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View Full Version : Do you appreciate John Ford?


pseudotriton ruber ruber
12-02-2006, 06:09 PM
I don't. I've bought a number of his films, since they represent a big gap in my film-viewing, and the ones I've seen so far (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence) seem to be simple cliche-fests, bad acting, unimpressive dialogue, cumbersome and predictable plotlines, casting whoppers (Jimmy Stewart as a young naive lawyer? In 1938, maybe, sure. But in 1962--the man was in his mid-50s for Chrissake). Mostly it's the undeveloped, same-note characters. If he introduces a drinker, like Edmond O'Brien in TMWSLV, then that's going to be his identifying trait in almost every scene. You never see a drinker who's not identifiably drunk, do you? If you see a cowardly lawman, like Andy Devine, well, that's who he remains. Liberty Valance is an evil gunslinger who terrorizes a town, yet who comes into the town on Election Day (without residence in the town, mind you) and not only expects the citizens to vote for him, but is pissed when he doesn't get popular support. Talk about two-dimensional. Is LV supposed to be seven years old and mentally retarded, too?

That's how I feel when I watch Ford's films--like he assumes I'm retarded too. I just don't get his reputation as a great film director. From what I've seen, and these two are supposed to be among his very best, he's an untalented hack.

Since I'm sure there are Ford fans here, I'm willing to be set straight. Where are the subtleties and strengths that I'm ignoring?

RealityChuck
12-02-2006, 06:39 PM
First of all, the filmmaking and characterization is of the age when it was created (or rather, when Ford started making movies).

I wouldn't put either of those two among his best. Some people love The Searchers, but it's not for all tastes (I find it overrated), and Liberty Valance is good, but not in his top five.

Also, you're concentrating on nonessentials. The fact that Valance is from outside the town (and that doesn't necessarily mean he can't vote or run for office -- often small towns include outlying areas as part of their electorate) is unimportant. Valance expects people to do what he says. He is a bully, and no one is willing to stand up to him. Like any bully, he gets angry when anyone does. Any dictator would behave the same way.

Ford is primarily about story. In Ford's best films -- and I'd include Stagecoach, Ft. Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Whole Town's Talking, and The Quiet Man among them -- the strength is story, and the characters seem a bit one-dimensional because that's what they have to be.

But there are unexpected depths in many of Ford's characters. Some have secrets that get shown in some very subtle ways. Ford wants his actors to be reactors (one reason why he liked using John Wayne), and they show their depth in subtle looks and emotions that may come across best on a big screen.

For instance, in Fort Apache, Henry Fonda plays a glory-seeking martinet. We see him die in a stupid and pointless battle with the indians. John Wayne, as his second-in-command saw this and only survives the battle because his does everything he can to try to dissuade Fonda from going ahead with the attack. As a result, Fonda sends him to the rear to be rid of him. After the battle -- glorified much like the Battle of Little Big Horn -- reporters ask Wayne about the battle and mention a sanitized painting showing Fonda dying in a blaze of glory. Wayne pauses -- and that pause speaks volumes: he is thinking about what to say. When he speaks, he confirms the glorious death of Fonda, even knowing it's a lie. Though the words aren't said, Ford here already anticipated the famous line from Liberty Valance ("print the legend.")

The characters also show interesting depths. Wayne is an advocate for the Indians and is consistently taking their side (one reason why he objects to Fonda's attack: Wayne had given his word to the Indians that there would be no battle). This is not the attitude you'd think someone on the frontier was expected to have. Fonda thinks the Indians are savages and consistently shows bigotry toward them. Yet when the Indian agent is caught cheating them out of supplies, he punishes the agent.

On in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, there's a scene where Wayne is told to bring a woman on patrol. He goes to his commander and protests. The commander insists. Wayne says he will make a formal protest. The commander already has the forms out and waiting. This exchange speaks volumes about the relationship between the two men.

Ford was one of the subtlist and straightforward of all directors. It's easy to miss the characterizations because they are often told so quietly that they can be missed.

What Exit?
12-02-2006, 08:30 PM
I give my utmost appreciation to John Ford for directing The Quiet Man (1952 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045061/)), Mister Roberts (1955) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048380/) & The Grapes of Wrath (1940) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032551/).
These are three of the greatest films ever made. More importantly, they are not even similar to each other.

