Wagon Master (1950) starring Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Alan Mowbray, Jane Darwell, Ruth Clifford directed by John Ford Movie Review

Wagon Master (1950)   3/53/53/53/53/5

Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. in Wagon Master (1950)

Ford's on the Wagon

Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) is leading his Mormon wagon train across country and is grateful when cowboy drifters Travis (Ben Johnson - She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) agree to help them navigate the dangerous country. Along the way they have various issues and also pick up some extra travellers including medicine salesman Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) and the attractive showgirl Denver (Joanne Dru - Red River). But they also pick up some less than savoury guests when they are joined by the Clegg gang who lead them in to danger when one of them attacks a Navajo woman. With things on the verge of boiling over it is up to Travis and Sandy to sort things out.

"Wagon Master" was one of John Ford's favourite movies from those he made and in many ways you could say it is one of the purest John Ford movies. Whilst many of the Ford stock appear there is no major star of the calibre of John Wayne to head this up and it gives it a different feel, less of a star vehicle and more of a movie made by a director doing things his way.

Joanne Dru in Wagon Master (1950)

Now I will say that isn't going to be to everyone's taste especially with an opening half which seems to be going nowhere fast. We watch as Travis and Sandy end up joining the Mormon wagon train and leading them across country where there are various issues and people they meet. It serves up a lot of observational stuff such as how Elder Wiggs deals with the addition of some showgirls to their convoy and much of this has humour to go with it. But it does sort of meander along only serving up some nice authentic cinematography of the wagon train rolling across the country or men riding horses.

It is only when the Clegg gang come along does "Wagon Master" sort of kick in to gear to deliver the sort of drama you expect from a western. But even then I wouldn't say it was classic western action and has more of a reserved feel to it than what you expect from a John Ford western. And the trouble is that unless you are a fan of John Ford that first meandering half which has an almost sleepy feel to it due to the mellow tones of The Sons of the Pioneers who provide the soundtrack may have caused you to lose interest.

What this all boils down to is that visually "Wagon Master" feels like pure John Ford with some wonderful, unfussy cinematography which captures life travelling across the dusty country. But it lacks the drama and star power which makes it hard work for those who watch because it is a western rather than because it is a John Ford movie.