Fort Apache (1948)
Fort Apache (1948), first of the director’s cavalry trilogy, marks a stark shift in tone and attitude for Ford. It is from this film onwards that Ford’s view of the west becomes progressively unromantic. For one, the central protagonist, Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda), is gradually alienated from us. His actions seem increasingly misguided and the only force of sanity comes in the form of captain York (John Wayne) who acts as our mouthpiece in the film. Colonel Thursday is a prisoner of his own position in the army. He’s the first of Ford’s many men to show loyalty to external ideologies than to his conscience (“Tell them they’re not talking to me, but to the United States government” says Thursday). These men abandon what is essentially human for some vaguely defined concepts of glory and martyrdom (One can imagine how much Ford would have admired Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece). These are also invariably the men who believe in establishing hierarchies and locking people into rigidly defined categories that could systematically be manipulated and deployed (Ford’s reaction to such men would move from fascination to ambivalence to utter contempt, as is evident in his last Western). Consequently, the film, like most of Ford’s subsequent works, is full of petty rituals – ball room dances (compare this mechanical waltz with the divine dance sequence in The Grapes of Wrath), coldly worded field orders, automated salutations and bookish sentences. Ford would take a decade and a half to convert the cynicism of this film to a monumental tragedy.
3 Godfathers (1948)
To borrow Manny Farber’s terminology, 3 Godfathers (1948) is a very powerful termite that gradually grows into a giant white elephant (Compare John Wayne’s blue moon laughter in the first scene with his laboured theatrics towards the end). Yet another remake of a story filmed multiple times before, 3 Godfathers is the kind of movie that can pass off as a Sunday school lesson. Technically, Ford is at the top of his game here, walking through the film with ease, conjuring up one larger-than-life image after the other. But the film feels more like a showcase of Ford’s directorial skills than a coherent work driven by a vision. One also gets the feeling that Ford made this film more as an obligation and as a tribute to his one-time collaborator Harry Carey Sr. who starred in the film Three Godfathers (1916), which Ford himself remade three years later. Hence, the film seems more like a launching vehicle for Harry Carey Jr. that Ford was able to slip in between his cavalry trilogy. Complaints aside, it should also be noted how Ford manages to leave his fingerprints all over the film. At least, the first half hour is a complete throwback to Ford’s prewar Westerns. Glorious landscapes all over and even more glorious men cutting through them, mutually respecting lawmen and bandits of very high moral standards and the psychological tug-of-war they indulge in – one would think that the film just can’t go wrong from here. Sadly, it does. The last half hour is Ford sleepwalking though his material.
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) is the best film in the director’s cavalry trilogy and, with the probable exception of The Quiet Man (1952), has to be his most personal work as well. Here we have John Wayne playing the old Captain Brittles, who’s just about John Ford’s age, ready to retire from the army in a few days. Like Ford, he’s a man who throws his weight around just to show how rough and demanding he is and within, he is a child. He’s like Colonel Thursday of Fort Apache on the outside (“I’m ordering you to volunteer” he says – a phrase that would recur in Ford’s later films) and Colonel Marlowe of The Horse Soldiers on the inside. Like Kane of High Noon (1952), he’s a man who feels responsible for the lives of his men even though he’ll become a complete stranger to them in a few hours. Moreover, the film is also about ageing, about giving up one’s game. Captain Brittles is a man who’s seen enough bloodshed in his life. His fervent wish is to save his men from sure death rather than to achieve glory or exhibit heroism (“Old men should stop wars” he says to the old Indian chief who wants to stay indifferent). One can’t help but think Ford might have intended this film to be a swansong of some sort. The most significant scenes in the film are shot at (artificial, accentuated) twilight that so directly registers the dread of being left alone. Brittles speaking to his deceased wife at her grave might be more than a sign of affection. It might be of desperation.
Rio Grande (1950)
The extremely eloquent and moving Rio Grande (1950) is evidently a thematic extension of the previous couple of films in the trilogy. If professional authority blinded Colonel Thursday of conscience and protected Captain Brittles from baring it, it prevents Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne, perhaps reprising his role from Fort Apache) from bonding with his son. But there is also a sense of inevitability that permeates Rio Grande. Colonel York burns down his wife’s nursery as a part of his duty and pays the price for it. He also stays aloof from his son for he is his supervising officer. He keeps demoralizing his son and tries to siphon off any pride that the boy may have in his new profession. The question here is if one could really break such a barrier, giving in to emotionality or humanism. This idea of free will being overridden by man-made hierarchies echoes throughout in the film. Soldiers exhibit comradeship and honor among themselves whereas they stand stiff and unresponsive while dealing with higher officials (“I refuse to answer sir… respectfully” goes the reply, as it would elsewhere in Ford’s films). Rio Grande is gloriously lit and photographed and each of its images looks like a painting, a moment frozen in time. In this film too, it appears as if Ford is expressing something that is utmost personal in purely generic terms. And Wayne brings such honesty to the character that, when he comes in all white, for once, with a bouquet in his hand, you wish the film ends right there.
