Wagon Master (1950)

Wagon Master 1950The late 1940s and early 1950s were undoubtedly John Ford‘s strongest era as a director. His strongest contributions, not so surprisingly, of the time (with the exception of The Quiet Man) came from the genre he’s most associated with, the western. And while his famed cavalry trilogy — Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande — is synonymous with the genre, another western of the time gets lost in the shuffle and is almost entirely forgotten. Here’s 1950’s Wagon Master.

It’s the 1880s in the American west and a group of Mormon settlers is being chased further west, populations in towns along the trail wanting nothing to do with the settlers. Looking to build a community in California, a Mormon wagon train — led by fiery Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) asks two horse traders, Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) to work as wagon masters, driving the train west. It takes some convincing, but the two amiable horse traders take the job on. They’re working against the seasonal clock though, the Mormons needing to reach their California valley and plant a harvest before winter settles in. Throw in some gunfighters, bandits and Indian attacks, and the trail is anything but easy.

Remembered with The Searchers and The Quiet Man as Ford’s best, the cavalry trilogy are Ford working at his absolute best. Even 3 Godfathers — released in 1948 — is a gem. Why then is ‘Wagon’ so generally forgotten? Well, the obvious answer is that there’s no big star, no John Wayne or Henry Fonda. Instead, Ford gives the spotlight to three instantly recognizable character actors who often played supporting parts in his movies; Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. and Ward Bond. More on our stars later, but the key here is Ford turning into a simpler, more lyrical story. It plays a little like a serial, slightly disjointed at 86 minutes. The wagon train moving west is about as iconic as a western gets, and Ford doesn’t miss here.

How accurate are Ford’s westerns to the actual wild west American history? His films always looked authentic, always felt authentic. The moral of the story though is simple to describe. Maybe they’re not the most authentic or realistic. Instead, Ford presents the American west as it should have been. It’s good guys vs. bad guys, noble heroes vs. dastardly villains, beautiful vistas and damsels in distress. ‘Wagon’ has all of that, a stripped-down story of a wagon train. Filmed on location in Monument Valley, ‘Wagon’ is a black-and-white gem. The backdrops are simply stunning. With a film a little light on story, the locations (set to composer Richard Hageman’s score, a frequent Ford composer) end up stealing the show.

Coupled with the Monument Valley locations, the trio of character actors getting lead roles is what’s brought me back to ‘Wagon.’ A real-life cowboy before Ford discovered him, Johnson is at his laconic, scene-stealing best. When Johnson’s Travis is tearing across the Utah desert, that’s him doing the riding, not a stunt double. As his buddy Sandy, Carey Jr. is a naive but nice (somewhat dim-witted) cowboy. The duo actually starred the same year in Ford’s Rio Grande, playing characters with the same names. Is ‘Wagon’ an unofficial sequel of sorts? Throw in the always welcome Ward Bond as Elder, a converted Mormon with a hinted-at checkered past, and you’ve got a heck of a lead trio. No huge stars, no problem.

Starring as love interests are Joanne Dru and Kathleen O’Malley. Ford regulars Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson and Francis Ford (John’s older brother) playing supporting parts. The villains are the Cleggs gang, led by murdering patriarch Shiloh (Charles Kemper) and including supporting parts for Hank Worden, James Arness, Fred Libby and Mickey Simpson. Also look for Alan Mowbray as a snake oil salesman and Ruth Clifford as his dance hall girl partner.

As I’ve mentioned, ‘Wagon’ isn’t the most pointed story around. It drifts a little bit, and the ending is especially odd, as if Ford didn’t quite know how or when to end his movie. There is not a ton of action along the way, but you’re watching for the characters and the location backdrop. When the Cleggs are re-introduced in the second act, the introduction does provide some uncomfortable tension going forward. Still, even with its flaws, it’s still a pretty good western. A few too many songs too along the way, along with 2 different community line dances (usual Ford touches).

Not on the level of the cavalry trilogy or Ford’s other classics, but a must-watch for western and John Ford fans alike.

