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John Ford, or The Eloquence of Gesture

Shigehiko Hasumi

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1. See Tag Gallagher’s comentary: ‘As do dozens of Ford pictures, Dr Bull begins and ends with a linking vehicle (a train here and in Liberty Valance, a steamboat in The Sun Shines Bright, a stagecoach in Fort Apache, etc.), which suggests the community's self-containment and isolation from the outer world.’ John Ford - The Man and His Films (University of California Press), p. 94.

The Senator and the Mail Bag

A train advances towards us, drawn by a steam locomotive, and slows down at the end of the platform of a small station. This image makes us think of L'arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat (1895) but, in this introductory shot of John Ford’s Doctor Bull (1933), the train whistle blows several times. We will re-find this sober railway setting at the start of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); but does the mise en scène of that twilight Western rest upon the same narrative principle as in the first instalment of the Will Rogers trilogy shot by Ford for Fox? (1)

At first glance, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance confirms the classical rule of construction. The film begins with a train carrying a Senator (James Stewart) and his wife (Vera Miles) from the capitol to this little Western town; and it ends with their departure. This white-haired couple have come for the funeral of a friend; the political man’s memories of what he experienced in this town unfold in flashback. The train’s arrival is thus indispensable to the film’s narrative organisation. In Dr Bull, by contrast, the train plays a purely anecdotal role, since no character alights from it. The narrative mechanism works on a different level. In the film’s opening shot, the train carries a single object: a black postal bag suddenly thrown from the carriage, landing brusquely. The close-up of this mail bag on the ground begins the narration, and prefigures the shot of the bank bag thrown by Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) as a farewell gesture to Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) in My Darling Clementine (1946).




In Dr Bull, we do not see who throws the bag. A postal worker picks it up and carries it to the office. The chat then shared among colleagues introduces the character of Dr Bull. Likewise at the end: a train stops at the station, filmed from the same angle. This time, a white mail bag is thrown from the carriage. The identical action of throwing thus organises the film’s narrative progression. The postal worker informs the controller that the country doctor is about to make a great scientific discovery. Dr Bull will take the train for this night ride with his new wife. The film ends on the image of the departing train; but, on the narrative level, it is really the throwing of the mail bag which closes the story. The resemblance between Dr Bull and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is thus more than merely superficial.

Collective Motion

It is specific to Ford to show us the image of a bag being thrown rather than a train arriving or departing. The bag has no particular meaning, but the fact that it is thrown plays a role in the narration. Let us designate this gesture of throwing as a theme which, through its repetition, articulates the narrative structure of the films, whatever their genre. The signification of the throwing theme varies from one film to the next. It is a unifying element, making analogous moments from different films correspond. On the narrative level, this theme marks sometimes an opening, sometimes a rupture. It sets off, speeds up or slows down the course of the narrative.

In Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935), the last instalment of the Will Rogers trilogy, the collective throwing of objects has the function of announcing the film’s denouement. The narrative is organised according to that well-known Griffithian system, a last-minute rescue. An innocent young man, accused of murder, awaits hanging. His fiancée, encouraged by her prospective uncle, a seller of snakeoil, looks for a witness to to save her lover from the scaffold. She finds this person, and takes him on the uncle’s boat destined for city hall. Time is pressing, but the Mississippi is blocked by a boating competition. The Uncle decides to participate in it but, alas, his steamboat slows down half-way, lacking fuel. Rogers then orders the crew to start throwing objects. So the representative Fordian figures of the ‘30s – Francis Ford, Stepin Fetchit, Berton Churchill – throw everything flammable into the engine: tables, chairs, deck lumber, wax dolls … even the medicine bottles, which are really full of rum! With each bottle, the flames rise enormously. The boat quickens and arrives safe and sound. This absurdly funny water-race sequence is worthy of the Marx Brothers (in Go West [1940], the Marx Brothers destroy their wagons in order to hurl the debris into a locomotive engine.) The throwing theme is decisive on the narrative level; this collective action saves the innocent young man.

