John Ford

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I'll be honest, I find him the toughest of the old masters to appreciate. The one film of his I love without any reservations is Liberty Valance, though The Searchers' flaws seem less important every time I see it. I think I'm at a disadvantage because, for the most part, I can't see his films on the big screen. I have no problem loving Hitch, Hawks, Lubitsch, Capra, and Wilder, but with small screen Ford, the corniness of the scripts is sometimes a lot more obvious than the visual poetry everyone always goes on about.

I've been going back to some of his films lately, tho, because I just got a copy of This Is Orson Welles, a book-length interview with my favorite director, and I thought this passage (pg. 28-29) was interesting:

Peter Bogdanovich: Did Ford know you'd been studying Stagecoach?

Orson Welles: Why should he? It wasn't what you'd call a big public event - I'd just been running it a lot.

PB: Why Stagecoach specifically?

OW: Why not? I wanted to learn how to make movies, and that's such a classically perfect one - don't you think so? Not by any means my favorite Ford, but what a textbook!

PB: I think the influence shows in Kane.

OW: Yeah?

PB: Well, for example, there are a couple of low ceilings in Stagecoach...

OW: Sure there are. I hope you don't think I ever pretended to be the inventor of the ceiling.

PB: A lot of people say you were.

OW: A lot of people ought to study Stagecoach.

PB: You said it's not your favorite-

OW: Oh, I love most of his pictures - The Informer and The Quiet Man least of all. Oh, and that thing with Duke Wayne in the South Pacific-

PB: Donovan's Reef.

OW: And Grapes of Wrath - he made that into a story about mother love. Sentiment is Jack's vice. When he escapes it, you get a perfect kind of innocence. Young Mr. Lincoln, for example. How truly great that is! And what a sense he always has for texture - for the physical existence of things. The Iron Horse - I'll never forget what an effect that had on me as a child.

PB: Orson, you claim you weren't interested in movies as a child.

OW: I loved movies. It just didn't occur to me to want to make 'em. Peter, there are maybe dozens of people scattered all over the world who care passionately about films and don't want to direct. I was one of them. Hey! What about his comedies? What about Judge Priest? He's such a fine comedy director - people tend to forget that.

Justyn Dillingham (Justyn Dillingham), Monday, 9 June 2003 05:40 (nineteen years ago) link

I just saw The Searchers in a gorgeous 35mm print on Friday so I'm totally primed for this subject.

Some days he's my favorite director, although he's not exactly easy to reckon with. Aside from the huge number of films he directed across a 50-year career, there are the "issues" ("Comanches" chanting in Navajo and a Shylockian Jewish character who gets his comeuppance, as well as that awful seen where Marty kicks--and I do mean kicks--"Look" out of his sleeping bag, all in The Searchers alone), the sentimentality (which even as its terribly affecting, as in How Green Was My Valley or umpteen other films, can be somewhat risible), the occasional disregard for realism without a corresponding high stylization (as in, say, Hitchcock, who seems more modern for that).

Stagecoach really is a textbook film in a lot of ways, though I think its tightness owes as much to Dudley Nichols's script as to Ford. (And it's worth nothing that certain stylistic features--the staging of action sequences for one--in this and other Ford films depart from the classical norm.) Actually I'm not sure one of the main virtues of Ford's cinema is this textbook tightness--much more than most Hollywood directors (because he could), his films are often episodic, taking time out for extended digressions and long pauses. The things I typically remember best from the best Ford films are the ensemble scenes. Like the Morgans pausing in melancholy contemplation on their doorstep, just before a celebration, or pretty much everyting in the first 20 minutes or so of The Searchers, where we are introduced to the Edwards family and their relationships to Uncle Ethan. In scenes like this he makes as much use of deep staging as anything in Citizen Kane. If Kane hadn't already been decided upon as "The Greatest Movie of All Time" it might be possible to debate the use of deep focus in that film with its use in another film of 1941, How Green Was My Valley. The latter film was of course more treasured in its day, winning Academy Awards and so on. But it's been eclipsed by Kane in the long run, and for a number of reasons the idea that Kane pioneered the use of deep focus has become film studies cant. (A quick survey of the rebuttal: deep focus had been an option since very early in the cinema. Feuillade uses it in Fantomas and other films. It's just that it had fallen into disuse in 30s Hollywood--and by extension other national cinemas. A number of cinematographers, Toland first among them, helped to reintroduce deep focus to the American cinema in the late 30s/early 40s. Raoul Walsh and his cameraman James Wong Howe, as well as Ford and Miller and Welles and Toland, played a big role in this. A Ford film from 1940, The Long Voyage Home, is almost as radical and distinctive an experiment in deep focus as Kane.) It's silly to make this an either/or dillema, since they are both great films, but there is something to be said for the fact that Ford's use of deep focus is tightly tied to the necessities of putting across a story, whereas Welles's use of it has an extravagant quality. It takes such extravagance, often, to render an innovation salient, but I still get more pleasure out of the images in How Green than those in Kane--partly because they are inextricable from the emotional flow of that great film.

