Cattleman vs. sodbuster on “l’immense prairie,” as French subtitles give the Czech titles, “empire des cowboys.”
The photographic element, always a standby in rough situations, is abundantly in evidence for what is identified as Ford’s first feature.
The dramatic element is not lacking, either. Ford shows what it is to be prostrated by grief, behind the grave is a blooming yucca.
The hired outlaw’s revulsion at this backshooting is the pivot of the action.
Harry Carey, Molly Malone, Hoot Gibson, et al.
The young cowpoke’s difficulty crossing the river in haste on horseback is rare, Ford leaves the shot in (cf. St. Stephen’s Day in Hangman’s House).
The influence of Griffith amounts to a kind of unity. Here already are the close-ups that tell the tale of a showdown (with rifles) on a Western street.
By Indian Post
The main joke goes into Gance’s Un Grand amour de Beethoven twenty years later. The drive-in church also announces itself. A great John Ford Western comedy, in a style visible all the way through his work.
The Village Blacksmith
The last reel alone remains at present, a noteworthy paroxysm of silent film style, the crippled son crawling through a thunderstorm to wreak vengeance and failing under the lash when his cries bring the title character, who drags the villain and his father through the same storm to confess their crimes in church. “Thus at the flaming forge of life...” A film variously remembered, it may well be, in Browning’s Freaks and Bergman’s Autumn Sonata.
The Iron Horse
A mere land speculator who is a two-fingered renegade with the Cheyenne holds up the works to enrich his property, this is a brilliant invention identifying the fellow for all time. Hitchcock (The 39 Steps), De Mille (Union Pacific) and Altman (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) have especially vivid memories of it, and so does Ford.
Later writers in particular have trouble with Ford’s complicated and delicate idea of structure, it occurs as a great remembrance in How the West Was Won.
The Shamrock Handicap
The O’Hara in Ameriky with a fine Galway hunter and, after a nasty spill in the Merchants’ Handicap (The Wings of Eagles), a jockey from County Kildare. Virus Cakes in the hospital, a finely-rendered nightmare. “By Killarney’s lakes and fells—”, says a title card, fade to black and swiftly up on Gaynor’s legs swinging as she reads a letter... “A likely filly,” Dark Rosaleen. “What with a Jew jockey, an’ an Irish horse—it’ll be a killin’!” Nevertheless, Dark Rosaleen gets her Irish up and goes to town. The Shamrock is loightnin’, yerra. The luck o’ the Irish bestrides the main, fourth leaf of the clover, Ford explains, with Faith and Hope and Charity (Love, it’s called here). The hunt at the start is finely remembered in the filming of Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger.
The Irish Film Institute opines, “no less enjoyable for being predictable.”
3 Bad Men
A Mark Twain joke. “Chaw?”
By sailing ship and prairie schooner, pilgrims out West, eyed watchfully by Indians and the varmints of the title, stage robbers, bank robbers, horse thieves.
Ford goes to sea and rides the Plains to see it all, the director of Wagon Master.
Gold on Sioux land in the Dakotas, and thus a foreglimpse of They Died With Their Boots On (dir. Raoul Walsh).
The year of the Centennial and thereabouts...
The crowded “mushroom town” is later taken up by Anthony Mann in several views (the prize of thoroughbreds is a later theme).
“By golly—he’s a woman!”
The town’s name is Custer. “Come along, my 3 Bad Men—it’s time we were making camp.” The sheriff is another theme, he keeps his girl among the wagon wenches and lives on what his gang rakes off.
“To tell the truth, miss—our business ain’t what it used to be.”
One of the funniest films anybody ever made. Boorman remembers the husband-hunting in Deliverance, to effect. “If a man’s heart is in the right place, it don’t matter what sex he belongs to.” Dan O’Malley and the horses come from The Shamrock Handicap.
For all the traffic, the town isn’t prospering, the Emporium for example. “Listen, Rabbi,” Minsk says to the only parson, “business is terrible! Nobody buys a new suit even to be buried in.” Minsk is remembered in McLintock! (dir. Andrew V. McLaglen) with Jack Kruschen.
The steady promotion is from 3 Godfathers to We’re No Angels (dir. Michael Curtiz), Marked Men is an early statement of the theme.
From Borzage and Walsh to Mann’s Cimarron. Even the whores are alarmed at the sheriff’s order, “burn that psalm-singing preacher’s shack!” The scene that follows is right from Griffith. Ford modulates from this to a furioso continuation out of Straight Shooting. McLaglen picks up another note for The Way West, gold fever and the plow (Ford takes it up in The Plough and the Stars from another angle).
“The Grand Land Rush!” And then comes the “little Moses” gag eloquently remembered by Hawks in Red River (he might have got the Scarface theme here as well).
“Mike, your pants may be shabby, but they cover a warm heart.”
Hawks reaches the same conclusion in Today We Live. “One last riddle—positively the last.” Perhaps the most recondite influence is on Collinson’s The Man Called Noon.
Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “silent Western classic”.
The Blue Eagle
Of the U.S. Navy on convoy duty in 1917, demobilization in New York, dope-peddling is the scourge there.
Wartime united the Terriers and the Rats of ward politics, Chaplain O’Regan (subsequently Father Joe) has a plan to rid the wharf of the pest.
The Library of Congress version has lacunæ and considerable damage but is recognizable as a Ford picture.
Same war, Rats and Terriers alike have suffered depredations, they turn to against the smugglers’ submarine. It ends for followers of the Fancy in a bout to settle ward politics once and for all. George states the moral, “guess there ain’t nothing or nobody me an’ Tim can’t lick, together.”
Theatrical boarding house, Yoricks aplenty, “the last and least of the Brashinghams” gets a call from London to play Hamlet on the strength of the family name, though he is “a terrible actor”. John Ford’s Hamlet, full of gags. You must act, says an old trouper, the way Shakespeare wrote, “flog dull words into wild music.” The Brashingham scion is part of a knife-throwing act, success in the role swells his head, a publicity junket back to the boarding house in New York knocks him down (people enjoy the play, he’s told, and him in it). The characteristic magnitude of Ford’s expression carries with it into the gravedigger scene all those performers who send money from the sticks that never reaches the landlady somehow. A single print of this lost film was found in the Antipodes eighty years after being exhibited there, a dupe was struck, then an answer print, the tintings were applied again (pale green and pale violet), a capacity crowd at the Academy laughed all the way through. “Alas, poor Yorick! He knew me well...”
How she came to America be the aid of the Dwarf of Munster, the Giant of Killarney, and the Harper of Wexford. “Sure the Irish have the pleasantest land in the world and they do be always leaving it.” The remnant of this masterpiece is recognizable in The Long Gray Line and The Rising of the Moon and The Quiet Man (Ballymoney, also How Green Was My Valley).
Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence were in “several splendid Movietone subjects” before the feature, Mordaunt Hall reported in the New York Times, “beautifully staged and capitally photographed.”
Viz. Ford’s telegram to Welles, “Dear Orson, thanks for the compliment. Love, Mother Machree”.
Soldier, farmer, blacksmith, shepherd.
Postcard from Bavaria, Major Von Stomm takes command of the garrison. Later there are such things as Borzage’s Three Comrades, Ford’s Four Men and a Prayer, and Hathaway’s The Four Sons of Katie Elder. “Herrgott! Eloquence is wasted! They are all pigs together!”
