Monday, July 7, 2014

Wagon Master (1950): Be Gentle Now

Wagon Master blogging
essay 1 of 6

Wagon Master:  Uncle Jack’s Favorite

“Uncle Jack (director John Ford) always said Wagon Master was his favorite picture.  I think The Searchers was his best film, but Wagon Master was the most joyful.  The entire filming was done in a spirit of friendliness, every member of the company doing their best.  One month of total unity and happiness—that was Wagon Master.”
from Company of Heroes,
a memoir by Harry Carey, Jr.

I think the high spirits of the film crew infuse the whole film of Wagon Master (1950).  Juggling plot elements that he had played with for years, Ford strategically placed them in new contexts.  He dropped the earthy heroics of John Wayne and the steely idealism of Henry Fonda for a rambling folksiness more akin to his earlier work with western star Harry Carey (father of Harry Carey, Jr.) and Will Rogers.  “Be gentle now,” the words of Ben Johnson to the horses, become an appropriate refrain throughout the movie.

This laid-back spirit manifests itself in scene after scene, detail upon detail.  It creates an unusual tone of acceptance, tolerance, and generosity—one of the most humanistic of Hollywood’s westerns.

From a wealth of delights, here are ten moments in Wagon Master that are always guaranteed to make me smile:

1. Friendship:  Our two lead cowboys, Travis Blue (Ben Johnson) and Sandy Owens (Harry Carey, Jr.) climb over the fence with near-perfect choreography, like Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor on the prairie.  Their in-synch movements silently communicate their close friendship.

Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. completely in-synch.

2. Visual splendor:  It’s hard to select a single shot to praise the beauty of the Moab Valley, but the one below has an appropriate grandeur to serve as an example.  Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, and Harry Carey, Jr. are in the foreground, with the Colorado River and the sandstone bluffs that comprise the southern border of Arches National Park in the background.  Taking a break from his usual iconic western location of Monument Valley, Ford completely embraced Utah’s Moab Valley, later writing to the local Chamber of Commerce, “I have never known a troupe to enjoy a location so much.”

Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., and scenic beauty.

3. Romance:  Harry Carey, Jr. remembered that Ford didn’t enjoy filming love scenes, but maybe it was just the romantic dialogue that Ford objected to.  In the background of numerous scenes, Carey and Kathleen O’Malley carry on a constant flirtation.  The shot below is where it begins.  On the left side of the screen, Ben Johnson talks business.  On the right side of the screen, Carey’s full attention is fixed on O’Malley.

On the right, Carey's attention is not focused on business.

4. Authenticity:  Ben Johnson gets a love story of his own through his romance with Joanne Dru.  In the DVD commentary, Carey marvels that “Ben was such a natural actor.”  His line readings are uniquely his own, graced with an ironic and gentle cowboy wit.  Johnson didn’t enjoy dialogue and neither did Ford, so they pared his lines to the basics.  My favorite Johnson reading of a line is when he says, “Sandy, I think I’ll go a-courtin’” before riding off to propose to Dru.

Ben Johnson goes a-courtin' Joanne Dru.

5. Nonviolence:  In other Ford westerns featuring Indians, there’s generally a large Indian death count as the cavalry guns them down.  Not in Wagon Master.  While the initial encounter with the Indians is a stock moment, the narrative moves toward mutual respect rather than confrontation.  Understanding is established between the cultures and the Indians generously offer hospitality.  The guns don’t go off.

The respectful collision of cultures.

6. Respect:  While Ford once said, “My sympathy was always with the Indians,” his attitude was often better expressed in his conduct off-screen rather than the scenes he placed on-screen.  He established a long-term friendship with Navajo Indians in Monument Valley and used them as part of his stock company of actors.  But they tended to be cast as Apaches or Comanche rather than as Navajo.  For the only time in a Ford movie, the Navajo Indians in Wagon Master are allowed to act Navajo and speak Navajo.

Lee Brady, a Navajo, as the leader of the Navajo band.

7. Comedy:  When Ford was casting Kathleen O’Malley, he asked her what she’d been doing lately.  “Working with the Three Stooges,” she replied.  Ford approved.  “Well, that’s very good training,” he said and gave her the role.  There are numerous instances of slapstick humor throughout the movie.  My favorite occurs at a very tense moment as the wagon train leaders lie to a posse about the presence of outlaws among them.  Knowing the outlaws must maintain complete silence, Ben Johnson casually wallops one of them with a side of bacon.  It’s a good Three Stooges moment.

Bacon vs. gun.  The slab of bacon wins this round.

8. Art:  Ford famously claimed that he was just a director of westerns, rarely admitting to a knowledge of the artier filmmakers of his day.  But he was a dedicated student of F.W. Murnau and familiar with Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer, too.  In Scott Eyman’s Ford biography Print the Legend, a close friend recalls how Ford watched Dreyer’s silent masterwork The Passion of Joan of Arc, claimed to be unimpressed, and then snuck back the next day to watch it again.  Check out the image below from Wagon Master.  It’s Dreyer in the old west.

An austere Ford composition:  The pioneer women at the Indian camp.

