Judge Joe Armenio currently is immersed in Fordiana.
"I am a director of Westerns."—John Ford, speaking to the Screen Directors Guild, 1950
John Ford (1894-1973) made over 100 feature films (113 total, according to biographer Joseph McBride; the IMDb lists 145, some of which are shorts) in a directorial career that lasted from 1917's Straight Shooting, a Western starring Harry Carey, to 1966's 7 Women. He's often dismissed (or celebrated, according to one's political proclivities) as a quaint, folksy pictorialist, a mythmaker, an apologist and celebrant of American militarism and western expansion. Anyone who has looked closely at Ford's films, however, knows that his body of work, like his personality, resists easy generalization. Ford was a bully and a humanist, a macho man and a sentimentalist, a liberal and a reactionary, a deeply committed artist who claimed to be a no-nonsense craftsman. His best films combine a complex, deeply ambiguous attitude toward American history, an exquisite feeling for landscapes and human emotion, and a brooding obsession with passage of time. My favorite Fo! rd films, among them Young Mr. Lincoln and Fort Apache, are among my favorite films, period, and are masterpieces that should be seen by anyone who cares about film.
On June 6th Warner Bros. releases two box sets of Ford's work: the eight-film, ten-disc John Ford/John Wayne Film Collection, which contains some of Ford's most famous and celebrated films, and the for-connoisseurs-only John Ford Film Collection, a five-disc set containing five films which have never been released on DVD before and which are available only as part of the set. None of them are masterpieces, but they are all (with the possible exception of Mary of Scotland) fascinating, flawed works which deepen our understanding of Ford, his art, and his times. Compared to the (over)stuffed Ford/Wayne collection, the set is also a bit light on extras, but Joseph McBride's terrific commentary on Cheyenne Autumn makes up for the lack.
Facts of the Case
The Lost Patrol (1934): Ford regular Victor McLaglen plays the impromptu leader of a group of British soldiers in the Mesopotamian desert during World War I; they are stranded when their commanding officer, the only one who knew of their whereabouts and mission, is picked off by an Arab sniper.
The Informer (1935): In Dudley Nichols' adaptation of Liam O'Flaherty's novel, McLaglen plays a down-on-his-luck Irish freedom fighter in 1922, who sells out his comrade for a reward.
Mary of Scotland(1936): A biopic of the doomed Catholic monarch, featuring Katherine Hepburn as a libertarian, proto-feminist (but still feminine!) Mary.
Sergeant Rutledge (1960): One of Ford's late, revisionist, troubled Westerns, featuring Woody Strode (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) as a black soldier in the late 19th-Century West who is accused of rape and murder.
Cheyenne Autumn (1964): Ford's very last Western and a sort of a farewell to the classic genre itself is an epic about the desperate attempt of the Cheyenne Indians to escape their reservation and return to their ancestral lands.
In his biography Searching for John Ford, McBride dismisses The Lost Patrol in a few sentences, calling it "stilted and floridly overacted." The film does feel a bit creaky, especially compared to Ford's fluidly paced and subtly acted best work, but I wouldn't call it a failure. I found myself being taken in by the remarkably grim scenario, which expresses well the deep American cynicism about World War I (and about war in general) in the early 1930s. The lost patrol wanders in a hostile desert, picked off one by one by an unseen enemy, with no idea what they're doing or where they're going, surviving only for each other, barely mentioning the larger conflict (at one point Reginald Denny's libertine refers to this "asinine war," but in the next breath describes the joy of killing Arabs). Screenwriter Dudley Nichols, a frequent Ford collaborator, was an outspoken New Deal liberal and was certainly aware of the political implications of his sc! ript; he does a good job of making his characters representatives of a larger truth without driving the point home too heavily. Ford's style here is brisk and unostentatious, using the desert landscape to create a few memorable but functional images (Boris Karloff's religious fanatic advancing up a dune with a cross, an Arab sniper finally emerging as a speck of black against the sand). The final image, a shot of the swords of the dead soldiers, followed by a slow fade, is an unmistakably Fordian one, all the more startling for its presence in this kind of film, unconsoling in its preoccupation with absence and loss.
