Directed by: John Ford
Written by: John Ford (story) (uncredited), Patrick Ford, Frank S. Nugent (written by)
Starring: Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Alan Mowbray, Hank Worden
By 1950, John Ford had already fully-developed the ideas and motifs that would form the core of his most successful Westerns. Always present, for example, is a strong sense of community, most poignantly captured in the Joad family of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Within these communities, even amid Ford's loftier themes of racism and the pioneer spirit, there's always room for the smaller human interactions, the minor friendships and romances that make life worth living. Wagon Master (1950) came after Ford had released the first two films in his "cavalry" trilogy – Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) – and it covers similar territory, only without the military perspective and, more damningly, the strong lead of John Wayne. Ben Johnson and Harry Cary, Jr. are fine actors, but they feel as though they should be playing second-fiddle to somebody, and Ward Bond's cursing Mormon elder, while potentially a candidate for such a role, isn't given quite enough focus to satisfactorily fit the bill.
In Wagon Master, Ford seems so comfortable with his tried-and-tested Western formula that any character development is largely glossed over. Ben Johnson's romance with Joanne Dru is treated as an obligation more than anything else, and Harry Cary Jr's charming of a Mormon girl is so perfunctory as to be almost nonexistent in the final film, leaving one to ponder the survival of deleted scenes. Only in Charles Kemper's charismatic and shamelessly-villainous Uncle Shiloh does Ford try some different, and it works, even with his being surrounded by a troop of insufferably hammy slack-jawed yokels. Where Ford does succeed is in orchestrating the conglomeration of three distinct races of Americans – the values-orientated Mormoms, the easygoing horse-traders, the eccentric travelling showmen – into a cohesive community of pioneers looking towards a bright future. This apparent harmony is thrown into disarray by the arrival of Uncle Shiloh's gun-toting outlaws, who exploit the lawlessness of the Western frontier but ultimately lose out to the noble cowboys who "only ever drew on snakes." Ford reportedly considered Wagon Master among the favourite of his films, and perhaps this has something to do with the absence of big names like John Wayne or Henry Fonda. Armed only with his stock selection of usual players, Ford is able to generate a sense of community by avoiding placing focus on any one character, though most of the Mormom travellers still remain completely anonymous. Despite being undoubtedly well-made, I can't help feeling that this film only does well what other Ford pictures did even better: the terrific majesty of the the Western frontier was presented more beautifully in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; the romances and friendly squabbles among community members took greater prominence in Fort Apache; the early relations with Native Americans, only hinted at here, were more thoroughly examined in The Searchers (1956); the bold pioneering spirit of the early settlers was explored more movingly (albeit by Henry Hathaway and George Marshall) in How the West Was Won (1962). Wagon Master is pure John Ford, but it isn't a landmark.
Currently my #15 film of 1950:
6) Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)
7) All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
8) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston)
9) Gone to Earth (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
10) Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan)
11) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
12) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)
13) The Killer That Stalked New York (Earl McEvoy)
14) Armoured Car Robbery (Richard Fleischer)
15) Wagon Master (John Ford)