about the writer
Richard T. Jameson edited the magazines Movietone News (1971-81) and Film Comment (1990-2000), as well as the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres. He lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.
By Richard T. Jameson
The heroes of Wagon Master (1950), to the extent that any should be singled out, come toward us behind the "Directed by John Ford" credit: two young men, one driving a buckboard, the other on horseback, leading a string of tethered ponies. This being a John Ford film, the ponies are not merely a functional presence or atmospheric adornment; they nip at one another, balk, snort, rear, whinny, jostle. Nor will their misbehavior, or claims on our attention, end here. But for now, consider the humans.
The young man on the buckboard is Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.), and he's reckoning how much money the sale of the horses is likely to bring him and his partner Travis (Ben Johnson). Twelve horses at thirty dollars a head should come to . three hundred and twenty dollars. "More like three-sixty," Travis emends; "subtract that twenty dollars you owe me and you'll wind up with one-sixty." Sandy is happy (but then again, he usually is): "Not bad for four months work. Not bad at all." It is a small thing of beauty that the one-sixty is half of the total Sandy miscalculated in the first place.
Might Wagon Master be John Ford's greatest film? With so many worthy candidates, we needn't insist. But it's the purest. No one else could or would have made it. There's not a second, not a frame, that answers to any convention, any imperative beyond the director's wish that it be as it is, look at what it looks at the way it does.
Which is part of the reason for Wagon Master's being the great John Ford film known to the fewest people, especially in the land of its birth. This production of Ford and Merian C. Cooper's Argosy Pictures is entirely personal, but also perverse in its willful disregard of commercial appeal. (When Warner Home Video assembled their Ford-without-John-Wayne box set of DVDs several years ago, they didn't bother to include it.) Made between the second and third installments of Argosy's celebrated Cavalry trilogy, Wagon Master boasts no marquee names in its cast; the top four players - Johnson, Joanne Dru, Carey, Ward Bond - get announced after the title, with the names of their characters attached just to be on the safe side. The movie forgoes the Technicolor that was such a glory in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). It also forgoes Ford's signature Western location Monument Valley, though the landscapes around Moab, Utah, prove only slightly less awesome, and perhaps a touch biblical.
Some might say that Wagon Master forgoes story as well, but that's not true. There is a story - and a rare story credit for the director (with son Patrick Ford and son-in-law Frank Nugent co-credited for screenplay). It's a good story, too; just not the kind that entails much, if any, plot. Mostly it's movement, and mostly it gets told with camera, sound, and music.
It begins before it starts - that is, before the main title (still a rare phenomenon in 1950) - with the robbery of an express office. The event is a mini-story unto itself, so familiar to movie audiences that it can be staged as archetype, in a kind of Morse code: wind-fluttered wanted poster for "The Cleggs," superimposed over sharply diagonal studies of the office, hard light slashed across it, the personnel and customers with their hands up, and one of the Cleggs (James Arness as Floyd, blond and aglow with dementia) covering them from the doorway. Then we get a wide view of the office space as several other Cleggs pass across laden with loot and depart. The last - the leader, Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper) - clumps through with spurs jingling, pauses in the doorframe to look back and smile, then exits with a snap of his quirt. It would be the height of folly for the express office clerk to pull a pistol from under the counter and shoot, but he does. Shiloh, nursing a slight wound, lurches back into the room with his boys; all look appalled at the clerk's bad manners and worse judgment. Someone passes Shiloh a shotgun, and though the clerk's attempt to flee is as hapless as his act of resistance, the end of the mini-story is foreordained. It isn't necessary to show the clerk die. Ford's low-angle camera continues to study light and space, with a dynamism so absolute that the swell of powdersmoke from Shiloh's gun is enough to set an overhead lamp to swaying.
