How is it that John Ford's greatest film remains largely unknown? All right, let's not kick sand on The Searchers
, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
, or Ford's many other masterworks. But the director himself numbered Wagon Master
among his personal favorites, and it's an utterly unique and original film no one else could have made.
This crusty, eccentric production, slipped in between installments of Ford's Cavalry trilogy, doesn't really star anybody. Ward Bond plays a Mormon elder, a reformed sinner still given to "the words of wrath" who asks a slightly larcenous young horse trader to lead a wagon train through the desert to a valley "the Lord has reserved" for them. The newly anointed wagon master is played by Ben Johnson, an amazing horseman Ford had been bringing along in character roles; at this point Johnson was still getting used to delivering lines, though that's part of his charm and serves his character beautifully.
A transcendent allegory of the opening of the frontier, Wagon Master follows no conventional, linear itinerary. The Lord moves in mysterious ways and so does the movie, which begins before it begins (that is, before the opening credits) and ends a few luminous seconds after THE END has come and gone. Storytelling takes a backseat to poetry, with long passages consecrated to savoring faces, landscapes, and raw sunlight. Some of these passages are supported by songs, and sometimes music rises faintly like an auditory mirage borne in from a great distance. The musicality extends to communal dancing, and to the demonic jingling of spurs that signals the appearances of "Uncle" Shiloh Cleggs (Charles Kemper), patriarch of an inbred outlaw clan whose dog-legged journey eventually intersects the wagon train's.
In keeping with Ford's vision of civilization and its discontents, Wagon Master is populated mostly by pariahs. Besides the deservedly outcast Cleggses, there are the Mormons, the vagabond horse traders played by Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., a medicine-show troupe, and the first people on the land, the Navajo. As individuals and groups drift and coalesce, then separate and coalesce again in fresh configurations, a new nation gets its footing while marching west--"out across the backlands, where the dust has lain so long...." This is the heart's-core of American cinema. --Richard T. Jameson