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The Ways of Love and Politics by Chris Fujiwara
Straight Shooting (1917) by Fernando Martín Peña
Kentucky Pride (1925) by Shigehiko Hasumi
Judge Priest (1934) by Jean-Pierre Coursodon
The Informer (1935) by Blake Lucas
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) by A. S. Hamrah
The Long Voyage Home (1940) by Chris Fujiwara
How Green Was My Valley (1941) by Adrian Martin
Fort Apache (1948) by Dan Sallitt
3 Godfathers (1948) by James Verniere
When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950) by Gregg Rickman
Wagon Master (1950) by Richard T. Jameson
The Quiet Man (1952) by Sam Adams
The Rising of the Moon (1957) by Miguel Marías
Gideon's Day (1958) by David Sterritt
The Last Hurrah (1958) by Ronald Bergan
Two Rode Together (1961) by Geoffrey O'Brien
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) by Eleanor Ringel Cater
Cheyenne Autumn (1964) by Toshi Fujiwara
In introducing this special section on John Ford, I know it will be understood by everyone that even if I allude to the contributors' texts, pose connections among them, and give the impression of an overall flow and coherence to the collection, I can in no way speak for all these various writers or pretend to reconcile their perspectives in a single gaze, however "complex," on Ford's work. What I can do is speak of my own, obviously partial, view of Ford's films and, through that view, try to introduce (even though they need no introduction and can speak for themselves) the approaches toward them taken here. In so speaking, I will talk of two main ways of seeing Ford's work. These ways are not mutually exclusive, but they are linked to particular discourses, and perhaps particular styles, that may appear incompatible. Let's call one the way of love, and the other the way of politics.
There are many ways of loving films. But the love of John Ford's films frequently crystallizes around some choice themes. One is a certain pastoral image, sometimes (as in the Will Rogers trilogy [1933-1935], Young Mr. Lincoln , and My Darling Clementine ) labeled "America," and sometimes (as in The Quiet Man ) labeled "Ireland." Another is the image of American cinema as an ideal of clarity and complexity in its address to a mass audience. But it's another theme that grips me most, and it also engages most of the writers here: Ford the man — the one who creates and falls in love with these images that inspire love in viewers, the man who embodies what have come to be thought of as the virtues of American cinema at their zenith, and also the "man" as certain ways of relating to the things he shows, thus as a very modern subject, as modern as any of us, and not some idealized abstraction of what we love in his films.
Thus, in his piece on Fort Apache (1948), Dan Sallitt writes of the "authorial container" that surrounds the plot, an idyllic tone mixed with comic exaggeration and an emphasis on pleasure. Sallitt's perception of how this container is at odds with a tragic and disturbing story is echoed by Jean-Pierre Coursodon's description of Ford as "the most Janus-like of filmmakers" and of Judge Priest (1934) as "really two almost different films, consisting of two contrasting actions." Fordian duality is a recurring theme in other texts here, including the affectionate introduction to 3 Godfathers (1948) by James Verniere and an account of The Quiet Man in which Sam Adams notes that the atmosphere of the hero's cottage is "almost jarringly at odds with the movie's general lightheartedness." It is not Ford's wholeness that interests these writers so much as his dividedness.
For all the contradictions in Ford's films, there is rarely any sense of dilution or compromise in them. As Blake Lucas writes in his thorough reevaluation of The Informer (1935), "It is again a question of whether there is one 'true' Ford style against which all his films should be measured… Rather than try to limit the nature of his artistic mastery, it seems more just to allow him the freedom to move through the many different kinds of films he has made." These disparate films strike viewers as more or less "Fordian," but I can sometimes feel that even the most seemingly minor or aberrant of them deserves to have said about it what Richard T. Jameson says here of a film that is assuredly one of the greatest, Wagon Master (1950): "No one else could or would have made it. There's not a second, not a frame, that answers to any convention, any imperative beyond the director's wish that it be as it is, look at what it looks at the way it does." Aptly, Miguel Marías finds in the overlooked Irish film The Rising of the Moon (1957) not merely a reflection of the director's view of life but "one of the most personal films Ford ever made." Marías's piece might be read in tandem with that by David Sterritt on the British production Gideon's Day (1958), the other late-'50s film that Ford made as if on a short overseas holiday. And Sterritt's piece in turn links up with Gregg Rickman's consideration of When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950), another Ford film that has generally been seen as atypical, and with Ronald Bergan's text on The Last Hurrah (1958), a film that sometimes seems to be disparaged for being too Fordian.
Who is this John Ford who, through the various contexts and pretexts of his films, speaks to viewers so directly of his thoughts and feelings? In a moving appreciation of one of the least seen and discussed of Ford's works, Kentucky Pride (1925), Shigehiko Hasumi advances the idea that the image of physicality and memory that Ford creates in that film could not have existed but for the experience, which Ford still remembered decades later, of being loved by a horse. Memory is also the theme of Fernando Martín Peña's text on Straight Shooting (1917), the first of Ford's features and a film that, as the writer points out, takes into itself and restructures the memory, then very fresh, of the Westerns that preceded it, before going on to create the memory that it hands down to The Searchers (1956). This is an example of how the pleasure that Ford generously invites the viewer to share with him in the camera's revelation of gesture and behavior — the theme of Geoffrey O'Brien's account of the famous river scene in Two Rode Together (1961) — is linked to a consciousness of the reappearances of the same gestures at different times and different places.
In Straight Shooting, as Peña observes, what is in question is not only the iconography of gesture and behavior but also a certain ambivalence toward society. In this ambivalence, which surfaces again, as Eleanor Ringel Cater reminds us, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), can be found a useful model for what I am calling the second main way of seeing Ford's work, the way of politics. The vast body of published commentary on Ford's films is filled with debates over their political meanings. The inner divisions of the films, their self-contradictory, sometimes self-critical stance, have made such debates inevitable, while making it possible for the director to be claimed by both the Left (Jean-Marie Straub calling Ford a Brechtian filmmaker) and the Right (conservative writers' glorification of John Wayne's image in Ford's films as a model for masculinity and Americanism). Some of the texts in this section mark a step or two, or three, beyond the futile competition between the labels Left and Right, labels that I believe are not only of no value for the discussion of Ford's work but actively misleading (just as the continuing irrelevance of those labels to the problems now being experienced by many contemporary societies has gone past the point of being obvious and has become destructive).
In opening up the political dimension of Ford's work, we will be concerned not just with the beauty of mise en scène but, as Adrian Martin is in his essay on How Green Was My Valley (1941), with the revelation and transformation of a social mise en scène (in this film, that of family ritual). And with how the marks of authorship and the contest of viewpoints within a Ford film exhibit what Susan Sontag, though not with Ford in mind, called a "style of radical will." In his piece on The Grapes of Wrath (1940), A. S. Hamrah comments on Ford's refusal to show a bottle leave Henry Fonda's hand when Fonda throws it away. Perceiving this as radicalism no doubt links up with what I have been calling here "the way of love." (By the way, I hope it's clear that I don't wish to divide the contributors into two rival teams of Lovers and Politicians. Again, there is nothing mutually exclusive in what I am distinguishing, perhaps too artificially, as two different approaches to Ford. Any text here could be shown to draw on both of them.) Part of what Hamrah appreciates in the gesture of not showing is Ford's intransigence in trying to protect his film from its producer, Darryl F. Zanuck. Here is where something should be said, in passing, about "auteurism," a word that in the world of academic film studies seems rarely to appear in print lately without the word "romantic" nearby, seemingly meant with a disparaging connotation (which comes across more strongly if, as often happens, such forms as "romanticizing" or "romanticized" are thrown in) so as to suggest that people who look at films in an "auteurist" way are to be pitied, if not despised, for holding to beliefs about artistic individuality that not only smack of wistful fantasy but are probably politically reactionary. It might be remembered, however, that for perhaps the most illustrious part of the history of the term, "romanticism" was associated with a politically radical defiance of established structures of power. Is it enough to mention the names Blake, Shelley, and Hugo? Would anyone deny that for an artist to take a stand of resistance in his or her own name can be an act of political force, or should we relegate that possibility to a single period that lasted a few decades, two centuries ago? But this is starting to sound like Left vs. Right all over again…
In any case, the "auteurism" of the texts in this collection is, I'd say, rather nuanced. To take Hamrah's essay again, he doesn't simply assert that The Grapes of Wrath is a John Ford film and proceed to discuss it as such; rather, he sees it as two films, one by Ford that remains faithful in some respects to the starkness of John Steinbeck's novel, the other by Zanuck and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, and shows how the first is sharp, disturbing, and prophetic while the second is appeasing and conformist. Thus the political logic of the film, how it intervenes in a political discussion, that concerning the United States's policy on the rural poor and environmental protection, proves to be carried out also on another level within the film itself.
Rather than about Left and Right, I'd like to talk about dignity (which Jacques Tourneur once called the subject of all his own films) and justice (which Georges Franju saw as the central theme of Fritz Lang's), about ethical necessity, and about the real. These words are too sober, and Ford himself would not have used them in talking about his work, but these are the words that now seem the truest as I try to describe Ford's political dimension. The words point out that his films are acts of resistance in various forms. Toshi Fujiwara's lengthy defense of Cheyenne Autumn (1964), a film that, as he writes, "has always been either disparaged, respectfully ignored, or defended for not being what it was expected to be, while almost never appreciated for what it really is," evokes the theme of dignity in describing how Ford films his Cheyenne characters. The theme could be extended, in a different way, to that whole realm of Ford's work that has to do with his definiteness about his own predilections (well described by Sallitt in the text on Fort Apache and Jameson in the text on Wagon Master).
As for "the real," what I mean by linking this term to Ford can best be illustrated by the endings of three films that, since they are not the subject of individual texts in this collection, I'd like to consider briefly here. I devote a longer study along similar lines to The Long Voyage Home (1940) in this collection.
At the end of They Were Expendable (1945), a U.S. military plane is about to evacuate personnel from the Philippines, which MacArthur has abandoned. The plane, which we are given to understand will be the last one out before the islands are overrun by the advancing Japanese, can carry only thirty passengers. Two ensigns who are numbers 29 and 30 on the list of those hoping to board the plane fail to show up, so the next men on the list, Morton and Carter, are assigned the ensigns' seats. At the last possible moment, as the plane is about to start down the runway, the ensigns finally arrive, and so Morton and Carter must get out and remain at the airstrip. Everyone knows (except the panting, oblivious, fresh-faced ensigns), though no one says it, that this means that Morton and Carter are probably soon to die. In part this scene functions according to a familiar rhetoric of the impassiveness of soldiers facing disaster. The doomed men's failure even to acknowledge the reality of what is happening, much less express disappointment or sorrow, is the key to the scene. The viewer may respond to it emotionally or not (I find it deeply moving). The point is the confrontation with the real: with the accident, something that's no one's fault or responsibility but that just happens because it happens.
Another accident is at the center of The Wings of Eagles (1957): Spig Wead's fall down the stairs of his own home, an absurd, meaningless, unexpected occurrence that has devastating consequences, leaving Wead partially paralyzed. But it's not that moment I want to focus on (I mention it only to show the dominion that the irremediable and brutal fact has over this film), but instead the pure cinema of memory and emotion with which Ford closes The Wings of Eagles. Wead needs to be hoisted ignominiously off a Navy ship — an operation that, without any special slanting that way in direction, dialogue, or performance, the viewer intuitively recognizes as a metaphor for Wead's imminent death. As he packs his things in his cabin, Wead remembers scenes with his wife that took place earlier in the film, and which are shown in brief cut-in flashbacks. The impact of these short flashbacks can only be called devastating. It is a literally dazzling scene, one that almost can't be watched, so traumatic is the confrontation with the real that it organizes ("truth is blinding," as Godard said of Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory ).
The ending of The Long Gray Line (1955), in which the hero of the chronicle, Marty Maher, now an old man at the end of his life, sees a passing parade of his now dead loved ones and becomes confused by this vision, is situated, in terms of mise en scène, halfway between the shockingly clipped and bare scene of Wead remembering his wife in The Wings of Eagles and the heartbreaking ending of How Green Was My Valley, in which the father appears, first dead, being lifted out of a mineshaft, then alive, as the voice of his son, which narrates the film, declares that such men as he cannot die. What might be seen, in both The Long Gray Line and How Green Was My Valley, as a wish-fulfilling conjuring-away of the traumatic real through fantasy, I prefer to see as a coming-to-terms with the real, an encounter characterized by the utmost realism. In cinema, there is no difference between the image of a person who is supposed to be alive and the image of a person, played by a living actor, who is supposed to be dead. Ford uses this indifference to remind an audience just what it means to watch a film.
"In these deserts… begins our new prehistory," says Pasolini in Il rabbia, speaking about America. Ford has seen the deserts, but he sees in them, instead of a future that has yet to unfold, a past that won't close as long as he keeps looking at it. Ford is sometimes supposed to have glorified the U.S. military, but it neither bothers nor concerns me much how he felt about it. It's clear from the films what Ford's feelings were. What's more important is the honesty with which he faces — and makes the audience, through his heroes (including soldiers), face — something in his films that is not born out of the mere desire to see (or to see as, to see in a certain way), but that demands to be seen.
That is what I am calling Ford's politics: the resistance and durability of what demands to be seen, even when it is a traumatic, blinding truth or an accident in the real that means death, or even when it is an awkward, accusing, and uncomfortable truth, in the process of being displaced, crushed, or written out of an imperialistic history, like the truths carried by the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, the seamen in The Long Voyage Home, the miners in How Green Was My Valley, the Apache in Fort Apache, and the Cheyenne in Cheyenne Autumn. To recall those groups, and how Ford shows them, is to be reminded of the ethical imperative in Ford's work: the need to answer with a clear and realistic seeing the demand of the real to be seen
Special thanks to David Sterritt for his assistance in rounding up the articles for this section.
issue #5 (5.2009)