Directed by John Ford
Screenplay by Frank Nugent and Patrick Ford
Starring Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, Harey Carey Jr.
Ben Johnson was not a star of the sort we’re used to, which is one who actually leads movies. If Johnson was a star at all, it was in the sense of showing up for a few days work in a small role to give a film like Will Penny that flavor of verisimilitude it thrives on. Which means he was the very example of a supporting player.
There’s a story about Ben John in Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Ragin Bulls, about how when Peter Bogdonavich was casting The Last Picture Show, he really wanted Ben Johnson to play Sam The Lion in that film. Johnson, though, turned off by the language in the script, and the amount of dialog he’d have. Bogdonavich persisted, though, and went to John Ford and asked him to appeal to his frequent actor, Ben Johnson. Ford did, asking Johnson something to the effect of, “Are you just going to play Duke’s [John Wayne’s] sidekick all your life?” Johnson took the part and won an Oscar for it, the irony of which is it still wasn’t for a starring role – the Oscar was for Best Supporting Actor. If anything, Johnson moved from being John Wayne’s sidekick to Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Daniels’ sidekick.
Still, he got the Oscar, and as I’ve always said, that makes a pretty nice consolation price. Plus, it’s something they’ll always remember you for.
Ward Bond was in a similar position. No, he wasn’t John Wayne’s sidekick, but a reliable third lead in a large number of films. Consider this: Ward Bond was in Gone With The Wind, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. Just as Johnson did, he gave a sense of verisimilitude to roles that required a gruff kind of demeanor, but he could also play a talkative fellow in a moustache. Or a clergyman. Or an everyman. But unlike Johnson, Bond would not live long enough for Peter Bogdanovich, or anybody else, to direct him to an Oscar.
All this is to say it was nice coming to Wagon Master to see both of these men take what are essentially co-leading roles – Bond was paid more and probably has more lines, but Johnson is the focus of the story – and see what supporting actors can do when they’re given their time out front.
What’s It About?
A group of Mormons, lead by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), hire two drifting horse traders, Travis and Sandy (Ben Johnson and Harey Carey Jr.), to guide them over some mountains and dessert to their own little slice of heaven out west. Once there, they plan to set up shop and get crops planted in anticipation of the second wave of Mormons following in the next following year. Along the way, the Mormons pick up a travelling medicine show with a probably-a-prostitute named Denver (Joanne Dru), who Travis takes a liking to. They also happen to pick up a gang of outlaws, lead by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper), who tries to harsh everybody’s buzz. In the end, Travis leads the Mormons to where they’re going, the outlaws are dispatched, and everybody makes out happy.
For being an 85-minute movie that almost feels like an afterthought in the filmography of a famous filmmaker, which makes it feel like barely more than a step up from a B-movie, you should not discount Wagon Master – it’s actually a fairly revolutionary film. Relatively speaking.
Superficially, the film is pretty breathtaking to look at – which means it’s more of the same from John Ford’s filmography. It’s also good-natured, poetic, and efficient – there is nothing here that feels extraneous. But how could it not be efficient at 85 minutes? And yet – and yet – despite it’s length it is also intensely laconic and unhurried. Which makes the film feel like the very definition of an oxymoron. It’s short, but unhurried, meandering, yet efficient.
Beyond superficialities – as if narrative structure is superficial and not substantive – the film is decidedly revisionist. Where other films, including other John Ford films, would dehumanize native Americans in the guise of narrative efficiency – The Searchers is particularly gross in the way it depicts native American – this one treats them fairly. When one of the outlaws takes advantage of a native woman, the natives don’t immediately go on the warpath and, rather than let it even get there, the white travelers whip the offender of their own accord. Given the way the Indians are treated fairly-well in this film it’s appropriate the flipside of the DVD I caught this on was Cheyenne Autumn, a much more didactic film, but one that also takes a more revised version of how to portray native Americans. In that movie there was a “It’s wrong to kill Indians simply because they’re Indians” approach that was very forward thinking in its day, even as it has it’s own race issues with actors appearing in red-face.
But not content to stop at the portrayal of native Americans, Wagon Master does not treat the Mormons badly either. Where others might have ‘othered’ them for their non-mainstream-Christianity approach to religion, Wagon Master is hardly concerned with that at all. They are just decent people who need some help getting where they’re going.
As the top-billed name in the film, Ben Johnson translates his laconic, closed-mouth style from supporting to leading, to good effect. The role calls on him to be alive in the eyes, but a man of few words, and Johnson is up to the task, even mixing in a good dose of his easy-to-being-bemused manner. Surprisingly, Johnson also has a fine signing voice for old-style country songs. He breaks into a few bars of one at one point – he and Carey – and you could believe him as a credible country singer of the mid-50s, in the mold of Hank Williams.
Ward Bond is talkative, outgoing, and plays a much more outwardly-dominant character than Johnson ever would. If Johnson holds the screen by withholding, Bond holds it by grabbing it with both hands and refusing to let go. He does well here, not only as a lead, but also as a little bit of the comic relief.
Paired with men of their own style – Johnson and Bond – the movie might fall apart as the two actors aped each other into oblivion. Or maybe it would have just been a wholly different film. Paired with each other, though, they mesh perfectly by being what the other is not. Together they give it both halves of what a western needs – laconic and gregarious – and one could see them carrying this pairing on indefinitely.
In the end, even if the movie is somewhat insignificant, it is so in a significant way, which is an oxymoron. But, as it feels like the right description of this film, that’s the one we’ll stick with.
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 Which I know is not actually true. Sam the Lion was more a god-figure to the boys in the movie, and a voice of reason and conscience than a sidekick, but it’s funny to think of Ben Johnson being a sidekick to a kid, so that’s why I wrote that line.
 Just consider the opening line both his L.A. Times and New York Times obits, which each mention the Oscar.