This is one of the saddest films ever made, but the depths of its sorrow don't reveal themselves on a first viewing, when we have the tension and suspense of the narrative to distract us.  But it's a tale told in retrospect, beginning with the death of one of its protagonists, and it's best appreciated, or most fully appreciated, on a second or third viewing, when you know what's going to happen — when you can relish all the small details layered into it to reinforce its melancholy, elegiac mood.

In 1962, when the film was made, the twilight Western was becoming a regular form of the genre, telling stories about the passing of the Old West and its heroes and their values.  It signaled a suspicion that the Western itself was almost played out as a commercial form, and an acknowledgment that the great stars of the genre were aging and not being replaced by younger stars of equal stature.

Ford was the only director who had the grace to try and give the Western a proper burial, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is that burial.  Sam Peckinpah, who made one of the great twilight Westerns in Ride the High Country, was driven by his demons to mutilate the corpse of the Western (in The Wild Bunch) before throwing the sod o'er it.

As with The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has at its tragic core the story of
a love that might have been but never was, regret for which consumes the female lead here, as it consumed the male lead in The Searchers.  This is what gives the film its emotional power, in a way that a tale of the civilizing of the West, the passing of an old way of life, would not have.  What might have been an exercise in nostalgia or sociology becomes something much deeper.

Hallie, played by Vera Miles, is the key to almost every scene in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  As a general rule, if you want to know what Ford is interested at any given moment, watch her.  Watch especially the early scene in which Link, the old retired sheriff, played by Andy Devine, drives her out to the desert.  His delicacy in knowing what she wants to see but not speaking of it, her reliance on his unspoken understanding and sympathy, evoke something far more momentous than the passing of old times.

What we are seeing is the wisdom of age, a celebration of consideration, of the potent, consoling force of etiquette in human affairs.  It's the passing of chivalry, gallantry, self-sacrifice which the movie grieves over — not the rowdy freedom of the old days, but their silent and graceful formalities of mutual respect.

The idea is even more poignant now than in would have been in 1962, when it was genuinely prophetic.  There isn't a director working in Hollywood today who's wise or grown up enough to create a scene like that one between Link and Hallie, and even if there were, there isn't a producer or a studio with the guts to let a director create such a scene.  Ford was mourning more than the death of the Western in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — he was mourning the death of humane cinema.

Ransom Stoddard, played in the film by Jimmy Stewart, embodies the logic of the law, right and true and admirable in every respect, but Tom Donophon, played by John Wayne, embodies the spirit of grace.  It's a spirit Hallie has come to cherish too late, but she pays due respect to it as it's laid to rest.

Stoddard once taught her how to read, but Donophon gave her a flowering plant, bearing cactus roses.  She never repaid the gracious gift in his lifetime, but she knows, with his death, what she owes him, has always owed him, and repays it symbolically, the only way she can.

The director Paul Schrader once said that Sam Peckinpah's contribution to the Western was carving its tombstone.  John Ford, by contrast, had the decency and the humility to lay a cactus rose on its grave.


Facebook friend Ray Sawhill once posed a “Question For the Day”:

“The work of which filmmaker(s) says ‘This is pointing the way to the future of cinema!’ to you?”

I say:

Movies will be saved, and find a future, through a renaissance that
will work pretty much the way the Italian Renaissance worked, looking
backwards and “creatively misreading” what’s seen there. No one
currently looking ahead for “the next new thing” (after Gothic
sculpture, as it were) will see it coming or be part of it.

So to answer the question in brief — John Ford.


Bucking Broadway, a John Ford silent Western from 1917, is included as an extra on the new Criterion DVD edition of Stagecoach.  It's a real revelation.

One of the earliest films Ford directed, it has a rather lame plot.  A cowboy in Wyoming loses his girl to a visiting Easterner, who takes her back to New York to marry her.  The girl has second thoughts about the guy and sends for the cowboy, who shows up in New York with some of his cowboy pals to rescue her and thrash the Easterner, who turns out to be a drunk, a lout and a creep.

The New York sequences were shot in Los Angeles, so Ford doesn't get to have much fun visually with the idea of cowboys on Broadway.  Most of the city action takes place in a big hotel, and the donnybrook between the cowboys and the swells at a big society party there is clumsily staged and unsatisfying.  There are a few iconic shots of the cowboys riding horses down the middle of a city street, but there's no more action than this in the urban exteriors.

It's the first half of the film, before the scene switches to the city, that offers the revelation.  It's made up of a series of stunningly beautiful images of ranch life, dynamically composed shots that have real poetic power.  Even back then, when Ford was just getting started, he had an eye for cinematic composition, for the choreography of movement within a frame that rivaled Griffith's.  One could even make a case that his eye surpassed Griffith's by then, just a year after the master directed Intolerance.

