He Was Not Expendable: John Ford’s Lasting Importance

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February 1st marked the 120th anniversary of the birth of John Ford, an occurrence that came at a time when appreciation of the director stood at a crossroads. On one hand, a recent boom of home video releases of some of the director’s key works, in the form of breathtaking Blu-Rays of “The Quiet Man” (courtesy of Olive Films), “The Sun Shines Bright” (Olive again) and “How Green Was My Valley” (20th Century Fox), created a glut for fans and cinephiles who made a case for these movies, some of his best but also most maligned. On the other hand, however, 2013 built to what seemed like the apex of revisionism when it came to Ford, in the form of Quentin Tarantino’s notorious interview with The Root in which he excoriated Ford for appearing as a bit player in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.”

In isolation, Tarantino’s comments would be negligible egotism (and are regardless), but they reflect the paradox of Ford’s placement in the pantheon, in which he is simultaneously considered the greatest American filmmaker of all time and the one most overdue for a critical pummeling, for some intrepid truth-teller to finally say what we’ve all been thinking: that Ford is a codger, a rank sentimentalist, a racist, a chauvinist, a simplistic message-mongerer and, worst of all, boring. Indeed, while it may never have had to suffer the wrath of a book-length missive against its greatness from Pauline Kael, “The Searchers” may nevertheless be the most regularly lambasted film to routinely grace the upper echelon of Sight & Sound’s decennial poll. To cite a few examples, Slate called it the “worst best movie” years ago, while The Guardian allowed not one but two different writers to make similar claims. Ford received his share of critical pushback in his time, but the likes of such hit pieces find their true foundation in the glib takedown David Thomson put into his “Biographical Dictionary of Cinema” (originally published in 1975), in which he argued, “The Ford philosophy is a rambling apologia for unthinking violence later disguised by the sham legends of old men fuddled by drink and glory.”

Contrary to the glib dismissals, however, Ford not only deserves his status in the canon but still has a great deal to teach contemporary filmmakers. For one thing, Ford understood the mythic properties of scale better than outright propagandists; speaking of the subtle but thorough exaggerations of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” in which even the plates and steaks are absurdly large, Lee Marvin noted, “That’s what the old guys understood about movies. If it’s not bigger than life, put it on television.” The latter admonition in particular is instructive as cinema continues to cede cultural ground to TV as the newer medium increasingly proves itself a viable platform for telling long-form stories. Blockbusters, as ever, respond to the consumer temptation to wait till it's out on video or Netflix with ever-more elaborate visual effects, but Ford’s films actually engage in visual storytelling, with larger-than-life images achieved solely with camera placement and blocking. Everyone knows of Ford’s majestic vistas of Monument Valley, but there are equally grand visual statements merely in the way he places his actors. Wyatt Earp’s coiled lean on a saloon porch in “My Darling Clementine” says everything about the film’s setting on the precipice of coming civilization, while Maureen O’Hara, typically seen as no more than the doting wife type in Ford’s films, radiates intense strength, longing and pride in her collaborations with the director.

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But the greatest application of Ford’s mastery of scale is in his subtler but critical uses of purely visual cues to communicate major narrative thrusts. Take the scene in “Stagecoach” in which the travelers stop for a meal. When the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) sits next to pregnant high-society woman Lucy (Louise Platt), the shots and editing patterns play up the tension in the air between them, fidgeting along with Platt and letting takes run longer to study the silent agony that crosses Trevor’s downturned, dejected face. Compounding the discomfort are the onlookers, particularly John Carradine’s haughty gentleman Hatfield, who motions to move the high-class woman to another seat, and John Wayne’s Ringo Kid, oblivious to Dallas’ occupation as he treats her with chivalric respect and himself feels guilty for thinking that it is his own outlaw ways causing the disturbance. In barely a minute, Ford clarifies the various class relations of the cast in what would take most movies a full act, or most prestigious television shows a full season.

