Wagon Master (1950)

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“Wagons west are rolling…” – Sons of The Pioneers

Despite being a tighter film, Wagon Train 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 Train 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.

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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.

4/5 Stars

3 Godfathers (1948)

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3 Godfathers is a Christmas western if there ever was one and it’s probably the most sensitive picture that John Ford ever made. Anyone familiar with Don Siegel’s short film Star in the Night (1945) might recognize basic similarities with this picture based on the same biblical motif of the three wise men.

Ford honors his dear friend, the late, great Harry Carey even christening him the “Bright Star Of The Early Western Sky” and it’s very true. In fact, the director probably would have never remade the film if Carey had not passed away in 1947. The reason being that he had worked on an earlier version called The Three Godfathers way back in 1916 and the Ford-helmed silent Marked Men (1929). Not satisfied with just that, the director subsequently cast Harry Carey Jr. as The Abilene Kid alongside John Wayne and  Pedro Armendáriz. Although a big star in Mexico by this point, Armendáriz garnered little respect from Ford as you might expect.

The script penned by film critic turned screenwriter Frank S. Nugent with Laurence Stallings and Robert Nathan, takes the story of three lawless bank robbers and turns them into modern-day incarnations of the trio of kings from the advent story.

The heady combination of some on-location photography in Death Valley, as well as early Technicolor, gives Ford’s picture an impressive composition even as it can’t quite stand up to his most iconic images. The story as well is a mild even maudlin affair at times but for the very fact that Ford rarely seemed to inch into such territory — or Wayne either for that matter — it does come as somewhat of a treat to behold.

Because here we have three hoodlums, men of ill-repute who have robbed a bank and are on the lamb running for their lives. Ward Bond as the local sheriff — a decent man who also happens to be pretty shrewd — chases after our antiheroes with his hapless deputy (Hank Worden). Though they ride off, he cripples their water supply and looks to cut them off from any of the wells scattered across the territory. The lack of water could prove to be their downfall.

However, the story takes its most obvious turn when they happen upon a wagon. It turns out to not be completely abandoned as a one lies isolated and about ready to give birth to an infant son. Though she is too weak to continue she makes a vow with them that they protect her boy and make sure he grows up healthy and strong.

She doesn’t know their previous actions only the character that they exhibit in front of her and maybe it is even her angelic trust in them that causes each man to agree to this promise. All of the sudden they throw of the shells of their former selves and take on this seemingly virtuous task.

However, that does not make survival any easier living off the drippings of barrel cacti and traipsing across the salt flats with the noonday sun beating down. First, losing their horses in a ferocious maelstrom and with water scarce, they do everything in their power to take care of the child. Reading a baby book on how to look after an infant and bathing and feeding him. His Uncle William sings him “Gather at the River” as a lullaby. And all three men agree their godson will share their three names. Robert Hightower (Wayne) bickers with Pete about using Spanish around the baby. They want him to grow up American.

The Bible passage about finding a donkey to ride into Jerusalem gives some guidance fittingly as the child makes his pilgrimage to the town of New Jerusalem. We know that a miracle just might be in order.

The inevitable happens and Wayne must face off against Bond but what makes that dynamic far more meaningful is the child in their midst. Because Hightower’s care and concern for the child’s well-being reveals a side of him that is the complete antithesis of his outlaw persona. It’s a reflection that he is a redeemable figure and the film strikes a compromise between a really saccharine ending and cold hard reality. While no one will concede that it’s Ford’s best work, it’s nevertheless a fine vehicle for the talent and a thoroughly unique take on yuletide moviemaking.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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We know the score. Two drifters ride into town. They sidle up to the bar for some shots, looking for something to do in a lazy Nevada dust-hole. Their faces are equally familiar to anyone who has ever seen even a few of the old oaters. Feisty Henry Fonda as Gil Carter and his more even-keeled pal Art (Henry Morgan). Though folks question what they’re doing around, it comes to nothing except an exuberant fist fight for Fonda just itching for some thrills. He’s not disappointed.

