At this late date there shouldn’t be much debate about the merit of John Ford’s body of work. His remarkable career in the rigid Hollywood studio system spanned nearly fifty years and despite being labeled as a mere director of Westerns, a revisionist examination of his pre-WWII films proves Ford to be an inspired filmmaker in every genre he tackled. Filmmakers as varied as Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa have cited Ford as a major influence. But to many modern filmgoers, the great Ford films look old-fashioned and are drenched in Uncle Tom racism and sentimental Catholicism. For academics weaned on a loathing for John Wayne’s right-wing politics, Ford is often seen as a partner joined at the Duke’s reactionary hip.
Cineastes of the new millennium who dare to delve into the archives of American film might find the chilly baroque flair of Welles, the worldliness of Howard Hawks, and the diabolical cynicism of John Huston more to their fashionable liking. But, polarizing artists for their beliefs is a dangerous practice and it’s high time we get beyond judging Ford for dropping his liberal platform to take on projects more revealing and intellectually honest than his earnest early efforts. In the end, Ford’s deceptively simple way of telling a story thread his Irish-American experience into dozens of entertaining movies and several screen masterpieces.
Like many early Hollywood directors, Ford earned his film degree in the school of hard knocks. Leaving his first generation Irish-American home in Portland, Maine to follow his brother the actor/director Francis Ford to Hollywood, young John found work building sets and offering his services as an extra (including an alleged stint as a Klansman in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation) until one day he was offered to complete a film shoot when the original director was too hung over to work. The studio bosses liked what the young man was able to produce under the gun and soon there were two picture-director Fords in the family.
By the ripe old age of twenty-two he was already churning out a western short every other week at Universal Studios. Most of those films are lost now but a surviving 1917 feature, Straight Shootin’ (starring Ford favorite Harry Carey) shows clear evidence of the eye of a painter and a talent for telling a story. A workaholic by nature, Ford was extremely prolific and eager to learn everything about the camera and the filmmaking process. At the turn of the decade Ford moved to Fox Studios, a decided step-up from lowly Universal, and his trustworthiness and success directing such stars as Carey, Tom Mix and John Gilbert led to his landing more prestige assignments.
Ford’s most popular silent, the entertaining epic The Iron Horse took great pains to chronicle the construction of America’s first transcontinental railroad. Shooting mostly on location, Ford fashioned a starkly realistic look that makes DeMille’s later, glossy attempt to tell the same story (Union Pacific) seem antiseptic.
Three Bad Men would be Ford’s second, and best, of three takes on the Saturday Evening Post story The Three Godfathers by Peter B. Kyne. Set in the Black Hills of Dakota during the gold rush of the 1870s, three notorious bandits set aside their thieving ways to help out the lovely Lee Carlton (Olive Borden) whose father has been killed before he can stake a claim. This quirky, warm-hearted western is an excellent, early example of Ford’s affection for community and provides a context where family can lay down roots and survive in the most unlikely of scenarios.
The cinematic innovations of German expressionists Murnau and Lang made a huge impact on Ford and by the late 1920s he would make the transition from being a director of a rural picture-maker of outdoor sagas to a sophisticated filmmaker of mood and nuance. Of course, the advent of sound made shooting on locale prohibitively expensive, so Ford had to make the transition to shooting almost exclusively on soundstages. Not so coincidentally, the late 1920s through the early 1940s saw the rise of Ford as a conscientious artist and during those years he would apply his pictorial genius to the verbose and politically provocative writings of Sinclair Lewis, Maxwell Anderson, Sean O’Casey, John Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill.
Ford’s final first rate silent film Four Sons is a truly haunting WWI story about a small town German mother (Maragret Mann), who is devastated by the news that three of her sons have been killed on the battlefield, but is greatly relieved to find her last boy who had migrated to America, has somehow survived his experience as a U.S. Doughboy. This most Murnau-ian of Ford films was luminously photographed by Charles G. Clarke and George Schneiderman, who would go on to shoot Ford’s three delightful comedies with Will Rogers.
Hangman’s House took Ford’s experiment in Expressionism to the limit. Set in a grim Ireland mansion, a dying hanging judge (Hobart Bosworth) demands his daughter Conn (June Collyer) marry the ne’er do well D’Arcy (Earl Foxe) against her wishes. When D’Arcy shoots the horse of the man Conn truly loves, it sets off a chain of disasters seemingly trigged by bad karma lurking about the spooky old house. Oddly enough, the most memorable sequence in this atmospheric but uneven film is a lively steeplechase race that anticipates a similar scene in another Ford tale of Hibernia (The Quiet Man).
Ford didn’t have an easy transition to sound film. Taking into account the mish-mash quality of his films during this period, Ford looked destined to only carve out a workmanlike Hollywood career. His austere visual style is hardly evident in Salute, Men Without Women and Up the River, films which employ moving cameras (!) and quicker editing to distract audiences from the hackneyed plots and awkward sound techniques. Still, these films are not without privileged moments. Set in the China Seas, the atmospheric opening sequences of Men Without Women anticipates the Asian exotica of Josef Von Sternberg and the amiable prison flick Up the River (starring Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart) gives indication a Ford could be humorous without the requisite barroom brawls.
His first noteworthy talkie, Samuel Goldwyn’s production of Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith was a more ambitious project about a young doctor’s selfless quest to find a cure for the plague. The infamous producer’s quest for making tasteful entertainments often cast a slick veneer over his films and Arrowsmith is no exception. Though the romantic Ronald Colman is one of the better film actors of this period, he is just too winning to be believable as a poor and earnest medical researcher. Still, Arrowsmith holds up well and a lion’s share of credit must be given to Ford for his subtle shadings and Expressionistic flourishes in the deep, dark jungles of the Caribbean.
The MGM production of Flesh aimed to capitalize on star Wallace Beery’s huge hit from the previous year, The Champ. Here, Beery plays Polakai a good-natured German wrestler, who immigrates to America with his family in search of a better life. Once in the Promised Land, the naïve Polakai is taken in by a con man (Ricardo Cortez) and his moll (Karen Morley) and is forced to fight against his will on the crooked wrestling circuit. Before descending into predictable melodrama, Flesh has several wonderful sequences and Ford does a terrific job of reconstructing the quaint streets and rowdy beer halls of pre-Hitler Germany.
Based on a story co-written by good friend Spig Wead, Air Mail found Ford in a greater comfort zone and it is arguably his best film of the period. The taut storyline (re-worked by Howard Hawks in Ceiling Zero and Only Angels Have Wings) centers around Mike Miller (Ralph Bellamy) who operates an airport in the desert. He and his band of noble pilots risk life and limb delivering the mail even as rain or snow descends upon their primitive planes. After one of his pilots busts up, Miller is angered to learn the arrogant ace Duke Talbot (Pat O’Brien) has been chosen to take his place.
The two strong-willed men immediately lock horns and when another pilot crashes, Talbot skips town with the deceased man’s wife. The shorthanded Miller is forced to make a dangerous run and when he crashes his plane and is left for dead in the mountains, Talbot has a change of heart and rescues his old boss. A riveting film about courage, redemption, and guys just being guys, Air Mail has an easy grace not felt in Ford’s work since Three Bad Men. In the role of the caddish Talbot, O’Brien has never been better suggesting Warner Brothers got it all wrong by later typecasting him as their go-to priest or do-gooder.
