Masters of Cinema - John Ford


                      Many directors are referred as 'man's director', and many have a poetic style, but no film-maker has dealt with men or visual poetry in quite the same way John Ford did. In short, Ford made films about men -- famous men such as Abraham Lincoln ("Young Mr. Lincoln") and Wyatt Earp ("My Darling Clementine") and simple men such as Tom Joad ("The Grapes of Wrath"). Other directors have also tended to men and male themes. 

                      At that time, Howard Hawks ("Only Angels Have Wings", "Red River") was interested in man's rite of passage that test in life that makes him a man. John Ford, on the other hand, was interested in all things that made men noble. For Ford, a noble character and behavior made men both big and small, heroic in their extraordinary and ordinary lives.

Ford's Heroism 

                For Ford's heroes, their family or community (including the military), as well as ethnic background, made them who they were. Ford's characters all came from somewhere, and that somewhere (be it Ireland or USA) made them who they were. Ford's visual poetics contextualized the behavior of his heroic characters. It gave their goals and their passions and equivalent visual ground. His heroes were nor humorless, and although they were formal and in a sense old fashioned. Their struggles preceded in ritualistic rather than realistic fashion. 


               Amplifying inner feelings rather than explaining it was Ford's mission as a director. The consequence is a series of films unparalleled in their impact on other film-makers. Orson Welles was inspired by "Stage Coach" (1939) and "My Darling Clementine" (1946), and the list of directors goes on. 

Representation of 'The Western' and 'Non-Western'

                John Ford began his career as a director in 1917 and made his last film in 1966. His important films are dominated by Westerns: "The Iron Horse" (1924), "Stage Coach" (1939), "My Darling Clementine" (1946), "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (1949), "The Searchers" (1956), and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). Commercial and industrial recognition, however, came from his non-westerns: "The Informer" (1935), "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), "How Green Was My Valley" (1941), and "The Quiet Man" (1952). Critical attention was also focused on "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939) and "They Were Expendable" (1945). Ford is the director most honored by his peers in the history of Hollywood. 


                 The Western, representing the past, was a story form best known for its visuality and its action. Various directors have filmed Westerns according to their particular views of the West. Ford' s characters were not the neurotics that inhabited the Anthony Mann Western nor were they the disillusioned romantics of Sam Peckinpah's (The Wild Bunch) West. Instead, they were men seeking an ideal. They were skilled and capable but they were also hard men. If they were wronged, they sought justice ("My Darling Clementine") and sometimes revenge ("The Searchers"). But underneath it all, these characters lived by a code of honor. 

                These same values -- justice, fairness, respect for differences, respect for family and culture -- characterize Ford's non-western characters as well. Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath), Tom Brinkley (They Were Expendable) and Abraham Lincoln (Young Mr. Lincoln) represent the Ford hero in other settings. The challenges confronting these characters differ -- economic hardship, warfare, poverty -- but Ford's heroes all demonstrate a capacity to persevere, not simply to survive, and to stand up and represent positivity in life, whatever the outcome.

Ford's Narration 

                John Ford's approach to narrative differs considerably from his contemporary -- Howard Hawks, for example. In "Scarface" (1932), Hawks had his hand on the pulse on the character and the plot, and he made sure each worked to augment the other. John Ford was different in that he couldn't care less about plot. He always stayed close to character, and his films drifted back to the plot whenever necessary. "My Darling Clementine" provides a good example of this. Although the film opens with the loss of the Earp bothers' cattle and the murder of their brother, the drive for justice or revenge essentially comes to a halt as Wyatt Earp takes on the job of marshal of Tombstone. He periodically encounters the killers, the Clantons, but the gunfight at the OK Corral is saved until the end of the film. 


             In between, Ford explores Wyatt Earp's relationship with Doc Holliday's former fiancee, Clementine, and his relationship with Doc Holliday. Ford devotes much of the narrative to characterizing Holliday as a man of culture and education. When a Shakespearean troupe comes to Tombstone and the main actor is undone during a performance by Ruffians, it is Holliday who completes the actor's Shakespearean monologue. The arrival of Clementine in Tombstone does not particularly advance the narrative, although she does add yet another touch of civilization to the uncivilized Tombstone. 

             In a sense, she provides a outlet for Earp's yearning for a more settled life. Although Clementine and Earp do not form a love relationship, her presence in the film shows that Earp is not simply a man of justice but one who has hopes and dreams. These three characters and their contradiction gives rise to the heart and feeling embedded in "My Darling Clementine." Depicting this reservoir of humanity in the midst of the Wild West was Ford's goal in his interpretation of the story. 


            In the midst of tragedy and darkness, Ford always sought out humor. Again, the goal was to humanize characters and plot. In "The Searchers," one of the darkest Ford films, Ford has a character named Mose Harper, who was taken by the Indians. He was spared from torture and death by pretending that he was mad, although Mose's presentation throughout suggests that perhaps it was not entirely an act. When Ethan (Wayne) figures out that the Commanche Indians stole the cattle to draw out the man to carry out a murder raid, Mose does an Indian war dance. Mose is also present when Ethan discovers the bodies of his brother and sister-in -aw. Ford made him present for most of the hard moments in "The Searchers"to lighten the mood. This combination of tragedy and humor is another characteristic of Ford's approach to text interpretation. 

Ford's Visual approach

               John Ford's use of the camera was distinctive. Although Ford, Eisesnstein, Lean, and Kurosawa can be considered some of the great visualists of the medium, Ford differed from the others. He did not rely as much on pace and editing as Eisenstein and Kurosawa did, and he favored a static camera. His long shots are memorable images, and he used close-ups meagerly. In spite of the conservative visual approach, Ford was quite experimental with his use of lightning and sets. 

                  Ford has long been the master of the long shot -- Tom Joad walking down the road at the beginning of "The Grapes of Wrath," the cavalry march though a lightning storm in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," the accident at the coal mine and the women waiting for news of survivors in "How Green Was My Valley." In "The Searchers," the majority of the search for the cattle, the discovery of the murder raid, the burial of the Edwards family, and the subsequent search for the two surviving girls is presented in long shots. Filming in Monument Valley, Ford shot men small at the bottom of the frame and riding forward toward the camera but overwhelmed by rocks and sky.


                 The fact that Ford preferred to film these scenes at dawn or dusk gives the frame a magical, otherworldly quality. Ford does not pace these scenes to imply what is about to happen, so the audience is unaware of what might follow. 

                 John Ford was a poet among directors. His passion for his characters has been matched only by Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. What elevates his work to this level is a profound understanding that the visual medium of film is a narrative medium with the capacity for poetry. In this sense, he joins very distinctive group of directors that includes Sergei Eisenstein and Dovshenko. Today, few directors aspire to create the poetry that Ford did. Zhang Yimou ("Hero", "Raise The Red Lantern"), Peter Weir ("Picnic At Hanging Rock," "Witness) and Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") do, but this type of directors has become rare.

John Ford - Wikipedia

2 comments:

Murtaza Ali said...

A thoroughly researched and well thought out article about unarguably one of the greatest showmen of all time. And, I completely agree with you that very few filmmakers today have the courage to portray the true side of humanity on the celluloid. Keep it up!!! :-)

Arun said...

@Murtaza Ali, Thanks for the comment.