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Wagon Master (April 19, 1950)

Wagon Master

Wagon Master (1950)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

I have mixed feelings about John Ford.

I absolutely love some of his films, and consider them masterpieces, but he also made a lot of films that I’m not crazy about even though every other classic film fan seems to revere them, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

After watching Wagon Master, which was the western that Ford directed after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I’m beginning to think that my expectations might play some role. (In between these two westerns, Ford directed the comedy When Willie Comes Marching Home, which I haven’t seen.)

High expectations and the reverence of others can sometimes make a film tough to enjoy. I thought that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was stunningly photographed, and I liked some of the performances, but overall I found it poorly paced, historically inaccurate, and unbearably sentimental. I also really didn’t like John Wayne’s performance. I love it when the Duke plays variations on himself, but whenever he plays a “character” I find it hard to watch. His role as Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon isn’t as bad as when he played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), but I still found his “old man” schtick disingenuous and poorly acted.

Johnson and Bond

Wagon Master, on the other hand, is a film almost no one ever talks about. When I sat down to watch it, I had no expectations, nor anyone else’s reverence to contend with.

I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a poetic and leisurely paced western that I’d love to see again some day. Unlike Ford’s last two westerns, which were both shot in Technicolor, Wagon Master is shot in black and white. (At least until the 1960s, I think I prefer my westerns in black and white.)

In Wagon Master, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., who both had supporting roles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, play a pair of horse traders named Travis and Sandy.

They’re approached by a group of Mormons who are led by a recent convert to the faith, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), whose constant struggle to not use profanity is a running joke in the film. The group of Mormons are heading west through desolate stretches and need experienced range riders like Travis and Sandy to guide them. The Mormons plan to found a settlement and begin growing crops so a much larger group of their brethren will be able to join them in their promised land a year later.

The range is full of dangers, including human ones, who come in the form of the murderous Clegg gang. They’re led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper). If you pay close attention you’ll spot future Gunsmoke star James Arness as another member of the gang, Floyd Clegg.

Kemper and Arness

The Clegg gang is menacing, but there are also friendly strangers who join the wagon train along their journey — a drunken snake-oil salesman named Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) and his two female companions, Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) and Denver (Joanne Dru).

Perhaps if I were to proclaim Wagon Master a masterpiece, it would collapse under the weight of my approbation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it was a beautifully made film that unfolds at a perfect pace.

I especially enjoyed seeing Ben Johnson come into his own as an actor. The Oklahoma-born Johnson was a ranch hand and rodeo rider in real life, and he’s convincing and charismatic in this role. I liked his supporting role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but he carries the film here, and emerges as a great western star. He has no false bravado or unrealistic heroics, and even decides against pulling his gun at several times when the audience might expect him to.

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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Oct. 22, 1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

As a cinephile, I feel like any criticism of the almighty John Ford must be made in hushed tones.

So in that spirit, let me begin by praising the aspects of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that I found praiseworthy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is one of the most beautifully shot westerns I’ve ever seen. Winton C. Hoch won the Academy Award for best color cinematography for this film, and he deserved it. Hoch had previously shot 3 Godfathers (1948) for Ford, and would go on to lens three more films for Ford, The Quiet Man (1952), Mister Roberts (1955), and The Searchers (1956).

Technicolor is a process that often looked oversaturated and occasionally even gaudy, but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon looks simultaneously lifelike and hyperreal. It stands as a towering achievement of what a talented cinematographer could do when shooting in Technicolor.

I also really enjoyed Ben Johnson’s performance as Sgt. Tyree, a former Confederate captain now serving in the U.S. Cavalry as a scout. Johnson was as comfortable in the saddle as he was on his own two legs, and he would go on to a long career in Hollywood, specifically in westerns. I enjoyed his role in Mighty Joe Young (1949), but it didn’t hint at his future greatness in the same way that his performance in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon does. I also enjoyed Richard Hageman’s score, and I found this film enjoyable moment to moment.

