Archive for April 4th, 2012

By Peter Lenihan

The next installment will be on Steamboat ‘Round the Bend.

A precredit prelude and overlapping images—so that it seems to be behind the wanted poster that Shiloh Clegg guns down a bank teller during a hold-up. It’s a strange opening to a strange movie—the Cleggs, while integral to the film’s narrative structure and Ford’s overarching vision, are hardly the central focus, and to foreground these characters (and a murder!) so early on is a bit of a bluff. There’s also the wanted poster itself, which would have looked generic in 1920, let alone 1950 (or 2012). The fact that it’s such a familiar genre component is, in a way, the point—the familiarity of it eases one into a movie whose form and structure is fairly radical and free, and that “it’s just a Ward Bond oater,” while hardly true, is as good an entrance point as any.

There’s something else to this opening shot worth mentioning. Overlapping two images necessarily deepens what we’re looking at—even if one distorts the other, it still does, on the simplest level, give us more to see. Ford always was a director of motion, and handed a film concerned with the actual movement of different outsiders, he tries to fill every composition with people running and talking and playing and moving from one side of the frame to the other. There’s a tremendous sense of detail here—while I don’t think it’s incorrect to characterize the director’s films as mythic, it can be misleading insofar as it neglects the degree to which his best works seem lived-in.

Take, for example, the scene in which Ward Bond breaks up a fight between Harry Carey Jr. and one of the most hot-headed Mormons in the group. As a sequence, it’s not particular or unfamiliar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of westerns or John Ford movies—the two boys are sweet on the same lady, have a non-argument and start punching each other. Ward Bond breaks it up and Ma Joad starts blowing her horn. The greatness of the scene isn’t dependent on the participants’ acting or a sense of directorial technique as we tend to technically think of it. What Ford does do is widen the frame so that the action in some sense moves beyond itself—we can watch the fight, or the dance of light and dust that it causes, but we can just as easily watch the world unfolding behind this, of men and women and children and horses watching, moving, talking—each with their own inner life.

It’s essential in some sense, then, that such an unremarkable story is being told. This is a movie about a couple of horse traders that hook up with some Mormons and a hoochie coochie show and a band of bank robbers. They travel from one place to another together. Some die, some don’t, and no one really gets along but everyone understands that they are, you know, “in this together.” And so although the focus here is on Johnson & Carey and, to a slightly lesser extent, a prostitute and one of the Mormon elders, it’s just as easy to imagine Ford making the film about one of those nameless families moving through the frame, or even the Navajos that we meet all too briefly. (more…)

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