The Westerns of John Ford
What follows is more of a personal essay on John Ford than a biography. If you want a detailed bio or long critical assessment of Ford’s Westerns, there are several, and for years I relied on The Western Films of John Ford by JA Place (The Citadel Press, Secaucus, NJ, 1973), but these days you couldn’t do better than to read Scott Eyman’s Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999). It is magnificent, and I am greatly indebted to it, as well as to Mr Place’s book, for much of this post. The Wikipedia entry on Ford also seems pretty accurate if you are looking for something more ‘potted’.
Ford made over 140 films but many were silent movies now lost. Today, his oeuvre in our noble genre consists of twenty pictures, made between 1917 and 1964, and all available, though some with difficulty. All have been reviewed on this blog, so refer to the index for articles on the individual films.
Apologies for the length of the article but Ford was such a giant of the genre and his career was so long that it is difficult to condense it. And I didn’t really want to…
John Ford was a highly complex man. He was a romantic and a nostalgic, a social conservative with quite surprising liberal political views. He was, or became, a real artist and a master story-teller. At the same time he had a penchant for sentimental religiosity, too many inappropriate songs and clumsy humor that often disfigured his pictures. He was not good at portraying women.
He was deeply shy and disliked meeting strangers. He was a bully, never an attractive attribute, and a tyrant (like so many directors of the time) on the set, viciously and spitefully victimizing one actor or another, yet he drew stunning performances out of them, better than they or anyone else knew they could do. He cheated at cards and golf when playing with his employees, which was really pretty low. He was fond of exaggeration verging on downright lies and saying things he knew to be false just to be ornery. Even his standards of personal hygiene left something to be desired. Yet in some he evoked deep friendship, even hero-worship. He was a periodic drunk. He did good by stealth, paying considerable sums to hard-up actors and/or their families, sometime through third parties so that no one would know, and hiring people he didn’t need to help them out.
His Westerns, like those of the really great directors, have his personal stamp on them. You know they are by John Ford. It was a visual thing, because he worked so closely with his cameramen and they came to know almost telepathically what he wanted. And it was a question of themes and subjects. The value of myth. The taming of the West, yet losing something in that process. The contribution made by the marginal in society and immigrants, greater than that of the ‘respectable’ folk. Domestic detail. The community dances he loved so much, and which said so much. Landscape, above all Monument Valley. His ‘stock company’ – especially of course Henry Fonda and John Wayne. His writers – Bellah, Nugent, Nichols, et al.
John Ford started his career in film very much in the shadow of his brother Francis (see index for our essay on him). Indeed, he even took his brother’s name: born John Martin Feeney in Maine in 1894, the tenth of eleven children of two immigrants from Ireland, he assumed the name Jack Ford after Frank, older than Jack by thirteen years, had taken the surname Ford (for, he said, the automobile) in his career, first in vaudeville and then in the movies. Jack moved to California in 1914 to join Frank and learned the film business from his brother. Jack was first a general dogsbody and propman, cameraman too, as well as stuntman and double, often standing in for his brother, at a time when Frank and his co-star (and lover) Grace Cunard were at the height of their fame.
Frank had partnered with Thomas H Ince and progressed to becoming a famous actor-writer-director for Ince in 1912. He had a particular fondness for the Western, which was transmitted to his young brother. On the set Frank was brusque, rough and often sarcastic. But a writer for Motion Picture Magazine said of him that underneath his bluff manner there was a deep seriousness and “one of the warmest hearts imaginable.” Either the two brothers were remarkably similar in character or John consciously modeled himself on Francis. Their relationship was to be stormy, troubled, even violent but underneath that there was a deep fraternal affection, and Jack clearly was in thrall to his handsome, famous and, for a short time, rich elder brother Frank.
Directing his first Westerns
It was Frank, from 1913 established at the young Universal, who persuaded Carl Laemmle there to let young Jack direct for the first time. Laemmle is supposed to have said, “Give Jack Ford the job—he yells good”. Frank also introduced Jack to Harry Carey (essay on him too in the index). Jack began on Westerns for Laemmle, many starring Carey, who was sixteen years his senior, well known as a film actor, and the nearest Universal came to a star at the time. Most of these one- and two-reel pictures no longer exist, sadly, but we have a good idea of their quality from Jack Ford’s first feature (most of the pictures he churned out were shorts) and earliest surviving complete film, Straight Shooting (1917).
Scott Eyman says, “It looks more like a film from 1922 or 1923 than one from 1917, and, in an art form that moved as torrentially as the movies did in their infancy, that is no small statement.” It is a ‘ruthless rancher vs. honest homesteader’ plot – already very well established in the genre and a story that was to become a staple – and Carey plays wanted outlaw Cheyenne Harry who is at first hired as an assassin by evil cattle baron Thunder Flint (Duke Lee) but who, thanks to the redemption of a good woman – another plot staple – switches sides and fights for right.
Some of the pacing is poor – there is far too much arriving of people at the saloon, for example – and some of the acting is over-the-top too, in fact laughably melodramatic. But it must be said that most of the acting, including that of Carey, is pretty restrained and naturalistic for the period.
