Despite several notable eclipses during the last half-century, in the long run it seems that it is John Ford’s impressive body of work – much more than the efforts of his critical supporters – that has succeeded in winning over many of his former detractors and most of the sceptical or indifferent observers, so that today his status as a first-rate filmmaker is generally admitted everywhere.
Not so much, perhaps, his historical or aesthetic ‘relevance’, but rather his ability to move us and to create images, characters and tales which capture our interest and linger in our memory long after the films’ ending. Which seems to me more interesting than the sort of importance acknowledged or lent to figures like Eisenstein, Orson Welles, early Rossellini or the early postwar De Sica, because in Ford’s case such appreciation does not pretend to be an ‘objective’, distanced or ‘scientific’ judgment, but rather a very personal choice, a conscious acceptation of the unwilled feelings provoked by his films, a fascination which allows each spectator to remain in permanent intimate contact with all his seen work.
Although not every Ford admirer will dare to voice clearly his or her opinion or feel the same kind of affection for Ford’s films, nor will they be likely to value the films for the same reasons, today there seems to be a large consensus in considering this prolific filmmaker as one of the very greatest in film history. Such was certainly not the case forty or even thirty years ago, when it was still not well regarded – in some quarters it was even highly suspect or discreditable – to air publicly a high appreciation of Ford’s work. But the present status involves some dangers as well: his qualification as ‘great’, finally accepted by most people, can become a mere label which closes the door to further discussion. It can prevent the constant reflection that such a huge, formally and ideologically complex work such as Ford’s demands, so that his figure may get petrified into some sort of statue of a ‘giant of cinema’, so ‘untouchable’ and revered that all real contact with his films becomes impossible, turning them into what they are not – museum pieces or relics from the past.
Moreover, I believe that many of the people that feel and think that Ford is not only ‘one of the great’ filmmakers, but perhaps the greatest, should try to prevent his easy assimilation with other masters of his generation or even with younger directors which have trod much the same territory or worked within the framework of similar film genres. We should, therefore, constantly analyse and revise our reasons for such exceptionally high consideration of Ford’s cinema, which, to begin with, is not supported by two, ten or even fifteen films, but covers – with the unavoidable exceptions in such a long professional career – almost his whole output and ranges from 1917 to 1965.
Of course, my reasons are not the only ones possible, nor probably the best; but they are my own, and therefore those I can offer: I cannot explain the motivations of others, since it is already difficult enough to express my own. There are, or can be, of course, other reasons, perfectly valid, both to deny or limit Ford’s stature or to uphold it from quite different standpoints. On the other hand, it would be almost impossible to mention – and probably boring for most readers – every reason I can think of, so I will concentrate on a few, choosing amongst the most evident and widely acceptable, which I find personally decisive, but not too particular or private to be shared or understood by anyone else, and that interested or doubtful readers can verify for themselves by merely watching the most widely available films.
Although he did not make as many as most people think or assume, everybody immediately associates Ford with Westerns. Ford himself, with unusual humility, did not hesitate in presenting himself as a director of Westerns, whereas most of his colleagues, even those almost exclusively dedicated to the genre, rather concealed their involvement or complained about it, claiming that they had always wanted to make more ‘serious’ or ‘adult’ films. Certainly, it is mainly his films about cowhands, gamblers and assorted outlaws, marshals, cavalrymen in frontier outposts, homesteaders and ‘Indians’ which have made him a popular, widely renowned director, while also contributing to his more serious prestige: his many awards were not won only for the likes of The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home (both 1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) or even The Quiet Man (1952), but also for Stagecoach (1939) or My Darling Clementine (1946); it was in the latter part of his career when nobody paid attention – strange as it may seem now – to Wagon Master (1950), The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960) or Two Rode Together (1961), and either dismissed or pitilessly ridiculed Mogambo (1953), The Long Gray Line (1954), The Wings of Eagles (1956) or Donovan’s Reef (1963).
