- Produced and Directed by John Ford
- April 22, 1950
A pair of drifters find themselves guiding a Mormon wagon train to the San Juan Valley and must deal with the problems they encounter along the way.
Maybe it’s the geek in me but the title Wagon Master sounds like some bad comic book villain. Anyway…
Wagon Master is an all too short 90-minute film. It focuses on a group of Mormons forced out of a town who are attempting to travel to California to re-settle and live in peace. There’s plenty of good stuff here but the film itself is just too short. I wanted more. And maybe it’s a good thing that it was as short as it was. You should always leave the audience wanting more as they say in entertainment.
The main threat/villain of the film is introduced early in the story. There is no mistaking what it is going to be. The Clegg Family, group of bank robbers seen in the opening moments of the film, end up being the overarching threat to the wagon train and its safety. I personally would have liked to of seen the core characters of drifters Travis Blue (Ben Johnson) and Sandy Owens (Harry Carey Jr.) and the Mormon Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) introduced first and then the threat of the Cleggs brought in. John Ford was one of the great Hollywood directors of old, but I do think this was a misstep on his part.
The film is a little light until the wagon train comes across the Cleggs. From there it waffles between light and moments of tension before mostly jettisoning the lighter elements as it approaches the finale and the comeuppance of the Cleggs. And then it goes back to a more family friendly type feel.
Contrary to the belief that every old Western portrayed Native Americans as mindless murderous savages, the Navajo are shown as only a danger to those that would be a danger to them. This also leads into an aversion to violence in the narrative of the film as exemplified by the pacifist Mormons.
Wagon Master is also about community and the good things that can be found in one. The payoff of the story is not some massive gun battle as one would expect in a Western but rather the arrival of the wagon train at its destination.
Being focused on themes of community and not focusing on violence, there’s some humor in this movie accompanied with good dialogue. The central characters are differentiated well enough that you will not get anybody confused. The Cleggs though are mostly interchangeable aside from the patriarch of the family (Charles Kemper).
Ford does not shy away from the polygamy aspect either of the Mormon religion of the time. For instance Mormon Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) openly admits to having multiple wives though no character is clearly shown on screen with more than one wife. The mentions are safe for the era this came out but they are there.
The story overall is good and focuses more on the characters than it does on gun play. And for the era I guess this movie would qualify as woke. The Navajo shown in this movie are not mindless savages or treated as such. At least by the good guy characters anyway.
Wagon Master is an entertaining Western film. It has some good characters in a well-presented story with good performances. Maybe not the finest of John Ford’s work but it is a good film nonetheless. I recommend this movie to Western and movie fans alike!