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John Ford 1895–1973
(Born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna) American director, screenwriter, producer, and actor.
Ford is regarded as the master of the western film and an American cinema titan whose career spans the entire history of the film. Several characteristics distinguish Ford's work: among them a single strong situation, unity of time and space, and vivid characterization.
Ford's career began in 1913 when he moved from Maine to Hollywood, where his brother worked for Universal Studios. He changed his name to John, and began work as a prop boy and bit actor. He appeared in Birth of a Nation, and was influenced by its director, D. W. Griffith. These influences would surface in Ford's films, particularly in his attention to detail.
The Tornado, made in 1917, marked Ford's debut as a writer/director. A series starring the actor Harry Carey brought Ford critical approval, and the ensuing contract with Fox enabled him to make The Iron Horse, a story of the American transcontinental railroad. This film established him as a leading director. Themes that were to recur in later works appeared in The Iron Horse: the spirit of the pioneers and the strong bond of familial ties. Ford's films of the thirties signalled the advent of his collaboration with Dudley Nichols, who wrote for some of Ford's most admired films.
The success of The Lost Patrol, a saga of a British cavalry patrol, allowed Ford to fulfill a project he had long wanted to do: directing his version of Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer. Nineteen thirty-nine was Ford's most prolific year, during which he produced Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and The Grapes of Wrath. These films exemplify Ford's affection for the family and the legends of America.
When World War II broke out, Ford made several documentaries for the U.S. Marines, winning an Oscar for The Battle of Midway, the first U.S. war documentary. However, with the release of They Were Expendable in 1945, many critics questioned Ford's nostalgic attitude. Of the film, which dealt with the U.S. defeat in the Philippines, Andrew Sarris has written: "What could have seemed more perverse than Ford's celebration of gallant defeat in the aftermath of glorious victory?" Ford's popularity was reaffirmed with a string of Westerns, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and My Darling Clementine. His love of Ireland surfaced in The Quiet Man, a sensitive tale of an Irish-American returning to his motherland. The film is generally believed to be one of Ford's more significant works.
Most critics agree that Ford's work for the last twenty-five years of his life was not as important as that which preceded it. His films of the fifties were regarded as old-fashioned and unsophisticated. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance served as the finest example of Ford's work in the sixties, and a nostalgic view of things past. His output diminished after this film, although he directed a documentary on Vietnam in 1971. His last film, Seven Women, while altering Ford's traditional view of women as subservient creatures, did not receive critical acclaim. Many critics found it indicative of Ford's failure to have a hold on the American public's interests.
Opponents of Ford have labeled him a bigot, claiming his philosophy is a mask for ignorance and bias; that he glorifies a nonexistent world. However, Ford's lengthy cinematic career and diversity of achievement is a milestone in the film world. Ford himself said of his work, "The secret is to make films that please the public and that also allow the director to reveal his personality." (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 45-48.)
[The Iron Horse," an] ambitious production, dwelt trenchantly upon the indomitable energy, resourcefulness and courage of those who spanned the continent with steel….
In this picture is shown with true dramatic emphasis the welding together of two great points with steel….
Yet with all their discomforts amid the great risk, it is shown, and truthfully, in this picture that these pioneers had a keen sense of humor. They were sports, and as sports they had to settle disputes even among themselves. For no chapter of history in a film can be told without a heroine, a hero and a villain, and the chances are that this is a more or less accurate description.
As scene after scene passes in shadows and lights upon the screen one cannot help thinking of that remarkable production, "The Covered Wagon," to which "The Iron Horse" is a sort of sequel….
John Ford, the director of this film, has done his share of the work with thoroughness and with pleasing imagination. There are certain stretches in the production that are long and at times tedious, but this is due to the cutting and is a fault which can be remedied….
This is an instructive and inspiring film….
"The Railroad Pioneers," in The New York Times (© 1924 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 29, 1924, p. 6.
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[While] cinematic quality is one of the most important tests, if not the most important, that can be applied to a moving picture, the increasing filming of well known novels has made it necessary that such a picture be judged also by the fidelity and intelligence with which the spirit of the novel is presented. Unfortunately, too often of late, the novel picturized has been used only as a springboard for the imagination, or lack of it, of the producer, and bears little relation to the original except in title and the names of the characters.
A pleasing exception is the … production of Arrowsmith, by the recent Nobel Prize winner, Sinclair Lewis. While from the limitation of time, many parts of the novel have had to be omitted, the picture has been unified and given significance by emphasizing the theme of a scientist's devotion to his work. It is an adequate and satisfying translation of the written word into the speech of the screen. (p. 10)
There are times when the rapidity of the sequences are almost too fast for easy comprehension and mar an otherwise unusually well done picture…. A laboratory is not usually a place of beauty to the layman, but Mr. Ford gives us many beautiful shots that linger in the memory. The scenes in the West Indies, a place that always lends itself to picturesque presentation, while beautiful and arresting, are never allowed to overbalance the others….
It is one of the few pictures of the year that presages the time when our American scenes will receive the interpretative handling that distinguishes the best European films. (p. 11)
Louise Wallace Hackney, "Exceptional Photoplays: 'Arrowsmith'," in National Board of Review Magazine (copyright, 1932), Vol. VII, No. 1, January, 1932, pp. 10-11.
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The picture that John Ford has made out of Liam O'Flaherty's "Informer" opens a lot of new possibilities for Hollywood, tackles something that is really fine, and manages several memorable scenes. But because it deals with the sort of thing that must be handled adequately if it is to go over, its persistent inadequacies make it more disappointing than many pictures with less to recommend them.
The story gets off to a beautiful start, riding along on the unfamiliar color and excitement of the period when the Terror was in Ireland, tightening on the country and walking through its streets in armed squads. And it carries well through the early part of that evening when Frankie McPhillip … came in from the hills, to slip home in the fog and be sold to his death…. For dramatic vigor and beauty of composition there have been few sequences to compare with the one that ends with the camera looking from behind Frankie down into the court where the Tans look up with their machine gun.
So far, the atmosphere and the sense of a tragic character have been well built. But shortly after Gypo has stumbled out with his blood money, there begins a train of happenings many of which hang fire altogether…. [Heather Angel, the rebel leader, and the chief aide] all play inevitably into the story, and are abetted by the director, who must needs drive every nail down three inches below the surface: hence whole organic stretches are made flabby or (as is the case with the last episode in church, the intercession of Katy) actually distressing. What is more, there is constant reliance on symbolic fade-ins and ghostly voices, on an elaborately cued and infirm musical score, and on the device of squeezing the last drop of meaning or sentiment out of a ten-minute sequence by hanging onto it for a quarter of an hour. It hardly seems that the man responsible for these cheap shifts could be the one who schemed the earlier episodes, the extended revelry of the middle parts and the final trial scene. (p. 76)
Otis Ferguson, "Two Films," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1935 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 83, No. 1069, May 29, 1935, pp. 75-6.∗
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[The] movies have rarely tried to look at modern Ireland with modern eyes, in spite of the riches of dramatic material to be found there….
Which is one reason The Informer comes with such novelty and vitality. Another is that Liam O'Flaherty's novels have little in them of the stuff from which ordinary movies are made…. His books would be a stiff dose for the ordinary audience if they were put on the screen in the key he wrote them in.
Dudley Nichols and John Ford have struck a somewhat gentler strain from the harp of old Erin. One with his scenario, the other with his directing, they have made of The Informer something that popular sympathy can more conventionally respond to. They have romanticized the motive for Gypo Nolan's turning informer, making him do it for a girl—as if hunger were not an effective enough reason. All the women in the story have been stereotyped into lay figures used to suggest the usual heart interests of commonplace fiction, and do not count very much. But these little compromises have left intact what is essential to the tragedy of a man who was the victim of his own character. (p. 8)
There is a grim splendor to it, both as a tragedy and as a motion picture. Fundamentally it is honest in intention and sincere in execution. The man's character is truly understood and truly portrayed, with the inevitability coming from its own nature that great tragedy always has to have. The film illustrates powerfully the old dictum that character is destiny….
The writer of the scenario dealt honestly and ably with the O'Flaherty character, and encompassed it in a framework that follows the best motion picture technique. John Ford has directed it with a fine eye for picture effect, both atmospherically and dramatically. Occasionally he slips into old movie ruts that seem outworn—fade-ins to supply deficiencies in the audience's imagination, for instance, that must seem quaint and unnecessary at best to any alert audience of today. But subtle and powerfully suggestive is the way he has paralleled the blind twistings of Gypo's inner nature with an exterior presentment of dark foggy streets peopled with dim figures and dimmer shadows, with the action erupting into some place of light and noise whenever Gypo emerges into positive activity….
Pictures like this come rarely, and it will make an interesting test of how justified people are who insist that audiences are eager for better films than producers provide. (p. 9)
James Shelley Hamilton, "Exceptional Photoplays: 'The Informer'," in National Board of Review Magazine (copyright, 1935), Vol. X, No. 6, June, 1935, pp. 8-9.
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In one superbly expansive gesture, which we … can call "Stagecoach," John Ford has swept aside ten years of artifice and talkie compromise and has made a motion picture that sings a song of camera. It moves, and how beautifully it moves, across the plains of Arizona, skirting the sky-reaching mesas of Monument Valley, beneath the piled-up cloud banks which every photographer dreams about, and through all the old-fashioned, but never really outdated, periods of prairie travel in the scalp-raising Seventies, when Geronimo's Apaches were on the warpath. Here, in a sentence, is a movie of the grand old school, a genuine rib-thumper and a beautiful sight to see.
Mr. Ford is not one of your subtle directors, suspending sequences on the wink of an eye or the precisely calculated gleam of a candle in a mirror. He prefers the broadest canvas, the brightest colors, the widest brush and the boldest possible strokes. He hews to the straight narrative line with the well-reasoned confidence of a man who has seen that narrative succeed before. He takes no shadings from his characters: either they play it straight or they don't play at all. He likes his language simple and he doesn't want too much of it. When his Redskins bite the dust, he expects to hear the thud and see the dirt spurt up. Above all, he likes to have things happen out in the open, where his camera can keep them in view….
[Onward] rolls the stage, nobly sped by its six stout-hearted bays, and out there, somewhere behind the buttes and crags, Geronimo is lurking with his savage band, the United States Cavalry is biding its time to charge to the rescue and the Ringo Kid is impatiently awaiting his cue to stalk down the frontier-town street and blast it out with the three Plummer boys. But foreknowledge doesn't cheat Mr. Ford of his thrills. His attitude, if it spoke its mind, would be: "All right, you know what's coming, but have you ever seen it done like this?" And once you've swallowed your heart again, you'll have to say: "No, sir! Not like this!"…
This is one stagecoach that's powered by a Ford.
Frank S. Nugent, "'Stagecoach'," in The New York Times (© 1939 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 3, 1939, p. 21.
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"Young Mr. Lincoln" might better be called "Incident in the Life of Lincoln."… The 1832 episodes in New Salem are sketchily done; if Ann Rutledge meant very much to young Abe, one would never know it from this version. In fact most of the standard biographical scenes are avoided and emphasis is placed on character, with repeated inferences and hints of the future. Mary Todd smirks at Abe possessively. Stephen A. Douglas decides he must respect him. Abe reminisces, tells many stories and plays "Dixie" on a Jews-harp. Lack of excitement, understatement and John Ford's careful and extremely slow direction give Young Mr. Lincoln" an air of actuality….
Although "Young Mr. Lincoln" is nicely done, it does not have the depth, poetry or historical importance of the Robert Sherwood play. (p. 218)
Philip T. Hartung, "Springfield to Titipu to Green City," in Commonweal (copyright © 1939 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XXX, No. 8, June 16, 1939, p. 218.∗
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Drums Along the Mohawk is a candy-colored period bit, nice in general but nothing to break your neck getting to. Life in upstate New York during the Revolution. Since John Ford directed it, it is well above the average historical picture, but not up to Mr. Ford's best. There are too many type situations and too many types—ugh-ugh-Indian, hell's-fire army widow, little feller with big jug, etc. And except for the skirmishes, the action is pretty slow.
