Wagon Master ('50) is pretty much like every other John Ford western - gorgeous, majestic, vivid, warm, goofy. Unlike an Anthony Mann, whose westerns are heightened by big emotions, ambiguously or vengefully motivated characters with elements of film noir, Ford takes the picturesque, wholesome, humanistic approach.
Ben Johnson, free from the shadow of the the Duke, plays horse trader Travis Blue, called upon by a group of Mormon settlers to take them across the San Juan Valley, using their extensive knowledge of the terrain and their reputable relationship with the Navajo.
As per usual, Ford stocks the film with a colorful, talkative ensemble to fill out his wide-angled compositions of the Utah valleys (Moab sits in for Monument here) and keeps the risky journey generally perky, vivacious and buoyant.
Along the way, the Mormon expedition picks up a traveling medicine sideshow (romantic diversions) and the inauspicious Clegg family (gotta have bad guys) and their wounded leader, Shiloh (played wonderfully by Charles Kemper).
A folksy, hoedown soundtrack, rather than sweetening, is nearly suffocating, yet Ford's landscapes and lively cast win out in this prototypical western by the American auteur - solidly second-tier. [B]
Friday, May 6, 2011
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