[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

The first real appearance (Stagecoach, 1938)

Stagecoach (1938) is distinct in its sobriety and simplicity. There are effects but they aren’t visible. They are perfectly integrated into the continuity of editing. It’s the ideal stylistic exercise for film schools to take note of.

Even so, John Ford went for a flashy effect—just one—which is completely incongruent with the rest of film. It occurs in the first shot John Wayne appears in. Here is the film that will rescue him from oblivion and make him world famous. And how is he introduced? Firstly, notice that we see him eighteen minutes after the film has begun. A delayed entrance that is quite useful and well-planned: we have already heard much about Ringo Kid in the preceding conversation. This delay could seem normal: after all, Wayne’s is only the second name in the credits behind Claire Trevor, and as we have seen, it’s a good strategy to delay the entrance of the second protagonist.

But what an entrance! Everything has been smooth so far. Suddenly, without any narrative reason, there is a tight shot of the unknown Wayne all by himself, with the tracking camera culminating in a closeup, and the Monument Valley in the background, overlaid on a thunderous score. All this for a gentleman who stops the stagecoach with a hand signal, not for a holdup but simply to use the public service: to alert the driver…

We can’t think of a better beginning for a mythification. What’s curious is that it’s for a square almost unknown to the big studios, a handsome, scrappy giant, a sharpshooter trapped in Z movies of Republic Pictures where he had made forty mid-length features in six years. Ford seems to have wanted to create a star, his star, since they were to make fifteen films together in twenty-five years. The most faithful duo in the history of cinema. Amazing intuition, when none of the earlier films helped foresee Wayne’s abilities.

Ford places Wayne in the shadows—mythicizing darkness—as much as possible, while his partner Claire Trevor is frequently in full light in the preceding shot. One wonders if this doesn’t reflect a certain lack of confidence of Ford in the dramatic capabilities of his new protégé. Testimonies confirm this: Ford had asked Wayne to emote as little as possible, to stay impassive. Whatever the case, even if it was necessitated by fortuitous reasons, the mythification is no less present, and will continue to shape Wayne’s future work in a very perverse way.

At the end of the film, Wayne kills two villains within a few seconds. We don’t have time to see anything. As Wayne joins Claire Trevor, he is seen from behind. It’s only when he is very far in the background that he turns and lets us see his face.


[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Gary Cooper visits John Wayne on the sets of Rio Bravo

Film actors are always cursed. Not just the second fiddles, but the most famous ones too. Especially the most famous ones, I’m tempted to say. Indeed, their reputation is tied to two primordial elements: first of all, their private lives. That’s to say, their loves, their death. If one had to find an animal that symbolizes the media (just like the squirrel evokes saving, the lion MGM, or the donkey stupidity), it would be the hyena: death gives its victim a dignity, a gravity, a timelessness the person never had during his lifetime. Respect comes automatically: we never dare to speak ill of the dead, especially not immediately. With our praise, we seek to make up for a lack of enthusiasm in the past, sometimes imaginary. We’re ashamed to be living while he isn’t. Nothing like a premature, accidental and especially dramatic death. Valentino, Dean, Monroe… Can we imagine James Dean attaining eternal and universal celebrity if, on 30 September 1955, instead of getting killed in a car, he had simply retired? Marilyn Monroe would probably have lived in people’s minds anyway, but her supposed suicide (nothing more mediatized than this sustained uncertainty), her supposed affair with a president of the United States (with a death no less mysterious), and her measurements contributed much more to her survival than her exceptional work in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Bus Stop. Of course, talent helps, as the cases of Dean and Monroe prove. But it doesn’t turn out to be indispensable: had he lived on, Valentino would’ve remained in obscurity alongside other ham actors of the twenties.