I've probably seen more films by Ford than anyone else save (maybe) Mizoguchi but that doesn't mean I have something to say about them all, sadly. A few months ago I saw a very unusual Ford film, from his "prestige" days in the 1930s, called Pilgrimage--about a woman who travels to Europe to see the grave of her son who died in WWI. There are some clunky bits toward the middle but the first act--which takes place in (IIRC) a small Kentucky town--and the finale are typically beautiful, lyrical Ford.

amateurist (amateurist), Monday, 9 June 2003 14:24 (nineteen years ago) link

P.S. ALL Welles quotes should be taken with numerous grains of salt. He wrote and rewrote the story of his learning film, etc. many times, although his debts to Stagecoach were acknowledged early and often. There's that great quote, in response to the question, Whose work did you study before you made Kane? "The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."

amateurist (amateurist), Monday, 9 June 2003 14:26 (nineteen years ago) link

There ARE problems with The Searchers I think. The mix of tones that's a staple of Ford's films from the mid-30s on isn't quite as well integrated as it is in How Green Was My Valley or The Quiet Man or even Fort Apache. It definitely has an astonishing power and sweep, not to mention incredibly color photography--so I can see why people favor it, but I prefer those other films most days.

amateurist (amateurist), Monday, 9 June 2003 14:43 (nineteen years ago) link

I love his westerns most, and it's not a form I have a special fondness for. And the Monument Valley scenes have the extra bonus of making me think of Krazy Kat. I think there are not so many directors whose whole career is worth more than that closing shot in The Searchers, to take just one example.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Monday, 9 June 2003 19:55 (nineteen years ago) link

I have, in fact, used the first 20-25 minutes of The Searchers (up to the funeral) to teach the art and science of visual storytelling to would-be critics. I'm not a Fordophile in the sense that I've seen all of his work, but I watch The Searchers over and over again--corny, un p.c. bits and all--and get something new out of it every time. Likewise, while it's not nearly the masterpiece that The Searchers is, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly one of my favorite movies about America.

Lee G (Lee G), Friday, 13 June 2003 17:55 (nineteen years ago) link

Declaration of ignorance: I've only seen Stagecoach, Wrath, Valley, Clementine, Searchers, Liberty.

I don't think anyone's ever questioned Ford's ability as a storyteller or a landscape artist; where the doubts of people like me have always been are with his reputation as a thinker. What I've been thinking lately is that because so many have overpraised his treatment of Big Issues like poverty and racism, I've been looking for substance in these place and missing the point. But a few characters, notably Charley Grapewin's Grandpa Joad, have stuck in my mind. All these characters are male, which tells you what I think Ford's real strength is.

b.R.A.d. (Brad), Monday, 16 June 2003 11:45 (nineteen years ago) link

one month passes...
Just saw Searchers again at a local theater, and I'm more impressed by it than ever. Its flaws are more obvious than ever, too: the too-abrupt shifts in tone, the racism and sentimentality (even more unsettling in a film that seems to be attempting to criticize racism), the mostly risible attempts at humor. The wedding scene and the fight between Jeffrey Hunter and the guitar-playing dude is just awful - it belongs in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. But there's so much that's truly great in that movie - the deservedly famous opening and closing shots, the ominous scene leading up to the massacre, the balance of mutual distrust and growing comradery between Marty and Ethan, and the beautifully subtle way Ford allows us to guess the truth about Ethan's feelings for his brother's wife - that it hardly seems to matter.

Justyn Dillingham (Justyn Dillingham), Sunday, 3 August 2003 04:25 (eighteen years ago) link

the truth about Ethan's feelings for his brother's wife

Yes! Isn't that amazing?

