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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.

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.

My Darling Clementine (Dec. 3, 1946)

My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Directed by John Ford
20th Century-Fox

“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the most lauded westerns of all time.

Most criticism of the film is directed at its numerous historical inaccuracies, not its artistic merits. The ages of the Earp brothers are changed, for what seems no discernible reason. Characters die in the film who didn’t die until decades later. The chain of events that led up to the shootout near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 is highly fictionalized. In reality, Doc Holliday was a dentist, not a medical doctor. The list goes on and on.

So to enjoy this film, it’s probably best not to watch it with a talkative history junkie.

And if you yourself are a history junkie, try to ignore all the little details and appreciate this film for what it is — one of the great westerns, full of iconic scenes, memorable performances, finely staged action, and little moments that would be copied over and over again in westerns in the decades that followed.

My Darling Clementine is a remake of Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal (1939), which starred Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp. Both films are based on Stuart N. Lake’s book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which was based on interviews with Earp, although most historians suspect that either Lake was embellishing or Earp was.

Again, it really doesn’t matter when it comes to this film. The plot is not the important thing, it’s Ford’s evocation of a frontier town. The rhythms of life, the strong feeling of nighttime, daytime, daybreak — all are perfectly realized. It doesn’t matter that the real Tombstone isn’t anywhere near Monument Valley. Ford shot there because he liked the way it looked.

Day for night shooting can look terribly fake, or just plain terrible, but in this film Ford makes it look beautiful. In one nighttime scene, Wyatt Earp appears on a rooftop, shot in low angle, firing his revolver at a man fleeing on horseback. Behind him is a dark sky full of silvery clouds. The scene clearly wasn’t filmed at night, but it’s still breathtaking.

Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda’s performance as Wyatt Earp is one of the finest I’ve ever seen in a western. Protagonists in westerns tend to be stalwart men of few words, and Earp is no exception, but the humanity Fonda is able to express merely through his eyes is remarkable.

Fonda generates absolute authority in every scene. Except, of course, when he’s with the pretty Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). The scene in which he takes her to a Sunday dance at the site where the town’s church will be built is one of the highlights of the film. As Earp walks beside Clementine, the congregation sings “Shall We Gather at the River?” (later to be paid gruesome homage to by Sam Peckinpah when he made The Wild Bunch in 1969). The budding romance between the two is palpable, and is a fine example of Fonda’s wonderful silent acting.

Walter Brennan is also great as Old Man Clanton, the vicious patriarch of a nasty clan. Brennan played a lot of cuddly, blustery sidekicks, but here he’s completely convincing as a cold-eyed villain who tells his boys things like, “When you pull a gun, kill a man.”

I’m less bowled over by Victor Mature’s performance as Doc Holliday. The oily Mature seems to be in a different picture in most of his scenes, as he drinks to escape his past and romances the tragic prostitute Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).

As I said, the liberties Ford takes with history are legion. But as Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) showed, an accurate recitation of the facts doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama. And who cares about the actual details of the shootout near the O.K. Corral when we have things in this film like Earp standing perfectly still as a stagecoach pulls in, then running to his left as soon as it kicks up a trail of dust, nearly invisible even to the viewer as he fires several shots and hits his target?

Producer Daryl F. Zanuck notoriously tinkered with this film. He thought Ford’s original version was too long, so he had director Lloyd Bacon shoot some new footage, and then re-edited the film himself. While some of Ford’s lost footage has been unearthed, his original version is lost. Would it have been a better film? Possibly. Is the version we are left with still a great film, and one of the greatest American westerns? Absolutely.

They Were Expendable (Dec. 20, 1945)

It has become clear to me that John Ford does something for others that he doesn’t do for me. Active from the silent era through the ’60s, Ford is regularly listed as one of the greatest American directors of all time, as well as one of the most influential.

It’s not that I don’t like his films. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve seen. But aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), I haven’t loved any of them. Ford’s influence on the western is hard to overstate, and I respect what films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) did to elevate the genre, but I wouldn’t count either as one of my favorite westerns.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s first war movie. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the early, disastrous days of America’s war in the Pacific. Based on the book by William L. White, the film stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. John Brickley, who believes that small, light PT (patrol torpedo) boats are the perfect crafts to use against the much-larger ships in the Japanese fleet. Despite the speed and maneuverability of PT boats, the top Naval brass reject Lt. Brickley’s plan, but he persists in equipping the boats and training his men, and they eventually launch attacks against the Japanese, and even use PT boats to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family when the situation in the Philippines goes from bad to worse.

They Were Expendable is a product of its time. When the actor playing MacArthur is shown (he is never named and has no lines, but it’s clear who he is supposed to be), the musical score is so overblown that it elevates MacArthur to the level of Abraham Lincoln, or possibly Jesus Christ. The bona fides of the film’s star are asserted in the credits; he is listed as “Robert Montgomery, Comdr. U.S.N.R.” (Montgomery really was a PT skipper in World War II, and did some second unit direction on the film.) And in keeping with the film’s patriotic tone, the combat efficacy of PT boats against Japanese destroyers is probably overstated. (This is also the case in White’s book, which was based solely on interviews with the young officers profiled.)

None of this was a problem for me. What was a problem was the inconsistent tone of the picture, exemplified by the two main characters. Montgomery underplays his role, but you can see the anguish behind his stoic mask. He demonstrates the value of bravery in the face of almost certain defeat. On the other hand, John Wayne, as Lt. (J.G.) “Rusty” Ryan, has swagger to spare, and is hell-bent for leather the whole time. He even finds time to romance a pretty nurse, 2nd Lt. Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). Wayne doesn’t deliver a bad performance, but it’s a performance that seems better suited to a western than a film about the darkest days of America’s war against the Japanese.

Maybe we can blame Ford and Wayne’s previous work together, and their comfort with a particular genre. Reports that Ford (who served in the navy in World War II and made combat documentaries) constantly berated Wayne during the filming of They Were Expendable for not serving in the war don’t change the fact that the two men made many westerns together before this, and would make many after it. Several scenes in They Were Expendable feel straight out of a western. Determined to have an Irish wake for one of his fallen brothers, Wayne forces a Filipino bar owner to stay open, even though the bar owner is trying to escape with his family in the face of reports that the Japanese are overrunning the islands. Even more out of place is the scene in which the old shipwright who repairs the PT boats, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson), refuses to leave the shack where he’s lived and worked in the Philippines since the turn of the century. Wayne eventually gives up trying to persuade him to evacuate, and leaves him on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap and a jug of moonshine next to him, as “Red River Valley” plays in the background.

The scenes of combat in They Were Expendable are well-handled, and the picture looks great. Montgomery is particularly good in his role. As war movies from the ’40s go, it’s not bad, but far from the best I’ve seen.