Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Wagon Master (1950)

by on December 21, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Dec 28, Thurs Dec 29, and Fri Dec 30 at 1:30 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]

Glenn Kenny for Some Came Running:

This picture is both an exemplary Ford film and a spookily unusual one, with a loose-limbed feel and a particular kind of sincerity that’s thoroughly disarming. Its opening and closing sequences are among the most daring and unnerving in Hollywood history; with no announcing logos or credits the viewer is pulled into a world and into a story that isn’t picked up on again until almost halfway through the picture; similarly, at the end, we are still in the midst of a story when the storyteller abruptly announces it’s time to go. Then there are the beautiful Western songs “recorded,” as the opening credits say, by the Sons of the Pioneers, that serve as both mood pieces and commentaries. Then there are the recurring landmarks of Moab and Monument Valley, which make diegetic sense as the wagon train of the film is filled with Mormons, and make odd symbolic sense as they are seen over and over again throughout the trek the film tells of.


It’s above all a really indescribable film. I wonder if it is not, in fact, frame-by-frame one of the most gorgeous motion pictures ever shot.



Dave Kehr for the New York Times:

A sheer delight for the eyes and ears. Made on a small budget without major stars, “Wagon Master” is among the freest and most experimental of Ford’s films. There is just enough of a plot to allow Ford to string together a series of archetypical actions and incidents. Set to songs performed by the country and western group the Sons of the Pioneers, “Wagon Master” approaches a musical abstraction and purity. This is a film that Ford is clearly making for himself, not a studio.

Breaking with classical tradition, Ford manipulates the narrative structure, opening with a violent, pre-credit sequence (very unusual for the time) and moving toward an open ending that finds the wagon train still in transition. The use of telephoto lenses to narrow in on the action and the occasional appearance of light flares in the lens look forward to techniques more associated with Sam Peckinpah in the ’70s than with Ford in the ’50s, and they introduce a rough, unfinished quality that contrasts effectively with the cosmic serenity of Ford’s wide landscape shots.

One of the rare Ford outsiders in the cast is Charles Kemper, who plays the portly, sadistic outlaw (and head of a clan of inbred gunfighters) who commandeers the train; his sheer unfamiliarity inserts a radically disruptive new element in Ford’s world, a kind of unmotivated, sociopathic evil that would increasingly appear in the noirish westerns of the ’50s, and come to dominate the Spaghetti westerns of the ’70s. Impossible, as always, to pin down — was he a radical or a reactionary, a restless innovator or a fierce protector of tradition? — Ford remains Ford, one of the great American artists of the 20th century in any field.



Sean Axemaker for his emponymous blog:

One of my favorites. It’s as gentle and warm a film as Ford ever made and it follows a classic Ford theme—the creation of a community in the west—through an often lighthearted tale of a pair of wandering horse traders (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) hired by a worldly Mormon elder (Ward Bond, who commands the film with his generous yet authoritative nature) to lead his wagon train to the promised land of Utah. Along they way they pick up show people (gasp!) stranded in the desert, who are tentatively embraced by the sheltered Mormon folk, and meet up with a vicious outlaw gang, a soured version of the classic Ford family unit led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper), who is kind of a B-movie Old Man Clanton who spins a fake paternalism as he schemes his next scam. Joanne Dru is tough and sexy as the showgirl who is warmed by the welcome and attracted to the strong, silent Johnson (who is fine in first lead but not quite magnetic) and Alan Mowbray is the silky but ultimately honorable snake-oil salesman leader of the gypsy caravan.

The blog The Seventh Art:

Less a story and more a journey. The crew on the road entirely consists of people relegated to live on the fringes of the society, the latter being just an arbitrary, prejudiced crowd anyway in most of Ford’s westerns. Ford’s most optimistic film, Wagon Master can be seen as the director’s vision of an ideal West – a place where all races and religions can coexist peacefully, a place where real joy comes from not amassing wealth, but by building a healthy and closely-knit community and a place where the only gold to be found is in the fertility of the soil. Ford counterpoints this vision of utopia by introducing the Cleggs family (which is sort of carried over from My Darling Clementine) that embodies everything that is lamentable about the frontier – racism, hooliganism and intolerance. Watching Wagon Master, one gets the feeling that Ford would have made some very great films (as if he hasn’t already!) had he taken to documentaries. Ford builds the film upon moments of commonplace magic, dwelling considerably on the everyday activities of the Mormons and upon shots of people travelling, moving ahead against nature’s odds and exhibiting a sheer desire to live.


