September 9, 2019
Available via Warner Archive;
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).
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.