But when the skirmishes happen there is plenty of fun. It is good to have a lot of Indians milling around in a picture shooting arrows and everything, and now that sound has been added to catch the unearthly rumpus they make, the effect is complete—the audience practically saves that fort with the arms of its seats…. There are touching things too, and instruction and blood. Perhaps if you can manage to break it only a little bit, you may wish to break your neck getting to see the film after all. (p. 277)
Otis Ferguson, "French and Indians" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. CI, No. 1303, November 22, 1939), in The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, edited by Robert Wilson (© 1971 by Temple University), Temple University Press, 1971, pp. 275-77.∗
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The Grapes of Wrath is the most mature picture story that has ever been made, in feeling, in purpose, and in the use of the medium. You can drag out classics (it is often safer not to go back and see them) and you can roll off names in different tongues and times. But this is a best that has no very near comparison to date.
I still don't know how they did it, though its possibility has been latent in Hollywood for years. The story of the Joad family, with its implied story of a migration of thousands of families, is told straight, and told with the sternest care for cause and effect and the condition of society…. (p. 282)
Everything is there as it should be: people dispossessed and shoved around and miserably in want, the fruitgrowers and their armed thugs and snide dodges, men clubbed and the strike broken but the spirit of it living, carrying on in the people…. (pp. 282-83)
To get minor flaws out of the way, there was possibly too much of the partial lighting of faces that was in general so effective …; the starving kids were too plump and glossy; a few of the intercut devices of transition, with road signs, overlaps, etc., were a little trick. But that's all….
[Ford] has deliberately forced his subject out into the open, and carries more of his story in long shots than most directors would dare, giving the whole picture a feeling of space and large movement. He works all the way from distances to those tight compositions of two faces, half in the dark: in the tent or the back of the truck or the cab in front (one very striking effect here, in the three set faces seen faintly in the windshield, nothing directly visible but the hand on the wheel). With nothing but the drone of the motor in low, the camera manages the whole story of the Okie camp as it moves down shack after shack, face after face, silent, hostile, and defeated. (p. 283)
Otis Ferguson, "Show for the People" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 102, No. 7, February 12, 1940), in The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, edited by Robert Wilson (© 1971 by Temple University), Temple University Press, 1971, pp. 282-85.∗
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The majesty of plain people and the beauty which shines in the souls of simple, honest folk are seldom made the topics of extensive discourse upon the screen. Human character in its purer, humbler aspects is not generally considered enough. Yet out of the homely virtues of a group of Welsh mining folk—and out of the modest lives of a few sturdy leaders in their midst—Darryl Zanuck, John Ford and their associates at Twentieth Century-Fox have fashioned a motion picture of great poetic charm and dignity, a picture rich in visual fabrication and in the vigor of its imagery, and one which may truly be regarded as an outstanding film of the year. "How Green Was My Valley" is its title….
Persons who have read the haunting novel by Richard Llewellyn from which the story is derived will comprehend at its mention the deeply affecting quality of this film. For Mr. Ford has endeavored with eminent success to give graphic substance to the gentle humor and melancholy pathos, the loveliness and aching sentiment of the original…. In purely pictorial terms, "How Green Was My Valley" is a stunning masterpiece.
If, then, it fails to achieve a clear dramatic definition and never quite comes across with forceful, compelling impact this must be charged to the fact that the spirit of the original is too faithfully preserved…. [Mr. Llewellyn's] was a story told in reverie, episodically, running through a period of years.
And that is the form of the screen play which Phillip Dunne has prepared…. [It] is, by implication, the story of a good people's doom, the story of how the black coal wrung so perilously from the fair earth darkens the lives of those who dig it and befouls the verdant valley in which they live.
And that is the weakness of this picture. For in spite of its brilliant detail and its exquisite feeling for plain, affectionate people, it never forms a concrete pattern of their lives. Opportunities for dramatic intensity, such as that in which Huw saves his mother's life, are deliberately thrown away. And the obvious climactic episode, in which Huw's father is killed in the mine, is nothing more than a tragic incident which brings the story to a close. Apparently the intention was to have the film follow the formless flow of life. But an audience finds it hard to keep attentive to jerky episodes for the space of two hours.
Bosley Crowther, "'How Green Was My Valley'," in The New York Times (© 1941 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 29, 1941, p. 27.
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John Ford's slow-poke cowboy epic, "My Darling Clementine," is a dazzling example of how to ruin some wonderful Western history with pompous movie making…. Given almost equal billing with the Earps in this version of old Tombstone are cloudscapes which are as saccharine as postcard art. Typical of director Ford's unimaginative, conforming tourist sensibility is the setting he uses—dead, flat country with Picassoesque rock formations jutting dramatically here and there—that has happened in Westerns ever since Art Acord was a baby. "Clementine" is in the new tradition of cowboy films: instead of hell-for-leather action there is concentration on civic-mindedness, gags, folk art. This one goes in for slow, heavy, character-defining shots. (pp. 836, 838)
Manny Farber, "Portrait of the Artist," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1946 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 115, No. 22, December 16, 1946, pp. 836, 838.∗
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In whatever whisps of foliage are left on Director John Ford's head, he wears a yellow ribbon—and, in the spirit of that rousing soldier song, he wears it with pride and affection for the old United States Cavalry. This you can see as plain as daylight and beyond the shadow of a bullet-scarred redoubt in Mr. Ford's grand "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."…
For in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman. He has got the bold and dashing courage, the stout masculine sentiment, the grandeur of rear-guard heroism and the brash bravado of the barrack-room brawl. And, best of all, he has got the brilliant color and vivid detail of those legendary troops as they ranged through the silent "Indian country" and across the magnificent Western plains….
[The] nimble scriptwriters, Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings, scribbled diligently right alongside the bold director—or maybe one jump ahead—in the course of the headlong production of this obviously runaway film. And since they were snatching freely from a James Warner Bellah yarn, they scooped up some heterogeneous details with which the director could work.
And Mr. Ford has employed them to what is usually termed the best effect. His action is crisp and electric. His pictures are bold and beautiful. No one could make a troop of soldiers riding across the western plains look more exciting and romantic than this great director does. No one could get more emotion out of a thundering cavalry charge or an old soldier's farewell departure from the ranks of his comrades than he….
Bulwarked with gay and spirited music and keyed to the colors of the plains, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" is a dilly of a cavalry picture. Yeehooooo!
Bosley Crowther, "'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,' at Capitol, Stars John Wayne As a Cavalry Captain," in The New York Times (© 1949 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 18, 1949, p. 35.
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Ford has always found his true image of reality in this world, not in the deliberately fashioned symbolism of a literary invention; his symbols arise naturally out of the ordinary, the everyday; it is by familiar places, traditions and themes that his imagination is most happily stimulated. There is a sort of strain, apt to evidence itself in pretentiousness of style, about his attempts with material outside his personal experience or sympathy. (p. 9)
[Ford's most successful films] manage with remarkable success to revive the manners and appearances of past times. Designed with obvious care, they show a keen pleasure in their period appurtenances, in dresses and uniforms, furniture and decoration. Delighting in dances and communal celebrations of a long-forgotten style, there is a sense about them of regret for ways of living at once simpler and more colorful than those of today.
This implied lack of concern with contemporary issues is evident also in Ford's present-day films. They Were Expendable is hardly, in the modern sense, a film about war, but rather a film about a species now almost extinct—the professional, dedicated warrior….
The films all start with the advantage of a good story. Further, they are the work of expert writers …—experienced story-tellers with no pretentious ambitions to transcend the natural bounds of their subjects. As a result their scripts leave Ford free to tell the stories at his leisure, to enrich and enliven them through his own humane inspiration. (p. 10)
[It] is evident in the whole approach, in the texture of the films: in odd, unscripted actions and gestures; in the robust humor which runs through them all, simple and genial, of character rather than incident; in the consistent dignity (rising at times to grandeur) with which the human figure is presented. (pp. 10-11)
Where … integrity is not preserved, where Ford's true sympathy is not with his material, or the material itself is counterfeit,… visual opulence can become overblown. This objection may be made to The Informer—a brilliant but sometimes showy exercise in the sort of expressionism one has come to associate rather with the German cinema, with its use of heavy-contrast lighting, studied grouping, and deliberate non-realism. Equally it is possible to criticize the last section of The Long Voyage Home, where the visual pretentiousness stems directly from the script; portions of Tobacco Road, in which Ford's tendency to idealize is not really in tune with the writing; or all The Fugitive, where Figueroa has been given unfortunate license to reinforce Nichols' vulgarity with his own. But when the material is genuine, and Ford's response to it a spontaneous one, his technique is characterized by its extreme simplicity. Seldom indulging in the sophistications of camera movement, his films proceed in a series of visual statements—they are as sparing in their use of natural sound as of dialogue. Rich in phrasing, simple in structure, it is a style which expresses a sure, affirmative response to life—the equivalent to that Biblical prose which, today, it takes greatness of spirit to sustain. (p. 14)
With the collapse of its popular traditions, Western art has become increasingly sophisticated and eclectic; the popular themes are in general left to be exploited, and degraded, by the opportunists. Ford's films, in this context, seem hardly to belong to our time at all. His art is not intellectual; his impulse is intuitive, not analytical. Unsophisticated and direct, his work can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of cultural level, who has retained his sensitivity and subscribes to values primarily humane. He applies himself to traditional themes, and is happiest when his story is set in the settled society of another era—typically, Ford's is a man's world, one in which woman's function is largely domestic, to build the home and bear children, to sympathize and support. Relationships in these films are never complex (which does not mean that they are not subtle). Ford's heroes do not analyze themselves into negation; uncomplicated and instinctive, they realize themselves in action; and they win. Even the defeated heroes of They Were Expendable are indomitable in disaster, and Ford ends his film with a positive symbol, a presage of the ultimate victory. (pp. 14-15)
Ford's art is inspired by an optimistic faith in man's nature, a reverence for the human creature which is evident always in choice of subject and manner of treatment; but this is combined with a firm emphasis on discipline, an implicit stress on moral and social duties which may properly be described as classical, and which are matched by the sympathetic decorum of style. The poetry which, at their most intense, the films attain, approximates more closely to the Johnsonian "grandeur of generality" than to the romantic's glorification of the particular. (pp. 15-16)
Lindsay Anderson, "John Ford: His Work Is a Portrayal of the Righteous Man," in Films in Review (copyright © 1951 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 2, February, 1951, pp. 5-16.
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Wagonmaster is the nearest any director has come to an avant-garde Western. To use this word of a film by Ford may sound strange; take it, though, not as implying an experiment in any new -ism, but in the sense in which it is perhaps more frequently used, of an absolute, self-delighting liberty on the artist's part…. Ford's handling of [the plot] shows clearly enough that his interest is aroused less by those which propel and shape the narrative (these are apt to be perfunctory) than by the characters and events which give colour to his favourite themes; the dogged persistence of his heroes, the moral beauty of their lives of enterprise and creation. Unconcerned with novelty, he is quite content to draw, for incident and characterisation, on his earlier films…. In Wagonmaster Ford has composed, with the simplicity of greatness, another of his poems to the pioneering spirit. It is a tragic reflection on the progress of the cinema that modern audiences, unused to the exercise of the poetic sense, expecting only the cruder impact of a conventional plot, gape and are unhappy when Ford rests his Olympian camera on one of these magnificent prospects, as the wagons trundle on their way and a few voices join together in a revivalist hymn or one of the traditional ballads of the West. (p. 333)
Lindsay Anderson, "Retrospective Reviews: 'Wagonmaster' and 'Two Flags West'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1950 by The British Film Institute), n.s. Vol. 19, No. 8, December, 1950, pp. 333-34.
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[The Long Voyage Home] is neither a war movie nor an adventure sea story. It belongs, rather, to that great class of works of art which deal with the eternal human quest—the Odyssey, the Holy Grail romances, Moby Dick, Kafka's Castle, perhaps The Old Man and the Sea. In all of them man is presented as traveling some long, weary road in order to attain a supremely desired objective. The various specific elements in the film are interpretable as expressive of this theme. They delineate the human condition—not just in the merchant marine, or in a century of war and revolution, or in any other particular social circumstances. The symbol, to be sure, is specific, but not what it symbolizes: man's situation in this world and in relation to other men.
