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Executions, Formally Conducted

The Lost Worlds of John Ford: Beyond the Western, by Jeffrey Richards


The Lost Worlds of John Ford: Beyond the Western

Jeffrey Richards
Bloomsbury, pp.334, $115

“My name is John Ford,” said the director of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and The Searchers. “And I make Westerns.” But there are Westerns, and then there are Westerns.

From the dawn of the film medium through at least the early 1970s, Hollywood regularly churned out routine, undistinguished Westerns: clichéd shoot-’em-ups featuring gunslingers with wax mustaches. Yet Ford—like the most talented of his colleagues, including Budd Boetticher, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann—was never interested in horse operas in se.

While the Westerns made by these men, among the most gifted artists of Hollywood’s Golden Age, featured the same saloons, stagecoaches, and cavalry outposts as those of their less talented brethren, for most of them, the genre’s trappings provided a convenient, commercially viable template to explore the themes that exercised them—in Ford’s case, questions of courage and code and honor and masculinity. So, when he said his name was John Ford and he made Westerns, he was speaking not with self-effacement but with a kind of rascally pride: just look at what I did with such a woebegone genre!

Indeed, as critics have long understood, Ford, who was born Sean Aloysius O’Feeney in Maine in 1894 and died in California in 1973, didn’t make Westerns. He used them. “A Ford film, particularly a late Ford film, is more than its story and characterization; it is also the director’s attitude toward his milieu and its codes of conduct,” wrote Andrew Sarris in his classic study of Hollywood filmmakers, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. As an example, Sarris highlighted one of the most expressive scenes in The Searchers—a seemingly incidental, almost tossed-off moment in which Martha (Dorothy Jordan) is glimpsed through a passageway as she cradles, then pats the army uniform of her brother-in-law, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne).

For Sarris, the most significant thing about Martha’s fond handling of Ethan’s garment is how it is framed. In the film, Martha is seen from the point of view of a visitor to her home, “Captain the Reverend” Samuel Johnston Clayton (Ward Bond)—here, the very picture of gallantry. “Nothing on earth would ever force this man to reveal what he had seen,” Sarris wrote. “There is a deep, subtle chivalry at work here, and in most of Ford’s films, but it is never obtrusive enough to interfere with the flow of the narrative.”

One sometimes has the sense that Ford went to great pains and expended great sums simply to give himself the opportunity to film such tiny, transient bits amid his action-packed Western adventures: we can picture the great director summoning assorted horses, extras, and movie technicians to his favorite locale (Monument Valley, Utah) ostensibly to film a battle but with the ulterior motive of capturing a dance or a march or, indeed, a private moment glimpsed, out of the corners of his eyes, by Ward Bond.

Though today less well-known than The Searchers, Fort Apache—on the surface a portrait of two cavalry officers of opposite philosophies, the intuitive Captain Kirby York (Wayne) and the intractable Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda)—offers similar observational digressions. Think of the mock-formal way that Colonel Thursday’s grown daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) greets a junior officer whom she has already informally met but is introduced to for a second time—curtsying and saying, “How do you do?”—or the comically stiff way the colonel, a man with a scant sense of fun, dances with a sergeant’s wife. Yes, there are great battles in Fort Apache, but the scenes that stand out are those that reflect Ford’s utter delight in people, regardless of their background or station.

It is fitting that a recent book on Ford seeks to untether Ford from the Western genre with which he long ago became synonymous. “He received four best director Oscars but none of them for a Western,” writes Jeffrey Richards in The Lost Worlds of John Ford: Beyond the Western, “In fact he made no Westerns between 1929 and 1939. When he was honored in 1972 by a Screen Directors Guild ‘Salute,’ the film he chose to accompany the ceremony was his Welsh family saga How Green Was My Valley and not one of his celebrated Westerns.”

Richards, an emeritus professor at Lancaster University in England, does the useful work of reminding readers of the many kinds of films Ford actually directed—from a World War II drama (They Were Expendable) to a full-bodied romance (The Quiet Man) to a bawdy, outrageous comedy (Donovan’s Reef)—but he also makes the larger point that, for Ford, genres, Western or otherwise, were vessels for themes, character types, rituals, and stray little human moments like Martha’s embrace of the jacket—what Richards would call “bits of business,” such as the line “A slug of gin, please,” which appears in the mouths of female characters in three films.