Throughout his long career Ford frequently took time out to make personal films and the New England-bred director would have a special affinity for the quixotic characters who resided in sleepy towns in the Deep South. It’s also interesting to note for a filmmaker so identified with macho genres, the worlds depicted in Ford’s films are usually matriarchal. Time and again, we find Ford’s brawling heroes held in check by feisty mothers or toeing the line to please their wives. One of the most complex and profound films ever made about motherhood, Pilgrimage turns the world of Four Sons upside down.
Set in rural Arkansas as America is ready to declare War on Germany, Hannah Jessop (Henrietta Crosman) is a stern farm widow who disapproves of her son romancing local girl Mary (Marian Nixon), the daughter of a local drunk. Sensing she has lost control of Jim (Norman Foster), she enlists her only son in the Army. Jim leaves a pregnant Mary for the battlefields of France where he is killed days before the Armistice.
Ten years later, the bitter Hannah has not forgiven her dead son for disobeying her, so she ignores Mary and her grandson Jimmy (Jay Ward). Pressured by local politicians Hannah reluctantly joins a band of Gold Star Mothers who go to France to seek the headstones of their sons. Since hard-hearted Hannah has not reconciled her feelings about Jim she refuses to visit the gravesite, but a chance meeting with a lost young soul on a bridge over the Seine puts her on the road to recovery.
In lesser hands Pilgrimage could have been trite stuff, but Ford’s surprisingly delicate touch transcends the sentimental material. After the death of Jim, Hannah shuts down emotionally. Scenes between her, Mary and Jimmy are fraught with tension made almost unbearable by the conflicted silences and muted feelings. Ironically, it’s Mrs Kelly Hatfield (Lucille La Verne), the good ol’ gal tour companion, who truly understands the depth of Hannah’s love for her son. But, the surprisingly sensitive Kelly doesn’t press Hannah to do anything she doesn’t want to do, leaving her hardened friend to work out her own issues.
Ford’s three films with Will Rogers (Doctor Bull, Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend) rank among his most relaxed and best work. These amiable, character-driven pieces offer a glimpse into the merry and melancholic soul of Ford and would provide loose templates for much of his mature post-War work. The darkest of the trilogy, Doctor Bull follows the plight of a small town New England doctor (Rogers) who loses the trust of his patients when an outbreak of typhoid threatens the community. Rattled by the Doctor’s free and easy ways and scandalized by his laissez-faire approach to medicine, the townspeople are ready to hire a younger practitioner until Bull rises to the occasion and nips the crisis in the bud.
Set in small town Kentucky during the 1890s, Judge Priest
is the story of Judge Billy Priest (Rogers), the resident magistrate who is asked to step down from overseeing a case brought to court by his nephew Jerome (Tom Brown). Unbeknownst to Jerome, the man he is defending on an assault and battery charge is actually the father of his beloved neighbor Elle May (Anita Louise). When Judge Billy learns about the man’s true identity he goes behind the scenes to pull strings and manipulates the courtroom proceedings to get justice.
Most of the film’s genius lies in the brilliant use of Rogers’ wry and gentle humor. Rogers’ back porch philosophizing and unique interpretation of the law anticipates similar sequences in Young Mr. Lincoln. The great comedian’s unrehearsed gospel-blues duet with Hattie McDaniel is a pure joy to behold and the witty verbal sparring between Rogers and the legendary Stepin’ Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) transcends any questionable racial overtones.
Steamboat Around the Bend (along with How Green Was My Valley) could well be Ford’s richest and most satisfying pre-War film. Rogers plays Dr. John Pearly, a popular snake oil salesman who buys a steamboat in the hopes his nephew Duke (John McGuire) will pilot the ship. But when Duke brings news he killed a man in a brawl, Doc and the young man’s swamp gal Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley) accompany him to the local jail for a “fair trial”. Duke is convicted and sentenced to hang and the only hope Doc and Fleety Belle have of clearing his name is to find the only witness to the fight, The New Moses (Berton Churchill).
Despite the melodramatic implications of the plot, the film is mellow and filled with delightful touches of pathos and humor. The real romance of the story is between Doc and the sassy and vulnerable Fleety Belle who gets over her suspicions of the older man when he comes to accept her as family. Churchill almost steals the show as the king of all Mississippi River preachers and Stepin’ Fetchit reprises his role as Rogers’ slow on the draw sidekick.
Ford’s use of Perry has always been a source of contention and, indeed, it isn’t easy to defend to modern audiences. Yet, black people in Ford were rarely the frightened, bug-eyed clowns that pockmarked the face of Hollywood during the studio system years. In the Rogers films Perry goes so far as to offer his peculiar wisdom to the older white man and finds he has an interested audience. Clearly Ford was patronizing of blacks, but he gave them a certain dignity, too. African-Americans certainly made out better in his films than they did in those by Capra, Preston Sturges, or virtually any other American filmmaker of the era.
In Ford’s riveting take on the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, Prisoner of Shark Island, the wrongly convicted Dr. Mudd’s most loyal friend turns out to be his former slave Buck Milford (Ernest Whitman). When the Doctor is sentenced to life on an unforgiving Florida Keys hellhole, Buck risks his life to help engineer the Doctor’s ill-fated escape. Buck is rewarded with a joyous reunion between a father given up for lost and his large, loving family during the final fade-out. It is one of the most ecstatic scenes in the Ford canon.
Ford’s becoming a darling of the critics coincided with his long and fruitful collaboration with screenwriter Dudley Nichols. Nichols, who came to Hollywood in 1929 after a distinguished career as a newspaper columnist for the New York Post, added a conscientious, liberal urgency to the director’s work. Based on a screenplay by Nichols, The Lost Patrol remains a prescient and topical film.
Set during the dog days of WWI, The Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) leads a band of British cavalry soldiers from all walks of life across the vast Mesopotamian desert when he realizes he has lost his way. One of the men spots an outpost oasis and the men camp out there, hopefully out of reach of the Arab snipers who have been following them. Unaccustomed to fighting in the heat and strange terrain, the Brits begin to suffer from delusions allowing the snipers to pick them off, one by one until only the Sergeant remains. While The Lost Patrol suffers from Boris Karloff’s overripe performance as a religious crackpot and a bone-rattling Max Steiner score, it remains a spare and remarkably tense piece of filmmaking.
Based on a novel by Liam O’Flaherty and another screenplay by Nichols, The Informer began as a personal Ford project which evolved into a blockbusting Academy Award winner. Set in the semi-occupied Dublin of 1922, former Irish rebel Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) makes the fateful decision to inform on his friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) to collect the twenty pounds he needs to immigrate to America with his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame). After McPhillip is killed by British Police in a shootout, the guilt-ridden Gypo spends the night drinking the money away until he is caught by the Rebels and forced to face a people’s tribunal.
McLaglen is wonderful as the sloppy and thick-headed Gypo, but it is Ford’s visual artistry which carries the day, here. Given a tiny budget by RKO Studios, Ford, cinematographer Joseph H. August and designer Van Nest Polglase created a spooky, makeshift set where August’s camera could only pick up Gypo’s shadowy figure combing the dark streets of Dublin. The Expressionistic effect makes Gypo’s paranoia all the more real as he drifts deeper and deeper into his own personal hell. As is the custom of these Nichols-Ford collaborations The Informer is bogged down with some heavy-handed literal flourishes but they don’t distract from the nightmarish vision of Gypo’s sad odyssey.