The film begins with the explicit statement that it is a saga of the changing sea and the unchanging men upon it. In aesthetic substance, the sea is the whole external world, the forces of nature with which man must cope; just as the authority of the police and the captain is expressive of all the social constraints within which man's life moves, regardless of the particular features of his society.
Smitty is not permitted to jump ship, and shore leave is denied to every one. Does this not have the expressive content of the "no discharge in war" of Ecclesiastes—no escape from our humanity, from the constraints which the external world inevitably imposes on our private ones? And when the cargo is safely landed, the men find that they have nowhere to go but back to the ship, to sign up again. Is this not poignantly moving, not in the petty "realism" of how empty the satisfactions society allows men of their class and station, but in the more profoundly realistic sense that there is no other life than the present one, no place to live it but where we are? "Earth's the right place for love," the poet says: "I don't know where it's likely to go better." There is only the ship and the voyage.
And at the end of the film you know that although some of the men have gone home at last—Yank, Drisc, Smitty, and Ole—there is nothing for the others to do but resume the voyage, and it is the same voyage, and the voyage will go on and on, always with different men; perhaps the ship itself will change, but nothing essential in the situation will change. There will still be the struggle with the external world, there will still be the constraints imposed by authority, and there will still be the heartaches, frustrations, and also the recurrent gratifications which are just enough to give man the strength and courage to go forward.
This is not to say that every work of art is an allegory, that The Long Voyage Home is a kind of secular Pilgrim's Progress. It is not a question of allegory, or even of conscious and explicit symbolism. It is a matter only of expressiveness rather than restrictive representation, of giving to the arts the full richness of their meaning. (pp. 381-83)
Abraham Kaplan, "Realism in the Film: A Philosopher's Viewpoint" (originally a lecture delivered at the University of California at Los Angeles; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), in The Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television, Vol. VII, No. 4, Summer, 1953, pp. 370-84.∗
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Towards the end of 1947 in the second number of Sequence there appeared a study of some of the films of the Hollywood director John Ford. Although the author did not so much as mention Ford's amusing and accomplished comedy Passport to Fame … and though he referred to Ford as a "great" director, this was on the whole a fair survey. In subsequent numbers of Sequence Ford's films were criticised, certainly, but in terms that suggest that Homer had nodded…. It was not that the writers in Sequence were blind to the faults in Ford's films: it was rather that, good or bad, these were treated not as the ephemeral entertainments of a commercial director but as lofty communications from a great artist who sometimes had lapses. By the time the Sequence office had moved over to the B.F.I. the tone of lyrical adulation had become more marked. "In Wagonmaster," we were told [see Anderson, Shots in the Dark, excerpt above], "Ford has composed, with the simplicity of greatness, another of his poems to the pioneering spirit. It is a tragic reflection on the progress of the cinema that modern audiences, unused to the exercise of the poetic sense, expecting only the cruder impact of a conventional plot, gape and are unhappy when Ford rests his Olympian camera on one of these magnificent prospects," etc. Ford, you see, is a poet. It is "tragic" that an audience may not appreciate one of his pictures, and we spectators are taken to task for our insensitiveness. He photographs his films with an "Olympian camera" (whatever that may be). Later still The Quiet Man is accorded a review twice as long as that given to Rashomon and is finally summed up by the critic as "Shakespearean."
Thus one may trace the development of a cult—from an article that errs on the side of youthful enthusiasm, through reviews which hint that Ford's failures represent a falling-off from some lofty artistic peak that he has previously scaled, to the woolly language of unrestrained hyperbole, (p. 8)
What is immediately striking about many of Ford's films is the over-consciously "beautiful" photography, one element in the composite art of the film for which the cameraman surely deserves a good deal of the credit. But granted that Ford himself has an eye for pictorial composition, are his films distinguished in any other way?… With Ford every shot is beautifully composed, but I am not sure that he takes much trouble to select what is most essential to the unfolding of the story. And he certainly has no ear. I cannot recall a single example in any of the films by Ford that I have seen of sound used with imagination. Often it is not even used well: though there have been exceptions, with him a superfluity of banal, heavily scored incidental music seems to be the rule—and if Ford is to be given credit for the excellence of the photography in his films, perhaps it is not unreasonable to blame him for the banality of the music.
And what about the script? What do these beautiful images all add up to? No doubt this director has not always been given a free hand in his choice of subjects, though when a picture is labelled "A John Ford Production" one may perhaps assume that he has not merely been ordered to do what he could with fifth-rate material. If Ford has had freedom of choice, one can only conclude that his taste is uncultivated and adolescent. Time and again he has returned to the sheriff, the bad man and the Red Indians…. Even those members of the audience who are easily entertained and expect no more from a director than that he shall tell a plain unvarnished tale with clarity and force are not going to be wholly satisfied with Ford. The narrative line in some of his films has been hopelessly muddled. Who would offer to make a lucid summary of the action in They Were Expendable, My Darling Clementine, or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon?
I have devoted some space to pointing out what to most readers must have been obvious: that Ford is a director who seems to prefer the novelette (even when making a film about a world war), who has sometimes shown himself incapable of coherent narration even on the modest level of the wild west adventure story, who is not particularly subtle in his selection of visuals, and who is painfully insensitive in his use of sound. In fact he lays himself open to serious strictures with practically every film…. With Ford,… what is cheap and sentimental on the printed page is even worse on the screen, where vulgarity and mawkishness are laid on with a trowel. Yet this director, who is not even among the best of the Hollywood filmmakers, is ranked by implication with Dreyer, Lubitsch and Clair, his work being treated with a solemnity out of all proportion to its merits, in periodicals that we had hoped would become a forum for serious writing on the film. (pp. 9-10)
[Although] the cult has its comedy value, I do not think it should be treated simply as a joke…. When a director who has rarely produced anything comparable with even a moderately adult novel is persistently regarded, by a vocal minority, as a great artist, it is time that voices were raised in protest. As a hardworking Hollywood director Ford is no doubt worthy of respect. Some of his films (Passport to Fame, in particular) have given a good deal of pleasure to a wider public than the American teenagers whom he so obviously aims to please. But no valid purpose is served by pretending that his work has much importance in the history of the film as an art…. (pp. 10, 31)
Gerald Cockshott, "The Curious Cult of John Ford," in Film (reprinted by permission of British Federation of Film Societies), No. 2, December, 1954, pp. 8-10, 31.
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There may be no wholly new subjects left for the Western, but there are still a few blank spaces to be filled in on the screen's gigantic map of the West. Ford's latest film, Sergeant Rutledge … stumbles on one of them: the history of the Negro regiment, the 9th Cavalry, formed soon after the Civil War to join in the last frontier battles with the Indians. To the Negroes, in 1881, the White House is still "the place where Mr. Lincoln lives"; slavery is a living memory; loyalty to the regiment, if we are to believe Ford, has become a fierce, fighting expression of racial pride.
It is a theme which carries echoes and reverberations, a subject too intriguing in its own right to be smothered beneath our own modern reactions to questions of race prejudice and so made the material for an up-to-date polemic. What did these men think of the cause they were fighting for; of their officers; of those bleak Arizona battlefields where they engaged the Indian war-parties? But these are not the questions Ford raises in his film. His immediate dramatic theme is the court-martial of Sergeant Rutledge….
There is a perfunctoriness about the whole film, in the maddeningly casual, take it as you find it manner of latter-day Ford. The script, by Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah, allows witnesses to give evidence of events at which they were not present; the trial meanders backwards and forwards…. As so often with Ford, the comedy, at the outset entertaining, gets out of hand. At the back of the courtroom's fan-waving audience of station wives are a group of men out for a lynching, brandishing their home-made nooses. But Ford is too genial about the whole business to leave much scope for tension. In the action scenes, the Negro soldiers are easily absorbed into his own passionate loyalty to the cavalryman—any cavalryman—in his blue jacket. He poses them heroically against the skyline; he ensures that they die bravely; he lets them grin and swagger. He seems to like them almost as much as he likes the Irish. But, while Ford's Irish now need no explaining, the casual approach here discloses too little.
Yet, of course, there are moments when everything is working for the director: the opening, with the bustling arrival at the cavalry post and the quick, firm establishment of the scene…. Ford's knowledge of how to place and manoeuvre an action scene seldom deserts him. His escapes into man-to-man sentimentality, his taste for bad jokes, his utterly careless attitude to some of his players (the store scene, introducing the murdered girl, is atrociously played), are inseparable from his qualities as a filmmaker. Ford still writes the poetry of heroes; it is the prose of Sergeant Rutledge that he has neglected.
Penelope Houston, "'Sergeant Rutledge' and 'The Unforgiven'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1960 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1960, p. 142.
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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a political western, a psychological murder mystery and John Ford's confrontation of the past; personal, professional and historical. The title itself suggests a multiplicity of functions. "The man who" marks the traditional peroration of American nominating conventions and has been used in the titles of more than fifty American films. In addition to evoking past time, "shot" may imply a duel, a murder or an assassination. "Liberty Valance" suggests an element of symbolic ambiguity. This is all a priori. After the film has unfolded, the title is reconstituted as bitter irony. The man who apparently shot Liberty Valance is not the man who really shot Liberty Valance. Appearance and reality? Legend and fact? There is that and more although it takes at least two viewings of the film to confirm Ford's intentions….
The remarkable austerity of the production is immediately evident. The absence of extras and the lack of a persuasive atmosphere forces the spectator to concentrate on the archetypes of the characters. Ford is well past the stage of the reconstructed documentaries (My Darling Clementine) and the visually expressive epics (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). His poetry has been stripped of the poetic touches which once fluttered across the meanings and feelings of his art. Discarding all the artifices of surface realism, Ford has attained the abstract purity of Renoir. (p. 13)
It is hardly surprising that the plot essence of the flashback is less important than the evocations of its characters. Whatever one thinks of the auteur theory, the individual films of John Ford are inextricably linked in an awesome network of meanings and associations. (p. 14)
In accepting the inevitability of the present while mourning the past, Ford is a conservative rather than a reactionary. What he wishes to conserve are the memories of old values even if they have to be magnified into legends. The legends with which Ford is most deeply involved, however, are the legends of honorable failure, of otherwise forgotten men and women who rode away from glory toward self-sacrifice….
Although The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance achieves greatness as a unified work of art with the emotional and intellectual resonance of a personal testament, there are enough shoulder-nudging "beauties" in the direction to impress the most fastidious seekers of "mere" technique…. The vital thrust of Ford's actors within the classic frames of his functional montage suggests that life need not be devoid of form and that form need not be gained at the expense of spontaneity. Along with Lola Montez and Citizen Kane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance must be ranked as one of the enduring masterpieces of that cinema which has chosen to focus on the mystical processes of time. (p. 15)
Andrew Sarris, "Cactus Rosebud or 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'," in Film Culture (copyright 1962 by Film Culture), No. 25, Summer, 1962, pp. 13-15.
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"Liberty" Valance is a pathologically vicious, whip-wielding outlaw; the man whose reputation came from shooting him didn't do it; the reign of law in The Territory is established by a cold-blooded murder.
Such are the dominant ironies in this rather sinister little fable, constructed in an offhand but mildly entertaining manner by the old master, John Ford….