And with films like “Act of Valor” and “Lone Survivor” harking back to the era of unabashed propaganda at the American cinema, Ford’s own misunderstood military movies seem frightfully current in the ability to credibly support the troops while looking disdainfully upon the sometimes casual waste of their lives. “Fort Apache” uses a thinly veiled Custer stand-in to castigate the myopic megalomania of top brass, then empathizes with the men who manage to avoid the massacre and perpetuate the lie of this idiotic officer as a hero, understanding the personal need to know that brethren did not die in vain as well as the political expediency of painting cannon fodder as noble, nationalistic sacrifice. Ford’s camera clashes with the stated two-dimensionality of its speech, which recurs in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” in which blood-red skies and the palpable fury of Indians undermines the competence and reasonableness of Wayne’s involuntarily retired hero, or how pallid color tones in “The Long Gray Line” paint the soldier who remains behind and grows old as new generations come to West Point and head to war as the only living man on a ghost ship, a Cotard delusion that erodes all the rousing pomp of the academy’s parades. In all cases, Ford respects, even admires military discipline and fraternity but blanches at its horrific endpoints.

Or consider that most contested of Ford’s major films, “The Searchers.” For what is so often dismissed as simplistic moralizing, the film sets itself up with a gracefulness all but entirely absent from modern prestige fare. Those who find the fury of Ethan’s anti-Indian sentiment baseless miss an early scene in which his sister-in-law Martha takes his uniform and holds it close to her, breathing in its scent. The moment, spotted only by Ward Bond’s family friend and local reverend Samuel Clayton, is as chaste as the pair’s long-suppressed feelings for each other, and it contextualizes Ethan’s rage when he later finds the widow’s violated corpse, tinging his thirst for revenge not only with racism but denied sexual gratification. That one shot turns an objectively oriented film about Ethan’s obsessed hunt for Comanches and the niece “tainted” by being taken by them into a more psychologically dense work, in which Natalie Wood’s Debbie ignites Ethan’s racial hatred, as well as the final tangible reminder of the physical love he never experienced with Martha. “The Searchers” thus is transformed from a symbolic, earnest statement against racism into an insoluble portrait of frontier madness, corrosive pride and internalized entitlement, one in which a family is cobbled back together at the end but remains incomplete, not only for the dead who can never return but the departure of Ethan, whose only truly heroic act in the film may be removing his toxic, irreparably traumatized presence from what family remains.

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In other words, the film is not simple and moralizing: its detractors are. The same holds true for many Ford movies, particularly “How Green Was My Valley,” now known, mainly by people who have not seen it, as the film that “stole” “Citizen Kane’s” Oscar with its sentimental view of a Welsh mining village. But “Valley,” like “Kane,” is framed around biased memory, albeit more subtly than in Welles’ film: the lilting narration of the old man seen on-screen as a child speaks lovingly about his traditional upbringing, yet the image grows increasingly grim, darkened as if by the waste of the coal mine. The narration makes a close-up of sound, but long shots of unrequited lovers, discarded old workers and the slow death of a community to capitalist exploitation make a horror film of the material. However, this juxtaposition is never played for easy irony, not communicating a single interpretation but reflecting a complex emotional response to a situation that cannot be solved by unpacking a few symbols for the benefit of some students. That, ultimately, may be Ford’s greatest “sin,” that he does not make films for teenagers nor undergrads, something that places him totally out of fashion with the current marketing strategy of film production. His films require experience and the patience that comes with it, something so few directors strive to reproduce anymore, even in films condescendingly marketed toward older audiences.

On a practical side, Ford has even more to teach directors, about coming in on time and on budget, about learning about the business angle of show business to secure better payments, and to funnel that success into independent film production that sacrifices none of its vastness but works on smaller, freeing budgets. Ford, emblem of stodgy Old Hollywood, ended his career with films like “Liberty Valance,” “Cheyenne Autumn” and “Sergeant Rutledge,” films that may not all be perfect but are as revisionist as any Western since made in response to the likes of Ford. Auteurism has now become an angle of marketing wings, and directors (to say nothing of critics) often mistake a few giveaway tics and a bit of panache for true auteurism. Ford’s movies are the genuine article, thoroughly mapped from top to bottom by a man who exerted his will over every aspect of production and buried measured, ambivalent movies that hold something new for a viewer with each viewing into commercial entertainment. In casting him as a boogeyman to be overcome and forgotten, people overlook how sorely his brand is missing in today’s movies, a subtle massiveness that truly harnesses the power of cinema, not merely its technical possibilities.