The example of Steamboat ‘Round the Bend prompts us to reflect on the throwing theme: on the thrower and on the object thrown, when and to what end. Collective throwing, although rare, creates typically Fordian situations. In How Green Was My Valley (1941), the family members throw their salaries into the mother’s huge apron. Collective throwing as a family ritual can be found in a completely opposite context in Tobacco Road (1941), where the decline of farmers during the Great Depression is symbolised by the brutality of the unemployed son throwing a baseball against the wall of the wooden house. The starving family members, cued by a silent signal from the mother, throw rocks at the house of son-in-law (Ward Bond) in order to steal his turnips. Like in a military operation, they each carry a large rock and silently approach the young man who has been seduced by the girl in the family (Gene Tierney). Thanks to this collective rock throwing, they succeed in getting some turnips. This sequence devoted to human misery is transformed into an optimistic scene close to light comedy. Is it because of the magic of the Fordian theme of throwing?

Another collective hurl: in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), the veteran cavalry Sergeant (Victor McLaglen), about to retire, drinks Irish whiskey under the eyes of a debonair barman (Francis Ford). On the same day, Captain Bristol (John Wayne) quits the army for good. The Sergeant, in civilian dress, fights off the blows from the colleagues who have come to arrest him (he will enter the security section of the prison). In their rather battered state, the soldiers accept the Sargeant’s proposition to drink in celebration of the Captain’s departure. In their glee, they throw their glasses at the window, the barman hurls his whiskey bottle and the Sergeant sends a soldier of small stature to the wall. This improvised farewell ceremony is scarcely military in nature!

Pure Movement

In Ford, throwing an object does not only represent a collective, anti-conformist ritual at the core of a rigid community. This thematic, repeated right throughout his career, takes on varied significations and functions. The characters, regardless of their class, race or gender, express their emotions by throwing anything that comes into their hands – sometimes purposelessly so. Thus, in Fort Apache (1948), when the cavalry captain (John Wayne), accompanied by an ex-officer from the South (Pedro Armandaris) throws a whiskey bottle into a ravine, his act of throwing traces a glorious movement in space. It is the same when the deserter (Ben Johnson) in Rio Grande (1950), descending at a gallop down the cliff, throws a can. Both scenes occur within the desert lanscape of Monument Valley. Through its beauty, the movement of the thrown object makes us momentarily forget narrative logic. We know the provenance of the bottle and the can, but the suddenness of the throw, in isolation, catches us unawares. The act of throwing, as a theme, functions here by surprise. We note that it comes at the end of a sequence in Fort Apache while, in Rio Grande, it marks the beginning. Ford’s genius is demonstrated in such unexpected but indispensable mise en scène. Ben Johnson throwing his gun into the distance in Wagon Master (1950) is also inscribed in this context.

It is at the level of such thematic surprise that we discover a very fine moment in the Civil War episode of How The West Was Won (1962). The Southern soldier (George Peppard) returns to the farm where he was born and learns that his parents died during the war. We see the image of his younger brother throwing a bucket of water in the yard where a tree casts shade. This gesture represents, in its casualness, an affectionate welcome for the older brother. Similar to the thrown mail bag which in Dr Bull opened and closed the narrative, the thrown water bucket (like the can and whisky bottle), lacking symbolic meaning, plays the narrative role of kicking off a final scene in an improvised manner.






Visible But Eluding Perception

In his work, Ford takes recourse to the throwing theme at the most decisive moments – even if critics have never noticed it. Tellingly, one of the rare commentraries to allude to the mail bag thrown from the train in Dr Bull comes from a filmmaker, Jean-Marie Straub. In an interview with Charles Tesson, he declared:



2. ‘La ligne de demarcation: Entretien avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet’, in Patrice Rollet and Nicolas Saada (eds.), John Ford (Editions de l'Etoile/Cahiers du cinéma 1990), pp. 102-105.

