Tuesday, 21 February 2017

And introducing... #1. John Ford

About five years ago, I used to write a regular series for the now defunct Eat Sleep Live Film, and since I want to run more features here alongside the usual reviews, I thought I'd revive it. It's called 'And introducing...', it shamelessly apes the Guardian's Pass Notes, and it's a beginner's guide to some of my favourite people in the movies.

#1. John Ford


The great American director. Asked which filmmaker had most influenced him, Orson Welles once replied: “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.” Ford’s career – which sprawled across more than 50 years – produced more cast-iron masterpieces than any other, and covered almost every genre conceivable, though he remains best-known for his Westerns. As a person, he was a ludicrous caricature of the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, prone to acts of remarkable humanity – like filling a funeral with his own friends after the death of a lonely acquaintance, in order to comfort the widow – but in everyday terms was prickly, awkward and really liked to tell lies.

Lies? What like?
He claimed to have been born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna, in Ireland. Actually he was a second-generation immigrant, whose birth name was John Martin Feeney. Such myth-making was intrinsic to Ford’s persona and to his nostalgic films, which – if not the way things really were – were perhaps the way they should have been. Except for the bits where all the white guys shot all the Native Americans.

How can I spot a Ford film?
His movies are characterised by devastatingly effective sentiment, folksy humour, distinctive visual motifs – including extreme long shots, and photography that focuses on the eyes (but not in a stupid way, like Sergio Leone) – and an obsession with both the family unit and the outsider hero. There are motifs and rituals he returns to countless times from communal meals to poignant farewells, but the greatest is that of his protagonist talking to a lost loved one, while gazing at a painting or kneeling by a grave. The most exalted example is in Young Mr Lincoln, as a camera focused on the water segues from summer romance to brutal winter, and Henry Fonda’s Honest Abe is left alone on a frozen riverbank (above). It’s worth adding that if you’re watching a movie where everyone suddenly starts singing Shall We Gather at the River, then Ford almost certainly made it, and his films are also chock-full of boozing, brawling and bawling (like I said, his parents were Irish).

Talk us through Ford’s career, Troy McClure-style.
A pleasure. You may remember him from such Westerns as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and his masterpiece, The Searchers, a staggering odyssey of revenge and redemption that marked the high-point of his many collaborations with John Wayne.

Mates with John Wayne, eh? Was he also a right wing tub-thumper and massive racist?
No. Towards the end Ford veered rather to the right, becoming friends with Richard Nixon, but in the ‘30s he described himself as a “socialist democrat... always left”, and he made the most radical movie ever to come out of Old Hollywood, The Grapes of Wrath, ably assisted by the brilliant, union-bashing producer Daryll F. Zanuck. One of Ford’s last – and worst – films, Cheyenne Autumn, was ironically a noble but boring attempt to right the wrongs of his “manifest destiny” Westerns, by sympathetically depicting the Native American experience, while The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge – though each complex and contradictory – argue that the people of the West can only be free when they let go of their racism. Even The Prisoner of Shark Island, which houses perhaps the most troubling views of any Ford film (anti-slavery campaigners are the bigots, apparently), focuses on the growing respect between hero Warner Baxter and his former slave (Ernest Whitman). After the pair return home, following years away, Ford saves the last shot of the picture for the reunion of the African-American family: a gesture you’re unlikely to find in many American films of the 1930s.

“Not a racist.” I’m nearly convinced. Anything else?
Biographer Joseph McBride argues that Ford purposefully cast friend, red-hunter and all-round objectionable bigot Ward Bond in aggressively progressive roles, as a punishment for his more unpleasant behaviour.

That should do it. Sorry, I seemed to touch a nerve there.
Well, Ford being a right-winger is a common misconception, and one still perpetuated by superb film director and absolutely terrible historian, Quentin Tarantino. I’ll admit that Ford did play, erm, one of the ‘heroic’ Klansmen in the most racist film ever made, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a movie that almost single-handedly revived the KKK (he's on the right of frame, below). But which of us can honestly say we haven’t done that?

