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John Ford

John Ford Reprints the Legend

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

John Ford was probably more conscious of the meaning of history than any other American director; in a sense, the evolution of his historical vision is the measure of his growth as an artist. This evident fact is often commented on but, surprisingly, almost invariably in only the most general terms. A natural, useful way of defining this evolution more precisely is to compare closely related films Ford made at different stages of his career. An ideal subject for such a study, a pair of films sharing a common setting, literary source and group of recurring characters, is Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright. So closely, in fact, are the two related that it has become popular to describe the second film as a “remake” of the first. While such terminology is not exactly accurate, it does suggest that a comparative study of the two films should make it possible to analyze the evolution of Ford’s historical perspective in precise, concrete terms.

One way to measure the extent of this evolution is to compare the respective endings of the two films. Each conclusion revolves around a parade, but their tones are as different as their times, as day and night. Judge Priest ends with a sunlit parade; the final shot is of Confederate war veterans marching forward past both sides of the camera. In fact the parade literally surrounds the camera, as if to engulf the audience in the celebration taking place on screen (and the shot itself makes the ending uniquely processional in the work of a director whose final images are almost invariably recessive). In addition, the entire parade sequence is organic; everyone connected with it could be encompassed by a single longshot. Even the purely personal moments (such as a final feat of tobacco-juice-spitting marksmanship) are visually presented within their larger context, shown on a screen teeming with people.

‘The Sun Shines Bright’

The final image of The Sun Shines Bright is of Jeff Poindexter (Stepin’ Fetchit) sitting alone on a porch in the evening, lazily playing his harmonica. The music is audible, but otherwise there is scarcely a sign of life on the screen; the shot could almost be a still photograph. The final image of a solitary figure suggests an individual isolation consistent with the visual fragmentation of the entire final sequence. Each character or group, all the (surviving) members of cast and community who have been important in the film, are given recognition time here (as in Judge Priest and countless other Ford films), but in this case the reintroduction is accomplished without any unifying group shots; we see each pan of the community but never the entire social organism. For example, while the title character in Judge Priest last appears on the screen as one (not particularly important) part of the veterans’ parade, in The Sun Shines Bright he is last shown walking away from the camera into his house alone. As he passes through a doorway, a room, and another doorway beyond the realm of natural lighting, we are watching an individual receding into legend rather than a social group advancing into a dynamic future.

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Videophiled: John Ford’s ‘My Darling Clementine’ on Criterion

MyDarlingClemMy Darling Clementine (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), John Ford’s sublime reinterpretation of the Wyatt Earp story and the Gunfight at OK Corral, rewrites history to become a mythic frontier legend and one of the most classically perfect westerns ever made.

Henry Fonda plays a hard, serious Wyatt Earp leading a cattle drive west with his brothers when a stopover in the wild town of Tombstone ends in the murder of his youngest brother. Wyatt takes up the badge he had turned down earlier and tames the wide open town with his brothers (Ward Bond and Tim Holt), waiting for the barbarous Clanton clan, led by a ruthless Walter Brennan (“When you pull a gun, kill a man!” is his motto), to give him an excuse to take them down. Victor Mature delivers perhaps his finest performance as gambler Doc Holliday, an alcoholic Eastern doctor escaping civilization in the Wild West and slowly coughing his life away from tuberculosis.

Ford takes great liberties with history, bending the story to fit his ideal of the west, a balance of social law and pioneer spirit. Though the film reaches its climax in the legendary gunfight between the Earps (with Doc Holliday) and the Clantons, the most powerful moment is the moving Sunday morning church social played out on the floor of the unfinished church. As Earp dances with Clementine (Cathy Downs), Fonda’s stiff, self-conscious movements showing a man unaccustomed to such social interaction, Ford’s camera frames them against the open sky: the town and the wilderness merge into the new Eden of the west for a brief moment. It’s a lyrical ode to the taming of the west when manifest destiny was an unambiguous rallying cry. Ford’s subsequent westerns became less idealistic.