Ford inscribes the memory of the war in two words across the sky, DER TAG. The farmer is in America. Farewells. the tocsin, marching out. The widow’s grief.
A black cat, the Major’s sword. “Drop me a line from Paris!”
The shepherd stays home.
War means sorrow and poverty. A drama of “the old country,” also Joseph and his brothers, finally how Frau Bernle came to America, a companion piece to Mother Machree.
Mordaunt Hall (New York Times) had some difficulty taking it all in and expressed his complaint that “a little further imagination would have made some of Mr. Ford’s sequences more stimulating.” Variety, “profoundly moving... magnificent... amazing effectiveness... fine realism... utter simplicity.” Leonard Maltin, “famous silent tearjerker.”
An elegantly wrought masterpiece that turns several Ford themes to account (The Shamrock Handicap notably, noted by Capra in Broadway Bill) ahead of The Black Watch, where the structure appears winnowed, refined, enlarged and perfected.
Serving with the Foreign Legion in Algeria, McLaglen is called away to Ireland...
St. Stephen’s Day is the great steeplechase remarked upon by the Catholic News Service Media Review Office, beyond which “director John Ford can do little with the story’s sentimental plot.”
The visions in the fireplace are another grand invention, the ending is a favorite with Hammer.
Photoplay, “a pretty good film.” Leonard Maltin, “florid melodrama”. Hal Erickson (All Movie Guide), “fascinating”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “blarney-filled melodrama.”
Perhaps Lang saw it, or Brecht. The Irish judge figures in Clair’s And Then There Were None. Not only John Wayne but Brian Desmond Hurst can be espied amongst “the crowds and the horses.” McLaglen’s disguise gives one leave to imagine him in Beckett’s Endgame.
The Black Watch
Captain King receives secret orders for the Khyber Pass whilst the regiment entrains for France in 1914.
Like Hitchcock, Ford has the revelation of sound as offscreen materials, thus adding another dimension, this is seen to striking effect on the railway platform (voices, singing).
A certain lady is stirring up mischief in the Pass, and she is Henri Rousseau’s La Guerre, to be sure.
A thankless task for the Captain vis-à-vis his fellows in the mess, who naturally think him a shirker and worse, even the Colonel...
“A dirty job, at the best.” Huston resumes it in Across the Pacific. “Your old chum McGregor” tried and failed and didn’t come back.
This is very heavily hoked. “Thou hast the build of a man, Captain King. In the hills, much will be revealed to thee.”
Meanwhile, in Flanders. “It’s queer, Sergeant, how a man gets out o’ touch wi’ the world. I haven’t even heard Saturday’s football results!”
Là-bas, là-bas dans la montagne, the Cave of the Echoes (cf. Lean’s A Passage to India). Ford at his most extraordinary, the ringing of the temple bell, a place of crows cawing loudly, worse than the Black Hole of Calcutta, eyeless dark at the mill with slaves under the lash (cf. Gilling’s The Brigand of Kandahar).
“It would have been better had there been a keener sense of humor,” said Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, “a tongue-in-the-cheek mood” to dispel “giggles and chuckles from the sophisticated first night audience,” adding that the novel is the one taken up by Henry King in King of the Khyber Rifles.
Variety was still more at a loss, “loose-jointed and far from well-knit... not explained.”
Photoplay never caught on either, “pretty extravagant and unconsciously hilarious”, furthermore, “McLaglen is not fitted for this sort of role... Miss Loy is good” (Photoplay reports the film as one of that year’s “phenomenal successes”, and it is well to note that Ford is in advance of Hathaway’s Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Stevens’ Gunga Din), Miss Loy could launch a holy war and means to do it, she sponsors McLaglen’s entrée and watches him wrestle all comers for the privilege, a scene remembered as Nora Charles.
“I summoned thee, Captain King, because Aryan blood flows in my veins, as in thine.”
“A white woman?”
“Yes, Captain King, a white woman. Into this land, Alexander the Great...” therefore Huston’s The Man Who Would be King and Preminger’s Rosebud, not to mention the mustachioed Venus of Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (“Come to Germany”).
Critics know everything, critics know nothing.
“It is not good to be a goddess when one is young,” the subject of Satyajit Ray’s Devi.
Ford’s crystal ball, an utterly stupendous piece of moviemaking.
The most obscure reference is in The Marseille Contract (The Destructors, dir. Robert Parrish), “for all the violence I have displayed toward my fellow men, Allah forgive me.” Salome’s Last Dance (dir. Ken Russell) bears another, “my lips have burned on thine.” The return of Malcolm is remembered by Capra in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Men Without Women
The port is Shanghai, the song is “The Tattooed Lady”, the girls are in shop windows.
“A Story of the Submarine Service”, and at that probably understood by few if any critics, a complete surreal analysis, as will be seen.
Every part of it hangs together, but the action at its simplest is the sinking of S-13 in the China Sea, rammed by a freighter at night in bad weather. Two U.S. Navy divers descend and free a torpedo tube so the seamen can escape.
That is sufficiently clear, but there’s a Chief Petty Officer formerly a Captain in the Royal Navy who lost his ship with all hands through a lady’s intrigue, and there was a great man aboard, the country’s greatest Field Marshal.
“Odd title,” said Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, whose inconscient review nevertheless records several items in the screenplay now evidently lost. Halliwell had no idea of this masterwork, “more noted for its credits than its accomplishment.”
Cf. Gasnier’s The Perils of Pauline.
The Italian mobster and his cronies in New York, just a working stiff to Ma and Pa, the Irish cop on the beat “dreams wide awake” (Boleslavsky).
“I want ya to meet my friends, they’re a great gang.”
Off to France against the Heinies. “I envy you men,” says the Assistant District Attorney whose name is Cardigan, “fighting for the right. You’re better men than I am—”
“—Gunga Din,” puts in the reporter who thunk up the angle, what with the primaries and a front page in view (cp. On the Fiddle, dir. Cyril Frankel). “Whadda you do, buddy,” the sergeant wants to know. “I don’t do anything,” says the smiling recruit, “I go to college!” He’s passed over for noncom school, “don’t know nothin’.” The private who won’t take responsibility for “curtains” is a theme of other films. And later, “all these men offering themselves to their country, they’ve come from the highways and the byways, the machine shop and the store, they’ve dropped the plowshare for the sword, it’s upon the lives of such men as these that our country must rely, to bare their open manly breasts to the beast that is ravaging the Motherland, somebody swiped my watch.” A veritable Geronimo of comedy, script by Dudley Nichols. “Ohhh, Sherman was wrong!” Doughboys, “red-white-and-blue whiskey,” combat poetically evoked, a German helmet for Papa who places it under the bed for peeing, a costly item (cp. Flying Leathernecks, dir. Nicholas Ray). Crime and vendetta. “Am I gonna stand for a rat makin’ a mug outta me?” The basis of Scorsese’s work is laid, and such things as The Roaring Twenties (dir. Raoul Walsh). A new British associate. A John Ford joke (3 Bad Men). “Gimme a cigarette, will you?”
“No!” The title of Ford’s next picture figures prominently. An infant kidnapping. Sounds of New York. Jamaica Bay. One of Ford’s symphonic movements, the approach to the house, “those low marshlands” (cp. Prime Cut, dir. Michael Ritchie).
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, “a thoroughly entertaining film.” Leonard Maltin, “weird combination of gangster film and war drama is fairly entertaining.” Halliwell’s Film Guide gives it out as “generally poorly regarded” (citing Variety, “a singularly full and sprawling scenario”).