Certainly the first half of Bucking Broadway is one of the great achievements of silent cinema, visually speaking.  It transforms a simpleminded tale into a lyric poem about the West as lovely as any passage in any film Ford ever made.


Rio Grande, from 1950, the last film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, isn’t really about the cavalry, it’s about marriage, and like any serious work about marriage it deals with the subject of boundaries — boundaries respected, boundaries transgressed and boundaries transcended.

“Love is the mutual respect of two solitudes,” says Rilke, but in a marriage those two solitudes interpenetrate, in the partnership of daily living, in sexual intercourse and in the not unrelated phenomenon of bringing children into the world.  To say that it gets complicated is to put it very mildly indeed.

The river that gives this film its title is itself a boundary, of course, between two countries.  Its very name embodies its divisive nature — on the Mexican side, the river is called the Rio Bravo, reminding us that people don’t always have the same names for the things that separate them, complicating communication considerably.  The river is problematic for the film’s protagonist, Colonel Kirby Yorke, played by John Wayne, because Apaches living on the Mexican side are raiding into U. S. territory and he can’t follow them back to their refuge below the border.

He is compelled to respect the boundary and also to find a way out of the dilemma this places him in.  He offers to put his command under the authority of the Mexican army for the purposes of a punitive expedition against the Apaches, who are bedeviling Mexicans as well, but national pride prevents the Mexican army from accepting help.

This is a fine set-up for a Western adventure film, but it’s only a metaphor for the film’s real drama, which concerns Colonel Yorke’s marriage.

Yorke has been estranged from his wife for seventeen years, ever since, under orders, he burned down her family’s Virginia plantation during the Civil War, after which she came to hate soldiers, the profession of soldiering, and him.  She took their infant son with her when she left him, but the son has become a soldier himself now, seventeen years later, against her will, and has been assigned to serve under his father at the remote fort near the Rio Grande.

Kathleen Yorke, played by Maureen O’Hara, shows up at the fort to purchase her son’s release from the army — but neither the son nor the father is prepared to sign the necessary papers, as they stare each other down across another kind of chasm, the awful chasm that exists between a father and son who don’t know each other.

Here, then, is one spectacularly dysfunctional family.  Proximity saves them — proximity and the ritual etiquette of military life, of gallantry between the sexes.  With personal passions roiling beneath the surface, they treat each other with respect, obeying the outward forms of civility, long enough to get to the bottom of things, to transcend their personal passions — bitterness, suspicion, resentment, shame, wounded pride.

The outward forms of civility, military and courtly, are all about respecting boundaries — establishing a border between people across which they have a chance of seeing each other as individuals.

But these borders exist to be crossed — and this is the ultimate profound and paradoxical message of Ford’s film.  Yorke’s commanding general finally orders him to cross the Rio Grande in pursuit of the Apaches, in violation of international law.  Yorke finally hauls off and kisses his wife, transgressing the line she has drawn between them.  His wife offers to clean and repair his uniform — his soldier’s uniform, the symbol of everything she despises about him.  The son crosses his own boundary into self-sufficient manhood, and the parents allow him to do it — and their re-established love for each other gives them the courage to do it.

People who see this film as simplistic, as an old-fashioned celebration of gallantry towards women, of military life, completely miss the point.  The darkness in Yorke’s soul, the existential loneliness of his wife and son, are as devastating as any portraits of despair in a film noir.  The rituals that save them are also the rituals that imprison them.  There is no simple way to cross the Rio Grande — the cost of the crossing is enormous, almost more than the characters can bear.  But the only salvation lies on the other side of the river.

Rio Grande is a film often damned with faint praise, but it’s one of the greatest of all American films, and in its deceptively simple, elegiac way, one of the deepest and wisest films ever made about marriage.

It’s a film whose sublime artistry is disguised by hiding in plain sight.  Take for example the remarkable sequence in which Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. put on a display of Roman riding — galloping around a ring and taking a jump while standing on the backs of two horses running together.  It’s a display enacted mostly for the Yorkes’ son Jeff, who must then try it himself, with mixed results.

Jeff has to learn a similar skill in life — finding a footing in the world of his mother and the world of his father, before he can come into his own as a man.  And they must relearn how to work as a team in order to give him a chance to find that footing.  The whole interior psychology of the film is thus summed up in a series of stunning visual images that on the surface read as a throwaway action interlude.

Cinema just doesn’t get any better or more eloquent than this.

[With special thanks to Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans for the illustrations.]


