Maine-born John Ford (born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna) originally went to Hollywood in the shadow of his older brother, Francis, an actor/writer/director who had worked on Broadway. Originally a laborer, propman’s assistant, and occasional stuntman for his brother, he rose to became an assistant director and supporting actor before turning to directing in 1917. Ford became best known for his Westerns, of which he made dozens through the1920s, but he didn’t achieve status as a major director until the mid-’30s, when his films for RKO (The Lost Patrol , The Informer ), 20th Century Fox (Young Mr. Lincoln , The Grapes of Wrath ), and Walter Wanger (Stagecoach ), won over the public, the critics, and earned various Oscars and Academy nominations. His 1940s films included one military-produced documentary co-directed by Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland, December 7th (1943), which creaks badly today (especially compared with Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series); a major war film (They Were Expendable ); the historically-based drama My Darling Clementine (1946); and the “cavalry trilogy” of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), each of which starred John Wayne. My Darling Clementine and the cavalry trilogy contain some of the most powerful images of the American West ever shot, and are considered definitive examples of the Western. Ford was the recipient of the first Life Achievement Award bestowed by the American Film Institute, and was the subject of Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, Directed by John Ford (1971). He died in 1973. [Bio Courtesy: All Movie Guide, Image Courtesy: Star Pulse]
Mythmaker extraordinaire John Ford made over a hundred films in his career that now spans half of cinema’s lifetime. Even though these works cover a number of genres, Ford’s name has become synonymous with the Western. The Western as a genre originally had a specific historical context, but, as Bazin elaborates, it went on to become a narrative template, with its own clichés, conventions and myths – a form that needed content. Interestingly, Ford’s Westerns are a mixture of both kinds. The events in his films are historically particularized while the emotions that drive them are universal. Likewise, Ford himself is a historian and a humanist, a documentarian and a poet, a reporter and a raconteur. His cinema is an encyclopedia of American history, but it is also a treatise on human goodness. The eternal conversation between the human and the political dimensions in Ford’s Westerns is ingrained in the director’s aesthetic itself, where human drama is often juxtaposed with historical events (The latter may have given birth to the director’s semi-static compositions that serve the purpose of both establishing a scene and letting an action unfold in the same shot). Furthermore, Ford’s Westerns are documents about the evolution of the genre itself. No other director apart from John Ford can claim to have witnessed the evolution of the Western in its entirety. Each of his films carries within itself the spirit of its age, its cultural norms and the ever changing ambitions of the genre (In one early silent Western, the word “damn” is graphically censored while the word “chink” is retained. In fact, the self-censorship – or a lack of it – in Ford’s films helps trace out the general outlook of Hollywood towards many social issues).
Godard once remarked that it is only in Hitchcock’s films that the viewer remembers specific objects in the story more than the story itself. Similarly, Ford’s is a cinema which consists of a number of gestures and glances and, in the most brilliant instances, is made of just those. In the best of such moments, these gestures attain such clarity, individuality and grace that a comparison to Bresson shouldn’t invite surprise at all (Here’s Glenn Kenny on transcendental style in the films of Ford. Go figure.). To borrow what Donald Richie said about the director’s protégé Kurosawa, the battle in a Ford film is always spiritual and is won even before the actual fight starts. There is also something implicitly Bressonian about the way Ford uses his actors. It is a known fact that Ford casts the same set of actors very often in his films. The reason might be purely logistical, but the effect is startling, to say the least. By having the same actors play similar kind of roles over and over again (a technique that stands in direct opposition to Bresson’s, but nonetheless achieves the same effect, amusingly), he converts them from Method actors to icons, from White Elephants to busy termites and from the “signified” to the “signifiers” (to open a new can of worms). Beyond a few films, John Wayne didn’t have to convince people that he was a man from the West. The very image of him prompts the audience to take that as a given and to expect the only variation possible from him through his gestures, quips and postures, which is what Ford’s cinema is all about. This effect is compounded by Ford’s occasional tendency to be intertextual and to refer to his previous films through repeated characters, lines and situations.