There is a lot of stuff in The Searchers that verges on kitsch...the Mexicans, the Indians in a few cases, the hayseed going to marry Marty's sweetheart, etc. A lot of people have found a way of appreciating this as part of the movie's essence as American popular entertainment: look, deep themes and low comedy can coexist! But like you say I think those tones aren't modulated quite as well in that film as in some other Ford pictures.... It does a slight (very slight) disservice to Ford to try to rationalize some of the choppiness in this film, when he was capable of better.

amateurist (amateurist), Tuesday, 5 August 2003 03:55 (eighteen years ago) link

two years pass...
Why Liberty Valance > Searchers (I've always felt so too) from Reverse Shot:

http://www.reverseshot.com/autumn05/symposium/libertyvalance.html


(interesting symposium on classics hitherto unseen by the writers)

Dr Morbius (Dr Morbius), Wednesday, 16 November 2005 16:26 (sixteen years ago) link


and Rosenbaum on The Sun Shines Bright:

http://www.rouge.com.au/7/sun_shines_bright.html

Dr Morbius (Dr Morbius), Friday, 18 November 2005 21:51 (sixteen years ago) link

one year passes...

21-disc Ford box coming:

http://davekehr.com/?p=195

Dr Morbius, Monday, 18 June 2007 14:40 (fifteen years ago) link

the only john ford movies i have seen are men without women, arrowsmith, the lost patrol, the informer, mary of scotland, stagecoach, young mr.lincoln, drums along the mohawk, the grapes of wrath, the long voyage home, tobacco road, how green was my valley, the battle of midway, they were expendable, my darling clementine, the fugitive, fort apache, she wore a yellow ribbon, rio grande, the quiet man, mogambo, mister roberts(if that counts), the searchers, the last hurrah, the horse soldiers, two rode together, the man who shot liberty valance, cheyenne autumn, donovan's reef, and how the west was won(which he directed part of), and i like them all, but i don't think i have EVER seen ANY of his movies from the 20's. which is sad, i guess. but then again it just means that i have a lot to look forward to!

i could watch a john ford movie every day of the week.

scott seward, Monday, 18 June 2007 15:34 (fifteen years ago) link

I've seen The Iron Horse and the silent 3 Godfathers.

Dr Morbius, Monday, 18 June 2007 17:39 (fifteen years ago) link

two months pass...

crikey, look at these box details:

http://davekehr.com/?p=230

Dr Morbius, Monday, 10 September 2007 18:05 (fourteen years ago) link

Can't read it- print is too small.

James Redd and the Blecchs, Monday, 10 September 2007 19:56 (fourteen years ago) link

pre-release cut of Muy Darling Clementine!

Dr Morbius, Monday, 10 September 2007 20:06 (fourteen years ago) link

Muy Darling? Do they go South of the Border?

James Redd and the Blecchs, Monday, 10 September 2007 20:07 (fourteen years ago) link

four years pass...

Something I never knew till today: Woody Strode played football alongside Jackie Robinson at UCLA.

clemenza, Sunday, 5 February 2012 16:17 (ten years ago) link

I knew he was a collegiate star, forgot where

Literal Facepalms (Dr Morbius), Sunday, 5 February 2012 16:20 (ten years ago) link

nine months pass...

had never seen my darling clementine before, had no idea it was gonna have walter brennan as a bad guy. he should have always been a bad guy! gives him dignity. (i've never seen the westerner either.)

movie was great. loved: earp/holliday's first confrontation at the bar; earp tipping back chair; all barber jokes; cloud of dust kicked up by horses making holliday cough/getting him shot; "you ever been in love, mac?" "no, i've been a bartender all my life"; "there's probably a lot of nice people around here, we just ain't met em"; ten-minute shakespeare interlude designed to deliver both Local Color and holliday-related Intimations Of Death; surprisingly melancholy ending; various john ford skies. also paced just terrifically for a movie with so much plot-irrelevant business in it.

difficult listening hour, Tuesday, 27 November 2012 21:35 (nine years ago) link

was p upset when "chihuahua" died.

difficult listening hour, Tuesday, 27 November 2012 21:36 (nine years ago) link

That's Linda Darnell isn't it? Her real life death was pretty upsetting too.

