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

Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. are the unlikely and reluctant heroes who rise to the challenge in the most spectacular fashion. Ford’s genius here is that neither are quick draws or killers. They’re just a couple of young guys who only wanted to trade some horses and make a little cash. But they’re nice guys and when Ward Bond and his band of ostracized Mormons fail to heed warnings about the treacherous journey Bond is embarking on, Johnson and Carey do the right thing and help them out.

Ward Bond (center) is the leader of lost Mormons in Wagon Master

The movie is full of moments that make me smile. There’s a wonderful bit where the group is dancing and having a little celebration. It’s a sweet moment and one of the best dance scenes that I’ve ever seen in film. Full of joy and warmth and fun. And then there’s Kemper and his sons. Shown at the very beginning of the film robbing a bank (my favorite shot in the movie). What is so scary about them is that they seem like not so threatening amateurs who become frighteningly homicidal at the drop of a hat.

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.



I also love Ben Johnsons character here. When the evil Kemper takes over the wagon train, hot head Carey is angry that Johnson doesn’t act to prevent it. Johnson wisely tells him that they need to live because if they get killed, the group of people will be lost and will probably die. He’s responsible for them, and waits to act until they’re safe. Johnson is a true hero in this. The scene reminds me of an old Spider-Man comic from the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era when Peter Parker finds himself in a similar position to that of Ben Johnson when Spider-Man must let himself be seen by others as afraid or as a coward by running from a fight with the Sandman in order to stay alive for the welfare of his sickly Aunt May. It’s a type of heroism that is not often seen in film or in the black and white style of heroism seen in comic books for that matter. When the hero must sacrifice his ego and let the villain have his small victory in order to live and save the lives of others, to fight for something bigger than yourself. Ford gives us that kind of transcendent heroism in Wagon Master.

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

 Wagon Master reminds me of movies such as Outlaw Josie Wales and Unforgiven. There is that examination of morality and violence handled with a level of subtlety, realism and sensitivity that we often only see in some of Eastwood’s films and in some of the best Western films. There’s also some lovely photography by Bert Glennon. This film just looks great and is shot almost entirely on location. There’s also an enjoyable musical score by Richard Hageman. Terrific movie from top to bottom with top notch performances by all.  Plus, you just know that when John Ford and Merian Cooper get together it’s going to be great.  I’ve seen Wagon Master probably a dozen times at least and every time I enjoy it more than I did the last.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Wagon Master on Friday July 12, at 12:15 PM Eastern. Don’t miss it!

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