Kumar Shahani once commented that it was just impossible not to think of the Odessa Steps or Eisenstein while shooting scenes involving a mass of people. Likewise, it is near impossible not to think of Ford while shooting vast horizons, especially when they are adorned by people moving in a file (Bergman’s Dance of Death is one of the very few shots that could emulate its inspiration). The horizon, along with the dusty skies, misty atmospheres and imposing silhouettes, helped Ford create some of the most iconic images and awe-inspiring heroes that cinema has ever seen. Even if the films themselves aren’t entirely successful, there are frames, shots and scenes in them that stay with you forever. Ford uses his musical score to multiply, rather than manipulate, the effect that an image has. His camera always seems to be placed in a position where the audience feels the maximum impact of a particular shot. But apart from these static compositions, what is remarkable in Ford’s films is his dynamic use of screen space that clearly shows Ford’s preoccupation with the material nature of the medium. His choreography and blocking of actors and deployment of action on multiple planes are two practices that elucidate Ford’s incisive knowledge about the representation of three dimensional spaces. If Tati made great silent films in sound, Ford’s early films reveal that he made great “talkies” before the advent of the technology (Ford is not unlike Tati in his judicious use of the screen area). One could go on about Ford’s genius and influence, but I think it is best to end this brief summary here – on the topic of silent cinema and talkies – for Ford’s cinema, like Chaplin’s, could well be just about the dialectic between “the image” and “the word”. The image in Ford’s films serves to mystify, creating larger-than-life beings who are worthy of worship. The word demystifies them, bringing them back to ground to reveal that these demigods are merely humans, living among us.
[Note: Many of Ford’s numerous Westerns are either partially or completely lost. By my calculation, less than two dozen survive and are in circulation. The following couple of posts deal with all the “complete” Ford Westerns that I could get my hands on]
Straight Shooting (1917)
Straight Shooting (1917), John Ford’s first feature length work, is a terrific Western that would rank among his best works. A number of things that would much later be deemed “Fordian” seem to have had their roots in this very film. The doorway shots and horse-rear compositions, which would eventually open and close a multitude of scenes in the director’s future works, are all present here in their utmost glory. The directness and economy of expression and the lived-in authenticity of the film (The acting in the film is strikingly naturalistic, revealing the schism between realist and theatrical filmmaking and even before the advent of sound) would later turn out to be features that define Ford’s cinema. Shooting outdoors sure does limit Ford’s depth of field, but the director already seems to be attempting to employ deep focus so that large chunks of action can unfold with their spatial tension intact. At the heart of the narrative is the trademark love triangle of Ford’s and, from here, he would only go on refining the relationships between its participants. The absence of multiplicative music is nearly compensated by visual underscoring techniques such as circles and ellipses that highlight the key moments of the film (this was probably the general studio trend). There are scenes taking place during a heavy downpour that could pass off as Kurosawa but for the costumes. But the icing of the film is surely the close-up shot-reverse shot of the hero and the villain before the showdown. Ford has already cracked the code: The secret’s in their eyes.
Bucking Broadway (1917)
Bucking Broadway (1917) is really a screwball comedy masquerading as a Western (The film appears to have been written entirely around its climactic action set piece!). Primarily a reworking of the country rat-city rat tale, Bucking Broadway follows a young ranch hand’s journey to the city of New York and his subsequent attempts to win back his girlfriend from a fraudster in the city. This film might be seen as Ford’s petition for a cinema with sound and the film virtually cries out for a voice (Ford actually throws in a scene with a piano in the film). However, most of the humour here is slapstick and some of the indoor sets look straight from a Sennett production. There is no real tension between the characters or within plot points and one always knows where the film is heading (the film itself has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek). But it is probably here that Ford is on his most experimental ground. For one, he dabbles in hypnotic chiaroscuro lighting, which he would only rarely use in the future (not considering the tinge of expressionism that graces his films now and then). Then there are the glorious horizons, that Ford frames off-center (almost always at the top of the frame here, as if pressing the characters down), as he would do very frequently in his Westerns. Finally and most importantly, there is the remarkably judicious use of all the three planes of the film image (The final brawl scene at Columbia Hotel toys with the focus of your eyes and presages the breakfast scene in The Searchers by about four decades).