John Wayne

But overall, I really didn’t like it. I like plenty of John Ford’s movies just fine, but for more than 20 years I have been mystified by the universal reverence film fans have for his work.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is emblematic of what I don’t like about Ford’s films. His westerns were grand operations in mythmaking, but with an excess of sentimentality. They were historically inaccurate and geographically incoherent, and without a great actor like Henry Fonda in the lead, his films feel like they’re adrift at sea.

I like John Wayne. I really do. But he was better at being an iconic presence than he was at turning in a good performance. The only “performances” of his I’ve found compelling were ones that contained a streak of nastiness, like his roles in Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956). In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wayne is mostly himself, but he has a few opportunities to emote, and those scenes were dead on arrival for me. There’s nothing interesting about his character, unlike Henry Fonda’s deeply flawed character in Fort Apache (1948).

This is a film with remarkably low dramatic stakes. Almost nothing happens in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This would be fine if it were simply a realistic look at the role the U.S. Cavalry played in the settling of the American West, but it’s not in any way realistic or historically accurate. It takes place in 1876, shortly after the massacre of General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The film’s narrator informs us that multiple Indian nations are joining forces to fight the U.S. government en masse, and that just one more defeat like the one Custer suffered and it will be a century before the Pony Express will be able to safely cross the west again. Historically, this is utter hogwash, and not just because the Pony Express ceased operations in 1861.

Of course, a western doesn’t need to be historically accurate to be entertaining, but with no interesting characters, no dramatic tension, and extremely little action, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon just didn’t work for me. Perhaps my viewing was a victim of high expectations, since She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems to be universally loved by classic film fans. It’s the second in Ford’s unofficial “Cavalry Trilogy,” but aside from the gorgeous visuals I thought it was a much weaker movie than the first, Fort Apache. (The third part of the trilogy is Rio Grande, which was released in 1950 and also starred John Wayne.) On the other hand, I brought no particular expectations to Ford’s last film, 3 Godfathers, and I enjoyed that one quite a bit.

Mighty Joe Young (July 27, 1949)

Mighty Joe Young

Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

This review originally appeared last year on The Mortuary as part of The Ludovico Film Institute’s program on Ray Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young is a wonderful fantasy movie, but I doubt it would have much staying power without the special effects work of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.

At a young age, Harryhausen was influenced by the groundbreaking stop-motion effects O’Brien created for the dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925). At a slightly less young age, Harryhausen was even more bowled over by O’Brien’s work on King Kong (1933), and a lifelong obsession was born.

Harryhausen’s first professional work was a series of Puppetoons shorts for George Pal at Paramount Pictures. During World War II he worked on various short films. He also worked on commercials and an anthology short called Mother Goose Stories. But Mighty Joe Young was his first big feature film. He was working under the direction of his idol, Willis O’Brien. (In supplementary features on the DVD of Mighty Joe Young that I watched, Harryhausen affectionately refers to him as “Obi.”) O’Brien did all of the continuity sketches, but the majority of the painstaking stop-motion animation was carried out by Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young armature

In reality, Mighty Joe Young was a metal armature with hinges and ball-and-socket joints covered with rubber and fur. But on screen, he is a living, breathing creature with emotions that are as easy for the audience to understand as the most overwrought histrionics of a silent-movie actor.

For instance, watch the clip below, which shows Mighty Joe Young’s first appearance at the Golden Safari Club (which was reportedly inspired by the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles). Look at the mix of emotions on Joe’s face. Confusion. Concern for the girl he’s holding up, who is his only friend. And curiosity about all the people thronged to see him. Mixed with the music of “Beautiful Dreamer” (Joe’s favorite song), it’s a powerful moment, and it was created one frame at a time by Ray Harryhausen with metal, rubber, fur, and bits of clay for Joe’s lips and brow.

If Mighty Joe Young had been played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan in a gorilla suit, it just wouldn’t have had the same effect.