The Infomer was a big breakthrough for Ford in 1935, winning Oscars for Ford, McLaglen, and Nichols. Its style, influenced by German Expressionism (Ford was highly impressed by F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and the climactic underground court scene suggests Fritz Lang's M) couldn't be more different from that of the The Lost Patrol. The Informer, which takes place over the course of a single night, revels in visual style, as cameraman Joseph August creates highly stylized compositions emphasizing light and shadow, as well as the highly metaphorical fog which surrounds McLaglen's blinkered Gypo Nolan. It's a highly unusual look for an American film in 1935, when studios demanded a transparent, "realistic" style and it's still quite striking. Nichols' screenplay was seen at the time as apolitical, not taking sides in the quest for Irish independence; it seems to me more of a commentary on Depression-era America, detailing the moral compromi! ses that the poor make in the desperate quest for solvency, and the ways in which poverty destroys self-esteem and money creates it (Gypo is treated shabbily until he proves he has money and blows his reward on showy displays of generosity). Overall, however, the film seems flashy but empty: once the rather thin and schematic scenario has been established, there's not much to do but follow a drunken Gypo around as he boozes and bellows his way to his doom. McLaglen's performance has its admirers, but I'm not one of them: he's in nearly every shot of the film and the narrowness of his performance, which ranges from bullish sentimentality to bullish anger and back again, is a bit wearing. The overly emphatic music cues, blunt symbolism, and rather bathetic ending don't help much either. Still, though, The Informer is a serious and ambitious film; maybe it's useful to think of it and The Lost Patrol as two aspects of an artistic personality which would cohere in Ford's greater films, which combine stylistic fireworks and deep, moving characterization in more organic and satisfying ways.
For me, 1936's Mary of Scotland is the only dud in the set, a turgid, humorless, lifeless, stilted costume drama/biopic based on a Maxwell Anderson play. It features Katherine Hepburn, with whom Ford was intensely infatuated. Ford, always the poet of common people, has no feel for or interest in this sort of material and he seems to be on autopilot for much of the film. The plot dutifully follows Mary from one court intrigue to another as she establishes a rather tepid romance with a noble (Fredric March) and jostles for power with Elizabeth I (Florence Eldridge), who is portrayed as scheming and power-hungry and hence unattractive and unfeminine, whereas Mary seeks power but without giving up her essentially feminine nature ("I've loved as a woman loves," she tells Elizabeth near the end). Occasionally Ford wakes up and does something striking, as in the final confrontation between the two monarchs, filmed in long shot with a flickering candle at the center! of the frame, or in the jail and courtroom scenes, with their expressionist lighting and angular sets. Most of the time, however, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was a film with no particular reason for existing. (Ford apparently didn't think much of it either: In his commentary for Stagecoach on the Ford/Wayne set, Scott Eyman relates an anecdote about actor Thomas Mitchell, who could embarrass the blustery Ford into silence by mentioning Mary of Scotland.)
Skip ahead 24 years to 1960, when Ford had made his epochal Westerns and set about revising some of the myths he had helped to create (although that statement is a bit simplistic; Fort Apache), for example, is just as "revisionist" as any late Ford film, and almost all of his works are shot through with pathos and ambiguity). Sergeant Rutledge, a color film shot partially on Ford's favorite location, the epic, majestic Monument Valley, deals with the ordeal of the title character, a "buffalo soldier" on the late 19th-century frontier who is nearly crushed by racism. This is a grave and powerful film, the raw passions of the story set movingly against Ford's lofty, dignified, serene late style: when he cuts to a long shot in the farcical courtroom scenes, in which pettiness and prejudice are on full display, or to a long landscape shot, the feeling of human smallness and fragility is deeply moving. Woody Strode's Sergeant Rutledge has occasio! nally been denounced as an "Uncle Tom," but he's in fact of model of a patient, nonviolent gradualism: he believes that blacks can achieve full civil rights by gradually proving their worth by faithful service within the structure of American institutions and he's willing to martyr himself when accused of crimes he didn't commit, rather than let racism goad him into behaving without dignity. In one scene, a fellow soldier who is dying in Rutledge's arms says, "We're fools to fight the white man's war," to which Rutledge responds that "It ain't the white man's war. We're fighting to make us proud."