Up the River
A big-time crook and his former partner, a moron, bust out of prison to help a rich kid being blackmailed for his time there.
These are, in order, Spencer Tracy, Warren Hymer and Humphrey Bogart.
Romance and phony oil stocks and the prison baseball team and China and the prisoners’ variety show are all in the act.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times was a little bewildered, but dutifully reported that “it often proved to be violently funny to the thousands who filled the seats in the big theatre”, the Roxy. Variety, “a comedy prison picture”. Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader), “nothing major”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “a very minor comedy”.
“Just a good old three-masted schooner” for the U.S. Navy in 1918, a reworking of Men Without Women, as noted by Hal Erickson for All Movie Guide. This is Murphy’s The Wackiest Ship in the Army and McLaglen’s The Sea Wolves, a raid on the Canary Islands where U-boats lurk. The Spanish girls in port are operatives of the Imperial German Navy, the crew of the mystery ship or Q-boat are ordered to behave in the manner of a merchant crew, “like a lot o’ chickens with your heads cut off.” It is directly to be compared with The Long Voyage Home, by virtue of Ensign Cabot’s dry-docking. A mighty film, real ships and subs at sea, George O’Brien as the skipper, Warren Hymer among the crew, John Loder a German officer, and Marion Lessing’s Hitlerian tantrum in custody. “Zamboanga” is the closing tune.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times reckoned “it is not a picture to be taken very seriously.”
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, cinematography Joseph August, with a German captain as advisor.
The conduct of science, in the face of peer review, the great world, fiduciary hardship, and whatnot.
It gets great things done, despite these handicaps, and even overwhelmed it withdraws to the solitudes for more.
These precise, uncanny definitions require all the force of Ford’s drama, but they’re easy enough for him. After all, it’s only a movie, he might say.
The critics were against Colman in the lead, guess why.
How rare it is to find anything worthwhile in the lab or the kitchen sink, how such a thing is misplaced for one end or another, and what a sublimation it seems even in the modern age.
All the heroism and technical ability and artistry of Ford is enough to shoulder his way through the blundering world to clarity. There’s no amount of bullshit that can deny a mother’s grief or guilt, nothing but the dead can speak, they speak through the living.
A monumental appositeness informs the whole picture, from scenes of Arkansas farm life to a passenger ship, Paris, and the graves at Argonne.
The redemption of a mother cruelly tied to her son is the main theme, but this is no more than A Christmas Carol or Les Parents terribles.
Ford takes the Gold Star mothers on their voyage to the fields of France, with one who wished her son dead before married, they are a varied lot, shepherded along, honored at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, grieving, merry.
Variety took some cognizance of the achievement, A.D.S. of the New York Times wanly granted that a dismal pose of cynicism would not be sufficient.
Welles takes note of Ford’s New England in The Stranger, and of “The Bride’s Revenge” in Citizen Kane.
“Why, good morning, Miss Helen.”
“Did you have a good Christmas?”
“Don’t be silly! In this dull place how could you?”
“Yes, it is quite dull, isn’t it. ‘Board! Next stop, New Haven!”
And damned if it ain’t Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
Hitchcock borrows a joke for his reprise of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Ford takes up a side theme (with advantage to Kurosawa’s Ikiru) in The Wings of Eagles.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times noctambulated, “a homey, lifelike tale, set forth in a leisurely fashion.” Leonard Maltin, “stereotyped characters... perfect foils... common-sense pronouncements... ideal atmosphere.” TV Guide, “Will Rogers is perfectly cast... director John Ford shows off his acute visual sense... one of the masters”. Hal Erickson (All Movie Guide), “his usual compassion toward sensible small-town types.” Halliwell’s Film Guide, “rather lumpy”, citing Variety, “drips with human interest”.
The Lost Patrol
There is no hope for this unit of brave British soldiers in “Mesopotamia, 1917”, once their lieutenant is shot off his horse. Nothing but desert, then an oasis and an abandoned mosque.
One by one they’re killed. The RFC lands a plane, the pilot is killed.
Burning the plane for a signal brings help, against a handful of Arabs.
But the unit is all wiped out, save the sergeant, who appropriated the biplane’s machine gun.
Thus Ford on the losing argument, with a shaft at Zulu.
The hinge is the dead lieutenant, who never told his sergeant what it was all about.
Ford in the desert, incredibly beautiful cinematography of it.
The World Moves On
After having made the point in The Lost Patrol, Ford is naturally very anxious that nothing should prevent the truth being told, and so he frankly forecasts the coming world war with as much detail as he can muster.
The alliance with Britain dates back to the Treaty of Ghent, the world powers stand together on the larger points until the First World War breaks everything down in Europe, the Depression puts America in the same boat, war again seems inevitable, a plea to Christ in the heavens above, and him crucified, concludes the matter.
Henry King’s Marie Galante is equally prescient, and from the same screenwriter.
Neither Variety nor the New York Times felt the point was strongly made, Mordaunt Hall would have cut the film.
The odd title, as well as being the character’s name and honorific, also reflects a curious plot construction, a priest tells the judge something outside his vows. This Ford will sustain by willful suspension of disbelief, in order to get at his dramatic necessity, a very stern expedition to the headwaters of “malice toward none, charity for all.” He is well aware of Mark Twain’s recollections of the South, he is more than aware of the Scopes trial, and reproduces its superficial effect here.
The Reverend tells a tale on the stand that gives a definite source of The Dirty Dozen, describing a volunteer unit of Virginia lifers known as “The Battalion from Hell”.
About Will Rogers’ performance, it is one thing to fulfill the script’s requirements by imitating Stepin Fetchit’s supernal inventions, and still another to trade song verses with Hattie McDaniel, and yet he does both quite capably.
Ford adapted this structure for Young Mr. Lincoln, here, by comparison, it is unusually tight, and only opens for a few seconds in brief or oblique views of the town.
The Whole Town’s Talking
The part-time composer of “sloppy verses” to Cymbaline is a full-time clerk and a ringer for a gangster. The household pets are Heloise (canary) and Abelard (cat). The gangster avails himself of the resemblance to liquidate an adversary. The clerk just succeeds in not getting killed himself, the gang kills the gangster, the clerk marries the girl. The double identity is maintained by Ford as a matter of virtuosity. The scribbler takes up arms against his semblable and is surprised to find himself outgunned, even with a front-page column in the newspaper, following on his own arrest in a case of mistaken identity. Both parts are played by Edward G. Robinson, the muse is Jean Arthur.
The gangster plays Cox and Box with a safe-passage given by the police. Rod Serling takes note of the gangster’s inside track supplied to the column in “Showdown with Rance McGrew” (dir. Christian Nyby for The Twilight Zone).
Ford’s Jesus has no use for the Zealots, and is altogether an hard saying.
He passes by way of Reed’s Odd Man Out and Forbes’ Whistle Down the Wind, an enigma.
Notwithstanding the Germanic confluence with Lang and Hitchcock, which reportedly evaded Lindsay Anderson qua critic.
Steamboat Round the Bend
The New Moses and Pocahontas Remedies, a race to Baton Rouge on the Mississippi (cf. Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.). Homage to Griffith (Intolerance).
“Ford’s major works can be traced in a rising parabola from Steamboat Round the Bend...” (Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema).
Andre Sennwald of the New York Times, “in the rich comic tradition of Mark Twain and those great days on the Mississippi.” Leonard Maltin, “enjoyable”. TV Guide, “this audience-pleaser”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “rather heavily-scripted”, citing Variety, “drab theme.”
