WAGON MASTER 1950 by Keith Payne 34 Comments
In honor of the anniversary of the death of Ward Bond 11/5/1960
Ward Bond, although probably the most underrated actor of all time, will be remembered longer than most of the stars who won multiple academy awards. Why? A big part of it is a little film made in 1950 by legendary director John “Pappy” Ford called Wagon Master. This film was named many times by Pappy as being one of his favorites. He was one of the most visual of directors, at this time working near the peak of his career, and he called Wagon Master not only his favorite Western but described it as, “along with The Fugitive (1947) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953), the closest to being what I had wanted to achieve.”
In a rare starring role, Ward Bond plays the leader of a group of Mormons who, shunned by society, struggle to cross the American West to reach their “promised land,” where they can settle and form a community. They ask two horse traders (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr.) who know the territory to lead their wagon train. It takes some convincing, but they finally agree to do it, and the rest of the story follows their journey and the obstacles they must overcome, including Indians, gunmen, and Mother Nature. Yet the story often pauses to revel in the characters dancing, whittling or singing (the soundtrack is packed with old Western songs), and to show pastoral sequences of the wagons simply moving through the landscape or crossing a river. These scenes become the emotional core of the film, and they undoubtedly are what Ford was so satisfied to have achieved.*
Although Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru and Harry Carey, Jr. received top billing on the film, Ward was paid the top money, $20,000 for a film with a 1 million dollar budget. Dobe Carey said many times that Ward actually was the star and was the glue for the entire movie. One quote from his book, “A Company of Heroes” was that he had great regard for Ward Bond and said that he brought stability in every scene he was in.
One scene required Ward to break up a fight between Sandy and one of the Mormons. Pappy had wanted two of the dogs who had been fighting each other most of the filming days to be fighting in the background. Instead, when the take began, both dogs froze, then one took off and the other ran in and tore Ward’s pants as he was separating the boys. Being the consummate actor he was, Ward continued on with the scene. At the end, Mrs. Ledyarde blew her horn, (which, by the way really sounds like that unless you have enough wind to blow it…I know, I have one), to help separate the two, and then saw the tear in Ward’s trousers. It happened to be large and right at the spot where he had been subjected to years of operations, grafts, and physical therapy for a leg that was almost completely severed in the 40s. In fact, Ward had only in the last few years just been able to walk without aid of a cane, and in some scenes did not have to wear the large heavy brace. I suppose the actress just couldn’t suppress the chance to see what that famous injury looked like, because she reached down and parted the trousers right in front of the camera. Ward and her reaction cannot be seen in the film, but here it is below. You can see her open the pants and see the large dent in his leg just above the knee.
Next shows Ward covering his leg and his shock that she would do such a thing, especially on camera.
This shows that she has realized what she has done to a man who was her friend. Luckily, Ward was not the type to hold a grudge. She guest starred on Wagon Train a few times.
Pappy Ford sent Duke Wayne a telegram telling him about the incident and said he hoped the dog had had his rabies shot! Of course, the dog had only torn the pants, not bitten Ward.
Another scene involving Ward occurred when Ben Johnson and Ward were riding along the river looking for a crossing. In the commentary with Peter Bogdanovich, Dobe Carey had been saying that Pappy Ford had given Ward a horse that was too small for him, (obviously trying to make Ben look taller than he was since he was the Wagon Master). Well, all of a sudden, down the horse went. Ward was able to spring free as the horse fell on his left side and could have severely damaged his never completely healed leg. Ward jumped up, strode to catch the horse, all the time adlibbing about the horse’s clumsiness. However, you can easily see in frame by frame that Ben’s horse was mired up to his fetlocks…..apparently they were in deep mud or quicksand.
Down goes Ward’s horse with him on it.
Next picture shows Ben’s horse Steele’s back legs mired up, with him trying to get him out.
Ben comes over and tells Ward about the quicksand, and it wasn’t the horse’s fault. Ward remounts and says, “Sorry horse”!
So, that night Pappy Ford sent Duke Wayne another telegram this time saying that Ward took a bad horse fall on his injured leg side but that he and horse were OK.
This movie was almost a musical with all the songs by the Sons of the Pioneers, even Ward, Ben, and Dobe sang a bit. Then they had two celebration dances. You could see the exuberance on Ward’s face as once, he never thought he would walk again, and there he was whooping it up on the dance floor!
So, now you know why one of the most underrated actors of all time will be remembered longer than the legendary, Oscar winners will be. Because, that fun little movie brought Ward Bond the role of Major Seth Adams in Wagon Train which is still a household show all over the world even 52 years to THIS DAY after Ward’s Death.
WE, YOUR FANS, WILL ALWAYS MISS YOU, WARD, BUT ARE THANKFUL KNOWING YOU ARE WITH YOUR BUDDIES, DUKE, PAPPY, HANK FONDA, AND ALL THE REST! WARD BOND LEFT US NOVEMBER 5, 1960
all pictures provided by Keith, except for the 1st pic (source)
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* credit for paragraph to Tom Correa, who wrote this post on Ward’s life
…and the Ward post here at Speakeasy