I have rarely, if ever, appeared in a racist D. W. Griffith film, but let’s move on. Aside from Wayne and Bond, who else did Ford hang out with?
The John Ford Stock Company comprised more than a dozen performers, who turned up time and again in his films, from Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr to Jack Pennick, Mae Marsh and Ford’s brother Francis. In terms of leading men, Ford first worked with Harry Carey, Sr, then Will Rogers, and later enjoyed a remarkable, oft-overlooked collaboration with Henry Fonda, before his shifting priorities saw him forge a remarkable working relationship with Wayne. Ford himself claimed that it took seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks’ Red River to realise that the “big son-of-a-bitch” could actually act.

Some would disagree.
And they would be wrong. Watch She Wore a Yellow Ribbon if you’d like your eyes comprehensively opened. Ford was fascinated by the idea of toying around with Wayne’s screen image, casting him variously as a Swedish sailor, a tormented divorcee, and a tormented, lovelorn ex-soldier corrupted by racism. Compare that with regular Wayne screenwriter James Edward Grant’s memorable formula for creating the actor’s vehicles: “All you gotta have in a John Wayne picture is a hoity-toity dame with big tits that Duke can throw over his knee and spank, and a collection of jerks he can smash in the face every five minutes. In between, you fill with gags, flags, and chases. That’s all you need. His fans eat it up!” Grant was only allowed to write one John Ford film, Donovan’s Reef, and that was comprehensively re-written by the director, who preferred to work with either Frank Nugent – the brilliant, left-leaning former journalist – or the notorious but talented James Warner Bellah, a man described by his own son as “a fascist, a racist and a world-class bigot”.

I place unnecessary weight on gold statuettes. I don’t suppose John Ford ever won any of those?
Yes. Four Best Director Oscars for starters. And none of them for Westerns.

Any of them for sentimental dramas about Welsh coal miners, released the same year as Citizen Kane?
Well, it’s funny you should mention it… People make a big fuss about How Green Was Valley landing Best Director and Best Picture the year that Citizen Kane was up for both, but it’s a matchlessly poetic movie, albeit one that doesn’t seem to know much about Wales. Still, without Ford, Kane wouldn’t exist. Welles recruited the same cinematographer as Ford’s The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath (Gregg Toland), while his preparation for making The Greatest Film Ever Made™ had been to watch Ford’s earthshaking anti-isolationist masterpiece, Stagecoach. Fifty times. Stagecoach notably popularised deep focus photography, and ceilinged sets, which gave filmmakers carte blanche to devise avant garde camera angles that would augment a scene’s atmosphere, like so:

I see. So he devised putting a ceiling on some walls. He doesn’t sound as good as my favourite director of Westerns, Sergio Leone.
Compared to John Ford, Sergio Leone was a derivative, adolescent hack, and I’m not entirely sure that he wasn’t one even when not compared to John Ford, who effectively invented the epic Western with The Iron Horse, retooled the entire genre with Stagecoach and then endlessly interrogated its priorities, preoccupations and prejudices across 25 years. His Cavalry trilogy (1948-50) remains one of the outstanding, unsung achievements in American film, and from gentle, lyrical screen poems (Wagon Master) to race relations Westerns (Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn) and the richly nostalgic but clear-sighted genre deconstruction that was 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he turned the oater into an artform. Whereas Leone turned it into a badly-dubbed parade of clich├ęs lit by occasional moments of visceral excitement and lent an air of artistry by Ennio Morricone’s sumptuous scores.

I think you were telling me about Oscars, weren’t you? Before you got distracted. What were his other gongs for?
Arty IRA flick The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, and that supreme slice of blarney, The Quiet Man. He also landed a further two documentary Oscars – and a Purple Heart – for his World War Two escapades.

What did he do?
Ford headed up a photography unit making propaganda films, and was wounded whilst pointing his camera at the Battle of Midway.