Richards has an impressive command of Ford’s body of work, enumerating the “funerals, burials, wakes formal and informal” in some seventeen films, adding “executions, formally conducted” in a further four. He describes several of the most durable members of Ford’s famous stock companies of actors, including his own brother, Francis, who was cast as a “lovable drunken wreck” in some thirty-one films. Mae Marsh, long ago a star for D.W. Griffith, turned up in seventeen films, and Danny Borzage, the sibling of the great director Frank Borzage, in sixteen: “These old friends grow old together in his films and their presence gives an added warmth, a sense of continuity and of time passing and reflects that family feeling which Ford sees as the cement to society.”

Richards doesn’t divide Ford’s work into totally discrete genres—the comedies here, the thrillers there—but prefers looser categorizations, focusing on the director’s career-long interest in celebrating Ireland (from whence his family came) and venerating the Catholic Church (of which he was an adherent), as well as his prevailing preoccupations with the reach of empires, the underworld, and war generally and the United States Navy (of which he was a veteran) specifically:

His films consistently articulate and embody his deep love of Ireland, his profound Catholic faith, the importance of family and community, his reverence for the military, the nature of male friendship, the values of service, sacrifice, loyalty, comradeship, and sympathy for outsiders, exiles, misfits and outcasts.

If this litany of passions, beliefs, and convictions attributed to Ford sounds rather breathless, perhaps it is because the director’s life, like his films, was something of a glorious muddle. “For someone who celebrated the family in his films, he was an unsatisfactory husband and father,” Richards writes, adding that Ford was politically ambivalent as well. Richards says that Ford once identified himself as “a definite Socialistic democrat”—after all, among his most cherished non-Western films is his adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath—yet notes that he counted himself as a supporter of the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

The most charitable gloss on such contradictions is not to deny them or even somehow attempt to reconcile them but to see them as part of Ford’s all-inclusive vision of humanity. “Jack was a man for all seasons, but not a man for all actors,” wrote Harry Carey, Jr., a significant supporting player in many Ford productions and the son of an actor who was himself a key player in many other Ford productions. “He was kind to the tough and cruel to the fainthearted, paternal and gentle to the girls. They loved him, but he was afraid of them.”

Richards sees Ford in much the same way: as a sort of sloppy giant who, according to the actor Frank Baker, was so courteous to women that he forbade the use of profanity in their presence on his sets but so desired rowdy male fellowship that he spruced up a one hundred-ten-foot ketch called the Araner to use on occasion for work purposes, such as script conferences, but more often for gambling and drinking with members of the so-called Young Men’s Purity, Total Abstinence and Yacht Association.

One could credibly call Ford fickle, an argument evidenced by the alternating periods of closeness and estrangement from even his most cherished friends and collaborators, including Wayne and Fonda. Peter Bogdanovich, a devoted acolyte before becoming a filmmaker himself, once told me that Ford single-handedly discouraged Wayne from appearing in Bogdanovich’s planned epic Western, Streets of Laredo (which later morphed into Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove). “Ford was malicious,” Bogdanovich said of his mentor. “Ford was also very nice.”

Perhaps it’s fairer to say that Ford had an artist’s capacity to see all sides of an argument, even those arguments he had with himself. And several of the key films discussed here reflect, even more fully than his Westerns, Ford’s attempt to capture the entire human parade on screen. For example, the Hawaiian-set romp Donovan’s Reef is framed as a battle of wills between the uncultivated barkeeper Donovan (Wayne) and the demure Bostonian Amelia Dedham (Elizabeth Allen), but while Ford may have intended the showdown, as Richards writes, to be a variant on The Taming of the Shrew, the filmmaker never tips his hand about whose side he’s really on: when, upon her arrival, Donovan beckons Amelia from her boat into his canoe—a disembarkation sure to end in disaster—Amelia ends up pulling both of them into the water. With her neat white suit and fine white hat drenched, Ford seems to be having a joke at Amelia’s expense, but when she reams Donovan out, it’s hard to disagree with her judgement: “Of all the stupid, imbecilic oafs!” As a gentleman and a grouch, Ford could probably identify with both.