The second important element is commercial success. Here, we clearly see the discrimination that exists between filmmakers and actors: directors like Jean-Marie Straub, Roberto Rossellini or Samuel Fuller, who didn’t have a single real success at the box-office, are the subject of a number of monographs. Cults form around their name and their body of work. If not for La Grande Illusion and French Cancan on one side, Breathless and Pierrot le fou on the other, we could’ve said the same of Renoir and Godard. Such a contradiction is impossible with actors: if, in place of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Cary Grant and James Stewart, I had told my editor that I’d like to write a book on Dominique Laffin, Denis Lavant, Claude Melki and Jean-François Stevenin, I’m absolutely sure that, with due respect, he would’ve pulled a face this long—or even longer—even though the second set of four aces has nothing to envy the first as far as quality of work is concerned.

In short, what counts in the evaluation of a director is the artistic value of his films, and what essentially counts in the evaluation of an actor is the commercial value of products bearing his name.

That’s why I said that great actors of international renown are more cursed than supporting actors. The attraction they exert is based, most of all, on wrong reasons. Which means that we can lump together Gary Cooper with Valentino or Peck or Schwarzenegger… This contempt, this misunderstanding doesn’t exist with great secondary actors like Jean Abeillé, Walter Brennan, Hume Cronyn, Serge Davri, Mercedes McCambridge, Michael J. Pollard, Kurt Raab or Dominique Zardi. We can like them only for the right reasons. And if we don’t like them, it’s probably that we don’t know them. No one knows about Walter Brennan’s love life or the circumstances of his death, and it’s for the better.


[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

In a meeting of the members of the Screen Directors Guild in 1950, one filmmaker introduced himself thus: “My name is John Ford. I make Westerns.” This extreme understatement, coming from a director who had already won three Academy Awards, also aptly describes Ford’s modest, pragmatic filmmaking style. Despite making over a hundred films in a variety of genres, John Ford is most remembered as the maker of Western pictures, especially ones starring John Wayne.

Made in 1939, Stagecoach was not just Ford’s first talking Western, but also his first prominent collaboration with Wayne and his first film shot in the Monument Valley, an iconic location in Southwest America that will feature regularly in the director’s future work. In fact, the film begins with shots of the Monument Valley in which a group of cavalrymen ride towards the camera. They inform the commander at their outpost that Geronimo, a notorious Apache figure intent on burning white settler ranches, is on the loose. Meanwhile, a public stagecoach carrying nine people makes its way to Lordsburg through Apache territory.

            The literary quality of this simple premise—a group of people move from point A to B under great risk—is reinforced by the trope-like characters. The nine people aboard the stagecoach are all broadly outlined: the bumbling driver Buck (Andy Devine), the marshal Curley (George Bancroft) who has the authority to call the shots, the perpetually-drunk doctor Boone (Thomas Mitchell) who has hidden profundities, the timid whisky salesman Peacock (Donald Meek) who struggles in vain to protect his liquor from the doc, Dallas (Claire Trevor) the hooker with the heart of gold, Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) the wife of an army officer who is dismayed by the idea of traveling with Dallas, the suave gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) who has unclear designs involving Mrs. Mallory, and the scheming banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) who has embezzled a large sum of money from miners. They are joined en route by a sharpshooter Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has broken out of jail seeking to avenge his murdered brother.

            As with any story of people confined in a space, Stagecoach depicts the changing group dynamics, shifting allegiances and the formation of a chain of command among the passengers. In their own way, the nine represent a microcosm of America, their eventual cooperation demonstrating that it takes all kinds to make a world. In one early scene, the upper-class Hatfield, Gatewood and Mrs. Mallory are shocked at having to share table with the likes of Dallas, who was thrown out by the respectable people of her town for her loose morals. The morally upright Ringo, on the other hand, constantly accords her equal respect and stands in for Ford, for whom the shared dinner is a vital sign of the community.