Ford’s new status of a filmmaker of “quality” led to his taking on a pair of critically-lauded stage plays, Maxwell Anderson’s Mary of Scotland and Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars for his next projects. Unfortunately, Ford was unable to locate a heartbeat in the material and both films turned out to be leaden and pretentious. Alas, Ford would never fare well with theatrical adaptations as evidenced by his arch and lackluster takes on Erksine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, Anderson’s What Price Glory?, and Joshua Logan’s Mister Roberts. With a couple notable exceptions, when trapped on a soundstage, without open skies as his backdrop, the artist in Ford seemed to shrivel.
It is interesting then, that in two of his more interesting films from the late 1930s, The Prisoner of Shark Island (scripted by Nunnally Johnson) and The Hurricane (written by Nichols), both of his protagonists would be railroaded into prisons where they will surely suffocate to death unless they find a way to escape. As the scope of Ford’s vision grew his protagonists became restless and ambitious, leaving their comfortable homes and small towns behind to build new communities and find peace of mind in the great unknown.
While it is too commonly accepted 1939 was the best year for American film—one could pick any single year during the 1950s and find an equally admirable collection—it certainly was a watershed year for Ford who completed three major works. Young Mr. Lincoln is an anecdotal slice of the sixteenth President’s early life.
Here, the 20something Lincoln (Henry Fonda) is an ambitious small town lawyer who spins back porch philosophy to educate and charm the locals while exercising pointed humor to prevent a lynching. The film’s plot, where the inexperienced Lincoln defends two brothers in a murder case, was fiction but Ford and screenwriter Lamar Trotti do justice to capturing the essence of one of America most mythological figures. By a winning strong man contest and a tug of war at the town fair Lincoln is shown to be a man of the people, but his book smarts and sly irony leave most of the locals in awe of the young barrister who seems destined to go a long way in the world.
Young Mr. Lincoln harks back to the uncomplicated world of Judge Priest, where the unassuming hero pushes all the right buttons to prick the conscience the community.
Ford and Fonda teamed up once again that year to make a colorful piece of Americana, Drums Along the Mohawk in glorious Technicolor. Here, Fonda plays Gil Martin, a frontiersman who brings his newlywed wife Lana (Claudette Colbert) to settle in his primitive cabin in New York’s Mohawk Valley. The city-bred Lana adjusts to the farming life and becomes popular with her envious neighbors. Just when it looks like the Martins have enough money to build a much needed barn, a band of Mohawks ravage the countryside and burn their cabin to the ground. Hoping to rebuild their lives, Gil and Lana approach the eccentric widow Sarah McKlennar (Edna May Oliver) with hats in hand, hoping they can get jobs as hired hands to help run her farm.
There is little plot to speak of in Drums Along the Mohawk, but its riveting action sequences and celebration of community were the start of a trend that would come to full fruition in post-War Ford. One sore spot is certainly the treatment of Indians who, here, are made to look buffoonish and bloodthirsty. Ford ultimately became one of the more respectful Hollywood directors towards Native Americans, casting indigenous people as actors and giving credence to their legends and rituals.
Ford was also the rare American filmmaker who actually would make clear the distinction between tribes and in his first western in over ten years it is a fierce Geronimo-led band of Apaches who threaten to chase the U.S. cavalry back to where it came from. Stagecoach, The Grand Hotel of westerns, propelled B-film actor John Wayne to A-List status with his quietly charismatic performance as The Ringo Kid.
Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon pulled out all stops in this rousing saga that boasts colorful performances by Ford regulars John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Donald Meek and Berton Churchill as three shady men who accompany the Kid. A checkered woman with a past, Dallas (Claire Trevor), and a pregnant cavalry captain’s wife (Louise Platt) accompany the men on the coach as it hurtles into dangerous Apache territory.
Boasting a vivid Dudley Nichols screenplay, Stagecoach would be the most tightly constructed and busiest of Ford’s westerns with surprising twists and turns that keep the Kid’s fate in doubt past the final shootout. Most importantly, the film marked Ford’s first location shooting in Utah’s Monument Valley whose distinct red rock formations would become as recognizable to movie fans as Mount Rushmore.
Ford continued this extraordinary burst of creativity into 1940 with a peerless adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel of the tragic migration of the Dust Bowl Okies to California, The Grapes of Wrath. Based on a Nunnally Johnson screenplay, Ford paints a searing portrait of the Joad family who, forced off their land by faceless banks and combines, pack up their belongings onto a ramshackle truck and head to the Promised Land in the hope of landing work as pickers.
Once on the left coast, the hungry Joads are treated like rabble by the angry and frightened natives. The family is shuffled off to a migrant camp, then an armed concentration camp-like farm where they are paid poverty level wages for their toil. When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) kills a vigilante, the family is forced to take to the road again where they find an oasis of sorts in a government camp run by the migrants themselves.
Just when the cruelty of humanity threatens to make The Grapes of Wrath an unbearable experience, Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland flood the screen with breathtaking panoramas of the Joads’ odyssey along Route 66 and up the California highways.
This promise of the great unknown bolsters the family’s spirits and offers hope of better things to come. In his third film with Ford, Fonda is a revelation as the hard-bitten parolee who promises to fight on against injustice long after he leaves the womb of the family.
Ford, who spent much of his free time sailing his boat “The Araner”, teamed up again with Dudley Nichols to cobble together a series of four Eugene O’Neill seafaring plays in The Long Voyage Home, probably the finest film based on the playwright’s works. John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond, Ian Hunter and Barry Fitzgerald are shipmates from all walks of life, toiling aboard the SS Glencairn whose final destination is England.
On a stopover in Baltimore they pick up several cartons of dynamite for the war effort. Already rattled by having to cross the Atlantic with such dangerous cargo, the men grow suspicious of the aloof, self-loathing Smitty (Hunter), who they wrongly suspect of being a spy. After the ship survives a surprise aerial attack in which the heroic Smitty dies, they embark in a grimy British port town. The men reconvene at local bar run by scoundrels who try to kidnap one of the sailors (Wayne) to sell into service to a brutal captain of a notorious ship.
Cinematographer Toland and set designer Julia Heron were key collaborators on Ford’s most Expressionistic film since The Informer and, indeed, the stark and foggy mise-en-scene and Richard Hageman’s mournful score create a mood-drenched backdrop for this melancholic take on the sailor’s life.
This somber mood extended into Ford’s next project, How Green Was My Valley, the story of a middle-aged man wistfully recalling the days of his youth in a Welsh mining town. Based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn and a screenplay by Philip Dunne, Ford’s film is seen through the eyes of Huw (Roddy McDowell), the youngest child of Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and Beth (Sara Algood) Morgan.
Huw is the apple of his father’s and it is the old man’s wish he will become a scholar and man of importance. The Morgans get by on the small wages they receive from the local mine, but when the owners threaten to cut salaries the workers form a union and go on strike. When the respected Gwilym refuses to join, he is ostracized from the community and his older sons leave his house in solidarity with the workers. When Beth and Huw have a near-fatal accident, the humbled neighbors make amends with the Morgans and offer assistance in the recovery of their loved ones. Unfortunately, this good will doesn’t last for long.