  The important thing is that Ford has no style. What is there in common between Three Bad Men (1926) and the Will Rogers films, especially my favourite, the magnificent Dr Bull which sums up the entirety of neo-realism? When you look at the way the film establishes a little provincial town – the arriving train, the bag of letters on the platform, the girl who comes for the post – it’s only an hour later that you understand why. The entire establishing section is completely documentary. (2)  


We should note that Straub is sensitive neither to the subject nor the story of the film, but to pure actions (‘the arriving train, the bag of letters on the platform, the girl who comes for the post’). Ford’s mise en scène does not resort to a psychological and narrative logic, but to a succession of isolated gestures. The term documentary used to describe the ‘establishing ... of this little provincial town’ is applied precisely to the succession of neutral, everyday gestures ritualised by virtue of this neutrality. The throwing theme is visible, but what is specific to this filmmaker is rarely perceived.

Wherein the necessity of reflecting upon what we call Ford’s style. It is true that the documentary label for rural life in Dr Bull is not applicable to the river race in Steamboat ‘Round the Bend. Following Straub, we can pose the question: what is there in common between the three Will Rogers films produced by Fox and the films made almost simultaneously by Ford for RKO, The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935)?

The Fox films have no pretension. Ford is content merely to assemble them. By contrast, in The Lost Patrol and especially The Informer, the auteur shows an aesthetic, even political, ambition. The lighting of the small provincial town in Dr Bull contrasts with the nocturnal scene of Expressionist shadows in Dublin, reconstituted in the studio for The Informer. There is nothing dramatic in the description of ‘populist’ medicine in a rural community, compared to the tearing inner conflict of the Irish proletarian. If one were not familiar with Ford’s filmography, it would be heard to believe that these two films were made by the same director. But our thematic perspective allows us to recognise what connects them. Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) in The Informer is presented to us like other Fordian characters: throwing away a cigarette butt. Noticing, in the night, his girlfriend being harassed by a shady character, he throws his cigarette over his shoulder before approaching them. Gypo pushes the man to the ground but his gesture is misplaced, for his girlfriend loses a client. He will die because of her, after having denounced a comrade. The throwing theme here acquires a tragic hue.


Of course, there are a thousand ways to film characters smoking – something that appears in virtually every movie. In Ford, however, people smoke at decisive moments. No one throws away his matches, cigarettes or cigars with as much perserverance as in his work. In How The West Was Won, during the discussion between General Sherman (John Wayne) and General Grant (Henry Morgan) on the obligations of war, we find it natural that they smoke a cigar. Wayne smokes for the sole purpose of power, throwing his cigar to the ground in a rage. It is clear that Ford made Wayne redo Harry Carey’s gesture of throwing away his cigarettes at each significant narrative moment when he played the role of Chayenne Harry in silent Universal Westerns.

In The Quiet Man (1953), the ex-boxer (Wayne) returns to the countryside. Close to a forest he lights a cigarette, seeming to obey some ritual. Just at the moment of throwing away his match, he perceives, through the trees, Maureen O’Hara, leading her sheep on the grassy slope. It is as if, in lighting his cigarette, he has provoked the apparition of this dreamlike creature. His gesture of throwing away the match remains suspended, and he is immobilised, awestruck. He will return to smoking only when the young woman has disappeared.

Lighting a cigarette involves something more than simply smoking. In the Fordian thematic configuration, it implies the action of throwing, and has the narrative effect of calling up an erotic feminine presence. Wayne in The Quiet Man is evidence of this constant. McLaglen throwing his cigarette butt in The Informer is equally subject to the narrative effect of this quasi-automatic act. The thematic manifestation of throwing thus provokes starkly different consequences: benign in The Quiet Man, malign in The Informer. This ambiguity insures thematic regularity, since throwing governs equally the appearance or the disappearance of a beloved being.

It also happens that a Fordian hero lights his cigarette when he must renounce a female presence. Thus, at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wayne, having taken the place of his friend James Stewart and killed an outlaw, decides to separate from Vera Miles, for whom he feels something more than friendship. The setting is nocturnal like Dublin in The Informer, and Wayne’s silhouette moves away from a wall in shadow. He throws away his still-burning match. This throwing gesture is like a farewell sign; he will henceforth ruin his life with booze.

