Wagon Master

4 out of 5 stars
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT Pioneers make quite a splash.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT Pioneers make quite a splash.

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Two horse wranglers are hired by a community of Mormons to accompany them westward. Typical frontier dangers (angry Native Americans, fugitive bank robbers) stand between them and the promised land. You’ve seen this journey a million times before, but John Ford’s 1950 drama steers its Horse Opera 101 narrative into some uncharacteristic territory. The pioneers here aren’t the usual representations of modern civilization but its rejects: Latter-day Saints forced to relocate due to religious persecution (an unusually political detail for a Ford film). As the cowpokes, legendary stuntman Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. have an easy camaraderie that’s more reminiscent of Hawksian he-men than Pappy’s sentimental range rovers, while the party-crashing Clegg gang anticipates the rancid family evil of Anthony Mann’s Man of the West eight years later. (Ford had used stock player Hank Worden for comic effect many times before, but the way he employs the character actor’s slow-speaking drawl to such mondo-creepy effect here is unprecedented.)

For a modest little movie, this still has all the solid storytelling and visual majesty of Ford’s classic works; scholars like Joseph McBride and Peter Bogdanovich actually think it’s his masterpiece. (Over The Searchers? Please.) The latter restates that bold claim several times on this disc’s commentary track, which toggles between Bogdanovich’s recent conversation with Carey and audiotapes from his 1966 interview with Ford. “I don’t make art!” snaps the filmmaker to the then-young journalist. “I make Westerns.” Like many of his better-known oaters, Wagon Master erases that distinction entirely.—David Fear

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