon of Scotland Yard would be the remaining times that Ford could go off and make a movies just for himself, and I’m not even certain that the last qualifies in this category given its status as a “surprise” project. The remainder were major productions with generally major stars, which makes Wagon Master something to be savored — an 86-minute low-budget effort that isn’t the obvious grabber other Fords are but which offers something hitherto obscured every time you see it. Career advice to any online movie journalists who can watch any bite of it for 10 seconds and not figure out the identity of its director: The carwash down the street can always use a few extra hands.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wagon Master’ and ‘Pittsburgh’

Junior Bonner


Kino Lorber;
$19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker.

To hear a welcome barrage of familiar Sam Peckinpah experts accurately tell it as part of Kino’s ample-plus Blu-ray bonus features, not many moviegoers were waiting for Junior Bonner in 1972 at a time when lead Steve McQueen (coming off his Le Mans debacle) needed a hit. I was an exception — and in one of the more folkloric stories in my personal movie-going history, drove 75 Ohio miles (each way) from Columbus to Dayton to see it in an early booking, only to discover that its too-brief engagement had wrapped the previous day. Something must have been in the water (or, given my peer group’s age at the time, firewater): Not long before or after this, a close friend of mine tried to impress a woman by driving the two of them from Columbus to Cleveland to see if they could score tickets for the day’s Browns-Giants game — rudely unaware that the Browns were playing in New York that day.

Both of us could have used the Internet, and Junior Bonner could have used an ad campaign that sold its maker’s most gentle movie as a family drama and not another of the rodeo sagas that were flooding the market at that time. McQueen, Robert Preston and Ida Lupino are three of my favorite screen performers ever, and here they are as a wayward son and his estranged parents, with Joe Don Baker (as the more responsible “Curly” Bonner) as a brother trying to make a go with a (so far) lucrative Prescott, Ariz., real estate development. What more could anyone want — and this at a time when The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Straw Dogs in quick succession had established Peckinpah as possibly the most dazzling U.S. director then going — though rebuttals were intelligently advanced by disciples of Robert Altman and also Mike Nichols, who’d come back big-time from his Catch-22 stumble with the oddly not-on-Blu-ray Carnal Knowledge).

For a movie that bombed at the box office during its release, a lot of people revere Junior Bonner — including Ali MacGraw (also a part of this Blu-ray’s bonus features), whose The Getaway with McQueen opened four months after JB to become what I am virtually certain was Peckinpah’s biggest commercial hit. (She also did Convoy, the director’s penultimate film.) MacGraw is one of many who’ve advanced, or at least implied, the sentiment that Peckinpah’s more characteristic big-screen bloodbaths only told half the story; in other words, where were all you clowns who put Sam the Man down as reprehensible when the still underseen Cable Hogue and then this unpretentious beauty were showing an entirely different side?

Uh, huh.

Via a lovingly constructed Jeb Rosebrook screenplay that Peckinpah fleshes out with a couple of show-stopping extended set pieces, Junior (McQueen) returns to his hometown to compete in a contest that necessitates his doing well in front of parents and old acquaintances, even though he’s been banged up from getting bucked and is otherwise no longer the competitor he used to be. Papa “Ace” (Preston) is an irresponsible mental child — albeit a onetime real-deal rodeo star as well, who keeps eating up Curly’s money-tree generosity in grand schemes that may probably will not extend to his latest: prospecting for minerals in Australia. Meanwhile, the siblings’ heard-it-all-before mom Lupino, who long ago fled the marital coop, is running the knick-knack register at one of Curly’s “shops” in a construction endeavor that earns him no little money but perhaps not a whole lot of respect. Junior matter-of-factly balks at the offer of a cushy job with the business, apparently preferring to nurse body bruises from unfriendly four-legged creatures.

The movie exudes an extraordinary sense of community, with added autobiographical touches here and there, including one McQueen-Preston gesture involving a hat that I’ve never forgotten over the years. Both virtues come through in Rosebrook’s authentic dialogue (sparked by actors who can really deliver it) — and the predominantly nonverbal flair of an elaborate barroom brawl and an earlier parade sequence that’s the best of its type I’ve ever seen on screen. These kinds of sequences are not easy to shoot (the brawl packs a few dozen participants into a cramped widescreen frame), but Peckinpah gave them lots of coverage, which at least one of his editors had always stressed was the way to go.

The project, which came together quickly, is one that McQueen especially coveted as one that would make certain audiences take him seriously as an actor when, in actuality, he had one of the most readably nuanced screen faces of anyone who ever stepped in front of the camera. This is one of his best jobs ever, but rodeo pics were inevitably a tough sell in taste-making geographical regions (I suspect that Nicholas Ray’s as extraordinary The Lusty Men had troubles of its own knocking down 1952 turnstiles). Peckinpah’s take on the genre is extraordinary as well but in quiet ways that camouflage its full virtues. This said, the included coming attraction and TV trailers make it look like a feature-length bundle of clichés and fail to emphasize the extraordinary cast Peckinpah had at his disposal.

Thus, it has always remained for revisionists for trumpet its considerable virtues, and, in fact, Junior Bonner was the very first movie I ever programmed upon launching nearly a decade of daily programming and almost as many whiplashing calendar changes at the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C. Offering the commentary are definitive Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, who long ago established themselves as the go-to crew on Sam-related voiceovers, no matter which distributor is behind the home release. Rosebrook, who can easily spin an anecdote, rates a half-hour of his own, and another featurette of similar length features an array of actors (L.Q. Jones, Ernie Borgnine and the expected usual suspects) who worked with Peckinpah and lived (though perhaps at times without their livers) to tell about it. One Kris Kristofferson anecdote — about Bob Dylan’s reaction to Peckinpah’s creative response to some faulty lab work on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid — is by itself worth the price of admission.

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