There is some good location shooting, when Ford and cinematographer George Scott showed their skill, and you can sometimes glimpse the great outdoors through the windows of the interiors. It’s well done. The outlaws’ lair is filmed at Beale’s Cut, Newhall and is dramatic.
There are various references that silent Western buffs will recognize, such as the settlers barricading themselves in their cabin like The Battle of Elderbish Gulch (1913) or the gathering of the horsemen which recalls The Birth of a Nation in 1915 (John Ford claimed to have been one of the riders in that picture – but then he claimed a lot of things). The walk-down gunfight between Harry and one of the cattlemen is reminiscent of The Virginian (the first film version of which came out in 1914). Straight Shooting also reflects some of the sober austerity and general air of realism of William S Hart (index) pictures of the period, and the badman redeemed by the love of a good woman is a standard Hart ploy, as in, say, Hell’s Hinges (1916).
Ford’s last film of 1917, Bucking Broadway, also with Carey, was long thought to have been lost, but in 2002 the only known surviving print was discovered in the archives of the Centre national de la cinématographie in France and it has since been restored and digitized. It’s absolutely delightful.
“They weren’t shoot-em-ups,” said Jack Ford of his early pictures. “They were character stories.” Carey usually played a shambling, modest saddle-tramp rather than a flashy gunfighter.
So Jack Ford learned the motion picture business from the ground up. He especially learned the optics and mechanics of the movie camera, and to appreciate the craftsmen and crew on whom the success of any picture depended. And the value and effect of the great outdoors.
As Jack Ford’s star was rising, Francis Ford’s was in rapid decline. Frank’s drinking, furious temper and scandalous affairs saw to that. Meanwhile, Jack was cranking them out for Carl Laemmle, seven features in 1918, nine in 1919, not to mention the two-reelers.
The Universal Weekly (a house journal) presciently wrote:
For a long time people have said, as they heard the name ‘Ford’, in connection with a picture: ‘Ford? Any relation to Francis?’ Very soon, unless all indications of the present time fail, they will be saying: ‘Ford? Any relation to Jack?’
Something never satisfactorily explained caused a breach between Jack Ford and Harry Carey. In 1920, perhaps because of this, more probably because he wanted a bigger salary and more scope for creativity, Jack Ford went to work for William Fox.
The same year, he married. Mary Smith came from a well-to-do family (though her father later went broke) and the newly-weds spent their honeymoon in Ireland. They were to remain a couple through thick and thin until Ford’s death, despite the strains of Ford’s absences, drinking bouts and occasional infidelities.
When Ford arrived at Fox the big star was Tom Mix, with Buck Jones and William Farnum in the second rank. Ford’s first Fox Western was the comedy feature Just Pals with Jones. It is another charming and delightful picture. Eyman says that already Ford was making the landscape a character. Just Pals is notable for its gentle pans and tracking shots of the rolling hills of ‘Wyoming’ (California). There was an understated lyrical quality and a sense of domestic detail. And thematically too it was very ‘Fordian’ because it put the focus on the superiority of people on society’s margins. They are ‘nature’s aristocrats’ and better in every way than the ‘respectable’ folk around them. This aspect was to be most noticeable years later in Stagecoach.
In 1923 Paramount changed the course of the Western film. The studio made an epic, The Covered Wagon, directed by James Cruze, which dealt with pioneers crossing the continent and founding modern America, and it was a huge hit. William Fox could not stand idly by and let that happen. He must have his own nation-building mega-picture, and the story of the railroads crossing the continent, rendering the wagon trains obsolete, would, by extension make Paramount look obsolete too. Jack Ford, still only 31, lobbied hard, and successfully, to direct the new picture. The result was a triumph, the monumental The Iron Horse (1924).
The Iron Horse
The West was only slightly less hazardous for the film makers of the 1920s than it was for the railroad builders of the 1860s. True, the film crews suffered no attacks from hostile Indians but the terrain and elements were just as challenging. This was a full location picture with a massive support staff and film crew, living in tents or in railroad cars. John Ford (the Jack had given way to John) was lord of it all, and he came to love the communal, provisional life of the film-production camps – with himself as Emperor.
The boxcar rigged up as a projection room was so cold that Ford never viewed daily rushes. But it was all mapped out in his head anyway.
Another brother, Eddie O’Fearna (he had ‘Irished’ his name of Feeney, as Jack Ford too occasionally, whimsically did) acted as Jack’s assistant. They fought constantly, as they always had, but Jack Ford only wanted people he knew around him. He hated strangers on the set and that included producers. But the director brought the picture in on time and on budget – a massive $250,000.
The Iron Horse premièred in New York on August 28, 1924. It was a smash hit and a vastly better picture than the rather plodding The Covered Wagon, and it made Ford’s name. It introduced the element of epic into his work. He had always liked landscape and setting but this picture took that to an extreme never before seen. The film also established firmly ‘Fordian’ themes which would be returned to again and again – the conflict between wilderness and civilization, the taming of the West but something being lost by that, the huge contribution made by ‘ordinary’ folk, especially ethnic minorities and immigrants, and of course episodes of ‘broad’ humor, often not very funny to us today but in tune with the times and often greatly appreciated then.
3 Bad Men
Ford used Iron Horse star George O’Brien again two years later in his last Western for Fox, 3 Bad Men, which is the fourth and last John Ford silent Western to have survived.