Nothing of [the story] quite holds together if taken seriously; the direction of actors is loose and indulgent, and the dialogue is witless. Also there is a persistent nastiness of underlying tone; the film has too much of a parti pris for the personality and power of Wayne to attain a balanced structure—we know from the outset that only Wayne's gun can preserve Stewart from the whip of Liberty. If the film had been made in France, we would point out its "cryptofascist" tendencies: that it ignores the actual power basis of organized society in favor of a romanticized version glorified by Wayne, and that by isolating The Territory it makes a foolish individualist allegory out of a mighty social drama. (p. 42)
As with most of the Westerns I've seen on TV, however, the trouble is that the genre materials have been manipulated to death. Only the twists of plot retain a certain puzzle quality. One may here, for instance, note a neat thematic parallel between High Noon and Liberty Valance—in both, a central figure who espouses order, law, and peacefulness learns that plain violence is sometimes necessary…. But the stock materials are terribly worn by now, and we cease to take morality or amorality plays seriously if they do not have some human novelty and reality, some structuring artistic force. Ride the High Country rose above the routine Westerns it resembles in many respects because it had solid and fairly complex characterization, a vividly realized sense of interpersonal atmosphere, and a serious Faustian theme; the shooting and editing had drive, economy, cogency. Liberty Valance is by comparison very laxly made. Its flashback construction is a distraction,… its bows to racial "equality" in the person of Wayne's helper Pompey are embarrassing; its shameless repetitions of the cowardice gag with the marshal are tiresome. Worst of all, its over-all sugary tone belies the sinister line of the story. I suppose some will try to make the case that this disparateness only illustrates how consummate an auteur Ford is; to my mind it destroys the film. (p. 43)
Ernest Callenbach, "'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' and 'Donovan's Reef'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1963 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter, 1963–64, pp. 42-4.
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In "Cheyenne Autumn,"… John Ford, that old master of the Western, has come up with an epic frontier film. It is a beautiful and powerful motion picture that stunningly combines a profound and passionate story of mistreatment of American Indians with some of the most magnificent and energetic cavalry-and-Indian lore ever put upon the screen.
It is based on an actual event—a footnote to history….
But it is more than a footnote in this picture, which Mr. Ford has endowed with the kind of atmospheric authenticity and dramatic vitality that he so brilliantly achieves, when in top form. It is a stark and eye-opening symbolization of a shameful tendency that has prevailed in our national life—the tendency to be unjust and heartless to weaker peoples who get in the way of manifest destiny….
Mr. Ford has spread a rumbling, throbbing drama of the stoicism and self-sufficiency of the Indian who is an alien in his own country, of the meanness and perfidy of the whites and of the compassion and heroism of some good people who try to see that justice is done….
There is poetry in the graphic comprehension—in a scene of the Indians at dawn, wrapped in their Government blankets, their chiefs standing stalwart and strong; in scenes of the cavalry wheeling and thrashing in skirmishes with the tribe. And there is tragic and epic grandeur in the enactment of the whole exodus theme.
Along toward the middle of the picture there comes an odd and disconcerting break which initially makes one wonder whether Mr. Ford has suddenly and frivolously abandoned the Cheyennes. In a switch to a barroom in Dodge City, he embarks on a lengthy, comic phase in the spirit of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," one of his less brilliant films….
Although richly and roaringly comic, it seems entirely superfluous—until one senses that Mr. Ford is subtly mocking a familiar attitude in Western films. He is actually injecting a satiric estimation of the usual callous way the pathos and plight of the Indians are tossed off in favor of sheer clichés.
However, it must be acknowledged that the picture does not rise again to its early integrity and authenticity after this episode….
Even so, "Cheyenne Autumn" is a strong film, grandly directed….
Bosley Crowther, "'Cheyenne Autumn'," in The New York Times (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 24, 1964, p. 8.
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[Wyatt Earp, Ethan Edwards, and Tom Doniphon] all act within the recognisable Ford world, governed by a set of oppositions, but their loci within that world are very different. The relevant pairs of opposites overlap; different pairs are foregrounded in different movies. The most relevant are garden versus wilderness, ploughshare versus sabre, settler versus nomad, European versus Indian, civilised versus savage, book versus gun, married versus unmarried, East versus West. (p. 94)
The master antinomy in Ford's films is that between the wilderness and the garden. As Henry Nash Smith has demonstrated, in his magisterial book Virgin Land, the contrast between the image of America as a desert and as a garden is one which has dominated American thought and literature, recurring in countless novels, tracts, political speeches and magazine stories. In Ford's films it is crystallised in a number of striking images. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for instance, contains the image of the cactus rose, which encapsulates the antinomy between desert and garden which pervades the whole film….
Earp, in My Darling Clementine, is structurally the most simple of the three protagonists I have mentioned: his progress is an uncomplicated passage from nature to culture, from the wilderness left in the past to the garden anticipated in the future. Ethan Edwards, in The Searchers, is more complex. He must be defined not in terms of past versus future or wilderness versus garden compounded in himself, but in relation to two other protagonists: Scar, the Indian chief, and the family of homesteaders…. Edwards is ambiguous; the antinomies invade the personality of the protagonist himself. The oppositions tear Edwards in two; he is a tragic hero. (p. 96)
Ethan Edwards's wandering is, like that of many other Ford protagonists, a quest, a search. A number of Ford films are built round the theme of the quest for the Promised Land, an American re-enactment of the Biblical exodus, the journey through the desert to the land of milk and honey, the New Jerusalem. This theme in built on the combination of the two pairs: wilderness versus garden and nomad versus settler; the first pair precedes the second in time. (p. 97)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has many similarities with The Searchers. We may note three: the wilderness becomes a garden—this is made quite explicit, for Senator Stoddart has wrung from Washington the funds necessary to build a dam which will irrigate the desert and bring real roses, not cactus roses; Tom Doniphon shoots Liberty Valance as Ethan Edwards scalped Scar; a log-home is burned to the ground. But the differences are equally clear: the log-home is burned after the death of Liberty Valance; it is destroyed by Doniphon himself; it is his own home. The burning marks the realisation that he will never enter the Promised Land, that to him it means nothing; that he has doomed himself to be a creature of the past, insignificant in the world of the future. By shooting Liberty Valance he has destroyed the only world in which he himself can exist, the world of the gun rather than the book; it is as though Ethan Edwards had perceived that by scalping Scar, he was in reality committing suicide. (pp. 97, 101)
Ransom Stoddart represents rational-legal authority, Tom Doniphon represents charismatic authority. Doniphon abandons his charisma and cedes it, under what amount to false pretences, to Stoddart. In this way charismatic and rational-legal authority are combined in the person of Stoddart and stability thus assured…. [The] character of Chihuahua, Doc Holliday's girl in My Darling Clementine, is split into two: Miss Lafleur and Lelani, the native princess. One represents the saloon entertainer, the other the non-American in opposition to the respectable Bostonians, Amelia Sarah Dedham and Clementine Carter. In a broad sense, this is a part of a general movement which can be detected in Ford's work to equate the Irish, Indians and Polynesians as traditional communities, set in the past, counterposed to the march forward to the American future, as it has turned out in reality, but assimilating the values of the American future as it was once dreamed. (p. 101)
Peter Wollen, "The Auteur Theory," in his Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (copyright © 1969 by Peter Wollen), Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 74-115.∗
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Time has proven Young Mr. Lincoln one of John Ford's finest works. Ford takes the legend of the youthful Lincoln—his rustic humor, his love for Ann Rutledge, his craftiness as a lawyer—and weaves it into a simple elegaic tapestry, alive with nuance. It is a magical film, deriving its strength and charm from what Sergei Eisenstein described as its "stylized daguerrotype manner that is in unison with the moral character of Lincoln's sentences" and from its genesis in a "womb of national and popular spirit." As Ford, in 1939, began to immerse himself in the landscape of the American past, he became preoccupied with the tortures and consolations of memory. The vague melancholia which plays around the edges of the luminous images of Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk reflects a Sisyphean desire to push past an unbreachable boundary—the boundary of time.
The cherishing of a momentary image, immutable in its delicacy and precision of framing, begins to assume obsessive proportions as shot after shot rolls inexorably away. It is as if the very perfection of the image is the cause of its transience. Nostalgia is not an adequate word to describe the feeling called up by such an image; it is something more urgent, more desperate, almost like the feverish sense of being trapped in a maze. The populist optimism which suffuses the pioneer films of 1939 begins to be weighed down by a regret for the loss of possibilities, the loss of primitive simplicity, and in particular, the loss of family.
Ford is both an iconographer and an iconoclast. After setting up a precise, harmonious composition, he likes to get the actors going before they are completely familiar with their lines, creating a freshness and rambunctiousness which stands in curious contrast with the rigor of the framing. This is more than a directorial trick; it is a vital part of his outlook. He loves to seek out the common aspects of legendary characters and the heroic aspects of unknown characters…. His viewpoint is based on the recognition that while great events revolve around the smallest moments of individual decision, those very decisions are a response to inevitable social and historical forces. (p. 13)
Ford neither embalms Lincoln with reverence nor turns him coyly into a "folk hero." This Lincoln is a rustic but never a buffoon; despite his immaturity, all of his actions possess a natural dignity. Ford humanizes him with a kind of affectionate mock derision. But Lincoln is also a self-conscious comic and entertainer; the film's Stephen Douglas … says of him, "Lincoln is a story-teller. Like all such actors, he revels in boisterous applause."…
Ford chooses to explore the mundane moments in which his universal qualities are closest to the surface. It was Lincoln's equanimity and sense of understatement, after all, which allowed him to triumph over the more flamboyant politicians. To Ford, he is a fascinating mixture of the idealist and the charlatan, and the portrait combines a Northerner's skepticism with a Southerner's idolatry. (p. 15)
Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington, "'Young Mr. Lincoln'," in Film Heritage (copyright 1971 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 6, No. 4, Summer, 1971, pp. 13-18, 32.
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One way of defining the relationship of Ford's late films to his previous work would be to compare The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with My Darling Clementine. One's immediate reaction to the juxtaposition may at first seem paradoxical: that the later film is more complex but less rich. In fact, the sense that Clementine is the less complex work proves on reflection to be illusory: the impression derives simply from the fact that its complexities are experienced as resolvable in a constructive way, the different positive values embodied in East and West, in civilization and wilderness, felt to be ultimately reconcilable and mutually fertilizing. There is, it is true, as in all of Ford's westerns a pervading note of nostalgia to be taken into account. But the tone of the opening and close of Liberty Valance is more than nostalgic: it is overtly elegiac.
It is, however, the long central section of Liberty Valance that most invites comparison with Clementine, and the difference of tone here is very marked. It is partly determined by the movement away from location shooting to studio work in the later film, and partly by the characterization: both tend strongly towards stylization. The sense of community is certainly there in Liberty Valance—in the restaurant, the school-room scene, the political meeting—but it is sketched rather than lovingly created. It is not that there is an absence of detail; what is lacking in the later film and present in the earlier is something much less tangible, something perhaps only describable in loose terms such as "aura" but palpably there in Clementine…. The characterization in the later film is very much broader, two-dimensional, verging in several cases on the comic-grotesque…. It is difficult to make these distinctions without suggesting that Liberty Valance is the inferior film, and this is not my aim (I think both reach a level of achievement where discriminations of the A-is-better-than-B kind become merely petty and academic). All I want is to establish here, as starting point, the different natures of the two films, and to suggest that there is more than one possible explanation. (p. 8)
Ford's westerns have always implicitly acknowledged that American civilization was built on the subjugation of the Indians; it is his attitude to that fact that changes. It is obvious that Indians in westerns are not just a people but a concept; they have a basic mythic meaning on which individual directors ring many changes but which remains an underlying constant. As savages, they represent the wild, the untamed, the disruptive, the vital forces that remain largely unassimilable into any civilization man has so far elaborated: in psychological terms, the forces of the id. (p. 11)
Central to Ford's work is the belief in the value of tradition. This is clearly what attracts him so much to the cavalry—his cavalry, for, despite the authenticity of material details of dress, ritual, etc., it is obviously a highly personal creation. In the trilogy, the cavalry becomes Ford's answer to mortality and transience. Individuals come and go, but the continuity of tradition is unbroken, the individual gaining a kind of immortality through the loss of his individuality and assimilation into the tradition. The emphasis is on continuity rather than development: indeed, the moral objection to the end of Fort Apache is that it deliberately and perversely eschews the possibility of development by insisting that nothing in the tradition must change. (p. 13)
In Ford's presentation of a growing civilization in Clementine and a "permanent" civilization in the cavalry films, nostalgia plays a key role. It is a paradox of the cavalry films, in fact, that "the army" is regarded as at once unchanging and in the past—it isn't the modern army. Ford's respect for the past works on various levels, in his casting as much as in the lovingly detailed re-creation of time and place….
