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Archive for the ‘Finding Ford’ Category

By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford.

Apologies for the EXTREME tardiness of this week’s post—as some of you may or may not know, I live and work at a small provincial college in a fairly remote area on the border of Thailand and Burma, where power outages, not to mention internet disconnections, are a daily reality. Ideally I would have my pieces scheduled here at WitD well in advance, but that rarely happens, and when the power is out the power is out.

I have found in the past few weeks that I have less and less time to dedicate to these entries, and that I find myself repeating the same ideas from essay to essay. It’s for these reasons that I’m deciding to suspend the Finding Ford series for the time being—it may very well be resuscitated some time in the future, but for now I think it has run its course, and it’s unclear to me where it has left to go. (And if anyone feels like continuing the series themselves, perhaps offering fresh perspectives on the films I haven’t yet covered, they absolutely have my blessing; just throw Sam or me an email).

The Searchers has been written on twice before at Wonders in the Dark. Here Allan Fish called it the ninth best film of the fifties. And here Maurizio Roca contrasted it unfavorably with Michael Cimino’s striking Heaven’s Gate—I don’t agree with a word of the latter piece but there’s no denying it stakes out a position that many today agree with, and does so in a way that is far more palatable (and less self-centered) than the Stephen Metcalfs of this world are capable of. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford. The next entry will be on The Searchers.

“Every time we get near the land you get that look on your face. When a man goes to sea he ought to give up thinking about things on shore. Land don’t want him no more. I’ve had my share of things going wrong, and all come from the land. Now I’m through with the land, and the land is through with me.”

Ford’s most extreme forays into expressionism (The Informer and The Fugitive particularly, but The Long Voyage Home and his more stylized silents as well) are often regarded as lesser works for lacking a sort of “authenticity.” Ford, conventional wisdom says, lives in the most unfussy and naturalistic frames, and what the director and Toland are up to in The Long Voyage Home is often thought of as a bit too “artistic” to be called truly great cinema (it’s also one of many reasons The Grapes of Wrath is generally regarded as the superior 1940 Ford—in that one, Toland really calmed down after the first fifteen minutes). It’s a position I’m not wholly unsympathetic to—and given the state of cinema in 2012, frustrations over deliberate artiness and forced aestheticization are arguably more understandable than they would have been in 1940—but the degree to which it encourages schematic readings of Ford’s work is more than a little obnoxious.

And then there’s The Long Voyage Home itself—made in the middle of what is considered by many to be the director’s most fertile period (although not, admittedly, by me), it’s an adaptation of several short Eugene O’Neill plays centered around the multi-national crew of the merchant ship Glencairn, commissioned during wartime to transport a load of ammunition to England. It’s a scenario that sounds more out of Hawks’ playbook than Ford’s, and there’s no question that this would make a marvelous double feature with the previous year’s Only Angels Have Wings—both films seem to exist at the end of the world, at some lost forgotten way station where fog clouds even the memories of the place. Men doing the only thing they know how to in spite of death—but while Grant at least has a bullshit line to pull out of his (gloriously ridiculous) hat, all these men have is whiskey, and indeed this often seems to be a film about drinking. Which isn’t to say that there’s a bottle in every scene, and it’s almost certainly not the drunkest of Ford’s films (although I have no idea which one is), but alcohol hangs over the picture as forcefully as the fog the sailors spend the movie cursing. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford. The next installment will be on The Long Voyage Home.

Here’s the thing about Will Rogers, the quarter-Cherokee vaudeville cowboy who could only play himself and was a better man for it—while hardly a dominating presence in a conventional sense, his improvisatory style tended to shape the film’s around him, whether or not he played the lead. Take State Fair, a lovely bit of Americana directed by Henry King in 1933. This isn’t Rogers’ movie, and while his children spend the majority of the movie finding (or not finding) romance at the annual state fair, the actor spends the bulk of the running time hanging around the pig pen. And although King applies some nice lyrical interludes to Gaynor’s courtship (a couple rollercoaster moments recall The Crowd), it’s Rogers and that damn pig he keeps returning to, and it’s with this pair that the emotional catharsis of the climax resides. (more…)

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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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By Peter Lenihan

Apologies for the tardiness of this entry—I’m finishing up teaching a summer course and things have been a bit hectic. The next installment will be on Wagon Master, which I would suggest is one of the five or so greatest masterpieces the Hollywood studio system produced. Definitely see it before my piece drops, if you haven’t already.

The Iron Horse, Ford’s first mega-hit, is built around a premise that in 2012 (one hopes) we can all recognize as bullshit. As conceived, this is a film about what one intertitle describes as “inevitability,” and as such it’s a film of trajectories rather than possibilities, whose final outcome (that is, the bridging of “east” and “west”) is not a foregone conclusion because it’s what historically occurred, but because, if we’re to believe what the film is selling, it’s the only thing that could have occurred. As a particularly bombastic defense of Manifest Destiny, then, it’s stupid and racist and vulgar in a way that Ford’s films almost never are, and I would encourage any viewer to approach it with a healthy degree of ideological distrust.