It had beautiful locations in Jackson Hole and a great climactic land-rush shot in Victorville. The story is one of three lovable rogues (Tom Santschi, J Farrell MacDonald and Frank Campeau) who chase down the man who took advantage of the sister of one of them. The movie was promoted with hullabaloo by Fox – “John Ford’s Successor to ‘The Iron Horse’ Looms as One of the Biggest Hits on Film Horizon” – but in fact it wasn’t that good, and Eyman says that there are half a dozen William S Hart Westerns that were better.
Ford claimed it wasn’t his fault and the studio execs hi-jacked the movie. “It’s not my picture. I didn’t even direct that picture.”
A Western desert
After 3 Bad Men there was a Fordian Western desert which lasted all through the rest of the 1920s and most of the 1930s. Ford went on to other genres and an artier style greatly influenced by the arrival of the German expressionist director EW Murnau on the Fox lot – and Ford was making a grudging conversion to talkies. Ford did meet the great Western artist Charles Russell (died 1926) and an elderly Wyatt Earp (who didn’t die till 1929), and he was reading Western stories, so he clearly maintained an interest in the West. Ford’s appealing Judge Priest (1934), with Will Rogers, had a vague Western tinge to it but no more than that (we’ve reviewed it anyway!) Later, in 1936, he wanted to direct a talkie remake of his 1919 Harry Carey silent Western, The Last Outlaw, but after The Informer RKO considered it too minor a project for Ford and the studio tossed it to Christy Cabanne (who made rather a plodding job of it) and Ford had to be content with a story credit. He didn’t make another Western film until Stagecoach.
It wasn’t only that Ford didn’t want to make Westerns. The genre was in the doldrums. In 1930 Fox had spent $1.9m on the Raoul Walsh-directed spectacular The Big Trail (with a young John Wayne) but it had recouped a meagre $945,000. MGM had also had a commercial flop with their Billy the Kid the same year. Westerns continued as juvenile B-features but the Depression 30s were the wilderness years for big-budget adult oaters.
In 1931 Ford was fired from Fox. Other studios were interested. They knew he drank and was autocratic but they also knew he brought pictures in on budget and on time and they were usually (not always) good, and successful at the box-office.
In the mid-1930s Ford partnered with Merian Cooper and made pictures (but not Westerns) for RKO. One of them, The Informer in 1935, won him an Oscar. And he bought a 110-foor ketch which he renamed the Araner, which became central to his life.
In April 1937 Ernest Haycox published a story in Collier’s magazine named Stage to Lordsburg (reviewed separately). Ford was gripped by it and quickly moved to buy the movie rights for $7,500. He felt the time was right for the comeback of the grown-up Western and he invited John Wayne, whom he had almost forgiven for starring for Raoul Walsh back in 1930, onto the Araner to discuss it. Ford spent the weekend baiting Wayne about the ‘abysmal’ Westerns he had been doing for Republic and asking him who he thought might be right for the part pf the Ringo Kid, but of course it was just petty cruelty: he had already decided on Wayne. It was the best casting he ever did because Wayne was stunningly good, from that wonderful entrance Ford gave him onwards.
Ford made the picture in teeth of opposition from the Hollywood powers that be. There were no big stars in it (Wayne was not yet that) and who wanted old-hat Westerns anyway? But Ford plowed determinedly on.
Ford’s picture differed greatly from the original story – as his films usually did. And in many ways, yes, it is a black & white minor Western, but it had a wonderful blend of good screenplay, direction, photography and acting. And it had a message, typical of Ford: it said that society’s outcasts were the ones who did the real work, the brave ones: the escaped convict, the prostitute, the gambler with a murky past, the alcoholic. It is the ‘respectable’ characters who turn out to be needy or bad.
And although the budget was limited and location shooting with it (most of the picture is done with interiors and inside the stagecoach) it was the first time Ford used Monument Valley as a setting. The area was to become ‘Fordland’, bringing him to mind whenever those famous buttes are seen.
There are echoes of silent Westerns in Stagecoach. The stage rolls through Newhall Cut that Ford used in Straight Shooting and The Iron Horse, and Hatfield holds a gun to Mrs Mallory’s head just as had happened in Francis Ford’s The Invaders (1912) and had also happened in DW Griffiths’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch the year after.
The movie was an unsensational but decent box-office success but a great critical hit. The Daily News wrote, “Every part is admirably acted … and John Wayne is so good in the role of the outlaw that one wonders why he has had to wait all this time since The Big Trail for another such opportunity.” Pauline Keel wrote of Ford’s “simple, clear, epic vision” and said that the movie “had a mixture of reverie and reverence about the American past that made the picture seem almost folk art.” Westerns through the 1930s had become repetitive, slightly infantile pictures which appealed to some but left many adults indifferent. After Stagecoach, grown-ups formed lines outside movie theaters to see Westerns again and all the big studios, sensing the $$$ potential, were getting in on the act. Warners’ Dodge City with Errol Flynn, Fox’s Jesse James with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, Paramount’s Union Pacific with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, and Universal’s Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart all appeared in 1939.