Of course, The Iron Horse (1924), Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers and even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) rank, either since the time of their release or more belatedly, amongst his best-known films; we should realise and remember, however, that in the twenty-five years between 1939 and his final Western Cheyenne Autumn (1964) his only explorations in the genre were, besides the six just mentioned in the above paragraph, Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers (both 1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master and Rio Grande (both 1950), Sergeant Rutledge and Two Rode Together, to which some might add, despite their geographic setting in the Eastern part of the United States, Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Horse Soldiers (1959) and the twenty-some minutes of his episode – The Civil War – in How The West Was Won (1962).
In any case, most filmgoers associate Ford with landscape. The very mention of his name brings to mind unforgettable images of impressive red mesas, canyons, boulders and spires in Monument Valley; a row of horsemen shadowed against the skyline, to the beat of marching/riding songs; two men exchanging monosyllables as they quietly ride through the desert or the plains, in transient harmony with nature, or rest by the riverside or drink coffee in tin pots in a night camp; a threatening sunset, as the sky turns from orange to deep red then to black; a stagecoach fleeing in a cloud of dust, pursued by Apache warriors on horseback. But also the hills of Wales, a creek or a green meadow in a dream-like Ireland, the dusty badlands of Oklahoma, the promising gardens of Californian valleys, or a nightmarish battlefield in Shiloh (or, were Mogambo better known, the African trees and jungle).
This means that Ford gets to us through our eyes, and engraves permanently in our memories, in the first place – before we become acquainted with the characters, and their stories unfold – a collection of images. It is not so easy to recollect the dialogue – although, on reflection, it is usually excellent – but it is almost impossible not to remember the landscapes, or the darkened interiors, where the action develops.
Another set of images which immediately comes to our minds is a long series of familiar faces, renowned – John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Maureen O'Hara, Richard Widmark, slightly less Vera Miles, Anne Bancroft, Jeffrey Hunter – or nameless for most people – Ward Bond, Thomas Mitchell, Jane Darwell, Sara Allgood, John Carradine, Donald Crisp, John Qualen, Andy Devine, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Hank Worden, Francis Ford, Harry Carey Jr, Basil Ruysdael, Frank McHugh, Charles FitzSimmons, Constance Towers, Victor McLaglen, O.Z. Whitehead, Mildred Natwick, Una O'Connor, James Gleason, Sean McClory, Ken Curtis, Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields, Anna Lee, Dick Foran, Judson Pratt, Edward Brophy, Carleton Young, Mae Marsh, Russell Simpson, Rhys Williams, Willis Bouchey, Donald Meek, Woody Strode, Olive Carey, Alan Mowbray, J. Farrell MacDonald, George O'Brien, Tom Tyler, Jeanette Nolan, Patrick Wayne, Denver Pyle, Charles Seel, Paul Birch, Grant Withers, Harry Woods, Danny Borzage, Jack Pennick and many others to which Ford remained singularly faithful, a sort of big family or ‘stock company’ which took turns or inherited roles – which humanise the ‘landscape’ and personalise those images that his films so discreetly stock in our memory: no matter how many things have happened to us nor how many other films we have seen since we first saw Ford’s, they stay.
Those were his actors – and, by extension and identification, also his characters, always the same or variations of them – in much the same way as Monument Valley – even if we ignore its real name and that it is actually located in the state of Utah, since in fiction it passes for Texas, Arizona, Colorado or New Mexico – became pictorially his territory, as much as Yoknapatawpha County was William Faulkner’s literary country, Macondo is Gabriel García Márquez’ or Región was Juan Benet’s ... and in spite of only having filmed there some shots in seven or eight of the approximately one hundred and sixty films he directed.