Sergeant Rutledge is also riddled with flaws: the courtroom/flashback structure is a rickety; the romantic relationship between the central white characters (Jeffrey Hunter, as Rutledge's idealistic lawyer, and Constance Towers) is given undue emphasis, as if Rutledge suffered only to bring the white couple together, much of the acting is wooden, and no mention is made of the fact that black Americans establish their Americanness by slaughtering another minority, the Native Americans, who are portrayed only as violent savages (although Ford tempered the views of screenwriter James Warner Bellah, one of the more bellicose and conservative of his screenwriters).
What McBride calls Ford's "schizoid" attitude toward Native Americans is also on display in Cheyenne Autumn, another deeply flawed but fascinating rumination on the West from 1964. This is star-studded, self-consciously epic filmmaking, shot in 70mm, from a period when the dying studio system sought to save itself through increased grandiosity; it's a bloated film and it certainly would have been better had Ford been allowed to make it the way he originally wanted, as a smaller-scale black-and-white picture featuring real Native Americans as the Cheyenne (he ultimately used "name" actors in those roles, including Ricardo Montalban, Dolores Del Rio, and Sal Mineo). As it is, the film suffers from its divided focus. Ford tries to make the Native Americans themselves the central characters at times, but he never seems to know what to do with them: they come off as woodenly noble figures whose heads we are never allowed to enter. The real center of the! film is Richard Widmark's Captain Archer, an "obedient rebel" in the same mold as John Wayne's Captain York in Fort Apache. Widmark realizes that the military's response to the Cheyenne's escape is a wild overreaction, that these are just poor, hungry people trying to return home, and he does all he can to help them, but is trapped by his position within the system (although an unlikely deus ex machina does come along to help, in the figure of Edward G. Robinson's Secretary of the Interior; the bleak ending of Fort Apache is more realistic).
Cheyenne Autumn is also notable for its "Dodge City" sequence, a wild farce featuring Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp, portrayed as a easygoing reprobate prodded into action by a ludicrous collection of locals obsessed by the "savage Indians." This 20-minute piece makes for a brilliant short film, a devastatingly funny critique of white society, but the shift in tone is handled less smoothly than in many of Ford's other works; it sticks out jarringly in this otherwise somber film. I should also note that this DVD presents the full version of the Dodge City sequence, which was cut by seven minutes at the time of the film's original release. The full version was available on the pan-and-scan video, but this is the first time that it's been seen in its proper aspect ratio. Like Sergeant Rutledge, Cheyenne Autumn has its lapses in ideology, in pacing, in tone, and even in craft: Ford became ill during the location shooting and did not get all! the footage he needed, thus some scenes had to be shot in the studio using fairly awful back-projection. The film full of half-measures and compromises, but is still a deeply serious work of art, with a tragic and haunted vision of the West.
Some will complain that these films are not available individually, but
they're all worthwhile,
The Informer features a 10-minute featurette called The Informer: Out of the Fog, which features McBride and Peter Bogdanovich, among others, discussing the film's production history and style (Ford was forced to make the film on very minimal sets, forcing him in the direction of stylization). It's interesting background, although nothing new to anyone who has read McBride's biography.
Cheyenne Autumn features a 1964 featurette called Cheyenne Autumn
Well worth a look, although not for novices, who should watch the more canonical films first.
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Scales of Justice, The Lost Patrol
Perp Profile, The Lost Patrol
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Lost Patrol
Scales of Justice, The Informer
Perp Profile, The Informer
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Informer
• The Informer: Out of the Fog
Scales of Justice, Mary Of Scotland
Perp Profile, Mary Of Scotland
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Mary Of Scotland
Scales of Justice, Sergeant Rutledge
Perp Profile, Sergeant Rutledge
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Sergeant Rutledge
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Cheyenne Autumn
Perp Profile, Cheyenne Autumn
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Cheyenne Autumn
• Commentary by Joseph McBride
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