It is easy to argue that, in Clementine, Wagonmaster and the cavalry trilogy, Ford is primarily concerned with constructing a value system, only secondarily with depicting various stages in American civilization. Yet the two impulses are so closely interwoven as to be really inseparable. For his vision to retain its vitality, it was necessary for him to feel at least a possible continuity between the civilization depicted in his films and that of contemporary America. Already in the Forties this must have been difficult; by the Sixties it had clearly become impossible. What can Ford possibly be expected to make of contemporary American society—whether one calls it disintegrating or permissive—where no values are certain or constant, all traditions questioned and most rejected, all continuity disrupted, and where the army is a dirty word? Yet how could he possibly remain unaffected by it, unless his art became finally petrified and sterile? What is lost in Liberty Valance that was triumphantly present in Clementine is faith; hence the film's elegiac tone, and the sad, and very saddening, lack of conviction in the subsequent films.
Returning at last to Cheyenne Autumn, we can now clearly see the effect on Ford's structure of values of the reversal-patterns: it is, quite simply, undermined, and falls in ruins. The change in Ford's attitude to American civilization can be vividly illuminated by juxtaposing his two Wyatt Earps and the communities for which they are spokesmen…. An obvious weakness in Cheyenne Autumn is Ford's failure to define a coherent response to Deborah…. One can explain his failure with the character in terms of a clash between his original concept and the conventional noble heroine. The problem is that Deborah most of the time seems silly and ineffectual, with her ludicrous inculcation of the alphabet, but the spectator is never sure that she is meant to be, so that the foolishness comes to seem in Ford as much as in the character. Deborah's ineffectuality is the more disappointing in that there are signs near the beginning of the film that she was partly meant to embody values that would effectively challenge those invested in the cavalry, and especially the Fordian nostalgia: she tells Widmark in the schoolhouse scene that he thinks only about the past, but she thinks of the future. Nothing in the film really fulfills the promise of radical questioning implicit in that moment.
Centrally revealing in the film is the incident involving Sergeant Wichowsky … and his decision not to re-enlist…. No reason is given for his change of mind: perhaps none in necessary: there is simply nothing else for the man to do. And this is precisely Ford's position. The cavalry values have become shallow and worn: nowhere in the film is the treatment of the cavalry warmed and enriched with the loving commitment that characterized the trilogy. Yet, although Ford sees this well enough, like Wichowsky he can only "rejoin" them. (p. 14)
Ford's values are not really reversed; they are just disastrously weakened. His commitment to the cavalry is a commitment to the establishment; when he tries to place the Cheyenne at the center of his value-system, he merely turns them into an alternative establishment, but without the richness and complexity of the cavalry world of the earlier films. The conception remains obstinately paternalist, the Indians' stiff and boring nobility thinly concealing Ford's condescension…. Cheyenne Autumn is a film without any really convincing positive center that yet never quite dares take the plunge into despair.
For all its failures, Cheyenne Autumn is a sufficiently rich and substantial film for some sort of positive case to be made out for it…. Donovan's Reef is formally a mess: it quite lacks Hatari!'s relaxed but unifying rhythm. Its narrative line is hopelessly broken-backed, Amelia Dedham's capitulation to the Ailakaowa way of life being so rapid (and so perfunctorily chartered) that by half-way through the film there seems absolutely no reason why she should not simply be Told All, and the resulting plot-maneuvers to eke out the narrative before the final denouement become tedious and irritating in the extreme. This may seem a superficial objection—an apparently weak narrative line, after all, may serve (as in Hatari!) merely as a pretext for a series of thematic variations. But there is a difference between the almost unnoticeable narrative of Hatari! and the positive annoyance of that in Donovan's Reef, and the slipshod impression the film makes on this level seems to me symptomatic of a more general slovenliness and unconcern. (pp. 15-16)
Donovan's Reef is only interesting if one ignores the film and concentrates on its abstractable motifs; it can be defended only by a method that precludes any close reading of what is actually on the screen.
The tiresome and protracted buffoonery of Donovan's Reef, far from embodying any acceptable system of values, merely conceals an old man's disillusionment at the failure of his ideals to find fulfillment. The sadness inherent in Ford's situation reaches partial expression in Seven Women, which is why that film is so much less irritating…. [If] the film is Ford's acknowledgement of the disintegration of everything he had believed in, it is all done at several removes. He has fled not only to the other end of the world but to (for him) eccentric and partly uncongenial subject-matter…. The result is at best an accomplished minor work, though that is perhaps a generous estimate of a film that only intermittently transcends the schematic conventionalities of its script. There are numerous incidental felicities of mise-en-scène, but of the kind that suggest an old master skillfully applying his "touches" rather than an artist passionately involved in his material. (pp. 16-17)
My chief impression of Seven Women is of hollowness. The essence of the film is a thinly concealed nihilism…. [On] the whole Ford's sense of positive human value seems greatly enfeebled.
It would be ungenerous to end on such a note. My primary aim is not to offer gratuitous insult to the failed late works of one of the cinema's great masters, but to right an injustice; for it seems to me that sentimentally to hail films like Donovan's Reef and Seven Women as masterpieces is insulting to Ford's real achievement. That achievement depended on a commitment to ideals which the society Ford lives in has signally failed to fulfill. But that invalidates neither the ideals nor the films. One shouldn't expect Ford to be able to cope with the kind of radical reorientation the failure of those ideals within American society demanded. The late films, certainly, have their poignance, but it is the product of their failure, not of their strength. (p. 17)
Robin Wood, "Shall We Gather at the River?: The Late Films of John Ford," in Film Comment (copyright © 1971 Film Comment Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved), Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall, 1971, pp. 8-17.
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On all levels of Ford's work, Catholic dogma, philosophy and imagery play an important role. At the most basic, religious morality affects his choice of plots; speaking of sexual subjects, he remarked "they would be against my nature, my religion and my natural inclinations." A powerful religious conscience is apparent in his selection of the moral lessons for which his films are always vehicles. All of these reflect Catholic thinking. He supports the concept of a "just war" in favour of the American liberal view best synopsised as "War is hell, but …," assigns to large social groups a collective piety, implies in all deaths the existence of an afterlife, accentuated by his habit of bringing back the dead, either in concluding flashbacks, or by implication in the form of portraits, themselves imitative of religious images; the quasi-devotional offering of flowers before portraits of women is common in his films, yet another aspect of his veneration of the Virgin Mary. (pp. 32-3)
As echoes of the Holy Family, the Trinity and the eternal Church enrich many of Ford's most moving films, so subsidiary Catholic themes like the parable of the Prodigal Son distinguish his more personal works, those films that, over the years, he has chosen as his favourites. Many share the theme of a man who breaks away from his community and beliefs, experiences a crisis of faith, returns to the fold and is welcomed back. That the community and beliefs are often spiritual, and the welcome death is immaterial, since it is made clear throughout Ford's films that a death for one's principles guarantees immortality…. This key theme, and the larger issue of martyrdom for a cause, is examined most ambitiously in two of Ford's least seen and discussed films, Mary of Scotland … and The Fugitive…. (p. 59)
Nevertheless, Ford's vision unites them, making each film a work of arresting if occasionally obscure quality, deserving closer attention. Only Ford, who likes both, seems to have any genuine appreciation of their merit. (p. 60)
[Both] films end with the same symbol of resurrection; as Mary mounts the scaffold, the camera tilts off her exalted face to the stormy sky and the thunder of her lover's pipers while, as the priest dies in front of a firing squad, his wooden cross in his hand as Mary's gold one gleams on her breast, the fact of his assumption into heaven is conveyed by the same shots of the sky and the action of his killer crossing himself in an image of absolution. Between these two moments, both have fought a losing battle with their destinies, resisting the pain and death they know has been prepared for them, but succumbing finally to the moral necessity of fate. In fighting to stay alive, they sacrifice their integrity…. (p. 60)
Deaths in both films are given a powerfully heightened significance. (p. 65)
Mary of Scotland, though superbly engineered by Ford and his collaborators, is essentially a studio production in which Ford's usual imagery has insufficient room to expand, but The Fugitive, by contrast, is one of his most personal and deeply significant works, its examination of religious conscience making it fit to be compared with the greatest European films on this theme. Far from being the "dishonest" work of Sequence's estimation, The Fugitive if often painfully frank and open in its dealing with a subject obviously close to Ford's emotions; its faults, and one does not deny their existence, stem from the director's characteristic inability to function as a detached stylist when his feelings are engaged. The use of Ford's language of religious symbolism is, one admits, often too obvious for true stylistic balance; contrasts between characters are drawn on many occasions with a lack of subtlety that reduces some scenes to a grotesque level of melodrama, and Fonda lacks the detail in his character that might have made him less a symbol and more a man. But if one balances against these the richness of the conception, the depth of feeling in almost every gesture and scene, the insight Ford so clearly conveys into the nature of belief and the higher motivations of spirituality, they seem minor, ruffles on the surface of an otherwise smooth and confident work. (p. 67)
Among his films on the destruction of communities, The Last Hurrah … represents Ford's furthest excursion into the modern world, whose homogenous and unstructured society he plainly despises. [It] is ostensibly the story of one man's fight to keep alive some of the civic virtues of an earlier age, a fight he is doomed to lose…. [It is long, episodic and like They Were Expendable,] more fabric than story…. The useful device of Skeffington calling in his newsman nephew Adam Caulfield … to observe the campaign, which he fears will be the last of its kind, allows Ford to interpolate long passages in which the mayor reexamines his background, the community that has sustained him through a long political career and the social values he now sees about to be crushed by the soulless automation of Twentieth century life. (pp. 154-55)
Ford shows the mayor drawn to a dead and forgotten past, and his contemplation of the dark and silent alleys of the tenement suggests a world from which its inhabitants have retreated, leaving only Skeffington as a last lonely watchman. (p. 158)
In Skeffington, Ford sees the essential emptiness of a life devoted to tradition, in which mere age is an assurance of value. The inflexibility of the Plymouth Club begins to find its reflection in the mayor's actions as the film progresses, implying that he is destroyed not, as in Edwin O'Conner's novel, by the combined power of technology and new techniques of persuasion, but by his own irrelevance to the society he leads. His lack of understanding, his manipulation of the community for what he conceives to be its own good is suggested in an early shot where the mayor, respecting a tradition he has established, receives suppliant voters in the luxurious foyer of the mayoral mansion, sun flooding in through the open door as he greets with heavy political hospitality his first client. The contrast between his poor background and this piece of stage management interrupts our admiration of Skeffington, Man of the People, and hints at a later rightful collapse.
Skeffington is not, like Lincoln or MacArthur, a charismatic figure embodying the virtues of his society, nor a hero who inspires the community in time of danger and goes to his death peaceful in the knowledge that it has been saved, but rather a last dinosaur left behind by history, a casualty of the dead areas between great movements in which Ford often chooses to place his stories of communities in decline. (pp. 160-61)
Donovan's Reef, Ford's last important film, eclipses the later Seven Women which, although both assured and provocative in its analysis of contrasts between professed religious and social feeling and the more real convictions sometimes held by apparent outsiders, relates essentially in theme to Ford's late Thirties and Forties period of soul-searching and realignment of religious convictions. So central are the issues of Donovan's Reef to Ford's dilemma as an artist that it is difficult not to see it as his final testament, and its analysis of morality as the most profound summation of a preoccupation that has dominated his films. Conventional categorisation is less and less appropriate to Ford as his career progresses in skill and authority, and his last films, in which he is most in command of his subjects and less concerned than ever with the superficialities of entertainment, transcend descriptions like "comedy" and "Western" to approach the heart of his essential interest, the relationship of men to each other, and to God. (pp. 172-73)
John Baxter, in his The Cinema of John Ford (copyright © 1971 by John Baxter), A. S. Barnes & Co., 1971, 176 p.