If we make a slight effort of remembrance, we can see that there have been very few filmmakers whom we so vividly and immediately associate with a coherent set of images, faces and landscapes, with what could be called a visual world. Because it should be stressed that it is not a matter of a single, isolated shot, of striking framings, but of a whole colour pattern – which one is almost tempted to call palette, as it is frequently said in the case of painters – a peculiar light, a particular kind of setting and set, a distinctive conception of space, a varied and picturesque crowd of human beings which, without being exclusively Ford’s, belong to him forever. It must be remarked that this repertory of images is part of the common patrimony of the Western genre, the same as most of the actors and bit-players he repeatedly employed, and that Ford was neither the first nor the only director to shoot in the neighbourhood of Monument Valley; but, somehow, Ford seemed to ‘appropriate’ all of these elements, make them his in the process of building with these oft-used, shared materials a cinematographic world of his own that, as usually happens in the cinema, is – more than on the screen or on the chemical support of film – in the stimulated imagination and in the memory of the spectators.
It happens, furthermore, that these images so deeply impressed in our retinas and in our affective recollections have a function which is not merely plastic or ornamental. They speak to us, and tell or suggest a lot of things about these places which, perhaps without the slightest precision, without distinguishing from which films they come, we are able to summon when we think about John Ford, whose name alone automatically brings them to the corner of our brain which stores our visual memories.
And such images tell us also many things, from the very first moment in which they make their appearance, about the characters. Well before Ford tells us their story, without the slightest psychological interpretation being offered, these fictional beings which Ford has just introduced to us truly have a life of their own, carry with them a biography, and are no longer for us completely unknown entities. The images, without being either explicit or symbolical, are often revealing or insinuating, and they allow us to intuitively guess the past, the antecedents, the character of these fictional human beings. Just as they convey to us instantly a certain amount of information, they awake our curiosity and allow Ford to preserve a certain mystery about them.
A slight gesture, a furtive look, their way of walking, are usually enough. We need not be aware of the narrative conventions at work in the ‘Classic American Cinema’ or in its different genres, nor of the way in which at each period subordinate characters’ roles were distributed between bit players under contract within each different production company. Instantly, there is lot of things which we believe we know about every single-phrase or single-shot player appearing in a John Ford movie. Often no more will ever be told to us about these passing characters, but that first impression seems to be enough for us to remember it ten years afterwards¼
The explanation of this very effective economy is quite simple. Ford learnt to make films before the enforcement of sound, when images alone did all the work, had to speak for themselves. His master was, like anybody else’s at the time, David Wark Griffith, who perhaps did not invent everything but in many instances was the very first to do really well a lot of things, or the one who perfected them until they reached a degree of expressivity which has seldom been surpassed afterwards. Also, it should be remembered that, before becoming a director, John Ford was an actor, like many of his contemporaries (Raoul Walsh, Frank Borzage, Allan Dwan, Henry King, etc.). Last but not least, witnesses recall that he liked to spin and write – himself or his screenwriters, at least since he recruited Frank S. Nugent in 1947 – a whole biographical notice, from family origins to death, of each minor character in his films, so that, even if he was on the screen only for a fleeting moment – for instance, behind a saloon bar, serving a glass of liquor ... I’m sure every reader recalls the bartender in My Darling Clementine and his reply to Henry Fonda when marshal Wyatt Earp asks him ‘Have you ever been in love?’ – it was never the words of a bit player who said his line and instantly ceased to exist, but an authentic human being, caught in a precise instant of his lifeline, with a past on his back and memories of it, and also with a future which the character would logically ignore, and maybe the actor as well, but of which Ford was perfectly aware when he filmed him. That is the reason, no doubt, why every gesture, brief and insignificant as it may be, always belongs with the character and has for him a meaning in the moment in which the films crosses his destiny.
As a good silent filmmaker, Ford trusted images and relied heavily on them; he knew that they are enough to tell any story. But also, as a good Irishman, he was fond of music and conversation, of songs, of jokes and gossip, of the musicality of voices and the variety of accents and intonations, of listening to tales and of telling them, and therefore he was ready to embrace sound pictures and use the new invention in the most useful way, strengthening with sounds, words and music the images, instead of saving himself the trouble and substituting the latter with dialogue. That explains, to my mind, that, contrary to many other established silent filmmakers, more theory-oriented or at that time with greater prestige to preserve, Ford accepted without reservations the new language which was suddenly imposed on film, and that he adapted to the new techniques with no difficulty at all. Really, I believe that only then – after the coming of sound – did Ford reach his full maturity as a filmmaker: before, his art was deprived of things he needed and liked very much, and he was forced to translate into images – certainly beautiful, but perhaps forcedly expressive – what he could show directly, in a more simple way, with sound, letting each shot limit itself to giving strictly visual information – gestures, movements, environment, space, distance, light – without overcharging it with narrative elements, from which he freed himself step by step.