Soon the community catches wind of the death of a beloved local named Kincaid at the hands of cattle rustlers. The wheels are set in motion as the sleepy town awakens and a lynching mob forms under the guise of a posse. With the sheriff out of town doing his duty and the local judge incapable of stopping them, they ride off looking for vengeance and some excitement to liven up their one-horse town. As the deputy illegally swears in the entire crowd as temporary deputies, our boys Gil and Art reluctantly sign on as not to draw more suspicion to themselves.

A Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) tries to take charge forcing his callow son (William Eythe) to join in as they begin their hunt. The two most reluctant and subsequently the most interesting additions to their party are the African-American preacher named Sparks (Leigh Whipper), whose own brother was lynched when he was a boy, and then the rational-minded Old Man Davies (Harry Davenport) who desires for true justice to be upheld. He is wary of the repercussions of a mob mentality.

Ultimately, they happen upon three strangers and circle them like ravenous wolves practically willing them to be guilty. In these crucial interludes, Wellman deliberately focuses on close-ups instead of scenery to ratchet the tension. It’s evident the bread and butter of this picture are within the characters themselves.

The crowd begins peppering the suspects with questions though they’ve already drawn up their answers for them. It doesn’t help that the trio’s leader (Dana Andrews) must try and explain some extenuating circumstances, namely how he acquired some of Kinkaid’s stock, which he purportedly bought off the murdered man without a bill of sale.

True, the posse doesn’t go off absolutely nothing but the integrity of democratic justice, as flawed as it might be, in the day-to-day, still maintains people are innocent until proven guilty. It’s not the other way around. That’s key. It also calls for not dealing in emotions like anger and hatred but impartial wisdom. Again, that might be impossible to attain but we must try our best. Otherwise, the consequences are potentially dire.

William A. Wellman was so eager to adapt Walter van Tilburg Clark’s original novel he agreed with Daryl Zanuck to direct two other pictures that are now all but forgotten. The Ox-Bow Incident might be small but it’s no less mighty thanks to the teaming of Wellman and Lamar Trotti. In fact, its volatility was so great no one knew how to market it during the war years. How do you try and redeem the debasement of humanity originating out of our own traditions, even as we try and reconcile that with the evil going on overseas? It’s a tall order.

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The equally horrifying thing is the fact lynchings had yet to be exterminated from American society and the blood of such injustice still soaked American soil. Though this is a showing of three men getting hung, one white (Andrews), one old (Francis Ford), one Mexican (a defiant Anthony Quinn), this could have just as easily been racially charged with African-American victims.

Regardless of guilt or innocence, justice was never meant to function in this fashion where lawlessness is masked by perceived legitimacy. Nothing good can come of it. Fonda’s own memories drew him to the material as he supposedly witnessed the lynching of a man named Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska on September 28, 1919. You can only imagine how the images scalded him for life. 12 Angry Men (1957) is indubitably another film which dealt with comparable themes very close to his heart.

His part, along with Morgan by his side, remains crucial because they essentially act as impartial bystanders and their choice is faced by anyone at the crossroads of such an issue. Because good can be quantified by commission and omission just as evil can be perpetrated through action and inaction.

The final wallop of the film is, of course, finding out what the actuality of the matter is — knowing full well they acted in error. To cap off the most moving showing of his generally hardboiled career, as the dying family man, Dana Andrews touches them from the grave with his words one last time:

“A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?”

Even if his words serve the film more than they are the authentic words of a husband, their affecting nature is undebatable. Every man standing around the bar sullenly has been given a costly lesson — a lesson requiring the lives of three men. It’s fitting for our two drifters to ride out of town just as they came in the same hound dog sulking across the road. And yet so much has changed. If anything our hero has found his conscience in a sea of injustice.

4/5 Stars

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

472a2-wrathposters141I must admit this film directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, surprised me in a positive way. This movie seemed like it could potentially be another Citizen Kane  (a movie so inflated with praised that it becomes a letdown when actually viewed). However, The Grapes of Wrath  in fact has a fairly good story adapted loosely from John Steinbeck’s novel. You come out of it feeling the strength of the Joads as well as the inhumanity they face traveling from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to California. Still, there is hope that they will endure it all in the end. Fonda gives a solid performance as the plain-speaking, young man Tom Joad. Jane Darwell also gives a very moving performance as his Ma . Some may say this movie has its slow parts but it also has some very good moments that reflect genuine humanity.

4/5 Stars