The Prisoner of Shark Island
The modern Joseph is besought of John Wilkes Booth to mend a broken leg, a country doctor whose name is Mudd. Lincoln’s presence is sorely missed in Griffith, his death the cause of many ills, here is one. A kangaroo military tribunal to quell the nation’s hysteria and not seek justice, special punishment for the Judas so-called in a military prison on the Dry Tortugas, a pesthole he is called upon to save in a yellow jack epidemic.
Ford’s art has seemingly gone for nothing here with critics, though Variety noted Warner Baxter’s “capital performance”. Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader) writes that “the film remains somewhat unformed”. Even more muddled, Geoff Andrew (Time Out Film Guide) speaks of a “quasi-liberal message” and “over-emphatic assertions”, a most particular case set out most particularly is thus restored to trivialities. Halliwell’s Film Guide has “excellent detail.”
Mary of Scotland
Just before Eliot took up the theme in “East Coker”, here is the end that is a beginning, specifically associated with Mallarmé’s “Canticle of Saint John” as congruent with the moment of inspiration or grace, and involving also Borges’ opposition of king and poet.
An astoundingly precise masterwork, proceeding from Maxwell Anderson’s play through Dudley Nichols’ script to the sound stage, where Ford misses nothing.
The drama properly arrives at its final and complete understanding only at the end, until then it has no fixed viewpoint but unrolls or unreels in a fantastic suite of images and scenes that were admired at the time but only understood as film syntax much later, and still serve all along as enigmas one by one with each answered in the next, thus John Knox railing at the Jezebel in the name of reformed religion is but a fragment of a kaleidoscopic understanding, and so is the short reign of the weak Scottish king, and the popular rage at his death, and so forth.
The complete set of images, thus undergoing permutations, finally resolves into its essential themes, with a lightning bolt as seal.
The magnitude of Ford’s accomplishment can be appreciated as the foundation of Russell’s The Devils, for example, and is quite typical of Ford at this time (cp. Wee Willie Winkie).
The Plough and the Stars
The Volunteer Army, the Irish Republic in 1916, the Post Office and all.
It depends on Mrs. Clitheroe to defend the home, and she’s Barbara Stanwyck, top-billed. Ford has her beauty alone make the case, nothing else, and Variety said it would not do.
There are five members of the Abbey Theatre to assist, Arthur Shields among them, and he furthermore is an aid to the direction.
All of the play is thrown in, whatever is thrown out to make it into a film, the grave of Irish hopes is filled and who or what is to say why, Ford has the singing and the palaver and the men in their uniforms and the pillaging after.
“Rather elementary”, says Halliwell’s Film Guide, no ‘olmes.
Wee Willie Winkie
The military situation on the northern frontier of India in 1897, seen from the vantage point of a little American girl living there with her mother, a widow, in a cantonment under the auspices of the late husband’s father, the commanding officer.
This is the most hallucinatory of Ford’s films, despite his rigorous stylization of the world as real and the girl as sincere. Once the two are brought into conjunction, the drama is so permeated with something that is not the world it cannot bear the foolishness of itself and agrees instead to abide by the rules of peace and not mayhem.
This requires all of Ford’s attention, but he has skillfully distributed the elements so that there is no strain. Sgt. MacDuff’s funeral march achieves the loss to the world of such a man, and there are five or six lines similarly running through the film on this or that apposite theme, so that there is no question of Ford’s intent. Only the greatest of directors would regard the task as Ford has done, with the utmost seriousness and in all its implications. The result is a masterpiece of which it may be said that, by and large, critics didn’t know what hit them, Andrew Sarris more or less to the contrary in The American Cinema (with evident reference to Dali’s portrait of the star as Sphinx). “Critics of the Thirties always joked about the fact that the Hollywood system compelled Ford to make three Wee Willie Winkies for every Informer. The joke, then as now, was on the critics. Despite the monstrous mythology of Shirley Temple, Wee Willie Winkie contains extraordinary camera prose passages from the wide-eyed point of view of a child. What the critical establishment of the thirties admired in Ford was his ability to avoid so-called women’s pictures despite studio pressures. Nor was Ford too much interested in the fancier forms of sexual intrigue. Being Irish and Catholic and action-oriented to boot, he tended to gravitate to public places where men spoke their minds openly. The Left has always been puritanical, but never more so than in the thirties when Hollywood’s boy-girl theology threatened to paralyze the class struggle. In such an epoch, even an Irish-Catholic conservative like Ford could be mistaken for a progressive force.”
Variety, “those knees are losing their contour.” Graham Greene (Night and Day), “a fancy little piece.” Film4, “passable Temple vehicle.” Leonard Maltin, “one of Shirley’s best vehicles.” Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “sentimental fun.” Linda Rasmussen (All Movie Guide), “a lovely John Ford film.” Halliwell’s Film Guide, “a first-rate family action picture”.
Bergman goes so very far as to film the chess game with Death mentioned by Dr. Kersaint, The Seventh Seal is a very right and proper analysis of Ford (cf. The Rite as well). Nothing more terrible can be imagined except an H-bomb test, of which footage exists.
Haskin’s The War of the Worlds, in view of Father Paul’s congregation, is a particularly fine understanding (see also Marton’s The Wild North, for example).
A film of vast and incalculable influence measurably derived from Murnau’s Tabu, Boleslawski’s Les Misérables, and Schoedsack’s The Last Days of Pompeii, to name three near precedents.
Frank S. Nugent, New York Times, praised the hurricane, “a whopper”, the rest meant absolutely nothing to him but second-rate French literature, he mentions Hugo’s novel in his review. Variety was not more impressed by the drama than by the financial expenditure.
In short, leading critics exhausted themselves upon the obvious, nothing new there.
Halliwell’s Film Guide has “tolerable island melodrama”.
Four Men and a Prayer
Education, Law, Army, Diplomacy, and an American socialite. Forged orders at Jerishtawbi confounded the regiment, the colonel is sacked.
The investigation of the incident and of his suicide at home in England reveals a gunrunning conspiracy that sinks to murder.
This amounts to an analysis of Shaw’s Undershaft and the conglomerate, he sells arms to anyone but the cards are stacked by a company manager.
The colonel’s four sons in the professions listed encounter the quintessential element of the title on their travels to India, Buenos Aires and an island off South America, and Alexandria, where the head of Atlas Arms is to be found.
“Absolutely fictional,” exclaims Law.
The Lady Vanishes is the great precedent, followed by Lifeboat to return the compliment.
“The directing award that year went to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath,” Hitchcock said to Truffaut, correcting him on Rebecca. “I’ve never received an Oscar.”
Ford’s work on Mary of Scotland avails him mightily in the construction of Stagecoach, even to so bold a theme as the “dead man’s hand” of the conclusion.
Young Mr. Lincoln
Ford is acutely aware of the problem, and characteristically adopts a photographer’s response. The terms are set, he looks away. Carelessness and precision define the film’s style, Germanic bluntness and Irish devil-may-care alike share the profusion of shots. The essence is Lincoln not presiding but pleading at a Solomonic hearing, Ford has learned the lessons of D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, that style is determined by content. In this realm, Ford’s artifice is a restrained craftsmanship carefully mirroring his protagonist in its satisfactory handling of deadly serious matters.
Drums Along the Mohawk
An absolute masterpiece in the surety of Blue Back sporting Caldwell’s eye patch.