A few days ago I was driving with my friends Mary and Paul Zahl from Kayenta, Arizona, to Moab, Utah.  We were going up to Moab to track down the locations where John Ford shot parts of Wagon Master (and other films.)

On the way, Paul suggested we make a detour to see the fabled Valley Of the Gods, a large basin surrounded by mesas and dotted with odd rock towers.  My instinct was to proceed directly to Moab, but Paul's instinct was stronger so we set off on a dirt road into the valley.

It was a good road, of red clay — or would have been a good road if it hadn't been raining recently.  The rain had turned it into glass.  My big Navigator, in four-wheel-drive, kept losing traction on it, threatening to slide over the embankments on sharp turns.  It was a little scary, but the car handled it all very well.

Then, at the end of the road, we found ourselves driving straight towards the nearly sheer face of a tall mesa.  There was, improbably, a road leading up the side of the mesa in a series of hair-raising switchbacks.  The maps we had said the road was paved, and it was, but only in parts.  The other parts were wet dirt — something we discovered too late.

I started up the road, which is called the Moki Dugway — seen above in better weather conditions than we faced — and we all soon realized that we had made a big mistake.  But I also realized that trying to turn the car around on such a road would probably be more dangerous than proceeding up it.

So we proceeded up it, at a snail's pace, with our hearts in our throats.  I hugged the side of the mesa on the sharp curves, honking and hoping we wouldn't meet any oncoming traffic.  There were no shoulders to speak of for most of the way, only terrifying drop-offs.  If the Navigator's tires ever lost traction on the slippery dirt sections, it would have meant a certain flaming fiery death for all of us.

Below is a picture Mary took with her iPhone during the ascent.  She took it upside down, as it happened — the condition of our stomachs at the time.

For a while it seemed as though the road would never end, but it finally did, on top of the mesa, where we were presented with . . . a winter wonderland.  An endless plateau covered in snow, dotted with cedars, new snow falling gently on it all.

It was like a vision of peace and grace, granted to us after our ordeal.

I couldn't get this extraordinary experience out of my mind.  The next morning I had what felt like a revelation — I felt we had been led supernaturally to the Moki Dugway, where we reenacted, in a sense, the climactic scenes of Wagon Master, when the Mormons take their wagons up the side of a precipitous cliff, where wagons were not meant to go, in order to reach their promised land.

I became convinced that John Ford himself had been riding with us on our climb up the mesa, having decided that we would not just have a leisurely meander up to Moab to gawk at his sublime locations for Wagon Master, but drive right into the heart of the movie.  Mystical as it may sound, I think that's exactly what we did.


This September saw two important events in the life of our culture.  One of them got a lot of attention, the other didn't.  The attention went to the CD release of the remastered Beatles catalogue — an event that was important but in great measure symbolic.  It was wonderful to have all those albums sounding so good — as good as CDs probably can sound — but it's not like the music had been unavailable before the remasters.  The remasters were primarily an excuse to listen to it all again and begin thinking about The Beatles' place in history.

A week after the remastered Beatles catalogue was released, John Ford's Wagon Master appeared for the first time on DVD in the U. S.  Its arrival didn't cause much of a stir.  Wagon Master was a film that had been very hard to see, and for that reason lingered at edge of Ford's body of work, greatly admired by some but generally considered a second-rank effort in the Ford canon.  The reviews of the DVD I've run across online, very respectful for the most part, have confirmed this status — the consensus seems to be that it's good to have the movie on DVD at last, even though its appearance is not likely to spark a major critical reevaluation, placing it in the same league as The Searchers, for example.

However, that's just where it belongs.  Wagon Master may well be Ford's greatest film, his most perfectly realized film and, in some ways, his most radical film.

It is certainly one of his most personal films and he himself often cited it, sometimes in company with The Sun Shines Bright, as his favorite film.  Harry Carey, Jr., who starred in the film with Ben Johnson, Ward Bond and Joanne Dru, said that Ford was in a good mood the whole time he was making it.  This was not usual for Ford, to put it mildly — he had a vicious streak that almost always found its way onto the sets of his movies.  It was nowhere in evidence on the set of Wagon Master, which Ford banged out in 30 days in something resembling a state of bliss.

One can imagine a few personal reasons for this.  It was a low-budget film, made by his own independent production company, and it had no name stars in it.  Ford had no executives on his back up there in Moab, Utah, where he shot most of it, and no star egos to keep in check.  He made this film with almost complete freedom from studio interference.

