Wagon Master (RKO, 1950)
Folksy charm, poetic beauty
Before leaving John Ford for a bit (we’ll be back on him for sure) I want to say a word about one more of his Westerns, one which I personally find delightful though which is often overlooked, I think, as one of his best, Wagon Master (also released as Wagonmaster).
It is really astonishing that John Ford not only made three truly great Westerns in three years, with what we now call the cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache in 1948, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in ’49 and Rio Grande in ’50) but in between them he made two other oaters, 3 Godfathers between Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon, and Wagon Master between Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. He made five Westerns in three years – not just any Westerns, either – as well as a non-Western comedy When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950). Talk about prolific.
It was a deliberate policy. He and his partner in Argosy Productions, Meriam Cooper, had had a disastrous failure with The Fugitive in 1947, an expensive, arty but bad film which was a commercial and critical flop, and Westerns in the late 40s and early 50s were a bankable product which would help to refill the coffers.
Ford also liked Westerns. He may not have just been making the best of it when he said that making Westerns “gives me a chance to get away from the smog, … to get away from this town [LA], to get away from people who would like to tell me how to make pictures. You’re working with nice people – cowboys, stuntmen, that kind of person. … It’s a great life, just like a paid vacation. I love to make westerns. If I had my choice, that’s all I would make.” It was an exaggeration, certainly, but you feel that deep down it was sincere.
And, as Stagecoach before the war and My Darling Clementine after it had proved, he was supremely good at them.
At any rate, after Yellow Ribbon and a short break on his yacht Araner, Ford started work on a wagon train picture. Ford’s son Patrick had read a book about the Great Trek by the Boers and discussed it with his father as a project. John felt that making racist Boers sympathetic to American audiences would be a challenge but thought the story could be transposed to an historical Western setting, the Mormons seeking new lands and freedom to practice their religion. Ford put Pat and tame screenplay writer Frank Nugent (who had done both Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon) to work on a treatment, but it was Ford’s own story and he would make many contributions to the script himself – according to Tag Gallagher, “the only such instance after 1930." Joseph McBride tells us that Ford told Pat and Nugent, "I liked your script, boys. In fact, I actually shot a few pages of it."
Of course wagon trains were pretty well a staple of the Western, and had been at least since The Covered Wagon in 1923 and probably before. There was something nation-building and ‘manifest destiny’ about the theme, and wagon train movies were also Hollywood-friendly because there was a ship-of-fools element to them. As Paul Simpson says in The Rough Guide to Westerns, “By dwelling on the community seeking a brave new world, they could weave many sub-plots, including a crowd-pleasing romance.” He adds, “Directors could always chuck in a set piece – an Indian attack, a river crossing that almost goes wrong, baddies trying to hitch a ride west – if things got dull.”
This story is based on the Mormon Hole in the Rock of 1879 to 1880, and tells of a persecuted religious minority, making an unlikely alliance with some traveling players and some rather dubious horse dealers, making their slow way in wagons through Indian territory to a promised land. They are beset by some renegade bad guys along the way.
Ford got the idea of making the film in the terrain where the real wagon trains went, and wanted to set up locations near Mexican Hat in Utah but it was too inaccessible even for Ford and he settled for the wonderfully ‘Western’ area round Moab. There were great similarities to Monument Valley in the landscape. In fact several writers, such as Patrick Brion, JA Place and Brian Garfield tell us confidently that Wagon Master was filmed in Monument Valley. There may have been budgetary reasons too. Wagon Master cost only $500,000 according the The Encyclopedia of Westerns ($999,370 according to Tag Gallagher) and filming in the Valley was, as Ford well knew, very expensive. Location filming in Moab was completed in less than a month.
Casting was Ford’s forte. John Wayne, for once, was not available, working on his Republic contract after Yellow Ribbon with The Fighting Kentuckian and The Sands of Iwo Jima (he would return to Ford later in the year for Rio Grande). So Ford ‘promoted’ others of his regulars to play the lead parts, notably Ward Bond, who was splendid as the eponymous train boss (though billed only fourth, he was paid the most - $20,000), Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr as the happy-go-lucky horse-trading scouts, and Joanne Dru as leading lady. It was more of an ‘ensemble’ cast, like Stagecoach, than a star vehicle, but it was none the worse for that.
Actually, talking of Stagecoach, there are definite similarities. As the article on this picture in The BFI Companion to the Western says, in both pictures “society’s outcasts journey across country and settle in the West after a rite of passage comprising internal and external dangers.”
They are certainly social outcasts. The card-playing marshal in Crystal City who expels them early on contemptuously lumps them all together as undesirables, "Mormons, Cleggses, showfolk, horse traders."
Ben Johnson is yet again ‘Travis’ and all these Ford Westerns could almost be seen as the further adventures of Travis. He and Sandy (Carey) are very likeable as the wagon train guides and of course they save the day finally. Travis is like Ringo in Stagecoach, the brave young leader outside the social unit. The similarity is heightened by Ford having Johnson wear a costume very close to Wayne’s in Stagecoach, and Ford was very particular about the clothes his actors wore.
