Tuesday, December 18, 2012
John Ford, John Ford, John Ford
It think the best way to talk about Ford is really to just think about what made him an auteur, what personal tropes we can find that pepper throughout his work. I am by no means an expert on Ford, but I do know a bit about his personality and personal history. As some of you may already know, he was born in America to first generation Irish immigrants. He was a (guilt-ridden) Catholic, intensely proud of his Irish heritage, but also immensely patriotic towards his country of birth. He was a liberal democrat for much of his life (there's a great story about him defending Joseph L. Mankiewicz from Cecil B. DeMille and his goons, which you can find here.) He cared very deeply about underdogs, people in suffering, people in need. He was a soft-hearted sentimentalist, but dissembled this part of himself with a cantankerous, often callous veneer. He was an individualist, with a strong sense of community, and also a realist about the aleatory cruelties of the world. He had a tremendous eye for visual poetry, even if he would pretend to be a brute for hire. He had a meticulous attention to detail. He hated pretense, excessive self-importance, and grandiose displays of bombast and egoism. He was humble and fiercely intelligent. He could shoot a motion picture like no other.
Some of these traits I don't know from reading about him, but simply from observing what he put into each of his films. There are a lot of various themes that run throughout his work, but some occur more vividly and consistently than others. Since THE SEARCHERS is my number 1 favorite film of his, I'll use that as a template to start from.
What makes THE SEARCHERS so undeniably Fordian? Well, for one, it opens with one of the most beautiful sequences in film history. Its introductory gliding camera movement across the cabin's threshold is like walking out into cinema itself. It's a breathtaking image, shot in inimitable Technicolor and VistaVision; a visual slice of framed glory that can exist no where else and in no other medium. From there, we see a sequence of gorgeous, immaculately framed long shots: Ethan dwarfed by the monolithic crags of Monument Valley; Ethan's family sitting like kings perched on high, their home precariously resting beneath a dangerous horizon. The first thing that strikes you about THE SEARCHERS is how enormous and majestic it looks. Ford had such a remarkable eye for beautiful images. He painted glorious canvases. His shots could be big and impressive or they could be small, yet no less impressive. His exterior long shots get a lot of deserved attention, but I would also draw awareness to the beauty of his interior shots. Look at some of the interior static long and medium shots in THE SEARCHERS, where characters are sitting at tables or hunched at desks, and they just so perfectly framed and lit. Brandon once wrote that Ford was "incapable of botching a shot" and it's absolutely true. Ford put so much attention into every shot, and could make the perfect decision with each of them. He was a visual genius who cared immensely about film language, mise-en-scene, and craft. He pushed these aspects of film forward, and helped make directing the art that it is.
Apart from the magnificence of his craft, there are also certain themes that Ford loved to revisit in his films. In THE SEARCHERS, we can find several persistent threads. First, we have the idea of a violent, dangerous environment in which people find themselves surrounded. This theme is returned to in countless other Ford films (DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, THE HURRICANE, THE INFORMER, etc.). He seemed to be invariably concerned with the perilous forces that infringe upon our safety and well-being. I don't think he was paranoid; I think he just understood that the world around us can be harsh and unforgiving, but it is important to be individualized while still forming connections to family and other significant communities. Ethan in THE SEARCHERS remains inextricably tied to his family even in the face of great improbability. His problem is that he lets the virulence of his racism consume him to the point that he almost forgets this connection. I think Ford knew the importance of being an individual but not letting your ego consume you to the point where you couldn't reach out to others. He's someone who cared about forming unions (family, friendship) as meaningful beacons in the threat of danger and darkness. THE SEARCHERS is a great reminder of this.
Ford was certainly a sentimentalist as well, even if he did try to conceal it with a seemingly hard-nosed facade. HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is unabashedly sentimental in its depiction of a working-class Irish family. I would argue that it never becomes saccharine, but remains naturally emotional and tender throughout. You can definitely feel Ford's empathy for common people struggling to get by in it. Again, he isn't afraid to address the harsh realities of their lives in this film, nor is he embarrassed to emphasize the importance of family as a buttress throughout these tribulations. THE QUIET MAN is much less serious in its depiction of Irish life (it is more of a great paean to an idealized vision of Ireland). It is a sentimental look at agrarian life and perhaps a dream Ford had for Ireland, one that wasn't as violent or divided but gregarious and whimsical. The sweetness of THE QUIET MAN (as well as the verdurous wealth of its cinematography) is a very telling indication of Ford's gentle nature (and it's these traits, as well as Maureen O'Hara's beauty, that make the film such a favorite of mine).
Ford was sentimental but he could be also be a great realist about the nature of lies, destruction, and evil in our world (THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND, CHEYENNE AUTUMN). He definitely didn't shy away from these facts in his films. Nothing was ever rose-colored for Ford. But always tried to overcome harshness even if it meant printing the legend instead of the truth.
Ford also had great sense of humor and a mischievous, rowdy spirit. THE WINGS OF EAGLES, his comedies, and even films like SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON are wonderful examples of his propensity for joyous frenzy. THE WINGS OF EAGLES (since it is fresh in my mind) is particularly fun in this regard. Seeing John Wayne get hit in the face with a pie and an all-out brawl ensue is about as memorable an image as Ford ever produced. Brandon and I both love this aspect of Ford's work. Sometimes a well-choreographed fistfight is just what you need to cure the blues.
All told, I think the best way I would describe "the Ford touch" (his auteurist stamp) is a consistent emphasis on fastidious craftsmanship; themes of external cruelty and danger being fought through personal connections with others and truth to the self; a concern with and a tenderness for the plight of those who struggle; and a rambunctiousness that could extend into all-out violence or merely playfulness. However you want to describe Ford's personal touch within cinema, you'd have to admit he's one of the best the medium ever had.
Here are some of the films I watched recently of his:
WAGON MASTER: Terrific starring showcase for some of Ford's greatest and most frequent supporting character actors (Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr., Hank Worden). Quintessential Ford.
THE LONG VOYAGE HOME: Rambling narrative makes the story hard to connect to, but you
can’t argue with those gorgeous, deep focus images by the great Gregg Toland.
THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND: As Brandon wisely put it, an American nightmare. A film depicting Ford's empathy for the wrongfully accused and those who suffer needlessly. Obviously, told with great care, economy, and power. Twas ideal seeing this right around the same time as LINCOLN.
THE WINGS OF EAGLES: A tenderhearted tribute to one of Ford's deceased friends. An underrated film within his cannon. The jaunty playfulness of it stands out (as I mentioned, lots of rousing fistfights - a Ford staple), as does Ford's wonderful ability to poke fun at himself. The good things is that it largely avoids being maudlin, even as it deals with some serious subjects like divorce and alcoholism. An adult picture with some childlike buoyancy to it.
THE SEARCHERS: The more I see it, the more indelible it becomes.
Still need to see: Too many to count, but most interested in seeing WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HOME, 7 WOMEN, STEAMBOAT 'ROUND THE BEND, THE FUGITIVE, and ARROWSMITH.
Up Next: Ernst Lubitsch