Thursday, 10 February 2011
Starring: Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Joanne Dru, Ward Bond, James Arness
By Alan Bacchus
Warner Bros/TCM has packaged together a fine four-pack collection of somewhat lesser known John Ford westerns. The mix bag includes his second to last film, the epic Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the second entry in the ‘Cavalry Trilogy'.She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); the Magi Story transplanted to the wild west, 3 Godfathers; and this picture, Wagon Master, a non-John Wayne western but reportedly one of Ford’s favourite pictures.
Unfortunately despite Ford’s own preference, it’s not his finest hour. A rare dud, for the most part lacking in the genre elements he helped give birth to and even his stylistic cinematic hallmarks of the rest of his body of work.
Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. play a couple of drifters, Travis and Sandy, hired by a Morman elder to guide his family convoy across the frontier to the San Juan Valley. Along the way the group has run ins with a some prostitutes, a medicine man, some Indians, and a snarly trio of bandits.
In the wild west with hostility threatening at every turn the film sadly feels under-dramatized. We never feel the stakes of the journey, and as protagonists Travis and Sandy fail to undergo any signficant change, or even feel any sacrifice for their decisions in the film.
As the Elder Wiggs, Ford has fun with his moral conflict in dealing with the ‘ladies of the night’ who join the group. Perhaps my indifference to this picture lies with the casting of leads. Without Henry Fonda or John Wayne, Ford's leads fail to rise to become heroes or stars whose personalities jump off the screen.
Even the normally scenic Utah locales lack that 'Fordian' mythic resonance. The musical songs by Stan Jones as performed by the Sons of the Pioneers recalls their more inspiring work later with Ford on The Searchers, but certainly doesn’t come close to providing the same sense of period romance.
That said, this fine sets two of Ford’s best films, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and 3 Godfathers, both teaming with the resonant genre qualites we desire from his work. I haven’t seen Cheyenne Autumn yet, so look out for a future look back at this picture – a late career epic from a man whose creativity, though it had brief ups and downs, never seemed to age.
Wagon Master is available via Warner Home Entertainment and Turner Classic Movies