Tag Archives: John Ford

The Horse Soldiers

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 30, 2014

The Horse Soldiers—John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Ken Curtis, Judson Pratt, Willis Bouchey, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Althea Gibson, Hank Worden, Hoot Gibson (1959; Dir:  John Ford)

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Not exactly a western, since it takes place entirely in Mississippi during the Civil War.  But it stars John Wayne and William Holden riding horses and fighting battles, and it’s directed by John Ford.  So the western genre seems to be where it fits most comfortably—specifically, it’s a cavalry western.

Gen. U.S. Grant has besieged Vicksburg on the Mississippi River but not yet taken it, so that puts the time of this story in the first half of 1863.  Grant calls in cavalry Col. John Marlowe (John Wayne) and gives him the assignment of destroying supplies and railroads to the south in Newton Landing, between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge.  Marlowe’s officers include Col. Phil Secord (Willis Bouchey), an older man from Michigan with political ambitions, and Maj. Henry Kendall (William Holden), a surgeon who is almost instantly at odds with Marlowe.

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Hannah Hunter, Marlowe and Kendall at Greenbriar; Marlowe with one of his scouts.

Heading south and trying to keep the Confederates in ignorance of their whereabouts and objectives, the cavalry stops at the plantation of Greenbriar, run by Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers).  She receives them hospitably, given that her sympathies are southern, and discovers that they plan to destroy the supplies at Newton Landing and then head for Baton Rouge.  Kendall finds Hannah and her slave Lukey (Althea Gibson) listening, and Marlowe is forced to take them along so his plans are not prematurely revealed.  Hannah’s attempts to escape and hostility to the Yankees provide another source of tension within the column.

Hannah Hunter:  “They’ll catch up to you and cut you to pieces, you nameless, fatherless scum.  I just wish I could be there to see it!”

Col. John Marlowe:  “If it happens, Miss Hunter, you will be.”

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Trying to figure out why the Confederates aren’t putting up more resistance.

As they move toward Newton Landing, Marlowe’s men discover a couple of Confederate deserters (Denver Pyle and Strother Martin), whom Marlowe lures into giving information on Confederate units in the area before he turns them over to the southern sheriff.  At Newton Landing, there are a few Confederate soldiers led by a one-armed Col. Jonathan Miles (Carleton Young), known to Kendall from their days fighting Indians out west.  It turns out Miles has telegraphed for reinforcements, and when those additional men arrive on a train, Marlowe’s men are reluctantly forced to fight a battle. The Yankees win handily before destroying the supplies and railroad, which pains the one-time railroad worker Marlowe.  When the Confederate army asks a local military school to send its young men into battle, led by their reluctant headmaster/minister (Basil Ruysdael), Marlowe and his men are forced to leave the field rather than shooting them down, once more demonstrating Marlowe’s comparative humanity.  The political Col. Secord continually gives poor and self-aggrandizing advice, and when Marlowe takes to referring to Kendall as “Croaker,” Kendall responds by calling Marlowe “Section Hand.”

Col. John Marlowe [during firefight]:  “I didn’t want this. I tried to avoid a fight!”

Maj. Henry Kendall:  “That’s why I took up medicine.  

With Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry on their heels, they move south toward Baton Rouge, only to find their way blocked by another Confederate unit at a bridge about 40 miles from their destination.  Hannah’s slave Lukey is killed by the initial Confederate attack.  Meanwhile, Marlowe and Hannah get to know each other better as Hannah nurses Marlowe’s wounded men with Kendall and sees that Marlowe cares about his young wounded soldiers.  His hostility to doctors is rooted in the period before the war, when he was a young railroad section hand and his wife was killed by a medical mistake.  Marlow’s cavalry finds a way to ford the river and flank the blocking Confederates while their attention is fixed on a direct charge across the bridge.  Marlowe takes a leg wound, which Kendall binds up.

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The Colonel lights the fuse and dashes across the bridge.

Marlowe has to blow up the bridge so Forrest can’t follow him so closely.  He is the last across the bridge and tells Hannah he loves her, taking her bandanna for a neckerchief.  He barely makes it across the bridge, leaving Kendall and Hannah tending the wounded and Kendall presumably bound for captivity in Andersonville prison in Georgia.  Marlowe and Kendall are to some degree reconciled, with some mutual respect at the end.

