"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Colter Craven Story – episode of Wagon Train (NBC TV, series 4, 1960)

Ford on TV


Towards the end of his career, John Ford directed the occasional TV show as well as his great Western movies. He used to slam Ward Bond for the low quality of Bond's Wagon Train, while at the same time claiming never to have seen a TV Western in his life. But that was Ford for you. In 1960 Ford was at a loose end and undergoing an IRS investigation. No wonder he put aside his principles and agreed to direct an episode. Of course, as this series starred a Ford stalwart, Ward Bond, and had been spun off from Ford’s 1950 movie Wagonmaster (also starring Bond), there was a logic here. In fact, to give it scope and get away for a moment from claustrophobic sound stages, Ford used some footage from the 1950 movie, for example the final shot of the river crossing.

Ford wouldn't use Bond's writers: he proposed the original story himself and a certain Tony Paulson wrote it (his only screenplay – did he exist?) But Ford tinkered heavily with it anyway - his handwritten notes on the script survive.

It was John Ford, so, as Scott Eyman tells us in his excellent biography of Ford, the director was allowed six days rather than the usual five to shoot the episode. In fact, with his famous ability to 'precut' a film in his head beforehand and have each scene mapped out before shooting started, Ford was the ideal man to do a TV show, though he would never have admitted it. Ford turned in 72 minutes of film in 6 days. There was some discussion about making it a two-parter but the cost-conscious Universal ditched that idea and instead cut fifteen minutes to make it fit into one episode. In a way, John Ford was back at Universal shooting six-day Westerns, just as he had in 1916 and '17.

He went to town on the 53-minute show and drafted in many of his stock company members, even John Wayne, who appears as 'Michael Morris'. Duke has a thirty-second, one-line part (in suggestive shadow) five minutes before the end as General Sherman. That's because there’s a long flashback to the Civil War. Two years later, of course, Duke would appear again as Sherman in the meleagrian How The West Was Won. Other well-known Fordians also make appearances. Hank Worden is a gossiping townsman. John Carradine has a short part as an exploitative town boss with moronic, loutish sons Ken Curtis and oft-used Ford stuntman and extra Chuck Hayward.
Major Adams with loutish Ken Curtis
Paul Birch is excellent as ‘Sam Grant’ who turns out to be Ulysses S Grant and promotes Lieutenant Adams to major on the field of Shiloh. Birch had featured in many B and TV Westerns over the years (I remember him as the judge in Ford's Two Rode Together).
General Sherman (John Wayne) appears almost ghostly
Ford long wanted to make a major biographical picture of the life of Grant. The soldier dismissed for drunkenness who regains glory and becomes President appealed to Ford greatly. The long shot of Grant meeting his wife and children on the street is very Fordian. Seth Adams treats scornfully the town rumors and bitter tongues wagging against Grant in the “folks say” segment of the episode. It’s well done.
"Folks say..." Charles Seel and Hank Worden
Best of all, though, is Carleton Young as the eponymous Dr. Colter Craven. Craven indeed, in Major Adams’s view anyway, for he has turned from the horrors of the field hospital to the bottle. There are echoes of Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone from Stagecoach and in a similar way he redeems himself (I hope I’m not giving away too much here but I think it’s pretty predictable) by sobering up and successfully delivering a child. Carleton Young was a familiar face in Republic Westerns where he was a contract player (occasionally appearing under the name Gordon Robert) and he became a late favorite of John Ford. He was the prosecutor in Sergeant Rutledge. It is he who delivers the famous line in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Major Adams ponders what to do with drunken Dr. Craven
Ward Bond died in November 1960, just before this episode was aired, so he never saw it.

John Ford, John Wayne and Ward Bond had a close and sometimes complex relationship. This is the subject of the book Three Bad Men by Scott Allen Nollen, which you can find out about by clicking the link.

Meanwhile, do have a look at this episode of Wagon Train. It has real quality.


  1. Two other excellent Wagon Train episodes are Weight of Command and The Andrew Hale Story. The whole WT crew gets to "shine" in these.

    Love Paul Birch as Grant! Thanks Jeff, KEITH

  2. Insightful analysis, Jeff. Thanks. Any notion of whether the unused footage Ford shot survives? (After all, it was John Ford . . .)

    1. Good point. Maybe it's gathering dust in some Universal basement…

    2. Does Scott Eyman mention that some footage from Wagon Master was reused in this episode? The giveaway is the becaped woman on horseback when they come to the river.