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Wagon Master (DVD)
To survive, a band of Mormons traveling across the vast Utah desert must learn to collaborate with the people they meet on the trail: bandits, dance hall girls and native Americans--and the seasoned Western tracker they have hired as Wagonmaster. Ward Bond, Harey Carey, Jr. and Academy Award winner Ben Johnson star as the Mormon patriarch looking for a new life on the frontier and the two horse traders who lead the Mormons to the San Juan River valley. Now, these very different people will have to find a way to work together to survive a trek across the desert and a perilous crossing of the untamed Colorado River in this Western classic.]]>
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
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Top Customer Reviews
Wagon Master had virtually disappeared for decades, so it's a treat to have this underrated classic back and available in a newly restored edition fitted out with extras. The sharp and clean black-and-white images let us appreciate how Ford made these dust-covered characters come alive and turned his long-lensed landscape scenes into visions of cinematic art. The Sons of the Pioneers' seamless harmony and song lyrics provided just the right narrative for this simple frontier story.
Ford picked a fine bunch to work with. It's great to see the youthfully handsome Ben Johnson, riding like the expert horseman he was in real life, as itinerate horse trader Travis Blue; the red-headed character actor Harry Carey, Jr. as Travis' trail partner, Sandy; a robust Ward Bond as the short-fused but stout-hearted Mormon Elder Whiggs, who hires the pair to help lead his people to their promised land; an alluring Joanne Dru as Denver, an ill-used medicine show handmaiden who finds that she has a will of her own; and Charles Kemper as Shiloh Clegg, the hygenically challenged patriarch of an outlaw family of inbreds. Look for the hulking James Arness in a small role that is the antithesis of his iconic Marshall Dillon. Other Ford stock company actors appear here as well, too numerous to mention. Trust me, you'll know them on sight.
IMO this DVD's value is enriched by the excellent commentary provided by film historian/director Peter Bogdanovich and Harry Carey, Jr. The veteran actor is a fount of information and anecdotes about Ford and the film, which he shares with an engaging ingenuousness. For example, Carey reveals that the lines his character spoke in Navajo were easy for him because he'd learned the language as a kid in Moab UT. This also happened to be where Wagon Master was shot in just four weeks (with only a few staged scenes in Monument Valley aka Ford country). The track is interspersed with clips from Bogdanovich`s 1976 interview with the irascible Mr. Ford. They are very interesting by themselves but IMO are distracting in this format.
SIDEBAR: As of this writing Mr. Carey is still with us. According to his web site, he will be 89 on May 16, 2010. God bless you, Dobe.
UPDATE: Mr. Carey passed away on December 27, 2012 in Santa Barbara, CA at age 91 of natural causes. He was the last surviving member of Ford's western acting company; thus, this commentary is even more reason to include this DVD in your collection.
In summary, if you're in the mood to revisit the Old West, let Wagon Master take you there. It's a darn good trail ride.
There is a lot to like in this movie; read the other reviews for more. But let me focus on the visual aspects. The black and white print is impeccable: clear and finely detailed. The camera work: great compositions, stunning exposures, 90% filmed on location outdoors. As movie commentator Peter Bogdonovich repeatedly points out, Ford shot many of the scenes as if this was a silent film, letting the action and the actors' facial expressions do the story telling. I'm impressed.
And then there's that background: mesas, rock walls, outcroppings, pinnacles, boulders. Where else could this be but the Great American West?!
Oh,and BTW this film was not filmed in Monument Valley. If you ever want to see the locations with your own eyes just drive down Utah Highway 128 between Moab and Cisco. It runs along the Colorado River and is one of the most spectacular car rides on planet earth.
I found this western, a most WONDERFUL movie -- !!! A group of traveling church people, laid bare by necessity to the dangers of the wild west in moving their clan, face the worst type of danger -- (from those traveling with them) -- this story has elements of true accounts, like the "O.K. CORRAL" -- do you all remember that one? (from history!) -- the Clanton boys -- who faced off with Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and others --
This story has a similar "rebel faction" that chances to "happen" along the way, and it poses lethal threat to all the other church going folks -- Now -- to find out what happens -- you buy this movie, and you'll be amazed at the outcome!!!! This is one of the best westerns I've ever seen -- !!