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September 10, 2009

Wagon Master

wagon master 1.jpg

John Ford - 1950
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Wagon Master is one of the handful of sound era John Ford films that I was never able to see until its DVD debut. Reputedly Ford's favorite of his own films, I don't think it's a great film, but it is certainly beautifully photographed in black and white, and often fun to watch. In addition to members of the John Ford stock company, there's the square dance, a moment to sing "Shall We Gather at the River", the bashful courtship between a young man more comfortable handling a gun or a wild horse, and a young woman who is in some ways more worldly. There is enough familiarity with Ford's work that parts of Wagon Master might appear to be by the numbers.

What I didn't expect was a higher level of violence. I can't think of any other Ford film that had a pre-title sequence. Wagon Master begins with the completion of a stick up by Uncle Shiloh and his gang. Upon exiting, a clerk attempts to shoot the fleeing outlaws. Wounded in the shoulder, Uncle Shiloh turns around and admonishes the would-be hero, "You shouldn't have done that", and his gang shoots back, ignoring pleas of mercy. Charles Kemper's Uncle Shiloh Clegg is one of Ford's best villains, knowing how to ingratiate himself with present or future victims. His sons have none of his charm, needing constant reigning in. Among the gang are Hank Worden, an idiot savant in The Searchers, but here, just an idiot, and James Arness, an oversized, hulking menace, just a year away from being cast by Howard Hawks as an intellectual carrot from outer space. In another scene, one of the Clegg sons is dragged away to be whipped after trying to rape a Navaho maiden. It's the kind of scene that might have been played with whipping off screen a few years earlier. As a smaller, more personal film, the more graphic violence may have been Ford's way of dealing with some of the changes taking place in Hollywood filmmaking following World War II, particularly those films dealing with contemporary characters.

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By the same token, I can't recall a Ford film with as much sexual tension as Wagon Master. Not even Mogambo, with the teaming of Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly fighting over Clark Gable, comes close. There is something more palpable between the easy going Ben Johnson and the often smoldering Joanne Dru than I've been aware of in other Ford films. In one scene, Dru accidentally tosses her bath water onto Johnson. The sight of Dru from the shoulders up is enough to suggest that she was nude underneath. There's a playfulness between Dru and Johnson that leads up to their final bonding that seems more genuine than the more heavy handed courtships of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, for example.

That the film is about Mormons seems more like a plot device to create humor out of Ward Bond's attempts to keep from swearing, or broach the truth about Joanne Dru and her medicine show partners to his fellow travelers. Likewise, Jane Darwell seems overly beatific with her constant smile, used for broad laughs when she blows her tuneless horn, but truly funny when she cackles in reaction to Johnson's claim that he only shoots snakes. What is best about Wagon Master are the faces of the characters, the way they are photographed, both in the framing and use of shadows. In this regard, I would not think of the film as simply another John Ford film, but almost as a rediscovered family album.

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Posted by peter at September 10, 2009 12:06 AM

Comments

I'm the reverse of you -- I've only seen this on the big screen, and, though I've only seen it once so far, I'm willing to say it's one of my favorite Ford westerns -- not as good as, say, "Fort Apache" or "The Searchers" or "Rio Grande" but much greater than "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" or "Three Godfathers." (Maybe I just have a problem with Ford in forties Technicolor?)

Posted by: Bob Westal at September 12, 2009 01:28 PM

I've been looking forward to seeing this again, as well.

Posted by: larry Aydlette at September 13, 2009 09:38 PM

I've been looking forward to seeing this again, as well.

Posted by: larry Aydlette at September 13, 2009 09:38 PM