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Chris Hicks: ‘Wagon Master,'a great Western, finally on DVD

SHARE Chris Hicks: ‘Wagon Master,'a great Western, finally on DVD

Monument Valley is known to cinephiles as "John Ford Country" because the great director made seven Western masterpieces there — "Stagecoach," "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "The Searchers," "Sergeant Rutledge" and "Cheyenne Autumn."

(OK, maybe "Cheyenne Autumn" isn't exactly a masterpiece.)

But he also used to great advantage another Utah location — Moab — when he filmed two more of his great Westerns: "Wagon Master" and "Rio Grande."

Of course, Ford is also the man who gave us "The Informer," "The Grapes of Wrath," "How Green Was My Valley," "The Quiet Man" and "Mister Roberts," among others.

And all of the above movies — except "Wagon Master" — have been on DVD for a while now. But for some reason that Western classic has been neglected.

Until this week. "Wagon Master" has finally made its glorious black-and-white DVD debut (Warner, 1950, $19.98) and includes an entertaining audio commentary by costar Harry Carey Jr. (now 88) and filmmaker/historian Peter Bogdanovich, who also provides interview excerpts with Ford himself, recorded in 1966.

Ford often cited "Wagon Master" as one of his personal favorites. He told Bogdanovich, "Along with 'The Fugitive' and 'The Sun Shines Bright,' I think 'Wagon Master' came closest to being what I had wanted to achieve." ("Fugitive," a 1947 Henry Fonda film, and 1953's "Bright" are not on DVD but are available on VHS.)

After a prelude that introduces a nasty outlaw gang, "Wagon Master" begins with a Mormon elder (Ward Bond) hiring a pair of amiable horse-traders (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr.) to guide them through some rough territory before settling in "San Juan River country." (Bond would later star in TV's "Wagon Train," which owes much to this film.)

"Are you people Mormons?" Carey asks. "That's right son," says Bond, adding with tongue in cheek, "that's why I keep my hat on all the time, so my horns won't show. Why, I got more wives than Solomon hisself — at least what's what folks around here say."

Along the way, they pick up members of a broken-down medicine show, which allows some of the Mormons to reveal prejudices of their own toward these "show people." And eventually the outlaws show up, reasoning that no posse will look for them in a Mormon wagon train.

My favorite moment comes when Navajos pursue Johnson, then confront the train. Upon discovering the pioneers are Mormons, the Indians become quite excited, as Carey interprets: "He says the Mormons are his brothers. Says they're not big thieves like most white men, just little thieves."

"Wagon Master" is loaded with eye-popping scenic shots of Moab, and great attention to detail offers insight into the difficulties of 19th century westward treks, as wagons traverse rocky terrain and rivers and sometimes break down or roll over.

Among the movie's cast of outlaws is a newcomer, James Arness, who would gain stardom five years later on TV's long-running "Gunsmoke."

"Wagon Master" is a great film, a grand western, and one of the best movies about pioneers ever made. It's also one of the best movies to depict Mormons.

And it's one of the few westerns to show them actually singing a real Mormon hymn: "Come, Come Ye Saints."

e-mail: hicks@desnews.com