“Wagons west are rolling…” – Sons of The Pioneers
Despite being a tighter film, Wagon Master still bears the irrefutable mark of John Ford. Together with producer Meridian C. Cooper, he crafts a piece of work as near to a fully realized articulation of his vision as he probably ever achieved; this made it one of his personal favorites.
Because there is no one to answer to except for himself and if anything, in contrast to his career prior, it’s a freeing proposition. Wagon Master contentedly meanders along ever toward its destination with time enough to stop and visions enough to keep an audience engrossed.
Without John Wayne, the story instead finds able space for other worthy stalwarts of the Ford stock company and in this aspect alone it’s a fine showing. Ben Johnson’s athleticism on horseback is matched by a plain-speaking integrity proving both steady and unperturbed.
The beauty of the casting is the very authenticity of it. He’s the real deal as a one-time rodeo hand, stunt double for the biggest stars like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, and a certified roping champion. He performed all his own stunts in the picture including the well-remembered scene where he weathers a bucking bronco after Joanne Dru dumps bath water out of the rear her wagon spooking his horse. He stayed on for 10 bucks before getting thrown. That was only after a previous take had to be reshot.
Furthermore, Ford gives the other prominent roles to young Harry Carey Jr. who is Johnson’s trail companion and the more spirited of the two. While Travis and Sandy are intent on selling their stock and nothing else, they eventually agree to come aboard as wagon masters for a caravan of Mormons heading out West. The Elder, played by the venerable Ward Bond, is a man of faith who nevertheless has the raw courage and determination to lead his people on their journey. And he has his usual bearing which only blesses the story. In truth, it’s an obvious precursor to the heralded TV western, Wagon Train, also starring Bond for its first few seasons.
Even as the search for the Promise Land subsists, lead by Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) and the sounding of her horn, it is Bond who has decency enough to stop for those in need. They end up running across a hoochie-coochie show made up of a swacked trio (Alan Mowbray, Ruth Clifford, and Joanne Dru) who, without any water left, tried to survive off spirits.
Though a group of social outcasts and equally proud, the Elder obliges to help them out even as their own resources are dwindling. Thus, the procession exuberantly races toward the first sign of water. Jumping off horses, dipping their hats in it, taking a nice cool drink for the first time in far too long.
Our two heroes, also begin to call on their lady friends. Travis tries to extend a gentlemanly hand to Denver (Dru), who defiantly rebuffs his advances and simultaneously Sandy starts eyeing a Mormon girl who already has a beau. In another interlude, a fist-fight erupts between the two young men which the Elder handily breaks up, only to wind up with his pants torn to pieces by a feisty dog.
What becomes evident in the stages of this story is how it is never truly about one individual but an entire community. Part of that comes with the absence of a marketable star like John Wayne or Henry Fonda — two regulars in Ford pictures. However, like My Darling Clementine (sans Fonda), there is this sense of the communal nature of civilization. This western on wheels brings together religious pilgrims, medicine show performers, and Navajo Indians who are all able to find a certain amount of common ground.
Dances become something not only proving to be a form of gaiety and lively human interaction; they might very well be a mechanism for how a bit of home is brought to new territories as a means of making them more habitable. It’s a sign of kinship.
Of course, every society has its outside stressors and in this case, the caravan is paid a visit by a band of glowering men led by a crotchety old-timer (Charles Kemper) winged in the arm. It’s a tenuous partnership at best as his “boys,” including James Arness and Hank Worden, are a testy and trigger-happy bunch. Even as he knows how dangerous they are, The Elder agrees to extend the olive branch, while Travis bides his time knowing now isn’t the time to act. Sandy can’t quite fathom this initial passivity but their forbearance is rewarded in the end.
A John Ford gunfight ensues and not unlike its brethren in My Darling Clementine, the exchange of bullets is efficient and to the point; it’s not meant to bear the entire weight of the picture. Instead, Ford settles back into a broader perspective, reinforcing the lyrical quality of his imagery with the vocalization of The Sons of the Pioneers.
I remember them most vividly from my days watching Roy Rogers serials, hearing the group sing their harmonies, and I do miss the throaty vocals of old folk western tunes like “Song of the Wagonmaster” and “Wagon’s West.” Though I hesitate to call Wagon Master, an all-out musical because that would probably give the wrong impression, it is indebted to its music much in the same manner of a High Noon (1952) or a Rio Bravo (1959). You cannot begin to separate the two.