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Wagon Master

A film by Santos Zunzunegui

Wagon Master (Caravana de paz), John Ford


18:00, Introduction: Santos Zunzunegui.

19:00, Screening: Wagon Master, John Ford, USA, 1950, 86 minutes DCP Original version EN, Sub ES


Prologue: A family of outlaws, the Cleggs, rob a bank, killing one of its employees in cold blood.

Opening credits: images of a wagon train crossing a river, rolling across (as the song that accompanies them says) “rivers and plains. Through sand and through rain”.

1849. Two horse traders, Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.), come to the small town of Crystal City to sell their herd. They are approached by a group of Mormons who want to buy the horses and hire them as guides to lead their people to the San Juan River, beyond the Navajo territory, to “the valley that the Lord has reserved for us, which he has reserved for his people so that we can plant it and cultivate it and make it fruitful in His eyes”. The young men accept the first offer but reject the second.

The next morning the Mormon caravan sets off, watched closely by the intolerant people of the town. Travis and Sandy watch the departure sitting on a fence. Suddenly, after just two verses of the song that Sandy is singing, destiny takes a hand and the young men decide to join the journey to the west: “See you at the river. We have work”.

Musical interlude: images over which, as the wagon train crosses a river, the song that we had heard in the opening credits plays again: “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ ... Wagons west are rolling”.

Riding ahead, Travis and Sandy run into a surprise: the remains of a wagon and three people in an advanced state of intoxication because, having run out of water, they have been forced to drink the hair restorer with which they normally duped the good people: “Doctor” Hall (Alan Mowbray), actor and charlatan, his partner Fleurette (Ruth Clifford) and the young, beautiful and unruly Denver (Joanne Dru). Although at first the Mormons do not want to mix with people of their sort, Travis informs them that he is not willing to abandon the newcomers to their fate and that they will have to take them along until they reach the route to California. With the help of “Reverend” Elder (Ward Bond) they finally succeed in convincing even the most obstinate by reminding them that, like them, these souls of God cannot return to Crystal City either.

Water is scarce. When they reach the river, men, women and beasts throw themselves into the water. Denver flirts openly with Travis, while Sandy courts a young Mormon, Prudence (Kathleen O’Malley).

Musical interlude: at night in the camp they hold a celebratory party to the rhythm of the Chuckawalla Swing. Suddenly, the Cleggs interrupt the celebration, requesting food and asking professor Hall to remove the bullet that Shiloh, patriarch of the outlaws, has in his shoulder. The only music that is heard from that moment on is the sound of the outlaws’ spurs. Travis and Sandy have recognised them. But the Cleggs see in the Mormon wagon train as a good protective screen and want to travel on with them.

When they all set out the following morning, the quicksand forces the pilgrims to look for an alternative path through the mountains. And on this path they run into a Navajo party. The Navajo declare that they do not like white men, who are big thieves, but they do like Mormons, who are “little thieves”, and they invite them to their camp where the two communities fuse into one in a ritual dance. But then one of the Cleggs tries to rape a young Navajo woman. Elder decides to apply justice and the brute is flogged before the Indian community.

The next morning, “Doctor” Hall and his women go their own way. Travis proposes to Denver and she answers with a single word: “Goodbye”. Meanwhile, the Cleggs have taken over the wagon train and disarmed the men, although a boy manages to hide a revolver. Hall’s group is also led back to rejoin the Mormons. The outlaws intend to go to the San Juan River together with the pilgrims.

After misleading the sheriff’s posse from Crystal City, obliged to do so by the threat of the Cleggs’ pistols, the wagon train faces its last obstacle: to get the wagons to the other side of a mountain behind which lies the San Juan River. To do this, they must dig out the ruts in order for the wagons to keep moving forward. One by one the different wagons go by, and when there is only one left Shiloh Clegg wants Elder to drive it without using the tracks. But Sandy, armed with the revolver hidden by the boy, begins a shoot-out that would have gone badly were it not for the fact that Travis, reaching one of the weapons that has fallen from the hand of Shiloh Clegg, turns out to be a good shot: “I thought you never drew on a man?”, Elder says to him. “That’s right, sir. Only on snakes.”

By the San Juan River the Mormons celebrate the end of the trip. In the soundtrack we hear a hymn: “Come, come, ye saints, no toil nor labour fear; but with joy wend your way. Though hard to you this journey may appear, Tis better far for us to strive, our useless cares from us to drive; Do this, and joy your hearts will swell - All is well! All is well!”

The film ends with a medley of images and songs seen and heard throughout, to which are added images of the two new couples: Travis and Denver and Sandy and Prudence.


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