Ford said that he fought a thousand battles with the studios in his career and lost all of them.  Occasionally, with a studio head like Daryl Zanuck, he was fighting with someone he admired, grudgingly.  But look at the changes Zanuck made to My Darling Clementine between the surviving preview version and the release version.  They all coarsen the film, diminish its poetry and its subtlety.  They may or may not have been wise changes from a commercial standpoint — we will never know — but the film would have been a greater work of art if Zanuck had kept his hands off of it.

Wagon Master is one of the only Hollywood films I can think of which does not open with a corporate logo.  It's not marked up front with the brand of the nasty little men who controlled Hollywood by the simple expedient of exercising a virtual monopoly over film distribution in America.  (If you think any of those guys would have survived six months in a free market for movies, you just haven't looked past the glamor of their artificially-created power.)

Instead of a corporate logo, Wagon Master opens with a dark image of a robbery in a small office, superimposed over a wanted poster of the robbers (above) — the Cleggs, a family of outlaws who will figure importantly in the story we're about to see.  There's probably an ironic joke in this.  When Ford tried to create his independent production company, he was robbed blind by the studios he still depended on for distribution — and there was nothing he could do about it.  Working on a small profit margin, Ford's company eventually failed because the financial edge it needed was stolen from him by the studios he was trying to break free from.

So Wagon Master is brought to you by the Cleggs — like every other Hollywood movie from the era.  Dumb, brutal thugs, the Cleggs will come a beggin' to the good folks of the film's wagon train, sponging off them, feigning gratitude, just waiting for the moment when they can exercise their ugly form of control.  You can see the good folks of the wagon train as the people in Hollywood who actually did the work there, who actually made the films there, for the benefit of the dimwits with the guns.  How delightful it must have been for Ford to set the dimwits up in this way, all the while knowing that in the story of this film, at least, they would get their comeuppance, and then some.  No wonder he was in a good mood out there on the frontier, telling this tale.

But even if this joke is embedded in Wagon Master it's not finally what the film is about.  It's a lot deeper than that, a lot more complex.  On one level it's about the way men and horses move through landscapes — about the way horses behave when they're pulling wagons through rivers, about the way Ben Johnson sits a horse.  The way Ben Johnson sits a horse is at the very heart of the film.

Johnson's grace in the saddle is every bit as magical as Fred Astaire's casual defiance of gravity in his dances, and every bit as cinematic.  It helps to have some familiarity with riding to appreciate it.  On the commentary for the new DVD, Harry Carey, Jr., himself a fine horseman, keeps crying out with pleasure at Johnson's way with a horse.  (“That's how you get on a horse!” Carey will shout occasionally.  “That's how you get on a horse!”)  But even if you've never been close enough to a horse to smell it, you can feel the magic of what Johnson is doing — just as you can feel the magic of Astaire even if you've got two left feet.

As with dance, horsemanship suggests moral values.  Treating a horse in a kindly, respectful way parallels the courtly partnership of a great pas de deux.  Skill and ease on a horse, the physical virtuosity of it, evoke character, testify to history.  Johnson, like Astaire, had the sort of virtuosity which can only be achieved through a lifetime of discipline, a lifetime spent in the saddle or in the practice studio.

Here's something to look for in Wagon Master — a scene where Johnson does his most spectacular riding, fleeing from a band of mounted Navajos.  He and his horse traverse rough ground like water flowing over a rocky stream bed.  At one point Johnson loses his right rein at a full gallop downhill and leans down to retrieve it like a short-stop scooping up an easy grounder.  Johnson once said of a spectacular ride in another Ford film, “I was just a passenger on that one.”  This gets close to the mystery of riding — a great horsebacker is always a great passenger, in tune with his mount, with the ground they cover, in tune therefore with the earth but creating new possibilities of movement in space, like a dancer.  It is a combination of mastery and surrender, of harmony and challenge, an image of human potential at its extreme limits.

When you see Astaire dance, you know he's going to get the girl in the end.  When you see Johnson ride, you know he's going to save the dream of the Mormons migrating west.

You know he's going to get the girl, too.  The “love story” between Johnson and Dru, playing a slightly worn showgirl, is one of the deepest in all of Ford's work, and one of the sexiest, though Ford doesn't even give them a fade-out kiss.  It's all about the gracious courtship of a woman who has long ago given up dreams of gracious courtship.  It's about her surprise at this, and mistrust of it, and final surrender.

It's a romance that plays out in physical terms, in the way he moves and the way she moves — a complicated sexual display in which every casual touch or glance is erotically charged.  In the last two-shot of the couple, riding on the seat of a wagon, nothing has been spoken about what's ahead for them, but you can see it in their eyes.  It's almost indecent, what you see in their eyes.

