The Great Poet

By John Larrabee

"Ford could control the movement of the sky in Monument Valley.  The rest of us have to use sound stages."
      -- Howard Hawks

     Widely regarded as among the greatest of American film directors, John Ford was either a sentimental pussycat or the prickliest bastard you'd ever encounter, depending on who you talked to and when you talked to them.  He had great capacity for kindness and generosity, yet he had no qualms about cruelly humiliating actors, including his closest friends.  The friendships he forged were deep and lifelong, although true to his contradictory nature, he was a liberal Democrat whose best pals (John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Ward Bond) were conservative Republicans.  Such personal duality is reflected within his numerous masterpieces, most of which take no sides and play no favorites in matters of social conscience, instead delving deeply into the moral ambiguity of human nature.

John and John     A silent film pioneer who directed his first picture in 1917, Ford didn't hit his stride or define his personal style until the mid-1930s, by which time he had directed more than 70 films (imagine Hollywood allowing for that kind of internship these days!).  Always true to his personal "invisible technique" dictum, his style was direct and uncluttered, never allowing camera angles or editing to artificially enhance the inherent human drama.  Nevertheless, he could frame a scene for maximum effect and symbolic significance (as in the opening and closing shots of THE SEARCHERS), his panoramic vistas were breathtaking in their composition (evident in just about any shot of his beloved Monument Valley), and he was a pioneer in the use of such techniques as deep focus (most effective in the nighttime sea battles of THEY WERE EXPENDABLE).  "Make sure you can see their eyes" was his only comment on his visual style, and Ford films abound with closeups of actors whose intense gazes border on the mystical (see Henry Fonda's Tom Joad at the end of THE GRAPES OF WRATH).

     One of Ford's most frequent themes explored the ways in which lies and bigotry were necessary evils in establishing America's strength as a nation.  Henry Fonda's Colonel Thursday (FORT APACHE) and John Wayne's Ethan Evans (THE SEARCHERS) are portrayed as obsessive and near-mad in their murderous hatred of Indians, yet Ford compels the viewer to ponder the ways in which such actions were a vital component in our heritage.  On a related note, the director also examined the "whitewashing" of history by exposing the truth behind certain legends of the Old West.  Through the use of half-truths and ambiguity, the press--and, hence, generations of Western writers--offer up FORT APACHE's Colonel Thursday as a bold and fearless patriot, whereas James Stewart as Rance Stoddard in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is a decent and noble man who nonetheless builds a successful political career through an undeserved reputation for bravery and heroism.  Values are the only true role models, Ford seems to say; people have a tendency to disappoint.

     Though best known for his Westerns, Ford also specialized in war epics (THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, WHAT PRICE GLORY), particularly those depicting Navy life (Ford himself was a Rear Admiral), while his sentimental side was exposed in loving tributes to his proud Irish heritage (HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, THE QUIET MAN).  His indulgence in sentiment was seldom mawkish, characterized instead by slowly paced scenes of quiet tenderness and contemplation.  He was often criticized for his indulgence in slapstick barroom-brawl humor, but such scenes are an endearing trademark to Ford devotees.  It's a sure bet that if Victor McLaglen and Ward Bond are in the cast, the spirits will flow and the fists will fly, and damn yer Irish eyes if'n yiz don't take it in good clean fun.  Ford's self-indulgent humor was seldom a threat to the greatness of his self-revelatory drama.

     To Orson Welles, Ford was "the greatest poet" in cinema history, whereas to Ingmar Bergman, he was simply the greatest director who ever lived.  Many of Ford's best films play as naturalistic recreations of great myths and portray the common man with the nobility of legendary heroes.  His many films based on American history fall into this category.  Whether they are accurate or not is beside the point.  "When the truth interferes with the legend, print the legend," is the oft-quoted theme of LIBERTY VALANCE.  And yet Ford's truth was often more truthful than truth itself, which in turn made him the legend. - JL

John Ford     The Stuff You Gotta Watch

Copyright © John Larrabee, 2006. All Rights Reserved.

Stuff You Gotta Watch
Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee