Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Wagon Master (1950)

John Ford's WAGON MASTER is one of the most exquisitely beautiful Westerns ever filmed. It's not just one of my favorite Westerns, it's one of my favorite movies. I've seen it countless times, and each time I appreciate it more.

It's almost difficult for me to put into words all the things I love about this movie. I shared some of my thoughts on the film in a post when it came out on DVD last fall. The DVD print is a gorgeous presentation of the film's awe-inspiring Monument Valley vistas, photographed by Bert Glennon.

WAGON MASTER is a simple story about two young horsemen (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) guiding a wagon train of Mormons led by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond). Along the westward trail the pioneers meet up with some stranded show folk (including Joanne Dru and Alan Mowbray) and a clan of evil outlaws (including Charles Kemper, James Arness, and Hank Worden).

What makes the film special? So many things, starting with the natural, charming performances by a pair of genuine horsemen, Johnson and Carey. That's Johnson doing every bit of his exciting riding scenes; he started out as a stuntman. Every scene they're in has interesting bits of business.

Every part is perfectly cast, down to the smallest role. Every bit of dialogue matters. (In fact, a great deal of the original script was pared down for the film; it's fascinating to read the script, which fleshes out things such as Carey's courtship of lovely Kathleen O'Malley.) The film has a naturalistic feel which incorporates many incidents which simply happened to occur during filming, such as an unexpected horse fall or Ward Bond's pants being split during a fight scene due to having been attacked by a dog as cameras were rolling. The more I watch the film, the more things I notice and enjoy. For me, that's one of the marks of a great movie.

The film would also not be what it is without the songs of Stan Jones and the musical performances of the Sons of the Pioneers. Indeed, the movie is filled with music. One of my very favorite scenes is a long shot of the wagon train trudging slowly forward, with singing echoing in the distance; that's all there is to the scene, and it's unforgettable. I also love the square dance to "Chuckawalla Swing."

A bit of trivia: As John Ford fans are probably already aware, Ford's longtime set accordionist Danny Borzage, who appears in the film, was the brother of director Frank Borzage.

Monsters and Critics ran a nice interview with Harry Carey Jr. when the DVD came out. (2019 Update: This link no longer works.)

WAGON MASTER is 86 minutes long. It's occasionally shown on Turner Classic Movies. Besides the DVD, the movie has also had a release on VHS.

Most highly recommended.

Update: Toby of 50 Westerns From the 50s loves this film too. Many thanks for the link! (2019 Update: Here's a little more on the film from Toby.)

July 2019 Update: WAGON MASTER will be released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive in August 2019.

September 2019 Update: My review of the new Warner Archive Blu-ray may be found here.


Blogger panavia999 said...

I like to see movies with good horsemanship. A lot of westerns make me cringe over the horsemanship, so I'll give it a try.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Their riding is the real deal, Panavia. Johnson was also a rodeo rider.

Best wishes,

2:59 PM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

Sometimes even good horsemen do things on film they would not normally do. It finally ocurred to me that film makers want scenes to be more exciting while staying in frame, with the result that horses are pulled around to fast, pulled to a stop from a gallop and such things. I know that Johnson was a rodeo rider and one of the best horseman in the movies. However, not every rodeo rider is a good horseman.

1:18 PM  

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