Posts Tagged ‘James Arness’

My Classic Movie Pick: Wagon Master

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.  220px-WM_Poster Wagon Master

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.

The Clegg Gang

The Clegg Gang

Opening shot, the wanted poster

Opening shot, the wanted poster

Sandy and Travis come to town.

Sandy and Travis come to town.

The sheriff saying he'll be glad when the Mormons leave town and the Clegg's are caught.

The sheriff saying he’ll be glad when the Mormons leave town and the Clegg’s are caught.

Elder Wiggs asking Travis to consider being their Wagon Master.

Elder Wiggs asking Travis to consider being their Wagon Master.

Jane Darnell as Sister Ledyard,sounding her horn to get the trip underway.

Jane Darnell as Sister Ledyard,sounding her horn to get the trip underway.

Travis proposing to Miss Denver

Travis proposing to Miss Denver

Travis being chased by the Navajoes.

Travis being chased by the Navajoes.

Encounter with the Navajoes

Encounter with the Navajoes

For The Great Western Blogathon, 1953’s Hondo

Today’s blog post is for The Great Western Blogathon hosted by classic film fan and blogger Thoughts All Sorts.  Be sure to click on the link to read what other classic film fans have written!

I  remember many Saturday evenings as a kid, sitting with my parents and younger brother,  watching a Western on one of the three networks that at that time, in the 1970’s, were the dominant television channels an American could tune into.  My memories seem to tell me that it was NBC that usually aired these Westerns, and of course, the best ones starred John Wayne.   I have seen a lot of Wayne’s Western films over the years, but four years ago on Turner Classic Movies, they aired one I had never heard of before, 1953’s Hondo.   This technicolor movie was directed by John Farrow(father of actress Mia, husband to actress Maureen O’Sullivan), with John Wayne in the lead role as Hondo Lane.    The film was based on a Louis L’Amour short story, The Gift of Cochise.  At 84 minutes, it has an intricate plot, told  at a fast pace that doesn’t lose the viewers interest one iota.  

The plot revolves around 4 characters,with the supporting characters adding to the ebb and flow of the minor sub-plots.  Wayne’s Hondo Lane is a half-breed, working as a message runner for the U.S. Calvary stationed at a fort in the New Mexico territory.  The year of the setting isn’t mentioned, but I would guess it’s after the Civil War.  Lane has a reputation for having killed 3 men the previous year, but we can also tell that Lane is an honorable man and we are on his side from the beginning of the movie; we can safely assume that he killed those 3 men in self-defense.  He does mention his first wife, now deceased, from time to time.   She was a beautiful Native American woman, and her death has added a layer of sadness to Lane’s persona, as well as his views on the treatment of the Native Americans by the white settlers and the U. S. Government.   He can see both sides of the arguments, so to speak, due to his unique heritage. One small side mention about Hondo’s character, he has a dog that is always with him, and I am pretty sure it was played by the dog that played Lassie.  It looks like Lassie with some extra, fake fur strapped to it’s back!

Hondo doing his job, delivering a message.

Geraldine Page, portrays the second character of the film, that of Mrs. Angie Lowe.   Angie’s parents were early settlers to the New Mexico territory, and it is their small ranch that she lives on as she was an only child and the sole inheritor of the property.  She has a husband, Ed, who was an orphan her parents helped raise, and we  learn later that  he isn’t a good person.  Angie is a strong woman, smart, and will do what she can to protect her son from the facts about his father’s choices.  Her son Johnny is the only blessing in her life from her marriage to Ed( Leo Gordon, a tall actor, who often played bad guys in Western movies and television shows.)  Johnny(Lee Aaker) is a typical 6 year old, and while he doesn’t have a lot of lines to say, a subplot does revolve around him involving the 4th main character of this film, Apache Chief Vittorio, played by Michael Pate.

Hondo arriving at the Lowe’s ranch for the first time, to ask for water.

Angie is puzzled about this Hondo guy

Chief Vittorio, strong and in command of his tribe, is  worrying over more and more white settlers that are moving into his territory.  He is not happy that there is a U. S. Calvary presence in the area either.  His second in command, Silva(played by Rodolfo Acosta), is a hot-head who Chief Vittorio often has to rein in.   This tribe of Apaches has always been on good terms with Angie Lowe and her parents, often stopping at the ranch due to it’s having a good source of water.  The Chief, during one of these visits for water, becomes curious as to why Angie’s husband is never around.  He is impressed with Johnny’s bravery at trying to protect his mother during this visit as Silva makes a crude gesture towards her.  Chief Vittorio decides to make Johnny a blood brother with the Apaches, and he also warns Angie that if her husband doesn’t show up soon, that he will come back to take her and her son and raise her son in the Apache way, so that this brave boy will learn to be man.

Chief Vittorio(on the horse) and his aid Silva, warning Angie

Minor characters in the film are: Ward Bond as Buffalo Baker, a fellow message deliverer for the Calvary and Lane’s friend, James Arness(the future Sheriff Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke fame) as Lennie, an Army Indian Scout, Tom Irish as Lt. McKay, a new Calvary officer, and Paul Fix, as Major Sherry, in charge of the fort.

Hondo  begins to wonder why Angie’s husband is never around the ranch

Hondo takes on the good father role for Johnny

Angie and Hondo fall in love!

The aspects of the settlers vs. the Native Americans is portrayed with wisdom, the developing relationship with Lane and Angie is told in a moving way and with restraint.  Geraldine Page was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her part in this film.  There is a tangle Lane gets into with a card player he angered that is central to the plot,  his being mistaken as a Calvary soldier that leads to an unfortunate encounter with Chief Vittorio and Silva, and the news that the Apaches may be preparing for an uprising, all this fits into this very well acted Western.    All in all, Hondo is a  very fine film, and Wayne gives a strong and very thoughtful performance.   If you haven’t seen it, seek it out.  It is available on dvd through Amazon, through their instant rent program, and at TCM’s Shop.