Stagecoach was followed by Young Mr Lincoln with Henry Fonda, released in May, then in November by the early-Western Drums Along the Mohawk, again with Fonda, and, the following year by The Grapes of Wrath with, as Tom Joad, you’ve guessed it, Henry Fonda. All of these had a Western ‘tinge’ in one way or another but were not Westerns in any proper sense of the word.
In any case Ford would soon be going to war and the Western was put on hold, but he would be back. In fact his first movie after the war was to be a treatment of the Wyatt Earp myth, My Darling Clementine, with Fonda (obviously) as Earp. And it was back at Fox.
My Darling Clementine
Straight after the war, John Ford and his partner Merian Cooper in their company Argosy Productions planned a remake of that 1936 Harry Carey RKO Western The Last Outlaw, itself ostensibly (though only nominally) a remake of John Ford’s own 1919 silent movie, to be released by Universal, and they signed up Carey and John Wayne to star in it. But the project never came to fruition for a variety of reasons and instead Ford decided on an OK Corral tale.
It’s a marvelous story of good and evil which is unburdened by actual adherence to the truth. Ford himself said that it was historically accurate, a frankly preposterous claim (exaggeration and lies were part of Ford’s stock in trade). He recounted how Wyatt Earp “told me about the fight at the OK Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.” As Old Man Clanton was killed in Ford’s version of the fight and so was Doc Holliday, it is rather difficult to believe that Ford was following Earp’s recollections to the letter. Either that or Wyatt had a sadly deficient memory. As I have said before, I don’t mind Hollywood presenting an historically inaccurate picture; they are not producing documentaries but entertaining dramas. It’s only when they claim factual accuracy that I object.
It was back to Monument Valley where a ‘Tombstone’ was erected and photographed by Joe MacDonald. The spare, almost lunar landscape makes the town small, precarious, isolated, on the edge of civilization only. The black & white photography is very beautiful. OK, there are a lot of interiors (location shooting was still expensive and difficult) but Ford knew that Westerns belong out of doors and whenever he can, he has stages rolling across the screen leaving dust clouds behind them, and sun and skies. The scene of the gunfight at the OK Corral is particularly well done, with a huge background and instead of blaring or tense music, the sound of wind and boots scuffing.
Henry Fonda’s Earp is majestic: quiet, low-key, understated, but exuding toughness and decency. Scott Eyman perceptively writes that
Ford’s Earp is one of the last times he would draw a man of the West without a character conflict; Earp has no particular nostalgia for the past, and, except for the scene at his brother’s grave – an add-on not directed by Ford – never expresses any interest in the future. The Wyatt Earp created by Ford and Henry Fonda is a self-possessed, pragmatic man, interested in a clean shave and a quiet town. If nobody else will get him those things, he’ll have to get them himself.
Various Doc Hollidays were considered, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Vincent Price. All would have been interesting but the unlikely choice was Victor Mature, who, however, was surprisingly good.
Ford managed in this film to contain the sentimental side and limit the slapstick humor that he was prone to and which disfigured so many of his Westerns. The tone of the picture is quiet and contemplative. And this heightens the explosions of violence when they come.
The picture has its flaws (the women’s parts, for example, are very poor) but overall it is an absolutely superb Western. It wasn’t a box-office smash, though it did well enough, but it got a lot of rave critical reviews, justifiably so.
It is suggested (by Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and his Films, University of California Press, 1984) that Ford assisted Howard Hawks on the set of Red River, which started life in 1946, and Ford reportedly made numerous editing suggestions, including the use of a narrator. But Scott Eyman does not mention this and I don’t know how true it was. Certainly Ford wrote to Hawks asking him to “take care of my boy Duke” (Wayne was starring for Hawks). Red River was made before Fort Apache but released after.
Clementine was followed by the disastrous The Fugitive in 1947, with Fonda (naturally) as a persecuted Catholic priest. The expensive (non-Western) movie was overwrought, too arty by half and a complete commercial flop which nearly sent Argosy into bankruptcy. Cooper and Ford needed cash, and Westerns were a good bankable way to get it. So there followed the most extraordinarily prolific time in Ford’s career. He made five Westerns in three years – and they were all good, some great.
The cavalry trilogy
Ford toyed with remaking his 1919 silent, Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat with, you will not be surprised to hear, Henry Fonda as Oakhurst, but when he read a story by James Warner Bellah, whom he had met in India during the war, in The Saturday Evening Post, he decided that it would make a great cavalry Western. He was right. Bellah’s Massacre became Fort Apache.
From 1947, ‘year 1’ of the Cold War (the year Russia got the bomb) and the year Fort Apache was filmed, frontier conflicts in which decent and brave Americans faced up to the menace of the ‘red’ men represented how America would confront the ‘red threat’ of the Communist world, just has war movies had used the threat of the evil Axis powers. In many of these post-war Westerns, Fort Apache included, the recently concluded Civil War was to be read as World War II. The movies were often pretty obvious metaphors of the contemporary scene.
The great cameraman James Wong Howe had used infra-red film the year before on Pursued and Archie Stout, DP on Fort Apache, thought the effect would suit the new movie. Infra-red heightened the dust and veiled the action in mystery. Much of the black & white photography is magnificent and we know how ‘visual’ Ford was, and how closely he worked with his cinematographers. He had an artist’s eye.