Director Ford does well in managing his large cast and the action in this film.  There are typical Fordian touches, such as the opening shots of a column of cavalry riding along railroad tracks against the sky and supposedly singing a Civil War song over the initial credits.  There are the low-angle shots of cavalry riders as they charge across the bridge.  The story is based on an actual historical incident from the Civil War:  Grierson’s Raid, from Legrange, Tennessee, in April 1863, led by Col. Benjamin Grierson.  Grierson was a music teacher who was afraid of horses because one kicked him in the head as a child.  Joining the Union army to fight slavery (he was a staunch abolitionist) he wanted infantry duty but was assigned to the cavalry by mistake.  He turned out to be good at it and stayed in the cavalry after the war, becoming the first Colonel of the 10th Cavalry (buffalo soldiers).  It’s unclear why the names are changed, but presumably it was to give the writers and director greater freedom to deviate from the real historical events.  There probably wasn’t much of a love story involved in the real raid, nor such animosity with the regimental doctor.

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John Ford directs Wayne and Towers in an intimate scene.

Overall, the film seems to take an anti-war stance.  The movie takes an interesting attitude toward southerners and their slaves.  It does not condone slavery, but it shows close relationships between owners and slaves, as with Hannah and Lukey.  It seems sympathetic to the Union side generally, but it does not shy away from showing nobility in southerners in a way that now seems slightly old-fashioned (the sheriff to whom Marlowe turns over the deserters, the military school headmaster and his charges, the courtliness of Forrest in offering medical assistance to Kendall at the end, for example).  In modern times, when there can be no cinematic tolerance at all for slavery, it could probably not be done this way, although arguments could be made that Ford’s approach is historically accurate or defensible.  The incident with the two Confederate deserters is reminiscent of several situations in Cold Mountain (2003).

This is one of Ford’s last movies and not, perhaps, among his very best, although it is still a very good western.  There are a host of Ford’s usual character actors, such as Strother Martin, Hank Worden and his son-in-law Ken Curtis in one of his better performances, but there is no Ben Johnson or Harry Carey, Jr.  1920s cowboy star Hoot Gibson shows up in a small role as a Union sergeant in his penultimate movie.  (His last appearance was as an uncredited deputy in Ocean’s Eleven.)  1950s African-American tennis star Althea Gibson appears as Lukey.  Judson Pratt is good as Marlowe’s hard-drinking Sergeant-Major Kirby, the sort of role in which Ford once would have cast Victor McLaglen.  This is one of three Civil War cavalry movies for William Holden, along with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Alvarez Kelly (1966).  He was drinking heavily at the time and during production broke his arm falling off a bridge.

Strother Martin on working with John Ford:  “I did a tiny bit in The Horse Soldiers (1959) first, and that’s when I met him; and he liked me, I guess.  Ford said to somebody I knew, ‘I’ve got to get something else for that Stuffer.. Smucker… Stoofer… whatever the hell his name is,’ and he put me in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).”

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John Wayne and Hoot Gibson trading stories behind the scenes.

Constance Towers, who otherwise didn’t have much of a movie career, appears in one of her two Ford movies (along with Sergeant Rutledge), with her curiously 1920s-style looks.  Gen. U.S. Grant, appearing briefly at the start of the movie, is played by songwriter Stan Jones, who composed the movie’s featured song “I’ve Left My Love” which plays over the opening credits and elsewhere in the film and three years earlier had written “The Song Of The Searchers,” sung by the Sons Of The Pioneers over the titles of the The Searchers (1956).

Cinematography is in color by William Clothier.  The film was shot on location in Mississippi and Louisiana, giving it an authentic look.  Screenwriters were John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin, based on a novel by Harold Sinclair.  The score is by David Buttolph, with the title song by Stan Jones.

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The film marked the beginning of mega-deals for Hollywood stars.  John Wayne and William Holden received $775,000 each, plus 20% of the overall profits, an unheard-of sum for that time.  The final contract involved six companies and numbered twice the pages of the movie’s script.  The movie was a financial failure, however, with no profits to be shared in the end.

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Cheyenne Autumn

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 1, 2014

Cheyenne Autumn—Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, Gilbert Roland, Ricardo Montalban, Dolores del Rio, Karl Malden, Edward G. Robinson, James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Sal Mineo, Ben Johnson, Patrick Wayne, John Carradine (1964; Dir:  John Ford)

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This is the self-consciously epic story of the Northern Cheyennes’ escape from Indian Territory back to their northern homeland in late 1878.  It’s unusual to see a John Ford movie with this level of pretentiousness—overture, entr’acte, etc. 