Roadside Prisunic (James Redd and the Blecchs), Wednesday, 28 November 2012 20:01 (nine years ago) link

this is one of the few Fords whose mythopoetic qualities don't annoy me.

the little prince of inane false binary hype (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 28 November 2012 21:10 (nine years ago) link

i'll admit the messianism around henry can be annoying but you don't even like harrison?

difficult listening hour, Wednesday, 28 November 2012 21:26 (nine years ago) link

Gerald's mythopoetic qualities shown in his casual wear.

the little prince of inane false binary hype (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 28 November 2012 21:28 (nine years ago) link

Fonda isn't very messianic as Earp, certainly not compared to Tom Joad or even young Mr Lincoln.

saltwater incursion (Dr Morbius), Wednesday, 28 November 2012 21:29 (nine years ago) link

nah he was really grounded. we were being dumb. (also i think i may have confused brave new world with real life.)

difficult listening hour, Wednesday, 28 November 2012 21:32 (nine years ago) link

two years pass...

I watched quiet man tonight for the third time this year idk am I getting more cod irish or is there really something there, leaning toward the latter atm

thoughts you made second posts about (darraghmac), Sunday, 31 May 2015 01:03 (seven years ago) link

I could barely finish it once.

The burrito of ennui (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Sunday, 31 May 2015 01:06 (seven years ago) link

You are stronger than me. His Technicolor Irish films are...too brawny for me.

The burrito of ennui (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Sunday, 31 May 2015 01:06 (seven years ago) link

thing is my memories of the eighties west of Ireland are p much that technicolor depending on the humour I'm in

thoughts you made second posts about (darraghmac), Sunday, 31 May 2015 01:10 (seven years ago) link

I've read some stuff on the movie concerning the opening scenes where Sean looks down on the village and there's a kind of hazy unreality to it all like he's creating an idealised version of the homeland. I dunno about that myself, it's due a rewatch I think. I love this film unreservedly myself. I just watched My Darling Clementine for the first time last week, that's a wonderful film too.

tayto fan (Michael B), Tuesday, 2 June 2015 21:15 (seven years ago) link

six years pass...

Pardon the delay 💐 Our JUNE 2022 titles will be announced on Thursday (3/17)... pic.twitter.com/0gcRwPsMoV

— Criterion Collection (@Criterion) March 15, 2022

The Criterion announcements for June 2022 have been postponed to March 17. So there's speculation that a big John Ford title (The Informer? The Quiet Man?) will be among them. Any thoughts?

Also, I dragged out the Ford at Fox set; any suggestions for what to watch? (I'm thinking What Price Glory, but talk me out of it. Or don't!)

Infanta Terrible (j.lu), Wednesday, 16 March 2022 17:33 (three months ago) link

So I did watch WPG last night. When I saw The Black Watch back on New Year's Eve, I wondered what a John Ford musical would be like. Did he ever get any closer than this?

Infanta Terrible (j.lu), Friday, 18 March 2022 13:38 (three months ago) link

Half an hour into this excruciatingly bad Spanish giallo/sexploitation flick, the protagonist has just told his lover, post-coitus:

"Do you know what John Ford used to say? Love is the contact of two epidermis."

Love it when a hack filmmaker tries to class their film up by dropping a name, but dodgy subtitles aside....is there some actual Ford quote that's anything near this?

Daniel_Rf, Saturday, 19 March 2022 13:05 (three months ago) link

Love as it exists in society is merely the mingling of two fantasies and the contact of two skins.

Nicolas Chamfort

Possibly the translator misheard "Chamfort" as "John Ford".

Halfway there but for you, Saturday, 19 March 2022 15:54 (three months ago) link

lmao yeah I checked and that's def what happened, French philosophy much more of a reference point for this kind of film than horse operas

would've been funnier if it had actually been John Ford tho

Daniel_Rf, Saturday, 19 March 2022 16:22 (three months ago) link

The sentiment perhaps closer to England Dan and John Ford Coley of "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" fame.

Halfway there but for you, Saturday, 19 March 2022 16:30 (three months ago) link

two weeks pass...

https://www.criterionchannel.com/young-mr-ford

If you have access to the Criterion Channel, they've just posted a number of early John Ford films (not all of which are in the Ford at Fox boxset).

Infanta Terrible (j.lu), Monday, 4 April 2022 23:21 (two months ago) link

one month passes...

recently watched two silents, Just Pals (1920) and Iron Horse (1924) and both were memorable.

Dan S, Monday, 16 May 2022 00:41 (one month ago) link

Iron Horse featured George O’Brien, who was “The Man” in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), one of the great films of all time

Dan S, Monday, 16 May 2022 00:47 (one month ago) link

I see the title was "The Iron Horse". It was very long (2 1/2 hours) and was too episodic, but George O'Brien was hot and it was quite watchable

Dan S, Monday, 16 May 2022 01:13 (one month ago) link


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