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One of the most poetic narrative films ever made, WAGONMASTER is
a difficult film to immediately like. I love this movie, but I recommend
seeing some of John Ford's other westerns before taking a look at this
The first time I saw it I was 18 years old and I hadn't seen too many
westerns, and I hated it. I thought it was incredibly boring. I kept
waiting for something to happen. It took several years for me to love
picture. First, I fell in love with westerns in general -- the
characters, landscapes, ways of talking, etc -- and that made me realize
when I saw WAGONMASTER again that a lot is happening in it after all.
I also was simply a more experienced moviegoer at that point and had learned to appreciate visual storytelling, and to listen to what each image was telling me. WAGONMASTER is a very visual movie by one of the most visual of directors working near the peak of his career.
The movie is a celebration of a way of life, and its subject matter is more emotional and interior than other Ford westerns. Actually, that's not really as accurate as saying that, rather, it has a lot less exterior action than the other westerns. (The other westerns have exterior action AND interior emotion.) It quite beautifully places its Mormon pioneers in the context of nature. There are many shots of animals and children -- not for any surface, narrative purpose, but for illustrating this idea. That is why the movie can be called a poem. It isn't about the surface story (which barely exists) nearly as much as it is about an emotional idea, and it gets this idea across through composition, editing, sound and music. In fact, one could argue that this is a purer form of filmmaking because the images directly express the emotional idea of the film, rather than having to first service a "story."
Give this movie a chance, and allow it to exist on its own terms, not the terms of other westerns or other movies.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
John Ford paid the wagons his tribute of a special picture, 'Wagon
Master' made after two big Indian-cavalry epics... It is a lovely
poetic movie, full of romanticized reincarnation of the pioneer
spirit... It didn't have to top the big ones that had preceded it...
Photographically, it is extremely simple... The camera moves only once or twice in the entire film, and never when a director would have made it move to underline a shot... Ford even resists the temptation to track his camera in the breathtaking twilight shots of the women wearily marching along in the dust behind their wagons... They come-and go-while the camera remains immobile and the audience stays a spectator to the march of history, not a participant in it... Of course, when Ford wants to involve his audience emotionally or dramatically, as in 'Stagecoach,' he knows just how to do it... But "Wagon Master" is a tender, nostalgic look backward...
Filled with traditional Western songs rendered by The Sons of the Pioneers, it tells of the trek West to Utah (in 1879) of a Mormon wagon train led by Ward Bond in the role of Elder Wiggs, and two young horse traders (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr). And in a series of beautiful images, as the wagon train fights outlaws, Indians and nature in its struggle to reach the 'promised land,' the modest 'Wagon Master' manages to capture the history and legend of the West...
Ford himself has said that 'Wagon Master' (of which he wrote the original story) was among the three films of his which 'came closest to being what I had wanted to achieve.'
Ford's career as a Western director was astonishing... More than anyone else he was able to use the genre to protect his feelings about the family, society, and the American way of life... Ford saw the frontier as a land to be subdued by a special class of settlers and lawmen whose great sacrifices make the land safe from those who come after... These early westerners were giants who deserved the legendary status they earned, and the civilized townsfolk who followed must always hold them in fear and respect... Ford's Westerns often employ flashbacks that emphasize the historical authenticity of his approach...
In 'Wagon Master,' for example, folk songs on the sound track tell us of the hardships of the pioneers of a century ago, and Ford shows them to us in almost documentary fashion... In one sequence the train is camped in a circle and the settlers decide to hold a square dance... To fashion a dance floor they have to lay boards over the desert sand, and with this ritual celebration Ford shows the defeat of the wilderness through the metaphor of boarding over the land...