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[In The Grapes of Wrath the] emphasis falls upon the sentimental aspect of the conditions confronting the Joads. At the outset this takes the character of the loss of a home which deprives the family of its essential connection with the land. Tom's initial return assumes the character of a search for a place of refuge from the suffering and hostility he has been forced to endure in prison and on his truck ride. That everything has changed is made clear by his encounter with Casy, but the full impact of this upheaval is registered only when he beholds the vacant, crumbling house in which he was raised and hears Muley's distracted tale of how his reverence for the land has been desecrated….
In dramatizing the intense suffering these people experience, [Muley's] lines serve the more important function of locating its source. The former agrarian way of life predicated upon man's intimate attachment to the land has given way to an economy of industrialization with its efficiency, practicality and inhumanity. For Tom and his fellow farmers, there is no possibility of retaliation. The fury that drives Muley to take up a gun produces only frustration and helpless dejection because there is no enemy to shoot. The man on the caterpillar turns out to be his neighbor who is trapped by the same problem of survival. The machines that level their homes, like the foreclosures which are delivered in dark, sinister automobiles, cannot be associated with particular individuals; they are the weapons of a system devoid of both personality and humanity. (p. 206)
However great may be their need for food and money, keeping the family together, Ma Joad makes clear, is the most pressing concern. She sees that nourishment involves the spirit as well and in the face of the increasingly depersonalized world confronting her, the shared concerns of the family offer the only remaining source of humanity. These become the basic issues by which the audience measures the significance of the ensuing trip to California. As Ford dramatizes them, the policemen who harass the Joads, the strawbosses who dictate to them, the thugs who break up the dances and union gatherings are, like the handbills that bring them to California, products of a sinister conspiracy beyond human control. (pp. 206-07)
The Grapes of Wrath, however, is more than a mere drama of defeat. The futility of individualism and the breakdown of the family furnish, in the end, a distinct source of optimism. Having witnessed the miserable living conditions in which the Joads have futilely struggled to endure—the filthy tent in the clapboard road camp, the concentration of starving people in Hooverville, the gloomy squalor of the cabin at the Keene ranch—the audience is now introduced to a utopia of cooperative socialism which has been as scrupulously sanitized of communism as it is of filth. In contrast to the derogatory view expressed earlier in the movie, working with the government is shown to offer a more valid prospect of salvation than fighting against the prevailing conditions; at the Wheat Patch camp the spirit of Tom's involvement with Casy is realised without the self-defeating violence and killing….
Even the language has been changed to accord with this new society; one finds here not a shelter, a house or a home, but a "sanitary unit." Though this community has been conceived to accord with the depersonalized society outside its gates, it has also incorporated a basic respect for human dignity. It is a world characterized by its Saturday dance with its democratic acceptance, its well-controlled exclusion of the forces of anarchy, its ritualistic incorporation of the outdated family into a healthy new society…. (p. 208)
The Grapes of Wrath is a fine movie, but it is considerably flawed. (p. 209)
Thomas H. Pauly, "'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Grapes of Wrath' As Hollywood Histories of the Depression," in Journal of Popular Film (copyright © 1974 by Sam L. Grogg, Jr., Michael T. Marsden, and John G. Nachbar), Vol. III, No. 3, 1974, pp. 203-18.∗
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Ford was an artist who never said the word "art," a poet who never mentioned "poetry."
What I love in his work is that he always gives priority to characters. For a long time when I was a journalist, I criticized his conceptions of women—I thought they were too nineteenth century—but when I became a director, I realized that because of him a splendid actress like Maureen O'Hara had been able to play some of the best female roles in American cinema between 1941 and 1957.
John Ford might be awarded (the same goes for Howard Hawks) the prize for "invisible direction." The camera work of these two great storytellers is never apparent to the eye. There are very few camera movements, only enough to follow a character, and the majority of shots are fixed and always taken at the same distance. It's a style that creates a suppleness and fluidity that can be compared to Maupassant or Turgenev.
With a kind of royal leisure, John Ford knew how to make the public laugh … or cry. The only thing he didn't know how to do was to bore them.
François Truffaut, "God Bless John Ford" (1974), in his The Films in My Life, translated by Leonard Mayhew (copyright © 1975 by, Flammarion; translation copyright © 1978 by, Simon & Schuster; reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, a Division of Gulf & Western Corporation; originally published as Les Films de ma vie, Flammarion, 1975), Simon & Schuster, 1978, p. 63.
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Stagecoach revolutionized the Western. Nowadays it is fashionable to speak of it as 'the Western which created the clichés,' but Stagecoach did not create clichés nor even sustain them. It defined Western archetypes and created a new frame of reference rich in irony and sophistication….
The effect of the film has been mixed. On the one hand, the self-consciousness it brought to the form has enabled the Western to continually transform itself, chameleon-like, to pressures in the society which produces it. Before Stagecoach, the Western seemed to be dying; after Stagecoach, it became the one permanently popular film genre. (p. 53)
What makes Stagecoach so durable, however, is not its historical significance but the vividness with which it creates a dream landscape from the American past and peoples it with simple and striking characters who, despite their reincarnation in countless 'A' and 'B' Westerns, still retain a believable ambivalence and depth…. [What] seemed to delight Ford most in Stagecoach was the possibility of glorifying disrepute by plunging a group of pariahs into danger and having the most apparently abject of them emerge as heroes. (p. 54)
[Like] all good fables, Stagecoach has a universal application. It is the idea of the noble outlaw, the 'good bad man' represented most concretely by … the Ringo Kid, which provides the film's centre. Outlaws (and outcasts in general) have always fascinated Ford not so much for their rebellion as for the subtle ways they are linked to the society which scorns them. They act for society in ways society cannot see, and they understand society better than society understands itself. Their rebellion (even at its most complex level, that of Ethan in The Searchers) is as much a matter of circumstance as of temperament. (p. 55)
The ending is a paean to primitivism, but it is important to realize that the film is endorsing primitivism as an ideal rather than as a viable reality…. Stagecoach leaves the question of American imperialism, the Cavalry vs. the Indians, tantalizingly unresolved. The Indians are totally one-dimensional here, but Ford's attitude to the role of the Cavalry, which will undergo complex metamorphoses in his later work as his interest in the Indians grows, is strangely ambiguous…. (p. 56)
Both the challenge and the salvation are metaphorical. What was it, after all, that threw the outcasts together but the rupture of order in their own lives? The war-ravaged desert through which the stage passes (the curtains on the windows for ever whipping in the wind) becomes a metaphor for the instability of this archetypal primitive community, thrown together of necessity and chance and forced to rediscover the meaning of society. (pp. 58, 60)
[The exchange between the doctor and the sheriff] adds the perfect note of irony to the film's portrait of society. The primitive couple's flight into the freedom of the wilderness is seen through the eyes of society's watchdogs, the lawman and the doctor-poet. It is as if they are watching their own dream being realized at a distance—a dream whose beauty lies in its contrivance and improbability. This is Ford's vision of primitivism and the American past. We can feel it, watch it and cherish it, but we cannot quite touch or recapture it. (p. 62)
It is characteristic of Ford that They Were Expendable did not attempt to offer an upbeat, jingoistic view of the war, but dwelt instead on its most hopeless moments—the crushing defeat in the Philippines after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was at this point, this 'tragic moment', that the human meaning of the war could be most clearly and deeply felt. (p. 75)
They Were Expendable is probably unique for a war film of the period in that it contains not a shred of enemy-baiting. In fact, we never even see an enemy soldier or sailor. This can be attributed in part to Ford's professionalism—the warrior's instinctive respect for his enemy's ability—and partly to his respect for the integrity of separate cultures…. [What] the invisibility of enemy troops gives They Were Expendable, most of all, is a pervasive sense of fatalism. (pp. 79-80)
Ford's use of the family as a metaphor for national solidarity governs all the relationships in They Were Expendable. The squadron is representative of the national 'family', Brickley the stern but understanding father, and Ryan the prodigal son. Ford places great emphasis on the touching callowness of the ensigns—most memorably in the shot of a very young sailor drinking a glass of milk as the men toast their retiring doctor—and on the paternal overtones of Brickley's authority. (p. 82)
Ford shows the squadron as a group of ghostly shadows on the ground as Brickley leaves his command post and, eyes shadowed by the brim of his hat, gives his last order: 'You older men … take care of the kids.' (pp. 83, 85)
[There is an] explicit point of contact between [Fort Apache and Liberty Valance] which has gone unnoticed; it occurs at the exact moment of climax in Thursday's tragedy. Conferring with his officers on what to do about Cochise's flight from the reservation, Thursday murmurs to himself, 'The Man Who Brought Cochise Back'. Ford underscores the legendary and megalomaniac implications of the phrase by having Collingwood remove his pipe from his mouth and stare at Thursday in shock, realizing that from then on the commander will be working for his own posterior glory at the expense of his men's lives. It is instructive, in this context of individualism vs. community, to contrast Ford's handling of the massacre itself—the group bunched tightly together waiting for the Indians, and dying as one in long-shot under a cloud of dust from the Indians' charge—with the massacres in two other superb films about the Custer legend, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man and Raoul Walsh's They Died With Their Boots On, both of which show the troopers deployed at distances from each other, dying not en masse but one by one, as individuals. (pp. 106, 108)
What makes the ending so complex and powerful, and so difficult to reduce to a simple statement, is that Ford,… forces the audience's collaboration. He does this by … forcing us to see through York's lie, and perhaps most disturbing of all, by forcing us to realize that we are sympathizing with men who are following a suicidal course. Ford has not only exposed the danger of Thursday's play-acting at legend, he has given that play-acting the same glorification—in his romantic, 'magnificent' depiction of Thursday's Charge—that he ridicules through the reporter's naïve description of the painting. And, daringly, he repeats the glorification moments after ridiculing it: he has York stand at a window eulogizing the Cavalry while an image of marching men is romantically superimposed on the glass. (p. 108)
The remarkable achievement of Fort Apache is that it enables us to see with Brechtian clarity that an insane system may be perpetuated by noble men, and indeed, that it needs noble and dedicated men to perpetuate itself. Whether this will shock or intrigue a viewer probably depends upon his devotion, or lack of it, to an ideological system. It is comforting to think that evil is done by beasts, monsters or 'pigs', but profoundly disturbing to realize that it is done by human beings. (p. 109)
The Rising of the Moon and The Last Hurrah look at the same subject from different sides of the Atlantic: the dwindling away of Irish communal traditions in the face of modern social pressures. The latter film, which deals with the Irish immigrant community in Boston, has hard, bright, sculptural lighting, as if it were all taking place in a mausoleum, and is climaxed with the most grandly protracted deathbed scene since Dickens (a full eighteen minutes of screen time). The Rising of the Moon is jovially melancholic, for the Ould Sod is within touching range. On the face of it, the three stories which make up the film seem arbitrarily selected to illustrate different 'humours' in the Irish character…. [However], The Rising of the Moon reveals a rigorous, almost schematic orderliness. It deals with what could be called the national consciousness of the Irish people (more precisely, the people of the Irish Republic), evolving a concept of folk heroism by means of a subterranean chain of logic running through the three stories. Ford's better-known Irish films, The Informer and The Quiet Man, both present the land through a single character's perspective; here, Ireland itself is the hero, a mass hero gradually revealed through successive incarnation in a series of individuals. It is the dream-world of The Quiet Man brought into the waking air, an insider's view of the national mystique. The soft pastels of the earlier film give way to the sharp, argumentative clarity of black-and-white.