Shortly after Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) enters into an unhappy marriage with the son of the mine owner, a vicious rumor begins to spread she is seeking a divorce to marry the local preacher Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pigeon), whose radical ideas about labor and God have already raised suspicion in town. Ultimately, it takes a tragedy at the mine to bring the shamed town together, again.
Like many of Ford’s best films, How Green Was My Valley has an open-ended plot, leaving plenty room for the director to employ his extraordinary talent for extracting deep, resonant feelings from every camera set-up (shot by Arthur Miller), scene, and, last but not least, from his loyal troupe of actors. It remains one of the great films of memory and loss.
Rebuffed in his attempts to join the Navy as a young man due to his poor eyesight, Ford joined the Naval Reserve in 1934 and in September of 1941 he reported for active duty for the Allied war effort. Aside from his official duties Ford recruited his own documentary film unit which included cinematographer Gregg Toland. Itching to try his hand as a director Toland ended up shooting the bloated docudrama December 7th which Ford had to edit considerably for a theatrical release.
Unlike Frank Capra’s famous unit, which put an Allied spin German and Japanese propaganda films, Ford went to the battlefront to shoot The Battle of Midway, one of the most memorable documentaries from the war years.
Stationed on the strategic Navy outpost and using a hand-held camera as bombs dropped all around him, Ford captured the fury and glory of this decisive Allied victory which turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. Though wounded, Ford returned home with reels of brilliant, color footage from the battle and with the help of editor Robert Parrish put together a moving document meant to stir the hearts of mothers who sent their boys off to war. Ford’s harrowing experiences at the front changed the way he looked at the world, but unlike Capra he returned to America rejuvenated and ready to embark on his greatest period of filmmaking.
Ford’s first feature after returning from the Far East would be They Were Expendable, a notably more honest take on the war than what was being produced in Hollywood at the time. Lieutenant John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) tries to sell his admiral (Charles Trowbridge) on the expediency and usefulness of PT boats in war time. But Brickley is shunned leading to tension with his frustrated second in command Lt. Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) who requests to be transferred to a destroyer.
When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, both men believe the Navy will have no choice but to employ the PT boats, but to their intense disappointment their torpedo runs are few and far between and the admiral finally admits the Allied plans are in a holding pattern and he wants Brickley & Co. to take one for the team.
Based on a screenplay by Spig Wead, They Were Expendable is largely free of the artifice and sermonizing that seduced the many champions of The Informer and The Grapes of Wrath. The dialogue is sparse, leaving the pictures to tell the story. The performances are more measured and in tune with the reticence of military behavior and the daunting tasks at hand. The director’s ability to milk scenes for maximum emotion remained unparalleled but this stripped-down style unveiled a new maturity in Ford.
My Darling Clementine occupies a unique niche in Ford’s oeuvre. It has little in common with his previous sound western, the rowdy but tightly constructed Stagecoach. Nor does it truly resemble any of the wistful films from his upcoming cavalry trilogy. My Darling Clementine is a transitional film, yet it is also a mature and regal work that many critics pick as their favorite Ford western. Perhaps having stared death in the face one too many times during the war Ford takes a reflective approach in tackling this great legend of the west.
While driving fifteen hundred head of cattle across Arizona, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers are surprised by rustlers in the night, who murder one of the men and make off with the livestock. The legendary lawman of Dodge City arrives in the nearby borough of Tombstone to find the lawless town at the mercy of gamblers and bandits. After Earp disposes of a drunken gunman, the city fathers offer him the job of sheriff. Earp accepts, but it’s soon clear he is only interested in bringing his brother’s killers to justice. With some unlikely help from the tubercular gunslinger and gambling man, Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), the Earps turn their ire on the conniving Clanton clan led by the whip-wielding Walter Brennan.
This thinking man’s western finds the icon Earp in a surprisingly mellow mode and his uneasy relationship with the self-loathing Holliday evolves into the real romance of the movie.
Ford’s next project The Fugitive (his last collaboration with Dudley Nichols) comes as a shock to the system, as the director reverts back to the Expressionistic style of The Informer to tell the story of a humble village priest (Henry Fonda) who dares to preach the word of God in a dictatorial (Communist?) state. Based on The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, and buoyed by the lush cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa and an urgent musical score by Richard Hageman, Ford transformed this tale about a troubled priest’s struggle to survive into a tone poem of faith and martyrdom.
Having taken a heavy critical beating from the critics of the day, The Fugitive has never found an appreciative audience. While the WASPish Fonda’s overly earnest take on his subject can make one long for the ambiguity of Bunuel’s pixilated padres, it’s hard to dismiss the integrity, and beauty, of this holy vision. Unfortunately, Pedro Armendariz’ persecuting Lieutenant comes off as too sketchy to make a worthy foil and The Fugitive ends up wobbling underneath the weight of its lofty intentions.
Based on short stories by James Warner Bellah, the noble and wistful films which make up Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) marked the beginning of Ford’s critical decline. As his films grew more personal and less preachy, Ford began to lose the support of the new school of politically-charged critics (James Agee in particular) who pushed for a cinema of realism and social change.
Although Ford is routinely branded as right-wing by knee-jerk cineastes and ivory tower film scholars, he was essentially a Democrat until, like many of his generation, he left the Party in 1968 to support Richard Nixon’s presidential bid. There is little doubt Ford’s late, great period of filmmaking is full of the stuff that appeals to conservative values but since when does any political party have a monopoly on deep feelings and hard-won sentiment?!
The most obvious example of Ford’s philosophical split with his former populist leanings is most clearly identified in the change of his favored leading man from Henry Fonda to John Wayne. Fonda embodied the thoughtful, conscientious loner and his protagonists were often paralyzed by an inability to act, while the earthy, duty-bound Wayne let his actions do the talking.
Fort Apache turned out to be a symbolic passing of the torch from Fonda to Wayne and ironically, it would be Fonda who steps out of his shell to give the more colorful performance as the vain Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday. Much to his chagrin and professional disappointment, the Civil War hero is sent to take over command of an obscure cavalry outpost in the southwest.
The Lieutenant Colonel becomes immediately unpopular when he instills his brand of military discipline at the outpost and forbids the popular Lt. Mickey O’Rourke (John Agar) from courting his fetching daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). When Thursday learns of the legend of Cochise from east coast newspapers, he decides to attack and apprehend the Indian chief in the hopes of securing a better assignment. Against the better judgment of his top soldier Captain Kirby York (Wayne), Thursday launches a hopeless raid on Cochise’s warriors that will, ironically, cement his place as a fallen hero in the history books.
A weary sense of resignation also cast its shadow over She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the most impressionistic and profoundly moving of all the cavalry films. Here, Wayne is Captain Nathan Brittles, a middle-aged cavalry officer one week away from retirement just as several of the Indian nations gather to attack his outpost. Nathan is disappointed to learn his last assignment will be to transport the wife of his commanding officer and Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) out of harm’s way. The cautious Brittles takes a long route to the destination and when the unit finally meets up with the eastbound stagecoach they find a warring band of Arapahos have already left the drivers for dead.
Brittles returns in defeat to the outpost where the newly-retired officer is then relieved of his command. Uneasy about bailing out as the prospect of a war with the Indian Nation looms, Brittles returns to the front and devises a clever plan to quell the bloody battle.