Wagon Master (1950): ***/****

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Island in the Sky (1953)

island_in_the_sky_281953_film29_posterSince I moved over to WordPress from Blogger this past fall, I’ve struggled with what to review. Life gets in the way and what not, huh? Should I stick with solely westerns? Guy’s guys movies in general? I’d been sticking with westerns of late, but when watching 1953’s Island in the Sky, I had to expand the parameters a little bit. A John Wayne movie many fans have never heard of, much less seen, it’s a hidden gem, a true classic.

It’s early in World War II and many civilian pilots have been enlisted in the armed forces to help transport supplies to Europe. One of the routes is over Canada to Greenland and eastward into England and beyond. Among those pilots is Dooley (Wayne), a longtime flier, and his four-man crew. In horrific weather, Dooley’s plane goes off-course and the pilot is forced to land in the wilderness of Labrador, mostly uncharted land that’s never been explored. With food in short supply and temperatures at -70 degrees, the five men must band together to survive. All over the region though, civilian pilots report in to aid in the search. In the uncharted wilderness though, the search proves to be almost impossible across 10,000 square miles. Can the rescue effort find them? Can Dooley and his crew hold out?

Originally released in 1953, ‘Island’ went unseen for over 20 years as it languished under copyright and legal issues. It was finally settled on released on DVD in the early 2000s with another Wayne aviation movie, The High and the Mighty (also recommended). Some 15 years before disaster movies were in style, both films set the bar high and are obvious influences on countless flicks to come (both serious and spoof). ‘Island’ is as straightforward as they come with a downed crew and the rescue effort in the air. No frills, no tricks, just a survival movie at its absolute best. A must-see film.

Director William Wellman had a pilot’s background himself, flying in a fighter in WWI. He’d done several aviation movies already — including 1927’s Wings — and just has a knack for it. ‘Island’ is filmed in a stark, haunting black and white that adds a layer to the film. With color filming, it would lose some of its minimalist edge. The aerial sequences are quite impressive as WWII-era planes fly through weather, in and around mountain ranges, and all in sub-zero, frigid temperatures. Much of the movie is spent in tough, cramped quarters on the search planes, and we’re there with the pilots the whole way. A solid musical score from Emil Newman and an uncredited Hugo Friedhofer underplays all the action.

Rarely mentioned as one of Wayne’s best, this definitely belongs in the conversation with The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Shootist. His part as veteran pilot Dooley is his most human part. He’s not a superhero, a cowboy, a war hero. He’s just a good pilot trying his damnedest to get his crew home safe. The voiceover narration Wayne delivers adds an excellent element to the character as we see his doubts creeping into his head while trying to hold the situation together. There’s a good twist in the final scene too concerning his character. Nothing crazy, but it adds a nice touch. As for the crew, look for Sean McClory as Lovatt, the co-pilot, Wally Cassell as D’annunzia, the radioman, Hal Baylor as Stankowski, the engineer and Jimmy Lydon as Murray, the navigator.

The survival and rescue effort is delivered in almost documentary-like fashion. In brief snippets, we get little windows into the lives of the crew as they look back on what they’ve left behind. It’s never heavy-handed or too distracting, but is instead highly effective in letting us feel like we know the crew well. It goes a long way in simple fashion of getting us invested in their survival. A solid ensemble.

And then there’s the rescue efforts, featuring plenty of recognizable stars, character actors and future stars. ‘Island’ features an excellent ensemble all-around, starting with the rescue pilots, including Lloyd Nolan, James Arness, Andy Devine, Paul Fix, Allyn Joslyn, Cass Gidley and Louis Jean Heydt. Walter Abel leads the effort from base as the Army officer in command, an effortlessly effective part as he spells out what’s going on. As for some of the crew members, look for Harry Carey Jr., Fess Parker, Bob Steele, and Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer.

