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Wagon Master
cast: Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr, Ward Bond, and Joanne Dru

director: John Ford

86 minutes (PG) 1950
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
As Michael Coyne has pointed out, John Ford's viewpoint can veer from the celebratory to the cynical, even within films made in the same year, but his films do not reflect the attitudes of the time when they were made, but the eras in which they are set. Coyne contends that the earlier tales of open frontiers and idealistic pioneers are bright and hopeful, compared with the gradual decline into disillusionment that culminates in the bitter critique of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Similarly, the genre as a whole followed the same pattern of loss of faith in the American dream (American Film Genres by Michael Coyne, Hollywood, 2002).

Ten out of ten for this movie might seem generous, but I like westerns, and I like John Ford, and I think that the film succeeds admirably on its own terms; I would only give the more ambitious Red River (1948) nine out of ten because I think the gunplay and reconciliation of the ending is fudged.

Ford draws on his repertory company of dependable supporting actors to fashion a story with no real stars. Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show) is far too modest and unassuming to seize the reins of a lead role; Harry Carey Jr. (The Searchers, Tombstone, The Exorcist III) provides some knockabout stuff and comedy bowing as his sidekick, and only Ward Bond (Rio Bravo, The Quiet Man), as an unlikely Mormon elder, and Charles Kemper as the leader of the Clegg family of desperadoes, are as big as all outdoors in their roles. The film succeeds on ensemble playing, beautifully defined character studies, and Ford's creation of the western archetypes later to become clich�s in lesser hands. James Arness plays one of the Cleggs, as does the Ford regular Hank Worden, in an early try out for kind of disturbed character he perfected with the part of Mose Harper in Ford's masterpiece The Searchers (1956).

In an understated pre-credits sequence we find the extended Clegg family staging a robbery in which the titular head Uncle Shiloh (Kemper) is wounded. Travis Blue (Johnson) and his partner Sandy (Carey Jr.) then ride into town to sell the horses they have captured in Navajo country. They are approached by Elder Wiggs (Bond), and Adam Perkins (Russell Simpson), part of a Mormon community facing eviction from the town, which need horses and experienced guides to lead them through the San Juan River country where they hope to settle. Initially reluctant, Travis allows himself to be persuaded; Sandy already has his eye on Prudence Perkins (Kathleen O'Malley). On the way the wagon train picks up the destitute members of a 'hoochie-coochie' medicine show, the Micawberish Dr A. Locksley Hall, played by venerable Hollywood actor Alan Mowbray, his inebriated associate Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) and their glamorous distraction Denver, as charmingly played by Joanne Dru (Red River).

After an episodic opening, Wagon Master settles, when the Cleggs interrupt an evening of dancing to celebrate the wagon train's arrival at the San Juan River. Uncle Shiloh asks if the family can ride along with the wagon train for a while and the Mormons reluctantly agree. Relations are soured when, while enjoying the hospitality of a Navajo camp, one of the Cleggs is caught raping a Navajo woman. Elder Wiggs has the man tied to a wagon wheel and whipped. An inevitable confrontation is signalled when the Cleggs use force of arms to seize control of the wagon train and it becomes apparent that they will seek retribution for the humiliation suffered by one of their members.

To a stirring soundtrack featuring the singing of the Sons of the Pioneers, this film is wholly satisfying in its understatement, from the tentative wooing of Denver by Travis, to the villainy of Uncle Shiloh, sinister in his very homeliness.

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