The cigarette can be an interchangeable thematic detail. What matters is the act of throwing, not the replaceable object. Lighting a lamp can lead to a narrative situation similar to lighting a cigarette. In How Green Was My Valley, when the priest played by Walter Pidgeon returns to his room and lights the lamp, he is surprised by the presence in the dark of Maureen O’Hara, who has come to say goodbye. Transfixed like Wayne in The Quiet Man, the priest suspends his gesture of throwing the match over his shoulder, the same gesture carried out by the Irish hero in The Informer. In Rio Grande, we find again this shadow-and-light game staging the emergence of a female body. When cavalry officer Wayne returns to his tent, he lights a lamp with a match that he throws on the ground. Suddenly his wife (O’Hara) emerges. Their fleeting embrace confirms the throwing thematic.


In this thematic perspective, throwing does not necessarily imply a narrative consequence. The theme sometimes provokes a burlesque effect, like the enormous custard pie collected by Wayne in The Wings of Eagles (1957), the whiskey and the chair thrown by Wayne and Lee Marvin in Donovan’s Reef (1963), or the chewing tobacco that veteran Francis Ford happily directs into the court spitoon in Judge Priest (1934). This spit being invisible, the filmmaker uses a sound effect. During the defence prosecutor’s speech, this spitoon noise deflates the solemn institutional discourse. Similarly for the diligent coachman (Francis Ford) who spits before a high ranking officer (Henry Fonda) in Fort Apache.

When it comes to objects destined for movement, like the acrobat’s knife in the scene of prison recreation in Up the River (1930), the act of throwing engenders no narrative effect. There is nothing extraordinary about such a performer (played by Spencer Tracy) throwing a knife. It is natural for an American soldier on the World War One battlefield to throw grenades, as James Cagney does in What Price Glory? (1952). The situation is less natural when the throwing theme has a metonymic function. Compare the battle scene in Ford’s colour version of What Price Glory? to the corresponding scene in Raoul Walsh’s silent, black and white 1926 version. In Ford, war is symbolised by a single scene of grenade throwing, in a near-abstract, artificial set lit in an almost Expressionist manner.

One can understand why Ford adapated the celebrated play Mister Roberts – written by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, and performed on Broadway by Henry Fonda – for the screen. Without rehashing the split between director and actor over this project, we can imagine that Ford was interested, above all, in two key moments of the play that feature spectacular throwing. While not knowing which of the three directors – Ford, Mervin LeRoy who replaced him, or Joshua Logan – shot the scenes in which Fonda and Lemmon throw the Captain’s pot plants into the sea, we can be almost certain that this hybrid film is signed John Ford because of this repetition of the act of throwing.

Two television films made in the 1950s and ‘60s, both with baseball as their subject, recount the misadventures of a star far from the stadium, falsely accused of having received casks of wine. Ford does not show any player throwing the ball – for this particular act of throwing has no meaning for him. Note, by contrast, how the memory of two players remains inscribed in the mass public’s memory because of their characteristic way of throwing. In Rookie of the Year (1955), it is not a ball but a bat which is thrown. A sports reporter (John Wayne) comments on the way that the rookie throws his bat away after each failed play, uncovering the family link between the young debutant and a celebrated player (Ward Bond) now in retirement. In Flashing Spikes (1962), another player (James Stewart), split from the professional league, saves a young hopeful who has been unjustly accused. His identity is spotted because of his habitual gesture of plucking up courage, taking a little dirt and throwing it over his shoulder. For Ford, it is the eloquence of gesture which prevails.

In emotional situations, characters throw anything which comes into their hands. At the end of Arrowsmith (1931), the humanitarian doctor (Ronald Colman) throws his whiskey glass against a wall as he decides to adopt a new life. In Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), an Indian, tired of the interminable chase through forests and valleys, hurls his spear at the silhouette of Henry Fonda disappearing over the horizon. In shame and disappointment, having failed his final mission, John Wayne throws his hat down on the desk of his Commander (George O’Brien) in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. For Fonda this will be a joyful gesture, as he throws his hat into the air after inviting Cathy Downs to dance with him in My Darling Clementine. Wayne, accompanied by Maureen O’Hara, will perform this same gesture even more spectacularly in The Quiet Man, confirming that the act of throwing illuminates each film differently. In a dramatic context, Thomas Mitchell, struck by a thrown object on fire, will fall down dead at the end of The Long Voyage Home (1940).

