Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sidekicks of John Wayne--UNITE!!!

John Ford once said that of all the Westerns he made, Wagon Master (1950) was his favorite. It’s easy to see why—it’s a beautifully photographed, well-told story with some of the most human characters Ford ever managed to put on screen.

The movie stars Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr and Ward Bond, who were part of Ford’s stock company and are perhaps most often remembered for their supporting roles in John Wayne movies. But once given a chance to play the leads, they really shine.

Johnson and Carey are hired by a group of Mormons to guide their wagon train west through some dangerous and water-sparse desert. Johnson’s laid back performance and Carey’s youthful eagerness make them two of them likeable protagonists you’re ever likely to run across in any movie.

Bond is an elder who is in charge of the Mormon community. He’s a curmudgeonly old guy who is trying very hard (often unsuccessfully) not to be curmudgeonly any more. But he’s also smart, capable and decent. So we have yet another thoroughly likeable protagonist, someone we would just inherently respect were we to meet him in real life.

Ford’s talent for giving even the extras in his movie a degree of personality helps make us root for the wagon train to get through even more intensely than we normally would. Humanity and humor literally drip from the movie.

And the whole thing looks magnificent. It was filmed in black-and-white, by the way. And as beautiful as Ford’s color movies look (such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers), I think his pretty much perfect sense of composition and his use of natural lighting was always best served in black-and-white.

Anyway, the main conflict in the story comes when a band of ruthless outlaws ride into the camp. None of the Mormons are armed—only Johnson and Carey are packing six-guns. So when the outlaws eventually take over the wagon train, there doesn’t seem like there’s anything the good guys can do.

The outlaws, a father and his four grown sons, are an eerie counterpoint to the Mormons—men who have quite literally set aside their humanity. Morally, they’ve become no more than animals. James Arness is one of the villains—other than as the monster in The Thing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play a bad guy before. He doesn’t have any dialogue, but effectively uses body language and facial expressions to give us a character you would never ever want to meet in a dark alley.

The story builds up quite a bit of suspense and the climatic shoot out comes suddenly and almost unexpectedly. It’s not my absolute favorite John Ford Western (that’s be a tie between My Darling Clementine and—despite it being in color—The Searchers), but I can see why it was Ford’s favorite.

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