In close to half a century of filmmaking, director John Ford was just hitting his stride in 1950 with "Wagon Master." He had begun his career in silent movies, going on into talkies with dramatic classics like "Arrowsmith," "The Lost Patrol," "The Informer," "The Grapes of Wrath," "Young Mr. Lincoln," and "How Green Was My Valley," not really getting into Westerns until "Stagecoach" in 1939, and then still somewhat avoiding them until 1946 and "My Darling Clementine." After that he went hell-bent into the genre with a string of Westerns that most fans will probably always remember: "Fort Apache," "3 Godfathers," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Rio Grande," "The Searchers," "The Horse Soldiers," a segment of "How the West Was Won," and "Cheyenne Autumn." Of course, he continued to make fine dramas like "The Quiet Man," "Mister Roberts," and "The Last Hurrah," but he always seemed in his element doing Westerns.
Anyway, "Wagon Master" was one of his smaller films, the director making it for RKO/Argosy Pictures and choosing to work with non-stars rather than the big names he usually cast. You'll find no John Waynes or Henry Fondas here, only excellent actors formerly relegated to the status of supporting players. It appears Ford was trying to make a more intimate film than some of his others, a film where big-name stars would not upstage the story and the characters. Seems to have worked.
First, Ford got a screenplay from his longtime collaborator Frank Nugent and his son Patrick Ford. Next, he got composer Richard Hageman, with whom he had worked on a number of pictures, to do the background score and composer Stan Jones to write four songs specially for the movie--"Shadows in the Dust," "Song of the Wagon Master," "Wagons West," and "Chuckawalla Swing"--with the finest Western singing group in the country, The Sons of the Pioneers, to perform them. Then, he got one of the most-accomplished directors of photography in the business, Bert Glennon, to do the cinematography in one of his favorite locations, Monument Valley, among other places in Utah. Ford always surrounded himself with the best people, but he never let anyone forget who was boss; so although Ford went uncredited as a writer and producer on the film, he had a big hand in those areas as well.
Finally, it came to the casting, and as I've said, Ford went for lesser-known names. For the leads he hired Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr., both of whom had been in previous Ford pictures in more limited roles. For the female lead he chose Joanne Dru, with whom he had worked in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and the closest thing to a genuine star in the cast. For important featured parts, he got Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, Jim Thorpe, James Arness, Alan Mowbray, and Charles Kemper, names familiar to any fan of old movies.
The story itself is quite modest, but Ford invests it with his usual flair and precision. A wagon train of Mormon settlers is heading to the Southwest, but they need a guide. A pair of amiable cowpokes helps them out. The narrative is little more than a series of sentimental, sometimes adventurous episodes along the trail, yet Ford relates them so charmingly, who could complain?
Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. play the two cowboys, Travis and Sandy, horse traders who take a liking to the Mormons and recognize that without their help the wagon train would probably wind up dying of thirst in the middle of the desert. Ward Bond plays Elder Wiggs, the cranky, hotheaded leader of the Mormon contingent; Wiggs's biggest difficulty is keeping his language in check. Several years later, Bond would star in television's "Wagon Train," a direct outgrowth of the present film. And Joanne Dru plays the romantic interest, Travis Blue, a young woman who is part of a traveling medicine show stranded in the wilderness. The wagon train takes them, and Travis takes a shine to her.
The movie's major conflict involves the Cleggs, a family of cretinous outlaws running from the law who take up with the wagon train. A minor conflict involves the local Navajos, who turn out to be something other than what you might think.
While Ford would say he just aimed his camera and shot, he always composed his films meticulously, getting the best composition, the best light, and the best artistry out of every frame. Maybe it was his beginnings in silent movies that gave him an appreciation for visual poetry. Combining humor and excitement in equal measure, Ford makes "Wagon Master" an unexpected pleasure, with the wide-open spaces of the American frontier helping it register as much on the eye as on the heart and mind.
As with most of Ford's films into the early Fifties, he shot it in black-and-white and in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The transfer shows some signs of age, and there are stretches of noticeable grain and noise in the outdoor footage, which is extensive. Otherwise, WB found a good print and present it in admirable shape. The contrasts are strong, the black levels are deep, and there is detail even in darker areas of the screen. As always, the scenery steals the show, so it's a joy to have it shine through so well.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack comes through splendidly, too. It's generally clean, clear, natural, smooth, and quiet, agreeable to the ear most of the time. Although it doesn't have the dynamic range, frequency response, surround activity, or impact of modern audio, and there are passages that do tend to get a little congested and harsh, it's not at all severe.
The only bonus item on the disc is an excellent audio commentary by Harry Carey, Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich, with archival comments from John Ford. Mr. Carey, who co-starred in the picture, speaks candidly about his relationship with the notoriously cantankerous Ford and provides some amusing and fascinating anecdotes about making the film, with Bogdanovich his usual charming, informative self. It's clear that filmmaker/writer Bogdanovich loves a good movie and isn't afraid to say so. Things conclude with twenty scene selections, English and Spanish spoken languages, French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired. My score for the "Extras" rating below reflects not the number of items on the disc, which are few, but my regard for the audio commentary, which is first-class.
John Ford said that among all the films he made, "Wagon Master" was a personal favorite. Maybe he said that because it was such a small movie compared to his more well-known creations, he wanted to give it a few props. But I'd take him at his word; he was an unusually blunt and open guy who said what he meant. "Wagon Master" is a simple, straightforward film telling a simple, straightforward story, artistic in its design and execution and poetic in its telling. It deserves to be a favorite.