One of John Ford’s personal favorites among his films, Wagon Master (1950) is a film of modest ambition and enormous charm. It afforded the director an opportunity to showcase two of his “discoveries,” wrangler-turned-actor Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr., the son of his old friend and colleague from…
silent-film days. They are perfectly cast (in tailor-made roles) as carefree young men who are persuaded to help a wagon train of Mormons make their way to their new homestead. All the emblematic ingredients of a Ford Western are here, from the majestic scenery of Moab, Utah to spirited scenes of folk-dancing. Four of Stan Jones’ evocative songs are beautifully sung on the soundtrack by the Sons of the Pioneers, while Richard Hageman’s score extends those themes and makes fine use of other Americana. The cast is full of familiar Ford faces like Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Russell Simpson, and the director’s brother Francis Ford, along with such newcomers as Kathleen O’Malley and young James Arness.
The real treat for film buffs who already know the picture—aside from having such a beautiful copy as this—is a commentary track featuring director Peter Bogdanovich and Harry Carey, Jr., the last of the Ford players here to tell the tale. Bogdanovich aptly describes the director’s work here as silent picture-making (every shot—without calling attention to itself—is perfectly framed, and wonderfully descriptive, a credit to veteran cameraman Bert Glennon), and shares generous excerpts from his audio interview with Ford from 1966. Carey has vivid memories of making this film and gives us a wonderful sense of being there, whether recalling one of his costars or complaining that “Uncle Jack” placed his hat on his head for one scene in a way that made him feel like the Village Idiot—but one dared not touch an article of clothing that the boss had arranged to his liking.
What a wonderful opportunity to revisit this lovely film in the company of two men who knew Ford and revel in every moment of the picture.(Warner Home Video)