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Wagon Master
USA 1950
Directed by John Ford
Running time 86 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


It's rarely a good sign when tried and true support actors are elevated to the lead roles. Here Ford bumps up Ben Johnson (who actually is quite good) and Harry Carey Jr (who is Harry Carey Jr), with Ward Bond staying more or less where he usually is (and the nasty Clegg family being a reprise of the Clantons from My Darling Clementine, 1946), for a typical Fordian journey across Navajo country, this time as a group of Mormons travel to Utah.

Bond plays Elder Wiggs who hires two itinerant cowboys, Travis (Johnson) and Sandy (Carey Jr.), to lead them to the Promised Land. Along the way they pick up three stranded members of a traveling medicine show who provide some romantic interest for Travis in the form of Denver (Joanne Dru) whilst Sandy becomes smitten with Prudence Perkins (Kathleen O’Malley). Then they encounter the wicked Clegg gang led by Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper) a thoroughly bad egg with a particularly vicious streak demonstrated in an introductory scene.("I wish you hadn't done that, son" he says before shooting a young clerk in the back) which, somewhat unusually for this time, precedes the opening credits

Whilst the story elements, Monument Valley landscape and sentimentally romanticising approach are all too familiar from the director, making of this a minor work in his canon, Ford goes to considerable trouble to give us a sense of the hardships endured by the westward pioneers.

Exemplary populist entertainment, the film was the basis for one of TV's early hit series set in the Wild West. Wagon Train, in which Bond starred and which made him a household name.

 

 

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