Directed by John Ford
Written by Frank S. Nugent and Patrick Ford
While John Ford is a legend and his best films are lifted up as the best of the genre, he was also unbelievably prolific, featuring 16 titles in this marathon alone, easily the most of any director. What this means, especially for such an accomplished director, is his filmography becomes very deep, leaving some overlooked masterpieces, or at least some really, really good movies that any common filmmaker may embrace as their very best. This marks the eight film of sixteen from Ford in the marathon, and it’s not one of the top 3 films thus far from him. And yet, to the point I just finished making, its one of the better films I’ve seen through the first 60 films, and should continue to be considered among the best of the genre. I think it’s very important to consider that even though we may not rank something in the Top 5, Top 10, Top 100, whatever, that doesn’t mean it’s still not a great film. Wagon Master is a great film, but I know even I will fail to give it the credit it’s due when all is said and done.
While most Ford westerns feature a great leading man, this time there is no John Wayne, no Henry Fonda. Instead, we have Ben Johnson, a stuntman, playing Travis, a horseman along with his business partner Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) who agrees to become wagon master for a band of Mormons led by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) who are set on making the arduous trek to San Juan Valley in Utah to found a settlement. Once they set off, they find their differences clash and compliment as they come across a stranded wagon of performers which includes Denver (Joanne Dru), who catches Travis’ eye. The band is joined by the Cleggs, led by criminal leader Shiloh (Charles Kemper), forcing Travis, Sandy and Wiggs to tread lightly as they still hope to avoid the Navajo and complete their journey safely.
I did not come to the conclusion that this was a great film right away, as it is not without its rough edges and differing viewpoints. It’s not a standard western with outlaws and gunfights and lawmen. In fact, I have been meditating on the fact that the marathon has been mostly subdued when it comes to the type of violence and shootouts often associated with the genre. Many of the stories have focused on the people, life in the west. In some ways, this is a continuation of that, a tale about the hard work and camaraderie required to settle the west, to build community. For that reason it becomes a powerful message which is unfortunately still resonate in today’s landscape. The setting may be different, the goal may be different, but we still struggle as a society in America to co-exist with people who are different than we are.
This is not a big tale in the sense of scope and ambition. It’s a small tale which Ford infuses with an immeasurable amount of compassion. Ford is lauded for his depiction of American values, of American stories, and there is nothing more American than the story being told here of various groups of people coming together to achieve something great, all the while in the face of great challenges. The cowboys are looking to make a living. The Mormons are looking to make a journey to build a community. The troupe is looking to survive and make it to the next town, also looking to make a living despite some frowning on the questionable tactics and morals. They come together for one another in a time of great need and make something greater than the sum of their parts.
That Ford does not sympathize with the Cleggs is simply justice. In America, we should never have to sympathize with greedy, selfish criminals, but rather we should band together and sympathize with those who are more like us than we realize. The people trying to make a living, trying to worship their god in their own way, trying to survive while others continually persecute them. Wagon Master is not your typical western masterpiece, as it’s more of a slice of life story akin to something like Canyon Passage. It also features a few obvious continuity errors and choppy editing. And yet, Ford is able to tell his tale with such conviction and dedication, the actors are able to depict their characters with the utmost compassion, that Wagon Master is able to overcome its technical deficiencies to be one of the true delights of this marathon.