Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Alan Mowbray, Jane Darwell, Ruth Clifford, Russell Simpson, Kathleen O'Malley, James Arness, Francis Ford, Fred Libby, Jim Thorpe, Mickey Simpson, Cliff Lyons, Hank Worden, Don Summers, Movita Castaneda
Written by: Frank S. Nugent, Patrick Ford
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 86
Date: 04/19/1950

Wagon Master (1950)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Mormons on the Move

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Along with that same year's Rio Grande, John Ford's Western Wagon Master was a relatively low-budget affair, made in a low-key, easy style and resulting in an effortless entertainment. It's probably the least known of Ford's sound-era Westerns, and one of the few that doesn't star either John Wayne or Henry Fonda. Yet Ford considered it among his personal favorites, and a handful of Ford's biggest admirers consider it a neglected masterpiece. (I do too.) Underneath its casual style and relaxed plot is an undeniable message of intolerance as powerful as anything Ford's mentor D.W. Griffith did in Intolerance (1916). Yet the movie has such a clean, even pace that you may be too busy having a good time to notice right away. Horse traders Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) receive an offer to help guide a wagon train of Mormon settlers across the desert. Along the way, they pick up the stranded members of a traveling medicine show, and they also attract the attention of some Navajo and a runaway band of evil outlaws, the Cleggs. (The movie opens on the Cleggs as they shoot their way out of a robbery.) Ward Bond co-stars as the comical Mormon Elder Wiggs, who has a lusty past and has trouble holding his tongue in tough situations, and Joanne Dru plays "hoochie koochie girl" Denver, a love interest for Travis (similar to Claire Trevor's "Dallas" character in Stagecoach). The script by Frank S. Nugent and Ford's son Patrick allows plenty of time for stops and rests and for Ford to admire the Utah scenery, and even Ford's usual penchant for broad humor seems to ease perfectly into the film's fabric. James Arness has a wordless role as the biggest and most sinister of the Clegg brothers, and Oscar winner Jane Darwell (Ma Joad in Ford's The Grapes of Wrath) plays Sister Ledeyard, who spends most of the film blowing an awful-sounding horn. Warner Home Video finally released this wonderful film on DVD in 2009.

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