It is known, and there are countless witnesses, that Ford loved telling tales. More the act of narrating them, perhaps, playing with the listeners’ curiosity, than inventing them or building up their narrative structure. He was an improviser, and not only orally. And if he showed a natural flair, instinctive rather than cultivated, for drama, what Ford really liked was to dose, to pause, to surprise, to exaggerate, to drive the tale along, to redress it, playing with its rhythm: in one word, to direct it. Which did not prevent him, although he usually did not get credit for the script and guild regulations in Hollywood made it very difficult for a director to put his signature as co-writer, from having a decisive hand in its collaborative elaboration process, although it was truly with the camera and improvising with the players that he ‘wrote’, during the shooting.
The liberties that Ford was capable of taking with the script are widely known, perhaps exaggerated to the point where fact becomes legend, even when he might have chosen or suggested the story and ordered the script and supervised its writing and multiple rewrites. He knew very well that the screenplay is only a skeleton, a fleshless and faceless structure without voices and movements, and that all that, which is what gives form to the individual character of each of the possible films that the same script can generate, of each of the different buildings that can be erected with these foundations, was his own business, his job, for which he had to give account to no one else, neither stars nor financial backers, since they had not the ability to do it for themselves, on their own. And against that the producers could do nothing, or so little, because Ford used to get each shot at the first take, at most at the second, and edited ‘on the camera’, without covering himself, so there were no remainders or alternative takes to add or replace what he had shot, and it became frightfully dangerous to change his final cut or to take out a single shot, which would damage the continuity and some needed information would be lost. Ford could instead, without irresponsibility, allow himself a rhetorical gesture as spectacular as cutting out ten unfilmed pages from the shooting script to make up for lost shooting days if required to complete the movie strictly on schedule because, besides having it all inside his head, he knew that these or any other ten pages had no real relevance: in the next scene there would be some ‘fingerprint’ or consequence of the things left unseen, but which would have happened anyhow and whose effect would be felt and recalled by the characters, their biographies unchanged by the lack of some pages, the scenes vanished from the screen becoming an improvised additional ellipse.
People who really enjoy spinning tales like to tell them in their own way, not according to convention or abiding by rules set by others – for instance, those that tell them because it’s their job or what they are paid to do, as professional narrators, more than by inclination or inner necessity – which means with the most absolute freedom. That is why Ford, who with the passing of time has become ‘a classic’, doesn’t match much with the current image of classic filmmakers, in particular of what is known today, in a dangerous simplification, as ‘American Classic Cinema’, frequently accepting as such merely conventional movies, the more standardised and impersonal films directed by many craftsmen, often capable, not lacking in talent and neither sometimes in inspiration. But such a conception does not lead anywhere of much interest when studying the work of true filmmakers, with real personalities and their corresponding style, even when their modesty has made them almost undistinguishable from their less original colleagues which usually were – precisely because they are less prone to rebel and less obstinate – more appreciated by the industry itself. It is quite possible that John Ford would not deserve being included with the best ‘film craftsmen’ but rather, instead, with the true cinema auteurs.
It is easy to understand that someone so attentive to second-level, background or even marginal characters as Ford, so fond of recurring again and again to players unknown to general audiences but bound to him by a lasting friendship, and so prone to imagine their whole lives, showed a remarkable inclination to wander and frequently let go, at least for some minutes of running time, the mainstream of the storyline, and should rather enjoy telling us the particular story of one or several of the fleeting characters who cross the paths of the protagonists of the film.