Devoid of a storytelling arc, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is anecdotal in the extreme, but it still manages to play to Ford’s strengths as a filmmaker of ritual, humor and tenderness. Wayne brings dignity and fatherly grace to his role of the professional soldier cast adrift by the military and the director’s cast of familiar faces (Victor McLaglen, Midlred Natwick, Arhur Shields, Ben Johnson, etc.), all add a warm glow to Nathan Brittles’ swan-song.
It would be remiss not to point out the Technicolor film is also one of Ford’s most stunningly beautiful works. Using the landscape paintings of Frederick Remington his template, Ford (with cinematographers Charles P. Boyle and Winton Hoch) scoured the parched panoramas of Monument Valley to mount a series of celluloid canvases of breathtaking beauty.
Ford moved his base of operations to Moab, Utah to film the final film in the trilogy Rio Grande. The action opens with a battalion of tired and wounded cavalry soldiers returning to their fort to a lovely, mournful theme by Victor Young. Most of the men make it back, a few return on stretchers and some lay dead on the battlefield.
It’s just another day in the life of platoon leader Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke until he receives word his estranged son Jeff (Claude Jarman Jr.) has flunked out of West Point. Yorke’s worst fears are realized when he learns Jeff has enlisted as a soldier and has been assigned to his command. The under-aged Jeff is soon followed to the outpost by Kirby’s wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) who demands her son’s release. Though, the Yorkes haven’t seen each other in fifteen years the romantic flame still burns, but the dogged Kirby is unwilling to let Jeff bail out until he fulfills his duty.
Rio Grande is the most accessible film in the trilogy and much of that is due to the inspired pairing of Wayne and O’Hara, one of the sexiest couples in film. But, the film’s most poetic moments belong to the silently suffering wives and mothers, aching for their husbands to come home and despairing over the loss of their children. Fleeting as these sad, tender scenes may be, their impact lingers long after the final credits roll.
Ford would take four key players from the cavalry movies (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Joanne Dru and Ward Bond) to star in Wagon Master, a rousing slice of Americana set in the old west. Ford favorite Frank Nugent co-wrote the script which opens with Elder Wiggs (Bond) hiring two young horse dealers Travis Blue (Johnson) and Sandy Owens (Carey) to lead his small community of Mormons across a treacherous mountain pass to the Promised Land of Utah.
Along the way, they generously offer assistance to the members of a broken down medicine show and a band of wanted outlaws known as the Cleggs. Lying low to avoid arrest, Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper) makes a bargain with Wiggs at gunpoint. If the Mormons keep quiet and drop the outlaws off safely beyond the mountains, nobody will get hurt. But, the sneaky Shiloh intends to deceive the Mormons and will make off with their precious grain unless Travis or Sandy can stop him.
Without an authority presence like Wayne or Fonda to lead the way, Kemper (one of Ford’s zestier villains) and worldly Medicine Man Alan Mowbray end up stealing the film out from under the noses of their kinder and gentler breathren. Oddly enough, after this burst of “western” creativity, Ford would return to his beloved Monument Valley just once to shoot a movie in the following decade.
Ford bought the rights to Maurice Walsh’s novella The Quiet Man in the mid-1930s but he was unable to convince studio heads this fairy tale of Ireland could be a hot box office property. After making the hit Rio Grande for Republic Studios, mogul Herbert Yates finally gave the green light for Ford to shoot The Quiet Man on location on the Emerald Island. Given a small budget but free to do what he pleased, Ford managed to turn out the film of his dreams.
The mysterious American Sean Thornton (John Wayne) visits the twee town of Innisfree with the notion of buying his boyhood home and setting down roots. He is opposed by Red Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) who wants the same piece of land to expand his estate. Sean adds fuel to Danaher’s fire by falling in love with the squire’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara) and asking for her hand in marriage.
The conniving Danaher gives the hand of Mary Kate to his rival when he is told it will please the rich widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick), who he hopes to wed. When she turns him down, Danaher learns he has been tricked by the townspeople and denies Mary Kate her proper dowry. To the shame of his new wife, Sean refuses to fight Danaher for her money.
It turns out Sean, a former prizefighter, is haunted by the memory of his final fight in which he accidentally killed his opponent. But, between Mary Kate’s refusal to consummate the marriage and Danaher’s constant needling, Sean finally summons up enough anger to fight the squire for the dowry.
Shot in eye-popping Technicolor by Winton Hoch, Louis Clyde Stoumen and Archie Stout, The Quiet Man remains an exuberant and richly lyrical take on small town Ireland that, sadly, has ceased to exist. Here, the director’s broad brand of slapstick is played with a wink and nod by the marvelous cast of Ford regulars (including Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields, Ward Bond and brother Francis Ford), theatrical players and several quirky locals.
This pitch perfect Ford film remains most memorable for the Homeric love match between Wayne and O’Hara, a refreshingly adult take on mutual attraction and the earthy passions that follow.
After completing The Quiet Man, Ford seriously considered retiring from motion pictures. When he finally did decide to make another film he would do so in a nostalgic mode, tackling the sort of material that had served him so well in the past.
Based on the Judge Priest stories by Irvin S. Cobb and a screenplay by Laurence Stallings, The Sun Shines Bright is an autumnal work of reflection and regret, and one of Ford’s personal projects. Here, Charles Winninger plays Judge Billy Priest and while he is no match for Will Rogers, he blends into the splendid quilt of quirky personalities quite nicely. Unfortunately, Winniger has little rapport with Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) who reprises his role as Jeff, Priest’s servant and sidekick. Left to his own devices, Perry ends up looking as marginalized as the rest of the black people in the film.
Still, this story about the death of a prostitute in a small Kentucky town and the scandal her memory evokes turns out to be one of the director’s most moving films. Priest and his political cabinet of city fathers have taken in the woman’s daughter and shielded her from a sordid past which, if told, would turn the hypocritical little town upside down. The marvelous silent funeral march, where Priest leads a shamed procession to church is as uplifting as any sequence in the director’s oeuvre.
The Sun Shines Bright can look anachronistic to modern eyes, but Ford revered the past and his senior citizens are never put out to pasture while they still have something to offer the community.
Like John Huston and Howard Hawks, Ford longed to make an African epic and his entry into the mini-genre, the lusty Mogambo starring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, makes for a splendid Saturday matinee. This Technicolor remake of Victor Fleming’s Red Dust is the steamy story of Victor Marswell (Gable), a safari guide who falls in love with Linda (Kelly), the prim and proper wife of an anthropologist.
The unlikely romance burns the jealous Kelly (Gardner), a wise-cracking American stranded at Marswell’s outpost. After a heart to heart talk with her host, Kelly persuades Vic to do the noble thing and drop Linda and take up with the woman who’s just right for him. Gardner’s marvelous performance as the good-time gal with the heart of gold went a long way to prove to feminist critics that Ford could direct a complex woman with no little delicacy.
Ford’s films about the military during the 1950s worked hard to emphasize the camaraderie, loyalty and nobility of his subjects, but taken on the whole they are a busy, unfocused lot. When Willie Comes Marching Home is a noisy Preston Sturges-like comedy starring Dan Dailey as Bill Kluggs, a luckless enlistee who through a series of misadventures in France becomes a war hero, but since he was on a secret mission he cannot divulge any details to his skeptical family and friends.