Mighty Joe Young is a series of grand stop-motion set pieces. Each is more spectacular than the one before it, and each tells us more about Joe’s character. When we first see him, he’s a ferocious beast, smashing open a lion’s cage. His ferocity remains formidable, but we grow more sympathetic to him as we begin to see his noble heart. Not to mention the fact that he’s mistreated by humans in infuriating ways.

The human protagonists of the film aren’t nearly as interesting as Joe, but they all give good performances.

Robert Armstrong plays Max O’Hara, the blustery Hollywood producer who brings Mighty Joe Young to America. It’s a very similar role to that of Carl Denham, who Armstrong portrayed in both King Kong (1933) and Son of Kong (1933), both of which — like Mighty Joe Young — were directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.

According to Harryhausen, writer Ruth Rose patterned the character of Max O’Hara on producer Merian C. Cooper, who always wanted things “bigger!”

Moore and Joe on stage

Terry Moore plays Joe’s oldest human friend, Jill Young, a white girl who grew up in Africa on her father’s farm. She purchased Joe from two natives when he was still an infant. (She was lonely and had no one to play with.) In many ways, Jill is as much of an outsider in America as Joe is.

Film fans today probably know Ben Johnson best from his work with Sam Peckinpah — he appeared in Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Junior Bonner (1972), and The Getaway (1972). Or possibly they know him as “Sam the Lion” in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) or as G-man Melvin Purvis in John Milius’s Dillinger (1973). If you’re a horror fan, you might know him from Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) or Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1980).

In Mighty Joe Young, Johnson plays Gregg, an Oklahoma ranch hand and rodeo rider, which is exactly what Johnson was in real life. He’s a little wooden, but his authenticity makes up for it. Johnson had bit parts in a bunch of films before Mighty Joe Young, but this was his first leading role, and the first time he had his name in the credits.

Moore and Johnson

Mighty Joe Young won one Oscar at the 22nd Academy Awards, for best visual effects.

Despite Harryhausen’s spectacular special effects, Mighty Joe Young was a box-office disappointment at the time of its release, and plans for a possible sequel, in which Joe would team up with RKO’s other hot jungle property — Tarzan (at this point played by Lex Barker), were scrapped.

But it was just the beginning for Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young will be shown on TCM on February 24, 2014.

3 Godfathers (Dec. 1, 1948)

3 Godfathers
3 Godfathers (1948)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

After making the western masterpiece Fort Apache (1948), director John Ford returned to the religious overtones of the movie he made right before Fort Apache, The Fugitive (1947).

3 Godfathers reimagines the biblical story of the three wise men as a story of three bank robbers from Texas who are fleeing a U.S. Marshal in the Arizona Territory.

Unlike Ford’s previous several black & white films, 3 Godfathers is shot in Technicolor. It’s dedicated to the memory of Harry Carey, “Bright Star of the early western sky.” (Carey acted in dozens of Ford’s early films, and died on September 21, 1947.)

3 Godfathers stars John Wayne and Pedro Armendáriz, and “introduces” Harry Carey’s son, Harry Carey, Jr.

I put “introduces” in quotation marks because he’d already had credited roles in several films, including Pursued (1947), Red River (1948), and Moonrise (1948).

The three bank robbers are named Robert Marmaduke Hightower (John Wayne), William Kearney, a.k.a. “The Abilene Kid” (Harry Carey, Jr.), and Pedro “Pete” Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendáriz). John Wayne’s drinking buddy, Ward Bond, plays the U.S. Marshal who pursues Robert, William, and Pedro after they rob a bank. Bond’s character is named Perley “Buck” Sweet, or “B. Sweet,” a name Robert finds hilarious. Marshal Sweet’s bearlike body and easygoing nature belie his craftiness. When he first pursues the bank robbers, he shoots a hole in their waterskin, then he sets up camp with his deputies at the spot he thinks they’ll have to circle back to in order to get water.

Godfather John Wayne

Wandering through the desert, the three bank robbers find a dying woman (Mildred Natwick), who has just given birth to a baby. She tells them that they will be the boy’s godfathers, and she names her baby after the three of them — Robert William Pedro.