Main title at this point, and the rising of a ballad ("A hundred years have come and gone since 1849."), and scenes of a wagon train on the move. The costumes may or may not convey to us that these travelers are Mormons. Their faces, in which desperation and resolve commingle, mark them as kin to the uprooted pilgrims of 1940's The Grapes of Wrath (a decade had come and gone). At one point during this credit sequence Ford plants his camera in oblique relation to the line of march, just out of the wagons' way; as a wagon draws near, the camera pans slightly to frame and memorialize the family seated under the Conestoga arch; then the wagon passes, carrying that family out of shot, and the camera readjusts to its original view to observe the next wagon in line, the next family unit. The shot continues and the tactic is repeated several times - accommodating the progress of each individual component of the caravan, then testifying to its ongoing connection to the society as a whole. (A similar strategy operated throughout She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, in effect folding individual trajectories back into the one transcendent movement: ".whatever they fought for and wherever they rode, that place became the United States.") It is an august passage, and the light and textures might be Mathew Brady's. But that doesn't deter Ford from allowing a dog to push into closeup, interrupt a meditation on wagon wheel and crumbling earth crust, and woof before passing off screen.
So we have two parties at large in the land, outlaws and Mormons. The transition to a third group, Sandy and Travis, is achieved with a ceremonial image, a grandmotherly sort standing against a wilderness escarpment and lifting a great horn to blow. The woman's name is Sister Ledeyard, but really it's Jane Darwell, Ma Joad herself, and if anyone is to herald the "Directed by John Ford" title, it should be she. Of course, we don't hear that horn blow (the Sons of the Pioneers are still occupying the soundtrack with the first of their four ballads). When we do hear it a little later, we'll learn that it's a godawful blat that could crack the Seventh Seal. Still, the silhouette is auspicious.
None of these three groups know about one another yet, have any connection. That will begin to change in the town of Crystal City, where Travis, in the act of selling one of his "gentle horses" to the town marshal (Cliff Lyons), attracts the attention of Mormon elder Wiggs (Ward Bond). Travis has horse-traded in Navajo country, and Wiggs needs someone to wagon-master the Mormon party through that region "to a valley that's been reserved for us by the Lord." Travis is dubious ("My guess is ya can't make it"), though it doesn't hurt that Wiggs is offering to buy all his stock for well above the asking price. Besides, the two men are kindred spirits as they lean on a corral fence, whittle, and endeavor to outfox each other. Wiggs is a devout Mormon but he's also - to the manifest dismay of his American Gothic companion Adam Perkins (Russell Simpson) - still in touch with a sinful past, irredeemably addicted to "the words of wrath" and even conversant with the card game "high low jick jack jinny and the bean gun" ("Hold low or claim it?" "Claim it.").
That Travis will eventually accept the commission is as foreordained as the arc of the express office robbery. There's no discussion why. The tipping point might be the moment the marshal of Crystal City - who was promptly bucked off the gentle horse he had bought from Travis, and who has just lost a hand of high low etc. to him - shuffles the deck and snorts, "Mormons, Cleggses, showfolk, horse [glance at Travis] . traders." This is the first we've heard of the showfolk, but the movement of the story will catch up and absorb them soon enough. Meanwhile, Travis can see that he's already among the pariahs. Gilded with magic-hour Bert Glennon sunlight, he tosses a coin into the kitty and says, "I'm in."
This is Ford's definitive portrayal of America moving west. Almost everyone is an outcast - and when the film and the movement reach the San Juan River country, that will include the first people on the land, the Indians. Individuals and groups drift, coalesce, then separate and coalesce again in new configurations. None of this is verbalized; it's choreography, a river-flow charted by Ford's camera.
Consider just one sequence. The wagon train has come upon the medicine show troupe run out of Crystal City before them and now stranded in the desert. They're a disreputable bunch, and the most self-righteous among the Mormons - notably Adam Perkins and a younger zealot named Brother Jenkins (Don Summers) - want shed of them. Travis declares (marvelous Ben Johnson line), "I'm not leavin' 'em down and that's flat." Angry words are building when Wiggs says, "Now hold on here," and lunges off from camp, almost physically pulling the tension away from the heart of the community. Brother Perkins, Travis, and several others follow along, the camera receding before. Wiggs continues: "I ain't so sure but what the Lord didn't put these folks in our path for a reason. As I see it, the Lord ain't one to waste His energy. He's gone to a lotta trouble gettin' these folks into this fix, and if I was Him, I wouldn't want anybody messin' up my plans!" Brother Perkins, whose discomfort has been growing with each syllable, says, "Well, putting it that way." Wiggs says, "All right then," and heads back toward the wagons.