Drawing intelligently on pioneering Ford scholarship by Bogdanovich, Tag Gallagher, and Joseph McBride, among others, Richards is attuned to seemingly arcane shifts in critical perceptions, noting that several of the director’s most openly artistic films—including The Informer and the brilliant Eugene O’Neill-derived Long Voyage Home—were unjustly ignored in favor of his more modest, unfussy Westerns. In the process, Richards brings our attention to strands in Ford’s work that are too seldom discussed, especially his piety. In a famous scene in The Searchers, Ethan has little patience for a hastily assembled funeral service for his murdered kinfolk. More compelled to avenge than to mourn, Ethan storms off before the singing of “Shall We Gather at the River?” is complete, shouting, “There’s no more time for prayin’! Amen!” Yet numerous other Ford films, particularly his non-Westerns, reflect the director’s own faith, which is described unambiguously by Richards: “As a practicing Catholic who went to mass [sic] regularly, and died clutching his rosary beads, he saw religion as the cement of society and Catholicism as the best of all available faiths.”

Unusually attuned to denominational distinctions for a writer on a subject as earthbound and temporal as cinema, Richards allows that Ford evinced respect for religiosity in general—for example, the Mormon community portrayed in Wagon Master—but concedes that for Ford, “when it comes to a choice of faiths, it is Catholicism every time.” Richards is especially persuasive in making a case for Ford’s masterly allegorical drama The Fugitive, drawn from Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, against those critics who devalued it for its solemnity and air of self-importance. Another (now) little-seen Ford film, Mary of Scotland with Katharine Hepburn as Mary, Queen of Scots, is also imbued with the director’s faith: “Mary’s death and the last scene of the film remain one of the most stunning and emotional things Ford ever did. The last morning of her life dawns to find Mary asleep on her knees before her crucifix.”

At the same time, Richards gives time and attention to films that never caught on even in their own day, such as Gideon’s Day—a vibrant drama that makes a Scotland Yard inspector’s domestic life, including his effort to fulfill his family’s grocery order, seem as hectic, congested, and finally rewarding as his work life—and Ford’s final feature, 7 Women. Richards does not neglect assorted Fordian ephemera, including Young Cassidy—a film starring Rod Taylor as a fictionalized version of Sean O’Casey from which Ford, drinking and ill, departed mid-production—and his last directorial undertaking of any sort: Chesty, a short but majestic documentary on the life of Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller.

Any book that examines so many of Ford’s films in such detail while purposely excluding those for which he is best known today should lead us to ask why non-film buffs should care. The answer, I think, is that when viewed in toto, Ford’s work, within the Western genre and otherwise, has a profoundly ennobling quality. This is not to deny the limitations of the films—racist attitudes mar far too many—but to recognize that, on balance, they present a world in harmony: the strong, the sentimental, the paternal, the maternal, the weak, the stuffy—they all have places in the tapestry.

At the close of The Quiet Man, Ford calls back the cast for a reprise, with the inhabitants of the village looking in the direction of the camera: a pair of clergymen smile. An old lady curtsies. An old man shakes a stick. Finally—magically—the hero and heroine, played by Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, wave gregariously as they stand together on a path of rocks bridging a stream. She whispers to him; he whips around his head in surprise. Then a series of lovely little actions: O’Hara grabs hold of the stick Wayne is holding, hurls it into the stream like a Pro Bowl quarterback, and gives him a hearty pat on the forearm. She scampers off; he follows her. Watching this, one would be forgiven for wondering whether any visual artist, ever, more beautifully encapsulated the verse in Genesis: “Male and female created He them.”

Viewers should be forgiven, too, for wondering whether society might be healthier if more men were like John Wayne, more women like Maureen O’Hara, and the rest of us could see the world as John Ford did.

Peter Tonguette writes for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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