The following section of the film is sort of like a religious version of Three Men and a Baby in the Old West, as the trio of roughnecks try to figure out how to care for a baby in sometimes hilarious ways. When they finally rig up a nursing device and fill the bottle with milk, John Wayne laughs and says, “Boy, he hops to it like a drunkard at a Fourth of July barbecue.”

There are tender moments, too, like the one in which Carey holds the baby and sings “Streets of Laredo” in a beautiful baritone.

The religious aspects of the story are fairly explicit. The three godfathers follow a bright star in the sky toward the town of New Jerusalem, and they do so to the musical strains of “Away in a Manger” as the desert sands blow over the large wooden cross they’ve placed over the baby’s mother’s grave. They also use Bible verses as guides and portents in their journey.

3 Godfathers is based on Peter B. Kyne’s first novel, which was published in 1913. An immensely popular little work, The Three Godfathers was first filmed as The Three Godfathers (1916), a silent film directed by Edward LeSaint that starred Harry Carey. John Ford filmed the story as Marked Men (1919), again starring Carey. Ford made another version of the story called Action in 1921, William Wyler made a version called Hell’s Heroes in 1929, and Richard Boleslawski filmed a version called Three Godfathers in 1936.

I’ll admit that John Ford’s appeal sometimes eludes me. I’m not nearly as in love with some of his masterpieces as others are. But while 3 Godfathers will probably never be counted as one of Ford’s masterpieces, I thought it was a well-crafted, emotionally satisfying film. It’s also the perfect choice if you love westerns and are looking for a good movie to watch around Christmas with your family.

Fort Apache (March 9, 1948)

Understand me, gentleman. I am not a martinet, but I do want to take pride in my command. We here have little chance for glory or advancement. While some of our brother officers are leading their well-publicized campaigns against the great Indian nations — the Sioux and the Cheyenne — we are asked to ward off the gnat stings and flea bites of a few cowardly digger Indians.

This irony-laden speech by Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) occurs early in the second reel of John Ford’s Fort Apache. It foreshadows the tragic and violent finale of the film, and firmly establishes what kind of man Thursday is. Not only is he the dictionary definition of a martinet, but his underestimation of the Apache will be fatal.

When Captain Kirby York (John Wayne) protests that Cochise and his Apache warriors are far from “digger Indians,” Thursday refuses to listen, and the conflict between Capt. York and Lt. Col. Thursday only intensifies as the film goes on. When York, who is familiar with the customs of the Apaches, arranges a meeting with Cochise (played by Miguel Inclán), Thursday refuses to honor the agreement Kirby makes with Cochise. “There is no question of honor, sir, between an American officer and Cochise,” Thursday says. Kirby simply responds, “There is to me, sir.”

In a lesser film, Thursday’s rigid adherence to discipline would mask cowardice, but Thursday isn’t a coward. He isn’t vainglorious either. When York, who remembers Thursday as a general from Civil War, addresses him as “general,” Thursday curtly corrects him. “I’m not a general, Captain,” he says. “A man is what he’s paid for. I’m paid in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.”

Fonda’s performance in Fort Apache is remarkable. His character is so clearly in the wrong so much of the time that it would be easy for him to be a stock villain, but he never is.

Fort Apache is a study in heroism and myth-making, and a story of how the messiness of real life will always end up either forgotten or completely remade.

Of course, since it’s a film directed by John Ford, it’s also a film full of broad comedy, mawkish Irish sentimentalism, and lionizations of the common man.

And no matter how much Ford ever deconstructed the idea of heroism and myth-making in any of his films, he couldn’t resist engaging in his own larger-than-life artistry. Just like My Darling Clementine (1946), Ford shot Fort Apache in Monument Valley because it looked good, not because it was where the real events of his story took place.

Fort Apache isn’t a perfect film, but it’s damned close. It’s an excellent western, and a great film about the U.S. Cavalry that doesn’t paint the Apache as mindless savages. There are references to men tied to wagon wheels, roasted alive (off screen, of course), but Cochise and his warriors are never two-dimensional villains.