Wagon Master is a film made up of closely observed physical phenomena which Ford has somehow invested with moral and spiritual meaning.  Good and evil don't need to be given symbolic markers — we see them at work without masks, without name-tags.  In all of art, I think only Tolstoy, in War and Peace, got anywhere close to this effect.

In Wagon Master, Ford shot a thoroughly convincing documentary about the world of spirit . . . about spirit made flesh, literally.  Other films have tried to do this, but Wagon Master makes even the best of them, like The Diary Of A Country Priest, look ham-handed by comparison.

The ending of Wagon Master is as odd and unconventional as its opening.  Just as the settlers get within sight of their promised land the narrative deconstructs itself — we are presented with a montage of discontinuous shots.  Some seem to show the characters riding on to a new life, others are shots from earlier in the film.  Time dissolves, the wagon train moves on, in the mystical dimension the film has conjured from its meticulous rendering of actualités.

To put it very bluntly, as Ford might have, to get us off the scent of his piety and faith, Wagon Master is a God-damned miracle.


In the whole history of cinema there is no greater feast for the eye than Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, from 1930.  It cost something approaching $100 million in today's dollars — though in truth it probably couldn't be made today, without CGI, for less than $300 million — and Walsh put all of the budget on screen, creating an epic vision of a wagon train's journey from the banks of the Mississippi to the Pacific coast.  It was shot in a standard 35mm format and in a 65mm wide-screen version, which has recently become available on DVD for the first time.

Because so few theaters were willing or able to refit to show the 65mm version, and because the film was not a hit, Hollywood abandoned the wide-screen format until the 1950s, when it was taken up again in response to the threat from television.  So The Big Trail remained a costly experiment gone awry — but it hardly plays as an experimental work today.  Walsh's composition for the wide screen is as elegant and accomplished as any in the later history of the format — it bears favorable comparison with the best wide-screen work of John Ford or David Lean.

As a film shot almost entirely on location, it also bears comparison with Greed and Ford's The Iron Horse for its pictorial realism, which is downright breathtaking.

That's the good news.  The bad news is that the script for this early talkie is marred by stilted dialogue delivered in a stilted style by almost all the actors, including John Wayne in his first starring role.  The location sound is extremely impressive for a film from 1930, but not impressive enough to hold its own with the stunning visuals.

I can say without hesitation, however, that if The Big Trail had been a silent film, it would today be ranked among the greatest movies ever made.  If you can look past its limitations as a talkie, you can see the masterpiece it might have been — the masterpiece that on one level it certainly is.

Ford, who discovered Wayne, is said to have held a grudge against him for making his starring debut in another director's film.  I suspect, however, that this was in part displaced resentment against Walsh for creating such magnificent images of the American West, which rivaled and sometimes surpassed those Ford had created in his own silent Westerns.  It is perhaps no accident that Ford abandoned Westerns entirely during most of the 1930s, returning to the form only in 1939, with Stagecoach . . . and I'm tempted to suggest that Ford spent the rest of his career as a maker of Westerns trying (successfully) to live up to the visual poetry of Walsh's The Big Trail.


I recently finished Joseph McBride's excellent (and massive) biography Searching For John Ford. It tells you everything you want to know about the man . . .
except who the hell he was.  The mysteries and contradictions of his
character simply cannot be sorted out.  I'm sure the same would be true
of Shakespeare if we had massive documentation and testimony about his
life.  The depth of the work in each man's case comes out of the
mysteries and contradictions and transcends them but sheds no light backwards on the
man himself.  Perhaps, to be a truly great dramatist, you have to
abandon all hope of a coherent self in real life.

The biggest revelation in the book, to me, was the extent of Ford's
WWII service, which was far greater than I realized — but even in that
arena, nothing he did seemed to satisfy him.  He told outrageous
lies about his wartime service, even when the things he actually did
were far more impressive.  Reading the book makes one more and
more convinced that Ethan Edwards comes as close to a portrait of Ford
the man as we will ever have — a psychotic searcher who does heroic
things that no one else can do, and then wanders off alone, permanently

It's a sad tale but also, in some mysterious, unaccountable way, inspiring.


was the next to last feature film John Ford completed, in 1964, when he
was 69 years-old.  It doesn't work as a drama, much less a
melodrama, or as a character study or as an historical epic . . . but
it's one of the most sublime visual poems in the history of movies and
a very great work of art.

It tells the once little-known story of a band of Cheyenne who, in
1879, broke out of confinement on a reservation in Indian territory,
present-day Oklahoma, and made a 1500-mile trek back to their homeland
in Montana.  Pursued and harried by a succession of cavalry
expeditions, starved and near death, the band made it to its old home where
it was allowed to remain.