The Cheyennes, led by Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) and war chief Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban), are slowly dying at their Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) agency run by ineffective Quakers.  When their attempts to get action from Washington fail, they depart in the middle of the night, heading 1500 miles northward.  Their Quaker schoolteacher Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker) goes with them, caring for their children. 

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Leaving Monument Valley:  Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban), Tall Tree (Victor Jory) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland)

Once they cross the Canadian River marking the border of Indian Territory, they are in breach of their treaty and are pursued by cavalry led by sympathetic Capt. Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark).  Archer is also romantically interested in Wright, but there’s little apparent chemistry there.  Among the Indians are Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio), Dull Knife’s wife, and his son Red Shirt (Sal Mineo), a hot-headed young warrior interested in Little Wolf’s younger wife, and elder Tall Tree (Victor Jory).  The troopers include Lt. Scott (Patrick Wayne, also headstrong in wanting to avenge his father’s death in the Fetterman Massacre) and Troopers Plumtree (Ben Johnson) and Smith (Harry Carey, Jr.), subject of a running joke when Archer can’t remember his name.  The Indians set a successful trap for the cavalry; Scott is wounded and the Cheyennes escape to the north. 

Rumors of savages on the loose inflame Dodge City, leading to a not-terribly-effective comic interlude featuring an overage Wyatt Earp (James Stewart) in a southern planter’s getup and a buffoonish Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy). 

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A too-old and extraneous Earp (James Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy)

After the interlude, the Indians are suffering terribly from hunger and exposure in the snow.  They split, with half following Dull Knife to seek food and shelter for the women and children at Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska.  The others, under Little Wolf, continue north.  At Fort Robinson, commanded by German Capt. Oskar Wessels (Karl Malden), the Cheyennes are imprisoned in a warehouse and denied food and warmth until they agree to head back to Indian Territory immediately. 

Archer heads to Washington, D.C., to try to help, and surprisingly encounters a sympathetic Secretary of the Interior in Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson).  They head west together by train.  Meanwhile, Dull Knife’s band breaks out of Fort Robinson, with about half of them apparently killed.  They make it to Victory Cave in the Black Hills, where they reunite with Little Wolf.  When Schurz and Archer find them there, they’re about to be fired on by the local cavalry until Schurz brokers a deal that will let them stay in the north.  Archer and Wright apparently marry and adopt a Cheyenne girl hurt during the exodus.  Little Wolf kills Red Shirt.  Life goes on.

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Capt. Archer (Richard Widmark) and Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson).

This is Ford’s last film, but not one of his best.  There’s a patronizing tone not unexpected in the 1960s, and the mix of pathos and sentimentality is not in good balance.  Desolate Indian Territory looks surprisingly like the Monument Valley or Arches National Park (Moah, Utah), as does everything between there and their northern homeland.  The Earp-Dodge City interlude is just plain awful.  Sal Mineo doesn’t look much like a Cheyenne; Roland, Del Rio and Montalban (all of Mexican ancestry) are quite noble and effective.  Most of the actual Indians are the Navajos Ford frequently used on his films, not Cheyennes.  Cinematography is by William Clothier, music by Alex North.  Based on the Mari Sandoz book.  Long for its time, at 154 minutes.

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The real Little Wolf and Dull Knife; the photograph was taken in Washington, D.C., in 1873.  The Northern Cheyennes were finally given a reservation adjacent to their long-time enemies the Crows in southeastern Wyoming, on the Little Bighorn, where Little Wolf died in 1904.  Dull Knife ended up (by choice) on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where many of his descendants still live.  The real story of the Northern Cheyennes trying to flee the army northward is one of the more heart-wrenching of Indian history.  If you’re interested in the real story, start with Dee Brown’s chapter in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (good writing but not unbiased and now more than 40 years old), and then go on to one of the more extended (and balanced) accounts of recent years.  This movie has its roots in the story, but is not as affecting.

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Two Rode Together

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 26, 2014

Two Rode Together—James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, Linda Cristal, John McIntire, Andy Devine, Olive Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., Ken Curtis, Annelle Hayes, Henry Brandon, Woody Strode, John Qualen (1961; Dir:  John Ford)

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A clunky title, and not a well-put-together story set in 1870s Texas.  This is one of those, like Rio Grande, that John Ford appears to have made simply for contractual reasons or for the money, not because he had a compelling story to tell.  The two riding together are straight-arrow cavalry Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark, seeming a bit old for the role at 45) and venal Tascosa marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart, wearing the same battered hat from his 1950s westerns with Anthony Mann and also seemingly old for the role at 52).   