All three of the apparently dissimilar stories centre on the Irish people's anarchic tendency to resist any kind of externally applied order. (pp. 125-26)
[After being accused of making illegal liquor,] Dan's self-defence at the impromptu 'trial' before the magistrate—conducted over cups in his own home—is a long, eloquent harangue, similar in spirit to O'Casey's words, about the ancient and honourable art of liquor-making, which is 'not what it used to be'. Old Dan is speaking for Ford…. (p. 128)
[The Sun Shines Bright] is simultaneously a work of nostalgic Americana, a raucous comedy, a caustic social protest and a Christian parable. And Charles Winninger's Judge William Pittman Priest is probably Ford's idealized self-image—humble, sagacious, comic, melancholic. Billy Priest, the old clown who sneaks drinks at a temperance rally and has to take a dose of 'medicine' to 'get my heart started' in moments of crisis; Billy Priest, who leads the funeral procession of a prostitute on election day; Billy Priest, who leaves his Confederate encampment to escort a 'captured' Yankee flag back to the GAR Hall; Billy Priest, the indomitable rebel who defies a town gone mad from lynch fever; this is John Ford. (p. 136)
Like Mark Twain, Ford is sufficiently sure of his touch to be able to ridicule the sources of racial discrimination even while brushing round the edges of stereotypes. He could never ignore a man's origins or the colour of his skin because, as a social commentator, he must acknowledge that these are among the basic data of American culture. Ethnic humour is never divisive in Ford, but always a sign of sanity and fellow-feeling, a refusal to evade distinguishing characteristics in the name of a spurious and enfeebling homogeneity. (p. 137)
The Sun Shines Bright is like a précis of the Judge's life, a testing and a summary of his ideas in a series of events which dovetail into each other with the uncanny symmetry of a dream. But the film finally seems less concerned with the Judge himself than with the community's reaction to him. (pp. 138-39)
The Sun Shines Bright is closest in spirit among Ford's works to Wagon Master, because like Elder Wiggs, the Judge proselytizes Christian values through secular communal activity, as the name 'Judge Priest' indicates. The fact that there does not appear to be a priest or a minister in Fairfield underscores the importance Ford places on personalized religion…. The moral vision Ford gives us in The Sun Shines Bright is that of a child, a magical, exaggerated, innocent vision in which a lynch mob, after being rebuffed like a gang of unruly schoolboys, undergoes such a complete transformation that it reappears at the end of the film marching behind a banner reading 'He Saved Us From Ourselves'. (pp. 140-41)
For all its sense of communal life, the film contains none of the traditional family unity which gave How Green Was My Valley its sense of order. The Judge is a widower (this is not made clear in the film, though it may have been in a cut scene, but the most poignant moment in Judge Priest was the character's address to his dead wife's portrait); the general's family is chaotically scattered; and the prostitutes are a constant Fordian testament to maternal longing. The absence of nuclear family life is actually the impetus for the film's religious spirit, its gathering of all the characters, however old, eccentric, wretched or abandoned, under the mantle of 'children of God'. The prostitutes, the old soldiers and, especially, the blacks, form communal 'families' based on a childlike sense of protectiveness, and the Judge (who is still 'Little Billy' to the old general) reconstitutes the benevolent paternalism of the fabled Old South by bringing them all together. Pointedly, it is the superannuated and socially disreputable communities within the disorganized community of Fairfield which are its real source of unity and strength. (p. 142)
By any standard of historical accuracy, Ford's view of the Old South is rosy and unreal, and by contemporary standards, his solution to the racial problem is drastically limited by its overtone of paternalist condescension. The beauty of The Sun Shines Bright is in its innocence; the film is not a piece of historical documentation but one man's fervent creation of a simpler, kindlier and more gentlemanly America than ever existed. (p. 147)
The Searchers has that clear yet intangible quality which characterises an artist's masterpiece—the sense that [Ford] has gone beyond his customary limits, submitted his deepest tenets to the test, and dared to exceed even what we might have expected of him. Its hero, Ethan Edwards …, is a volatile synthesis of all the paradoxes which Ford had been finding in his Western hero since Stagecoach. A nomad tortured by his desire for a home. An outlaw and a military hero. A cavalier and a cutthroat. Ethan embarks on a five-year odyssey across the frontier after his brother's family is murdered and his niece taken captive by the Comanches. Like Homer's Ulysses, he journeys through a perilous and bewitching landscape.
Even more than in Ford's earlier Westerns, the land is felt as a living, governing presence…. The demons which drive [Ethan] onward, almost against his will, seem to emanate from the 'devilish and grinning' land. The killing of the family, an action horrifyingly abrupt, brutal, and gratuitous, is only the first in a long chain of bizarre events which bedevil Ethan and, finally, drive him mad. Within the classical symmetry of the story—the film begins with a door opening on Ethan riding in from the desert and ends with the door closing on him as he returns to the desert—Ford follows a subjective thread. (pp. 147-48)
[The film is] a crystallisation of the fears, obsessions and contradictions which had been boiling up under the surface of Ford's work since his return from World War II…. Ethan is both hero and anti-hero, a man radically estranged from his society and yet driven to act in its name. His strengths and failings, like the promise and danger of the land around him, are inextricable. The Searchers is, on the surface, a highly romantic subject—a knightly quest—but the knight's motives are impure, and as the search progresses, Ford begins to undercut his morality.
Ethan starts out seeking the return of his nieces, Debbie and Lucy, but after he finds Lucy's mutilated corpse and realizes that Debbie is being made into an Indian squaw, he becomes nihilistic, seeking only revenge. When he finally catches up with Debbie, he tries to kill her. And the search itself would have been a failure had not Old Mose Harper (a Shakespearean fool …) accidently found Debbie after Ethan had spent years losing her trail. Ethan loses her again, and Mose finds her again.
It is this grotesquerie, and the anarchid humour that accompanies it, which the contemporary reviewers found incomprehensible. But Ford's sense of humour is one of his strongest trumps. In his greatest works, the plot line oscillates freely between the tragic and the ridiculous, with the comic elements providing a continuous commentary on the meaning of the drama. The comedy, broad and idiosyncratic and self-conscious as it may seem, is the rough prose to the exalted visual verse. Just as Ford's few actual comedies have had notably grim undertones (such as The Quiet Man, which is about the romantic fantasies of a guilt-ridden boxer), his tragedies always have undertones of giddiness…. His view of drama embraces the conviction that what is most noble, most poignant and most terrifying in life is frequently a hair's breadth away from howling absurdity. What makes films such as The Searchers and Seven Women great is the striking manner in which they reconcile the noble with the absurd, the way in which their seemingly straightforward situations are shaped to encompass the maddest perversities and still retain a sense of order. When Ford fails, his sense of humour is usually the first casualty….
The first images of The Searchers are the invocation of a myth…. Ethan rides slowly, silently, inexorably toward the little homestead, Ford cutting again and again from him to the waiting family; the intercutting gives a feeling of magnetic attraction…. As Ethan goes to kiss his brother's wife, Ford gives us, for the first time, a full shot of the home, harmonious with the landscape. The home is a shrine of civilisation in the wilderness, a shrine almost as ridiculous as it is sacred, for we see only one other pioneer home in the entire film. The communal impulse around which the generative principles of Ford's universe are organised is centred precariously around these tiny dwellings. The two pioneer families are infinitely precious and infinitely vulnerable.
Ethan is a descendant of Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking, whose character, according to Henry Nash Smith in his classic study of the Western myth, Virgin Land, is based on a 'theoretical hostility to civilisation'. Ford is usually considered a conservative, but despite his nostalgia for traditional values, the term is somewhat misleading. Like Cooper, he is impatient with the artificial harmony of organised society, as his fascination with the West and with all varieties of nomads, outlaws, outcasts and warriors makes abundantly clear. There is a strong streak of anarchy in his Irish temperament. His characters are typically refugees from constricting societies (Europe, urbanised America) in which once-vital traditions have hardened into inflexible dogmas. The traditions he celebrates are the tribal traditions of honour, justice and fidelity, and all of these come together in the image of the family, the purest form of society.
Ford's heroes, whether they are outlaws (Harry Carey in his early silents, the bandits in Three Bad Men and Three Godfathers, Ringo in Stagecoach) or lawmen (Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, the soldiers in the Cavalry films), all have a primitive awe for the family. (This, to Ford, is beyond reason. When a French interviewer asked why the 'theme of family' is so important in his work, he replied, 'You have a mother, don't you?') Some of these men seek revenge for the murder of members of their own families; others sacrifice themselves for orphans; the cavalrymen act to keep the plains secure for the pioneer homesteads. All, to some degree, are also loners and outcasts: their role as the defender of primitive society forces them to live in the wilderness with its enemies, the Indians. But of all Ford's Western heroes, only Ethan turns his violence against his family—against Debbie, who could just as well be his own daughter—and that is what makes him such a profound and unsettling figure. (pp. 148, 150)
As the search progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate the difference between Ethan's heroism and the villainy of Scar, his Indian nemesis. Ethan hates Indians—is he envious of their freedom? Certainly Scar and Ethan are the only characters who fully understand each other, because their motives are so similar. We learn eventually that the massacre, which seemed at first totally wilful, was performed in revenge for the death of Scar's own children. 'Two sons killed by white men,' he tells Ethan. 'For each son, I take many scalps.' The pattern of primitive revenge is endless; Ethan will eventually take Scar's scalp…. There is a very strange scene early in the pursuit when Ethan shoots out the eyes of an Indian corpse so that, according to Comanche belief, the dead man will never enter the spirit-land and will have to 'wander forever between the winds'. Seemingly a blind act of vindictiveness—or a gesture of contempt toward an alien culture—the act in fact has undertones of kinship. Ethan himself is doomed to wander forever between the winds. He takes on the nature of a primitive in desperate recognition of his own failure to find a place in civilised society. (pp. 151-52)
What lures him out of the wilderness is a home impulse—his love for Martha—but it is also an anarchic impulse, for his presence threatens the stability of the family. Ethan's attachment to his sister-in-law is futile, and any overt action would be unthinkable, the shattering of a taboo. (p. 152)
When the massacre occurs (the very day after Ethan's arrival), it has the disturbing feeling of an acting-out of his suppressed desires—destruction of the family and sexual violation of Martha. With the links between Scar and Ethan in mind, it becomes easy to see why Ford, much to the consternation of certain critics, cast a white man in the Indian role. Scar is not so much a character as a crazy mirror of Ethan's desires.
The Searchers stands midway between the 'classical' or psychologically primitive Western and what could be called the 'neoclassical' Western (more commonly, if rather crudely, known as the 'psychological' Western). It was not, of course, the first Western to criticise the basic assumption of the genre—that the solitude of the hero, because it is an instinctive revulsion against the hypocrisy of civilised society, is a priori a good thing. In the decade before The Searchers appeared, a whole rash of Westerns were made in which the hero's solitude was presented as socially unjust (High Noon), wasteful (The Gunfighter), callous (The Naked Spur), insane (Red River), or impossibly pure (Shane). Little as Ford is usually influenced by film trends, he could hardly have escaped coming to terms with the radical questions posed by this departure. Shortly before he began shooting The Searchers, Ford described it as 'a kind of psychological epic'. The terms are contradictory, certainly, but contradictions are what the film is about. (pp. 152-53)
[The] 'anti-Westerns', particularly Red River, jarred Ford into a new area of thinking by suggesting an alternative course for the working-out of the hero's impulses. In the classic Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine, Ford seemed to be endorsing an uneasy equation between force and morality by portraying revenge as socially beneficial and morally pure. The revenge transformed the community by cleansing it of its internal pressures—which were also the hero's pressures—and it won the hero the community's respect because he had done a necessary deed of which they, because of their civilised stultification, were incapable. When Ringo and Wyatt Earp take leave of Lordsburg and Tombstone at the end, it is of their own volition. Though they are still men of the wilderness, their desires and ideals are close to those of civilised men.
Now what is Ford, of all directors, to do with a hero like Ethan? Red River may have a parallel plot, but it is really about something altogether different, the maturing of the relationship between Dunson and Matthew. The Searchers is about Ethan's relationship to society, and the film's abruptly shifting moods and moral emphases are determined by the imbalances in that relationship. Since Ethan, for instance, finds it impossible to enter society through marriage, all the marriages the film portrays are, in varying degrees, grotesque. Either the female dominates the male (the Edwardses, the Jorgensons), or the female is held in literal bondage to the male (Scar and his wives) or the partners are wildly incongruous (Laurie Jorgenson and the goonish cowboy she turns to in Martin's absence; Martin and Look, the chubby Indian wife he inadvertently buys at a trading post).
