The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
John Ford’s Wagon Master perfectly projects the idea that virtuous attainment in the American social and political landscape requires ordinary people to pull and work together. Indeed, another group joins the primary group so that both may successfully “go their own way.” One group is Mormon; the other, a theatrical troupe. Both, ostracized, have been “invited out of town.”
Wagon Master shows how difficult it may be for disparate groups to consolidate given their different agendas, and how much more difficult it may be for each to prevail because of the forces arrayed against them. Ford’s conviction that consensus-building and activism are necessary helps make Wagon Master one of his most affirmative films.
Of all Ford’s great films, this is the most formally relaxed and given over to (instead of rhetoric) naturalistic poetry; its characters seem to breathe the air of ordinary life as well as inhabit the space of myth. Morally rigorous and solemn in tone nevertheless, the film follows a band of Mormons as they trek westward, uprooted visionaries in search of a home. Ford is deeply sympathetic, but at the same time their religious certainty—recall Ford’s bone-deep atheism—tellingly comments on the American “manifest destiny” that their mission in a diminutive and diminished form reflects.
The group is imperiled, by Nature and by the evil Cleggs. Contesting their adversaries, the Mormons draw their inspiration from their sense of community and their hopes for the future—the peace, bounty and liberty to which they feel entitled (the faith of Ford’s own Irish Catholic ancestors) by surviving the ordeals of harsh terrain, bigotry and violence.
At his most accessible here, Ford beautifully balances history and mythopoiea, finding in the imaginative space where these merge perhaps his richest, most sustaining definition of America.
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