It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that most Ford movies tell not one but several stories, and that some of those he produced himself and conceived and shot and edited in full independence – although they usually had small or no success at the box office – such as Wagon Master, The Sun Shines Bright (1953), The Rising of the Moon (1956) or Gideon’s Day (1958), are virtually a string of vignettes, linked by a very simple and linear single purpose or led by one of the main characters. It is not astonishing, either, that these – and other films – often take on a singular force and a prominence out of all proportion the silhouettes of marginal characters, even mere passers-by in the fiction, that take over the film for a while only to disappear just afterwards leaving behind, in the other characters and in us, the filmgoers, a lasting mark: think, for instance, of the drunken theatrical ham played by Alan Mowbray in My Darling Clementine, of the dying mother (Mildred Natwick) of 3 Godfathers, of the resilient dockmaster (Russell Simpson) in They Were Expendable, of the ever-faithful if dumb Ditto Boland (Edward Brophy) in The Last Hurrah ...
And this procedure, which is quite contrary to all the seemingly unshakeable rules of the Hollywood movie, has been so frequent in Ford that few of his movies do not, at a certain point, leave the main course of the plot and come very near, if only for minutes, to the iconoclast model I have just sketched, which violates not only the goal of maximal narrative effectiveness but also some economic criteria deeply imbedded in American filmmaking: it is obviously irregular or even perverse behaviour to give more screen-time than strictly needed to a player with no popular appeal, or let him dominate a scene over a far more expensive star.
It is not simply that Ford liked, whenever he could, to do as he pleased. Digressions are basic in his way of understanding the movies; it is not a whim, or a result of friendly relationships at the time of casting. It is not only an important part of what gives Ford’s cinema its distinctive flavour, so typical of him that it is both instantly identifiable and impossible to fake; it should not be taken for an additional trick on Ford’s part to help him to extricate himself from the strictures of too closed or conventional dramatic and narrative frameworks, but should be regarded as the very key to Ford’s vision of life and history, always sensitive and focused on minor characters, on incidents of seemingly no consequence, and opposed, therefore, to the more widely accepted hierarchy of facts and figures.
His is a view of the world outstandingly egalitarian although at the same time deeply singularising: he avoids the risk of reducing everybody to the point of insignificance, and tries instead to single out what anyone can have which is unique and extraordinary, no matter if they are mere bit-players in history: in ‘unknown soldiers’, in the anonymous ‘civil population’, in the crowds usually dispatched (or dismissed) with all-embracing general labels such as ‘the victims’, ‘the casualties’, ‘cannon-fodder’, the ‘silent majority’, ‘the tax-payers’, ‘the armed forces’ ... For Ford, a sailor or a Cavalry sergeant was as important as an Admiral (and Ford himself became in 1955 a Rear Admiral of the Naval Reserve), General MacArthur himself or even the President of the United States; naturally, as individuals, not as part of a shapeless mass or of a social class or a professional group, and that individualisation can be found even among the ranks of the ‘villains’ of each story he told: think of each member of the Clanton family, in My Darling Clementine, or their almost look-alikes, the Clegg clan, in Wagon Master, or Lee Marvin’s henchmen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin).
Although many of his detractors have repeatedly tried to present Ford’s cinema as triumph-oriented, Ford showed no interest whatsoever for victories, but rather for heroic defeats, and more than the great leaders of official historiography – from Custer to MacArthur – he seemed to care for obscure figures, failures and second-rate commanders – ‘Spig’ Wead in The Wings of Eagles, Marty Maher in The Long Gray Line, Johnny Buckley in They Were Expendable, William J. Donovan in the cherished but never made O.S.S., or the fictitious Tom Doniphon of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – de-mythologising the former – from the Custer counterpart which was Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) in Fort Apache to Senator Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) in Liberty Valance – and rescuing from oblivion and deliberately magnifying the latter. This, apart from breaking down established hierarchies, allowed Ford to introduce multiple points of view, to show two sides – or more – of a story, and contributes to help his films, which one would not readily define as ‘objective’, to achieve an amplitude and a complexity which end up being far more interesting than neutrality, the prudent technique of giving ‘one argument for and one against’ or even the lack of perspective and the out-of-focus vision that hamper many films made with the deliberate pretension of conveying an impossible ‘objective’ or ‘balanced’ view of events, or that jump at the opportunity, with clearly partisan aim, of de-constructing and denying the official version of them, only to replace it with another version, often no less oversimplified, no less counterfeit and as legendary as the other.