The Grapes of Wrath is the important movie, the great movie.

Mr Roberts is still one of the top comedies of all time.

The Quiet Man is, well, I am not sure what the Quiet Man is, but I love this movie beyond rational reason and I am not even a John Wayne fan. It is the perfect St. Patty's Day movie.

I very much enjoyed Donovan's Reef (1963), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) & They Were Expendable (1945). I will concede these are not great films but I did enjoy.

I am no fan of the Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence either. If you do not like classic westerns, I do not see anything to recommend these films.

So try his non westerns. Please start with the three I list above. I note for the record, that apparently I am the common man. Mister Roberts rates a 7.8 on IMDB. The Quiet man gets a 7.9 and Grapes pulls an outstanding 8.1 making it #178 on the top list.

Jim

Lochdale
12-02-2006, 11:42 PM
I believe there has been a thread on the Searchers and its value as a movie. Truly one of the greatest westerns, indeed movies, ever made.

silenus
12-02-2006, 11:51 PM
On in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, there's a scene where Wayne is told to bring a woman on patrol. He goes to his commander and protests. The commander insists. Wayne says he will make a formal protest. The commander already has the forms out and waiting. This exchange speaks volumes about the relationship between the two men.

"How many "r"s in "territory?" :D

Joh Ford was a genius, pure and simple. The reason his movies are "cliche-ridden" is that every director since has ripped off everything they can from the Master.

"Have you every been scared, Sgt. Tyree?"
"Yessir. Up to and including now."

lissener
12-03-2006, 12:30 AM
Keep trying, PRR. I began focusing on Ford because I found I was becoming conditioned to crave re-watching his movies: I discovered, almost by accident, that his movies made me feel uplifted and happy to be human. But I couldn't put my finger on why. So I began watching as many as I could, as often as I could. It's still a pretty elusive quality--he may be the most subtle filmmaker of all time--but I'm gradually beginning to get a handle on it.

First of all, understand that he's worth the effort: this is definitely one of those cases where you "don't get it." By that I mean that you have not yet discovered the emotional truth of his films, but it's definitely there, and worth digging for. Second, let's just be clear about this: John Ford is, hands down, no competition, the greatest American director. Orson Welles agreed.

Note that almost all of your objections could be made to any or all of the films being made in Hollywood in those years: your difficulties lie largely with the style of the day, not with Ford himself. Note also that Ford--and here's the most important point--was interested not in realism, or objective factual accuracy, but in myth; in the truth of a people, not of a person.

The detailed list of objections you enumerate could just as easily--and just as irrelevantly--be made against the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen or the plays of Shakespeare. And yes, it's my absolute intention to place Ford in that company: The Searchers is as big a work of art as King Lear.

The sensibilities you, PRR, are mistakenly bringing to Ford are the sensibilities of a post-Nouvelle Vague, post-Italian-Neorealism audience.

Try the Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; and Rio Grande. Then try The Searchers again. Try to track down a copy of Bogdanovich's documentary, Directed by John Ford. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066997/) Let Scorsese and Eastwood and Spielberg and Boorman and Hill convince you that he's worth trying again.

lissener
12-03-2006, 12:39 AM
Also, remember that Ford came from the days of silent film: much of his storytelling was nonverbal. An oftquoted example, and one of my favorites, is the scene in The Searchers where the Marshall/Preacher, played by Ward Bond, watches Dorothy Jordan fetch John Wayne's coat for him. John Wayne is her husband's brother, but the way she lovingly handles the coat, it's clear that she's in love with John Wayne. Bond happens to observe that moment, and we see in his face that he's registered her love, suddenly understood their entire history, and simulstaneously vowed to himself never, ever to reveal their secret. All in around 6 seconds of screen time, with zero dialogue.

Chills, every got dam time.

Dr. Rieux
12-03-2006, 01:32 AM
I think he was a great director of serious drama, but I find his faux-Irish attempts at comedy like fingernails on a chalkboard. I can't stand The Quiet Man.

lissener
12-03-2006, 01:33 AM
Faux-Irish? His real name was Sean O'Feeney.

