Thursday 21 May 2020

On demand: "Wagon Master"

It's long been proposed that Westerns are really no more nor less than unusually exciting civics lessons - that, for all their cattle-roping and shootouts, they can't help but return, time and again, to the core theme of how communities are founded, policed, renewed. 1950's deceptively blithe, even jolly Wagon Master is one of a clutch of John Ford movies you could point to in order to clinch that case: here is a rolling illustration of society as a work in progress. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. are the larky horse traders who accept an offer of fuller-time employment from cantankarous Mormon elder Ward Bond to accompany a wagon train carrying him and his congregation between states; characteristically, the pair make their decision to ride along on the basis of a song lyric. (Showcasing four such songs over the course of its 80 minutes, this is the closest Ford ever got to making a musical, as though RKO were keeping half an eye on developments over at rival studio MGM; I might say it's the film that renders the later Paint Your Wagon entirely superfluous, had I not a weird soft spot for the latter.) Throwing themselves open to the elements inevitably brings the party into conflict, notably with the notorious Clegg gang, riding roughshod over the same territory, who take up residence within the group as a parasite does within its host, the better to pass undetected by the law. Yet it also gives rise to more pleasurable and positive forms of cross-pollination: the boys will have their heads turned by Joanne Dru as the head dancer of a travelling "hoochy-coochy" troupe, and the Mormons' acceptance of the latter (more wives to take on, perhaps) finds Ford and regular screenwriter Frank Nugent acknowledging the ongoing co-existence, within the American landscape, of old-time religion and godless showbusiness.

That script is itself a deft mix of theory and practice. It yields a Western with a real sense of adventure, boosted by the hauling onto location of actual wagons and stunt riders let out on the longest reins then available. Even viewed in our turbocharged Fast & Furious era, the mounted pursuits convey an extraordinary speed, a feel for the ground being gained or given away, and the danger whenever one or other of the thundering wagons overturns is obvious; it's a miracle no humans or animals were badly hurt in the making of this motion picture. (Left behind is a faint track that leads the cinema somewhere not a million miles away from Mad Max: Fury Road, very much the 21st century Wagon Master.) Equally, though, it's a project informed by a canny studio craftsman's understanding of negotiation, those transactions and trade-offs required to get us where we're going. Anyone reaching to tar Ford's movies with the racist brush should take another look at the lovely, gently ironic interaction he stages between the boyish wagonmasters and the Navajo tribesmen who agree to let the party pass on the grounds the Mormons are lesser thieves than most white men. It's a scene that could only work like this with born supporting players in the lead roles - Johnson and Carey Jr. cede points and make nice, where a Duke Wayne would doubtless have found some way of asserting himself - and which recognises society needs its bridge-builders at least as much as it does its sharpshooters. It's also one of several points here where the optimism of the old West - that urge to strike out into the unknown, confident of success wherever you land - appears to mesh with the optimism of post-War America, that belief there was room and resources enough for everyone to find a place of their own, on which to start building a better world. Ford would go on to make darker, more complex films through this period, and be rightly acclaimed for them. There aren't many, however, that remain this reliably cheering.

Wagon Master is now streaming on the BBC iPlayer.

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