At the time, Ford had no intention of making a ‘trilogy’. Fort Apache was in no sense ‘part 1’. He was making a cavalry Western, and it became a supremely good one. Fonda, as the stiff martinet Colonel Thursday, and Wayne, as the knowing Westerner Captain York, are very fine indeed. It was a critical and box-office success.
So the following year, 1949, Ford made another, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, with a similar cast and setting, and based on stories by the same writer. But it was very different. It was in color (Winton Hoch won an Oscar for it) and above all it had a different ‘tone’. Fort Apache was a forward-looking story of taming the West and bringing ‘civilization’ to the wild frontier. Yellow Ribbon was, despite its bright color, a melancholy piece about old age and the end of an era.
This time John Wayne is crusty Captain Nathan Brittles, in his last week of service before retirement. Wayne’s performance is stunningly good. He is totally convincing as an elderly officer, twenty years older than his real age; the way he walks and looks and talks are just right. The business with the spectacles as he examines the inscription on the farewell watch could have been saccharine but it is in fact very moving. Wayne said that this was his favorite role ever. “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” What Wayne had, in spades, was an ability to suggest an essential nobility of character beneath rough Western manners. This ability suited the parts he played in Ford’s cavalry Westerns right down to the dusty ground.
Rio Grande (1950) was for another studio, Republic, was back to black & white and was much more of a sequel to Fort Apache than to Yellow Ribbon – it even featured Wayne as Yorke again, though why his name had gained an –e no one has ever satisfactorily explained. And Rio Grande returned to Fort Apache’s theme of settling the West by brave military action.
It started inauspiciously. Ford’s son Patrick said, “He didn’t want to make Rio Grande, he didn’t want any part of it. So then there was the compromise, going back and forth: ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, if I can have my choice of cast in Rio Grande, I’ll make it for you’.” Pat Ford said that John Wayne didn’t really want to do it either. “Duke didn’t really want to make it. It was just a job.”
But it turned out dandy. Wayne was better than ever. Eyman says, “Wayne’s performance is equal parts steel and grace – the burden of responsibility leavened by the realization of what that responsibility has cost him.” In one notable scene Wayne movingly shows the alienation of Yorke, on the banks of the Rio Grande, now a silvery symbol of division, when the soldiers are singing in a circle and their commander, unable to relate, walks alone on the banks, which stretch out to nowhere. His face shows all the desolation of loneliness. Why John Wayne had to wait till 1970 to get an Oscar is a total mystery.
Claude Jarman Jr as Yorke’s son was superb. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr shone again (though Johnson bust up with Ford). And there was the fortuitous but real parallel with the current situation in Korea.
The Rio Grande serves as far more than a river: it is an international border, a line that must not be crossed. Doing so would unleash war and chaos. Just as General MacArthur was pushing a hesitant Truman to be allowed to cross the 38th Parallel and take the war to the Communists, Ford gives us a story about the necessity of crossing the Rio Grande to fight the ‘red’ men. Force, it is suggested, is the only language the ‘reds’ understand. The army cannot subdue the red threat officially because civilian bureaucrats and wimp diplomats in a spineless Washington DC will not allow it, but in the movie General Sheridan (J Carrol Naish) tells Yorke to ignore the ‘niceties’ and pursue the redskins into Mexican territory to ‘solve’ the problem ‘once and for all’ (i.e. exterminate the Apache). It was Sheridan, we remember, who was supposed to have said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” (though he denied it). Newsreels shown with Rio Grande would have pictured MacArthur staring through binoculars across the River Chongjon in Korea, just as John Wayne stared through his over the Rio Grande.
Together, the three films we now regard as a trilogy are an outstanding body of work, not just three Western movies but splendid examples of the genre, all three, and among the greatest Westerns ever made. All three have their weaknesses, especially in their portrayal of women and in Ford’s resort to low – and clumsy – humor. Two of them also have too many songs. But these failings do not seriously detract from the sheer quality of the work. Ford was at the very height of his powers.
3 Godfathers and Wagonmaster
As if that were not enough, in between these three cavalry Westerns, Ford made 3 Godfathers (1948) and Wagonmaster (1950). It really was an astonishingly productive time for him. 3 Godfathers, in which outlaws John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr find redemption by caring for an orphan baby, is liked by some but often thought of as syrupy and full of sentimental religiosity. It has been called “terminal treacle”. But it is hard to dislike Wagonmaster, a ‘happy’ film about a wagon train of settlers going West to start a new life, led by feisty Ward Bond (with elder Russell Simpson keeping him on the straight and narrow) and guided by the happy-go-lucky pair of scouts Ben Johnson and Carey again. Wagonmaster (or Wagon Master) is sometimes overlooked as a Ford Western but it is actually absolutely excellent.
Ford was slated to direct the comedy Western A Ticket to Tomahawk for Fox, and wanted to, but Darryl Zanuck was miffed at him at the time and yanked the picture away from Ford, giving it to Richard Sale.
After Rio Grande came another Western pause. There had been such a flurry of oaters that perhaps Ford was played out for the moment. But the real reason that he made Rio Grande anyway was to make enough money to put together his prize project The Quiet Man, and Rio Grande stars Wayne, O’Hara and McLaglen set off for Ford’s beloved isle to do just that. Other sometimes very ordinary pictures followed, the likes of Mogambo, or flops like What Price Glory? or pictures that were both like The Long Gray Line. After The Quiet Man Ford was turning out films for studios to fulfill a contract or to make some money but his heart didn’t seem to be in them. And Westerns took a back seat.
