WAGONMASTER —–Mormons! Cleggs’s! Show folk! Horse traders! There were nine excellent westerns released in 1950—ten if you count the comedy Fancy Pants— and among the saddle-tough posse was this little 86-minute gold nugget from John Ford. It didn’t make a wave at the time, ranking just 100th place on the money-list and was sluffed off by reviewers. Refreshingly old-fashioned, a comfortable trip to the olden days with mostly likable folks, it’s since been elevated to status as kind of a relaxed classic. People who don’t give a hoot about the genre will shrug at the corn, while those fond of westerns will put their feet up and grin. Who doesn’t like corn-on-the-cob? *
Mormon settlers bound for The Promised Land of Utah’s San Juan Valley find their journey marked by daunting natural elements and prickly people problems. The hearty ‘Elder Wiggs’ (Ward Bond) and his flock are lucky to have genial horse traders ‘Travis Blue’ (Ben Johnson) and ‘Sandy’ (Harry Carey Jr.) to guide them through the desert terrain, but are somewhat vexed by a trio of medicine show vagabonds as travel partners. They’re surprised by peaceful Navajos, then downright threatened by ‘Uncle Shiloh Clegg’ (Charles Kemper) and his four brutish sons. The trail holds comradeship and prejudice, romance and violence.
When righteous bluenose ‘Brother Perkins’ (played by Ford regular Russell Simpson) sniffs “Don’t think we oughta take up with their kind of people, elder“, the pragmatic Elder Wiggs reasons “I ain’t so sure but what the Lord didn’t put these folks in our path for a reason. As I see it, the Lord ain’t one to waste His energy. Now He’s gone to a lot of trouble gettin’ these people into this fix. And if I was Him, I wouldn’t want anybody messin’ up my plans.” Hoisted on his own bigotry, Perkins sputters “Well, uh, puttin’ it that way…”
Written by Frank Nugent and Ford’s son Patrick, it was a pleasant shoot, almost a working vacation, the veteran director casting old regulars (Bond, Simpson, Jane Darwell) and favored young bloods (Johnson, Carey, beautiful Joanne Dru). Things went snappily: it was shot in 19 days on location, mostly around Moab, Utah (with a little Monument Valley stuck in there, as a matter of course), and another 12 in the studio. The budget was set at $999,370, but things went so smoothly it came in at a negative cost of $848,853.
Leisurely and winning Americana, realistic about the different types and motives that both worked together and stymied a country finding its way, ultimately hopeful, ending with a lovely grace note of a colt’s spirited trot up a riverbank. The dated music score is a bit much, laying on the honey with songs written by former park ranger Stan Jones (of “Ghost Riders In The Sky”), sung by the Sons Of The Pioneers. Darwell’s comic horn-blowing gets old in a hurry. But Johnson is charming, and it’s a pleasure just to watch him and Carey ride like they’re physical parts of their ponies. Bond holds firm ground (this was the groundwork for his TV staple Wagon Train). Dru is alluring.
Led by superb character actor Kemper, the murderous Cleggs—the gross sons played by Hank Worden, James Arness, Mickey Simpson and Fred Libby—fit in between Ford’s other memorably vicious outlaw tribes, the scurvy Clantons from My Darling Clementine and the trio of bastards from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. There’s great, arduous and unrehearsed action in the assorted labors of the trip, climaxed by the sudden, lethal and unadorned showdown that sets things right. Clean black & white cinematography from Ford favorite Bert Glennon glows throughout.
Grosses came to $3,200,000. With Alan Mowbray, Ruth Clifford, Kathleen O’Malley, Cliff Lyons and Frank McGrath. Playing Navajos are famed Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, 63 here, and Movita Castaneda (who worked under her first name and later briefly married Marlon Brando).
* Ford, from a 1966 interview with Peter Bogdanovich: “Along with The Fugitive and The Sun Shines Bright, I think Wagonmaster came closest to being what I had wanted to achieve.” The happy shoot was also a family affair: his older brother Francis had a bit part, daughter Barbara was asst.cutter, brother Eddie O’Fearna was an asst. director, as were brother-in-law Wingate Smith and nephew Francis Ford Jr.
Choice items joining Wagonmaster on the trail in ’50: Broken Arrow, Rio Grande (Ford teams The Duke and Maureen O’Hara for the first time), Winchester ’73, The Gunfighter, Rocky Mountain, The Furies, Devil’s Doorway and Two Flags West.
Gesturing to the Indians, Johnson’s Travis offers “Near as I can figure out, he don’t seem to like white men.” Carey/Sandy chimes in with “Yeah, he say’s we’re all thieves.” Bond’s Elder Wiggs caps it with “Smarter than he looks!”