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"Be gentle," repeats Ben Johnson over and over early in Wagon Master (1950). He's talking to his horses, but in a way, he's talking to the audience, too. There's not much action forthcoming (especially for a Western), and there is barely a story. And yet Wagon Master is one of the most poetic narrative films ever made. What little plot exists is secondary to the movie's real concern: celebrating a way of life, that of Mormon pioneers, and placing it in the context of nature. Director John Ford, one of the most visual of directors working near the peak of his career, called Wagon Master not only his favorite Western but described it as, "along with The Fugitive (1947) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953), the closest to being what I had wanted to achieve."
In a rare starring role, Ward Bond plays the leader of a group of Mormons who, shunned by society, struggle to cross the American West to reach their "promised land," where they can settle and form a community. They ask two horse traders (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr.) who know the territory to lead their wagon train. It takes some convincing, but they finally agree to do it, and the rest of the story follows their journey and the obstacles they must overcome, including Indians, gunmen, and Mother Nature. Yet the story often pauses to revel in the characters dancing, whittling or singing (the soundtrack is packed with old Western songs), and to show pastoral sequences of the wagons simply moving through the landscape or crossing a river. These scenes become the emotional core of the film, and they undoubtedly are what Ford was so satisfied to have achieved.
By all accounts, the production of Wagon Master was as relaxed and enjoyable as the movie itself. Fittingly, it was a family project: John Ford received story credit and directed. His son Patrick shared screenplay credit (with Frank Nugent). His brother Francis was in the cast (as Mr. Peachtree), and his daughter Barbara was assistant editor! With a budget just under $1 million (the highest paid actor was Ward Bond at $20,000), Ford was able to shoot the picture in under a month by filming between 10 and 28 setups a day, often doing just one take. Filming took place mostly near Moab, Utah, then a tiny town. On weekends, with nothing else to do, the movie company took over the town theater and put on Robert Service's "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," staged and narrated by John Ireland, who was in Moab to be with his wife Joanne Dru - the leading lady of Wagon Master.
Ford liked Moab because of its landscape - especially its river crossings - but also because of the look of the local populace. Patrick Ford remembered, "Moab had the greatest faces in the world. [John] wouldn't credit a Hollywood extra if he could do otherwise. He wouldn't use a Hollywood Indian if there was still a real Indian alive." Furthermore, wrote Harry Carey, Jr., in his memoir, Company of Heroes, "To [Ford], there was no such person as an extra, and because of that, they all adored him. He knew most of them by name by the end of that first day. They'd do anything for him."
Ward Bond gave one of his most endearing performances in Wagon Master. At one point he accidentally fell off his horse, luckily not hurting his left leg, which had been damaged some time earlier in a car accident and on which he often wore a brace. With the camera still rolling, Bond remained in character, got up and angrily berated the horse - a bit that remained in the picture.
An even more amusing incident happened on the day that Ford decided to work into the film two local dogs who were constantly getting into fights with each other. Ford wanted to stage a fistfight between Carey and a stuntman with the dogs fighting in the background. Ward Bond was then to enter the frame and separate the two men. Ford methodically explained the logistics to everyone, and the two men started their fight. But when the dogs were let loose, they didn't fight - they froze. Then one ran away while the other attacked Bond, ripping his left pant leg wide open. "I have never in my life seen Jack Ford laugh so hard," remembered Carey. "Ward ran into the scene, torn pants and all, and separated the two of us." This scene remains in the finished film.
Producer: Merian C. Cooper, Lowell J. Farrell, John Ford
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: John Ford (story), Patrick Ford, Frank S. Nugent
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: Jack Murray
Art Direction: James Basevi
Music: Richard Hageman, Stan Jones
Cast: Ben Johnson (Travis Blue), Joanne Dru (Denver), Harry Carey Jr. (Sandy), Ward Bond (Elder Wiggs), Charles Kemper (Uncle Shiloh Clegg), Alan Mowbray (Dr. A. Locksley Hall).
BW-86m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold