[The following is a translation of a program note that Godard wrote on Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940). The note, originally written in 1956 on behalf of UFOLEIS (Union française des œuvres laïques pour l’éducation par l’image et le son) for film club screenings of the film, was republished in Godard par Godard (1985, Cahiers du Cinéma). 

A. Presentation

I. The Director: Fritz Lang

 The Return of Frank James is the third film Fritz Lang made in the United States. F. Lang was forced to flee Germany when Hitler came to power, and he had taken refuge in France (where he made Liliom) before leaving for Hollywood, where he settled down in 1934. Naturalized as an American citizen in 1939, Fritz Lang is today a veteran of Californian studios and, like his compatriot Otto Preminger, has adapted himself to them very well. He’s the last representative, along with Carl Dreyer, of that glorious era which saw the combined talents of Griffith, Eisenstein and Murnau (on this subject, refer to a volume of film history for F. Lang’s role during German expressionism).

Fascinated by the Far West since his youth, he worked from 1938 to 1940 on a film that would retrace the entire history of the American West, a sprawling fictionalized documentary like the one Eisenstein had attempted with Mexico and the one Orson Welles would dream of with Brazil. The project was shelved, but Lang’s penchant for the Far West and its legendary heroes encouraged the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, to entrust him with the direction of a typical Western, The Return of Frank James, which marked Lang’s debut in colour film.

II. The Western

It would be incorrect to classify the Western as a separate genre. What sets a Western apart from other films is only the setting in which it unfolds. In fact, there are historical Westerns, crime Westerns, comic Westerns, and cowboy psychology can be as meticulously probed as those of Bernanos’ peasants or R.L. Stevenson’s adventurers. To be sure, characters in Westerns are among the most ‘stereotyped’ in the whole of cinema, but that’s because myths play a significant role in their existence. Jesse James [1], the ‘beloved bandit’, or ‘The Durango Kid’, are first of all heroes from legend; they are treated by screenwriters as such, in the same way as The Song of Roland or Chanson de Guillaume. That explains the frequent comparisons made between their reactions and those of Corneille’s characters: the same concern to act solely on the given word, the same respect for a homespun morality ruled by a sense of honour.

III. Practical Tips

As part of the projection, we could use the disc Rocky Mountains of Times Stompers (Vogue EPL 7201) in order to create an ‘ambiance’ that will put the viewer in a favourable mood. This disc includes famous tunes from the Far West such as Oh Susannah, Old Faithful, Down in the Valley etc.


B. Discussion

I. Dramatic Value

a) The Return of Frank James is the story of a revenge. After gaining notoriety in the West, the James brothers lead a peaceful life. Frank learns from one of his friends, Clem, that Jesse has been murdered by the Ford brothers, their old enemies, who have been acquitted after a trial. Frank, followed by Clem, vows to avenge his brother and sets out in search of the Fords. To get the money that they need, Frank and Clem hold up a cash desk at a small railway station, but a clumsy move by Clem ends in the death of an employee. Frank is wanted for murder. In order to mislead the Fords, Frank passes himself off as dead with the help of Clem and a young rookie reporter, Eleanor Stone, whose articles about the death of the famous Frank James create a nationwide sensation. This way, Frank manages to catch the Ford brothers off guard. One of the Fords plunges fatally during a fight, but the other, Bob, manages to escape. Wanting to save Clem [2], who is charged with the death of the railway employee, Frank James falls into the police’s hands. Bob Ford reappears during his trial and taunts his adversary. But Frank is acquitted thanks to a skilful defence by an old lawyer friend of his. Right away, Frank goes after Bob Ford, who flees after he hears the verdict. Young Clem tries to stop him, but he is shot in the fight and dies in Frank’s hands. Bob Ford is also hurt and dies in a nearby barn. Having had his revenge, Frank James marries Eleanor, the pretty journalist.

b) The theme of vengeance is Lang’s favourite (we find it in all his works, in the second part of the Nibelungen films, in Man Hunt, in Rancho Notorious, in The Big Heat): a man leads his peaceful little life and refuses to poke his nose into other people’s affairs until he loses someone dear to him. He takes law into his own hands, not in the name of society, but on his own behalf.

All of Lang’s scripts are constructed the same way: chance forces a man to come out of his individualist shell and become a tragic hero insofar as he ‘forces the hand’ of the fate abruptly imposed upon him.

II. Cinematic Value

a) Fritz Lang’s mise en scène is of a precision that borders on abstraction. His découpage is a mixture in which intelligence trumps sensitivity. Fritz Lang is more interested in a scene as a whole than in an insert shot, like Hitchcock for example. The role of sets is primordial in each one of his films. Let’s recall that he was once a brilliant student of architecture. One image could singlehandedly define Fritz Lang’s aesthetic: a policeman takes aim at a fleeing robber and is about to kill him; in order to bring out the inexorable quality of the scene better, Lang has a viewfinder attached to the gun; the viewer immediately senses that the policeman cannot miss and that the fugitive must mathematically die. 

b) If The Return of Frank James has an happy ending, in contrast to so many of Lang’s other films, it shouldn’t be seen as a concession to the American censors. Going beyond the moral man, Fritz Lang arrives at the sinful man, which explains his bitterness. But more than the sinner, it’s the study of the regenerated man that attracts the most Germanic of American filmmakers. If the fierce individualist Frank James finally finds happiness, it’s only after he is rewarded morally for his troubles. “Why are you so happy today?”, asks his fiancée; “Because, from today, I can look at myself in the mirror without feeling ashamed”, replies the former outlaw.

III. Additional Reading

– The Western: Or the American Film Par Excellence, J.-L. Rieupeyrout and A, Bazin (Éditions du Cerf).


(UFOLEIS notes published in Image et Son, issue no. 95-96, Oct-Nov 1956)



[1] Cf. Jesse James, a film made by Henry King in 1938, whose sequel is The Return of Frank James.

[2] [Translator’s note] It’s actually Pinky, Frank’s black ranch hand, who is charged with murder.


[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Should Man Revolt or Adapt? (1940-1949)

No matter its results, the revolutionary impulse seems to be condemned by Lang as foreign to nature and inspired by the desire to create a new social order, a new collective morality, while the asocial impulse—often stemming from the barriers that Society places around itself for protection—seems to him to be more congenial, as though reflecting an individual and natural morality. But these are only tendencies that we sense in the direction of actors, or which the dramatic construction hints at. Except when he’s dealing with some typical examples of the American society, ones particularly marked by it, Lang doesn’t judge and remains objective. He judges neither Joe Wilson nor Eddie Taylor, no more than he does the killer of Dusseldorf. He doesn’t show a path to follow. What counts for him are facts, their circumstances, their immediate significance. Even when there appears to be a moral significance, it is, more or less, simply the reflection of a metaphysics.

On the other hand, in this period, Lang becomes more of a moralist than a metaphysician. Not happy with simply showing reality, he now reflects on what he’s showing. His style becomes simpler, less lively, and more sober because he doesn’t have to recreate the world as he sees it anymore, i.e. through formal experiments, especially expressionism; Lang now simply shows how and why people act the way they do in a given milieu—which is the reason characters become more important than the sets—and tries to draw out a moral point of view.

America seems to be the chief reason for this evolution: in contrast to Germany, America is a country whose essential problems are moral and immediate. Now, Lang worked in three genres, the Western, the spy film, and the psychological drama. The first of these, especially, and the second, in part, are typical of America and are always conceived in moral terms. What we have here then is an adaptation of Lang’s world to existing genres, a period of trial and errors, of reflection which makes the oeuvre go around in circles, and which, though very successful, is less memorable than the previous period.


[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

The Asocial Impulse

In these countries [that Lang migrated to], the difficulty consists in living without transgressing the law or becoming its victim. The heroes aren’t ambitious or vengeful anymore, like they were in Germany, but individuals like others, bogged down in the anonymity of apparently affluent and carefree crowds, common to both France and America.

Liliom (France, 1933) is loosely adapted from the play by Molnar. Liliom is a thug from the suburbs of Paris who once killed a man somewhat inadvertently. Will he go to hell or the purgatory? Up there, they discuss his case using movie projections of important moments from his life. A good deed allows him to return for a day to earth, where he meets his old friends. Liliom is something of a victim of his unfortunate circumstances and the film is an interrogation of his responsibility, his guilt or his innocence. The categorical affirmation found in the silent films makes way for an uncertainty about objectivity. That, in the film, it’s cinema that furnishes the case files comes across as a tribute to the art Lang has chosen. This intrusion of cinema into cinema will turn up again in Lang’s work from Fury to Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse, passing through Clash by Night. A tribute that’s at the same time a critique: appearances, as cinema unveils them to us, are misleading and could easily be contradicted with the evidence of another moment or of another camera angle. Adding to this fallibility of cinema is the theme of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Lang displays a real pleasure in dominating the world through film and seems to place himself under a slightly critical eye. A reflection on the notions of justice and responsibility, a reflection also on the value of his art, Liliom masks its seriousness with fantasy.

Lang’s humour, more substantial and more Bavarian in films between 1928 and 1932, turns out to be of a great finesse here; it’s accompanied by a certain nostalgia rather close to that of Max Ophüls, but more tender, less bitter. This nostalgia manifests particularly in the creation of a dreamworld that supplants reality. At that time, Lang was already doubly stateless: an émigré from the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire, an exile from a Germany defeated by arms and reduced to slavery by Nazism, separated from his wife whom he’d be forced to divorce, he had no ties other than those preserved by memory. As it happens, Liliom was made after the shelving of a project that demonstrated a nostalgia for old Vienna, Die Legende vom letzten Fiaker (The Legend of the Last Vienna Fiacre): in 1918, fiacres had to cede their favourite ground, the Hauptallee, to cars. The last coachman dies of bitterness and wants to take his fiacre to Heaven. They don’t allow the fiacre to enter. “Okay, I’ll go to Hell”, retorts the coachman. God intervenes: “Alright, alright, drive me in your fiacre…” The fiacre enters, getting mixed up with the Chariot, God’s regular vehicle. No doubt that Lang reused much of this project in Liliom.

We notice that the fable doesn’t reject reality, but moulds itself over the harshest, most unpleasant truth—that of the suburbs, its poor, and its apaches—affirmed here with power. This raw reality is always depicted with a poetry that transforms it into phantasmagoria. This dialectic gives the film its colour. The dialogues are deliberately theatrical and romantic. The actors deliver brilliant performances: chiefly of note are Antonin Artaud, Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray, Florelle, Mila Parély and Viviane Romance, whom Lang discovered with this film. The amorous duo exhibits a rather outmoded romantic sensibility, notably in the flower scene. Unfortunately, Lang’s stylistic efforts in terms of sets and lighting don’t add up to much because the film, a commercial semi-failure, was massacred during its release by distributors, who mutilated it left and right, doing away with its Germanic aspect that threw the French audience off balance, and thus destroying the meaning of the work. It’s also unfortunate that the last reel of the film hasn’t been found yet.


(Continued from Part 1)

Fort Apache (1948)

Fort ApacheFort 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)

3 GodfathersTo 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 RibbonShe 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)

Rio GrandeThe 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 MasterWagon 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 SoldiersThe 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)

Sergeant RutledgeIf 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 TogetherTwo 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)

How The West Was WonAn 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 Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe 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 AutumnCheyenne 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.

Directed by John Ford

John Ford

John Ford 

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 [1934], The Informer [1935]), 20th Century Fox (Young Mr. Lincoln [1939], The Grapes of Wrath [1940]), and Walter Wanger (Stagecoach [1939]), 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 [1945]); 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 ShootingStraight 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 BroadwayBucking 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 PalsJust 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)

The Iron HorseSelf-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)

3 Bad MenMenI’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 MohawkDrums 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.

Stagecoach (1939)

StagecoachTo 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 ClementineMy 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…)


12 Angry Men (1957)
Sidney Lumet

“I’m just saying it’s possible”


12 Angry MenIf I was to choose one debut movie from Hollywood that I would have loved to make, it would not be Citizen Kane (1941), it would not be Duel (1971) but it would be Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957). Perhaps the word “Powerhouse” was coined keeping 12 Angry Men in mind. The film still has the raw power to shake, thrill and move audience of any generation. The granddaddy of all courtroom dramas.

12 Angry men follows the decision making process of the 12 titular men, coming from carious strata of the society, on a teenage murder convict inside a single room as all of them but one ritualistically try to wrap up things with the seemingly solid evidence provided to them. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is disgusted at disposing off a life so simply and tries to make the rest of them deliberate over their decision. What begins as a single dissident voice turns out into a fierce tug of war that gradually descends into a no competition. All of them slowly realize that what they have at hand is supposed to be a qualitative process and not quantitative and that there is more than a vote at stake.

12 Angry men remains one of the best character studies made on film till date. The protagonists enter the room with wide range of mentalities ranging from boredom and arrogance to curiosity and apathy. As the day progresses, each person’s mentality catalyses the others’ and the chemistry within the members changes in order to suit each other’s ideologies. At the end of it all, not only is the prejudice of the characters shattered but so is the audience’s preconceived notion about the power of cinema. The viewer will walk out of the movie with open minds as the characters walk out of the dreaded room.

The most stunning aspect about the film is that nobody knows the truth at the end of the ordeal – Neither the characters nor the audience. One is reminded slightly of Kurosawa‘s minimalist masterpiece Rashomon (1950), for both deal with subjective accounts of crimes and yearning for absolute truth. Kurosawa’s film leaves the audience helpless and craving for objectivity with the woodcutter’s benign act being the only comforting element, whereas 12 Angry Men makes them gradually reconcile with the fact that there is much more to “truth” than meets the eye. The film’s greatest success lies not in changing the decision of the characters, but in making them and the audience acknowledge the fact that there are possibilities outside their frame of minds.

Minimalism in film is ironically a very tough job and not many have achieved it with success. As they say, it is difficult to be simple. Pulling off a film inside a single room and with a dozen characters is definitely not an easy task and Lumet has done it with more than perfection. What could have easily rolled off to a claustrophobic garrulous mess is instead fabricated into a gripping study of human characters and group dynamics. The performances are all top rate and one wonders if these characters were written with the corresponding actors in mind. Lee. J. Cobb‘s loud arrogance is as moving as Martin Balsam‘s quiet leadership. Such great casting never comes often.

Needless to say, 12 Angry Men forms the cream of greatest American films ever made and is in the same league as Kubrick’s and Ford’s masterpieces, if not better. Be whatever your mood while you watch the film, you will end up awe-struck at the flawless execution and at the realization that only “Seeing is Believing“.