The joke is, unobtrusively as we shall see, a mother-in-law joke.
The Mohawk Valley cabin is beset by Indians set on by the British, the Continental Army has its own problems, the bride from Albany loses her first child but has another, finally help arrives.
As noted by Tom Milne in Time Out Film Guide, Ford’s first color film.
Frank S. Nugent astoundingly wrote in his New York Times review that Ford missed the point, “this bitter and brutal chapter of the war was not fought by a militantly idealistic citizenry driven to revolution by British tyranny, but by an ill-equipped rabble whose chief concern was the preservation of their farms, the maintenance of civil order,” which is the film.
“Gets a bit slow” was Variety’s word. “Patchy, likeable” (Halliwell’s Film Guide). “No one appears to know why this picture is being made, or what its point is, exactly” (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker).
The Grapes of Wrath
Ford’s first shot is absolute, and could have come from anywhere (his last could go anywhere), the next one whips around to the truck and initiates a sequence of two-shots leading to the long take between Tom and the preacher. Their walk to the Joad place is like the transformation scene in an old play. Muley’s monologue sharpens the tone as far as possible, and the arrival of the deputy really brings to a close this expository overture (cf. How Green Was My Valley).
The film properly begins with Tom’s recognition of his mother. With variety given by montage sequences and monologues in close-up, the excruciated material is situated between Nunnally Johnson’s script and Gregg Toland’s cinematography, which is where Ford gauges his field of operations to be, allowing the emotion of the drama to move between his knowledge of its truth and the camera (the technique is long takes with everything in them) at the suffering point of significance, so that you have a film which shows Franz Kafka as the fabricator of beautiful comedies.
Probably The Grapes of Wrath is to The Magnificent Ambersons what Stagecoach is to Citizen Kane. Sturges and Capra responded immediately with Sullivan’s Travels and Meet John Doe. Cries and Whispers, Distant Thunder and Chinatown, among innumerable other films, owe something to it.
The Long Voyage Home
In the West Indies, Spanish girls bring aboard fruit baskets hiding bottles of rum. The mate sternly looks the other way, a carouse becomes a fight, the girls are ordered off the ship by the captain (Wilfrid Lawson, very much like Robert Newton in Vessel of Wrath), who sees they are not paid.
The Glencairn stops at an American port for a cargo of ammunition. During a storm at sea, the anchor breaks loose, the Yank (Ward Bond) rushes on deck to secure it. A crashing wave injures him fatally.
The Englishman Smith, or Smitty (Ian Hunter) is thought because of his odd behavior to be an enemy spy. His belongings are rifled, a packet of letters is found, read aloud they explain his disgrace and self-exile as a result of drinking. He is killed when the ship is attacked by a German plane. In port, the crew try to put Olsen (John Wayne) aboard a ship bound for Sweden, but are waylaid by a crafty innkeeper. Olsen is drugged and shanghaied, they board the Amindra by main force and take him off, but the Irishman Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell) is knocked unconscious and sails with her. The Amindra is sunk by a German submarine in the Channel. Ford on O’Neill, foreseeing the war, with especial consequences for Mister Roberts.
The undeserving poor, who live by the grace of God and their fellow man.
A comic side-piece to The Grapes of Wrath, every bit as serious.
Ford lets it go, which is what makes them undeserving. Finally, it’s a matter of existence.
Neither the New York Times nor Variety noticed the one small point made by Ford, to which his film is brought, the trip to the poor farm, and both complained it was not the play. Two English critics call the film “subversive”, which is a favorite word among certain critics, usually with “sly” to round it out. What they mean is “witty, informed”.
How Green Was My Valley
The end of a Welsh mining village and the departure of its bard.
It is thirty-five years and more after the events described that the film begins, and where it ends is in the memory.
War prevented Ford from filming in Wales, and so one of his greatest effects, anticipating Lean, is entirely fortuitous, according to report.
The material goes far back into Griffith as well.
Of course there is Reed (The Stars Look Down), if corroboration were needed.
Torpedo Squadron 8
A simple memorial to the fallen at Midway.
The Battle of Midway
Ford’s mind is very much on Pearl Harbor. The invasion fleet and air forces have come to “liberate” a flat island with sea birds on it, the U.S. flag waves above an airfield manned by sailors in bathing trunks loading a Catalina in the water, Marines wear doughboy helmets.
The great battle takes place on the island between a cameraman and sheer mayhem. The shattering explosions jar the sprockets of the film footage. On board the Navy ships, it records the machine-gunners’ fight.
Afterward, the salvage and rescue. Downed pilots are sought for days, stretching into weeks. The hospital is wreckage, the chapel a bomb crater.
Donald Crisp and Irving Pichel narrate, Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda are voices from home.
The 34-minute version of this feature-length documentary shows Ford at his very best, although Toland is reported as the main director. In contrast to The Battle of Midway, this is a historical re-enactment, with unremittingly superb pictures throughout in black-and-white.
There is the Sunday morning, just before the attack, and the slew of dive bombers, the terrible destruction, the dead men, their families at home, the salvage and repair of the fleet, and the wartime footing of Hawaii, barbed wire on Waikiki, trenches and gas masks for schoolchildren.
Finally, there is the monumental resolve of America in action, as a craven sneak attack with 200 planes is answered by fleet and air arms of formidable proportions at the close.
They Were Expendable
A lousy dirty film about the lousy dirty war. MacArthur takes the lead after the victory, remembering the dead.
The fall of the Philippines.
My Darling Clementine
The theme can be traced through Wagon Master and Donovan’s Reef. There is an important influence on Buñuel’s Los Olvidados and Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, and an essential one on Zinnemann’s High Noon.
Variety’s complaint of “arty effects” sounds like Ike Clanton drunk, but is a tribute to the film’s intricacy.
Ford after the war, summing up the experience.
The Lord can raise sons of Abraham from the very stones, the Christ-killer’s labor is lost.
The art of one of the great masters of the silent cinema and the Expressionist cinema and much else is put to delineating the stones so as to isolate the prey.
Critics have complained it is too religious and not Greene’s book.
Afterward, Fernandez made Un Día de vida, Hitchcock I Confess, still later Glenville The Prisoner and McCarey Satan Never Sleeps.
A tragic defeat for the U.S. Cavalry, its causes and effects.
The gallantry of the commanding officer is commended, the conduct of the officers and men is a glory added to the history of the fort.
Ford places all of it before the camera, the officer who outranks his father is a symbolic expression among many in the film, like the infant at the end who is “the best man” amongst them.
For this reason, critical remarks are unusually copious and accurate, though the structure is so voluminous and exacting in all its many details there is many an observation to be made.
Form and content, equally divided, make up the structure until the last scene makes for a successful unity.
In the private language of screenwriters, Col. Thursday is nearly the sacrificial lamb in The Maltese Falcon, Collingwood nearly the family name in The Big Sleep, York the correlative of the unhorsed commanding officer.
The Searchers advances quite another mode of expression for this very same theme, providing the relaxation adjunct to Fort Apache’s middle ground of intense, suggestive detail and its hell-for-leather action.
A Christmas gift to the nation, in honor of the original star.
T.S. Eliot says no different in his poem describing “a journey, and such a long journey.”
Crowther goes to town on those desert landscapes, the less fool he.
Stroheim’s Greed is a factor on location.
There’s a lesson in this for the film critic Frank S. Nugent (as later in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence for Jay Cocks of Time).