It was not until 1956 therefore that John Ford made The Searchers.
When Ford read Alan Le May’s novel The Searchers, published in 1954, he knew it was something special. And he thought a Western might recoup his fortunes, artistic as well as commercial, as Westerns had before. It did more than that: many regard it as his masterpiece.
It is often said that The Searchers is the greatest Western of them all. Western buffs, certainly, will often put this film at the very top of their lists, and sane human beings too rate it very highly. In 1989, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. The American Film Institute rates it as the twelfth greatest American film ever made and the best Western. Many opinion polls and surveys put it at the top.
Its influence was huge. Later film makers were moved to imitate or cite it. It is said, for example, that David Lean watched it repeatedly to learn how to shoot landscape, and desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia illustrate that. Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard and George Lucas have all spoken about how it influenced them. Buddy Holly used Ethan’s catchphrase That’ll be The Day for a song and a British rock band called themselves The Searchers. Brian Garfield (praise be to him) in his outstanding guide Western Films wrote of it, “The Searchers is undeniably, and wonderfully, a masterpiece.”
Not everybody thinks it’s great and like all Ford films it has its weaknesses. Although it did well at the box-office, it didn’t win prizes at the time and was ignored by the Academy Awards. Critics were lukewarm rather than full of praise. Bosley Crowther, the hugely influential New York Times critic, called it only “the honest achievement of a well-knit team”. Variety said that it was handsomely done in the manner of Shane” and “The John Ford directorial stamp is unmistakable. It concentrates on the characters and establishes a definite mood.” But the review added, “It’s not sufficient, however, to overcome many of the weaknesses of the story.”
But The Searchers and the Quiet Man have had the longest afterlife of all Ford films. Today, if you mention the name John Ford the first film that will jump to mind is one of those two, and Westernwise it has few equals. High Noon, maybe, Red River possibly, but The Searchers stands pretty well alone.
Visually it is stunning. In VistaVision and bright color, with Winton Hoch photographing Monument Valley locations, it was a feast to the eye. The original music by Max Steiner swirls and rolls around the buttes. The acting too is incredibly good, notably John Wayne in his most driven performance and Ward Bond as the Texas Ranger-parson. There are weak members of the cast, including the vital role of Martin Pawley (Le May’s hero) in which Jeffrey Hunter verged on the bland. But overall you are left with an impression of stunningly good acting.
Wayne’s character is a very complex one, far more than we are used to meeting in Westerns. Obsessed, vindictive, violent, racist, he is nevertheless courageous, even noble, and curiously sympathetic and vulnerable. Ford and his screenwriter Frank Nugent (who wrote six Ford Westerns) did a superb job creating the character and Wayne did an even better one playing it.
It was, though, John Ford’s last truly great Western.
The later Westerns
Seven out of Ford’s last nine pictures were Westerns. He really seemed to be making a conscious effort to concentrate on the genre. Sadly, however, though The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) has its partisans, and there are even those who think it a great film (I do not), these Westerns were not a patch on The Searchers or the cavalry trilogy, not even in the same league.
The first of them was The Horse Soldiers (1959) with John Wayne and William Holden. It was a run-of-the-mill Western at best and the set was not a happy place. Ford and Holden didn’t get on. Some of the acting (e.g. leading lady Constance Towers) was very poor. Ford hated the still segregated South as a location. He thought the script trashy. He told the producer-writers, “You know where we ought to make this picture?”
“Lourdes, because it’s going to take a miracle to pull it off.”
And he was losing his touch – even losing his interest.
Then whatever feel-good there was on the set was dashed one day when stuntman Fred Kennedy was killed. It was a relatively simple fall from a horse but it went wrong. Ford was devastated and blamed himself. Scott Eyman says that “there are those who believe that Kennedy’s death drained the last ounce of joy Ford found in the filmmaking process.”
Certainly The Horse Soldiers shows little of the old Ford magic. There is no Monument Valley and there are no Indians. It is extraordinary how different this rather ordinary (and, for 1959, rather old-fashioned) Western was compared with The Searchers only three years before. Some would say it was sad how far Ford had sunk.
It was followed closely by Sergeant Rutledge (1960). This dealt with important themes of racial discrimination and in that looked ahead to the 60s but once again it was a desperately old-fashioned picture not aided by the return of Towers as leading lady and Jeffrey Hunter (a Ford favorite) rather wishy-washy as the leading man – for the Rutledge of the title (Woody Strode) was only billed fourth. It was a static courtroom drama, little more than a Western Perry Mason really, with occasional but all too rare action flashbacks.
Once again much of the acting was second-rate, descending to the downright wooden when Lucy (Toby Michaels) is talking to the store boy (Jan Styne). Willis Bouchey doesn’t quite cut it as the president of the court – it needed Ward Bond. The whole thing is flat.