McCabe has a sweet situation in Tascosa, where he gets ten percent of all the businesses in town, including Belle Aragon’s saloon and <ahem> in addition to his modest marshal’s salary.  The cavalry at Fort Grant is under pressure from civilians to recover their captive relatives from Quanah Parker’s Comanches; most have been with the Indians for years.  The cavalry, led by Major Frazer (John McIntire), can’t go onto Indian land without breaking the existing treaty and re-igniting active hostilities, so Frazer is recruiting McCabe for the job.  McCabe thinks an army scout’s pay ($80 a month) isn’t nearly enough for this kind of risky mission, so he gets contributions from the civilians and hears their stories.  One of the civilians is Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones), who’s looking for her brother.  Gary falls for her, although the relationship is inadequately developed.  (It seems to be taken for granted that anyone would fall for Shirley Jones, which may be true.)

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Lt. Gary (Richard Widmarl) and Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) mull things over.

McCabe takes off for Parker’s camp, accompanied by a reluctant Gary in civilian clothes.  He trades guns and other weapons to Parker (played by six-foot-five-inch German-born Henry Brandon—Scar from The Searchers).  Parker has his own difficulties with militants like Stone Calf (Woody Strode), but he’s quite willing to trade his white captives, one of whom is Stone Calf’s wife, who turns out to be the Mexican Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal).  Taking back Elena and Marty’s now much older brother, McCabe is attacked by Stone Calf and kills him. 

Back at the post, the rescued captives have trouble integrating.  Marty’s brother is thoroughly an Indian, and he kills a slightly deranged white woman who claims to be his mother.  He is lynched for it.  The whites, especially the cavalry wives, do not accept Elena among them, either.  McCabe goes back to Tascosa to find he’s been replaced as marshal and in Belle Aragon’s affections.  He takes off for California with Elena to where their pasts presumably won’t follow them, and Gary and Marty get engaged.

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The beautiful Linda Cristal as Elena, a young Mexican woman recaptured from the Comanches.

 

The film has a large cast, including Harry Carey, Jr. (by this time it was becoming clear that he’d never be more than a bit player) and Ken Curtis (from The Searchers—at the time he was Ford’s son-in-law) as brothers and supposed comic relief.  Andy Devine is a fat sergeant, and Olive Carey is the major’s sympathetic wife.  John Qualen is a Scandinavian settler whose daughter won’t come back from the Comanches.  The Belle Aragon role (Annelle Hayes) sparks a little interest, but it’s not developed.  Linda Cristal (see her also in John Wayne’s version of The Alamo) is excellent, and Shirley Jones is underused.  And the leads are too old for the roles they play, although they’re both excellent actors (kind of like Gary Cooper in Man of the West).  This time around, there’s no Monument Valley.  The Comanches look pretty clean. 

This film has some echoes of The Searchers—looking for whites among the Comanches, even the actor (Henry Brandon) playing the Comanche chief—but it’s not as coherent or focused.  It was also not a critical or box office success.  There’s no real resolution of the conflicting social attitudes, which is probably realistic.  The real Quanah Parker’s mother was Cynthia Ann Parker, a white captive.  This was the first of three westerns Stewart did with Ford, just before The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Ford seems to be moving toward a more sympathetic view of Indians, which would come to full flower in his final movie three years later, Cheyenne Autumn, also with Widmark as a cavalry officer and Stewart badly miscast as a comic Wyatt Earp.  In color, with cinematography by Charles Lawton, Jr.  Written by Frank Nugent, a favorite of Ford’s.  Not Ford’s best work, but watchable.

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Stewart and director Ford wait between scenes.

From Dave Kehr, NY Times columnist.  Two Rode Together finds its most intimate moment in an unbroken four-minute shot in which a career officer (Richard Widmark) and a mercenary Indian trader (James Stewart) exchange their views on women and independence.  But this comic sequence proves to be the lead-in to a nightmarish evocation of domestic life gone wrong, as Widmark and Stewart enter an encampment of traumatized families, each hoping that Stewart will be able to negotiate the release of a member held captive by Comanches. The love of a husband for his wife or a mother for her child proves to be pitifully inadequate in the face of the cultural divide that has risen between them.

“Ford’s darkest and most bitter film, Two Rode Together opens into the mythic perspective of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), where the shortcomings of human relations are subsumed by the greater march of civilization — a glorious lie masking an unbearable truth.”