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
An abstraction upon the theme of Judge Priest and Young Mr. Lincoln, and perhaps with them constituting a trilogy of providential wisdom in youth, middle age, and seniority.
The symphonic treatment of a grand theme advanced in Judge Priest begins with a citation from that film (Capt. Brittles’ report to his wife) and ends with a foretaste of Cheyenne Autumn. Ford understands a good fighting man as distinct from rambunctious young whelps, he seizes the Lincoln doctrine “with malice toward none; with charity for all” as a means to escape endless frontier wars.
The consequences of Gen. Custer’s death are a massive Indian uprising headed south and a large buffalo herd moving north (Red Shirt claims this medicine), both converge on Ft. Starke where the sutler has a private deal with gunrunners. Capt. Brittles retires on time to assume his new post as chief of scouts, with a long army career behind him and one Indian war averted.
When Willie Comes Marching Home
The surrealist mystery of this absolutely perfect comedy is perhaps explainable as a vast critique of Reed’s masterpiece The Young Mr. Pitt, there seems no other way, fatigue and drunkenness follow on standing and waiting among novices, witness is the key, even unto exhaustion.
Variety was surprisingly surprised to see Ford’s gifts as a director of comedy, Bosley Crowther (New York Times) reveled in it, so Tom Milne’s “underrated” is a tribute to his own understanding of it, rare indeed (Time Out Film Guide), and that is the finest compliment a critic can pay, to have understood the work.
Mister Roberts, of course.
John Ford’s films tend to rise in critical estimation with the toil expended on them. When he finds a satisfactory artistic basis all at once, as here, the film is thought to be slighter.
There’s a rough frontier justice in this, seeing the difficulties embraced by Ford in a number of his films, and it provides a first-tier criticism with compensations for the director, but there is another concern. Halliwell cites “a collection of incidents, enjoyably presented”, and even Frenchmen accuse Wagon Master of lacking narrative drive. The principal reason for this is Ford’s rapid cutting, which continually and inevitably renders critics hors de combat.
Another sometime critical preoccupation, the “revisionist” Western, bites the dust even before the credits in a robbery and murder that’s strictly from Peckinpah (the Cleggs are a direct link to Ride the High Country). This prologue is also a memory of Gregg Toland’s work.
The formal basis is laid down by Ford about midway in a dreamlike evocation of these “plodding pioneers” (said the New York Times reviewer) on the dusty trail, he is haunted by them, it’s a position.
There is much strong play of large-scale formal elements in far-reaching combinations, associating the robbers with the wagon train (and consciously), the hoochy-koochy show (which gave rise to Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights), suggesting ultimately the evils attendant upon civilization and the immediate necessity of shucking them off.
So this is a drama of great urgency, and the Toland work it evokes is The Grapes of Wrath (hence Jane Darwell). There are no recourses to be had in the desert, not even water for a showman’s shave, hence the touching quality of Ford’s slip-up in the corner of one shot, the shadow of a light... used to dispel shadows.
Lindsay Anderson says, “the feel of the period, the poetry of space and of endeavour, is splendidly communicated.” As in The Searchers, particular attention is paid to the fording of a river, the camera pans briskly to take in the action.
An allegory of the Civil War, in which the Rio Grande (it has a different name on the other side) represents the Mason-Dixon Line.
The various reasons for this representation include vehemence and discretion. Nevertheless, the formal interest resides in the triple harmony of Col. Yorke and his wife and son.
The intricacy of the construction reaches an open paroxysm and is all but hectic throughout, punctuated with musical interludes from Ft. Starke’s regimental singers.
The film is therefore, without recognizing the allegory and in apparent confusion over the action and style, sometimes reckoned a “minor” work, even a “contractual obligation”. Looked at properly, it is something else again.
Particularly remarkable is the Mary of Scotland theme subsumed in Trooper Yorke.
This Is Korea!
After the Chosin Reservoir, a recollection of the fight from Inchon to Seoul and on to Chosin. “You remember Valley Forge? Well, look at it again.”
And “back to the 38th Parallel” at Christmas, where the film begins. The fight resumed, this time with unanswerable force.
The Quiet Man
Ex-boxer, Yank in Auld Sod, old country, buys his birthplace, weds the girl next door. Protocol, etiquette can be overridden, abridged, abandoned to a degree, but not beyond the point prescribed by infallible custom. And there, is it a wedding or is it not? So it is, but there is one who will not hold his peace, and Ford films the fight.
The widow Ireland is wed, courted at least, according to the same prescribed custom. Them as has is as them as has not, so as not to disturb the natural order. The theme is partly from O’Neill (A Moon for the Misbegotten) and partly from Odets (Golden Boy) and mostly takes its notion from a line of Yeats by way of a principal joke on the name of the place, Inisfree.
The mortal pugilist, the slow-witted suitor, the skipping girl with a dowry, the grand dame with a fortune, the matchmaker, the clergy, the barman, the IRA fellow, the ancient of these parts, with the horse-racing “between the shingle and the dune” that is in Gibson’s The Playboy of the Western World.
What Price Glory
Ford’s taciturnity in this surreal construction on love and war is very striking, Wellman mainly elucidated it five years later in Darby’s Rangers, Mann picks up secondary images at the same time for Men in War, furthermore there is Kubrick’s Paths of Glory completing the analysis that year (later still Siegel’s Hell Is for Heroes, and farther on Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket). It suffices to point out the engaged schoolgirl and her fallen soldier, also the briefly-captured German colonel in a kitchen apron, to get the idea.
Mann resumes the theme on a broad structural basis in The Heroes of Telemark.
Critics saw little or nothing in it.
The Sun Shines Bright
You have to paint very thick to sanctify the name of “politician”, so that’s what Ford does. He’s on equal terms with his Dixiecrat up for re-election, Judge Priest runs an honest, decent court, he stops a lynching party headed by the wrongdoer, and does so at the point of a gun.
At election time he drinks lemonade with the Temperance ladies and hails the star-spangled banner with the Grand Army of the Republic over in their meeting hall.
Most of all, he raises up a fallen woman and sees that her daughter the schoolmarm gets her rightful place, squaring up a black sheep and reconciled with her grandfather, a General of the Confederacy.
Variety sent a hopelessly green reviewer who said he did not like it. Hal Erickson in the All Movie Guide deprecates Stepin Fetchit’s performance something awful, a faster version of the original in Judge Priest.
Buñuel’s analysis as Cet obscur objet du désir shows an essential joke structure in Mogambo, the real one being just the kind of surrealism Buñuel picked up for Le charme discret de la bourgeosie, and here Ford has the jump in a symbolic representation, the cheetah as Grace Kelly. Beckett’s Play might have arisen out of Donald Sinden’s inquisitive flashlight.
Variety loved it, the New York Times was a little squeamish about Ava Gardner and the baby elephant.
There is plenty of Ford material. The civilized lady in the wilds, a dangerous excursion beyond the perimeter, outposts, nature, tribesmen. A very great picture of Africa in the mind and in front of the camera.
The Long Gray Line
Sgt. Maher of the Point tells one of his graduates, President Eisenhower, the story of his life in order to escape compulsory retirement. Great epic comedy before the Lusitania is sunk, then the terrible loss of students, a brief interregnum and Pearl Harbor, commanders and strategists have taken the field. Review of cadets, “the past recaptured”.