Fundamentally alone though Ethan is, all of his dilemmas are shared by the community around him. When Brad Jorgenson learns, as Ethan did, that his lover (Lucy Edwards) has been raped and killed, he rushes madly off to be slain by the Indians, who are lurking in the darkness like the unseen, ungovernable forces of the libido. Martin, who is more restrained and civilised than Ethan, nevertheless resembles Ethan enough to suggest that his continual fleeing into the wilderness, away from Laurie's advances, holds a clue to what drove Ethan and Martha apart in the first place: a fundamental reluctance to become domesticated. Just as Laurie turns to the dull, dependable cowboy in despair of taming Martin, so it must have been that Martha turned to Ethan's dull brother for stability. (pp. 154-55)
Even after Martin becomes, in effect, the hero by attempting to restrain Ethan's nihilism, he is merely following the principles with which the search began. And despite Martin's actions, it is finally Ethan who makes the decision about whether to kill Debbie or bring her home. Gestures against Ethan tend to remain only gestures; minor characters are continually frustrated in their attempts to change his course. Toward the end, Martin cries, 'I hope you die!' and Ethan responds with his characteristic assertion of invulnerability: 'That'll be the day.'
The one white character who is able to give Ethan pause is Clayton, who keeps his schizoid roles of minister and Texas Ranger in a subtle, if disturbing, balance…. The most pragmatic of Ford's characters, he is a representative of the civilised order who has won his position by restraining an innate primitivism. He averts his eyes on witnessing Martha's infidelity … in acknowledgment of the tissue of discreet lies and tactful evasions which enables a struggling society to stabilise itself.
The difference between Clayton and Ethan is succinctly expressed in their first meeting since the end of the war, when Clayton asks Ethan why he didn't show up for the surrender. 'I don't believe in surrenders,' says Ethan, adding sarcastically, 'No—I still got my sabre, Reverend. Didn't turn it into no ploughshare, neither.' Ethan, the eternal rebel, carried his rebellion to the point of madness. Clayton compromises, and this is what makes him a leader. The two men are several times seen tossing things back and forth—a canteen, a coin, a gun—in wary gestures of mutual forbearance. Although they never come to blows, they are close to it several times. What holds Ethan back is the same fundamental indecision which holds him back from Scar. To make a decisive move against either one would imply a commitment to either civilisation or primitivism, and Ethan's dilemma is that he can't make the choice. (pp. 156-57)
When Scar dies, it is Martin, the half-breed, who kills him. In transferring the actual heroic deeds, the killing of Scar and the finding of Debbie, to Martin and to Mose, the fool, Ford is destroying the myth of the heroic loner. If Ethan's search is motivated by a desire to preserve the community, then the community, even against its will, must participate in the action. It would never have taken place if the outsider had not initiated it, but it is fundamentally a communal action. If the pragmatists (Clayton, the Jorgensons, Martha) are needed to stabilise society, the visionaries (Ethan, Martin, Mose) are needed to motivate it and define its goals. All, whether they realise it or not, are part of society, a fact which Ford visually underscores with his repeated shots through the doorways of homes. But the film is, as Ford has said, the 'tragedy of a loner': Ethan must reject a society he can neither accept nor understand, and the society must reject him, since he belongs to neither the white nor the Indian world.
Martin belongs to both, which is why he is able to accept both Debbie's miscegenation with Scar and Laurie's desire for a home. Until the search is consummated, however, he is unable to accept Laurie and civilisation, for her perspective is just as distorted as Ethan's. Resplendent in the virginal white of her wedding dress, she urges that Ethan be allowed to kill Debbie because 'Martha would want him to'. Martin has told Laurie that Ethan is 'a man that can go crazy-wild, and I intend to be there to stop him in case he does,' but it is chillingly clear that Ethan's craziness is only quantitatively different from that of civilisation in general. Even the United States Cavalry, which Ford had eulogised in his 1940s Westerns, have by-passed their role as truce-keepers and become vindictive white supremacists…. Immediately after Ethan begins slaughtering buffalo so that the Indians will starve, a cavalry bugle merges with his gunshots. Ford gives the cavalry his traditional romantic trappings—jaunty marching lines, 'Garry Owen' on the soundtrack—but he undercuts their romanticism, as he does Ethan's.
The cavalry has frozen into an inflexible role: they make their entrance against a background of snow; they gallop through a river whose natural current has turned to ice; and—pre-dating Little Big Man by fourteen years—we are taken into an Indian village whose inhabitants they have massacred. Like Scar and Ethan, the cavalrymen have been trapped in a social tragedy whose terms have been established long before their arrival. The innocent Indians they slaughter, like the family slaughtered by Scar, have become pathetic pawns in a cycle of retribution which will end only when one race exterminates the other. (pp. 157-59)
Miscegenation, next to war itself, is probably the most dramatic form of collision between cultures, and by exploring a community's reaction to miscegenation, Ford is testing its degree of internal tension. The dark man, red or black, occupies a peculiar position in the American mythos: he is both a cultural bogey and a secretly worshipped talisman of the libidinous desires which the white man's culture takes pains to sublimate. The Western genre in both literature and film, which usually replaces the black man with the red man, is particularly expressive of the American psychical dilemma; Leslie Fiedler's celebrated thesis about American culture, which was received with scandalised disbelief at the time of its propagation, is rooted about equally in the writings of Cooper and the New England Puritans…. As Ford, starting with The Sun Shines Bright in 1953, began to probe deeper and deeper into the causes of social dissolution, racial conflict began to assume almost obsessive proportions in his stories, providing the dramatic centre of The Searchers, Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, Cheyenne Autumn, Seven Women and even the comic Donovan's Reef. LeMay's novel lingers over the grisly details of the murders and rapes committed by the Indians on the frontier women. Ford's treatment of the massacre, by contrast, is marked by a devastating elision. The Gothic shot of Scar's shadow falling on Debbie in the graveyard and the fade-out on his blowing the horn are far more suggestive than an actual depiction of the massacre would have been. Our minds work much as Ethan's works when, in the next scene, he stares at the burning home with a fixed expression of horror. He is contemplating the unthinkable.
The emotion Ford emphasises in the moments before the massacre is the women's fear, conveyed through the camera's compulsive pull into a huge close-up of Lucy screaming (a very uncharacteristic shot for Ford and, as such, a doubly brutal shock) and through Martha's anxiety for Debbie. When Ethan, toward the middle of the film, finds a group of white women driven mad by their years among the Indians (one of them croons distractedly to a doll), he reacts with revulsion, and the camera pulls in to a large close-up of his face. He has become possessed by the same fear which possessed the women in the home…. It is revealing that the arch-racist Ethan finds Martin's 'marriage' to Look, the Indian woman, amusing rather than frightening. It has nothing to do with white culture. If a white man impregnates a dark woman, he is planting his seed in an alien culture; but if a dark man impregnates a white woman he is, in the eyes of the primitive white, violating her. The scene in which Ethan finds the mad white women is so disturbing that the spectator may momentarily wonder whether Ford is not succumbing to the same fear of miscegenation and trying to convey it to us with the subjective camera movement toward Ethan. But our first glimpse of Debbie as a woman makes it clear that the fear has a purely neurotic base. Like Martin, she has accepted her dual heritage; resigned to her role as Scar's wife ('These are my people'), she nevertheless remembers her childhood ('I remember … from always …'). Miscegenation has not destroyed her identity but deepened it. (pp. 159-60, 162)
[During Ethan's climactic encounter with Debbie, it] is not just the physical contact that prevents Ethan from killing the last of his family; there is also a sense of the profound memories which are flooding into his consciousness as he touches her. The lifting gesture, which seems almost involuntary, recalls the moment inside the home long ago when he lifted the child Debbie into his arms. Gone now is the hatred caused by his knowledge that she has slept with the man who violated his lover; gone are the years when she only existed for him as Scar's squaw. The proximity of his scalping of Scar is vital. When Ethan rises after the scalping, we do not see the corpse. We see only his face, and it is a face almost identical to the one which looked upon the burning home, a face purged of all passion. When Ethan chases Debbie, it is more out of reflex (this is the moment he has been steeling himself to for years) than from any real hatred or desire to kill her. He has been freed from his memories of Martha by a deeper, tribal memory.
At the end, the symbolic acknowledgment of white and red heritages takes place as Martin accepts Laurie and the family embraces Debbie still wearing her Indian clothes, on the doorstep of their home. And it is then that Ethan, who seemed on the verge of entering the Jorgensons' doorway (the future), steps aside to let the young couple pass him by and turns away to 'wander forever between the winds' like his Indian nemesis. Scar and Ethan, blood-brothers in their commitment to primitive justice, have sacrificed themselves to make civilisation possible. This is the meaning of the door opening and closing on the wilderness. It is the story of America. (pp. 162-63)
What makes Ford's work in the 1960s so moving is his courage in trying to come to terms with problems he had tended to simplify or evade in the past; a desire to cut through long-accepted dogmas and traditions to find out 'what really happened'. One need only compare Hallie in Liberty Valance with her earlier counterpart, Ann Rutledge in Young Mr Lincoln, to see how disillusioned Ford was becoming with the woman's traditional role as catalyst for the man's ambitions. (pp. 198-99)
If there is one characteristic common to all Ford's heroines, it is this: they suffer. Their children leave home, their husbands are killed, their homes are burned. If they are single, they struggle to keep their men from leaving or neglecting them; if they are prostitutes, they are humiliated; if they are queens, they are beheaded. (p. 199)
To emphasize the unnaturalness of the group's isolation in Seven Women, Ford shoots the film in a hermetically sealed studio set with only a few glimpses of the world outside that the women are trying to ignore. The perverse thing about these missionaries is that, in their lust for purity, they have constructed a sanctuary which all but invites attack. Just as Ethan's odyssey in The Searchers becomes a parody of a heroic quest, the mission in Seven Women becomes a parody of civilization: the ideals which gave it birth have turned into a stale, joyless repetition of form which collapses in its first confrontation with the world it is supposed to contain. (p. 200)
The character of Dr D. R. Cartwright … embodies everything Ford believed in: candour, compassion, moral commitment, defiance of hypocrisy, sacrifice. She is also completely alone, utterly rootless, far more radically estranged from society than Ethan or Tom Doniphon. The fact that she is a woman makes her solitude, for Ford, all the more terrible and all the more heroic. Seven Women superficially seems to turn its back on the ideals of community and tradition which had always animated his work, but it is precisely our sense of the loss of these values which makes the doctor's sacrifice so important; this sense of loss coupled with her rekindling and passing on of communal values in the last part of the film.
What Seven Women ultimately affirms is the necessity of individual integrity in the face of nihilism. (p. 201)
Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington, in their John Ford (copyright © 1974 by Secker & Warburg), Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, 1974 (and reprinted by Da Capo Press, Inc., 1975, 239 p.).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 313
Ford's strength lay in the treatment of powerful, simple themes—the value of friendship, the loyalty to a cause, the virtues of honor, courage, fortitude. Ford's characters must meet a standard of appropriateness—of knowing when and how to get drunk, and when to sober up; of holding one's own at a poker game in the dance hall; and of dancing a waltz at a Sunday morning church-raising. There are strong conflicts in his films, but some of his characters seem to know what is right. Ford honors old soldiers of either side, but they have to have fought to gain his respect. His escapism is into a simplistic past—he seems to have had little compassion for the contemporary form of escapism into apathy.
His westerns present the standard racist view of the American West. Except for his late Cheyenne Autumn, the Indian is the enemy, whether noble warrior or drunken savage. Mexican Americans form a picturesque chorus; their accents and strange foods and customs provide comic relief. But Ford's films exhibit such a warm-hearted affection for human vices and foibles that one tries to minimize the ideological shortcomings of his westerns. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor says, "Between the fact and the legend, print the legend." Ford's movies are about the legend. His vision of the American West may be faulted on historical grounds, but man needs legends, and there is much fundamental human truth in his films. During the last decade the 7th Cavalry has stopped arriving in the nick of time. Perhaps we should enjoy all the more those films of Ford's in which, after much suffering and adversity, at the end the trumpet sounded the charge. (pp. 23-4)
John P. Frayne, "'Stagecoach'," in The Journal of Aesthetic Education (© 1975 by The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois), Vol. 9, No. 2, April, 1975, pp. 18-31.
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