John Ford Ford, John (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Louise Wallace Hackney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Otis Ferguson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

James Shelley Hamilton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Frank S. Nugent

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Philip T. Hartung

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Otis Ferguson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Otis Ferguson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bosley Crowther

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Manny Farber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Bosley Crowther

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lindsay Anderson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Lindsay Anderson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Abraham Kaplan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Gerald Cockshott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Penelope Houston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Ernest Callenbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Bosley Crowther

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Wollen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robin Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Baxter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas H. Pauly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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….


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FrançOis Truffaut

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John P. Frayne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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