"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Wagonmaster (RKO, 1950)

This post has now been revised and updated. Please click here for the new one.

Post-war John Ford


After the three surviving silent Westerns discussed yesterday, there was a twelve-year gap before John Ford's first talkie Western appeared, Stagecoach, in 1939. That was followed the same year by the semi-Western Drums Along The Mohawk. After the Second World War, Ford directed My Darling Clementine (1946), the first of twelve post-war Westerns (thirteen if you count the Civil War episode of How The West Was Won).

The surviving Western oeuvre of Ford, therefore, consists, effectively, of seventeen movies.

We looked at Stagecoach in January and Drums Along The Mohawk the other day. Drums Along The Mohawk was frankly average, despite the work of Henry Fonda, while Stagecoach might best be described as an important, even seminal Western but far from the greatest Western ever. It has been termed the best B Western ever made.

That great interpretation of the Wyatt Earp myth My Darling Clementine would have stood as Ford's masterpiece had it not been for The Searchers.

The cavalry trilogy of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) was also a magnificent achievement and it would be hard not to put any or all of the three films into a 'top ten', or 'top twenty' anyway.
The immediate post-war period was an astonishingly prolific one for Ford. At the same time as he made these three cavalry pictures, he found the time to do two lesser but still interesting Westerns, 3 Godfathers and Wagonmaster. In Three Godfathers, it is true, Ford came down with a case of terminal treacle but Wagonmaster was a better Western. Let's look at that one today:
Wagonmaster was certainly not the strongest of the John Ford Westerns of the post-war period and it suffers from a slow, wagon-like pace, some corny humor and a lot of sugary sentiment. Still, it is visually fine, with luminous black & white photography of Utah locations by Bert Glennon and it has top-notch performances from the amiable horse dealers Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., and especially from a mighty Ward Bond.

It’s a Mormon wagon train but the Mormons have a folksy charm and like to sing and dance (no September Dawn or ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ Mormons these). Actually, there’s too much singing and that’s another weakness of the film. The songs and instrumental music seem very dated now and they are too obtrusive.

Johnson is yet again ‘Travis’ and all these Ford Westerns could almost be seen as the further adventures of Travis. He and Carey are very likeable as the wagon train guides and of course they save the day finally. Travis is like Ringo in Stagecoach or York in Fort Apache, the brave leader outside the social unit.

The Indian threat is fairly low-key (the Mormons have yet another dance with them) and thirst doesn’t trouble them that much. It’s outlaws who make difficulties, Charles Kemper as Uncle Shiloh with Hank Worden and James Arness, among others, as heavies. Donald Pleasance and his odious sons in Will Penny may have been modeled on them. Everything changes when they arrive, including the lighting, which becomes sinister.

There’s a girl each for Johnson and Carey to fall for, Joanne Dru in Ben’s case. She plays Denver, a character similar to Dallas in Stagecoach. When girls were named after towns it was a sure sign that they were disreputable. Alan Mowbray, the actor in My Darling Clementine, is Dr. “Locksley Hall”, no relation to Tennyson I think, manager of a traveling “hootchy-cootchy show”. It is my dream to work in a traveling hootchy-cootchy show. Jane Darwell, the unforgettable evil fat lady from The Ox-Bow Incident, is a plump Mormon matron with a twinkling eye and a rather vacant expression. And a horn. Good old Russell Simpson is wheeled out again as a Mormon elder and does it amusingly. Francis Ford is here too. The usual suspects, you might say.

Ward Bond is by far the best. Pity he didn’t keep on the frock coat he appears in at the start. He looks splendid in it. But he has power and force and is just dandy as the Elder. Bond went on, of course, to be the wagon master on TV in Wagon Train one episode directed by Ford) and make the role his own.

It is extraordinary that with Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande succeeding each other in 1948, ’49 and ’50, Ford had time to make this movie in between. Wagonmaster is not as famous, and justly so, but it’s still John Ford and part of the canon, so a must-see.


No comments:

Post a Comment