Saturday, September 07, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Wagon Master (1950) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

WAGON MASTER (1950), which I consider to be one of director John Ford's greatest masterpieces, has just been released on a glorious Blu-ray available from the Warner Archive.

I greatly love this film, which I originally reviewed here in 2010; I consider it not just one of my all-time favorite Westerns, but one of my most favorite films.

The WAGON MASTER plot itself seems quite basic when put on paper: Two horse traders (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) accept a job from Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) to guide a wagon train of Mormons to their future home. During the journey the wagon train comes to the aid of some stranded show people (including lovely Joanne Dru) and then encounter a family of very mean outlaws (including Charles Kemper, James Arness, and Hank Worden).

That's about the extent of the plot; only a master like Ford could take a fairly simple story, of a type seen in countless Westerns, and turn it into sheer poetry.

The black and white visuals, as filmed by Bert Glennon, are gorgeous; the scenes simultaneously manage to look like paintings while having a "you are there" immediacy. The viewer can almost smell the dust and the coffee when looking at this film; it feels as though I'm standing just outside the frame right there in the desert. It's a feeling which very few films accomplish.

Stars Johnson and Carey were experienced riders, and former stuntman and rodeo rider Johnson doing all his own riding in the action scenes adds to the film's authenticity.

Director Ford left some "accidents" in the movie, including a horse fall and Ward Bond's pants being split by a fighting dog, which also contribute to the film's sense of realism, while the poetry is accentuated by the beautiful songs by Stan Jones, sung by the Sons of the Pioneers.

The music is perhaps the first thing I think of when this film comes to mind. A long shot of the wagon train, with music echoing in the distance, might be one of my favorite film sequences ever, and I love the genuinely good time the cast conveys square dancing to "Chuckawalla Swing."

The music serves to underscore both the enormity of the pioneers' undertaking and the film's essential optimism. That overall sense of good cheer and folks treating one another with honor and decency -- other than, of course, the villainous Cleggs -- is another reason I love the film. Even before the good vs. evil conflict arises, Ford and his company make these characters delightfully compelling to watch.

Plain and simple, for me this film is 86 minutes of bliss.

The cast also includes Jane Darwell, Kathleen O'Malley, Alan Mowbray, Russell Simpson, Francis Ford, Cliff Lyons, and more. The screenplay was by John Ford's son, Patrick Ford, and Frank Nugent, based on a story by John Ford.

The Blu-ray is a stunner, absolutely gorgeous, with outstanding soundtrack quality.

The Blu-ray carries over a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich and Harry Carey Jr. which was originally included on the 2009 DVD release. That track also edits in archival recordings of John Ford's comments.

This WAGON MASTER Blu-ray receives my highest recommendation.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

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