The camera returns with him, community coalescing around the new decision he's forced/made. We see Jenkins still glaring, but Wiggs orders, "Sister Ledeyard, blow your horn" - which she does, her musicality now communally supported by the medicine show's Mr. Peachtree (Francis Ford, eloquent as ever in wordlessness) half-bent over his drum. Miss Prudence (Kathleen O'Malley), Perkins's daughter, crosses through the shot, with Sandy following a few steps behind; he has been fascinated by her since she stood silently by during the Crystal City horse trading, and he bows repeatedly now, watching her exit. Then he turns to exit the other side to get mounted. Travis meanwhile has mounted offscreen and now rides into shot, curving into parallel with the caravan, which is already in motion, raising new clouds of dust and glory. And stalwart in the foreground, Sister Ledeyard and Mr. Peachtree play on.
That's a bravura sequence, of suffusing beauty, though it rolls out as casually as people walking. And then Ford arguably tops it by dissolving to a single shot of the wagon train some time later, as seen from high ground maybe a mile away. Distance makes the train look almost spectral, while on the soundtrack one of Stan Jones's ballads reaches us faintly, like an aural mirage. In this instance the song isn't laid over the image by the Sons of the Pioneers; it's meant to be the wagon train community singing, the totality of the moment a wilderness poem embracing humankind in a great vastness. Ford holds the shot a long time, though it does nothing to advance the plot.
Then again, advancement is a slippery notion in a movie that sometimes meets itself coming and going. As in that opening robbery scene, which was almost over with as we joined it, Ford lingers where he wants to and, often as not, leaves offscreen that which we'd expect to see featured. The Cleggs will cross paths with the wagon train around the film's midpoint, just as the Mormons are celebrating their deliverance from the wasteland. From the outset, tensions are defined and aggravated, specific animosities established; but the moment when the outlaw clan pulls its guns and takes over the caravan occurs not only offscreen but miles away from where the camera has turned its attention. (By conventional Western standards Wagon Master is woefully undersupplied with gun violence. Shooting breaks out only twice, and the latter, decisive instance is accomplished in scarcely more time than it takes to read this parenthesis.)
Wagon Master has scant interest in the prosaic, being preeminently a musical and a poem. The musical aspect is immediately apparent, and lengthy stretches of the movie are narrated in song rather than dramatized. The poem is something else again. More, certainly, than a matter of appreciating that almost everything in the film is surpassingly beautiful to watch and uncannily evocative. Some of those behind-the-credits images of the Mormon train crossing river and plain actually anticipate crossings the community has yet to make; we see them again later. But it's the final montage that lifts the movie into another realm entirely. There are shots we've seen before - landmarks, vistas, the communal dance - but also shots we haven't. Elder Wiggs joins Travis and Sandy in an offkey horseback song (basically, offkey is the key of virtue here, as in the un-actorly readings of stuntmen turned featured players Ben Johnson and Cliff Lyons). And Travis and Sandy are each seen up on a wagon box, driving with Joanne Dru's showgirl Denver and Kathleen O'Malley's Miss Prudence, respectively, seated alongside. These unions are, yet again, the foreordained outcome of their stories, but the visual suggestion is that the couples made the journey as couples . that the journey, the experiences they shared without quite sharing, made them. It's a subtler, deeper variation on the closing, transfiguring memory images of How Green Was My Valley (1941), the Morgan men reunited on the hilltop long after separation and death.
And one more thing: This movie that began before it began also ends a few luminous seconds after THE END has come and gone. It is another image we've seen before, though now we return to the place and know it for the first time. A river crossing is under way. Horses and wagons and riders struggle with the current. Then a foal momentarily separates from the herd, scampers ashore, shakes itself dry, and springs up onto the westward bank.