In his excellent commentary on the wonderful new DVD edition of the film, Ford
biographer Joseph McBride says that Ford originally intended to make Cheyenne Autumn
as a small, black-and-white film, an intimate study of the Cheyenne
pilgrims, but that he was persuaded by the studio to expand it into a
big wide-screen Technicolor extravaganza.  It was, says McBride, a
“Faustian bargain” which led to a film that was neither fish nor fowl,
since Ford lost sight of the Cheyenne characters yet failed to create a
genuine epic.

This may indeed reflect the development of the project but I think it
misses the essence of the film that Ford finally made.  All
of the characters in the film, both Cheyenne and white, recede into the
images, become secondary to the images.  Ford doesn't lose sight
of them as dramatic personae because he has no real interest in them as
dramatic personae.  They're just narrative markers that guide us
through the landscape of the film.

Landscape was always a character in
Ford's Westerns, a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the relative
smallness of human intention and desire.  It stood in, one might
even say, for the regard of Eternity, in which human endeavor held an
insignificant place.  It transformed the melodrama of his stories
into tragic

In Cheyenne Autumn, as in
Shakespeare's late romances, the author lost interest in the mechanics
of plot altogether, in the centrality of individual character, and became enchanted by the
mystery of his medium — the magical poetry of words, in Shakespeare's
case, and of images in Ford's.  The
progress of the Cheyenne through the magnificence of the landscape, the
evolutions of mounted cavalry on the march or at the charge, fill
Ford's imagination fully — the characters dissolve into the beauty of
movement itself.  They are elevated into a transcendent glory not
by the specificity of self but by their possession of space.  They
are dancers, sculptures in motion.

This is not an abstract vision, however, a celebration of
technique.  In his old age, disillusioned with the legends of the
West he did so much to reinforce, Ford lost his faith in man's
essential goodness, or at least in that part of it related to his
will.  Primal values, transcending individual human character,
were all he could believe in — the dumb urge to go home, to preserve
community, to do one's duty.

At the center of the film Ford inserted, unaccountably to many critics,
a 21-minute sequence set in Dodge City which mercilessly satirizes the
myth of the Western hero, of the frontier town.  Jimmy Stewart
appears as a corrupt and cynical Wyatt Earp leading the hysterical townspeople on an
absurd pursuit of the phantom Cheyenne, who in truth are nowhere near
Dodge.  The familiar narrative of the old West is deconstructed, revealed as
a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

After this strange interlude, the film switches back to the story of
the Cheyenne, doing what they have to do, and the horse soldiers, doing
what they have to do.  When the Cheyenne are restored to their
ancestral Eden, Ford shows us how much they have lost recovering it,
just as
he shows us how much honor the soldiers have lost in fulfilling a duty
that's been applied to a meaningless and inhuman mission.

The triumph on both sides was only in the journey, the movement, the dream — all of
which vanish in the end, as the eternal landscape looks on impassively.

film has a nominal “upbeat” resolution in its penultimate episode in
Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, wonderfully played by Edward G.
Robinson, goes to visit the escaped Cheyenne in Montana and promises to
help them stay there.  This scene, oddly, is shot against
cheesy-looking back-projections — such a radical violation of the look
of the rest of the film that it almost seems deliberately surreal . . .
as though Ford was asking us not to take this superficial “climax” too
seriously.  Perhaps it can be compared to the improbable events
that “resolve” the narrative of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale,
in which the playwright seems to be asking us to laugh with him at the
conventions of the stage — to remind us that the true heart of his
work lies elsewhere.


With the notable exception of Stagecoach,
I'm not a big fan of the movies John Ford made with screenwriter Dudley
Nichols, even though these include some of Ford's most celebrated and
entertaining films.

Nichols was an extremely skillful writer, with a sound sense of story structure and a good ear (usually) for
colorful dialogue.  But he also had a self-conscious, “literary”
style — he tended to see situations and characters in emblematic,
metaphorical terms.  This aspect of Nichols' work encouraged Ford
to indulge his gorgeous visual expressionism at the expense of what he
did best — create cinematic spaces and places of mesmerizing
specificity.  The images of The Lost Patrol and The Informer
are supremely beautiful but they grow claustrophobic after a
while.  The desert and the fog-bound city are too obviously
surrogates for existential states, symbolic and airless.

In his best work Ford found ways of imbuing interiors and landscapes
with an uninsistent symbolic quality — we read them as real spaces and
feel their emotional resonances on a subliminal level.  We have a
sense of discovering and exploring these spaces on our own, no matter
how many times we come back to them.  The shadowy streets of Gypo
Nolan's Dublin in The Informer, the merciless desert that swallows up The Lost Patrol, are places we visit with a guide, always reminding us what these environments “mean”.