Dr. Rieux
12-03-2006, 01:49 AM
Actually, he fudged that a little. he was born John Martin Feeney in Maine, to Irish immigrant parents. Maybe "faux-Irish" is a little strong--how about "Irish-once-removed"?

What Exit?, I hate to burst your bubble, but Ford was either fired from Mister Roberts early on, or he had to have an operation, and replaced with Mervyn LeRoy (who actually co-directed with Josh Logan).

pseudotriton ruber ruber
12-03-2006, 06:41 AM
Note that almost all of your objections could be made to any or all of the films being made in Hollywood in those years: your difficulties lie largely with the style of the day, not with Ford himself. Note also that Ford--and here's the most important point--was interested not in realism, or objective factual accuracy, but in myth; in the truth of a people, not of a person.

The detailed list of objections you enumerate could just as easily--and just as irrelevantly--be made against the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen or the plays of Shakespeare. And yes, it's my absolute intention to place Ford in that company: The Searchers is as big a work of art as King Lear.


I don't mean to be merely argumentative here, but I'm confused about my difficulties lying largely with the style of the day--TMWSLV is 1962, not 1922 0r 1862. I was alive in 1962. The style of films of 1962 was pretty lively and fresh--lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird, to name just two great films from that year, are traditional narratives but not at all reliant on stock characters. Ford seems, in comparison to Pakula or Lean, a throwback to a previous era's values, yet this unsophisticated quality is what you seem to be celebrating about him. I also own SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, YOUNG MISTER LINCOLN, and THE QUIET MAN--given that I haven't enjoyed THE SEARCHERS or TMWSLV, which one should I try next?

Oddly I dislike KING LEAR for many of the same reasons I dislike Ford, though I'm a tremendous reader of Shakespeare.


http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-568-90CA85C-38A86EA1-prod6

What Exit?
12-03-2006, 07:21 AM
What Exit?, I hate to burst your bubble, but Ford was either fired from Mister Roberts early on, or he had to have an operation, and replaced with Mervyn LeRoy (who actually co-directed with Josh Logan).
Well crap, that drops him down to two of the best films then.

The reason the film has two credited directors is because John Ford began the film but Mervyn LeRoy had to finish it. Some reports claim Ford left the project due to an illness, others claim it was due to a disagreement with star Henry Fonda.

Jim

lissener
12-03-2006, 07:37 AM
I don't mean to be merely argumentative here, but I'm confused about my difficulties lying largely with the style of the day--TMWSLV is 1962, not 1922 0r 1862. I was alive in 1962. The style of films of 1962 was pretty lively and fresh--lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird, to name just two great films from that year, are traditional narratives but not at all reliant on stock characters. Ford seems, in comparison to Pakula or Lean, a throwback to a previous era's values, yet this unsophisticated quality is what you seem to be celebrating about him. I also own SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, YOUNG MISTER LINCOLN, and THE QUIET MAN--given that I haven't enjoyed THE SEARCHERS or TMWSLV, which one should I try next?

Oddly I dislike KING LEAR for many of the same reasons I dislike Ford, though I'm a tremendous reader of Shakespeare.


http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-568-90CA85C-38A86EA1-prod6
Dude, you can't get much more stock-character than To Kill a Mockingbird. Even so, the characterization that is there is from the novel. And Pakula's style is much more earthbound, not to say leaden. Again, myth versus story.

Obviously this is not something that can be "debated"; you just have to, at some point, be convinced that there is value there to be "learned," and commit to doing the homework required to "get it." It may require a total paradigm shift; it's far more difficult to address something one doesn't see than something one does. This can only happen with more experience. Not just of Ford, but of movies in general, as you begin to see Ford's fingerprints on other filmmakers' work. Once Upon a Time in the West is, largely, a tribute to Ford. Citizen Kane would be a vastly different movie if Welles had not been, artistically speaking, a Ford apprentice. (And can you even imagine the existence of David Lean without Ford coming first?)