Thus, the drunken doctor (Mitchell) in Stagecoach (1939) throws his whiskey at the chimney to express his distrust of the banker (Berton Churchill). The flames fanned by the alcohol visually translate his emotion. In The Searchers (1956), the old Southerner (John Wayne) expresses his edginess by performing the same gesture in a Mexican restaurant, but in a more striking way – it is a colour film – in front of his nephew who is finishing a meal. In Rio Grande, upset at not having understood the word ‘arsonist’ uttered by Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen throws a bucket in the river. In My Darling Clementine, Victor Mature, in despair, throws his empty glass at the medical certificate hanging on the wall. At the bar in The Horse Soldiers (1959), after the battle with the Southerners, the Colonel (Wayne) will take furious recourse to throwing his whisky glass at a colleague (Willis Bouchey) who, among the wounded, had thought only of his own career.

Solo and Solidarity

The act of throwing isolates the thrower. Alone at the bar, without his colleagues in the military community, John Wayne explains his hatred of doctors to Constance Towers. At the end of his long monologue, he throws his bottle at the glasses on the bar. This behaviour from a Northern officer in The Horse Soldiers is ambiguous, even contradictory: each time he is successful in a military operation, he throws objects in anger, as if he had failed in his duty. Obliged to command his regiment to fire on the Southerners despite his abhorrence at starting battles, he traces with his right arm the gesture of throwing his hat on the ground in despair. When his regiment reaches the point of overpowering the Southern front, Wayne arrives on his horse at the height of fighting. To express his disgust at the useless gunfire, he throws the scarf from around his neck into the distance.

We should not pretend that these gestures of Wayne’s illustrate Ford’s anti-militarism or supposed pacifism. What is essential is that the throwing theme isolates the Wayne character at the heart of his profession and shows his solitude. On the narrative plane, how the act of throwing creates an event is by showing the colonel’s neck deprived of the scarf that has been thrown far away, and which is then replaced by the silk scarf from Towers’ hair. During his last mission, where he destroys a bridge in order to escape a bloody battle, he ties this scarf around his neck. In Fort Apache, this time without any erotic context, Wayne will again thrown his scarf to the ground, when he realises that his regiment, under Henry Fonda’s command, is trapped in a hopeless battle that they could have fled. This throwing gesture which expresses renunciation echoes that of Chief Cochise who picks things up from the ground in order to once more throw them down.






The Throwing Woman

It has often been said that Ford’s films illustrate or defend the values of male communities. The throwing theme, every time, indicates the contrary. Without exception, apart from the rare collective hurls, this theme isolates the hero at the heart of a group. It is rather the women who achieve solidarity with these heroes, bu throwing objects with an aplomb equal to the men.

From her first appearance in My Darling Clementine, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), waitress in the Tombstone bar, circulates among the card players that include Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda). Having caught a chip in mid-air – with a deftness identical to that of the singer on Dennis O’Dea street gathering up the money that has been thrown away in The Informer – she manipulates this chip as she sings, and gives a sign to the boss concerning the card players. She then throws the chip on the table. The singer’s attitude can be compared to that of the Fordian heroes who throw an object in order to conclude a scene. Realising her role as a spy, Fonda brusquely grabs Chihuahua and throws her into a large tub of water. Note that this scene reproduces that of the card game in Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshall (1939), which Ford remade. In the Dwan, Earp (Randolph Scott) throws the spying waitress (Binnie Barnes) – but she herself had thrown nothing. Darnell’s behaviour is thus purely an invention of Ford’s.

Jean Arthur in The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) throws her hat and cardboard cup with a lightness that is similar to John Wayne’s in The Quiet Man. Darnell in My Darling Clementine throws her beer glass onto the bar just like Wayne in The Horse Soldiers. Ava Gardner in Mogambo (1953), alone in her room, unsuccessful in her attempt to seduce Clark Gable, angrily hurls a suitcase and a wine bottle as forcefully as she can. As for Maureen O’Hara in The Wings of Eagles, she throws her hat and towel as nonchalantly as Wayne wields a flower bouquet. Elizabeth Allen in Donovan’s Reef, led by Wayne into his father’s house, throws off her handbag, high heels and hat with an entirely masculine ardour. And finally, Vera Miles in Rookie of the Year throws her gun in a way that recalls Ben Johnson’s gesture in Wagon Master. In short: the throwing theme applies equally well to women as to men.



