As Mormon settlers head to the promised land at the San Juan river in Utah, they hire horse traders Travis Blue and Sandy as wagon masters. They have to forge a trail across unknown territory and face many hardships along the way. They quickly come across some stranded travelers, a medicine show run by Dr. A. Locksley Hall which includes the attractive Denver. Along the way however, they are also joined by Shiloh Clegg and his murderous clan of robbers and thieves. An encounter with the Navajo leads to an invitation to their camp but after one of the Clegg boys gets a whipping for attacking one of the Navajo women, Uncle Shiloh plans his revenge. It's left to Sandy and Travis to protect the travelers and get them to their destination.Written by
This film preceded the series Wagon Train (1957), which also starred Ward Bond. Although he did not play the same character, Wagon Master served as an inspiration for the series. See more »
When the marshal mounts the horse and Sandy whistles, he is sitting on the fence, on the right side of Travis. Soon after, when the Mormons arrive, Sandy is sitting on the left side of Travis See more »
SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER ?
by ROBERT LOWRY See more »
"Fell in behind the wagon trail"
The Western can be divided into many sub-genres. One of the broadest divisions is that between Town Westerns and Plains Westerns. Most Westerns are a mix of both, but at one end of the spectrum you have pictures like High Noon and Rio Bravo that take place almost entirely in a settlement, seldom venturing out into the real outdoors. At the other end you have ones like Wagon Master, where there is barely a homestead on view amid the wilderness.
Director John Ford normally thrived on the "bit of both" Westerns, shooting the interiors with an emphasis on their being small and confined, and then contrasting this with the wide open exteriors, which appeared both exciting and dangerous. Wagon Master has a typical Frank Nugent script, with some interplay between seasoned oldsters and green youngsters, but still it presents Ford with some fresh challenges. In this picture, the dangers do not come from the harshness of the landscape, they come from within the group in the form of the Cleggses. What's more, the absence of real interior scenes means the outdoors could lose its impact over time.
However, Ford was a real maestro when it came to manipulating space. He shoots scenes of the camp or the wagons so the frame is surrounded and we get that same sense of enclosure as we would in a genuine interior. Also, compared to his other Westerns, he does not in fact open out the space too much, having the wagon trail wend its way through canyons and passes rather than cross the stark and empty plains. One of the few moments where he does throw the landscape wide open is when the Indians are spotted and there is the possibility of a threat from outside.
Wagon Master features some surprisingly effective moments of comic relief, and some great contributions from the quirky cast. Harry Carey Jr. was shaping up into a fine actor like his pa, and this is one of his better early roles. Joanne Dru was disappointing in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but she appears more at ease as a character with a bit of sass, and is actually fairly good here. Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar in the John Ford-directed Grapes of Wrath a decade earlier, appears here with sole function of performing a running gag in which she sounds a feeble old horn. Still, with her great timing and movement she makes the piece work. Francis Ford, in one of the many mute drunkard roles he played in his little brother's pictures, is at his cheeky best.
And now we come to lead man Ben Johnson. Although he was by no means a bad actor, he was never going to become a big star like John Wayne. And yet, with his effortless horsemanship and easygoing drawl, he was one of the most authentically "West" players around. And this brings me onto my final point. This was apparently one of Ford's personal favourites, despite it seeming fairly unassuming. Wagon Master has no grand theme or dramatic intensity, it is simply the genre playing itself out. I think this is what Ford loved about it. It's a picture for the Ben Johnsons and the Harry Carey Jrs, not the John Waynes or the Henry Fondas. Small in scope, but worthy in its class.
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