Oct 22, 2019

On Blu-ray: John Ford's Wagon Master (1950)

It says a lot about the kind of actors director John Ford cast when his supporting players are as good at carrying a film as stars like John Wayne. In the 1950 film Wagon Master, actors and stuntmen Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. shine at a different wattage than Wayne, but they are nevertheless charismatic, funny, and as delightful rising from the ranks to take the lead. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive which beautifully displays its stunning Utah and Arizona valley locations.

Johnson and Carey, Jr. play the new wagon masters of a train of Mormons who have been previously led by another familiar Ford stock player Ward Bond. Over the course of their journey they pick up a bedraggled troupe of medicine show players dying of thirst. They begin to get acquainted, with friendships and romances blooming, until a band of violent thieves called the Cleggs, who were introduced in an at the time innovative opening credit sequence, force themselves into the group.

This familiar plot, which could easily be the bones for a mediocre film, becomes profound because of Ford’s touch. His knack for perfectly casting every part comes in handy here, where he is counting on the strength of the ensemble instead of star power to tell his story. In addition to his pleasantly familiar leads, he draws on the talents of reliable characters like Joanne Dru (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), Alan Mowbray, and Jane Darwell, and emerging stars like future Gunsmoke lead James Arness. He then places them against that jaw dropping scenery, drinking in the majesty of it all with long, loving long shots which give weight and a sense of wonder to their journey.

There is not as much at stake here, or as strong a feeling of peril or loss as in Ford’s more celebrated classics like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956). The gut-wrenching feeling those more emotionally resonant films evoked is replaced with a warmer feeling of camaraderie, which is helped along by the inclusion of four songs by the cowboy singers Sons of the Pioneers (they would also sing in Ford’s Rio Grande [1950]). This is not to say that Wagon Master is a less substantial film though, it has just as much to say about the mutual human need for community and connection as Ford's more celebrated works. Here he simply shares that message with a lighter touch.

The only special feature on the disc is an enjoyable commentary from the 2009 DVD release by Harry Carey, Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich, which includes clips of John Ford from Bognanovich’s previous interviews with the director.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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