On the other hand, Ford was realistic enough as a filmmaker to respect facts, environments, current assumptions or beliefs of the periods he depicted, and did not give his characters virtues that would be quite anachronistic, nor did he give them an artificially modern awareness or self-consciousness which they would have logically lacked at the time: when he shows us Wyatt Earp – played by the honest-looking and quiet Henry Fonda – indignant at realising that in Tombstone an Indian is allowed to drink liquor, expelling from the town the inebriated ‘redskin’ by repeatedly kicking him, Ford is not praising, certainly, his way of maintaining peace and order, and not even the fact that Earp is the hero of My Darling Clementine would allow us to charge Ford with complacency or complicity with Earp’s behaviour; even if Ford does not share an attitude towards an Indian which is striking for today’s viewers – at least for European spectators it is both shocking and unacceptable – I would certainly not ask Ford to criticise it, to place himself above the character: he may limit himself to show this attitude at a distance, like an additional bit of information, which tells us what was considered normal and acceptable at that time; Ford does not judge Earp from his position as a filmmaker in 1946 (much less as a filmgoer in 1975 or 2005, which he never was), but he neither endorses nor condones Earp’s actions nor, on the other hand, does he suppress or edulcorate Earp’s argument for treating the drunken, gun-shooting Indian like he does, but rather he allows us to think for ourselves and realise that what we find ‘racist’ in Tombstone at the time was then considered the normal way of dealing with the public order problem. Ford does not charge Earp with ‘racism’ – an accusation which would have been wholly senseless and that Earp would probably not have understood – but allows us to reconstruct what the social environment allowed or approved of in Tombstone at that time. A ‘progressive’ filmmaker remaking My Darling Clementine today would probably suppress such a scene, or would change Earp’s attitude to prevent it from being offensive to the sensibilities of a part of present-day audiences, since his hero image would otherwise be damaged; with such ‘politically correct’ self-censorship, the ‘progressive’ filmmaker would impoverish and falsify the character of Earp and the historical environment he was depicting.
This may explain why I find particularly unfortunate the image of Ford as the mystifying chronicler of a conformist, idyllic and triumphant vision of American history. There is nothing farther from the counter-history that, almost without exception, represents his work, than when his films are watched with the required attention and his points of view compared with those of the bulk of mainstream Hollywood films of each period. Ford’s is mainly a cinema of conflicts, about family disintegration, about deep social crises, in which we see again and again the internal strife of a group – The Lost Patrol, the passengers in the Stagecoach – sometimes of a whole country – therefore his interest in the Civil War, about which he knew a lot more than its slight presence in his filmography would lead one to imagine – in which he usually takes the side or the standpoint of the losers, of the ‘little people’, of the underprivileged, the defenseless, the oppressed, the underdogs, the marginalised or the exterminated (see his stand for the Indians in Fort Apache, only two years after My Darling Clementine, but two years before Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow  or his pervasive sympathising with Confederates despite being himself clearly a Northeastern Unionist).
Insofar as many of his films present a more or less closed and heterogeneous ‘microcosm’, which reproduces in small-scale his country’s society – especially during its emergent or founding phase, or in critical periods like the Great Depression or the start of the different wars in which the US has been involved – it is not unity or harmony that Ford reveals as dominant, but secession and discord, the fight between clashing interests and attitudes. And also because of this Ford deserves to be counted amongst the great filmmakers of the twentieth century.
I would even say that it is precisely this desire of seeing and presenting to us his characters in their entirety, as much as the situations and circumstances they have to cope with, that can explain Ford’s extraordinary and unequalled ability to move. By rejecting the one-dimensionality – so easy and functional – of its inhabitants, Ford’s world takes on a richness and a complexity truly incomparable. Thus, Ford allows us to know and begin to understand even people with whom we have nothing in common at all, who in real life would not interest us in the least or who we would not like to learn about, much less to meet.