Just Pals (1920)
Just Pals (1920) was apparently the first film Ford made for Fox Studios and the change is palpable. While the earlier couple of Westerns were transparent about their motives, with their trump cards being grand action set pieces, Just Pals leans more towards the sentimentalism and innocence epitomized by the films of Chaplin. In fact, Just Pals has a striking resemblance to The Kid (1921), where too a happy-go-lucky tramp is deeply transformed after he takes in an orphan – a scenario that would recur in many Ford films. As a result, the film is closer to the works of Capra than of Ford, with a preference for disarming emotionality over awe-inspiring grandeur. Given that the film plays hardly for an hour, it is commendable how much drama is packed into these precious minutes (There are at least three major concurrent conflicts in the film). Also noteworthy is how the film is more in line with the aesthetics of silent cinema than with those that Ford had developed so far. There are probably more close-ups than Ford would have liked. However, what both of them have in common is the strong sense of morality that would become the calling card for both Ford’s cinema and silent cinema at large. The film is fairly liberal and as inclusive as it can be. The love and contempt that Ford respectively has for socially marginal characters and the coterie that shuns it would echo in almost all of Ford’s Westerns that follow, where the conflict is translated to one between conscience and the law.
The Iron Horse (1924)
Self-proclaimed chronicle of the construction of railroad in the heartlands of America, The Iron Horse (1924) is a film that wears its epic nature on its sleeve. This is perhaps the film that the famed poetry of John Ford comes to the fore for the first time. This is perhaps also the first John Ford Western to recognize the often conflicting relationship between personal and national histories. An old man dies at a makeshift camp, two labourers dig his grave as the old man’s daughter stands mourning, the train carrying the rest of the company begins to leave, the two men quit working and join the train (“The old soak’s deep enough”), the girl watches on. The film contains many such instances of juxtaposition of personal anxieties with national ambitions – a theme that would permeate every substructure of the director’s Westerns. Other would-be Fordian elements that are present in this film are vignettes depicting camaraderie among the working class and sequences of barroom humour that implicitly comment on what law and order mean in these ever expanding, never clearly defined frontiers. The Iron Horse takes a sharp detour from the politics of the previous film with its text book conservatism and plausible xenophobia. Immigrant workers from Asia and Europe are the cause of most of the problems but they eventually unite when there’s a raid by the savage Indians! And all’s rosy once the national objective is accomplished. Ford would take a few decades to fully grow out of this world view.
3 Bad Men (1926)
I’m going to go out on a limb and proclaim that 3 Bad Men (1926) is Ford’s first Western masterpiece. Here’s where Ford the filmmaker truly meets Ford the epic poet and Ford the painter. Set during a gold rush in Dakota, in the lands previously belonging to the Sioux, the film charts the attempts of the three titular bandits to escort the daughter of the decently deceased mayor across the plains and away from the scheming mind of the local Sheriff. Hilarious, eloquent, tragic, grand and moving all at once, 3 Bad Men is a fitting farewell to silent Westerns for Ford (sadly, it bombed at the box office) that embodies both the innocence of silent cinema and the splendour of Ford’s brand of filmmaking. One could almost swear that this film was a talkie, for the dialogue (much deadpan comedy and lots of sarcasm!) and acting here is highly naturalistic and it seems as if the director was all set for the sound revolution. But then, being silent is also the best part of the film because it prevents it from flaunting its biblical overtones and its themes of sin and redemption – a temptation that a few of the director’s talkies give in to. Rife with iconic shots, including one stunning two-way dolly that could sit alongside the legendary tracking shot that Murnau would pull off next year, and backed by a terrific 2007 score by Dana Kaproff, 3 Bad Men is Ford at his mythmaking best.