Along with the 97-minute release version, Criterion has included a new HD transfer of the 103-minute pre-release version (which was also on the earlier DVD), which features footage cut from the release version as well as alternate scenes and other minor differences (such as alternate musical cues). The differences are illustrative of the differences between Ford’s artistry and love of communal atmosphere and 20th Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck’s efficiency. Ford’s preview cut (which is not a director’s cut) is more open and lanky, always responsive to the community around him, and quieter (he resists burying scenes in orchestral scoring). The release version is tighter, more dramatically pointed, scored more emphatically, and features new shots inserted into Ford’s scenes. It’s a companion, not a replacement, for as we may mourn the loss of Ford’s sensitive and subtle moments, the release version is still the Ford masterpiece. It just got some help from Zanuck, who pared Ford’s loving background to strengthen the characters at the core.

my_darling_clementine_04_blu-ray__My Darling Clementine has been released in multiple editions on DVD by Fox. Criterion has created a new 4K digital master from the 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain held by the Museum of Modern Art for the Blu-ray debut and DVD upgrade. The previous DVD edition looked very good. Criterion’s release looks amazing, crisp and clean with a rich gray scale. The 103-minute pre-release version is an HD master which has not gone through the same digital restoration and shows scratches and grit but otherwise looks mighty fine in its own right.

Criterion has packed this edition with supplements. New to this release is informed and informative commentary by John Ford biographer Joseph McBride (who provides historical and production background as well as critical observations), the 19-minute video essay “Lost and Gone Forever” by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher (one of the best practitioners of this relatively new form of critical analysis), and a new interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp. Carried over from the Fox DVD is the 40-minute documentary “What Is the John Ford Cut?” with UCLA archivist Robert Gitt, comparing the versions, commenting of the differences, and filling in the gap with production details and studio records.

First among the collection of archival supplements is the 1916 silent western short A Bandit’s Wager, directed by Francis Ford (his brother) and starring John and Francis. This is not a restoration and shows a lot of wear and tear but this transfer is stable and shows great detail, and it features a bright piano score by Donald Sosin.

Also features excerpts from the TV programs David Brinkley Journal (on Tombstone, from 1963) and Today (on Monument Valley, from 1975), the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1947 starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs, and a fold-out leaflet with an essay by critic David Jenkins.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

SFSFF 2011: John Ford’s Upstream

The biggest film history news of 2010 was without a doubt the discovery of Upstream (1927), a John Ford comedy from the late silent era previously thought lost, found in a New Zealand film archive along with numerous other American shorts, features and fragments. After screenings in Los Angeles, Pordenone, New York and elsewhere, San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicked off with Upstream as their opening night event, accompanied by The Donald Sosin Ensemble (pianist and composer Sosin on piano with a makeshift group consisting of members of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and others) playing a score that he premiered at Pordenone.

Nancy Nash and Earle Foxe

Upstream is a lighthearted comedy set in the society of theater and show people in the lower rungs of entertainment, centered on the romantic triangle of a specialty act trio. Eric Brashingham (Earle Fox) is the black sheep of the acting dynasty, reduced to performing with knife thrower Jack (Grant Withers), a brash everyman sweet on the third member Gertie (Nancy Nash, cutting quite the modern girl), who loves Eric. Clearly his only contribution to the act is his name. The Brashingham family name might well have been Barrymore, for all the talk of theater royalty and all the profile posing for photographers and audiences. It’s said that he was disowned by his family because of his lack of talent. It’s more likely it was simply because he’s a jerk, something that Gertie seems willing to overlook. Even when he, of all people in the house, gets the opportunity of lifetime by virtue simply of his family name and jumps ship without a thought for anyone else.

It’s not the kind of film we usually associate with Ford but then Ford was a studio man who took on all sorts of films that we don’t necessarily think of as “Ford” films until we see them. This gentle comedy set in the community of show people in a theatrical boarding house was surely just another assignment but Ford makes it a Ford picture through his affectionate characterizations, good natured competiveness and joshing and comic sensibility. This sense of community, the show people as an extended family, is where his touch is apparent, at least in retrospect. Ford is already a master of storytelling shorthand when it comes to introducing a very large ensemble cast of boarders. Those first impressions are very much types but the interaction of the ensemble suggests family, even if it not by blood.

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SFSFF 2010: The Iron Horse

iron-horse-posterThe San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and most well-curated silent film festival in the United States, celebrates its 15th edition by adding a day of screenings, opening Thursday, July 15 with a screening of John Ford’s The Iron Horse (from Dennis James’ personal 35mm print) and then launching into the weekend with the Friday evening screenings of Rotaie (1929), a late silent from Italy, and the newly restored Metropolis (1927), in a digital presentation with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, all at the historic Castro Theatre (in this case, historic also mean no air conditioning, so attendees are dressing in layers and watching the weather).