The opening is prophetic (for How The West Was Won). The credits are presented as against a brick wall, which fades to black and then opens as a door onto Ford country, into it steps a woman, supporting herself on a porch column, into this scene rides John Wayne. Everything depends on this shot, so Ford introduces Jeffrey Hunter in the same way, and then lets it go (he takes it up again when Wayne and Hunter are backed into a cave, and later takes the drastic step of cutting all the way from Utah to the Bronson Caves in Hollywood for Wayne’s last confrontation with Wood in yet another variation of the shot). Ward Bond’s arrival draws a new note out of the interior, and this overture closes on a justly famous observation.
At this moment, Ford is in command. He begins a majestic film and sustains it for a few minutes, up to the river battle, when he opts to let it go, because his Muse will have it so.
Or else the sight of his actors floundering in the water excites his pity. The film is in an impure style, mixing locations and sound stages with day for night, etc. The game is not played for realism. He abandons it.
After Harry Carey, Jr. rides off, Ford has done it all, he adopts a directorial stance akin to Andy Warhol’s (reading a newspaper while the camera rolls), or one might think of Beckett on the set of Film, seated on the floor with his back to a wall, staring downward. This is the absent position of the artist, if you will, “drawing misfortune from its own abyss,” or receiving inspiration, or better simply allowing the material under certain conditions to demonstrate its potential by coming up with the truth, or best of all in dire straits organizing the bewildering throng of impressions along a new line heretofore unsuspected, which is the lie of the land. The film to all intents and purposes collapses. Ford refreshes himself with some snowy exteriors, and there are a few scenes to be shot with some care, but what must be done cannot be done directly by him, and that is produce the complicated impression of Natalie Wood, which is something Satyajit Ray is very good at. She is first seen as a personage, and then as an embodiment, and lastly as a figure among the rest returning into that opening shot, it leaves the door open on John Wayne striding out again into Ford country.
The Wings of Eagles
Aviation and writing, mastered by the subject of this biography.
His first solo flight, his first use of the pen.
There is precisely the drama in-between that bridges the two, a little girl’s cry at night that breaks his crown.
He recoups for sea duty after a desk job in the war, improving the carrier service, but that is something else again.
One of the most beautiful films Ford or anyone made, the diffuse lighting of Mrs. Wead’s apartment in Metrocolor is far ahead of its time, for example.
Ward Bond’s John Ford (Dodge) is like Marshall Thompson’s Samuel Fuller (White Dog), a great study.
One of the dullest critics you can name (Bosley Crowther) thought it wasn’t everything, not at all.
The Rising of the Moon
Ford has in mind the raising of good men, not in Ireland perhaps though that is the scene, but wherever they may be found, like the “good daycent people” aboard the train at Dunfaill. They must know the ancient arts and give back the lie though it means suffering great torments in a prison they have never known (“The Majesty of the Law”).
They must take the great breath that means “a circus within them”, as Lubitsch says (“A Minute’s Wait”).
They must be exceedingly fortunate in their neighbors and kinsmen, the fellowship of the saints (“1921”).
Breathes there the man with soul so dead, his name is Bosley Crowther (New York Times).
It is a curious thing, this film, for no especial reason it is filmed with perfect control and ease, Ford has not the slightest difficulty with it.
These stories become Yeats and Beckett (the opening of Watt, peradventure), Lady Gregory is immutable. Undoubtedly the finest representation of Ireland on film before Strick and Lean.
Gideon of Scotland Yard
Gideon’s Day in the UK, quarter past seven in the morning to round about midnight, home and office, crime scenes, a detective sergeant’s flat, a painter’s home, a pub, the Royal Academy of Music, the usual sort of thing.
The detective sergeant is on the take and squiring the painter’s wife around town, the painter supports himself by robbery, there’s a sex murderer up from Manchester briefly, “where the nuts come from”, Chief Inspector Gideon’s daughter has a concert on, he’s expected to bring home dinner.
Several major studies include the detective sergeant’s wife, the desperately sick sex murderer, and (briefly) Piccadilly at night, all of it looking forward to films made five, ten or twenty years hence.
A criminal policeman, the effect of crime, the source in talent yet to “emerge” and be “taken up”, rounded up at London Airport on his way to Paris, Inspector Gideon can bear witness.
The Last Hurrah
The end of American politics, complete with a death scene mocked by TIME. The theme appears shortly in Lumet’s Fail-Safe, which is a very good analysis on this score.
Nabokov’s Pnin provides the haunting resemblance (vide Kehr’s review) in the young persons who must have their jazz.
The Horse Soldiers
A military operation behind enemy lines to end the siege of Vicksburg by cutting rail supplies to the Confederates.
Ford’s main effort is the cultivation of scene and time and place with widescreen and color yet fully commensurate with Mathew B. Brady.
The anecdotal material expresses descriptive aspects of the exploit, “a raid on the inarticulate”.
Between The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago a number of coincidences with David Lean’s work will be observed.
That considerations of race have no part in the proper functioning of the U.S. Cavalry, an observation evidently culled in Korea (Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill, released a year before, shares a subtheme of “the white man’s war” and Woody Strode).
Two Rode Together
The problem is “what to do with a diminished thing” again, even after The Searchers, which can be misunderstood. Ford attends to this as a special example or layout, he demonstrates the various categories of experience and the appropriate response, but he has the further wisdom entailed in the American West.
There is a rationality beyond the reasoning of men (“only God has the right to play God”), and something wiser than the wise, which is the stagecoach to California with a bride.
This has to be explained, the simplest way and finally the most direct is just to say that things go a certain way in the circumstances, and call it a night, but you can lay out all the articles like a traveling salesman with his wares and argue the merits of each, as Ford does at some length. The rubric is “Moses and the Messiah”, it comes down to horsetrading with the Comanches for white captives held since childhood.
A 10% town marshal and an Army lieutenant in mufti conduct these negotiations. Rifles, pistols and knives are the proffer.
Ford’s most advanced and finest compositions are reserved for the marshal’s speech at a dance in the fort.
The ending appears to come from Salome, Where She Danced (dir. Charles Lamont) and is the Stagecoach joke about one’s wife, “a little bit savage, I think.”
Structural considerations are a major part of Cheyenne Autumn, again with James Stewart, whose informative little anecdote is the seed of Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse, and whose character hopes if he’s killed that it does start an Indian War.
Eugene Archer of the New York Times strode manfully to his typewriter to praise a great film and rebuke Columbia for downplaying its release. “One of director John Ford’s least characteristic films,” says Michael Costello of All Movie Guide, laying it on to Hawks. Variety found it too complicated, “somehow the production misfires”.
“Rather atypical”, says Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader), less than The Searchers “but interesting nonetheless.” Time Out, “repays careful attention.” The Catholic News Service Media Review Office sees a “tragic confrontation”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “substandard... uninteresting... dreary”.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The pathetic mimesis of the opening is just the sort of thing Welles admired and borrowed for Mr. Arkadin. It’s the absolute direst mess Ford faced. He filmed it as badly as he could. He built the sets indoors to put his actors at their ease. The gathering round the coffin early on comes nearly to a close memory of They Were Expendable. Wayne overtaking Stewart in his buggy is nearly beautiful. The political advertisement actually solicits Ford’s care, because it’s a tricky sequence, and built up of cutaways and inserts.