The streets of Tombstone in My Darling Clementine,
the unfinished church on the edge of town, the maze of the O. K.
Corral, are every bit as charged with meaning and significance, but
Ford lets us tease them out for ourselves — he lets us inhabit them at
our ease, until the places seem to speak to us in their own voices.


Godard once said that every tracking shot is a moral statement. 
This is true and worthy of much meditation.  Another way of
putting it might be “where a director moves his camera, there will his
heart be also”.

It occurs to me that the pacing of a film and the length of its shots
also involve moral choices.  There are vast areas of human
experience which cannot be addressed with the kind of fast-paced MTV
editing that many films today employ, and moral choices come into play
when excluding these areas from popular culture.

These thoughts are prompted by a recent re-viewing of How Green Was My Valley,
one of the greatest works of American cinema.  The film is not
really slow-paced — it's full of incident and movement — but it's
episodic and it pauses often to record the precise and deliberate way
certain incidents unfold.  It's the story of a particular family and a
particular community but it's also a poem about family and community as
phenomena.  It concerns itself, as Ford's films often do, with
process — in this case the process by which family and community are
constructed, the practical ways they function.

This involves showing the ways that mundane activities are ritualized,
so that everyone's role in them is clear.  It involves showing the
ways that mutual consideration is shown — which might include a rude
jest or keeping one's peace, joviality or silence, singing and dancing
boisterously or slowing down the pace of a social interaction to
accentuate its gravity.

Modern films — which people in Hollywood are fond of referring to as “rides” — can feature families but they cannot be about
family in the way that Ford's films were about family.  Families
can certainly go on rides, but family life is not constructed like a
ride.  Family life is what happens between rides — and so is the
real story of How Green Was My Valley.

The family in the film, like all families eventually, comes apart —
through kids leaving home, disagreements between the generations,
external social pressures and death.  The film's narrative is
almost a litany of
ordinary tragedies.  But these are not the things that sum up the
film in your mind after you've seen it.  It is not a tragedy, nor
a soap-opera ride.  It's a movie about the creation of a miracle,
a work of art — a family.  It's about the deathless essence of
family — the highest achievement of human civilization.

In Hollywood today, moral choices masquerading as aesthetic, stylistic
preferences virtually insure that this subject can never be presented
on the screen — though I would guess that there's hardly any subject modern audiences are hungrier for or more in need of.


1941 John Ford, as a contract director at 20th-Century Fox,
made two films for the studio.  One was the sublime How Green Was My Valley.  The other, made right before Valley, was a bewildering misfire — Tobacco Road.

You just have to throw your hands up at Tobacco Road
It's clear why the studio would be interested in the property — based
on a novel by Erskine Caldwell but derived more directly from a
theatrical adaptation which at the time held the record for the
longest-running Broadway play of all time.  The movie pokes
merciless fun at the same class of sharecroppers who were treated as
almost saintly characters in The Grapes Of Wrath, made only a year before. 
The film's humor is extremely broad but rarely funny.  Ford
lets his actors mug and jerk around like puppets — they might as well
be shouting “look at me, laugh at me!”  It's only the occasional
throwaway gags that actually elicit chuckles.  At the end of the hi-jinx Ford tries to summon up some pity for his
rustic clowns, but they aren't real enough to pity.

The film is
beautifully shot and its perversity is impressive if not exactly
entertaining.  (Some might find the whole thing worthwhile just
for the chance to watch a scantily-clad Gene Tierney slithering
lustfully through the dirt like a sex-crazed slug — surely the strangest thing she was ever
asked to do in Hollywood.)  It almost seems as if Ford was
indulging his worst
instincts — to get them out of his system before tackling How Green Was My Valley
Apparently it worked — in the latter film he hardly makes a single
wrong move, and takes the poetic possibilities of filmmaking about as
far as anyone ever has.

If he did indeed need to root around for a bit on Tobacco Road to create the miracle of How Green Was My Valley you'd have to say that, on balance, it was a road well-taken, though not much fun to revisit today.


In the present age of extreme political and cultural polarization, it can
be hard to read John Ford.  He worked in an era when it was
possible to revere military culture with an almost religious fervor and
hate political war-mongering at the same time, when it was possible to
traffic in racial and ethnic stereotypes and subvert them at the same
time, when it was possible to worship the family and family values and
see the oppressive role of families at the same time, when it was
possible to be at once a social conservative and a political
progressive, a deeply religious artist and a man with a profound
suspicion of organized religion.