I must confess to being allergic, on principle, to several of the groups that Ford has more attentively studied and which he has succeeded in presenting in all their different facets good, ambivalent or bad – without omitting either their weaknesses or their virtues, without concealing their lacks nor minimising their limits, without blinding himself to what admirable things one can sometimes find in the enemy, in people who may be wrong yet remain faithful to their principles, in those whom society regards as delinquents, in individuals with whom one disagrees about everything.
If Ford seems to instinctively repeal something it is precisely the Manichean attitudes that some of their unconfessed professional practitioners – albeit of the ‘left-wing’ versions – have insistently charged him with for years; but, as the Spanish saying goes, one should not expect pears from an elm-tree, since it is all too clear that those severely lacking that capacity to acknowledge anything good and respectable even in those we less appreciate, and vice-versa, are not able even to realise such virtue and appraising it as it would deserve, if only because of its rarity.
Well beyond the beauty of the western or southern landscapes, or those of Mexico, Hawaii, Wales or Ireland; well beyond the inspiration, expressiveness and precision of the frames or the distances from which Ford films each instant; independently from the simplicity or the originality of the tales Ford spins and from the epic or lyric breath he gives them; even above the subliminal effect on each spectator of the joint impact of light, shadows, colours, sound, voices and music, the gazes and gestures of the players, their movements or those of the camera, and the economical and masterful use by Ford of all the resources available in filmmaking, what really moves in his films is the truth of the characters, all that Ford, without explanations, leads us to guess or understand about them: think, for instance, without a word being spoken about it in almost two hours, of all we really know about the past relationship of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and his sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan), which we deduct from the unstressed – and rather unlikely, unfathomable if we don’t catch a couple of gestures that reveal it – mixture of discretion and sensibility on the part of the tough and authoritarian Texas Ranger Reverend Samuel Clayton Johnson (Ward Bond), what from the slightest clues – scarcely alluded to or slightly seen – we can gather about Ethan’s activities since the Civil War’s ending up to his appearance in the far horizon, in the memorable opening shots of The Searchers, as he approaches his brother’s house, returning to the family from which he is already banished for ever.
That Ford is really so subtle and discreet a filmmaker already astonishes us, particularly in these times, in which the rule is rather the emphatic underlining of very obvious and simple things, of slight interest and high unlikelihood, the mechanisation of characters, devoid of any psychological coherence. That a filmmaker trusts so much the filmgoers’ ability to connect mere clues, to read the meaning of gazes and gestures and all sort of non-verbal expressions, to draw their own conclusions, besides deserving our deepest gratitude, makes us participants in that creative process and gives us back a freedom of thought which most films today deny us. To be ourselves who, without being requested to agree with Ford, mostly without even being able to be sure about what he really thinks – because he usually does not voice his own opinions – can take a moral stand before whatever we are shown or told, involves us, whether we want it or not, in the reflective job which requires being a spectator in the cinema.
John Ford died in 1971, at the age of 77 (since he was born, according to the more creditable findings, on February 1, 1894, instead of a year later), after six years of forced inactivity, while he tried in vain to film several projects, in particular one about the Independence War which gave birth to the United States of America, based on Howard Fast’s novel April Morning. But he was too old, and his health too frail, both for insurance companies and for the new breed of corporate lawyers which took over in the ‘60s from the last movie moguls at the head of the major companies. Ford died, thus, embittered and almost alone, and without disciples, since you cannot count as such either Andrew V McLaglen, son of one of his favourite players, or Peter Bogdanovich, both very far away from any of the main characteristics which made Ford so great a filmmaker.