Drums Along The Mohawk (1939)
Drums Along The Mohawk (1939), the first talking Western by Ford and the first of the director’s Westerns to be shot in Technicolor, is also arguably the first failure for the director in this genre. The failure is especially pronounced given the fact that the film was made during Ford’s most fertile period. The film is set during the American War of Independence (earliest time frame of all the director’s films) and follows the life of a newly wed couple (Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda) that’s expecting a child. With all its flaws and flourishes, Drums Along The Mohawk serves to demonstrate why Clint Eastwood is the most Fordian of all directors working in Hollywood today (followed by Spielberg who has been consistently revealing his indebtedness to Ford in his movies). One of Ford’s most cherished beliefs, as is apparently Eastwood’s and Spielberg’s as well, is the idea that the United States is a nation built upon great sacrifices and heroic acts of its founding fathers. That might explain why there are so many father figures (and, to a lesser extent, pregnant women and mother figures) in Ford’s films. However, here, the spiritual center of the film – the most critical component of Ford’s filmmaking – is almost completely hollow and the characters, somehow, seem to be sacrificed to uphold a vague, romantic ideology. But it is the Native American community that gets the rawest deal of them all, having been portrayed as unreasonable barbarians and regressive patriarchs. The shot of a bunch of women rejoicing, while pouring boiling water over an invading group of Indians, marks the nadir for Ford’s cinema.
To say that Stagecoach (1939) makes up for the folly called Drums Along The Mohawk would be a gross understatement. It is one of Ford’s finest films and some might even call it the director’s greatest Western. It has been said that Stagecoach changed the way Westerns were made. I don’t know about that, but the film sure does take both the genre and the director to the next evolutionary level. An incisive sociocultural examination of frontier settlements, Stagecoach unfolds as a study of a bunch of characters, each of which would go on to become a genre cliché and the sum of which embodies a whole society. The motley crew is a mixture of marginalized people and bourgeoisie (a la Just Pals) the most striking of whom is a negatively shaded banker – a move that exemplifies Ford’s admiration for FDR and which presages the socialist spirit of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Ford apparently told Wayne once that the actor just needs to stare at infinity and that the audience, equipped with full knowledge about the character he is playing, would fill in the emotions themselves. That idea is manifest in this very film. We know nothing about this utterly fascinating, almost otherworldly, being played by John Wayne. But, along the film, we also have this feeling of having known him for a long time. It is perhaps for the first time that a Ford Western utilizes what lies beyond its narrative to enrich its story – a technique that would be taken to the extreme in the films to come.
My Darling Clementine (1946)
My Darling Clementine (1946) was made after the end of the Second World War and at a time when Hollywood was bitten by the Film Noir bug. As a result, My Darling Clementine is the first of Ford’s Westerns to go beyond the boundaries of a traditional Western to embrace other genres. Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday is a character straight out of film noir. It is revealed to us that he is a surgeon disillusioned by the uncertainty and brutality that marks his profession. He assumes a false identity, that of a rugged gun wielding gambler (!), to escape this existential angst and resorts to chronic drinking to forget his past (Kurosawa, influenced by Ford as ever, would resolve this duality into two separate characters in Drunken Angel (1948)). Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) himself is the quintessential existential hero, taking up the role of the judge, the jury and the executioner upon realizing that there is neither an established law to provide justice not a divine force to punish his brother’s killers (This character would be resolved into two by Ford himself, in his greatest Western). When Earp throws the drunken Indian out of the bar, he may have been acting out a historical truth, but it is also his way of imposing order upon a world that seems to have gone astray like his cattle. That is, of course, till he meets Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), who is the film’s binding force and its sole symbol of moral purity and progress.
(To be continued…)