Wagon Master (1950)

Wagon Master (1950)

“Ain’t likely any posse will look for us in a Mormon wagon train, now is it?”

Synopsis:
Two young horse traders (Harry Carey and Ben Johnson) are hired by the head of a Mormon wagon train (Ward Bond) to help guide them towards their promised land. They are soon joined by a travelling “medicine man” (Alan Mowbray) and his two female assistants (Ruth Clifford and Joanne Dru), who have been stranded without water on the desert for several days. Their journey becomes even more complicated when a murderous gang (led by Charles Kemper) holds them hostage in an attempt to escape detection from the law.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Hostages
  • Joanne Dru Films
  • John Ford Films
  • Outlaws
  • Settlers
  • Westerns

Review:
John Ford purportedly had two personal favorite films among his vast oeuvre: The Sun Shines Bright (1953) and this unassuming little flick about a wagon train of misfits. The protagonists (Carey and Johnson) are perfectly content with their lives of horse trading, but willing to help out a persuasive group with a clear goal — especially given how pretty one of the young Mormons (Kathleen O’Malley) is. Prior to this, however, the film is kicked off by the murderous Clegg clan, shown in the creatively shot opening sequence robbing a bank before the title song and credits begin to roll — and their arrival at the wagon train provides all the tension necessary to bring the proceedings to a climactic denouement. However, it’s the unusual pacing of the film that catches one’s attention; as noted in TCM’s article:

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.

Apparently the film’s production was an enjoyable family affair, with Ford’s brother, daughter, and son all involved in some way. Ultimately, this western is a must-see for Ford fans or for those, as DVD Savant writes, “who like ‘pure’ westerns that showcase good horse riding and other cowboy skills”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Excellent location shooting
  • An appropriately rugged depiction of wagon trains

Must See?
No, but it slowly grows on you and is worth a look.

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One thought on “Wagon Master (1950)

  1. First viewing. A once-must, as a welcome quasi-departure in Ford’s filmography.

    Those who have seen most of Ford’s films are likely to sense why he chose it as one of his two favorites; there’s just something singularly different about its tone that sets it apart from his other films – even if it isn’t wildly unique as a film itself. Overall (at least until the ultimate complication) there’s a gentleness that suffuses and the film often has a leisurely quality that is quite content to simply exist with its characters to enjoy them as ‘plain folks’.

    A standout sequence involves a sudden run-in with a Navajo tribe that, surprisingly, invites the wagon train to share festivity. The fast allegiance includes allowing the men of the wagon train to rightfully take responsibility in settling a wrong against one of the Navajo women.

    There’s noteworthy work by DP Bert Glennon – who had previously worked with Ford a number of times (most notably for ‘Stagecoach’) and made striking contributions to some von Sternberg films (‘The Scarlet Empress’, ‘Blonde Venus’).

    It’s refreshing to see three usually-in-supporting-roles actors (Carey Jr., Johnson – and especially Bond) turn in solid work in leading parts – and Dru is properly silently strong as Johnson’s love interest.

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