At the same time, to discuss it in this way is to suggest that it was more thought out than it was, and we now know that it was essentially shot without a script. This was the freedom the twenties and only the twenties offered American filmmakers, and although the story had a basic treatment, Ford chose day-by-day what was going to be shot. In retrospect, it probably couldn’t have been done any other way. This was the filmmaker’s graduation into the big time, and he acted as both director and producer. The degree of management required for a planned shoot of this scale would overwhelm just about anyone, and for a relative novice like Ford it simply couldn’t have worked. So, he did what he had to do—he made it up as he went along. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford. The next installment will be on The Iron Horse.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that as he was editing The Quiet Man, Ford told a friend that the film was getting better and better, and that perhaps even the Irish might like it. It’s a telling remark, highlighting not only the complex relationship between “Ireland” as a geographical and historical space and the “Ireland” of this very lovely film, but also candidly dealing with what is commonly viewed as a touristic component of the film (and indeed, so many of his films). It’s a broad charge, but it’s also almost undeniably there in The Quiet Man, which is (depending on who you ask) either a sentimental outside-of-time fairy tale or a product of condescending, sexist ideological imperialism. I don’t think it’s really necessary for me to point out that both those views are a bit reductive, but there’s a lot at stake here—both for those who wish to defend a certain narrative tradition and those who are only too aware of how national myths have come to shape their country’s history.

And at this point even its production history is the stuff of myth. Republic Pictures was a small, not particularly wealthy studio that specialized in B westerns, some of which are very well thought of today (Rio Grande & Johnny Guitar being two of the most obvious examples). Ford had bought the rights to The Quiet Man in the thirties, and one assumes Argosy lacked the bankroll to get it off the ground. Republic weren’t too keen on the idea of making it either, and forced Ford to make Rio Grande on the cheap in an attempt to recoup the presumed losses. To everyone’s surprise, The Quiet Man ended up being one of Republic’s and Ford’s biggest successes ever, and earned the director his fourth and final Oscar (the film lost the Best Picture trophy to The Greatest Show on Earth, of all things). It was, for all intents and purposes, the director’s final hit—although he continued to work through the fifties and sixties, his films were seen as archaic and unfashionable, and although various French critics (and, perhaps even more famously, Akira Kurosawa) praised much of his later work, he was patronizingly treated as a relic with consistently modest box office returns.

The story is, as is so often the case with Ford, astonishingly simple, and certainly contributes to its folk tale feel—Sean Thornton (John Wayne), a disgraced boxer, returns to Ireland to buy back his old home. He falls in love with a girl (Maureen O’Hara) there, marries her, and has to beat the shit out of her brother (Victor McLaglen) in order to gain her loyalty and love. Between these incidents (and indeed, The Quiet Man is, at 130 minutes, one of Ford’s longest productions), there’s a lot of drinking, a lot of singing, and a lot of Barry Fitzgerald. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

The name of this series is half-borrowed from a very short post of screen captures I did for Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man a while back that I entitled “Rediscovering John Ford in the Twenty-First Century”. That’s the purpose of this post as well, and I hope you all forgive its somewhat digressive nature.

2010 saw the release of two superb oaters—Kelly Reichardt’s defiantly allegorical Meek’s Cutoff and the Coen brothers’ endearingly eccentric adaptation of the Charles Portis classic True Grit. I’m not interested in elevating one of these movies (or a particular style of filmmaking) at the expense of the other—they’re both great, and although more different than similar (it’s instructive that the two films are set on virtually the opposite sides of the country), they do share an awareness, if not a pre-occupation, with their cinematic forbearers, even as they supposedly distance themselves from a “classical” approach (…which they don’t, but that’s a discussion for another time). True Grit’s most obvious point of reference isn’t Henry Hathaway’s uneven, disappointing 1969 effort as much as The Night of the Hunter (which had been explicitly alluded to in several of the boys’ previous productions), but the palpable, almost omnipresent sense of giddiness has nothing to do with Laughton and everything to do with the fact that they’re working on the same terrain that Mann and Boetticher once did. As such, they’re less interested in referencing specific films (although both Ride Lonesome and The Naked Spur are at least suggested) than doing justice to a certain milieu, and their refusal to go for the easy landscape shot or the obvious “lonesome violin” soundtrack cue is an unusual, old-fashioned choice that should be celebrated.

