Nobody makes a western like John Ford. It almost seems as if he didn’t even have to try hard to excel in an area where so many others failed. How does he continually find ways to make film after film, full of similar themes with many of the same actors, often times situated in the same vicinity, without any of them lacking in any way? Seriously, each of his films brings something new to the western genre, while constantly raising the bar for all of those who would follow. Which brings us to his 1950 film, “Wagon Master”.
The story is fairly straight forward- two young horse wranglers, Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carrey Jr.), get hired to lead a wagon train of Mormons, headed by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), to their very own promised land in the San Juan Valley. Along the way, the wagon train first encounters the stranded traveling medicine show run by Dr. Hall (Alan Mobray), which prominently features the attractive and feisty Denver (Joanne Dru). Next, they run into a ruthless gang of cutthroats on the run from the law. This group is run by “Uncle” Clegg (Charles Kemper), and also includes several of his unsavory kin, causing trouble at every turn. The final obstacle in the journey are the Indians, although they cause less trouble here than they do in most other John Ford films.
“Wagon Master” doesn’t look like other westerns from its time- even John Ford westerns. “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” was released in October of 1948, with “Rio Grande” coming in November of 1950. Somewhere in between these two Ford legendary films, he managed to make the smaller looking (but not feeling) “Wagon Master”, not to mention his comedy, “When Willie Comes Marching Home”, released just two months earlier. The real question is, how did he find the time? The entire shoot took less than 30 days, and the budget was quite small comparatively. Ford actually seems to have made an entire film, from conception to completion, in his “spare” time. Unbelievable.
When watching “Wagon Master”, I can’t help but think that Clint Eastwood must love this film. Start with a couple of loners wandering aimlessly through the vastness of the west. They meet a group with which they have no connection or understanding, but are drawn toward them anyway, possibly because one of the girls catches Sandy’s eye. Then comes the Dr. and his crew, who are looked down on by the Mormons, but not by Travis. Clegg’s gang are unwelcome, but because the Mormons, and even Travis and Sandy, aren’t gunslingers, they let them stay out of a combination of kindness and fear. This must be one of the most unusual groups ever assembled in a western film, and my memory is instantly drawn to Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), or even his modern-day spin on a cowboy in “Bronco Billy” (1980). Misfits who find a family in each other.
John Ford knows that any story can be great with the proper background, and he (and Bert Glennon’s cinematography) have transported us back to another time and place entirely. The black and white photography was an interesting choice at this point in Ford’s career, but it works wonders. The landscape looks great and compliments the film, but doesn’t take anything away from the characters or the performers- just the way it should.
As a final thought, I can’t help but notice how realistic “Wagon Master” seems. Ford takes out the clichés that so many other westerns fell into. Our “heroes” aren’t what you would expect, as their priority is on everyone in the wagon train’s safety, instead of law and order. The lawmen aren’t amazing trackers who easily find the Clegg gang, and the Indians don’t just attack because they see a white man. Everything moves at a slower pace, with many scenes being set by the beat of the song that the Mormons are singing. It is a true character western, dealing with the soul of the people more than the adventure they have undertaken.