It did miserably at the box-office, grossing less than $750,000. Though it did better abroad, it was still a financial failure. Ford blamed Warner Bros. for not promoting it. “Warners sent a couple of boys on bicycles out to sell it.” Suddenly Ford found himself with no offers. At a loose end, he went down to ‘help’ John Ford on the set of The Alamo, then directed an episode of Wagon Train on TV. He maintained to Ward Bond, who pretty well owned the show, firstly that he had never seen a TV Western and secondly that Wagon Train was lousy, and seemed oblivious to the contradiction in that. But he did make an effort and the episode, The Colter Craven Story (see review) is noticeably ‘Fordian’.
Ford’s next project was Two Rode Together (1961), starring (in the absence of John Wayne, fulfilling other commitments) James Stewart and Richard Widmark. It had a vaguely Searchers-like plot as a mismatched pair go in search of whites captured by the Comanche. But it was a flaccid dud. Ford himself said it was “The worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years.”
Once again the cast, other than the two principals, was weak or miscast (Woody Strode as an Indian chief) and once again the picture is disfigured by oafish ‘humor’ which Ford presumably found funny but no one else did. The dances, so crucial to Ford’s films as representations of the community spirit, are pale imitations, for there is no community to portray.
It is actually a very bleak film. As Donald Dewey wrote in his biography of James Stewart, “The Comanches are brutal opportunists, the army officers are crude, hypocritical racists, the civilians are a naïve conglomerate waiting only to become a rabid mob.”
Scott Eyman summed up Two Rode Together:
…the film has a loose, jocular tone that doesn’t jibe with its theme; everything seems pitched a little too high – voices are too loud, actors are too broad, lighting is too bright. The film feels physically slack; the images are recessive, the locations are scrubby and uninteresting, there are mismatched cuts and the whole thing lacks any kind of dramatic tension. There could be no doubt no that the director’s gift was beginning to recede; the hand that had once been capable of the most finely filigreed detail was now working with a much broader brush.
Tough words, but probably fair.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
One project, however, that Ford was interested in, and very much wanted to make, was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Opinion is divided on this film. Some (including Eyman) regard it as a fine picture. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has earned a place in the hearts of movie fans the world over.” Certainly it is one of the more famous Ford Westerns. And it does have quality.
This time the acting was first class, with Stewart as Ransom Stoddard and Wayne as Tom Doniphon working brilliantly together, and Lee Marvin outstanding as Valance. Ford stock-company regulars enriched the cast. Edmond O’Brien is excellent as Peabody, editor of The Shinbone Star. Andy Devine is, as ever, entertaining, as the cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard of gargantuan appetite. Woody Strode is back, as Wayne’s 48-year-old ‘boy’ servant or slave, Pompey. Stother Martin and Lee Van Cleef are Valance’s henchmen, Denver Pyle is a townsman, John Carradine is there, as are John Qualen, Willis Bouchey, Carleton Young, OZ Whitehead and Paul Birch, Danny Borzage, Anna Lee, Jack Perrin, Uncle Tom Cobley and all – the usual suspects, you might say.
The triangle of manhood linking Valance, Stoddard and Doniphon is mirrored by that of tenderness between Stoddard, Doniphon and Hallie (Vera Miles). It’s well-constructed and crafted alright. Hallie, though, is tamed and civilized – Ranse teaches her to read and makes her a Senator’s wife – just as the West is tamed. Almost the last words are Hallie saying, “It was once a wilderness. Now it’s a garden.” But she loses her fire and the joie de vivre that Tom would have nurtured. It is touching, and rather sad.
In the last resort, Stoddard has lived a lie. The myth is dismantled. And for all Ranse’s worldly success and Doniphon’s apparent failure (dying unknown and alone in a backwater), Stoddard is not half the man Doniphon was. And he knows it.
Fundamentally, it’s a tragic story. As the train recedes in the final scene, with Ranse and Hallie going back East, Ford’s bleakest film ends.
Ford was determined to make it a low-key, atmospheric film, in black & white and mostly shot on the lot. Both Paramount and DP William Clothier (who was increasingly Ford’s creative muse) wanted color. It was pretty well commercially essential by 1962 and Clothier preferred working in color. But Ford dug his toes in. “Goddam it, we’re going to do it in black and white.” As the story was mostly set at night, perhaps Ford thought that the lack of color would enhance the dark and somber look and feel.
Yet it wasn’t so much the black & white that sunk the picture – Ford was after all a master of monochrome – but the lack of big skies and open prairies. To confine a Western almost totally to sound-set interiors and studio street scenes is a dangerous, not to say, fatal exercise. Westerns depend on action and scenery and movement. John Ford knew this, too – he of all people. Yet The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance is static and over-talky, and it lacks movement. It is true that certain great Westerns have been similarly confined to studio sets – one thinks of High Noon or The Gunfighter, taut ‘town’ Westerns – but they depend on building dramatic tension to breaking point, which Liberty Valance simply didn’t have enough of.
The themes of Liberty Valance were those that had always concerned the famous director: East versus West, the creation of law and order in a wild land, nostalgia for a bygone time of freedom. The film has something interesting to say on pacifism and courage and the freedom of the press. Much of the dialogue is well-written and thoughtful. There is just too much of it.