Maybe in time his indirect heirs will surface, but up to the present I see none amongst the many younger directors which profess any degree of admiration for Ford. It seems rather unlikely for several reasons. On the one hand, Ford’s lessons are too complex and implicit for someone else to do something similar nowadays, in a very different situation, in another historical period, with quite different audiences, with other means. And his films would be so much against the trend that it might be dangerous even to try to follow his footsteps. Subtlety is often mistaken for ambiguity or indifference. In fact, the two American films of the last 35 years I regard as nearest the spirit of Ford’s cinema – even if they lack something which Ford always had, a sense of humour – had to pay, one way or another, the price of their ambition. I mean the two films that successively made their director a celebrity and then sent him to the margins of the film industry, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1976) and Heaven’s Gate (1980). Like Ford, Cimino comes from European ancestors, and seems likewise obsessed with the national identity of his country: despite awards and box office success, the first (his second feature) earned him the same ‘right-wing’ reputation that had been hung on Ford during the ‘70s, while the latter has been a scapegoat for an industry which feared to lose control to independent auteurs and the critical establishment. Over-cost excuses apart, I think the rage against Heaven’s Gate had quite different motives: rather that Cimino dared to make of the mythical Far West the bloody setting of the class struggle, something which Ford had – without even realising it, or perhaps so aware of it that he guarded from being explicit – been doing for most of his career.
Some years ago, the name of Ford rarely appeared, if ever, in polls of the best films or best directors. Slowly, this has begun to change, although the dispersion of votes is also increasing, since there are so many great Ford films that there is no clear-cut favourite, and each voter chooses the film he likes best. The Searchers has been steadily gaining ground on Stagecoach, and now has definitely surpassing it. Since no other director has made as many masterpieces as John Ford, his fans have great trouble in choosing only one favourite film; and they have to strongly resist the temptation to forget about all the others, or most of them, and will mention six Ford movies. The most remarkable thing is that, even if each person favours a certain period of his career, and a genre – usually the Western – if one lists the ten or twenty ‘best Ford films’ one is likely to find some from the ‘30s, the ‘40s, the ‘50s and the ‘60s. And the order can change so much that one should date it precisely. Today, July 2, 2005, my personal favourite Ford films seem to be: The Wings of Eagles, 7 Women, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Gray Line, Two Rode Together, They Were Expendable, My Darling Clementine, Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), The Last Hurrah, The Horse Soldiers, 3 Godfathers, Fort Apache, Rio Grande, Judge Priest (1934), The Sun Shines Bright, Wagon Master, Donovan’s Reef, Mogambo, The Civil War de How The West Was Won, Doctor Bull (1934), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and I’d feel badly about excluding Gideon’s Day/Gideon of Scotland Yard, Young Cassidy (1965, directed by Jack Cardiff, but a Ford film), Sergeant Rutledge, Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Cheyenne Autumn, Pilgrimage (1933), Tobacco Road (1941), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Rising of the Moon (1956), Straight Shooting (1917), The World Moves On(1934) or When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950).
I think something of the sort happens to many long-standing Ford fans, even if nobody seems to have seen half of the films he directed as they have (mercifully?) been lost. Such is the fate of most of his silent movies, which – to judge from several of the earliest ones, recently retrieved – is quiet a loss. Considering the size and the quality of his work, Ford could also be the greatest filmmaker of all.
Although there is really no need to know all his surviving films to rate Ford so highly. Had he only directed two or three of these 30 or more films that can be called masterful – regardless of their general acknowledgement as such or still pending real understanding and recognition – it would be enough to consider John Ford as the most moving and deep – not perhaps the most ‘profound’ – of filmmakers. Contrary to what some pretend, Ford is not a magnificent director ‘in spite of his feelings’ but thanks to the feeling he put in to almost everything he did: in the landscape, in the light, in the chromatic modulation, in the rhythm, certainly; but also in the stories he told, in the characters who lived them, in the words they said. As Blaise Pascal wrote, ‘the heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing’, and it is worth noting that he was not speaking of irrational impulses, but, very precisely, of reasons, which shows that it is also through sentiment and affective movements that one can reach knowledge, going even further than what simple ratiocination can allow, however crisp and sharp it might be: there are always areas of human beings and their acts of which reason ignores everything and does not fully grasp or understand.
© Miguel Marías and Rouge 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.