I was thrilled to discover recently a massive free online special section in the new issue of Undercurrent, which is "FIPRESCI's magazine of film criticism," that’s devoted entirely to director John Ford. It’s 18 of some of the finest writers on film discussing 18 films by John Ford!
I loved it! I felt inspired and also creatively and intellectually fed by that whole experience. In fact, I reshaped a few scenes in my current writing project as a result. Here’s the Table of Contents, which lists the films discussed in chronological order. I loved what editor Chris Fujiwara wrote in his intro called The Ways of Love and Politics:
There are many ways of loving films. But the love of John Ford's films frequently crystallizes around some choice themes. One is a certain pastoral image, sometimes (as in the Will Rogers trilogy [1933-1935], Young Mr. Lincoln , and My Darling Clementine ) labeled "America," and sometimes (as in The Quiet Man ) labeled "Ireland." Another is the image of American cinema as an ideal of clarity and complexity in its address to a mass audience. But it's another theme that grips me most, and it also engages most of the writers here: Ford the man — the one who creates and falls in love with these images that inspire love in viewers, the man who embodies what have come to be thought of as the virtues of American cinema at their zenith, and also the "man" as certain ways of relating to the things he shows, thus as a very modern subject, as modern as any of us, and not some idealized abstraction of what we love in his films.
It is not Ford's wholeness that interests these writers so much as his dividedness.
For all the contradictions in Ford's films, there is rarely any sense of dilution or compromise in them.
He closes by talking about fictional characters in Ford’s films facing “the real” through examples he gives in 3 endings. I’ll share one:
At the end of They Were Expendable (1945), a U.S. military plane is about to evacuate personnel from the Philippines, which MacArthur has abandoned. The plane, which we are given to understand will be the last one out before the islands are overrun by the advancing Japanese, can carry only thirty passengers. Two ensigns who are numbers 29 and 30 on the list of those hoping to board the plane fail to show up, so the next men on the list, Morton and Carter, are assigned the ensigns' seats. At the last possible moment, as the plane is about to start down the runway, the ensigns finally arrive, and so Morton and Carter must get out and remain at the airstrip. Everyone knows (except the panting, oblivious, fresh-faced ensigns), though no one says it, that this means that Morton and Carter are probably soon to die. In part this scene functions according to a familiar rhetoric of the impassiveness of soldiers facing disaster. The doomed men's failure even to acknowledge the reality of what is happening, much less express disappointment or sorrow, is the key to the scene. The viewer may respond to it emotionally or not (I find it deeply moving). The point is the confrontation with the real: with the accident, something that's no one's fault or responsibility but that just happens because it happens.
Ya know, in a moment like that, it’s not the setup or the situation itself that matters so much as how the characters react to that situation that defines them, the director, and the film itself. How they respond is also what inspires us or breaks our hearts.
So I read all 18 articles. Here are highlights of a few I enjoyed:
Fernando Martín Peña on Straight Shooting (1917):
What makes a man to wander? Where does Ethan Edwards come from in The Searchers (1956)? Probably from Straight Shooting (1917), as many have already noticed. Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey) is a carefree outlaw hired by a cattleman to kill a farmer who does not want to leave his land. When he is about to do it, he's moved by the sight of the old man, mourning the death of his son, and decides to reform. The ending of the film is confusing — there are parts obviously missing or misplaced — and the titles are not reliable, because the print was found in Czechoslovakia and they had to be reconstructed from the Czech titles. However, it seems clear that Cheyenne Harry sets things right, feels unworthy of the farmer's offer to stay with him and replace his son (by becoming his son-in-law) and goes away. Fade out and some decades later we have Ethan Edwards.
Shigehiko Hasumi on Kentucky Pride (1925):
The shot at the beginning of this sequence is wonderful. The horse and the two men are placed in such a way as to stand out from the surrounding bustle of the street scene. Donovan picks an argument with the cart driver at the congested cross-roads. Beaumont, who happens to be also at the scene, rests his hand idly on the side of the cart horse. Virginia's Future remembers the sensation of that same hand on her side at the moment of her birth and responds by patting her front right hoof on the ground. However, this gesture is unrecognized by Beaumont, and the two just pass as if nothing had happened. In this extremely short sequence, a drama far removed from the excitement of the race track is played out. Nevertheless, the significant actions — the unconscious movement of Beaumont's right hand, the professional behavior of Donovan in his long raincoat managing the traffic jam, and Virginia's Future's desperate but resigned gesture — all stand out clearly from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding outdoor scene. The viewer cannot fail to be moved by what can justifiably be called one of the most beautiful scenes in the entire history of film. It is surely a miraculous moment that could only have been created by John Ford after his real encounter with the filly who had a crush on him.