Wagon Master (1950)
Wagon Master is what one might call a “minor Ford” (shot in black and white with no stars), but that doesn’t do any justice to this superb Western. Less a story and more a journey, the film follows a pair of ranchers (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) who agree to escort a community of Mormons on their way to establish a new settlement. The crew on the road entirely consists of people relegated to live on the fringes of the society, the latter being just an arbitrary, prejudiced crowd anyway in most of Ford’s westerns. Ford’s most optimistic film, Wagon Master can be seen as the director’s vision of an ideal West – a place where all races and religions can coexist peacefully, a place where real joy comes from not amassing wealth, but by building a healthy and closely-knit community and a place where the only gold to be found is in the fertility of the soil. Ford counterpoints this vision of utopia by introducing the Cleggs family (which is sort of carried over from My Darling Clementine) that embodies everything that is lamentable about the frontier – racism, hooliganism and intolerance. Watching Wagon Master, one gets the feeling that Ford would have made some very great films (as if he hasn’t already!) had he taken to documentaries. Ford builds the film upon moments of commonplace magic, dwelling considerably on the everyday activities of the Mormons and upon shots of people travelling, moving ahead against nature’s odds and exhibiting a sheer desire to live.
The Searchers (1956)
Everything significant about The Searchers (1956) is off-screen, in its untold passages, unfilmed spaces and undiscussed possibilities. It is as if Ford was commenting upon the genre, and on his own brand of cinema, without ever breaking it down, as if he was repudiating the racist falsities hitherto bestowed upon the Indians by showing how much the white community shares those traits with them and as if normalizing the “demonic” acts of the Natives by presenting them as justified if done by the whites. The Searchers is a film with a mass of unresolvable tensions at the core, each of which threatens to take the film apart. “He’s got to kill me”, says Ethan (John Wayne) about Scar (Henry Brandon). He knows as much about Scar as he does about himself. What are Scar and Ethan are but the same person born on either side of the frontier? Both are old timers who prefer revenge over justice and who believe that each of them has complete justification to kill the other. When they look at each other in the eye, what they are staring at is, in fact, the abyss within each of them. It’s not just Ethan and Martin who are the titular searchers, it is Scar too. That’s why The Searchers is, at heart, a tragedy. Somehow, Ethan seems to know his condition and that his choice of an artificial racist ideology over his conscience (unlike Martin) has done him more harm than good. Consequently, the journey, like the film itself, becomes a quest to define, once and for all, what Ethan is.
The Horse Soldiers (1959)
The Horse Soldiers (1959) is set during the American Civil War and unfolds primarily from the point of view of Colonel Marlowe (John Wayne), an officer in the union army who plans to blow up a key railway line to disrupt supplies to the Confederate forces. Locating the story within civil war helps Ford to comment on the war without taking sides, unlike the earlier films. Also in Colonel Marlowe’s cavalry is surgeon Kendall (William Holden), whose mere presence irritates Marlowe to no end, and a prisoner Miss Hunter (Constance Towers). As in My Darling Clementine, the Fordian male bonding is between a doctor and an army man. Hunter sees the doctor’s profession as one that saves lives and the army man’s as one that kills. Marlowe, on the other hand, considers doctors as parasites who want people to be sick and, perhaps, his kind as those who want then to be healthy. It is only towards the end of the film that Marlowe comes to realize that his grief of losing his wife after a failed operation is no more sorrowful than the doctor’s angst of not being able to save a patient who has come to him for help. This sense of empathizing with the ‘other’ forms the backbone of the morally complex work that is The Horse Soldiers. When the confederate army is, actually, made of school kids and old men, it’s hard not to see the futility of a war that is fought just for the sake of wiping out one side.
Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
If The Horse Soldiers was Ford empathizing with the Tories and Cheyenne Autumn would be him empathizing with the Native Americans, Sergeant Rutledge (1960) is Ford making amends for the under-representation of the African-Americans in his Westerns (This near total absence of African-Americans is startling given that Ford has made more than one film dealing with the Civil War). Basically a courtroom drama uniformed as a Western, but also historically particularized, Sergeant Rutledge is Ford tackling the issue of racism head on. The film unfolds piecewise, moving from one incomplete perspective to another while keeping the truth at an arm’s distance, so that the audience is never completely allowed to vindicate and sympathize with protagonist Rutledge (Woody Strode, ironically given the 4th place in the title credits!). It is interesting to imagine how the audience would have reacted to this kind of a narrative structure in the pre-PC era in which the film was made, especially given that the central drama involves a young black man and a white adolescent woman – arguably the most scandalizing combination of them all. Despite the fact that the film has some pointed writing (“What does it all add up to, sir?” Rutledge asks an edgy Tom Cantrell (Jeffery Hunter), who is not entirely free of racial prejudices and acts himself as one might be led to believe, coldly exposing the latter’s disbelief in him), Sergeant Rutledge suffers from Ford’s heavy-handed direction. Ford attempts earnestly to develop a mythical African-American hero in Rutledge, but the effort seems more like calculated posturing than genuine legend building.
