Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wagon Master's Promised Land

Wagon Master blogging
essay 3 of 6

Mormons Without Guns

Mormons on the move--heading west in this classic image
from John Ford's Wagon Master (1950).

“Guns are a big part of our state tradition. If you think of the Mormon pioneers, I mean, they came into the valley holding a plow in one hand and a gun in the other.”
Representative Carl Wimmer
Former member, Utah House of Representatives

I haven’t found anything in historical sources to refute Wimmer’s vision of two-fisted, gun-toting Mormon pioneers, but it sure isn’t the image you get in Wagon Master (1950)!  Director John Ford conceives of the Mormons as traveling without guns, an important plot point of the movie.

Plain folk in town:  Ward Bond, Russell Simpson,
and Kathleen O'Malley.
I wonder if Ford confused his Mormons with the Quakers?  Or maybe the Mennonites?  Or the Hutterites?  The plot of Wagon Master is consistently respectful of the peace church traditions held by those denominations, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has never professed a pacifist doctrine.  For that matter, Ford’s Catholic tradition usually hasn’t sided with the religious pacifists either (with a few notable exceptions).

Many critics have suggested that Ford’s presentation of these peaceful pioneers is meant to be viewed ironically.  The unarmed Mormons achieve their Promised Land only because they accept non-Mormon protectors—Travis Blue (Ben Johnson) and Sandy Owens (Harry Carey, Jr.)—who gun down their enemies.

But I disagree with this critical consensus—which shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who knows my personal Mennonite/Anabaptist convictions.  Solidly in the peace church tradition, these very un-Mormon-like pioneers are determined to remain steadfast in their faith and principles.  No, they probably wouldn’t make it to their Promised Land without Travis and Sandy but their convictions would remain intact.  They are presented as a people who live their faith.  If this means the bad guys shoot them down, so be it.

A farewell to violence:  Travis
throws his gun away.
John Ford’s presentation may not be historically valid for Utah or the Mormons, but it speaks to me.  I love the movie’s openness to accepting differing points of view—it’s a big tent movie that welcomes pacifists, show folk, horse traders, and gunfighters.  No one gets turned away.  Everyone’s invited to join the wagon train to the Promised Land.

Most telling of all, Travis turns his back on violence at the end in a seeming endorsement of the peace church tradition.  His participation in the final gun battle is his last violent act before gaining religion.  When we see him at the end, paired off with his girl Denver, I think we can assume that he’s found his home among these good people.  I see a purely happy ending, without a drop of irony.  Travis finds his Promised Land on the wagon trail, beside his girl, and without a gun.

John Fordian Geography

“Hell ain’t cussing.  It’s geography—the name of a place. Like you might say Abilene or Salt Lake City.”
Sandy Owens (Harry Carey, Jr.)
in Wagon Master (1950)

Geography never meant much in a John Ford western.  In his movies, the west is a mythic land where the town of Tombstone (located in the hot, parched lower desert of Arizona) can overlook Monument Valley (located on the high desert of the Colorado Plateau).

Pulling in to Crystal City, somewhere out west.
Wagon Master opens in the town of Crystal City.  If this is meant to be Crystal City, Colorado, it’s a location far south of both the Wyoming-based Mormon Trail and the Overland Route that most Mormon pioneers followed.  Now a ghost town, Crystal City was once a rugged Rocky Mountain mining town, located 200 miles west of Denver.  Travis Blue (Ben Johnson) refers to the Navajo country as lying to the southwest, which would match this location.

The goal of the Mormons is to reach the San Juan River Valley, “a valley that’s been reserved by the Lord” according to Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond).  The San Juan River flows through the Four Corners area, starting in southwestern Colorado then weaving through New Mexico and Arizona before meeting up with the Colorado River in southern Utah.  Despite the river’s presence, there isn’t much in the nature of a fertile green valley in this arid area.

According to James D’Arc’s book When Hollywood Came to Town, co-screenwriter Pat Ford (John Ford’s son) suggested “filming the story where it happened” and that’s what led the film crew to Moab.  But Moab isn’t on the San Juan River, which is located around 100 miles due south at its closest.

The time period of the movie seems to be shortly after Brigham Young arrived in Salt Lake City in 1847.  Since there is no mention of the Civil War (and Ford westerns frequently reference the Civil War), it would suggest that the story is taking place before 1861.  Pat Ford may have based his script in part on the Mormon establishment of the Elk Mountain Mission near Moab in 1855. The mission failed quickly.  The Mormons in Salt Lake City launched a San Juan Expedition in 1879 that brought settlers eastward across Utah to Moab—the reverse of the movie’s westward journey.  The final clearing of the mountain path in the movie may be based on the 1879 effort to create the Hole in the Rock trail through Glen Canyon.

Many of these elements were probably in play as the fictional narrative was constructed.  As in most Ford movies, history is a very imaginative reconstruction:  It depicts Mormons who don’t act like Mormons following a route that no Mormons followed to reach a valley that never existed.  If you actually tried to follow the movie’s route, you’d probably end up like Travis, quietly sharing a concern with his partner:  “To tell you the truth Sandy, I’m lost.”

Google Maps suggests some walking routes
from Crystal, Colorado to Moab, Utah.

Come, Come, Ye Saints

"Come, Come, Ye Saints" swells on the
soundtrack as the Mormon pioneers
gaze on their Promised Land.
Heard at various points in the movie on Richard Hageman’s orchestral score, the Mormon pioneers finally get to sing their famous anthem “Come, Come, Ye Saints” at the end as they gaze across the river at their Promised Land.  In his memoir Company of Heroes, Harry Carey, Jr. recalled how Ford told him that he would have to learn the hymn for his leading role in the movie.  Then, one day on location, surrounded by Mormon extras from the surrounding area, Ford announced to the team:  “This young man here with the red hair is Harry Carey, Jr.  He’s one of the leads in the picture, but the important thing is, he knows the Mormon Hymn.  So he’s now going to show you how it goes.”  Then he lowered his voice and said to Carey, “Go ahead, kid, sing the hell out of it.”

After Carey finished doing the best job possible under the circumstances, Ford addressed the crowd again:  “My goodness, I can’t believe it.  A young man from Hollywood has to come all the way up here to teach the Mormon people how to sing ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints.’  That’s amazing—just amazing.”

Come, come, ye saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this, and joy your hearts will swell -
All is well! All is well!

"All is well!"  The happy ending at the end of the trail.

Special thanks to Paula Vitaris who manages the Ben Johnson Fan Page for generously sharing screen captures and providing valuable background information and insight! 

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. I am really enjoying your series, and your posts for the John Ford Blogathon! Christy

  2. Thanks, Christy! I love your piece on Maureen O'Hara for the blogathon, especially learning that the great Charles Laughton was a good mentor for her!