Sunday, June 28, 2015

#563: Wagon Master

Directed by: JOHN FORD
1950, TSPDT Rank #524

This film was made during a creatively fertile period for John Ford at Argosy Pictures, where he made some of his most personal and beloved work - including the Cavalry Trilogy, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright, and this film (which was supposedly Ford's favorite of his westerns). After making Rio Grande (the last film of the Cavalry Trilogy) later the same year, he didn't make another western until The Searchers in 1956 - and by that point, there had been a major shift in tone and in his general approach to the genre. Most of Ford's later westerns were darker, melancholic, and morally ambiguous, but none of those characteristics exist in Wagon Master - arguably one of the  most lighthearted and idealistic of his westerns. It tells the story of two wandering horse traders (played by Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) who lead a wagon train of Mormons on a perilous route through the desert to a new settlement, and having to deal with Navajos and outlaws along the way. Ward Bond (one of many John Ford regulars in the film) plays the Mormons' church elder, a character which gives him a good showcase for a lot of trademark shouting and bellowing, along with a lot of near-cursing which serves to provide the majority of the film's comic relief, as Bond is continually rebuked by one of the other Mormons - "Elder!!!" All of this adds up to a hugely enjoyable and beautifully-made western - with all of the John Ford trademarks present in their purest and most unfettered form, and the lines between good and evil clearly visible. The fact that all of Ford's subsequent westerns were shot in color rather than black-and-white probably shouldn't be taken as mere coincidence.

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