Two Rode Together (1961)
Two Rode Together (1961) could be seen as an unequivocally liberalist reworking of The Searchers that resolves the irreconcilable tensions of the earlier film and takes a clear cut political stand. One could say that this is the film The Searchers would have been had there been no man called Ethan Edwards. Ford makes this clear by resorting to a plot that resembles that of the previous work (There is much intertextuality in the film, with characters, actors and lines being directly borrowed from the previous film) and commenting very strongly on the racist tendency espoused by some people of the white community at the frontier. A white boy who was captured and raised by Indians is traded back for some weapons by corrupt antihero sheriff Guthrie “Guth” MacCabe (James Stewart). The white community is asked to identify the boy and claim him back. The scenario has all the uneasy trappings of a slave market and that may just be the point of the film. And the sharp character arc that Guthrie undergoes could well apply for the whole of Ford’s cinema. Despite its occasional flourishes of melodrama, there is much left unanswered in the film and its take on mob mentality, fear of miscegenation and domestic racism leaves one very agitated. And yes, Two Rode Together has the greatest dialogues in all of Ford’s Westerns that are delivered with such panache that the film feels almost Hawksian. The conversation between Stewart and Widmark at the riverbank, spanning several minutes, is a sheer joy to watch.
How The West Was Won (1962)
An omnibus film directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall and starring just about every living actor that you would associate with Westerns, How The West Was Won (1962) is the kind of film that cries out: “Look at me. I’m epic. Worship me”. Indeed. Made for Cinerama and shot in such spectacular fashion (that it might have well set the trend for present day epic cinema), I can imagine how viscerally enthralling it would have been to see it in its original projection. John Ford apparently directed the segment on civil war that comes halfway into the film. With the trappings of an episode from late Kurosawa, Ford’s segment is an uninspired piece of filmmaking starring John Wayne, who could easily have been replaced by a John Wayne impersonator here. The film, likewise, could have been titled “How the Western Was Won” for the work seems more like a reverent pastiche of great Westerns through the ages than a conglomeration of myths about the Wild West. Conservative to the point of being laughable (and this might have really turned off Ford, given the kind of films he was making at that time), the film has two well made segments that hold it together. The first is the charming interlude involving Gregory Peck and Debbie Raynolds which is actually a romance dressed up as a Western. The second redeeming section is the strikingly directed final half hour, which plays out in a High Noon-esque, traditional fashion that infuses the film with a spirit that is missing in the first two hours.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The proper place for John Ford’s greatest Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), is not among Ford’s other westerns but among films like The Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Ordet (1955) and Winter Light (1962), for it is a spiritual work of the highest order. By the time the film ends, you almost get the feeling that all that you saw was a pair of eyes piercing the pristine screen. In the film, Ford examines what essentially comprise the soul the Western – Law and Morality – through three different embodiments of these entities – the good legal Ransom (James Stewart), the bad illegal Valance (Lee Marvin) and the good illegal Doniphon (John Wayne, a Farber termite, delivers the performance of a lifetime). The Fordian dialectic between tradition and modernity is at its most intense here, with Ransom’s civilization making way for Doniphon’s way of the gun. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a textbook for genre filmmakers on how to light, stage, shoot and cut a film. Every second of the film, you feel you are there, in the midst of the action, living with the characters. The film is like a stretched rubber band, ready to snap any moment, with every character pulling the film’s moral center towards himself/herself. A tragedy of monumental proportions (It is from this film that The Dark Knight (2008) borrows heavily from), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps the one film that Ford should be remembered by. “When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend” says a newsman in the film. His voice might just be of John Ford.
Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
Cheyenne Autumn (1964) has widely been labeled as Ford’s official apology letter to the Native Americans for having usually cast them as bloodthirsty savages. If one follows all of Ford’s Westerns from The Searchers onwards, one would see that the film is also a logical conclusion of a trajectory. Cheyenne Autumn is a highly liberalist film, but it does not present a primitivist’s view of the Native Americans. Sure, it portrays them as a proud and peace-loving race, but Ford is more interested in treating them as a group of individuals who may or may not conform to stereotypes and perceived cultural truisms (“He is your blood, but he is not you” says the new clan leader). Actually, Ford endorses individualism more than ever in this film. He underscores the need for individual decision making and the need to act according to conscience. Elegiac in tone, as if mourning national and cinematic mistakes of the past, the film is almost entirely defined by its harsh, godforsaken landscapes. The central comical segment with Stewart as Earp should be disregarded for that’s how the director’s cut of this film would have turned out to be, even if it serves both as a throwback to pre-war Ford and as a hilarious critique of the racist tendency commonplace at the frontier townships. From Americans hiding in a hut from an Indian onslaught in Straight Shooting to Indians being imprisoned in a barn by the Americans in Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s Westerns, spanning nearly half a century, seal the filmmaker’s position as a chronicler of both the history of America and the history of American cinema. Rife with, well, Fordian compositions, Cheyenne Autumn is a fitting, if not the ideal, farewell to Westerns for Ford and to Ford for Westerns.