9. The Journey:  I love the way that Wagon Master stumbles at the end, unable to deliver on a climax to the journey.  The Mormons are explicitly traveling to the Promised Land and they do reach it—we see their faces glowing with joy.  But we don’t see them enter the Promised Land and we never clearly see what they’re seeing.  Instead, Ford retreats into flashbacks of the journey itself.  Finally, he settles on a metaphorical shot to close the movie—a colt scrambling up a river bank after a hard river crossing.  It makes sense in the context of a movie where life is never about arriving at a destination… life is what happens when you’re on the journey.

Last shot of the movie:  A colt scrambles up the bank.

10. Horses and real estate:  As John Ford once lectured screenwriters Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings, “… a running horse remains the finest subject for a motion picture camera.  Now forget this dialogue stuff and give me some horses and real estate.”  Wagon Master abounds in horses and real estate.  And it’s got the best horseman of its day, Ben Johnson, front and center, doing what he did best—riding horses.

Ben Johnson on a Horse

Ben Johnson
on his horse Steel.
“He can ride a horse, boy, oh boy, oh boy…” Harry Carey, Jr. muses on the Wagon Master DVD commentary.

A skilled rider himself, Carey remained in awe of Johnson’s skill.  After watching Ben Johnson gracefully vault onto his horse bareback, Carey said on the commentary that, “I never learned how to do that.”  Peter Bogdanovich:  “How did he do that?”  Carey:  “I don’t know.  He did it so easily.  He was a great athlete.”

Well, this is how you do it, as we look at Ben Johnson mounting his horse Steel:

Ben Johnson makes it look easy.
Johnson’s left leg by the horse’s front left leg, his left hand reassuringly steady on horse’s chest, and right hand gently on mane.  His weight shifts to his left side, and he swings his right leg…


Higher…  He leans in low over the horse as he goes airborne.  He makes sure the horse know where he is at all times.

Johnson settles on, releasing his left hand.  If you do it just right, like this, the horse will barely notice.

He steadies himself with his hands, providing constant reassurance to the horse.  And off he goes.

Ben Johnson was a real cowboy.  He could ride like the wind.  In the shot below, pursued by Indians, Johnson is riding the stunt horse Bingo.  On the commentary, Carey remembers, “(Ford) loved to watch him ride.”

Ben Johnson rides in a classic Ford composition.

The Chuckwalla Swing

RKO publicity still from Wagon Master (1950).
Four Stan Jones songs are prominently featured in Wagon Master.  “Chuckwalla Swing” is the most light-hearted.  It’s associated with the two young cowboys, Travis Blue and Sandy Owens, and also anchors the movie’s central scene of community formation (a running theme in Ford movies)—the square dance.  The tune is played at the start of the dance scene on pioneer instruments, the Sons of the Pioneers sing the main version, and composer Richard Hageman inserts the melody into the score on several occasions.

Sonoran chuckwalla,
photo by Azhikerdude,
from Wikimedia Commons.
Way out west there’s a dance that’s being done
The chuckwallas do it so it must be lots of fun.
All around the floor you can beat and swing
And listen to the music as they gaily sing:

You put your arm around her and you swing her round the floor
When you do it once then you’ll want to do it more,
High on your toes now then clap your heels
You’ll know just how the chuckwalla feels.

Right foot, left foot, clap and sing
Swing all around and do it all again.
Chuckwalla, chuckwalla, chuckwalla swing
We’ll dance till the floors and the rafters ring.

Reference Sources
Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman
About John Ford by Lindsay Anderson
John Ford: The Man and His Films by Ted Gallagher
The Nicest Fella: The Life of Ben Johnson by Richard D. Jensen
Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company by Harry Carey Jr.
Lest We Forget: The John Ford Stock Company by Bill Levy
Music in the Western: Notes from the Frontier, edited by Kathryn Kalinak (essay “John Ford, Walt Disney, and Sons of the Pioneers” by Ross Care)
When Hollywood Came to Town:  A History of Movie Making in Utah by James D’Arc
Wagon Master Warner Home Video DVD commentary by Harry Carey Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich

Watch Wagon Master...
Purchase the Wagon Master DVD at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Wagon Master at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2014 Lee Price


  1. Hi, Lee. Loved your look at "Wagon Master" highlighting many of its pleasures and teaching me a thing or two along the way.

  2. Hi Caftan Woman! Thanks! What fun it is writing about a John Ford western. I'm looking very forward to your entry in the John Ford Blogathon!

  3. I really enjoyed learning more about this film that, admittedly, I have never seen. All these anecdotes have brought the film-making process to life.

  4. Silver Screenings, you've got a big treat coming when you finally see Wagon Master! Glad you're enjoying the blog. For an even more authentic taste of behind-the-scenes on Ford movies, Harry Carey, Jr.'s book Company of Heroes can't be beat!

  5. This looks like a Ford classic. This blogathon has made me realise how many Ford films I haven't seen, he has such an immense back catalogue. I love the sweeping landscape stills that you pulled out. Ford movies really informed my perception of the US when I was a kid.

  6. girlsdofilm, I'd certainly classify this as a Grade A certified Ford classic! My respect for it has only increased over the past week as I've looked at many scenes very closely. Ford was a master and at the top of his form here. The Warner Bros. DVD is excellent and the commentary featuring Harry Carey, Jr. is priceless!