3. It is surprising to read in a monograph: ‘The film ends, as all good Westerns do, with the hero riding off away from the camera towards the distant horizon - but not alone like Shane. The Western hero as inveterate loner is an invention of the post-war period, when the Western's age of innocence was over and the hero had existential burdens to bear.’ Edward Buscombe, Stagecoach (British Film Institute, 1992), p. 76. Two brief remarks: at the end of Stagecoach, Wayne has no intention of riding off towards the horizon. Accompanied by the Sherrif (George Bancroft), he agrees to go to prison. Then it comes as a surprise that he leaves with Claire Trevor, under the hail of stones thrown by the Sheriff and the Doctor (Thomas Mitchell). In regards to the ‘loner’, contrary to what Buscombe says, Western heroes were already solitary in the silent era, not only in William S. Hart’s films but also those Ford made with Harry Carey, such as Straight Shooting (1917).










Throwing the same object can express different emotions according to the narrative situation. For instance, characters throw rocks to several different ends. We remember Wayne, chased by Indians in Stagecoach, at a crucial moment in the hasty crossing of the river throwing rocks at the horses to make them move. Victor Mature in flight in My Darling Clementine, sitting next to the hurrying coach driver, also throws rocks at the horses to make them go faster. Among Westerns, only Ford’s show men throwing stones at animals so frequently. In Stagecoach, this act of throwing takes on a liberating quality. In the final scene, we see the Sheriff (George Bancroft) and the Doctor (Thomas Mitchell) throw, in jest, stones at the coach holding Wayne and Claire Trevor. This benign gesture of throwing closes the film. (3)

On the other hand, stones are thrown without prior intention into ponds or rivers. In The Lost Patrol, a soldier in the middle of the desert throws a small stone into the water of an oasis, in despair at being encircled by unseen enemies. In contrast, when Richard Widmark in Two Rode Together (1961), during his exchange with Shirley Jones in the forest, throws a stone in the pond, the surface of the water, rippling with circular waves, prefigures the fulfillment of their love. This scene recalls a particularly beautiful moment in the Fordian œuvre. Henry Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln (1939), about to depart from his beloved, stands at the edge of a river, slowly approaches the water and throws a stone. It is a splendid scene. The water’s surface is covered by growing circles, thematically signifying his farewell to the woman he loves. In the following shot, we understand that she has died. The future President of the United States pays a visit, in the cold of winter, to her snow-covered grave. The throwing theme has engendered a sober transitional scene announcing the annihilation of this female presence.

A stone thrown into water can also provoke an apparition. In The Searchers, Wayne hunts for his niece who has been snatched by Indians. After several years, he finds but cannot save her, since she behaves like an indigenous person, and has become part of the Chief’s family. Wayne and his nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) thus find themselves in the middle of the desert, completely devastated. Unconsciously, Wayne picks up a stone and throws it into a pond. As if in response to his gesture, a tiny, female silhouette appears, climbing down the hill like normal. It is a magic moment, for this apparition of Wayne’s niece confirms, unexpectedly, the constancy of the throwing theme. But it is also a tragic moment, since this theme recalls the death of a beloved. Whence Wayne’s violence, which can countenance neither the appearance of his niece nor the disappearance of his sister-in-law. Was Ford, while shooting The Searchers, dreaming of that farewell scene at the river’s edge in Young Mr Lincoln? At an interval of seventeen years, these two films answer the question via the gestures of Wayne and Fonda throwing a stone into water. The Fordian œuvre comes into its own through this knitting-up of the interfilmic thematic game of throwing.


Only those characters capable of throwing an object at decisive moments are truly Fordian. They are defined neither by their character nor their profession, but by their performance of the act of throwing. However, this visible system is rarely perceived as the manifestation of a theme. The way in which Wayne throws off his scarf in Fort Apache is too fleeting, visually, to be noticed. The filmmaker reprises this scarf theme in The Horse Soldiers in order to insist on the character’s solitude. It is in this light that the films of Ford’s final decade must be regarded.


4. Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford (University of California Press, 1968).

5. ‘"A loner", John Ford described him to Peter Bogdanovich, but the term is not really adequate. A more immediate, personal motive for Ethan's profound sense of exclusion is provided by the clear indication of his love for his brother's wife, and hers for him. Others are aware of this, but no-one speaks; nor do we know how much importance to give it.’ Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford (London: Plexus, London, 1981), p. 156. John Ford explained to Bogdanovich: ‘Well, I thought it was pretty obvious – that his brother’s wife was in love with Wayne; you couldn’t hit it on the nose, but I think it’s very plain to anyone with intelligence.’







When Ford declared to Peter Bogdanovich that The Searchers was the ‘tragedy of a loner,’ Lindsay Anderson was scandalised by this choice of word. (4) Surely Ford was wrong about his own film, mistaking Wayne’s ‘neurotic’ personality for that of a loner? After all, he secretly loves his sister-in-law, something that Ford claimed critics did not notice! (5) Was this British critic, theatre director and filmmaker – for whom Ford’s career peaked at The Sun Shines Bright (1953) – sensitive to the magic of Wayne throwing a stone in water, thus evoking the memory of a dead woman? Did he understand that, in every Ford film, this solitary gesture uncovers a thematic configuration based on the act of throwing? Precisely because of their solitude, Fordian characters are in solidarity via the emotion that is expressed by throwing an object far into the distance.

In Ford – unlike in Howard Hawks – it is rare that, as a sign of friendship or partnernship, people share an object by throwing it. In contrast to the matchbox thrown by Humphrey Bogart to Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944), or the gun thrown by Ricky Nelson to John Ford in Rio Bravo (1959) – optimistic images of solidarity – the rifle exchanged between Woody Strode and Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance expresses the ‘tragedy of a loner’. Vera Miles, the beloved woman, belongs to another man, as in The Searchers. We have seen it: Wayne parts from her by tossing an extinguised match as a sign of farewell. In the following scene, at a saloon bar, he throws his cigarette on the floor. He knocks out one of Liberty’s henchmen, throws his gun on the bar and hurls his whiskey glass at those who are escaping. Drunk, he throws the payment for his libation at the barman and leaves the saloon, bottle in hand. At the doorway, he throws still more money at the band. Wayne the actor seems to parody himself, repeating the gestures he made in The Horse Soldiers. The narrative effect of the throwing theme is very emphatic here. Before entering his home, he throws the bottle into the garden and, once inside, lights a lamp and throws it against the wall.




This self-destruction on Wayne’s part, via successive acts of throwing, perfectly illustrates the solitude of the Fordian hero. The thrown lamp, however, does not conclude this particular film. Does the throwing theme bring about the narrative tying-together of Liberty Valance? It is usually said that the film ends with the image of a departing train, carrying the Senator and his wife. But there is another Fordian gesture that concludes the narrative. James Stewart goes to light his pipe. Seeing the joy of the controller who hails him as the man who shot Liberty Valance, he blows out his match and begins to throw it away. Nothing is more specific to Ford than this suspended gesture of a character, an extinguished match in his hand. The Senator seems to want to claim the dignity of being Fordian!

But it easy to grasp how Seven Women (1965), with Anne Bancroft as a doctor who sacrifices herself to a Mongolian bandit in order to save her companions, is profoundly Fordian. The throwing theme illustrates, to the highest degree, the central character’s solitude. Recall her final gesture: downing a poisoned wine glass, which she then throws to the ground with a resigned smile. A fade-out slowly effaces her image from the screen, as the words ‘The End’ appear on the black screen. This disappearance, echoing the signs of farewell characteristic of the Fordian thematic of throwing, marks not only the end of this film, but the entire Fordian œuvre. No other filmmaker has ended his career with such mastery.



  Translated from the French by Adrian Martin, with reference to an earlier draft in English by the author. First published in Cinéma 08 (2004).  

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© Shigehiko Hasumi 2005. English translation © Rouge 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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