#20 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
“One for them, one for me.” I had no idea that Ford did this, but here is Wagon Master after a pair of crowd pleasers. It’s a character driven Western about Mormons on the trail to San Juan Valley, their promised land that they must set up for the rest of their flock who will be coming later. No John Wayne or Henry Fonda, John Ford offered the leads to minor stars Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson instead. He knew the movie had lower box office potential, and he made it cheaper, using his preferred black and white photography as well. Some critics and scholars have reappraised it as a forgotten masterpiece, and while I can’t bring myself to praise it at that level, it’s definitely something worthy of rediscovery.
Two horse traders, Travis (Johnson) and Sandy (Carey) drive their small band of horses into Crystal City, ready to sell them off for a decent profit at $20 a head when they come upon the leaders of a Mormon wagon train, namely Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), a former sinner now barely clinging onto his newfound religiosity as he tries to lead his people through the prejudices of 1880 America, playfully leaning into the stereotypes of Mormonism to help break the ice. After some back and forth where Wiggs offers the two men $50 per horse as long as they help lead the wagon train (with Travis becoming the titular Wagon Master), the pair agree and they head towards San Juan Valley.
And…that’s kind of it in terms of plot. They do pick up a traveling snake oil salesman, Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) in addition to his two lady helps, most particularly Denver (Joanne Dru) with whom Travis begins a nascent romance. That group gets folded into the Mormon train after they’re discovered dehydrated in the desert. They also come across the Cleggs, a family of outlaws we saw in the film’s prologue killing a bank teller. It’s obvious they’re up to no good, but the Mormons have no arms and Travis and Sandy aren’t gunfighters. It ends up easier to simply fold the Cleggs in as well without putting up a fight in the hopes that they will just separate at some point, a foolish course of action in the end.
The bulk of the film is really just a series of small character pieces set to the backdrop of this wagon train. The burgeoning relationship between Travis and Denver, first given a kick in the pants when Denver accidentally throws some bath water on Travis that scares his horse into bucking him (a stunt that Johnson himself did). Sandy gets infatuated with a redheaded Mormon woman. When they successfully reach water after making it through the desert, they have a dance (this is where the Cleggs show up in the middle of the night). Going across the river is dangerous, and the seed grain must be protected above all, ensuring that it gets across.
The latter half of the film is largely dominated by the Cleggs and their threat of menace to the wagon train. They go from implicitly holding the train hostage to explicitly doing it. It’s a bit unclear what they want other than to threaten, but this may be a symptom of the Hays Code that didn’t allow for a whole lot in terms of sexuality, especially sexual crimes. When the train meets up with the Navajo Nation, one of the Cleggs does seem to try and rape one of the Navajo women after Denver rebukes him, but it’s told mostly through gesture and incomprehensible screaming that that’s what the Clegg son had tried to do. The whipping that Wiggs gives the Clegg boy does nothing to help convince Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper), their leader and father, to let the Mormons just go.
The finale of the film is about getting the train up a treacherous incline and over a mountain that leads straight to San Juan Valley. After some digging, Travis helps create the path, and the train begins moving again. It’s right about here where the movie goes a little bit off the rails. Wiggs, Travis, and Sandy are the last three around the grain wagon, and the Cleggs decide to terrorize them a bit. It’s kind of unclear why. Maybe they want to steal all the grain because Wiggs had said that it was as valuable as gold to them (selling it would probably net the Cleggs something, of course), or maybe it’s just to get rid of the strongest of the men, leaving the women of the train all but unprotected. However, it’s the actual action that plays out that I find confusing. Travis and Sandy had their guns taken from them, leaving Sandy with just an old revolver that one of the boys of the train had hidden away. He uses just that one gun to defeat five men with their guns already drawn, and the action is simply unclear how it happens, probably because the actual result is kind of unbelievable. However, with it done, the train has its victory, and…we get a bunch of clips from earlier in the movie as the ending.
The movie just kind of stops, and it ends with clips from the dance that seem to be cut in like they’re supposed to be a new dance. However it’s super obvious that it’s the exact same stuff, along with clips from the crossing of the river. It’s an odd ending, and I get the sense that it was created in editing because the movie just kind of stopped when the train got over the mountain.
It’s the ending that’s my only real problem with the film. Everything up to it was building into something interesting, a Western version of Drums Along the Mohawk about the formation of a community against the backdrop of a popular genre. If this has stuck the landing like the earlier film I would probably have fallen in line with the overall reappraisal of the film’s status as a forgotten masterpiece, but the ending is just too weird and borderline incoherent. Everything up to that point, though, is kind of wonderful. Heartfelt, masculine, and grand visually, Wagon Master is four-fifths of a great film.