It's a lovely-to-look-at film, full of a marvelous lighthearted optimism, and it is easy to understand why Ford found it so satisfying It never breaks faith with the mood and style set in the first few sequences But one is left wondering whether the ultra-romantic best suits the chosen theme
The wagon-train experience must have been one of the most physically demanding and nerve-wracking ordeals that man (with his womankind) ever set himself It must have been riddled with doubtswas I wrong to sell up everything and come? How can we hope to survive? How will we contend the other end?almost every other aching step of the way
Yet none of this feeling really comes through in "Wagon Master." The journeysuch is the general ebulliencedoes not strike one as particularly hazardous It could be, of course, that the Mormons were so 'high' on religious spirit that this tended to act as an anesthetic In other words their reactions weren't those of normal human weakness... If so, Ford was right and the doubters were wrong
What is beyond doubt is the right and proper ebullience, especially at first meeting, of Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. This is the essence of light-hearted adventurous youth, particularly one feels of Western youth of those extraordinary times It's a remarkable relationship and it remains lodged in the mind
Wagon Master is a very unique film amongst John Ford's work. Mainly
because it's the only one that is based on a story written by John Ford
himself, the story that was elaborated by Frank Nugent and director's son
Patrick Ford and turned into a screenplay, and because of director's
personal opinion regarding it, Wagon Master is the film John Ford called the
one which `came closest to being what I had wanted to achieve', to say so is
not to say a little, but as Ford confessed once to Lindsay Anderson, his
favourite was nonetheless My Darling Clementine and not any
Wagon Master has all ingredients one might expect to find in a John Ford's film. Wonderful cast delivering his best, thou not featuring any major stars, except the most `fordian' of all actors Ben Johnson. Very peculiar small characters, who provide an obligatory comic relief, and Wagon Master has quite a few of them such as horn blowing Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) in her shot but very inspired gigs. And last but not least legendary Monument Valley with John Ford's fifth passage through it after Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
The film starts with two friends cowboys Travis Blue (Ben Johnson) and Sandy Owens (Harry Carey Jr) being hired to be Wagon Masters or guides for a caravan of Mormon settlers who are headed to Silver Valley, a place that's for them like a promised land. On their way they are joined by a very peculiar Dr. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) with two beautiful women, who are supposedly his wife and daughter and who call themselves actors. They are headed in the same direction simply because they were recently driven out of the nearest town and have no other place to go. Nothing particularly unpleasant happens till they bump into Cleggs, a dangerous family gang consisting of father and his three sons who are on the run from the Marshal of the town where they recently committed murder and bank robbery.
Overall Wagon Master is no more nor less than one more precious pearl in a necklace of John Ford's wonderful Westerns. A must see. 9/10
Other reviewers have described Wagonmaster splendidly.But I would like
to look at it's main lead, Ben Johnson.
I was 10 when Wagonmaster came out, and by then Johnson had become a hero to us boys in St.Ives,Cornwall.Johnson had worked his way up to the Travis Blue role the hard way; from being a rodeo man to John Waynes sidekick.We were fascinated by his horsemanship in his early roles, and were completely sold by his neat act of jumping off a horse whilst it was still moving.Very soon, every lad at school was Ben Johnson, as we charged around on pretend horses. His appeal was in his drawl, the measured, laconic delivery he had. His approach was the easy, deliberate action of a cowboy who was completely honest, trustworthy and dependable. In Wagonmaster he got his break, and with Harry Carey Jnr., formed a memorable parnership. Careys' exuberance somehow balances Johnsons nonchalant style, and they epitomize the young West, it'sdangers, hopes and sorrows.You just know, that as long as they are around, everything is gonna be OK.
For me Ben Johnson is as much a part of the screen West as any of the Western stars, like John Wayne and Gary Cooper. There was no one quite like him, and his roles, small or big, linger in the mind.
The elegiac Wagonmaster is his legacy to Western genre
There's a unique place in the pantheon of John Ford films for
Wagonmaster, Sergeant Rutledge, and The Sun Shines Bright. It was these
three films with no box office names in them that Ford didn't have to
tailor the film around the persona of a star being it John Wayne, Henry
Fonda, or any of the others he worked with. Not surprising that Ford
considered all these as favorites of one kind or another.
Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. a couple of likable cowpokes sign on to guide a Mormon wagon train to a valley in Arizona territory. Along the way they are joined first by a group stranded players from a medicine show and then by a family of outlaws on the run named Clegg. Their stories merge and what happens is the basis of the film's plot.
Had Wagonmaster been done even 10 years earlier on the strength of the two performances turned in by Johnson and Carey, both probably would have had substantial careers as B picture cowboys. In the case of Johnson it would have been art imitating life. Johnson was a real rodeo cowboy and and first worked with a string horses for John Ford to use in Fort Apache. Ford was struck by his presence and the rest is history.
