Not one approach, but two...
Surrounding these lovers in longing are people in movement, pilgrims in search of a new place to call home.
Dreamers working day and night to make their dreams come true:
And there are horses:
And herds of other animals:
All trudging forward to an uncertain future with nothing to lose:
Even when a primary villain dies—
—it’s back to work; life must go on.
Some stay behind:
But everyone else has to keep moving on. Individuals propel history forward.
In the meantime, a man can still sit and brood over his fate, and a woman can still suddenly pop into a frame and become a miracle:
Six years later, Raoul Walsh would begin his own odyssey set even earlier in history.
Melodrama returns too:
And it’s still possible for lovers to reunite in the midst of an unbroken movement forward:
But the similarities are much more than formal and structural. In The Iron Horse, George O’ Brien explodes into frame, and manifests out of the landscape:
In The Big Trail, Wayne’s introduction is less dramatic, but similar in idea. He saunters into frame, like a friend:
“Been down Santa Fe’, just drifted in!”
In fact, the clothes they wear are virtually the same:
We’ll see this outfit return another ten years later, not in Ford, but in Walsh:
And indeed, continuing O’ Brien’s introduction, the way Madge Bellamy gazes at O’Brien is much more akin to what Walsh would do later on, not Ford:
She gazes in awe, delighted in what she sees, because it's precisely what she wants to see, a romantic voyager, a daredevil who courts danger.
But there are differences as well: this early version of Ford constantly punctuates his movie with action sequences, both on the large scale—
—and the small:
In The Big Trail, however, with one brief exception--
—the film is almost devoid of this vivacity. Some, notably critic Tag Gallagher, have criticized The Big Trail because of its lack of intimacy. Indeed, there isn't a single close-up in the entire film. The movie is constantly revealing its narrative ambitions to be pretense to joy in simply watching people move and work:
We traverse panoramic vistas fraught with danger:
The joy of watching The Big Trail is to relish Raoul Walsh’s joy in recreating an event and period, to simply document it. It feels experimental in its utter disinterest in narrative and preoccupation with images of a time and place that no longer exist.
Walsh is significantly more interested in buffalo herds and landscapes than he is in telling a story.
Snow will even dominate the frame, to the point where one can barely make out who is speaking:
“Not even the storms of the sea could turn back those first settlers! Famine, hunger, not even massacres could stop them! And now we’ve picked up the trail again, and nothing can stop us! Not even the snows of winter nor the peaks of the highest mountain! We’re building a nation, but we’ve got to suffer. No great trail was ever blazed without hardship. And you’ve gotta fight! That’s life. And when you stop fightin’, that’s death.”
But so too, in The Iron Horse, life is a constant struggle:
And so too, are there herds of buffalo:
So is it any wonder that when Ford returns to a similar subject, it’s actually Walsh’s film it resembles, more so than his own?
“Well folks, looks like we’ve got a trial ahead of us, but it’s not the first time. We’ve had to go it alone before, and we’ll have to go it alone again. We’re tough! We’ve had to be tough! Ever since Brother Brigham led our people across the plains! Well they survived and god-dangit we’ll—well we’ll survive too.”
So wagons roll on:
The opening credits tell us: “One-hundred years have come and gone since 1849, but the ghostly wagons rollin’ west are ever brought to mind.” Both Walsh and Ford in this period took massive steps to ensure authenticity to a certain time and place, but here we are now outside temporality and could be anywhere.
There’s also a confrontation with Native Americans:
...But of course, they’re very friendly.
“He says the Mormons are his brothers! He says they’re not big thieves like most white men, just little thieves!”
“You see, the Indians are my friends. They taught me all I know about the woods. They taught me how to follow a trail by watching the leaves, how to cut your mark on a tree so you won’t get lost in the forest. They taught me how to bury into the snow so you won’t freeze to death in a storm. And they taught me how to make a fire without even a flint! And they taught me how to make the best bow and arrows too!”
We keep rolling west—
—and we don’t just see horses, but horses' feet:
Ford’s joy isn’t in watching magnificent vistas, but, rather, in simply observing movement. He relishes in watching Ben Johnson’s horse trying to buck him off, and holds the shot much longer than any other director would:
And indeed, when water is discovered, it isn't the people that Ford films, but the horses:
“Hold your horses!!!” exclaim Ben Johnson and Ward Bond.
Ford would cut to horses a number of times throughout his career, when most directors would be shooting people, such as the final shootout of My Darling Clementine:
Or the climatic Indian raid in The Searchers:
So in Wagon Master, which Ford claimed “was the only one that came out the way I wanted it too,” he dispenses with tension and geography in the middle of a chase to repeatedly show shots of Ben Johnson riding his horse:
Sometimes Johnson’s pursuers are visible in the frame, but most of the time they’re not. I don’t think Ford could care less.
This focus on movement would make it appear that this movie would also be in the “documentary” style of the previous two films. This is not the case. Wagon Master, rather than observing, mythicizes its individuals:
Even a series of shots which does call to mind the observing aspect of Walsh’s film is countered by a shot that could come out of Murnau:
Once again, we’re looking at horses, not people. Life now is not a struggle, but a pilgrimage. All three films end with the “entering of the promised land.” One metaphorical, two almost literal, but all three promising a new beginning, a rebirth. So it should be no surprise then, that Ford does not close his movie with a baby—
—but a pony.
Our Daily Bread is a column on not necessarily beautiful images, nor similar images, but images that when brought together interact in meaningful ways.