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John Ford
Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr.
Writing Credits:
Frank Nugent, Patrick Ford

Two young drifters guide a Mormon wagon train to the San Juan Valley and encounter cutthroats, Indians, geography, and moral challenges on the journey.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
English Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 86 min.
Price: $21.99
Release Date: 8/13/19

• Audio Commentary with Actor Harry Carey Jr. and Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich


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Wagon Master [Blu-Ray] (1950)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 16, 2019)

Another Western from the legendary John Ford, 1950ís Wagon Master introduces us to a group of Mormon settlers on their way to Utah circa 1849. To help them arrive safely, they hire wagon masters Travis Blue (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.).

Inevitably, they run into issues along the way. These lead them to a mix of encounters, some positive, some not so much.

In the latter category, the wagon train runs into the Cleggs, a band of outlaws. They want to use the settlers as camouflage for their own actions, a choice that leads to potentially violent ramifications.

Because I never became a big fan of Westerns, I canít say I go into any with great expectations. That said, since Ford directed 1939ís Stagecoach, maybe my all-time favorite entry in the genre, I always hold out hope heíll bring another winner.

Alas, Master fails to approach the heights of Stagecoach or any of Fordís better films. While not without some charms, the film seems fairly forgettable.

Actually, Master reminds me of another Ford movie: 1940ís Grapes of Wrath. While not a remake, the two share a lot of similarities and can come across as a little too close for comfort.

Maybe I wouldnít compare the two if Master did more to keep me enchanted as it ran. Unfortunately, the movie lacks much energy, so it tends to feel like a fairly generic Western.

Some of the problems stem from the casting of Johnson as the lead. While a talented actor, he seems too flat and laconic to develop into a compelling main character.

We get compensation from the supporting cast to a degree, as we find a mix of the eraís stable professionals. Though they add charm, they canít overcome the movieís basic aimlessness.

We just never get a really good feel for the characters or circumstances beyond genre basics. The use of the Mormons brings a little depth Ė especially in the way the movie advocates tolerance Ė but that component doesnít play a prominent role.

Ultimately, Wagon Master winds up as a pretty ordinary Western. Nothing about it flops, but the movie fails to develop into anything especially memorable.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio C+/ Bonus C

Wagon Master appears in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The transfer gave us a largely good reproduction of the film.

Sharpness appeared nicely tight and distinctive most of the time. A smidgen of softness occurred, though those concerns never became problematic, as the definition was fine most of the time.

No issues with shimmering or jagged edges occurred. Edge haloes remained absent, and the image lacked print flaws.

Contrast was usually strong, as the movie maintained a nice silver tone, though a few shots looked a little overblown. Blacks were deep and firm, while shadows were smooth and well-defined. Overall, this was a pleasing presentation.

The movieís DTS-HD MA monaural audio felt more erratic. Speech seemed intelligible and moderately natural, though some edginess appeared at times.

Effects were modest but they showed reasonable clarity and accuracy within the confines of 69-year-old stems. Some distortion cropped up at times, however.

Music ran into problems, mainly via songs, as those tended to come across as rough and shrill. This was an adequate auditory presentation for an older movie but not a terribly good one.

Only one extra shows up here: an audio commentary with actor Harry Carey Jr. and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. Some excerpts from a 1966 interview between Bogdanovich and director John Ford also appear.

The 1966 clips donít tell us much about Master, as they tend to look at Fordís career and filmmaking thoughts in general. We get some good material, though the poor quality of the recordings makes the comments a little tough to understand.

Carey and Bogdanovich sit together for a running, screen-specific discussion of the movie. They touch on production observations as well as thoughts about the cast and crew.

When Bogdanovich discusses the films of other directors, he tends to be a bore. Paired with Carey, he fares better, mainly because he defers to the actor and doesnít say a whole lot. Thankfully Bogdanovich doesnít offer his usual insufferable impersonation of Ford Ė I suspect he felt too sheepish to do so in Careyís presence.

This makes the commentary more engaging than other Bogdanovich chats, but it doesnít bring a lot of useful information. While Carey occasionally throws out a good nugget, much of the discussion just praises the film. This becomes a passable track but not a particularly good one.

Even with the legendary John Ford at the helm, 1950ís Wagon Master canít develop into a compelling story. It hits on the usual notes and generally fails to bring anything fresh to the table. The Blu-ray offers generally good picture along with erratic audio and a mediocre commentary. Master feels like mediocre Ford.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.5 Stars Number of Votes: 2
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