But the day of the B western was drawing to a close and Johnson and Carey had great careers as two fine character actors.
Ward Bond plays Elder Wiggs leader of the Mormons. Bond is a recent convert though and has trouble remembering to not use some four letter words. But he's the leader because of his strength of character, not his impeccable LDS theology. He turns out to be a wise and compassionate leader.
In portraying the Cleggs, Ford only had to reach back four years to his My Darling Clementine. They are the reincarnation of the Clanton gang and pure evil. In fact if Walter Brennan who after My Darling Clementine refused to ever work for Ford again was willing I could easily see him being cast as Shiloh Clegg the head of the family. As it was Charles Kemper did a fine job, this is probably the role he's most noted for. Shortly after this film was done, Kemper was killed in automobile crash. He might very well have worked for Ford in the future.
Ford makes the Mormons pacifists here and I don't recall that pacifism was part of LDS doctrine. Nevertheless it works here, the whole idea being that these people who carry no weapons are innocents when dealing with evil people like the Cleggs. It takes some gun toting cowboys to properly dispose of them. I think that this post World War II film is trying to say that pacifism isn't always the best policy.
Another carryover from My Darling Clementine is Alan Mowbray playing the same kind of role he did there as head of the medicine show troupe. Part of that troupe is Joanne Dru who's doing another turn as a woman of elastic virtue the same as she did in Red River. Dru used to do so many westerns that she longed to be out of gingham and into some modern fashions.
Wagonmaster is great entertainment and I'm willing to wager in the state of Utah it's a pretty popular film.
In Crystal City, a group of Mormons hire the horse traders Travis (Ben
Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) as wagon masters to lead their
caravan to San Juan River. Along the journey, they meet first the
broken wagon without water of the quack Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan
Mowbray) and the prostitutes Denver (Joanne Dru) and Fleuretty Phyffe
(Ruth Clifford). Then the sadistic outlaws Clegg boys decide to join
the Mormon caravan to disguise the patrol leaded by the Sheriff of
Crystal City that is chasing them. When the Navajos cross their path,
they are invited to visit their hamlet for a dancing party. When the
wagon train is near to their destination, the Clegg boys threaten the
settlers, forcing Sandy and Travis to take an attitude.
"Wagon Master" is another great western of John Ford. The sequences with the wagon train crossing the desert and the hills are impressive. The adventure of the group of Mormons is funny and very entertaining and the songs fit well to the plot despite being dated. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Caravana dos Bravos" ("Caravan of the Braves")
It takes a while to get adjusted to the sound of Sons of The Pioneers , but then you thoroughly enjoy it. If the soundtrack would be played by an orchestra like Max Steiner or Dmitri Tiomkin it would lose its folkloric character. The music conducts the film, everything seems to follow its rhythm. The whole cast is excellent. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. are the young men guiding the caravan. Ward Bond is the Mormon leader and Joanne Dru is a flirting actress. Ford was able to make of what would be an ordinary western, something totally different and original showing us the music, the dances, and most of all, the people.
"One hundred years have come and gone since 1849"intone the Sons of the
Pioneers over the titles of the movie ,thus establishing what we are about
to see is a reminiscence of the days when the West was opened up.The movie
is ballad heavy indeed,and could be seen as the movie that most precisely
mirrors Ford's love of music,which is shown as a unifying force bringing
communities together .Ford was to claim it was his favourite movie-one
which,together with "The Fugitive"and "The Sun Shines Bright"saw him most
accurately achieve what he set out to do
It is an intimate epic whose episodic narrative focuses on the exploits of
a Mormon wagon train leaving the inhospitable climes of the city to seek out
the "promised land"near the San Juan River.They are guided by two horse
traders,played by those dependable Ford repertory company members Ben
Johnson and Harry Carry Jnr .Indians are encountered but ,uniquely for a
wagon train movie they are friendly and there is no grand scale Indian
attack.Instead the chief menace comes from an outlaw gang headed by the
truly evil Uncle Silas(a mesmerising performance by Charles Kempson)and
featuring rare unsympathetic roles from James Arness and Hank Worden.It is
they who bring trouble on the train and menace its inhabitants.