The next year (1951) saw Dailey and James Cagney would co-star in a Technicolor remake of the silent classic What Price Glory?, a story of American Marines loving and dying at the French front during WWI. Based on the popular stage play by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings, this production was originally intended as a musical before Ford put his foot down and came up with an uneasy blend of farce and tragedy.
Staginess also hindered Mister Roberts, Ford’s widescreen take on Joshua Logan’s hit play starring Henry Fonda. Ford never seemed comfortable with verbose scenarios or actors, so it is unfortunate his two collaborations with the fighting Irishman James Cagney turned so out to be such sour affairs. Ford grew so frustrated with the limitations imposed on him by Fonda and the producers, he became “ill” and begged off the film before shooting had wrapped.
The Long Gray Line, a sentimental story about a lifer West Point soldier who never makes it to the front, was more up Ford’s alley. Fresh off the boat from Ireland, Marty Maher (Tyrone Power) gets a job as a waiter at the distinguished school for future officers and after a series of eye-opening misadventures he enlists as a common soldier. Marty becomes something of a mascot at West Point, but it doesn’t stop him from marrying Mary (Maureen O’Hara), the prettiest woman on campus.
But over the years, Marty’s life becomes filled with regrets. He is first asked to stay home and train recruits during WWI, then Mary and Marty’s father (Donald Crisp) frown on his leaving the Point to look for a job, and finally the couple loses their only child just hours after he is born. The Mahers resign themselves to being godparents of the cadets, an experience with its own set of rewards.
The best film of this bunch, The Wings of Eagles is a messy yet glorious biopic of early aviator and screenwriter Spig Wead. In the days after WWI, Wead (John Wayne) and feisty wife Minnie (Maureen O’Hara) lead a nomadic life, moving from one naval outpost to another as befits Spig’s fledgling career as a pilot. After breaking air speed records and helping expand the navy’s role in patrolling the skies, Wead suffers a cataclysmic accident at home leaving him a paraplegic. But with the help of Navy mechanic Jughead Carson (Dan Dailey), Wead begins the grueling road to recovery.
The Wings of Eagles often feels more like a compilation of big Fordian moments than a coherent narrative film. But, surrounded by the usual familiar faces Ford was in his perfect comfort zone and even when he abandons the script and stretches believability it still makes for a wonderful ride.
Ford tackled a variety of projects during the late 1950s and though these personal films are obscure they remain of interest. In 1957 Ford returned to Ireland to make the omnibus, The Rising of the Moon. Ford hired an exclusively Irish cast to help spin three distinctive tales of modern and olde Eire.
Based on a Frank O’Connor short story The Majesty of the Law is a highly amusing tale of a principled old duffer (Noel Purcell) who refuses to pay for a bad batch of moonshine whiskey. Set at a small town station, A Minute’s Wait offers revealing looks into the lives of the passengers as they await the arrival of a train. Recalling the times of troubles, 1921 is a riveting story about a group of nationals working to free a political prisoner.
An Anglo-Irish production shot in the UK, Gideon Of Scotland Yard (Gideon’s Day) is entertaining take on an unusually busy and dangerous day of Inspector George Gideon (Jack Hawkins). Even though Gideon works with the Yard’s finest criminologists to crack the toughest cases, he finds getting proper respect at home much tougher to come by.
Not willing to be left behind by the times, Ford would also dabble in TV where he directed two baseball stories Rookie of the Year (starring John Wayne) and Flashing Spikes (starring James Stewart), a story about players haunted by Black Sox-type scandals of the distant past.
Scandal was also at the forefront of The Last Hurrah, a thinly-veiled take on the political career of former Boston mayor James Curley. Here, Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is running for his fifth term as an Irish-Catholic mayor in a prominent New England burg. Looking to bring Skeffington down, the city’s old money element prop up their candidate (Charles Fitzsimmons) then try to smear the popular incumbent.
The Last Hurrah mourns the end of an era where candidates went to the streets to kiss babies and shake hands with their constituents. It also cleverly anticipates the importance of television in politics, but Ford’s own partisan choices and determination not to embrace the future helps turn Hurrah into his most heavy-handed film.
After a six year hiatus Ford would return to the western with The Searchers, the first of his two great masterpieces in the genre.
Three years after the end of the Civil War, mysterious Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) finally returns to his brother Aaron’s small ranch in the heart of Comanche country in Texas. Ethan raises eyebrows when he offers to pay for his board in newly minted money and by proudly claiming he hasn’t stopped fighting for the Rebel cause. After a band of Comanches raid a nearby farm, Ethan and his brother’s adopted son, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), are deputized to join Captain Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) and his group of vigilantes.
While the men are away, the Comanches led by the warrior Scar (Henry Brandon) attack the little homestead, killing Aaron and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), for whom Ethan carried a lingering torch. The tribe has also kidnapped the two Edwards daughters, Lucy and Debbie, setting in motion a grueling five year odyssey.
Determined to retrieve the girls, Ethan and Martin set off on a trek across the southwest to track down Scar. A one-eighth Cherokee, Martin comes to realize Ethan is fueled by his hatred of Indians and he intends to kill his nieces rather than let them become squaws to the Comanches. After finding Lucy raped and murdered, the trail goes cold for years until a chance sighting leads to a liberating raid and Ethan’s fateful confrontation with the now-teenaged Debbie (Natalie Wood).
Emboldened by Winton Hoch’s stunning widescreen cinematography, Frank Nugent’s Homeric screenplay and Wayne’s relentless performance, The Searchers is an intensely disturbing film and a riveting entertainment. Ethan’s ambiguity is unsettling and Ford’s refusal to paint him as a clear villain has always troubled viewers who dismiss Wayne’s prowess as an actor. A racist with redeemable qualities, Ethan Edwards resists his pathological urge to kill his Comanche niece and returns her safely home. Ethan’s cathartic act makes the symbolic, final door closing on him painful to endure. Like the nomads he always claimed to loathe, Ethan would always walk alone.
Race plays a huge role in Post-war Ford films. But the director’s honesty in revealing rancorous reactionaries and unyielding progressives as two sides of the same coin unsettles revisionist audiences. From here on in, most of Ford’s heroes would be private, complex, and subtly-shaded men with a helluva past to live down.
It would be another three years before Ford returned to the western with The Horse Soldiers, a stark story of a mostly unsuccessful Union cavalry push against a band of rag-tag Rebel troops on the way to Baton Rouge. Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) commands three Northern garrisons on the thankless mission where they are called upon to destroy a Confederate supply railway and “escort” a nosy Southern Belle, Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), out of harm’s way. Marlowe is further hamstrung by the presence of the conscientious Dr. Hank Kendall (William Holden) whose medical acts of mercy slow down the march southward.
When Marlowe’s unit meets with unexpected resistance, the casualties begin to pile up and the Colonel is forced to confront some unresolved issues from his conflicted past. Wayne gives a brooding performance as the flinty former railroad executive forced to plunder mansions and railways with the Southern army hot on his trail. The overall futility of the mission, capped by the haunting raid by a boy’s military school, makes for a fairly strong anti-war statement from a most unlikely source.
