Part three of what was supposed to be an occasional series but has turned out to be a weekly one on my favorite directors. This week: John Ford.
Gruff, macho, no nonsense. John Ford was a man's man. To some he was a miserable ole cuss, to others always a beloved father figure. That would, at least seem, to be the accepted view. Many further believe that Ford made manly films that were soon dated. Nonsense. Ford's film's were rife with nuance, subtlety and ambiguity and they have aged like fine wine.
What was the relationship between Ethan and his brother's wife in The Searchers? What was Ford saying about legends at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Was Fort Apache an indictment of Custer and the notion that being white makes American warriors right?
Ford's films had humor and romance, and it was never simple pablum to be suffered as a side dish with the action at the story's core. In fact, the action itself was never at the core of Ford's films. The action was often the diversion, the means to get to deeper truths. Ford's films were so many wonderful little parts and the sum was almost always something very special.
What Ford did so masterfully was to tell very human stories with expansive backdrops. His oft used shooting locale of Monument Valley was the primary example of how he took films out of studios and drew on an infinitely broader expanse. It was like painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel rather than on a conventional sized canvas. His films were visual delights. Endless horizons, stunning sunsets, huge cloud formations and valleys stretching like his vast imagination.
I think it is quite misleading to state that Ford directed a lot of Westerns. The West did provide a picturesque tableau for many of his films, but his films were not conventional stories with shootouts and men in black hats. Yes, he had the cavalry famously ride to the rescue in Stagecoach, but it started the trend and was not a cliche.
Ford has also been unfairly maligned for supposed racism because of the manner in which his film's treated Native Americans. But Ford often cast a critical eye on the way Natives suffered at the hands of whites. His look at racism in The Searchers was revelatory. Indeed, Ford often showed great respect for Natives and their traditions and rituals.
Indeed traditions and rituals played a large part in Ford's films. His depiction of ceremonies and families were one more way to explore the human condition. In fact, I'd argue that Ford used his films to celebrate people. Yeah, the supposed ole cuss was a softy at heart.
Here are my ten favorite Ford films:
The Searchers (1956). A much revered film that deserves its exalted status. The film features John Wayne's best performance. This is one of the most exquisitely and innovately shot films of all time. For more see my recent post.
Stagecoach (1939). One of Ford's most influential films. It's a road picture with a company of diverse sorts riding the same stagecoach with "hostile Injuns" on the loose. There's an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a disgraced lady of suspicious character (Claire Trevor), a banker trying to run off with a small fortune (Berton Churchill) a riverboat gambler (John Carradine) and of course the Ringo Kid (John Wayne). Great adventure and a great study of characters.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940). One of the most powerful looks at an epoch ever made. It's the Great Depression, and to make matters worse, the horrific Dust Bowl has laid waste to America's Great Basin. Tom Joad is released from prison just in time to join his family's migration from Oklahoma to the promised land -- California. What they find there is not so promising. You'd think a leftist rabble rouser had made this film, but no, it was the supposedly conservative Ford.
My Darling Clementine (1946). I doubt we'll ever see a better film version of the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral. Fonda is the perfect Earp and Walter Brennan's Old Man Clanton is one of the meanest varmints ever to appear on screen. However, the film really shines in its depiction of sibling fealtym and in the subplots involving the story's two women, played by Cathy Downs and Linda Darnell.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). There's nothing like an occasional visit to Shinbone, the fictional town that provides this film's setting. Lee Marvin is the title character and a meaner snake in the grass never existed. Jimmy Stewart is the aspiring lawyer who shoots him -- or does he? And John Wayne is aboard for perhaps his quintessential Wayne performance. See my post from last Summer for more.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). A wonderful, if largely fictionalized look at...you guessed it, Abraham Lincoln as a young lawyer. Fonda made for an excellent Lincoln (come to think of it, can't think of anyone who played ole Honest Abe any better). A story both charming and illuminating that captures the essence of Lincoln's homespun wit and wisdom.
The Lost Patrol (1934). I posted about this film last year and the manner in which what looks like a war film is in fact a horror story. And a good one at that. Victor McLaglen gets to play the lead for once and is excellent. Boris Karloff (told you it was a horror story) is a bible-quoting soldier who cracks under pressure and goes nuts. Set in the Mesopotamian Desert during World War I.
Fort Apache (1948). Fonda is the Custer-like Colonel Thursday who leads an ill-planed and ill-fated charge against a huge war party with unsurprising results. Fonda's performance is letter perfect as the prim and proper officer who longs for glory, damn the risks. A look at how heroes are made at the expense of a little truth.
The Hurricane (1937). On the surface this is not your typical Ford fare. A forbidden romance in the South Seas with cruel injustice and oh by the way a hurricane. But it still explores some of Ford's oft visited themes. Dorothy Lamour and John Hall are the lovers. The excellent cast includes Mary Astor, Raymond Massey and C. Aubrey Smith.
The Informer (1935). McLaglen is the lead one more time, this time as an Irish rebel who rats out a friend for 20 pounds. Oh sure, he has his reasons and those are explored along with the consequences of his act. A deep, thoughtful story that earned Ford his first of four Best Director Oscars.