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John Ford

John Ford 1895-1973

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

JOHN FORD
1895-1973

Can I believe my friends all gone,
when their voices are still a glory in my ears?
No, and I will stand to say no, and no again.
For they remain a living truth within my mind.

—from Philip Dunne’s screenplay of How Green Was My Valley

“…What Ford had been evolving all through his career was a style flexible enough to establish priorities of expression. He could dispose of a plot quickly and efficiently when he had to, but he could always spare a shot or two for a mood that belonged to him and not to the plot.” —Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

• The aftermath of the shootout in Ford’s first feature: Harry Carey stands behind his horse looking offscreen at the man he killed and reflectively cleaning his hand on the horse’s tail—Straight Shooting
• Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) trying to smooth his awkward bulk and uncouth presence into the lineaments of innocence and communal grief at the wake of Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford)—The Informer…
• Ben Johnson’s glorious rides in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, Rio Grande, Cheyenne Autumn…
• The Lost Patrol: Mackay and Cook (Brandon Hurst and Alan Hale) set off across the desert to bring help; in longshot they disappear, the sands seeming to ripple in the moonlight, until a shadow engulfs all….
• Dinner with Sandy (Donna Reed): a moment out of war in They Were Expendable
• Drisc (Thomas Mitchell) pacing the deck and turning abruptly for a last look after the corpse of Yank (Ward Bond) has been buried at sea—The Long Voyage Home
• Granville Thorndyke’s (Alan Mowbray) farewell to the old stationmaster (Francis Ford) before skipping out of Tombstone: “Good night, sweet prince!”—My Darling Clementine
• Barry Fitzgerald’s reverential observation of the broken honeymoon bed in The Quiet Man: “Impetuous! … Homeric!”…
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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

Men on a Mission

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

First they made The Hurt Locker; then their blistering modern war film made them Academy Award winners. Even as they collected their Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal were already at work on something tentatively tagged “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.” Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, myriad arms of the U.S. military and intelligence services were overturning every stone, real and metaphorical, to find the al-Qaeda leader. Both hunts—the real-world one and the filmmakers’—were works-in-progress till May 1, 2011, when SEAL Team 6 terminated the perpetrator-in-chief with extreme prejudice. And Bigelow and Boal’s heretofore open-ended script took a new turn.

Zero Dark Thirty, as their movie was ultimately titled, focuses on the nearly decade-long pursuit of bin Laden from the perspective of a CIA analyst and her cohort. Yes, her: for the first time, the vibrant and versatile Jessica Chastain is tip of the spear of a major Hollywood production. Where the mission takes her, under arguably the best director she’s ever worked with, is mesmerizing to behold.

While waiting to follow along, let’s beguile the interlude considering some classic film quests by men on a mission. And by all means, the occasional woman on a mission, too. Embarkation is at zero dark thirty—you know, half an hour past midnight.

***

Missions don’t come much bleaker than The Lost Patrol (1934), a primal tale of struggle for survival against implacable forces. During World War I, a handful of British soldiers are trapped at an oasis in the Mesopotamian Desert (Iraq to us) and slowly decimated by an unseen enemy. The strong visuals—baking sun, the undulating vastness of the dunes, the drift of ghostly mirages—befit a crucible of character-testing, with an unnamed Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) striving to keep at least one man alive as desperation, madness, and implacable snipers take their toll. This stark drama, free of box-office compromise and glib heroics, marked director John Ford’s decisive step toward establishing himself as a personal, semi-independent artist within the Hollywood system. The story by Philip MacDonald proved to be a durable archetype for filmmakers. It had already served as the basis for a 1929 British film (with McLaglen’s brother Cyril in the lead!), and RKO, which released Ford’s movie, would appropriate it five years later as the model for a surprisingly strong B Western, Bad Lands (Lew Landers, 1939)—substituting sheriff’s posse for an army patrol, and Apaches for Arabs. MacDonald himself borrowed elements of his own tale when writing the screen story for Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943), among the best contemporaneous World War II films. Incidentally, Ford’s doomed patrol includes Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who reckons their beleaguered oasis is none other than the Garden of Eden.

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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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SIFF 2010: SIFFtings IV

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, June 9, 2010]

Notes on the final week by Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy

Protektor
(Marek Najbrt, Czech Republic/Germany, 2009; 98 mins.)

The World War II years remain an inexhaustible source of dramatic material, and as our culture grows ever more amnesiac, it’s probably salutary that filmmakers keep trying to find ways into the period. Set in the Prague of 1938-42—from Hitler’s bloodless occupation of Czechoslovakia to the assassination of Reichsprotektor Heydrich and the ensuing Nazi reprisals—Protektor eschews the conventional big-picture approach to focus on a married couple whose lives are being transformed. Hana (Jana Plodková), a glamorous movie actress primed for stardom, sees her career aborted because she’s Jewish; the non-Jewish Emil (Marek Daniel), one among a staff of announcers for the state radio station, becomes a star after his chief rival is sidelined for political outspokenness. Effectively under house arrest, Hana contrives ways to recast her life as her own imaginative movie—posing in grab photos flouting the many anti-Semitic prohibitions posted everywhere, and getting back into the cinema literally, by sneaking into the moviehouse next door. Emil, freer to roam, keeps getting seduced personally and professionally, each seduction becoming another kind of trap.

Oh look, I just recast life as imaginative movie, making Protektor seem a more provocative film than it is. In fact of point, the narrative and the chronology hop around to little coherent purpose, and the way the images are optically magicked at every turn is more masturbatory than illuminating. The film’s closest brush with distinction is its suggestion how accidental history and becoming a part of history can be. (Better you should rent the chilling 1943 Lang-Brecht movie Hangmen Also Die!) —RTJ

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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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