Ford’s only other take on the bloodiest war on American soil was the lyrical short segment The Civil War from 1962’s epic production of How the West Was Won. Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) is an anxious Ohio boy itching to fight for the Union cause. Against her better judgment, his mother Eve (Carroll Baker) lets Zeb join the troops as they head south to Shiloh. Narrowly surviving the first day of the gruesome battle, Zeb is ready to defect to California with a Confederate deserter (Russ Tamblyn). But when the Rebel takes aim at shooting Generals Grant (Henry Morgan) and Sherman (John Wayne), Zeb kills the man in the nick of time.
At war’s end the mature Zeb returns to his Ohio farm to find his mother is dead and buried next to his father. Freed from his obligation to his folks, Zeb gives his share of the farm to a brother and heads west to join the cavalry.
Ford’s late period westerns take on a bitter and pessimistic tone. Gone is the pioneer idealism that gave wings to the Cavalry Trilogy and Wagonmaster. In these autumnal films we are confronted with disappointment and heartbreak, failure and decline. America’s inability to deal fairly with the Indians and blacks freed from the bonds of slavery turns out to be a stain on the premise on which the country was built.
Based on another story by James Warner Bellah, Sergeant Rutledge
is the courtroom drama of a black cavalry Sergeant (Woody Strode) accused of murdering the white Major Dabney and his attractive teenaged daughter Lucy (Toby Michaels). Although innocent of the charge, the man known to his cavalry unit as Captain Buffalo doesn’t think he will get a fair trial so he goes on the lam. When Rutledge runs into a band of warring Apaches, he returns to the unit, now guided by the white Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), and delivers them to safety.
Cantrell defends the would-be hero at his trial, but since Rutledge refuses to speak of his whereabouts on the night of the murder the outlook is bleak. Rutledge is saved from the noose when the father of a suspected white boy steps forward and betrays his dead son on the stand. Cantrell sees the man is lying to save his own skin and finally gets the confession that frees Rutledge.
The underrated Two Rode Together is a terse tale of the white man’s hypocrisy in his dealing with the Indians. Here, the cavalry sends out Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) to hire his friend U.S. Marshall Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) to help him track down white women and children who have been kidnapped by a ruthless Comanche tribe. The unsavory McCabe strikes a deal with company commander Major Frazer (John McIntire), so he can wheedle the life savings out of the desperate families who see the Marshall as some sort of savior.
Reality sets in when McCabe and Gary only return to camp with an angry teenage boy completely indoctrinated into the Comanche life style and Elena (Linda Cristal), a Mexican who was the woman of Comanche leader Stone Calf (Woody Strode). A bitter fate is in store for both of the former captives.
After being rejected by most of the whites, the boy is “adopted” by a deluded mother whose generosity is repaid in blood. As the angry whites lead the boy to the hanging tree, his true identity is revealed in a particularly unhappy fashion. McCabe brings Elena to a dance in the camp but the cavalry officers and their wives turn up their noses at the woman who was forced to sleep with the barbaric Indian chief. The devastated woman is ready to return to her old life until McCabe cuts ties with his cynical past and whisks her away to California.
Ford’s true swansong to the old west, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a story of how law, order and progress were brought to a wild frontier town. Greenhorn lawyer Rance Stoddard (James Stewart) is the voice of change. After being robbed, beaten and left for dead by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang, stagecoach passenger Stoddard is carried into town by local rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Doniphon leaves the wounded man in the care of Hallie Ericson (Vera Miles), the woman he intends to marry.
In an effort to pay back the Ericsons, Stoddard washes dishes at their steak house and offers to educate Hallie and the townsfolk. Stoddard also sets up his law practice in the office of the Shinbone Star, the local newspaper and joins forces with Editor Dutton Peabody (Edmund O’Brien) in making a grassroots push for statehood. Stoddard is opposed by the rich cattle ranchers across the picket-wire and Valance who thrives off the public’s fear and indifference.
Stoddard finds a worthy rival in Doniphon who, jealous of the lawyer’s influence upon Hallie, ridicules him for not carrying a gun. But after being publicly humiliated by Valance, Stoddard sees the wisdom of Doniphon’s ways and learns to shoot in order to defend himself. Later, when it looks like the motion for statehood might pass Valance calls Stoddard out for a duel. The lawyer surprises everyone by gunning the villain down and on the wings of this new found popularity he is chosen to represent the district in the new government.
Feeling he has betrayed his ideas, Stoddard is ready to decline the offer when Doniphon takes him aside and claims it was he who actually killed Liberty Valance. Tom persuades Stoddard to accept the glory thrust upon him and the party’s nomination.
In the end it is Stoddard who wins the hand of Hallie, the positions of Governor and distinguished Senator from the new state while Doniphon declines into poverty and obscurity. Twenty-five years later at Doniphon’s funeral, Stoddard finally decides to set the record straight but the current editor of the Shinbone Star declines the story pronouncing “when the legend become fact, print the legend”.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the most unusual of Ford westerns in that it is almost exclusively shot on soundstages. The claustrophobic visual style suggests Doniphon and the cattle barons, the men who have tamed the great outdoors, will soon be made extinct by bureaucrats and lawyers like Stoddard. Indeed, Ford offers only a few glimpses of the sky out at Doniphon’s modest home and ultimately even those bright moments are rendered dead by the rancher’s burning of Hallie’s small cottage.
In Cheyenne Autumn it’s the bureaucrats, public servants, and men of progress who are guilty of negligence leading to unnecessary destruction and heartbreak in the Indian Nation.
After waiting in vain for food and supplies from Washington and growing weary of watching their friends and family die, a small band of Cheyennes decide to pull up stakes from their parched reservation and march fifteen hundred miles north to the prosperous Black Hills hunting grounds in South Dakota. Since the Indians have technically broken a treaty, they are followed by the sympathetic Captain Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark) and his Cavalry Unit. But the odyssey ends in disaster as Archer can’t protect the Indians from military men out for their own warped form of glory.
While the sad saga of Cheyenne Autumn suffers from being stretched to a two and a half hour running time and a hammy performance by Karl Malden, it does bring Ford full circle in his lyrical chronicling of the Old West. There would be no waving the flag over corpses of a ravaged Indian nation. The white pioneers turn out to be remiss in their duties and squander opportunities to begin the healing process.
Ford’s final films outside the western genre look longingly at the past yet press onward enough to suggest the old Lion had plenty of fuel left in the tank.
Donovan’s Reef finds Wayne in the title role as Michael Donovan, a bar owner and successful businessman who lives on the South Seas Island he helped liberate during the War. He is joined there by fellow heroes, old Navy chum and rival Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) and Dr. William Dedham (Jack Warden), who chose to turn his back on his rich Boston family to help the local natives. While Dedham is attending to patients on another island the men get word the doctor’s Boston Brahim daughter Amelia (Elizabeth Allen) will arrive shortly to see if her father is morally fit to inherit the family’s fortune.
Unbeknownst to Amelia, her father had married the island’s princess with whom he had three children before her death. Afraid the uptight daughter will get the wrong impression about her dad, the men devise an unwise plan to make it look like the doctor’s children are actually Michael’s. What ensues is a Polynesian spin on The Quiet Man with plenty of slapstick, sexist behavior, hurt feelings and moments of unparalleled beauty.
