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John Ford’s “Wagon Master” – Warner Archive Collection – takes a different path

Updated: Jun 8, 2022


(1) "Wagon Master" Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) is confronted by Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper), leader of the Clegg outlaw gang.  (2) John Ford's "Wagon Master" Shows what it was like for the men and women, horses and wagons, to cross the country in the Old West.

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Blu-ray; 1950; Not Rated

Best extra: Commentary by Harry Carey Jr. and director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich with John Ford

FILMMAKER John Ford loved to make Westerns, even more than his Oscar winners “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Quiet Man,” and “How Green Was my Valley.” 

The little-known "Wagon Master" was one of his favorites along with “The Fugitive” and “The Sun Shines Bright.” “It came closest to what I wanted to achieve,” he once said. The story and the experience of making it was better than Oscar winners “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Quiet Man” and “How Green was my Valley.” And his more popular films: “The Searchers,” “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and “Mister Roberts.” An excellent horseman and all-around cowboy, “Riding was more important to Ford than dialogue,” co-star Harry Carey Jr. says in the commentary from “Wagon Master.” “He’d rather watch Ben Johnson ride than say dialogue.”

Once a silent filmmaker, Ford would pare "talkies" down to their essence, only shooting footage he could use. No multiple takes gave him more control over the end results. “Wagon Master” has no big-name stars, no John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda. Character actors Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., and Ward Bond carry the story. Romance is low-key, but intense. Chemistry between Johnson and female lead Joanne Dru sizzles.

(1) "Wagon Master" was one of John Ford's three favorite films. The Warner Archive Collection has remastered the 1950 film for an excellent presentation. (2) The Clegg gang rob a bank and kill a teller in the opening. (3) Horse wrangler Sandy Owens (Harry Carey Jr.) persuades his partner to help the Mormons cross into Utah. (4) The town sheriff gathers a posse to go after the Cleggs.


“‘Wagon Master’ [is] small in terms of ambition. It doesn’t try to do a great deal. It tells the story of a wagon train going across the country, but within it is a great deal of what made John Ford great.” — Peter Bogdanovich, filmmaker

The film opens with a bank robbery by the Clegg gang, four brothers led by their father who calls himself Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper). Shiloh is wounded and a teller is killed. The story cuts to horse traders Travis Blue (Johnson) and his pal Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.), in town to sell horses. They meet Elder Wiggs (Bond), leader of a group of Mormons being run out of town for their religious beliefs. They’re heading further west to the San Juan River country in Utah Territory, and need a guide and horses to get them there.

Travis reluctantly agrees under Sandy’s earnest persuasion. So the wagon train heads out, bumping into a number of setbacks with the landscape, water, a broken down medicine show lost in the desert, Navajo, who turn out to be friendly – after a fantastic chase where Johnson displays his stunning horsemanship – and the Cleggs on the run from a determined posse. James Arness, Marshall Dillon of the long-running series “Gunsmoke,” plays one of the bad guys – a six-foot-seven thug in a duster, looming like an unfriendly Frankenstein.

(1) Sandy and his partner Travis Blue played by Ben Johnson, who won an Oscar for his performance in "The Last Picture Show" (1972) directed by Peter Bogdanovich. A minimalist Ford-style actor, Johnson was a natural athlete and outstanding horseman. (2) Elder Wiggs confers with Adam Perkins (Russell Simpson), while Sandy and Perkins' daughter Prudence (Kathleen O'Malley) look on.


“Ford loved war heroes. He was one himself, as a matter of fact. He didn’t know it, but Jim Arness was in the first wave at Anzio in World War II. [Arness] never said anything about it. I wish I’d of known it back then ‘cause I would’ve told the Old Man. He probably would have given Jim the lead in the picture.” — Harry Carey Jr.

On the run, the Cleggs show up at a hoe-down as the pioneers celebrate finding fresh water. Ford liked folk dancing and used it in several of his films. Posing as weary travelers, the Cleggs become part of the train. It’s a natural hiding place, giving Uncle Shiloh a chance to heal, but Travis, Elder Wiggs and Sandy sense something is off. Sure ‘nuff, pardner, those Cleggs’ll show their true colors before the end of the film.

Harry Carey did nine movies with “Uncle Jack”; “Wagon Master” was his third. Ford was on the ranch the day Carey was born. “The first time I worked with him was on “Three Godfathers” in 1948. He was so mean and nasty, I didn’t want to be related to him. He was just awful,” Carey says in the commentary. Eventually, as Carey matured and began to understand him better, the two became close. Ford’s moods were extreme, tending towards fierce and fiery, but he was in a good mood throughout “Wagon Master,” according to Carey. “I thought maybe he was ill or something.”