Jean-Pierre Coursodon on Judge Priest (1934):
To the near-hysterical patriotism that suffuses the last third of Judge Priest, one may prefer the laid-back atmosphere of the earlier sequences, in which Priest is revealed to be not only a most unconventional judge and a cleverly folksy politician ("The first thing I learned in politics is when to say 'ain't'") but also a sensitive soul. His musings and reflections betray a sensitiveness that literally embraces all the senses, from the smell of honeysuckle to the sad sound of the whippoorwill's call to the taste of his beloved mint juleps (he cultivates a patch of mint for their preparation), to the beauty of the flowers in early spring, or of an old tintype of his long-deceased wife and their young children (he even comments on the quality of the enlargement). Priest is also a very lonely man who misses his wife and talks to her photograph, then visits her grave in the churchyard to continue the conversation — a scene Ford loved so much that he recycled it for John Wayne's Captain Brittles fifteen years later in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
I really loved this one. Blake Lucas on The Informer (1935):
…But it seems wrong to reject a work on principle because it doesn't have humor, and looking to Ford himself as an authority on the point is a real mistake: haven't we learned by now to trust very little in what he said at any given time? Ford is to be understood through his work; everything is there if we are patient enough in coming to understand it, and it is the only sure way to understand him. As for humor, always a virtue in Ford or anyone else, it is not essential in all works of art; think of paintings or pieces of music that beautifully create a single mood or feeling and sustain it. There is no reason why a film cannot be like this, too; the films of Robert Bresson have precious little humor that I've ever discovered, yet few critics regard them negatively for that reason. It seems fair that Ford too should be allowed a film of narrower mood if it has compensating virtues.
Much the same argument applies to the nature of Ford's art more generally. It is again a question of whether there is one "true" Ford style against which all his films should be measured. The idea of "calculated artistry" could easily be interchangeable (even if it's not intended to be) with "conscious artistry." Isn't all art conscious and shouldn't it be, even in encouraging the unconscious to play its own part? Part of an artist's achievement can be to create simplicity, and Ford is now much praised for his gift for doing this, but that doesn't mean the apparent spontaneity and ease of effect really just happen. At the same time, it is difficult to think of a Ford film that does not also show a conscious, purposeful and deliberative artist at work…
A. S. Hamrah on The Grapes of Wrath (1940):
People are crowded into small spaces in the vast landscape of the West in The Grapes of Wrath, and this is uncharacteristic of Ford, as is the way the camera is mounted to the Joads' truck as they pull into a Hooverville. We see out-of-work migrants moving aside as we travel through the crowd in this striking shot that shows how Ford and Toland knew the West they were depicting was not the West of Stagecoach (1939), and had figured out how to show it, how to expose it in every sense of the word. The scene ends in a kind of urban violence removed to the West. A deputy — not a deputy in the western sense, he's just a cop — accidentally shoots a woman in crossfire and she falls to the ground. Another cop gets dialogue straight from Steinbeck: "Boy, what a mess them .45s make." In the book, the fingers were blown off her hand, like in Taxi Driver (1976), which reverses the Ford-Toland process by reimagining the Fordian West in New York City.
Adrian Martin on How Green Was My Valley (1941):
Although I had already seen it several times in my life, How Green Was My Valley hit me like a ton of bricks when I re-viewed it in recent years. It is, of course, among the most somber, the bleakest, the most despairing of his works: family and community there may be, but none of these families, and certainly not the overarching community that contains and defines them, remain in one piece by the film's end. The supposed nostalgia of the tale — which viewers sometimes lazily detach or hallucinate from the free-floating poetry of its title, doubtless repressing the memory of what actually goes on in the movie — is tearing, bitter, even ironic: as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the march of industrial civilization is inexorable, and killing; all that's left, finally, is this memory, this stranded voice or thought which calls back to a better yesterday, "how green was my valley then …"