I like Westerns. I like the horses and the cowboys and the sheriffs who have to deal with the baddies and get them out of town. I love seeing the landscapes in the outdoor scenes: those wide-open spaces and the outcroppings of distant mountains. Whether the western was filmed in black and white or in technicolor, it doesn’t matter much to me, I pretty much like most of this genre. I am pretty well aware that the late director John Ford was often tagged with the title of best westerns director and a couple weeks ago, TCM aired a western directed by him that I had never heard of. Ford made a tight little film in 1950 with no big name stars assigned to it. Wagon Master was the title bestowed on this film and even more curious is that the main plot was about a group of Mormons trying to get to a certain river valley in which to establish their new community.
Made by Argosy Pictures( a studio created by John Ford and producer Merian C. Cooper, the man responsible for 1933′s King Kong) and released by RKO, Wagon Master employed a lot of the actors and actresses that were known as “John Ford’s Stock Company”, meaning that these people were in a lot of Ford’s movies. Usually John Wayne or Henry Fonda were the lead male actors in Ford’s films but not in Wagon Master. The two main male leads were Ben Johnson playing Travis and Harry Carey Jr. playing Sandy.
The movie opens with a wanted ad for the Clegg’s : a murdering Uncle and his 4 murdering nephews. This want ad is superimposed over a scene that dissolves into the Clegg brutes(James Arness, Charles Kemper, Hank Worden,Fred Libby, and Mickey Simpson) holding up a store and its employees. As the gang leaves with the money, one of the clerks rushes behind the counter, grabs a gun, and shoots at the gang, wounding Uncle Shiloh Clegg(Kemper) in the shoulder. The gang re-enters the store and Uncle Shiloh cracks his whip, telling the store clerk that he shouldn’t have done that. He aims his gun and as the store clerk pleads for his life, the camera turns away as gun shots ring out. The next scene we see is the film’s opening credits rolling, with conestaga wagons traveling west, through a river, with a song by The Sons of the Pioneers ringing out. There is a lot of music in this movie, even for a western, and The Sons of the Pioneers recorded the songs; Richard Hageman created the score and Stan Jones was the composer who wrote the lyrics and music for 4 of the songs in the movie. A Mormon hymn is even sung at the end of the movie.
Next, the movie introduces the two male leads, Travis and Sandy. They are young, ambitious, and are in the horse selling and trading business. They’ve just arrived in a town to ply their trade and sell the sheriff a horse that will try and throw the rider if certain kind of whistling sound is whistled. Of course, they don’t tell the sheriff this until after the sale is completed and Sandy whistles! Soon, the two young men are approached by two Mormon men, Elders Wiggs and Perkins(Ward Bond and Russell Simpson.) The Elders ask if the two young men know the area of the country their group will be traveling to the next day. Travis replies to Elder Wiggs that they do know the area and a good way to get there. Elder Wiggs asks them to consider being the Wagon Master for their group’s trip. Travis thinks about it and turns the offer down. Sandy thinks they ought to reconsider as he is immediately smitten with Elder Perkin’s daughter, Prudence(Kathleen O’Malley) who had accompanied her father and Elder Wiggs on their trip into town. After a day in the town, and watching the Mormon travelers leave town and start heading in the wrong direction, Travis has a change of heart and he and Sandy ride to catch up with Elder Wiggs to let him know that they’ll gladly lead the group to their destination, the San Juan River Valley in Utah.
Director Ford loved location shooting and much of the film was shot near Moab, Utah. The scenery is gorgeous in the film, and a lot of credit should be given to Bert Glennon, the Director of Photography. One scene that impressed me was when Travis accidentally rides near a group of Navajoes who give chase, and he and his horse have the ride of their lives in trying to get back to the wagon train ahead of the angry Navajoes. Ben Johnson had been a ranch hand and a rodeo rider before getting into acting and knew how to handle a horse so it’s really him in that incredible chase sequence.
As Sandy plants his horse near Prudence’s wagon, Travis actually leads the group and soon they hear music playing in the distance with no town or house nearby. The travelers soon find the wagon of a traveling medicine show and the troupe of 4 thirsty entertainers. They ran out of water on their attempt to get to California. With only the elixir to drink that they sell, they aren’t too sober. One of the entertainers, a Miss Denver(Joanne Dru) is quite pretty and Travis is smitten with her immediately. She faints off of the back of the wagon’s backboard and lucky for her and him, he manages to catch her. Seeing the troupe’s dire plight, and having to convince Elder Perkins, Elder Wiggs announces that this troupe can travel with them until the trail for California emerges and they’ll share water and food with them. This gives Travis a chance to size up Miss Denver, to “court” her and there is a sweet scene as the troupe breaks away to go out on the California trail and he follows them, catches up with Miss Denver, and explains that he has his eye on some land in Texas for a cattle ranch and he’s going to need someone to help him on the ranch with the cooking and cleaning and to help him fight against loneliness. It’s a bittersweet scene because we can tell he is sincere, and Miss Denver knows that going on to California and staying with the medicine show isn’t any form of a good life to live. She is touched and honored by Travis’s proposal of sorts, but then turns him down!
Of course, the baddies show up, The Clegg Gang, and they try to hide who they really are but Travis and Sandy recognize them from wanted posters. They keep their guns close just in case as Elder Wiggs agrees to let these travelers join up with their group. Uncle Shiloh Clegg and his nephews know there is a posse out looking for them and what better place to hide than with a bunch of Mormons? Dr. Hall(Alan Mowbray) from the medicine show is forced to help Shiloh’s shoulder wound and three of the nephews begin eyeing the ladies of the wagon train. This of course puts Sandy and Travis on the alert.
There is the aforementioned run in with the Navajoes, of which legendary athlete Jim Thorpe plays a role, a Clegg gets punished for trying to get too close to a Navajo woman, and then there is a dangerous crossing for the wagons and the ultimate showdown with the Clegg’s.
A brisk western that ties things up nicely, I found Wagon Master an enjoyable gem from director John Ford. Wagon Master, should also be noted, as the inspiration for the television show Wagon Train. You can buy Wagon Master via Amazon.com for a very low price, at TCM’s shop in a special dvd with 3 other John Ford directed westerns, and it is available on a long list of Ford films on Netflix. A kind soul put the entire movie on Youtube and you can watch it via that form. I’ll close out my blog with some scenes from Wagon Master.