Ford’s last film, Seven Women, has always been given short-shrift from critics because of its low-budget production values and high-pitched performances.
Set in 1935 at a Chinese Mission soon to be besieged by the Mongols, the women, led by Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), turn out to be a fairly dysfunctional lot. Their only distraction from their humdrum existence are the Pethers (Eddie Albert and Betty Field), a middle-aged couple expecting a child. Desperately, in need of medical assistance they are surprised when they are sent D.R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), a hard-drinking and smoking woman doctor with a chip on her shoulder. When Cartwright sees the lonely and embittered Agatha making a play for the pretty Emma (Sue Lyon), she tries to talk the younger woman into returning home to take up a more normal life.
But, when the Mongols finally takeover the village it’s the atheist Cartwright who makes the noble sacrifice so the others may survive and carry on. With material more suitable for the likes of George Cukor or Robert Aldrich, Ford gets remarkable performances out of Leighton and Bancroft giving credence to the idea this director actually had the imagination to take on a much wider range of stories and topics.
Like many an old Hollywood lion, Ford was retired before he had a chance to set down his camera. Decades of heavy-drinking eroded his physical health and led to bouts of deep depression in his so-called golden years. Fortunately, he lived long enough to accept the first AFI Lifetime Achievement Award from his peers and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Richard Milhous Nixon.
By the time of his death in 1973 Ford’s regal take on the west was beginning to be discredited as old hat by critics and fans of progressive anti-westerns like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Little Big Man. Yet, these new spins on the frontier never caught on with the public, suggesting there was much more than meets the eye to the old Irishman from Maine.
Books on Ford:
The John Ford Movie Mystery – Andrew Sarris ****1/2 The best critical book on Ford is slightly disappointing since the great Sarris is only fleshing-out previously written essays into a full length book. Still…the mellifluous riffs and profound insights on America’s greatest film director are to die for. Out of print.
Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford – Scott Eyman **** Eyman’s warts and all biography of the haunted, surly filmmaker somehow makes for a joyous read. The author has great sympathy for all of Ford’s foibles and offers great insight on the master’s daunting body of work. An essential bookend to Eyman’s impeccable biography of John Wayne. Out of print.
Searching For John Ford: A Life – Joseph McBride **** The brilliant film historian and Ford scholar compiles a massive, well-researched tome about a complex artist and human being. The author’s taste and analysis of the films is spot on but, as with his book on Frank Capra McBride’s political agenda tends to color the subject in an unnecessarily dark manner. Still, it’s a treasure. Out of print.
John Ford – Peter Bogdanovich **** A seminal collection of insightful and hilarious interviews that led to the author’s marvelous 1971 Directed By John Ford documentary. Bogdanovich never gets discouraged by the crusty director’s reluctance to talk about his art. A real treat, if you can find it. Much of this book appears in Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It, which also has fallen out of print.
John Ford: Interviews (ed. Gerald Peary) **** Another fabulous addition to the University of Mississippi’s landmark series of collected interviews of major filmmakers. Plenty of bizarre slice of life episodes with Ford’s family and the usual frustrations arising from interviewers who hit the proverbial brick wall when Ford refuses to discuss his art. An excellent supplement to the essential Bogdanovich book.
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War – Mark Harris **** Ford was the first major Hollywood filmmaker to enlist in the armed forces and the first to make a documentary of resounding impact (The Battle of Midway) but he proved too much of a maverick and too high maintenance to keep in the good graces of the military. Harris paints a troubled picture of Ford who shut down socially after returning to Hollywood and went on to create his most personal work in the post-war years.
John Ford – Joseph McBride & Michael Wilmington ***1/2 A top-notch, critical analysis of the director’s career by McBride and co-hort Wilmington. For those looking in vain for McBride’s Ford bio, this remains a fine alternative.
John Ford: The Man and His Films – Tag Gallagher ***1/2 For a long time this earnest, well-researched bio was the only book on Ford in print and actually worth reading. Unfortunately, it is a critical biography and Gallagher’s take on the director’s later work remains highly debatable.
About John Ford – Lindsay Anderson ***1/2 The British filmmaker Anderson was a great and eloquent champion of Ford’s work long before it was fashionable in the States. But his dismissal of so much of Ford’s late work doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Feature Films by Ford:
1917 Straight Shooting ***1/2
1918 Hell Bent ***1/2
1919 The Last Outlaw ***
1919 A Gun Fightin’ Gentleman ***
1924 The Iron Horse ****
1925 Lightnin’ ***1/2
1926 Three Bad Men ***1/2
1926 The Shamrock Handicap ***1/2
1926 The Blue Eagle ***1/2
1928 Four Sons ***1/2
1928 Mother Machree ***
1928 Hangman’s House ***1/2
1928 Riley the Cop ***1/2
1929 The Black Watch ***1/2
1929 Salute ***1/2
1930 Men Without Women ***
1930 Born Reckless ***1/2
1930 Up the River ***1/2
1931 Arrowsmith ***1/2
1931 Seas Beneath ***1/2
1932 Air Mail ****
1932 Flesh ***1/2
1933 Pilgrimage ****1/2
1933 Doctor Bull ****
1934 The Lost Patrol ****
1934 Judge Priest ****
1935 The Whole Town’s Talking ***1/2
1935 The Informer ****
1935 Steamboat Around the Bend ****
1936 Prisoner of Shark Island ****
1936 Mary of Scotland ***1/2
1936 The Plough and the Stars ***1/2
1937 Wee Willie Winkie ***1/2
1937 The Hurricane ****
1938 Four Men and a Prayer ***1/2
1938 Submarine Patrol ***1/2
1939 Stagecoach ****
1939 Young Mr. Lincoln ****
1939 Drums Along the Mohawk ****
1940 The Grapes of Wrath ****
1940 The Long Voyage Home ****
1941 How Green Was My Valley ****1/2
1941 Tobacco Road ***1/2
1945 They Were Expendable ****
1946 My Darling Clementine ****
1947 The Fugitive ***1/2
1948 Fort Apache ****
1948 Three Godfathers ***1/2
1949 She Wore a Yellow Ribbon ****1/2
1950 When Willie Comes Marching Home ***1/2
1950 Wagonmaster ****
1950 Rio Grande ****
1952 What Price Glory? ***1/2
1952 The Quiet Man *****
1953 The Sun Shines Bright ****
1953 Mogambo ****
1955 The Long Gray Line ***1/2
1955 Mister Roberts ***1/2
1956 The Searchers *****
1957 The Wings of Eagles ****
1957 The Rising of the Moon ****
1958 Gideon of Scotland Yard ***1/2
1958 The Last Hurrah ***1/2
1959 The Horse Soldiers ****
1960 Sergeant Rutledge ****
1961 Two Rode Together ****1/2
1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance *****
1963 How the West Was Won ***1/2 (segment)
1963 Donovan’s Reef ****
1964 Cheyenne Autumn ***1/2
1966 Seven Women ***1/2
Documentary and Television Films by Ford:
1942 The Battle of Midway ***1/2
1943 December 7th (with Gregg Toland) ***
1946 In Memoriam Manuel Quezon ***
1951 This Is Korea ***1/2
1955 Rookie of the Year ***1/2 (TV)
1957 The Growler Story ***1/2 (TV)
1962 Flashing Spikes ***1/2 (TV)