Shot in between the final two installments of his famous “Cavalry Trilogy,” John Ford’s Wagon Master is a piece of personal filmmaking which expresses its director’s sensibility just as purely as Mean Streets reflected the young Scorsese. Adamantly not a “significant” work and devoid of any A-list stars, it was shot on a budget that was probably strained by the cast’s bologna sandwiches, yet it represents the zenith of Ford’s optimism. It remains one of the most satisfying films in his body of work, a road movie that moves at 5 mph, whose pliant laidback vibe, closeness to nature, and menagerie of offbeat characters make it a cousin to Renoir’s A Day in the Country and Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
The story follows a wagon train of Mormon settlers as they journey to a distant river valley; along the way they hire a pair of exuberant young horse-traders as guides, rescue a dissolute medicine-show troupe, share an evening’s entertainment with a band of Navajo, and cope with a gang of degenerate outlaws. On paper that may look like a lot, perhaps even too much. But plot takes a backseat in Wagon Master, which instead focuses on such intangible pleasures as mood, time of day, the interplay of dust and sunlight, and the stirring sight of man and horse moving as one over the mesas of Monument Valley. Nothing is forced or rushed, and one comes away from it dwelling not on its moments of confrontation or violence (indeed, it’s pacifist to the core of its soul), but on the myriad small delights that give it flavor: the way a young, almost absurdly appealing Ben Johnson flips a poker chip into a shot glass without moving in his chair, the now reassuring, now spectral tones of the Sons of the Pioneers on the soundtrack, the communal shadings of an impromptu square dance, or the moment when the camera turns away from a large-scale river crossing, content instead to follow a colt picking its way on its spindly legs up the steep bank. People will always have their reasons to criticize John Ford—for his occasionally shabby treatment of Native Americans, or the broad Irish shenanigans shoehorned into some of his movies—but the low-key lyricism of Wagon Master reveals its creator at his most generous and alive.