September 22, 2009
Two horse traders straddle a wooden gate in a stationary medium shot. The boyish one, Sandy (Harry Carey, Jr.) doffs his hat in an exaggerated curtsy to the passing Mormon travelers. The ruddy-faced Prudence (Kathleen O’Malley) peeks back nervously from her cart, embarrassed to display her interest in the cute stranger. Sandy whoops it up even more in response, waving his cap with adolescent bravado. He turns to fence-mate Travis (Ben Johnson), lamenting the fate of “all those women and children” making the journey across the desert towards the San Juan river. Travis gibes, “yeah, and that red-headed gal” too. After the wagons recede into the distance in a painterly long-shot composition lensed by DP Bert Glennon, Sandy turns to Travis and starts singing: I left my gal in old Virginny. And Travis finishes the phrase, fall in line on the wagon train. Without further deliberation (aside from another verse), he tells Sandy, “looks like we got a job.”
It’s no surprise it took this long for Wagon Master to appear on DVD. It contains no stars, and the entire film proceeds on this soft-spoken, economically paced path. But thankfully Warner Brothers brought out this sublime piece of Fordian drama last week, in a stunning transfer that includes an anecdote-rich audio commentary with Peter Bogdanovich, Harry Carey, Jr., and an early sixties interview with Ford himself.
In the simple scene I described, John Ford compresses the story material, Sandy and Travis decide to lead a Mormon wagon train, into a ballet of gestures and emotions. He turns a basic scene of exposition into an expression of character: Sandy is impulsive and sentimental, Travis is contemplative and decisive. He conveys this through the twirl of Sandy’s hat, the curl on Travis’ upper lip, and the ease in which they fall into song. It’s an adventure they cannot pass up, for the moral reasons Sandy sets forth, but also for the pure romance of the journey. When Glennon returns to the shot of the wagons receding into the distance, Johnson’s horse races parallel to the fence towards the vanishing point, the plot effortlessly moving forward.
On the audio commentary, Harry Carey, Jr. notes that John Ford was in a great mood during the shoot. So good he thought he might be ill (he was not known for his cheery disposition). Perhaps feeling a little more freedom on this low-budget outing, he made the production a family affair, as biographer Joseph McBride has helpfully noted. He gave his brother Francis, a silent star, a role as a mute drummer, the script was co-written by his son Patrick, his daughter Patricia was the assistant editor, “and the assistant directors included his brother Eddie O’ Fearna, brother-in-law Wingate Smith, and nephew Francis Ford, Jr.”
The mood is laid-back charm and casual mastery. This starts, of course, with Ford’s eye for the landscape of Moab, Utah, but it seeps into the performances of Ben Johnson and Carey, Jr., who were both ace horse riders. Johnson caught Ford’s eye as Henry Fonda’s stunt-man on the set of Fort Apache, McBride relates, when he saved three actors in a munitions wagon from being dragged by spooked horses into a “sheer rock wall.” Ford rewarded him with a seven-year contract. Johnson repays him with a performance in Wagon Master of refined nonchalance, as if he were silently etched out of the Utah landscape by sandstorms, and wasn’t set into motion until Ford and Glennon’s cameras started rolling. This gritty reserve is beautifully played off of Carey Jr.’s aw shucks bashfulness. Ward Bond provides the comic relief as Elder, the hot-headed Mormon always on the verge of cursing and eyed by his own elder, a silently admonitoryAdam Perkins (the extraordinary visage of Russell Simpson). This, as McBride suggests, could have been a subtle jibe by Ford at Bond’s support of the House Un-American Activities committe, which Bond was enthusiastically endorsing at the time. In casting him as a man persecuted and expelled from society because of his ideology, Ford must have been aware of the satiric parallel.
But as much as Ford could ease out the natural humor and personality of his performers, his overriding concern is always that of the community, and Wagon Master is probably his purest statement on the matter. It’s at least the favorite of his films, as the director stated many times. Sandy and Travis become the unlikely leaders of a group of outcasts, all rejected by some facet of society. The two horse traders are derided for their shady profession, while the Mormon’s are being kicked out of town because of their faith. Along the way, the wagon train picks up a trio of drunken medicine show performers, and has a run-in with a sympathetic group of Navajos, who consider Mormons to be lesser thieves than the regular run of white men. Ford envisions this traveling society through his favorite means: the ceremonial dance. He stages two versions – the first a Mormon hoedown, which depicts Carey’s continuing flirtation with Prudence and Travis’ nascent pursuit of Denver (Joanne Dru), the medicine show girl. The beat is kept by a wooden leg, and the group joyously unites in a twirling show of arms, legs, and hopes of utopia. The second is set in the Navajo camp, another circle dance that shocks the straight-laced Mormon women, but which Sandy is enthusiastically joins. These two sequences, along with the music of the Sons of the Pioneers that weave throughout the film (and are occasionally sung by the characters themselves, make the film a kind of “horse opera”, as Tag Gallagher playfully mentions in his critical study John Ford: The Man and his Films.
This is a film where the plot takes a backseat to gesture, landscape, and character. There is a conflict and a resolution, ably provided by Charles Kemper as the huffing and puffing Uncle Clegg, leader of a family of thieves, but it’s handled so swiftly and without emphasis it’s obvious Ford’s concerns are elsewhere. He’s focused on the manner in which Ben Johnson whittles a stick of wood, Joanne Dru stares from the back of a wagon, or Harry Carey twirls his hat. After watching Wagon Master for the first time, you’ll consider it minor, a trifle of Western whimsy. Then images will linger in your mind, and you’ll wonder why. It’s a mastery that sneaks up on you, that speaks quietly and calmly about a world within our reach. The image that stuck with me this time is Ford pushing in slowly on Joanne Dru, after she rejected an oblique offer of marriage, reflectively smoking at the back of a wagon, weighing the value of her independence. Next time it will be something different, and, of course, something extraordinary.