John Ford's Wagon Master (1950) is a beautiful -- yet also very odd -- Western, coming in the midst of the director's "Cavalry Trilogy" (with Rio Grande to be filmed and released later the same year) and the sentimental sagebrush fable Three Godfathers. On the most obvious level, it marked the ascent to starring roles for Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, and Harry Carey Jr., each of whom had played important supporting and co-starring roles in Ford's movies up to that point, and here get to command the screen and the story; but it was also Ford's fond look back on his own distant past as a filmmaker, to the roots of his sensibilities as a maker of Westerns. More so than any other of Ford's talking pictures, Wagon Master resembles his silent classic The Iron Horse in its look and the style of acting. Beyond the cinematography by Bert Glennon and Archie Stout (who handled the second unit work), which looks like the photography on the 1924 epic, the characters and the way they move for the camera -- especially Ben Johnson's Travis Blue and Harry Carey Jr.'s Sandy Owens -- are terrifically expressive in their faces and are drawn so simply and straightforwardly that they resemble Davy Brandon, the hero played by Ford's first great leading man, George O'Brien, in The Iron Horse; indeed, Johnson looks like a cross between the youthful O'Brien and the young John Wayne. From the opening scene of the Clegg family robbing an express office, the movie looks like a silent in every respect except the absence of intertitles. Opening with the robbery, the movie then establishes the characters of Travis, Sandy, and Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), and the Mormon wagon train, and then links their fates with that of the Cleggs at the midpoint.
The movie does well enough up to that point in the plot, with its tale of the wagon train moving west, its members facing all manner of natural hazards, but when the Cleggs rejoin the narrative, the level of suspense is ratcheted up considerably. Ford and his screenwriters, Frank Nugent and the director's own son Patrick Ford, also manage to surprise us in the midst of presenting the conventions of the drama. Instead of a prelude to fighting and destruction, the arrival of a group of Navajos leads to a peaceful, almost lyrical "squaw dance"; but right in the middle of that idyllic interlude, the story changes abruptly, even pivotally, as one of the Cleggs tries to assault a Navajo maiden, halting the dance. Group leader Wiggs must then exact vengeance on the offending Clegg brother himself. This prevents a massacre but, in turn, poisons any chance of a peaceful parting with the degenerate family. The Cleggs resemble nothing so much as an even nastier version of the Clantons from Ford's My Darling Clementine, and at the denouement, Charles Kemper's Uncle Shiloh Clegg even echoes Walter Brennan's lament as patriarch of the Clantons in the earlier movie. In the midst of weaving together these elements, Ford also manages to make this a quietly personal movie in many ways, working in longtime players Russell Simpson and Jane Darwell in prominent supporting roles. There is also one shot, near the end, featuring a close-up of Bond, Simpson, and Darwell, reuniting the three players here from Ford's The Grapes of Wrath in this new tale of westward migration, that's impossible to ignore, as a sort of Ford family portrait embedded in the fabric of the movie.
The most pronounced attribute of the movie, however, is not the suspense and lurking violence of the second half, or its personal aspects, but its basically optimistic nature. In that regard, Wagon Master is a true throwback to the optimistic Ford of the silent era and the 1930s, when his vision of the West and the men and women who populated it was forward-looking and uncomplicated. The mood here is supported by a folk-song-laden soundtrack (courtesy of forest ranger-turned-composer Stan Jones and the Sons of the Pioneers), and the movie ends about as optimistically as any Ford film this side of Stagecoach, with a series of long-simmering romantic overtures between the two heroes and the women they love accepted, and the image of a young colt, part of the herd of horses originally gathered by Johnson and Carey, crossing a river with the full-grown horses and the wagon train. Less well known than Ford's cavalry movies or the oft-lauded Stagecoach and The Searchers, Wagon Master is still finding its audience a half-century after its release. What's more, at the time, it did for Ward Bond what his previous 25 years in the business hadn't done, showing him off as serious star material. Universal Pictures' television unit would later pick up where Wagon Master left off, developing the series Wagon Train from the film and giving Bond the starring role of Major Seth Adams.