Reichardt’s film is a bit more complex in this regard—although its scenario shares a lot with those of Wellman’s Westward the Women and Ford’s own Wagon Master, they probably aren’t the best points of reference, and even comparing it to a kinda-feminist western like Richard Pearce’s neglected Heartland paints a less-than-accurate picture. The “existentialist” (can’t believe I’m using that word) finale owes something to Hellman, certainly, and while the modesty of the plot could be compared to that director’s spaghetti China 9, Liberty 37, the bleak, ambiguous framings of an unknown desert stretching out into infinity has far more to do with the amorphous, mysterious landscapes of silent cinema. There’s nothing enigmatic about the Coens’ Arkansas; it’s rough, unpredictable country that has given birth to rough, unpredictable people, but it’s geographically and historically grounded, and the directors’ (or, more accurately, Portis’) emphasis on Greil Marcus’ oldweirdAmericaisms guarantees that for all the moral disorientation (articulated most clearly in Bridges’ magnificent “I bow out” soliloquy), the characters still know the way back to town. Meek’s Cutoff, by contrast, seems to use the word “lost” in every line of its not exactly verbose script, and we’re never completely certain that the characters are in Oregon or, for that matter, on Earth. Generally, dialogue contextualizes and familiarizes and grants a sense of realness that moves beyond the physical; by making a talking silent picture, Reichardt foregrounds the material that makes up this world, and generates an uncanny atmosphere that seems more tied to the films of Victor Sjostrom or Mauritz Stiller than the aforementioned Boettichers and Manns. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

A quick note: the original cut of The Sun Shines Bright was 100 minutes. The bigwigs at Republic Pictures cut it by ten, and I’ve only seen the ninety minute version. I suspect the missing ten minutes clarify some plot points that remain a bit ambiguous, although it’s still a masterpiece as it stands. The 100 minute version is not, as far as I’m aware, lost, and the longer cut was released theatrically in Europe. Unfortunately, like so many Republic westerns, a decent DVD of it is hard to come by, and unless a boutique label decides to mount a full-on restoration, this is probably the cut we’re stuck with (which, of course, isn’t the biggest complaint in the world).

Ten minutes don’t go by in The Sun Shines Bright without mention of the Civil War (or, as Judge Priest and his Dixie friends more likely put it, the War Between the States)—a ghost at the door, like the dead chaplain from Shiloh trying to join the veterans’ get-together. Much of what this is, then, is Fordian mythology moving beyond Ford, the history that haunts the land of Kentucky and Virginia and Kansas coming to inhabit the plastic fibers of the film, and so long as men, women and children continue to visit Gettysburg and Manassas annually, carrying rifles and dressed in blue and grey, The Sun Shines Bright will differentiate itself considerably from Ford’s other “old man movies”. For while She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are haunted by personal histories—Captain Brittles’ long dead wife, Doniphon’s not-quite-secret love for Hallie—here a national ghost is foregrounded, and perhaps not even Priest considers that long after the last of the conflict’s participants have died, the ghost of this war will linger. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series in which I examine the films of John Ford.

There are, it seems, at least two ways of framing Rio Grande, one of the three Ford features of 1950 (Wagon Master and When Willie Comes Marching Home are the other two). The first (and far more common) way to discuss it is as the final entry in the cavalry trilogy, a series of films starring John Wayne and many members of the Ford stock company that revolved (some would say obsessively) around notions of duty and justice and the (im)possibility of reconciliation. Despite these films’ rejection of classical storytelling technique and traditional methods of audience identification, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache are, at least among Fordians and western aficionados, very kindly looked upon, and have been embraced in a way that Rio Grande, a film no one seems to know what to do with, hasn’t.

It’s not all that hard to see why. Next to Fort Apache, whose tonal complexities and simultaneous celebration and repudiation of the U.S. military is among the most contradictory in the director’s filmography, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which features some of the most poetic color cinematography in the history of cinema, Rio Grande can seem a little, well, slight, and its undeniably low-budget feel only contributes to the sense that the director might be on auto-pilot here. History suggests Ford made it for Republic to help get The Quiet Man off the ground, and the digressive, ramshackle nature of the “plot,” and the familiarity of the characters’ names (protagonists named York, Quinncannon, Sandy and Tyree had all appeared in earlier Ford films) has helped encourage the view that it is something minor. (more…)

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 By Peter Lenihan

This is the first entry in a bi-weekly series that will normally run every other Wednesday. The subject, of course, will be the films of John Ford. There are “spoilers.” I am posting this piece from an internet café—the internet at my workplace is inconsistent at best, and for whatever reason it is impossible for me presently to access WordPress sites there. What this means is that I won’t be able to respond to comments in a timely manner. However, I can see them through a feed and anyone with specific comments or questions can email me at plenihan@gmail.com.

“Jack” Ford could have promised a world in fifty minutes; it’s certainly what he offers here. The usual suspects are presented—a marshal, a teacher, a cashier, a doctor, a bum and a kid. In other words, a town collectively remembered both in 1920 and now, and although it supposedly rests “on the borderline between Wyoming and Nebraska” this could just as easily be Tourneur’s Walesburg or Ford’s own Fairfield. Bim is spoken of before seen, the off-screen bum telling kids they can be president someday. It’s offered almost as a gag, and since we don’t know the “no good” Bim yet it’s easy to laugh—the tramp telling the uneducated and the poor-as-dirt they too can become the most powerful man in the world. It’s a lot less funny, though, once we see Bim, played here with real intelligence and a tremendous degree of sensitivity by Buck Jones. (more…)

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