The casting is perfect.Ford normally relied on iconographic peformers like Wayne ,Fonda or Stewart but by casting Johnson and Carry he chose the "right size"actors 'ones who are more able to suggest the decent ordinary men who will lay it on the line for the right cause and can persuade an audience they just might lose Good to see Alan Mowbray as an itinerant showman reprising the type of role he played so memorably in My Darling Clementine and Ward Bond as the worldly Mormon leader is fine.Only two problems for me with the movie-love interest in the form of Joanna Dru did not convince and I could not believe Mormons were as liberal as depicted here.Minor quibbles apart it is a beautiful movie with atmospheric monochrome photography and a love for the material and the era it celebrates shining through.Elsewhere on this site-its Message boards to be exact-Ford detractors have started their pettifogging sniping.I would like to think this movie would silence their iconoclastic jejeune ravings but probably not. Enjoy and wallow in its visual and emotional beauty
This little picture succeeds where many a big picture fails. Because it
was a little picture, John Ford was not harassed by the studio big
wigs. He was happier with this film than any other because he was able
to do it his way. He was also able to use his repertoire of gifted
character actors that had played such an important role in his past
successes. Some of them such as Ben Johnson had been discovered by Ford
and given opportunity to show their talents. Johnson was recruited by
Ford because he was an authentic cowboy from Oklahoma who usually did
his own stunt work. Years later he would win the coveted Academy Award
for his brilliant performance in "The Last Picture Show." Ward Bond
even outshines Ben Johnson in this movie. He is not the wagon master,
that role is played by Johnson, but because of this movie he was later
given the role of wagon master in the classic television series "Wagon
Train." Ironically one of the bad guys in "Wagon Master," James Arness,
would star in the hit television series "Gunsmoke" on a rival network
to "Wagon Train." Ward Bond plays the leader of the Mormons heading
west who often backslides to his sinning days by cussing only to be
called down by fellow Mormon Adam Perkins (Russell Simpson). When any
bothersome situation arises Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) yells, "Blow your
horn, Sister Ledeyard!" The Mormon sister, played to perfection by Jane
Darwell, then blows so hard and loud that even the devil must have been
shaken by the sound. Darwell and Simpson were famous for playing Ma and
Pa Joad in Ford's classic version of the John Steinbeck novel "The
Grapes of Wrath."
Another of the great character actors in Ford's company was Hank Worden, who plays one of Uncle Shiloh Clegg's notoriously mean but not too bright outlaw sons. Worden would become famous a few years later for playing Mose in Ford's "The Searchers." Worden lived to be 91. He was still making movies when he died.
The wagon master Travis Blue (Ben Johnson) and his partner Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) are horse traders who never take their job seriously, having a lot of fun along the way, especially with the local sheriff. They get mixed up with a Mormon wagon train heading west. Ford's beloved Monument Valley is the setting for most of the film. The main reason for the teaming is a redheaded Mormon beauty Prudence Perkins (Kathleen O'Malley) who catches Sandy's eye. Along the way the train picks up a hoochie coochie show which includes a charlatan doctor (Alan Mowbray) and two soiled angels (Joanne Dru and Ruth Clifford). Also joining up along the way is the Clegg family, wanted for murder and armed robbery. Ford shows how arduous a journey west by wagon was in those days.
The songs in the film were written by Stan Jones of the legendary Sons of the Pioneers. Jones' writing was almost as good as that of Bob Nolan, who had previously done much of the writing for the group. Jones' most famous song, not in this film, is the much recorded "Ghost Riders In The Sky." The Sons of the Pioneers do the background singing in "Wagon Master." This adds to the overall impact of wagons rolling west.
It should also be noted that the acclaimed Native American athlete Jim Thorpe from Oklahoma plays the role of a Navajo leader. This was his last film appearance. He died not long after "Wagon Master" was released.
Together with the even more underrated , The Sun Shines Bright, Wagon Master was one of Ford's favorite films. It is a western of exceptional beauty and narrative purity, well acted by members of Ford's 'stock company', including Jane Darwell, Alan Mowbray, Ward Bond,and Harry Carey, Jr.Like almost all of Ford's films,it is a meditation on freedom and community. It is also noteworthy for a much more positive portrayal of Indians than in most of Ford's movies. Ford, for all his faults, remains the supreme poet of American Democracy.
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