In our own either/or age, Ford’s complexities can be confusing, with
what seem to be conflicting cultural signals.  This is due partly
to Ford’s rhetorical strategies, in which the obvious pieties of his
stories could be completely undercut by their emotional undercurrents
— and it’s due partly to Ford’s comprehensive sympathies, essential for a great dramatist, which wouldn’t allow him to judge anyone based on an ideological position or
professed beliefs.

Many people are distressed by the presence of Stepin Fetchit (above) in several
of Ford’s films.  Fetchit specialized in impersonating what was on one level a most objectionable stereotype of the slow-moving, slow-witted African American.  But
he was usually, in Ford’s films, far wiser and cannier than his image
suggested, in itself an interesting comment on the stereotype, with its
inescapable implication that it might be no more than a mask.
(Fetchit was also a brilliant physical comedian and Ford showcased his
art with great care — which has to count for something.)

Even more remarkable, in a film like Judge Priest (above), starring Will Rogers in the title role, is the way the Rogers character subverts the stereotype — by treating Fetchit as a
peer, with total respect.  You search in vain in Rogers’ performance for
the slightest hint of paternalism or condescension — it’s simply not
there.  Since Fetchit-like characters were used in large part to justify
paternalism and condescension, Ford is subverting the phenomenon at its

The same phenomenon is at work in another scene from Judge Priest
when Hattie McDaniel (above), a “mammy” stereotype, starts singing a silly
song about the judge to a Gospel-sounding tune. The judge chimes in
with heartfelt responses of “Oh, Lord!  Oh, Lord!”, in full,
joyful voice, again without a trace of irony.  He likes the way he
and she sound singing together — he treats her “quaint” musical idiom
as a serious medium of communication, and also as a medium they share
and rejoice in equally.

For the judge, the character we most identify with, to see through the
most extreme stereotype to a real person behind the facade, is radical.
It’s like the way Priscilla sees past the racial stereotypes and
imperialist assumptions in Wee Willie Winkie, the remarkable collaboration between Ford and Shirley Temple.

In a superficial reading of that film one might see it as a celebration of the
British Empire and its mission — unless one remembered that Ford was an
Irishman, with a built-in grudge against the British Empire.  When Khan
laughs hysterically at the idea that Queen Victoria wants to help his
people, he’s probably expressing Ford’s truest feelings on the subject.

Ford was both a subtle artist a wily old son-of-a-bitch — taking anything he does too much
at face value is always dangerous.  It risks missing the deepest meanings of his films.


The World Moves On, starring Madeleine Carroll and Franchot Tone (above),
is a fairly undistinguished and only mildly entertaining John Ford film
from 1934.  One might be tempted to see it as an assignment in
which he had no great personal interest, except for the fact that its
themes are ones that preoccupied him all his life — family, war and

The film is an epic family saga that begins in 1825 with the setting
up, in New Orleans, of an international textile combine.  After
this lengthy prologue the film concentrates on the first third of the
20th Century — showing how war and greed destroy not only the combine
but the family that runs it and, by not so subtle implication, the
fabric of civilization itself.  There are chilling and prophetic
hints of the war to come — with documentary images of Hitler reviewing
marching Nazis, of Imperial Japanese and Russian and French troops on
parade, of British ships and American warplanes on maneuvers.

The coming apocalypse — which in 1934 could conceivably have been
averted — is presented, like the previous apocalypse of the Great War,
as the direct consequence of rejecting Christian values.  At the
end of the film, when the lead couple visit their crumbling home in New
Orleans, the ruined patriarch says, “There's nothing left.”  His wife
answers that there is something left — and points to a crucifix hanging on the wall.

Ford was rarely so explicit in his references to religion, because he
didn't need to be.  They were built into the narratives of his
films, as they were built into the parables of Jesus (before he
explained them in private to his disciples, at which point they lost most of their
power.)  Here the religious references seem imposed from outside
the narrative — one
of the few cases in which we catch Ford preaching.  Ford wasn't at
his best in a pulpit — like Jesus, he did his best work out of
doors, in taverns and in the homes of ordinary people.

The most moving sequence of the film shows a series of
soldiers walking through a town towards the train that will take them
to the front.  We see the film's young lovers but also nameless
characters — a stiff-upper-lip officer walking with his son, tenderly holding the little boy's
hand, a soldier walking with his mother, who babbles advice as a way of
not falling apart.  In these small vignettes we feel the truth of
war, feel its threat to decency and humane life, far more deeply than in
the noble pronouncements of the characters who expound Ford's
sentiments directly.