As for arbitrarily choosing a year like 1962 and doing a lateral scan of what other directors were doing, that's really not gonna help you "get" Ford. Ford had been inventing American cinema since the 20s, so to compare his style to a couple of young, post-War directors--directors whose cinematic vocabulary is more in keeping with the modern vernacular that is more familiar to you--is to miss the value in Ford. It's kind of like focusing on the character's shoelaces at the expense of mythic sweep of the story he's acting in; hard to make that clear because both Lean and Pakula are so post-Ford; both owe so very much to him, while simultaneously being so very lesser than, that it's extremely hard to compare them. Mockingbird is like Ford brought down to dusty earth; to be more about the grubby people within the frame than about the mythic scope of the People and their past.

Jean Renoir said that the more perfect art becomes, the less "art" it is (paraphrasing badly here). He suggests that a perfect representation of reality is almost not art at all; it's reality. The art lies in how the artist distorts reality. To judge the mythology of Ford by the standards of post-Brando method acting, or post-War cinematic realism, is to willfully miss the values that make Ford the greatest American director. I have an image of you watching a bunch of films by a bunch of directors and focusing entirely on the shoes of the actors, and giving each movie a rating based on the accuracy of the footwear, and completely missing everything else; the really important stuff. An exaggeration, of course, but perhaps you see my point.

All the other movies you mention are equally "stylized." If you go to a grand opera and dismiss it because it's not believable--if you focus on the wrong details, in other words--you may never see beyond the dust on the shoes to see what there is to see in Ford. (Opera is a good comparison, because of the level of artifice and stylization present in most pre-modern opera.) But eventually, hopefully, you'll watch all of them, and you may reach a critical mass of some kind. Report back.

(Read some of the short capsules at this paper, most of them by Dave Kehr. He usually gives a fresh, but "deep," insight into the great classics.

On The Searchers (http://onfilm.chicagoreader.com/movies/capsules/10753_SEARCHERS): We may still be waiting for the Great American Novel, but John Ford gave us the Great American Film in 1956. The Searchers gathers the deepest concerns of American literature, distilling 200 years of tradition in a way available only to popular art, and with a beauty available only to a supreme visual poet like Ford. Through the central image of the frontier, the meeting point of wilderness and civilization, Ford explores the divisions of our national character, with its search for order and its need for violence, its spirit of community and its quest for independence.

On The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (http://onfilm.chicagoreader.com/movies/capsules/5881_MAN_WHO_SHOT_LIBERTY_VALANCE): A great film, rich in thought and feeling, composed in rhythms that vary from the elegiac to the spontaneous. This 1962 western flaunts its artificiality, both in its use of studio interiors and in the casting of an aging James Stewart as a young, idealistic lawyer who comes to the frontier. For some, the stylization is a crippling flaw, but I find it sublime: the film takes place, through elegant flashbacks, in a past that is remembered more than lived; essences are projected over particulars.

On She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (http://onfilm.chicagoreader.com/movies/capsules/10924_SHE_WORE_A_YELLOW_RIBBON): Of all John Ford's lyrical films, this 1949 feature is the one that most nearly leaves narrative behind; it is pure theme and variation, centered on the figure of a retiring cavalry officer (John Wayne, playing with strength and conviction a man well beyond his actual age). The screenplay (by Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings) is entirely episodic, and it ends in a magnificently sustained series of anticlimaxes, suggesting it could spin out forever. In Ford's superbly creative hands, it becomes perhaps the only avant-garde film ever made about the importance of tradition.)

pseudotriton ruber ruber
12-03-2006, 08:22 AM
It's comforting to know that I am not the first to find Liberty Valence's "stylization is a crippling flaw." I will keep an eye out for the Bogdanovich documentary.

Chefguy
12-03-2006, 10:03 AM
It's comforting to know that I am not the first to find Liberty Valence's "stylization is a crippling flaw." I will keep an eye out for the Bogdanovich documentary.

They show it from time to time on Turner Movie Classics channel.

lissener
12-03-2006, 02:53 PM
They show it from time to time on Turner Movie Classics channel.
Probably won't for a while. Your timing sucks, PRR: November was John Ford month on TCM, and they showed it I think 4 times, along with some extremely rare Ford films (the two rarest of which my TiFaux fauxked up.)