Jeremy Arnold for TCM:

“Be gentle,” repeats Ben Johnson over and over early in Wagon Master (1950). He’s talking to his horses, but in a way, he’s talking to the audience, too. There’s not much action forthcoming (especially for a Western), and there is barely a story. And yet Wagon Master is one of the most poetic narrative films ever made. What little plot exists is secondary to the movie’s real concern: celebrating a way of life, that of Mormon pioneers, and placing it in the context of nature. Director John Ford, one of the most visual of directors working near the peak of his career, called Wagon Master not only his favorite Western but described it as, “along with The Fugitive (1947) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953), the closest to being what I had wanted to achieve.” The story often pauses to revel in the characters dancing, whittling or singing (the soundtrack is packed with old Western songs), and to show pastoral sequences of the wagons simply moving through the landscape or crossing a river. These scenes become the emotional core of the film, and they undoubtedly are what Ford was so satisfied to have achieved.

Ford liked [shooting in] Moab because of its landscape – especially its river crossings – but also because of the look of the local populace. Patrick Ford remembered, “Moab had the greatest faces in the world. [John] wouldn’t credit a Hollywood extra if he could do otherwise. He wouldn’t use a Hollywood Indian if there was still a real Indian alive.” Furthermore, wrote Harry Carey, Jr., in his memoir, Company of Heroes, “To [Ford], there was no such person as an extra, and because of that, they all adored him. He knew most of them by name by the end of that first day. They’d do anything for him.”



Jeff Swindoll interviews star Harry Carey, Jr. for Monsters & Critics:

Wagon Master was the most fun I had making a film.

It’s just a wonderful movie. I have to admit that I had not seen it before.
It didn’t get a lot of publicity.

I had to go track it down and watch it on VHS because we’re still some time away from it coming to DVD (this interview was done in June, long before the DVD’s release date). It’s just a wonderful little film.
It is wonderful. You know it cost about half a million dollars.

He also shot it rather quickly, didn’t he? It was a short shoot time.
It was and it was just fun to do it. It was like a vacation for Ford. We were in Moab (Utah) which was the first time that anybody had made a movie there. It was a joy working on that film.

Did he tell you anything about your part or was it just the phone call, we’re making a movie, come on out?
I was out at the Field Photo Farm, Ford’s farm for the guy’s that were in his unit. I was out there with my horse, grooming my horse to take a ride, and Ford came out and said “that your horse?” I said “yes sir.” “You wanna ride him in a movie?” and I said “that’ll be fun.”

I’m gonna make a movie with you and Ben. He just told me right then, and you can ride him in the movie. He says “it’s a nice little story” and that was all I heard. The next thing you know we were over at the studio.

Did he tell you that you and Ben Johnson were going to be the stars of the film?
Yeah, I said “with Duke?” and he said “you can’t make a movie without Duke?” I said “No, I just thought the movie had to have a star.” He said you and Ben are the stars. Isn’t that something?


It sounds like it was almost a family film. Behind the scenes everyone was part of one big family.
Exactly, we were up there at the high school and did a show. John Ireland was there because of Joanne, they were married at the time. He came up just to be with her and he got restless and wanted to do something. So he decided to put on a western melodrama, the Shooting of Dan McGrew. Real corny, with the actors. It was all a big hammy thing. The people up there took it seriously. They thought it was a dramatic role. It was very funny. We had the best time doing that. It was a riot. We rehearsed in the evening and put this show on.

Wagon Master has one of my new favorite film lines where you’re speaking with one of the Mormon people on the wagon train and you say “hell” and he says stop cursing and you say that “hell isn’t cursing – its geography.”
Yeah, it’s the name of a place, its geography [laughs]. That was all made up. Ford made all that stuff up. It was never in the script.