Fonda and Wayne are the stars of the film, but they have excellent support from the rest of the cast, especially Ward Bond, who plays Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, and Pedro Armendáriz, who plays Sergeant Beaufort.

If there’s a weak link for me in the film, it’s John Agar, who plays Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O’Rourke. When Agar appeared in Fort Apache he was the real-life husband of Shirley Temple, who plays Lt. Col. Thursday’s daughter, Philadelphia Thursday. (Agar and Temple married on September 19, 1945, and were divorced on December 5, 1949. They had one child together.)

In terms of action, Fort Apache is stately and fetishistic. There are no real skirmishes that lead up to the final battle — as there would be in any picture made today — there is only the aftermath of Apache raiding parties.

And in the charge that begins the final battle, the bugler is the first to be killed by Cochise and his men, putting an end to the stirring patriotic music, which is perfectly fitting. The final battle is accompanied only by Apache war whoops, gunshots, and the thunder of hoof beats.

The Fugitive (Nov. 3, 1947)

Faith and religiosity are notoriously difficult things to depict on film. It’s easy to go too far in one direction — witness for instance, the brutal, mind-numbing literalism of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Belief and faith are abstract things, and while cinema can suggest the abstract, it is still a visual medium.

John Ford’s The Fugitive is rarely numbered among the director’s greatest achievements, but it was reportedly one of his personal favorites. It was filmed entirely in Mexico, and much of the crew was assembled from the Mexican film industry.

In it, Henry Fonda plays a fugitive priest, on the run from the authorities after the church and its emissaries have been made illegal following a civil war. He’s a man whose faith appears to be broken — or at least in the process of being tested — but it’s difficult to really know, because Fonda’s performance is so blank-eyed and tentative that it’s hard to know what’s going on in his mind for most of the picture. Ironically, The Fugitive is a movie that is strongest when it is at its most heavy-handed.

It’s clear from the outset that the movie is meant to be seen as an allegory — the opening narration tells us as much. Also, in the opening credits, we see that none of the characters have names. Fonda plays “A Fugitive,” Dolores del Rio plays “An Indian Woman,” Pedro Armendáriz plays “A Lieutenant of Police,” J. Carrol Naish plays “A Police Informer,” Leo Carrillo plays “A Chief of Police,” and Ward Bond plays “El Gringo.” It’s also not meant to take place in Mexico, but rather, as the narrator informs us, “merely a small state, a thousand miles north or south of the Panama Canal. Who knows?”

Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory (also published as The Labyrinthine Ways) did actually take place in Mexico, but the filmmakers likely didn’t want to offend their host country with a story that was critical of the Mexican Revolution or any of its ramifications.

Greene wrote The Power and the Glory when he was himself a kind of fugitive. Twentieth Century-Fox and Shirley Temple’s lawyers had sued Greene and the magazine Night and Day for criminal libel over his review of the film Wee Willie Winkie (1937), which — ironically — was directed by John Ford. In his review of the film, Greene wrote of Temple that “she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Greene’s trip to Mexico in 1938 was ostensibly at the behest of the Vatican, who wanted him to document anti-Catholic violence and persecution. According to Greene’s friend, director Alberto Cavalcanti, whose lost autobiography was recently unearthed, Greene’s real reason for going to Mexico was to escape Temple’s lawyers.

In any case, whatever narrative subtlety and moral complexity the novel had is not present in the film, which has little to offer in the way of ideas. I hesitate to call Henry Fonda “miscast,” because he’s usually such a wonderful performer, but he really is awful in The Fugitive. His facial expressions range from beatific to panicked, and that’s about it.

The power of the film — and it is a powerful film, especially toward the end — comes from its visuals. Ford and his cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, crafted a beautiful-looking movie, full of nighttime shadows, murky light, and sun-drenched wide open spaces. The final sequence, which is an allegory for the crucifixion and resurrection, is achieved with very little dialogue, and is well-done, if a little obvious.