Brian Garfield’s view, as expressed in his splendid guide Western Films, was:
It’s a terribly old-fashioned film, rather wistful, lacking in energy. The characterizations are reduced to the simplicities of ‘B’ formulas and I find it a dreary, tired movie.
And I think that’s true.
The final years
Liberty Valance came out, to lukewarm reviews, in April. Immediately, Ford moved to MGM to direct the Civil War segment of the studio’s spectacular How the West Was Won (Henry Hathaway did most of the picture with George Marshall doing the railroad part). Ford was paid $50,000 for it, and was glad of the cash. It was a huge, bloated picture of little discernible artistic merit but it was enormously successful, and it kept Ford’s name in the limelight, enabling him to make his last Western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
Cheyenne Autumn did not deserve the “worst film of the year” award that it got from the Harvard Lampoon. It has major weaknesses, yes, but when it comes down to it, it is quite moving in parts and visually it is very fine with many artistic touches. Cinematographer William Clothier was himself a considerable artist and he had worked so much and so well with Ford that they understood each other without the need for words. The DP certainly made the most of the widescreen format. It was as well, for Ford seemed to have lost his gift for framing.
Of the principal white characters, Richard Widmark leads again. The role would have suited other actors better, Wayne, most obviously, or Wayne’s co-star on the Horse Soldiers, William Holden. Even James Stewart, who was wasted in a silly and extraneous cameo as Wyatt Earp. Carroll Baker is OK as the earnest Quaker schoolteacher, though nothing special, I thought. Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr and Denver Pyle are in it but totally wasted. Blink and you miss them. The worst performance of the cast, understandably because he was such a ham, is that of Karl Malden, here playing a drunken German officer on the edge of insanity; such a role gave him license to chew the scenery and boy, does he make the most of it. He almost sinks the picture single-handed.
The story goes a long way to redressing the wrong of Ford’s early treatment of the Native Americans, whom he represented, for years and years, as savages to be shot down without compunction. Here we have the plight of a brutally mistreated Cheyenne people, sympathetically treated. Ford said, “I like Indians very much. They’re … a very moral people. They have a literature. Not written. But spoken. They’re very kindhearted. They love their children and their animals. And I wanted to show their point of view for a change.” But these schmaltzy generalizations come across, to me anyway, as paternalistic and patronizing.
Amazingly, in the mid-60s, Ford, now aged 69, frail, with failing eyesight and with several loss-making movies in his recent past (including for Warner Brothers), got Warners to stump up $4.2m and to commit to Super Panavison 70.
For some bizarre reason Ford must have been impressed with James Webb’s script for the mega-turkey How the West Was Won because he paid Webb $100,000 of the budget plus 20% of the producer’s profits for Cheyenne Autumn. It was a mistake. There’s even the line, “There’s a train at seven this evening for the West. You be on it.”
A structural problem of the picture is that the Indians are there as remote victims, “reacting, never acting” as Scott Eyman has said. We don’t get sufficiently close to them or their motivations. Their plight is seen from a distant, and white perspective – reinforced by the voiceover by Widmark. Harry Carey watched day after day as the Indians marched across Monument Valley, stopping to deliver some dialogue, then marching some more. “I never knew what was going on, but I chalked it up to my being just plain dumb. I was to discover, however, that no one else did either. They did what the Old Man told them. Naturally, they trusted him – he was John Ford – so there must be some reason for what they are doing.”
Tragically, though, there wasn’t.
There were delays and overruns. Ford had been famous for getting them in on time and on budget but he had lost his touch. The picture meandered. At one point Ford turned an ankle and got zoned on codeine pills. Widmark took over direction for a while. Clothier later said, “On Cheyenne Autumn, the same thing happened as happened on a number of the old man’s later films – he’d give up. Just get tired and lose interest.”
When Ford wrapped the picture there were polite noises at Warners followed by throat-clearing. Eyman says, “Ford had turned in a sluggish, muffled picture.” But short of expensive re-shooting there was little the studio could do. With overruns they already had over $7m tied up in the movie. It launched at 154 minutes.
The reviews were, let us say, modest. Typical was The Cleveland Press, which said, “Cheyenne Autumn is a near miss, a motion picture with good intentions.” It was nominated for only one Oscar, for Clothier’s cinematography. Box-office was similarly disappointing: on a $7.3m outlay it grossed $3.1m domestically. Even with overseas sales, in September 1966 it was still heavily in the red.
The world was changing, but not John Ford. The year of Cheyenne Autumn was also the year of A Fistful of Dollars. The two ‘Westerns’ were hardly related.
It was really a sad end to a great career. For it was great. Those who came late to Ford would judge him harshly – with some justification – on the basis of his Westerns. But they should go back, right back to Straight Shooting and The Iron Horse, and especially to the glory days of the late 1940s through mid-1950s, from My Darling Clementine to The Searchers, inclusive.
As Eyman says, “he was fast and good, rebellious and caustic, irascible and witty and contradictory.” Eyman adds that he was “half contrary, bloody-minded Irishman, half flinty new Englander, 100% anarchic individualist.” Above all, and for all his contradictions, he was an artist.
The great epigram of Ford’s career is that famous saying from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. This phrase can stand as a summary of Ford’s work in the Western genre. He printed the legend.
And you know even the least of Ford Westerns is not bad. The best of them are utterly superb.