When most movie fans hear the name “John Ford,” they are already envisioning the monolithic peaks of Monument Valley filling the motion-picture frame. In short, the man is synonymous with the Western. And, yes, I like Stagecoach and love My Darling Clementine and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and worship The Searchers; but, are any of these classics my bid for the top Ford western drama? Nope. That honor is reserved for (obviously) one of my favorite movies ever, 1950’s WAGON MASTER, now remastered in a stunning new Blu-Ray edition from the settlers at the Warner Archive Collection.
To the average picture-goer, WAGON MASER is nowhere near as well known as the other aforementioned masterpieces. And for good reason. It was a modestly budgeted 86-minute mini-epic, lensed without fanfare or stars (but with nevertheless a plethora of wonderful actors). It was a personal project for Ford, who took the tight script by Frank Nugent and his son Patrick, and turned it into cinema gold.
The crux of WAGON MASTER is a trek to the Promised Land (aka, the San Juan Valley in California) by a band of determined Mormons. To help them cross the treacherous desert, they cajole the services of horse wranglers-(now)turned-guides Travis Blue and Sandy Wiggs. Okay, sounds like a rigid, righteous kind of western show you’ve seen before. Again, nope. It’s a thrilling, beautifully shot (by Stagecoach’s Bert Glennon) saga, rife with humor, action, drama, and romance. LSS, it’s everything a movie should be; whether one is a fan of the genre or not, I defy you NOT to be entertained by this journey.
Earlier I mentioned the basis for the plot; there’s another intertwining (as in snake) thread that ties the many narrative elements together. In a pre-credit sequence (unusual for its time), we’re introduced to the Clegg family, a band of vicious psychopaths (a hint of inbreeding is definitely also present), who rob and then kill a shopkeeper.
The Cleggs end up on the trail as well, causing much suspense and (surprisingly, again, for a movie from this period, especially a Ford pic) a liberal dose of sadism (unlike the rest of the cast, who are dressed in traditional garb, they wear shroud-like dusters, later made famous in spaghetti westerns).
In addition to Ford, there’s so much to rally around on WAGON MASTER that it’s difficult to know where to begin. My choice is to start with the leads. In a celluloid dream come true, we actually get a movie STARRING Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr.! Real-life best buds, their chemistry dominates the magnificent gallery of thesps, including Jane Darwell, Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Cliff Lyons, Movita, Frank McGrath, Chuck Hayward, Jim Thorpe and Francis Ford (the director’s older brother and former silent screen star). As Uncle Shiloh, head of the thoroughly evil Cleggs, the remarkable actor Charles Kemper delivers what may be the finest role of his career. After witnessing his creepy presence here, it’s hard to fathom that this dude was, in actuality, one of the nicest guys on the planet (he always played Santa for the kiddies at Ford’s annual Christmas parties). The year after WAGON MASTER, Kemper was the sympathetic partner of detective Robert Ryan in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. It took me a while to realize that these two excellent performances were delivered by the same actor. Sadly, he passed shortly after the Ray pic wrapped (and before it was released), in 1950 at age 49. The remainder of the monstrous Clegg clan comprise Hank Worden, Fred Libby, Mickey Simpson, and, in a pre-Thing appearance (but just as frightening), James Arness.
In a nod to his previous triumphs, Ford throws in a one wagon three-person traveling show, populated by ham actor/doctor Alan Mowbray (My Darling Clementine) and beautiful heart o’gold but tough whore Joanne Dru (Stagecoach); Ruth Clifford finishes the triad, a mature force of nature who catches wagon train leader Bond’s eye (the same as winsome settler Kathleen O’Malley does to Sandy). They are here for a purpose, having been thrown out of the “good Christian” town just as the Mormons have (in short, in the world of pompous hypocrites, whores = Mormons). It really is a misfit caravan. And when said sacrilegious town law enforcers go posse hunting for the Cleggs, guess who they end up beseeching for help?
For a simple nabe exercise, WAGON MASTER packed a lot of themes and variants into its tack: duplicity, loyalty, violence (some of it justifiable) and a mini textbook on sexuality, from wholesome attraction to forbidden fruit to predatory lust (not merely Dru’s presence; one of the Clegg brood rapes an underaged Native American).
WAGON MASTER provided a much-needed respite for Ford. He had just completed one of his few misfires at RKO, the lyrical but genuinely uneven The Fugitive. This was a makeup exam – a small pic that wouldn’t have to reap oodles of ducats to put the studio in the black. Depending on when you approached the director, he cited it as his own favorite movie (other titles would be The Sun Shines Bright and The Quiet Man). Since, as indicated, there were no “big”stars, RKO wasn’t breathing down Ford’s throat. Off he went to his beloved Monument Valley, where he and the cast and crew were pretty much left alone. Which is how he liked it.
As mentioned, the Warner Archive Blu-Ray of WAGON MASTER is terrific, the best video rendition ever. Picture is 1080p crystal clear, with a strong dynamic track booming with bombastic monaural sound (a perfect springboard for the musical background provided by the Sons of the Pioneers, and the stirring Richard Hageman score). As an extra, there is audio commentary featuring Harry Carey, Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich.
I had the pleasure of getting to know Harry Carey, Jr. from the late 1990s till his passing (two days after Christmas) in 2012. He was affectionately dubbed “Dobe” by Ford, so christened for his brick top mop; that’s what his friends called him (“Mel, call me Dobe” was one of the finest moments of my eternal Romance with the Movies life).
I truly believe we connected when I told him that WAGON MASTER was my favorite Ford picture. “Really?,” he replied with a concurrent mix of surprise and delight. “Mine, too.” I initially asked him about an early gambling scene. “What the hell game is ‘High-low jick-jack-jenny and the bean gun’?” Dobe shook his head, “Damn, if I know,” he laughed. But he did share the following amusing (if not telling) incident with me.
“WAGON MASTER was a happy experience from beginning to end. To be honest with you, I had never seen Ford so relaxed. Believe me, a Ford picture could be a baptism of fire, but not here. I don’t think I ever saw him enjoying himself so much. The whole picture was like a vacation. None of that Ford cruelty, which was definitely a thing. Even one unrehearsed mishap didn’t faze him. It was during one moment where Ward breaks up a fight between me and my romantic rival. A dog on the set didn’t take to Ward, and leaped on his leg – snarling, gnashing at him – tearing his trousers. Ward kept trying to shake him off, but remained in character. “Keep rolling! Keep rolling!,” shouted Ford. I’m pretty sure I never heard him laugh so hard, he was really like a different person. He practically fell off his chair, right on his ass. Come to think of it, maybe he did. I wish all the shows could have been like this. They weren’t.”
WAGON MASTER. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/RKO Pictures/Warner Home Entertainment. SRP: $21.99.
Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: www.warnerarchive.com