Johnson was already a fine Western actor and in many ways he is the star of this picture, even more than the wagon master. Variety said he “sits in his saddle mighty easily and gives the same kind of performance, natural and likeable.” Yup. Both Johnson and Carey later generously agreed, though, that it was Ward Bond who walked away with the acting laurels.
Bond is indeed wonderful. Pity he didn’t keep on the frock coat he appears in at the start. He looks splendid in it. But he has power and force and is just dandy as the Elder. There was probably no irony in Ford’s mind when he cast the role but some viewers may have found some in the choice of the arch-persecutor of lefties in Hollywood for the part of leader of a persecuted religious minority. Bond went on, of course, to be the wagon master on TV in Wagon Train, one episode of which was directed by Ford (it actually re-used some footage from Wagon Master), and make the role his own.
Of the smaller parts, Ford got Charles Kemper, a Western regular and a friend, to be the patriarchal villain, Uncle Shiloh, a sort of Old Man Clanton figure, with James Arness, Hank Worden, Fred Libby and Mickey Simpson (a corporal in Yellow Ribbon) to be his white-trash sons. They made a memorable gang of loathsome lowlifes, one which would be the model for Donald Pleasance and his repellent sons in Will Penny in the following decade. The Cleggs are all the more dangerous because the Mormons (these Mormons anyway) are pacifists and unarmed. Travis and Sandy are armed, but Sandy has apparently never fired a weapon at a person, and Travis claims that he's only shot "snakes".
In fact Wagon Master is the only Ford film to start with a scene rather than credits, and that scene is the robbery which establishes the nasty ruthlessness of the Cleggs. Unlike most wagon train Westerns, in this one the Indian threat is fairly low-key, and thirst doesn’t trouble them that much either. It’s outlaws who make difficulties. Everything changes when, quite late in the story, they arrive, including the lighting, which becomes sinister. Camerawork, too: long-shots of the community give way to frightening close-ups of frightened faces.
Alan Mowbray would reprise his part from My Darling Clementine as an endearing ham actor. Mowbray is Dr “Locksley Hall”, no relation to Tennyson I think, but manager of a traveling “hootchy-cootchy show”. It is my dream to work in a traveling hootchy-cootchy show.
Joanne Dru, from Yellow Ribbon, plays Denver, a member of Hall’s troupe, a character similar to Dallas in Stagecoach – she is first seen drunk and in a sexually suggestive pose. When girls were named after towns it was a sure sign that they were disreputable. Ben Johnson's character falls for her.
There were other members of Ford’s stock company. Russell Simpson, so often a religious elder of some kind, was ideal as the leading Mormon, keeping feisty train boss Ward Bond on the straight and narrow, and Jane Darwell was given a colorful role as a plump Mormon matron with a twinkling eye and a rather vacant expression. And a horn. The director’s brother Francis Ford was allotted a small part, as usual (Ford usually kept him on the payroll longer than needed as a charitable act, though that kindness did not stop him mistreating his brother).
This time Ford had Bert Glennon as cameraman. He’d already worked with Glennon five times before, including on Stagecoach. After the brief excursion into Technicolor with Yellow Ribbon it was back to black & white. But both Glennon and Ford were masters of monochrome and the picture is visually very fine. Herb Fagen in The Encyclopedia of the Western says, “Ford conveys the essence of the pioneer experience in a series of lyrical images with repeated views of wagons etched into the majestic background of a western sky.” Film critic Glenn Kenny wrote that the film "... reveals Bert Glennon's cinematography for the miracle that it was/is. Watching the disc this evening I wondered if it was not, in fact, frame-by-frame one of the most gorgeous motion pictures ever shot."
Ford got Stan Jones, who had written Ghost Riders in the Sky, to produce a series of songs for the picture, many performed by the Sons of the Pioneers. They were mid-twentieth century country songs, hardly suitable for mid-nineteenth century Mormons but Ford didn’t care. Nowadays the songs are rather obtrusive and for many constitute one of the weaknesses of the picture, though of course many others like them. Then of course there are lustily sung Mormon hymns. So much so that it threatened to become a musical. The score, though, is rather fine. It was by Richard Hageman again, the last of seven he did for Ford, perhaps the finest being that for Stagecoach.
The production was one of the most relaxed and enjoyable of all Ford’s films. Moab was beautiful and often looked as wild as Monument Valley but it had far more creature comforts. Danny Borzage was there with his accordion. There were impromptu shows in the evenings. Ford seemed in an unusually benevolent mood. He was patient and considerate. Some of the cast must have looked askance, waiting for the poisonous spite to emerge, but this time it didn’t. Carey wrote in a later book, “Wagon Master was just a fabulous film and a great experience.”