I won’t launch into a big preview—that’s been ably done by Michael Hawley at The Evening Class, Hell on Frisco Bay and Anne Hockens on SIFFBlog (with links to short previews of the individual films by David Jeffers), while Michael Guillen anticipates the restored Metropolis and reprints an essay on the restoration by Bret Wood on The Evening Class. I’ll be dedicating my coverage to reviews and ruminations, starting with The Iron Horse, which launched the festival on its new Thursday opening night.

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Stagecoach arrives in a new Criterion edition, plus No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Silver Lode – DVDs of the Week

Stagecoach (Criterion) DVD and Blu-ray

John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the west—from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the west—board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.

John Wayne's entrance in Stagecoach: a star is born

John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.

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“Somebody’s Fiddle”: Traditional Music in “The Searchers”

Martin Pawley has barged into Charlie McCorry’s wedding to Martin’s childhood sweetheart Laurie Jorgenson, and the two have waded into a typically Fordian brawl—momentary comic relief from the darker concerns of most of The Searchers. Suddenly, Charlie interrupts the fistfight: “Somebody’s fiddle!” he cautions, picking up an overlooked musical instrument and handing it hastily out of harm’s way before Martin lands the next blow. It’s not the only, but probably the most audacious, announcement of the almost-sacred importance of music to this world and this film.

We’ve known it from the outset. In barely two minutes of film time, before the first word of the film is spoken, four pieces of music are thrown at us, each one dramatically distinct and loaded with information.

First, we hear what analysts have dubbed the “Comanches” theme, a powerful, full-voiced fanfare that evokes the traditional “Indian” music convention of the western film score, and startles us by supplanting the production company logo music that we’d normally expect in a studio film made in 1956.

After this short attention-getter, which firmly establishes the notion that this film will have something to do with Indians, we hear an acoustic guitar introduction and a sung ballad (written by Stan Jones and sung by The Sons of the Pioneers), the “title tune” of a film that came from an era in which it was common for a movie to have its own originally-composed theme song. Because this song has words, we need no prior experience of film or cultural heritage to grasp what it conveys, and add it to the “Indian” motif we heard first:

What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?

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John Ford’s Wilderness: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The poster that launched Liberty Valance
The poster that launched Liberty Valance

[originally published in slightly different form in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1978, Volume 47 No. 4; reprinted with thanks to BFI]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been so widely discussed, dissected and applauded that by now it must rank as one of John Ford’s least underappreciated films. Its reputation is due in no small part to the obvious feeling Ford invested in the project, making of it his final meditation on a large part of the mythic territory he invented and embellished in more than four decades of film-making. Liberty Valance is particularly interesting for the explicit way it juxtaposes a characteristic Ford frontier West (cf. My Darling Clementine) with another West that, with its contemporary technology—telephones, electric fans and smoking train engines—is recognizably modern. Significantly, just as the “past” sequences are, apart from the explicitly revisionist world of Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s parting look at the frontier, so too the “modern” sequences are, apart from a brief vignette in Donovan’s Reef, his parting glance toward contemporary America.

The standard critical approach to Liberty Valance has been to emphasize the contrasts between its two worlds and to characterize it as celebrating the mythic frontier and mourning its passing and betrayal by the corrupting forces of progress. This approach has produced a substantial body of perceptive commentary on the film, but somehow its operative word—“elegiac”—seems inadequate, implicitly neglecting as it does Ford’s ambivalence towards the past and the richness and complexity of his treatment of the post-frontier West.

Like many Ford films—most obviously those dealing with the military—Liberty Valance focuses on the struggle to subordinate the individual to achieve some greater communal good. Liberty Valance, however, not only presents such a struggle, to civilize the wilderness frontier, but explicitly shows the result, the modern town of Shinbone, and implicitly questions whether the sacrifices are justified. In that sense, the film is perfectly congruent with the notion of a Ford who became increasingly bitter and pessimistic with age, and ultimately challenged many of the moral tenets his earlier films had so eloquently affirmed. But what is not so well understood about Liberty Valance is its awareness of how the modern world is not simply a betrayal of what preceded it, but a logical extension of it; the flow of history is organic, the present an extension of the past. Ultimately, Ford professes faith in neither wilderness nor garden; he has considerable affection for the past, but no real belief in the viability of a society based on untrammeled individualism. Thus he undercuts his celebration of the mythic past with a corrosive revisionism that, far more than any lines of quotable dialogue, demonstrates his commitment to confronting and scrutinizing, rather than simply printing, the legend that is the subject of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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