What are his best movies?
How long have you got? Ford’s pre-war filmography alone takes in silent epics 3 Bad Men and The Iron Horse, exalting, legal-minded Americana like Judge Priest and Young Mr Lincoln, Stagecoach (above), three groundbreaking collaborations with the legendary Gregg Toland (The Informer, The Grapes of Wrarth and The Long Voyage Home), and neglected gems like The Prisoner of Shark Island and Steamboat Round the Bend, the latter a rich slice of southern fried escapism. He made one of the great WWII movies, They Were Expendable, then focused mainly on the Western for the final 20 years of his career, with the spectacular results I mentioned before. He also popped off to Ireland in the middle of all that to shoot The Quiet Man, which it would be fair to say continues to polarise audiences.

Why? Not Irish enough?
Actually, the opposite appears to be true.

That big list of films sounds tiring – where do I start?
Not as tiring as this list. But start with Stagecoach: a subversive skewering of American hypocrisy, dressed up as a slam-bang Western, and featuring some of the coolest stuntwork you’ll ever see. Then try Liberty Valance, The Grapes of Wrath and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The best of the best is The Searchers, which for some reason I wrote 4,000 words about here. It's not the best place to begin, but it is among the most beguilingly beautiful films ever made, its sumptuous Winton C. Hoch cinematography and latent humanism offset by moments of chilling brutality.

Was that his personal favourite?
Probably, but he was such a committed contrarian that he told Peter Bogdanovich that the most cherished of his films was the forgotten medical drama Arrowsmith, and once claimed that the only movie which turned out how he wanted it to was the botched Graham Greene adaptation, The Fugitive (based on The Power and the Glory), a film notable only for its breathtaking chiaroscuro photography. Ford’s fondness for The Sun Shines Bright, a remake of Judge Priest for the cheapo studio Republic, was genuine, and gave him the chance to realise passages excised from the earlier film by the censors, including a beautiful sequence set around a prostitute’s funeral (below).

Any weird ones in his back catalogue?
A few. In 1928, he tried to emulate then mentor F.W. Murnau by stuffing his sentimental WWI film, Four Sons, full of technical innovations, and keeping his camera in almost perpetual flight. It isn’t very good. Then in 1937, he made two films: a South Seas disaster movie called The Hurricane, and an adaptation of Wee Willie Winkie, starring Shirley Temple. Neither are what you’d expect from him, but both bear his unmistakable stamp, and both are fantastic. The Edna Ferber-like family saga, The World Moves On is another curio – stuffed with contrivance, bad dialogue and several of the most potent, heightened romantic scenes in cinematic history – while Tobacco Road, from 1941, is half transcendent Americana and half baffling, misanthropic filth, but it’s kind of fascinating. McBride calls it The Grapes of Wrath’s “evil twin”. Ford also shot an Army information film entitled Sex Hygiene. I haven’t seen that one.

Which ones should I avoid like gonnorhea?
The Black Watch, an early talkie released in 1929, which is notable for some of the most uncomfortable, unwatchable sound sequences in cinema history (many featuring future romantic comedy icon Myrna Loy), though it picks up every now and again. Mary of Scotland is essentially just a series of lingering close-ups of star Katharine Hepburn, who was Ford’s girlfriend at the time. The Long Gray Line and Cheyennne Autumn just aren’t very interesting.

Tell me one other brilliant factoid with which I can impress all of my mates down the pub. Certainly. The only on-screen pairing of future legends Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart was in Ford's 1930 film, Up the River, Tracy's first film and Bogart's second.

That’s all very well, but what does the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, think about John Ford?
By a remarkable coincidence, he loves him. Pickles chose Ford on Radio 4’s Great Lives back in 2012. To his credit, he showed an impressive knowledge of the director’s oeuvre. To his discredit, he’s still Eric Pickles.

What to say: “John Ford invented the modern Western.”

What not to say: “Wasn’t he a racist?”


Thanks for reading. Subjects of future beginner's guides are up for grabs, so tweet me any you'd like to see, or comment below. I'm not doing Mel Brooks.

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