There isn't a single scene in John Ford’s Wagon Master(1950) that I don’t enjoy. It’s said that John Ford purposely avoided casting longtime collaborator John Wayne in the film for fear that his presence would overwhelm the story, and I couldn't agree more. I enjoy the majority of Wayne’s films but he would have been a terrible distraction in this quiet, subtle masterpiece about the odyssey of a wagon train full of Mormons, a huckster, a couple of fallen women and an evil bank robber (Charles Kemper) and his psychopathic sons.
|Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson in John Ford's Wagon Master|
|Ward Bond (center) is the leader of lost Mormons in Wagon Master|
|Ben Johnson and Joanne Dru fall for each other in Wagon Master|
Another great moment is the introduction of huckster Alan Mowbray and his traveling companions Francis Ford and Joanne Dru. All of them drunk when Johnson stumbles upon them, having run out of water and forced to drink the alcoholic elixir that Mowbray was run out of town for selling. One of the greatest moments in the film is when Mowbray volunteers to ride his wagon over a treacherous trail. It's a grand and poignant moment of self sacrifice as Mowbray realizes that he is nothing and the success of the journey is everything. The movie is about moments like that. The exhilaration and joy of finding water. The fusing of different kinds of people into a family. The relationship between Dru and Johnson is nicely underplayed and subtle. We see they love each other and Ford knows that we don't need to be hit on the head with obvious scenes full of overwrought dialogue.
|Peter Parker has much in common with Ben Johnsons western hero of Wagon Master|
Johnson’s character is also smart enough to be scared. There’s a scene where Ward Bond asks him if he's afraid of Kemper and Johnson says yes. Then Bond asks Carey, who doesn't want to admit his fear and is about to make a posturing remark when Bond cuts him off and says "that makes three of us.” It's a wonderfully honest moment. There are also some great moments of suspense. When the group is treated to Navajo hospitality and one of Kempers sons attempts to rape an Indian girl. Bond has him strapped to a wagon wheel and whipped to placate the Indians. Kemper is silently outraged and it sets up a strong tone of suspense that carries through the rest of the film until we see the violent finale.
|Some of Bert Glennon's stunning photography in Wagon Master|
Turner Classic Movies will be showing Wagon Master on Friday July 12, at 12:15 PM Eastern. Don’t miss it!