Wagon Master (1950)

Dir. John Ford. Starring Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr.

Travis (Johnson) has decided, a little foolishly, to check out a geographical formation in the distance. He’s not sure where he is, though Sandy (Carey) seems to vaguely remember it. Predictably, Travis rides into a small band of Navajo who give chase to him. The chase itself is a great action sequence; the difference between Ben Johnson, a sensational horseback rider, and some stuntman we can only see from the back or at a distance is serious. Travis is leading the Navajo back to the wagon train, where he knows that the Mormons he’s guiding – as well as the posse of outlaws they’re accidentally harboring – is armed and ready to protect him. It seems that we will get an inevitable showdown in which some people are shot and killed. But Elder Wiggs (Bond) has a different idea.

The men of the posse raise their rifles and pistols; Wiggs orders them to stand down. He asks Travis if he knows any Navajo, finds out that Sandy is his man, and then calls him to the front of the column. Wiggs, Travis, and Sandy walk out to the Navajo, who have caught up by now and, like the Mormons, have yet to open fire. Travis and Sandy, on Wiggs’ orders, drop their guns. The conversation that follows is friendly enough. The Navajo leader (Jim Thorpe – if not Navajo, an honest to God Native American) is of the opinion that all white men are thieves, but that the Mormons are lesser thieves than the average white men. (Wiggs laughs at this, saying that this proves the Indian is nobody’s fool.) There’s an unspoken kinship between the two groups. Both of them have historically been pushed out by more powerful folks with a much stronger prejudicial feeling. These are people who have been victimized at the hands of the same oppressors. And one band of resistance to another, the Navajo decide to take the Mormons in for the night.

It’s a totally unexpected event for the film; I was halfway through a deep sigh at the inevitable white man/red man conflict that I’d hoped the film would skip over. But it ends in a ceremonial dance instead, one that even the oldest and crustiest Mormon, Elder Perkins (Russell Simpson) finds himself part of by the end of the night. It’s a touch idealistic, maybe even naive, but Ford’s message is pretty clear and deeply attractive. There’s no reason these groups have to devolve into gunfire and senseless killing, and Ford doesn’t invent any reasons for them to do so. It matters more in Wagon Master that people are useful to one another than what the differences between them might be; when one of the outlaws assaults a Navajo woman, the retribution by the Mormons is immediate and fierce. Above the objections of the leader of the Clegg gang, Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper), Wiggs has the offending man tied to a wheel and flogged. There’s no indication that the Navajo and Mormons will meet again, but while they interact they are neighborly, and they leave each other on good terms.

Fittingly, the only real gunplay in the film comes when Travis and Sandy, neither of whom are much in the way of gunfighters, manage to shoot down the Clegg gang. The fight happens at close range, and only some quick work from Travis in particular manages to win the day for the Mormons and their wagon masters. There are some people, Ford argues, that cannot be reasoned with or talked to. The Navajo, despite the language barrier, were open to the Mormons because they were non-aggressive. The Clegg band can make no such statements. They came into the Mormon camp during an impromptu dance and made it known, by bearing if not necessarily by words, that they were invaders. Travis put up with them until Uncle Shiloh begins to actively threaten the lives of other people – specifically, Wiggs – and that’s when the two of them strike. Ford, so strongly influenced by World War II, must have had Hitler on his mind. Uncle Shiloh is no Hitler, obviously. He’s a small-time bank robber and murderer, the kind that infests the Wild West in pictures like these. But Ford looks at his chief villain in this picture and sees a man who cannot be persuaded to do right or have his mind changed. Those men are the most dangerous; indeed, these are the only men we ought to shoot down. Travis doesn’t even grant full personhood to Uncle Shiloh and the Cleggs. After Travis and Sandy manage to kill the band, which outnumber them, Wiggs is a little surprised. He gruffly reminds Travis that he’d said he’d never drawn on anyone. No sir, Travis replies, only snakes.

Wagon Master is an unusual western for many reasons, but the cast is certainly top of the list. It has no John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda or Gary Cooper to anchor the cast, or alternately to muddy the message with star power. As Travis, Wayne would have brought an experienced man with some braggadocio to the role; Cooper would have brought much the same set of problems, but more handsomely. Its biggest star in the moment, depending on who you ask, is either Joanne Dru or Ward Bond. Dru plays a bit part that could be easily excised from the movie if it weren’t already under ninety minutes, and Bond, despite his starring role, is one of the quintessential supporting actors of the ’40s and ’50s. (I’m pleasantly reminded of Meek’s Cutoff, another Conestoga-heavy western with a marvelous ensemble. Is Michelle Williams or Bruce Greenwood the biggest star? Maybe it’s Will Patton? Paul Dano?) Among Ford movies, the richness of the supporting cast is not unique, but the fact that the starring roles belong to actors whose faces and ages fit the the characters might be. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, watching Wayne and Stewart play men half their age causes an unpleasant cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, watching fresh-faced folks like Johnson and Carey take on a complex job that they’ve never had to undertake before is engaging. John Wayne as a horse trader simply gives off the impression of a man who could be a wagon master if he wanted to. Ben Johnson as a horse trader is someone who is willing to give that job a go for the money, and that’s a fundamentally different impression requiring a visage with fewer lines. Carey is second fiddle to Johnson, which makes him seem even younger. In his first scene, he displays his total lack of ability to multiply; happily, his counterpart seems more than capable of basic math. In many of his other appearances, he’s following around a redheaded Mormon with the sort of faithfulness one typically associates with Journey. Johnson and Carey are two of the great character actors of American film, but they don’t imbue the film with the sort of mythic grandeur that the big A-listers of the time would have necessarily brought to the part.

Combined with a soundtrack featuring the Sons of the Pioneers (another bunch that Ford frequently made use of), there’s a personal quality to the story of the Mormons. The music is largely pretty cheery; I’ve had “Chuckawalla Swing” stuck in my head since I watched this movie. There are children everywhere; dogs abound, though they can’t quite get the horses to pay attention to them; even the dearth of guns reduces the barrier between the viewers and the characters, who seem significantly less dangerous and far more inviting. The peculiarities of the Mormon faith as compared to more mainstream Christians are made fun of early on by Wiggs, and thus we lose some of the animosity and prejudice that must have been felt among contemporary audiences. (Sandy accidentally on purpose compares Hell to Salt Lake City; they’re both geographical places, but it’s a comparison that gets him into a tussle with a hotheaded Saint.) All in all, this is a western which is invested less in Yanks (or persisting Confederates) against Indians, or cowboys on the move, or nation building in the offing. As much as anything else, Wagon Master has a strong interest in how communities band together. It’s worth noting that family is not necessarily high on this movie’s list of useful social units. The Cleggs are all related, and they’re the only villains in the entire movie. The Mormons are bound together by idealism, and attract men like Travis and Sandy because of their fervor. What a relief to watch a movie that sees more possibility in unified, idealistic action than in the vapid appeal to “family.”

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