Learning of their ability as experienced horsemen, Mormon Elder Wiggs (Bond), hires Travis Blue (Johnson) and Sandy Owens (Carey) to guide a small group of Mormons across the West to the San Juan River country in southeastern Utah Territory, in 1849.
The television series Wagon Train (1957-1965), starring first Ward Bond and then John McIntire, was inspired by the film. (Ford directed one episode, but was otherwise not involved with it.)
The director's unpretentious 1950 western, long overshadowed by his cavalry trilogy, stands on its own.
By Dennis Lim
Fittingly, it derives much of its poetic force from cinematographer Bert Glennon's panoramic black-and-white images of man in nature, of the pilgrims making their way--in wagons, on horseback and on foot--through the majestic landscape.
Practically a musical, "Wagon Master" is filled with frequent song and dance interludes and accompanied by a steady stream of hymns and ballads, performed by the popular country group the Sons of the Pioneers. The film's open embrace of the most elemental myths is in stark contrast to the darker, deeply ambivalent visions that would soon take over the western, thanks to such filmmakers as Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah, and even Ford himself (in "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). The last gasp of the classical western, "Wagon Master" is also the pinnacle of the genre's optimistic ideals.
Ford eventually got a clue about his myopic message. His later movies allowed Indians to live peaceably on their land, although they still portrayed "renegades" who left the reservation as villains. Cheyenne Autumn even bemoaned the tragedy of a tribe's having to relocate.
But Ford never seriously criticized the US policies that caused Indians to suffer. If anything bad happened to Indians, it was the fault of greedy Indian agents and a corrupt bureaucracy. According to Ford--and most Americans--America could do no wrong as a nation. Only a few bad apples tainted the "shining city on a hill."
This is, of course, our foundational myth. The Euro-American forces of civilization (Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, pioneers, cowboys) vs. the subhuman hordes of savagery (Indians, immigrants, Nazis, Communists, terrorists). It's all about us, the good guys, vs. them, the bad guys.
Note that Wagon Master inspired the TV series Wagon Train. Wagon Train in turn inspired Star Trek, which has inspired a lot of stories and "enterprises." It's a good example of how the pro-America, anti-Indian message of Westerns has threaded its way through our culture.
This also explodes the asinine notion that movies can't influence anyone because they're just works of fiction. Hello? Why are are we still talking about John Ford's movies, Wagon Train, and Star Trek half a century after the fact? Why aren't we spending an equal amount of time on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, Our Miss Brooks, or The Perry Como Show? Because some shows have themes and messages that outweigh and outlast their content.
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.