Ford’s secret exultation is in the shot that begins on Wayne half in shadow lighting a cigarette, then striding into a view of Main Street, where the body of Liberty Valance is being carted away to the sound of Mexicans dancing. This is filmed in just about the only complex tracking move in the whole film (another is after Wayne and Stewart’s confab outside the convention, it’s during this confab that the flashback occurs explaining the title, constructed similarly to the earlier tracking shot).
The major influence is on Huston (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean), the minor on Pollack (The Electric Horseman), or vice versa.
A dirty joke about the war, to compensate for They Were Expendable.
A Boston maiden comes to the islands... and that’s enough. “Remember when we were clobbering the Japs in a delaying action?”
The rest tells itself in very opulent and even surreal fashion (the French governor has been hoping for a transfer, now he stays in better hopes).
And this is a comedy, to further the compensation, one of the funniest.
You can bet your ass on it, as the very last image shows.
A watershed, criticism goes downhill from here, one way or another (Godard, Ten Best Films in France that year, with Bresson, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Cukor, Rozier, Resnais, Lewis, Wilder, and Minnelli).
Everything in Ford’s repertory is here brought into play by virtue of a structure of concurrence. This has three main aspects. The active directorial principle is a remake of The Searchers, tightened up and treated with the utmost care but paradoxically admitting an open recitation of scenes and material from earlier films. The overall framework is a reflection of Ford’s three-part contribution to How the West Was Won and of that film in its entirety. Most importantly, the undercurrent is a stinging realization of The Grapes of Wrath that leads to “one tragic instant” before the Battle of Dodge City’s vital comic interlude and then to the entire point of the film in the last scene. The decisive step, which lays the groundwork for Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse, is taken by Ford in this inner theme, like Sandburg he plumped down for the people, which is why in Penn’s film they are the tribe of “human beings”. All his eggs are in the one basket, and he follows Twain’s advice to watch that basket. Which in turn explains the interlude outdoing Twain for a mockery and a centerpiece, a focal point Twain would have minimized and underplayed for effect off-center. The effect of the outward structure, even of the inner, is a freedom on the set arrived at by polishing the screenplay to utmost perfection. Previous models and attainments, running themes considered and taken up, amount to a Shakespearean modus operandi, Stravinskyan shackles of form that free the pen, “he that writes may run.” Ford is calmer on the set, striking a middle ground between technical attentiveness and imprecision, there are so many shots, each and every one as vital as the words in the script, he treats them all with the same care equally, just pitched to realize the significance of the scene (the scouts in the first canyon explored, where The Searchers becomes Fort Apache) or of the shot (two braves on horseback in an up-angle with clouds). He even takes in an homage to Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail at the beginning of the exodus. Wyatt Earp’s quietude over poker is disturbed by the hullabaloo of the Dodge City Times (Joyce’s Ulysses) and cowboys and Mayor just the way it was in the barber chair of My Darling Clementine, and this in the midst of a complicated gag unfolding across a series of jokes in two numbers, poker game/fracas and “plan of campaign”, culminating in the punchline, “by golly, I did know her in Wichita.”
There is a curious resemblance to Zulu at the outset, with the Quakers (father and daughter), and still more curious is Captain Wessels’ stare as he walks among the bodies at Fort Robinson, an important variation of which occurs at the end of Hickox’ Zulu Dawn. In this third part of the film, culture is subordinated to “military expediency” and authority, Capt. Archer takes his leave to go to Washington and see the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz (“I didn’t recognize you.” “Nobody does.”), in his “hideout” downstairs from “dollar patriots”. It becomes a question as urgent as Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, one minute before the cannonfire at Victory Cave in Dakota is to commence, directly from “The Quality of Mercy” (dir. Buzz Kulik for The Twilight Zone). It ends the way Wyler’s Detective Story ends or Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, with “a big gamble”, like Wyatt Earp betting everything on one hand and not showing his cards when the Major folds.
Ford’s point is simply made, no hand raised against an enemy which is us. “I wish every bigwig in Washington could see this place.” The reputation of this film belies its monumentality. Ford tried the critics with an astounding masterpiece, and they were found wanting. Much has been written of no worth whatsoever, and what it has revealed is an inadequate representation of Ford’s films in the canon. These brief notes merely indicate a few technical points to be pursued.
Ford opens with braves walking in the Arizona desert as the camera pans on them from right to left where you see their tepees around a windmill pump for drawing water. The fort has a similar windmill.
This is, all told, an extremely effective coup. Much of these scenes is an advantageous reflection of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Ford has a device of turning an actor’s back to the camera with a sculptural quality, advancing the audience’s coign of vantage, Polanski intensifies this in Chinatown.
Dodge City is the centerpiece, and comparable to Twain’s creation of a voluminous biography of Joan of Arc so as to tell the story of the bee-stung bull. Marshal Wyatt Earp can tell a short deck of cards by the heft of it. Pestered to a draw, he shoots the yahoo in the foot and then, grudgingly (he’s in a game with Doc Holliday and an ill-advised cheat), he cuts the bullet out on the bar. James Stewart plays Earp, which is to say Henry Fonda doesn’t. On the other hand, Karl Malden as Capt. Wessels is called upon to reproduce Stewart’s transfigured gape in It’s a Wonderful Life, and does it. Rather than copy the shot exactly, Ford cuts to a reverse shot of the disaster. Wessels walks out of the scene and his career by walking past the camera in a shot derived from Griffith with a hint of Méliès, perhaps (growing and disappearing).
This scene at the fort in winter was shot on a sound stage. Schurz’s powwow adds rear projection (incidentally introducing the dramatic notion of such a personage out West at such a moment).
If you consider Judge Priest, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, you are likely to notice Ford’s reworking of key scenes and invaluable material. The river crossing is straightforward. Skill is applied to inventions. His discoveries are put to dramatic use at a slight remove by dint of history.
Ford understands a certain aspect of Griffith as related to the Japanese theater, for example. It is easy enough to rig a scene, but here the camera (and thus the audience) is suspended about midway in the action, exactly where Ford stood while making The Grapes of Wrath. Rather than transmit the work so, or compose it as in The Rising of the Moon, he prefers to leave it in the minds of the audience, where properly it belongs, or, if you prefer, where it obtains, the difficulty of the close being too personal to bear evaluation under the studio system, invaluable though it may be.
His use of projected backgrounds recalls Strick’s The Balcony of the previous year. The color construction at the end is a composition for the camera, in order to render the inexpressibles.
The ease of Ford’s mastery can be seen in the sequence of the Indians balked by the railroad trestle. They cross under it by night (with the train overhead), and Ford cuts to soldiers by the track in daylight standing next to a switch that looks exactly like the central image in Miró’s Maternity. This, the madam’s (or the mademoiselle’s) missing red silk dress, and the duel between the Indians at the close, are among the imagistic signposts that figure as the language of the work.
It’s a great joke, and a great ode to women, and by a remarkable coincidence is fairly repeated in Joseph Losey’s Steaming.
The punchline from Lubitsch, which does not occur until the end (and figures shortly in Sydney Pollack’s The Scalphunters), was generally overlooked by critics, but such is the difficulty of the film with its manifold details and contrapuntal performances that, even filmed on a soundstage for maximum effect and in widescreen for clarity, not all of it can be taken in at once.
Excellent score by Elmer Bernstein.
A Tribute to a Legend
Lieut. General Lewis B. Puller U.S.M.C. (Ret.)
Gen. Puller at home in Virginia.
Footage of Haiti, Ford’s unit on Guadalcanal. Inchon and Chosin.
Puller’s many decorations, philosophy, military ideals.