I’ve seen this movie several times now, and I go along for the ride each and every time. The tension is beyond uncomfortable at times as the days pile up and supplies begin to dwindle, all the while the extreme, bitter cold wreaking havoc. SPOILER ALERT I absolutely love the ending too, one of the best, most emotional finales around. SPOILER ALERT. I can’t recommend this movie enough. Hidden away in a vault for years, ‘Island’ is must-see for fans of aviation, of John Wayne, of survival stories, and more simply, just of good stories. Definitely check this one out.

Island in the Sky (1953): ****/****

Red River (1988)

redriverSo what’s more unnecessary than a remake of a classic? A TV movie remake of a classic! Released in 1948 and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift from director Howard Hawkes, the original Red River is a classic western that’s undone by one of the worst endings in the western genre. So some 40 years later, the TV remake hit TV screens on CBS. Here’s 1988’s Red River.

It’s 1865 in the months following the Civil War, and the cattle market has dried out in Texas. A cattle rancher for 15 years, Thomas Dunson (James Arness) has decided the only way to save his ranch and his cattle is to drive an immense herd north to a railroad and sell the herd for a pretty penny. It’s never been done before though, and the dangers are everywhere from Indians to bandits to weather and nasty trail. With his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Bruce Boxleitner), an ex-Confederate soldier, his longtime right-hand man, Groot (Ray Walston), and a crew of cowboys, Dunson sets off north for Missouri. His ranch and well-being are at stake, and he pushes his men and the herd to the absolute limit. His intentions are genuine, but the means are less than pleasant, pushing Garth to make a decision that could tear the whole thing apart.

So for starters, there’s no real reason to remake the ’48 Hawks version. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way…the ’88 version is pretty good. It’s limited by an obvious TV budget at times with stock and insert footage filling in for the bigger shots of the herd moving north, but the quality is pretty decent. Some fun was spent, and that’s all a TV movie really needs. The Borden Chase story is there with a decent cast. It’s hard to mess that up other than that ending. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll get some enjoyment out of the remake.

It’s hard to step into the shoes of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, but Arness and Boxleitner make a willing go of it! Arness certainly had the presence and attitude for the part. Years earlier, it was Wayne who recommended Arness play Marshal Matt Dillon TV’s Gunsmoke, and that worked out for everyone. Boxleitner — a reliable actor who never quite became a star — delivers the movie’s best performance as Garth, capable, well-meaning and loyal but only when right is on the line. The chemistry is solid between Arness and Boxleitner, and throw in an underused but always welcome Walston for good measure.

The ’48 version is infamous for some of its latent homosexual tendencies between Clift’s Garth and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance, another young gunfighter. Gregory Harrison steps in here as Valance, and the dynamic is better. We have 2 young gunfighters, two type-A personalities, and let’s face it…there’s only room for ONE. The tension is solid, and the resolution is better than the original. The doomsday moment is the unnecessary addition of a female character, widowed Kate (Laura Johnson), for the two to fight over in predictable fashion.

Who else? The depth of the cast might not blow you away, but there’s some good stock characters here. A black cowboy, Jack Byrd (Stan Shaw), is added to the mix, injecting some life into the story. There’s also the troublemakers, L.Q. Jones and Jerry Potter, the youngster, Zachary Ansley, and the reliable cowboy, Burton Gilliam, who many will recognize from his key part in Blazing Saddles. Western fans should also keep their eye out for a quartet of cameos — blink and you’ll miss them — including Guy Madison, Ty Hardin, John Lupton and Robert Horton. Definitely cool to see some familiar western faces pop up, even if it’s only for a scene.

The cattle drive western is one of the archetypal genre set pieces. Including its predecessor, Lonesome Dove, one of the best segments from Centennial, The Cowboys, and plenty of others, it helps average stories rise above to something better. Familiar? Even repetitive? At times, but they’re always entertaining. This ’88 remake is a tad rushed in spots at just 94 minutes — comparing to the original’s 133 minutes — but it is never dull. If it is too familiar, so be it. I liked it. A solid, if unnecessary remake.

Red River (1988): ** 1/2 /****