(1) Wiggs prepares to lead the Mormon families on their journey to Utah. (2 & 3) Townsmen make sure the Mormons leave as Prudence and others listen to their demands.


“I’m a hard-nosed director … I’ve always enjoyed making pictures. I like the people that I’m around. I like the actors, the actresses, the grips, the electricians. I’m friendly with them all. I like to be on the set regardless of what the story is. I like to work in pictures. It’s fun.” — John Ford

The new 1080p remaster from the Warner Archive Collection looks as bright as a brand new silver dollar. Runtime is 86 minutes, with an outstanding black and white, full frame picture (1.37:1 aspect ratio). Blacks are solid, highlights shine, and gray gradations are first-rate. Detail is exceptional, with environmental elements, clothing, props and sets distinct and authentic.

There are a number of active wide- and longshots. Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon show a full range of landscapes and action through perilous travel scenes over mountains; steep, dusty trails, where a path must be cut out of the land; desert and river crossings. The story begins in Arizona, and the journey takes us through Monument Valley, one of Ford’s favorite locations, and finishes in Moab, Utah. He was a stickler for accuracy. There’s a terrific close-up of a wagon pulled by a team of six horses or “six-up” in a water crossing; most movies only used four. Accidents, like a horse fall, or when a dog rips Bond’s pants from hip to cuff, stay in and become part of the story.

“I always did have an eye for composition. I don’t know where I got it from. As a kid, I thought I was going to be an artist. I used to sketch and paint a great deal. For a kid I did pretty good work. At least I received a lot of compliments about it. But always an eye for composition, that’s all I did have.” — John Ford

(1 & 4) Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon capture the full range of pioneer travel through desert landscapes, mountains, river crossings, and steep, dusty trails.  (2) Travis and Elder Wiggs keep the wagons moving.  (3) The Mormon party stumble upon a small medicine show, lost in the desert. With no water, the troupe have resorted to drinking their own alcohol-laced snake oil to survive. 


Sound has been upgraded to a DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 track providing a good immersion experience from the previous mono soundtrack. The sparse dialogue comes through clearly, while effects – and there are plenty – ring the room. 

The score is by Richard Hageman, with songs by Stan Jones, former rodeo cowboy, miner, logger, firefighter, and park ranger, and performed by the Sons of the Pioneers. One of its members was Leonard Style, who went on to become singing cowboy star Roy Rogers. The Pioneers eventually joined Rogers in his films and TV series. “Wagon Master” was also the inspiration for the long running “Wagon Train” starring Ward Bond as – who else? – the wagon master until his death in 1960. He was replaced by John McIntire.  

The single bonus feature is the commentary with Harry Carey Jr., and Peter Bogdanovich with John Ford from an older interview. There’s plenty to learn and enjoy here, especially from Carey’s stories of old Hollywood and working with Ford and Johnson.  

“The simplicity of ‘Wagon Master’ is disarming and deceptive because it has a lot to say about the indomitability of the human spirit.” — Peter Bogdanovich

Over the years, “Wagon Master” has become recognized as the masterpiece it is, earning a strong, contemporary audience. It didn’t ring many bells when first released; critics and viewers were luke-warm because it was so different from the usual Western. The cowboys were workers, not gunslingers. Set post-Civil War – and post WWII – these are men who want to leave war behind. Indians are presented in a positive light, and the story's emphasis is on hard work, good deeds and family.

— Kay Reynolds 

(1) Wiggs breaks up a fight between Sandy and Prudence's would-be suitor that gets out of hand.  (2) Jane Darwell of "The Grapes of Wrath," "Mary Poppins," and "Gone with the Wind" plays Sister Ledyard.  (3 & 4) Wiggs takes in the Clegg gang when they appear during a celebration. Like Travis and Sandy, he doesn't know they're outlaws, but understands they're up to no good. Still, he has no choice but to let them in. 


(1) Native American and Olympic Gold Medalist Jim Thorpe played a Navajo in "Wagon Master."  (2) Jesse Clegg (Mickey Simpson) is whipped for raping a Navajo woman at the Indian/Mormon gathering.  (3) The young woman (Movita) accepts comfort from the tribeswomen. 


(1-4) The Cleggs take over the wagon train, forcing everyone to follow their orders. Later, Sandy, Travis and Wiggs get a chance to fight, and take the train back. 

(1) Chemistry between Johnson and female lead Joanne Dru sizzled even though their on-screeen characters were restrained. (2) The wagon train reaches its destination.  




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