WESTWARD HO, THE WAGONS! (1956)
Today I’m taking a look at William Beaudine’s not quite classic, Westward Ho, The Wagons!, in which “Doc” John Grayson (Fess Parker) tries to lead a wagon train full of boring people to Oregon. Will they be able to overcome the attacks of savage Indians? Will they survive their encounter with a second group of somewhat nicer, but still menacing Indians? Prepare yourself for an
adventure hour and a half in the wild west.
Westward Ho, The Wagons! could probably be best described as the most dull parts of playing Oregon Trail. The film follows a group of settlers as they make their laborious way to the west coast. There’s no caulked-wagon river crossing, no hunting for buffalo, and no dying of dysentery. In fact, the movie only covers the part of the journey between Chimney Rock and Fort Laramie.
Meager rations indeed.
The vast majority of the film consists of people standing around chatting about how they will eventually keep rolling towards Oregon. Periodically, Doc Grayson will sing an inspiring song to the wagon train’s crowd of resident children (portrayed by original Mickey Mouse Club members Karen Pendleton, Cubby O’Brien, Doreen Tracy, and Tommy Cole).
It’s like being forced to watch Hee Haw reruns.
Of course it’s not all meandering settlers and boring camp songs. One of the children gets kidnapped by Indians only to make a daring escape, and later the wagon train has to race full speed away from a crowd of angry horse-theiving Pawnee, in a sequence that I’m sure was stunning in the original CinemaScope (sadly the DVD release is miserably panned and scanned).
Still, it’s nice to see a bunch of horses on screen, and know they’re not CG.
Having gotten its most exciting moment out of the way 38 minutes in, the film settles down for some dull hijinx at a trading post run by some French guy (Sebastian Cabot). Turns out Sioux medicine man Many Stars (Iron Eyes Cody, of Keep America Beautiful fame) thinks little Myra Thompson (Karen Pendleton), one of the white children, is about the prettiest thing he’s ever seen. He therefore deems her to be “good medicine,” and as such, the Sioux won’t let the settlers leave Fort Laramie till they agree to give up the girl in exchange for some ponies.
To make matters worse, the chief’s son, Little Thunder (Anthony Numkena), injures himself while playing a game. Word on the street is that if he doesn’t recover, the Indians will go nuts and murder the shit out of everyone! FUCK!
Luckily our main character is a doctor, so, you know, he saves the day, and the Sioux escort the wagons onward, even without receiving any white children as gifts.
Don’t worry, guys, you’ll make it to that matte painting some day.
So, what is this hodgepodge of frontier-ish happenings really telling us? I think the message is that Indians want to steal our future. What? Well, our heroes are all trying to make their way towards Oregon and a better life, and at every turn, who should stop them but irate Native Americans? Their first trial comes when a group of Pawnee kidnap one of the children and take him back to their camp. No explanation whatsoever is given as to why he is abducted.
Thankfully he’s able to escape while everyone is busy partying.
So, the hostile Pawnee are apparently intent on kid-stealing, for entirely inscrutable reasons. How about the more friendly Sioux? Well, they’re after the children too, this time as a sort of good luck charm. By attempting to force the settlers to trade little Myra to them (under an implied threat of massacre, no less), the Sioux prove to have the same agenda as the Pawnee.
Best watch out, kids.
But children aren’t the only thing that Indians are trying to run off with. During the big Pawnee attack, the settlers are only able to escape by giving their attackers all their extra horses. Mere minutes before this, two minor characters had a conversation about how these horses will be essential to setting up a new life once reaching Oregon. By taking them, the Pawnee have stolen the settlers’ future livelihood.
Eastward Ho, The Horses!
Halfway through the film, Doc asks little Myra,”If an Indian wants something a white man has, what does he do?” The tender youth enthusiastically replies, “Scalps him!” Indeed, almost every scene not devoted to monotonous camp life involves a covetous red man trying to take what isn’t his. And by singling out the settlers’ children and horses, both the Pawnee and the Sioux have shown their intent to rob our heroes of their future. Why? Honestly, I’m not sure the movie has thought that far.
One thing the film has made sure to do is to give us a counterpoint: despite their poor treatment at the hands of the Indians, the white man is here to help. When Little Thunder falls ill, it is Doc who steps in to save the day.
Also pictured: Kathleen Crowley, who despite being 2nd billed, does absolutely nothing.
To sum things up, the white folks just want to help the poor Indians out, but at every turn those heathens try to take away their very livelihoods. What jerks.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Westward Ho‘s lack of acclaim stems from being a disjointed series of uninteresting events padded with just enough filler to run out 90 minutes. Too harsh? Well, may I point out that there is a song in which “Wringle wrangle, dingy dong dangle!” is the chorus?
“Got a spur on my boot, and I don’t give a hoot!”
No, you quite obviously don’t.
I’d like to think that the plot’s reliance on Native American stereotypes played some role in the film’s lack of appeal, but as it came out in the 1950s, I really wouldn’t bet on it.
- It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s George Reeves, the first actor to portray Superman, in a role so forgettable I had no memory of it a mere day after watching the film!
You’ll believe a man can look very tired!
- Jeff York and David Stollery are also billed as starring, but neither of them do much of anything of interest, so I hope you’ll forgive me for not mentioning them earlier.
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
Really, this whole movie is one big regrettable pile, but as I have to pick one thing, I’m going to go with the fact that Myra is deemed to be unfathomably special by the Sioux exclusively because of her Aryan genes. “Skin like white snow on mountain. Daughter of rising sun, great medicine,” as Chief Wolf’s Brother (John War Eagle) puts it.
So impressive is her whiteness that the chief promises to raise her as a “Sioux princess” and marry her to his son. Because remember, kids, white is the best thing you can possibly be. Even not-whites know it!
Ugh. Containing no plot, no interesting characters, and lacking even exciting action, there is really no reason for me to ever recommend this film. Go play some Oregon Trail. Who knows, you might get lucky and die of dysentery before you ever have the misfortune of watching Westward Ho, The Wagons!
Johnny Tremain (1957)