By Peter Lenihan
A precredit prelude and overlapping images—so that it seems to be behind the wanted poster that Shiloh Clegg guns down a bank teller during a hold-up. It’s a strange opening to a strange movie—the Cleggs, while integral to the film’s narrative structure and Ford’s overarching vision, are hardly the central focus, and to foreground these characters so early on is a bit of a bluff. There’s also the wanted poster itself, which would have looked generic in 1920, let alone 1950 (or 2012). The fact that it’s such a familiar genre component is, in a way, the point—the familiarity of it eases one into a movie whose form and structure is fairly radical and free, and that “it’s just a Ward Bond oater,” while hardly true, is as good an entrance point as any.
There’s something else to this opening shot worth mentioning. Overlapping two images necessarily deepens what we’re looking at—even if one distorts the other, it still does, on the simplest level, give us more to see. Ford always was a director of motion, and handed a film concerned with the actual movement of different outsiders, he tries to fill every composition with people running and talking and playing and moving from one side of the frame to the other. There’s a tremendous sense of detail here—while I don’t think it’s incorrect to characterize the director’s films as mythic, it can be misleading insofar as it neglects the degree to which his best works seem lived-in.
Take, for example, the scene in which Ward Bond breaks up a fight between Harry Carey Jr. and one of the most hot-headed Mormons in the group. As a sequence, it’s not particular or unfamiliar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of westerns or John Ford movies—the two boys are sweet on the same lady, have a non-argument and start punching each other. Ward Bond breaks it up and Ma Joad starts blowing her horn. The greatness of the scene isn’t dependent on the participants’ acting or a sense of directorial technique as we tend to technically think of it. What Ford does do is widen the frame so that the action in some sense moves beyond itself—we can watch the fight, or the dance of light and dust that it causes, but we can just as easily watch the world unfolding behind this, of men and women and children and horses watching, moving, talking—each with their own inner life.
It’s essential in some sense, then, that such an unremarkable story is being told. This is a movie about a couple of horse traders that hook up with some Mormons and a hoochie coochie show and a band of bank robbers. They travel from one place to another together. Some die, some don’t, and no one really gets along but everyone understands that they are, you know, “in this together.” And so although the focus here is on Johnson & Carey and, to a slightly lesser extent, a prostitute and one of the Mormon elders, it’s just as easy to imagine Ford making the film about one of those nameless families moving through the frame, or even the Navajos that we meet all too briefly.
And for those still wary of the director’s treatment of Native Americans, I don’t think there’s a better defense for his actual attitudes than Wagon Master. What we have here is the director’s favorite of his own films, one of the few in which he gave himself a screenwriting credit, and one of the few (the only one?) where his Navajos are actually playing Navajos. “All white men are thieves,” the chief says at one point. Ward Bond and Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. all nod their heads. “He’s smarter than he looks,” one of them says. That night, the members of the wagon train visit that the Native Americans’ camp, where they are exposed to a very different kind of music, and as the most stiff and Puritanical of the Mormons is forced to dance with a squaw, the possibility (as always, thwarted) of cultural understanding and communication is introduced in the gentlest of ways.
It’s, like everything else here, an episode—the surreal encounter with the “showfolk” in the middle of the desert, the dance after discovering water, the individual wagon cars’ crossings of the treacherous pass—these are not whole parts, and as pieces they don’t make up a whole. Instead they’re suggestions, moving towards a sense of totality whilst recognizing the medium’s incapability of truthfully capturing all these experiences. Ford was an auteur if there ever was one, but Wagon Master isn’t necessarily a work of auteurist cinema in the way that it’s traditionally defined—this is antithetical to Francis Ford Coppola’s fatuous declaration that his movie “was” Vietnam.
I don’t have my copy of Robin Wood’s Hitchcock book on hand, but in the introduction of the edition I’m familiar with he discusses his interest in the British filmmaker and how he has come to prefer a kind of humanist cinema over Hitch’s cinema of the image. Wood’s central point was that while people were for Hitchcock tools with which he could build moving pictures, directors like Hawks and McCarey created films that were less rigorous and more free, and were interested in using people as they are rather than what the director wanted them to be. What we see in the cinema of Hawks and McCarey, then, are movies going beyond their directors, rejecting the myths of neurotic compulsion that “art” is supposedly made of, and instead become inviting, generous, humanist documents in which the contrasting ideas of all the participants can be flung at each other.
I think that’s true of Wagon Master too, and so while there’s a vision to the thing, Ford’s conception is where it starts rather than where it ends. It’s what separates him as a director from a Bresson or a Kubrick, and because the plot of Wagon Master is among the slightest in his oeuvre it’s among the most reflective of what his interests were as a filmmaker, artist and man.