John Ford is such an obvious enigma; it’s not surprising that the new wave of American film makers became obsessed with his methods and persona. The awkwardness that exudes from the famously sparse interview with Peter Bogdanovich highlights well the portrayal of relationships in Ford’s films; namely that behind a blunt, entertaining simplicity, there’s an array of intelligence and complexity just waiting to be found. While enjoying any number of his films, it’s almost as if Ford is happily smuggling in complex relationships and ideas under the guise of cowboys and Indians or other exciting visuals and narratives.
In between the chases and seemingly life threatening action sequences, sit character moments that advance plot and narrative but also question many relationships that concern far more obviously art-house directors as well. Instead of focussing entirely on the power of these dramatic moments, they are often highlighted by a movement or emphasis on object, more obviously akin to Ozu’s teapot or some other such idiosyncrasies.
The most famous of these scenes is in The Searchers (1956). Ethan, the violent, racist power figure has finally rescued the daughter of a family and has returned her to her family. Throughout the film, relationships have been popping up and around characters but here as the film ends they are now solidifying. However Ethan has had to go through much to get her back, separated by his will to do whatever he has deemed necessary. This has separated him from the fluid family unit and instead of Ford playing this up, he opts for a quietly emotional framing of Ethan through the doorway as the door closes on him while he walks away back into the canyons of Monument Valley.
The doorway has often had a very obvious, metaphorical effect; the shutting out of the unwanted and the shrouding of happenings behind closed doors. Here, it is the former and Ford frames the shot to show exactly what Wayne’s character has sacrificed. Of course Ford would no doubt refute any such analysis of scenes from his films. Filmmaking for him was “easy” and the process of it was often described in obtusely simple terms, deliberate to hide any creative thoughts behind a tough guy persona. He rather aptly shares much in common with Ethan and is often happy to let the door close behind him.
In his critically acclaimed Stagecoach (1939), Ford uses a variety of techniques that must have seemed new at the time, including the fast cutting criss-cross effect on the chase scene about to be discussed. However it is the emphasis on hope and chance in one minor moment that moves Ford into the territory of genius. While being chased by Indians, the action cuts to two character moments surrounding the two female characters. One is a prostitute cradling a baby. Dallas looks down at the child, all the while with the chaos of the chase almost being blocked out. She has been seen as a tough character throughout the film and an easy equal to the other members of the motley crew assembled for the journey. By showing her humanity in this moment, it not only adds another layer to the character but contextualises the danger of the scene; showing a human just at the start of life in the direst of situations has been a ploy since Eisenstein used it to brutal effect in Battleship Potemkin (1925).
Ford doesn’t stop here though. Moving to the second stagecoach, we find the second women; Mrs Mallory who is trying to get back to her husband and is pregnant. She is shown to be praying and in fear, perhaps asking for forgiveness in allowing Hatfield to be a “southern gentleman” to her. However, whereas Mallory’s pessimism manifests in praying, Hatfield takes a more drastic approach, preparing his last bullet for Mallory, seeing as she’s better off dead than in the hands of the Indians. Ford frames the shot well, allowing only the gun and Mallory to appear in frame. He slowly cocks the gun before being shot himself. Ford can perhaps be seen to be shown as an optimist here, allowing Mallory to live while sacrificing her guilt in the form of Hatfield. Such complex but subtle sub-texts like these have appeared throughout the film yet it is telling of its confidence when they appear in scenes very obvious catered towards action-entertainment.
Stagecoach also shows Ford’s richly detailed characters, at first appearing simplistic caricatures but gradually revealing them to be all within their own vices due to circumstance and past traumas. The character detail is almost a Fordian trait, often relying on the relationships built upon them later on to heighten the action and intersperse between the more typical western shoot outs. Ford’s obvious talent for this becomes more present in his non-western films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or The Quiet Man (1952). It does however seem more of achievement in the genre film that often relies more on clichéd scenarios for its narratives.
In Fort Apache (1948), Ford uses a relatively simple ploy to show the two contrasting methods of warfare applied to the local Apache Indians. Ironically, it is John Wayne’s Captain York who’s more relaxed and understanding methods of local culture are overall shown to be the right way. His attire is scruffy, adapted and loose (as is the rest of the company’s before the arrival of Lieutenant Thursday) just like his character’s philosophies contrasted with Lieutenant Thursday’s (Henry Fonda) strict regime of uniform and methodical, military approach. Thursday even states this explicitly in script arguing that “the uniform is not a subject for individual, whimsical expression.” Ford shows the stark differences between these two men and their beliefs through elements very obviously visual in the same way he has done in all of the previous examples.
This is one of Hollywood’s great visual masters; clearly understanding that the medium has potential far outside of its role as pure entertainment. Trying to get him to admit this on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. Suffice to say, these are just a handful of examples that show Ford’s attention to detail as a director and as an artist. A master hiding his true talent behind an image, an action and an eye patch.
Coming Soon: Analysis of John Ford’s use of music.
Here’s a collection of interesting and entertaining interviews about John Ford.