            Stagecoach is set somewhere in the aftermath of the American Civil War. A former soldier in the Union army, the doctor is a man with forward-looking ideals. His ideas run up against Hatfield the gambler, a true-blue Southerner and a major in the Confederate army still hurting from the loss of the war. He even tries to kill Mrs. Mallory to save her honour when he suspects the Apache will lay their hands on her.

But Stagecoach is a film reacting to its own times as well. Ford was not a committed progressive, but he is responding here to the socialist spirit of the New Deal in the air. This is most apparent in the character of the banker, a figure looked down upon in the thirties as one of the factors behind the Great Depression. Gatewood is a libertarian railing against government intrusion into business and auditing of banks. “What’s good for the banks is good for the country”, he declares. While all the other characters have redeeming qualities about them, Gatewood, with his interminable whining and hypocrisy, never appeals to our sympathy.

            The film is adapted from a short story by Ernest Haycox, but there’s something European, particularly French, about its suspicion of mainstream society. It might have to do with the fact that Stagecoach traces its lineage partly to Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Boule de Suif”. Ford’s cinema isn’t particularly known for its affection for outsider figures, but Stagecoach exhibits a deep affinity for outcasts and deadbeats, conventionally unsuccessful characters who are “victims of social prejudice”. Perhaps Ford the Catholic saw in Dallas the fallen woman, Ringo the orphan, Boone the drunk and Peacock the unmanly a kingdom of the meek. In contrast, the Law and Order League, the group of society women that kicks Dallas and the doctor out of the town, is presented as a bunch of busybodies scandalized at the smallest gesture of nonconformity. When Dallas and Ringo drive away from the town at the end, the doc cries out, “saved from the blessings of civilization”.

            The critique of an exclusionary community is conveyed primarily through the character of Dallas, who is the heart of the narrative. All through the film, Ford emphasizes her pain of not belonging and her gratefulness at those treating her with dignity. Everyone, except the banker, eventually comes to respect her, yet she can’t become a part of them. Towards the end, when the group reaches its destination, Mrs. Mallory and company are taken indoors by the townsfolk, Dallas left standing at the doorstep. A contemplative moment finds her alone gathering her belongings from the coach. It’s a direct predecessor to the last shot of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) where it’s John Wayne standing alone at the entrance, incapable of taking part in the community.  

            Although Claire Trevor as Dallas gets top billing in the credits, history has deemed Stagecoach a John Wayne vehicle, and the actor has a veritable star-making turn as Ringo. He is introduced with an emphatic combination of zoom and track shots, the brief defocusing of the camera adding to the dreamlike texture of this introduction. But Ford mostly photographs Wayne in long shots underscoring his then-lanky frame. Ford’s characteristic low-level indoor camera positioning and use of architectural elements of the west produces a strong sense of space. With a large part of the film set inside the limited confines of the coach, Ford chains together closeups in tight shot-reverse shot configurations, creating intimate connections or oppositions between characters.

            These close-grained conversation scenes are set against two grandiose action set-pieces. In the first, the stagecoach is pursued by a team of armed Apaches. Filmed in extremely wide shots, the scene is thrilling in its action choreography, with stunt doubles getting in and out of the moving vehicle, jumping on and off horses running at top speed. There’s a shot from the wheel of the speeding wagon that has become a staple in chase sequences ever since.

Even more impressive is the final showdown, in which Ringo takes down his brother’s three killers. Firstly, the lead-up to the sequence is a masterful tonal mix that intertwines an episode of anguished romance between Ringo and Dallas and a tense, wordless passage of the villains waiting at the saloon, punctuated by a muffled piano melody. The shootout itself is nothing short of mythical. Unfolding in the deserted main street of the town and lit by harsh side lights that produce tall shadows, the actual shooting is suggested by the gunshots Dallas hears. The villain trudges back into the saloon, now full of anxious faces, and collapses, signaling Ringo’s triumph. It’s a striking example of high stylization in the genre that is a precursor to the baroque formalism of the Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s.   


[Originally published at Firstpost]

(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…)