The whole picture has a folksy charm and a relaxed, low-key feel to it. The Mormons seem to stop every ten miles for dances (even once with the Indians) and they appear a benign, cheerful and tolerant bunch. It’s an unusually positive view of Mormonism for Hollywood - no September Dawn or Riders of the Purple Sage Mormons these. But in a way the settlers only happen to be Mormons: they symbolize all those wagon train hopefuls moving out West. They are rather idealized, salt-of-the-earth pioneers. In his biography of Ford, Scott Eyman wrote, “The motivation of most Ford heroes is social, not personal; journeys and wanderings, not vengeful quests for retribution – group odysseys.” And he adds that “Ford’s Westerns are more about the West itself than they are about Western heroes. Ford’s West is a West you can believe in, a West of splintered floors and ragged, resolute people. Westerns were really Ford’s vision of an idealized America – a democratic community of equals unified by a shared purpose.”
Jeremy Arnold (no relation to Jeff) wrote, “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.” Lindsay Anderson wrote in 1954 that, "Ford often abandons his narrative completely, to dwell on the wide and airy vistas, on riders and wagons overcoming the most formidable natural obstacles, on bowed and weary figures stumbling persistently through the dust."
Later Ford Westerns would be harder, more savage. Wagon Master is as far away from The Searchers as you could possibly get.
Pat Ford remembered that all his life Ford retained a nostalgic affection for Wagon Master. “I remember how he loved making it, and how he loved the people up there, and loved the scenery. Wagon Master was pure of heart, and simple, and good, and Frank Nugent and I were pure of heart and simple and good when we wrote it, and maybe John Ford was too.” John Ford himself told Peter Bogdanovich later, “Along with The Fugitive and The Sun Shines Bright, Wagon Master came closest to being what I wanted to achieve."
The film was not a box-office smash. It recorded a loss of $65,000 and was the last co-production between Argosy and RKO.
The critical reception was basically positive but measured. Lindsay Anderson wrote, “Unfortunately, this lyrical celebration of a hazardous trek west by a Mormon wagon train in the eighteen eighties was prevented by its lack of star players from achieving a wide commercial release; as a result it received almost no critical attention. Outside Britain, it seems never to have been shown in Europe at all.”
Variety commented, “Wagon Master is a good outdoor action film, done in the best John Ford manner. That means careful character development and movement, spiced with high spots of action, good drama and leavening comedy moments. Pic has some of the best cross-country chases.”
The New York Times was more laudatory: “Ben Johnson, previously seen in The Mighty Joe Young, is handsome, natural, laconic and sits a horse well in the title role. Harry Carey Jr. is likable as his youthful and easy-going sidekick. As a veteran member of the John Ford acting company, Ward Bond does not fail his boss. His characterization of the train leader, a testy man who is forced to curb his cussing because of his religion, is the film's best portrayal.” But, it added, “The ‘star’ of Wagonmaster is the vast, colorful Utah locale in which a portion of it was filmed.”
Later critics were mixed. Brian Garfield was surprisingly down on Wagon Master, I think. He wrote in his Western Films, that it had “some ‘B’ elements in script and production” and said, “It has been called lyrical, poetic and beautiful; for the most part I fail to find those qualities in much of it.” He said the picture was “vest pocket Ford”, whatever that may mean. It’s rare that I disagree with Garfield, but I do sometimes. I think Wagon Master is indeed lyrical, poetic and beautiful.
In George N Fenin and William K Everson’s 1973 assessment, The Western: from silents to the seventies, the authors say, “Wagon Master is as close to a genuine Western film-poem as we have ever come.” However, they add, “But attempts by Ford's admirers to enlarge it beyond that do both it and Ford a disservice”.
But most modern assessments are glowing. JA Place, in his The Western Films of John Ford, says, “This deceptively unpretentious film is in many ways the high point of Ford’s Westerns.”
Linda Rasmussen has written, "This wonderful film emphasizes the virtues of solidarity, sacrifice and tolerance, and shows John Ford at his most masterful, in total control of the production from the casting to the bit players to the grandeur and scope of the visual compositions. The film, with its breathtaking scenery, brilliant performances by a cast of character actors, and an engaging sense of humor, is a superlative example of the American western.”
Dave Kehr called Wagon Master “A masterpiece beyond question — but a masterpiece that never degenerates into pomposity or self-consciousness. It's American filmmaking at its finest and most eloquent.”
Sean Axmaker wrote in 2009, "It's as gentle and warm a film as [John Ford] ever made and it follows a classic Ford theme—the creation of a community in the west—through an often lighthearted tale.”
Richard T Jameson: “Might Wagon Master be John Ford's greatest film? With so many worthy candidates, we needn't insist. But it's the purest. There's not a second, not a frame, that answers to any convention, any imperative beyond the director's wish that it be as it is, look at what it looks at the way it does.”
I myself (might as well have my ten cents’ worth) am very much in the ‘positive’ camp. I love this Western. It’s a string quartet, not a symphony, if you like, but that’s my favorite kind of music.
When you reflect, you understand what a truly wonderful year for the Western 1950 was. Wagon Master, Rio Grande, The Gunfighter, Winchester ’73, Broken Arrow, Devil’s Doorway, to name but a very few, and 129 others besides! Amazing. As Fagen says, “Wagon Master remains a must-see film for both fans and students of the Western genre.”