Dennis Lim for the Los Angeles Times:

“Wagon Master” is at once the plainest and the fullest expression of Ford’s great theme: the emergence of a community. So committed is the film to the idea of a collective hero that there is no one central character, no leading man or marquee name. Instead of Wayne or Henry Fonda, “Wagon Master” is filled with lesser-known but familiar faces from the Ford stock company. And while some of the usual elements of the genre are accounted for, down to a climactic gunfight, there is not much of a plot. This most leisurely and lyrical of westerns takes shape mainly as a series of encounters among disparate groups, as they clash, adapt to one another or become integrated into a larger whole.

In thrusting a ragtag group of outcasts together for a journey through harsh terrain, “Wagon Master” recalls 1939’s “Stagecoach,” the film that made Wayne a star and turned the western into a respectable genre. (The romantic subplot between the Johnson and Dru characters here also echoes the one between the Wayne and Claire Trevor characters from the earlier film.) But even more than most westerns, “Wagon Master” resides in the realm of myth. The British critic Lindsay Anderson (who went on to direct “If. . .”) likened it to “an avant-garde western,” and indeed, the film is almost abstract in its simplicity. This is basically the story of America itself: an allegory of the settlement of the frontier and a meditation on the relationship between civilization and wilderness.

Fittingly, it derives much of its poetic force from cinematographer Bert Glennon’s panoramic black-and-white images of man in nature, of the pilgrims making their way — in wagons, on horseback and on foot — through the majestic landscape. Practically a musical, “Wagon Master” is filled with frequent song and dance interludes and accompanied by a steady stream of hymns and ballads, performed by the popular country group the Sons of the Pioneers. The film’s open embrace of the most elemental myths is in stark contrast to the darker, deeply ambivalent visions that would soon take over the western, thanks to such filmmakers as Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah, and even Ford himself (in “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”). The last gasp of the classical western, “Wagon Master” is also the pinnacle of the genre’s optimistic ideals.



Tag Gallagher in his book John Ford: The Man and His Films:

The magic that places Wagon Master among Ford’s most enduringly rewarding movies tends, alas, to elude many viewers, particularly upon first viewing and particularly because purity and simplicity define that magic, for such qualities are far from those usually associated in the public mind with Great Motion Pictures. But Wagon Master is more poetry than drama, weaving together the West’s purest myths with the simplest, most natural characters. . . .
It almost seems as though Ford tried to promote Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., and Joanne Dru; he listed their parts next to their names in the opening credits—the only time he was ever to do so. And each of them gets plenty of evocative cameo shots, with the three men frequently lined up in front of the camera to trade remarks and gesticulate. But normal Hollywood star-creation employs quite different techniques: high energy performances rather than laid-back ones, and subjective rather than distancing camera techniques. For example, in an Errol Flynn film, in contrast to Ford, we see everything from Flynn’s point of view; we are encouraged toward empathetic “identification” with him. But in Wagon Master folks just “be.” And we watch. For as always in Ford, symbols, apotheoses, and poetry are counterbalanced by the relaxed “realism” of individuals, although nowhere else to this degree of simplicity, purity, and naturalness. Here above all is where Wagon Master’s magic resides. Watching Ward Bond whittle becomes wonderful, and the moment on the fence when Travis and Sandy sing to each other becomes one of the miracles in Ford. As in Steamboat Round the Bend and How Green Was My Valley it is Wagon Master’s thesis that each little happening is grace….
More, perhaps, than any other film, Wagon Master is less interested in where it is going (plot), than in where it is (the moment). Still, obviously, it is a movie about passage—a “parade” West. Only briefly is “home,” the antinomy of passage, suggested. And immediately upon its suggestion, it is abruptly refused by the film, which obstinately cuts back into flashbacks, back to passage rather than fulfillment, back to the past, to distance. And the movie fades out during a pan as a young colt steps up onto firm ground after fording a river—an image of eager progeny that sums up Wagon Master in the forward motion of life.


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