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How the West Was Won

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 11, 2014

How the West Was Won–James Stewart, Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan (1962; Dir:  Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall)

NY Times, by Dave Kehr, Sept. 8, 2008.  Written on the occasion of the release of the restored version of the movie on DVD.

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The first Cinerama features were travelogues, transporting 1950s spectators to parts of the world most would never see.  (Many of the earliest Edison and Lumière films, at the turn of the 20th century, fulfilled a similar function.)  Released in the United States in 1963, How the West Was Won would be the first — and, as it turned out, the last — narrative film to be shot in the three-strip Cinerama process.

In a sense the film’s guiding aesthetic is still that of the travelogue, but instead of visiting various scenic locations, it makes brief stops at most of the symbolic locations of the western genre, from the embarkation points of the Erie Canal to the California mountains of the Gold Rush.

The script, by James R. Webb (Vera Cruz), does its best to touch all the thematic bases of the genre too:  the male characters include a mountain man (James Stewart) and a river pirate (Walter Brennan); a wagon master (Robert Preston) and a riverboat gambler (Gregory Peck); a builder of railroads (Richard Widmark) and a frontier marshal (George Peppard).  The main female characters are even more broadly archetypal: a pair of sisters, portentously named Lilith (Debbie Reynolds, who becomes a saloon singer and budding capitalist) and Eve (Carroll Baker, who stakes out a farm on a Mississippi riverbank and mothers two boys).

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As a dramatic narrative How the West Was Won doesn’t work all that well.  Few of the characters are on screen long enough to establish identities beyond those of the stars who play them.  Most of the episodes are thinly developed, and over all the film has a jerky, stop-and-start rhythm, perhaps because it is the work of three different directors.

Henry Hathaway (True Grit) reportedly was in charge of the project and directed three episodes (“The Rivers,” “The Plains” and “The Outlaws”).  John Ford directed one (“The Civil War”), and George Marshall another (“The Railroad,” although Hathaway later said he had to reshoot much of Marshall’s material).

Instead this is a movie of visual epiphanies, ingeniously realized in the face of crippling stylistic challenges.  The Cinerama camera — an 800-pound behemoth that resembled a steel-girded jukebox — could move forward and backward with ease and elegance, resulting in some of the most impressive moments in the film (like the long tracking shot through a river town that opens “The Rivers”).  But it couldn’t pan from side to side without creating registration problems, and close-ups were all but impossible to achieve with the system’s short 27-millimeter lenses.

Moreover, characters couldn’t move freely across the wide screen, because crossing the two join lines — where the images overlapped — would create a distracting jump, and the action (beyond the broad movements of rushing trains or stampeding buffalo) had to be restricted to the center of the screen.

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Hathaway and Marshall are resourceful and craftsmanlike in dealing with these limitations, finding ways to position the actors so that the join lines are hidden, or filling the unused space beyond the center frame with vertiginously detailed landscapes that fall off into infinite distance.

But it is John Ford who rises to the challenge most poetically, chiefly by ignoring it.  “The Civil War” is an exquisite miniature (unfortunately padded out by some battle sequences lifted from Raintree County, an earlier MGM Civil War film) that consists of only three scenes: a mother (Ms. Baker) sends a son (Peppard) off to war; the son has a horrible experience as night falls on the battlefield of Shiloh; the son returns and finds that his mother has died.  The structure has a musical alternation: day, night, day; exterior, interior, exterior; stillness, movement, stillness.

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In the first and last scenes the famous Fordian horizon line extends the entire length of the extra-wide Cinerama frame.  In the aftermath of the battle the horizon line disappears in darkened studio sets.  The sense of the sequence is profoundly antiwar — Generals Sherman and Grant, played by John Wayne and Henry Morgan, briefly appear as a couple of disheveled, self-pitying drunks — and it gradually becomes apparent that the elderly Ford is revisiting one of his early important works, the 1928 drama Four Sons.

The expressionistic middle sequence, with its studio-built swamp, refers to F. W. Murnau, whose Sunrise was one of the great influences on the young Ford, while the open-air sequences that bracket it, with their unmoving camera, long-shot compositions and rootedness in the rural landscape, recall the work of the American pioneer D. W. Griffith.

When, in the final panel of Ford’s triptych, a gust of wind tousles Peppard’s hair in the foreground and then continues across to the forest in the middle distance and on to the stand of trees in the most distant background, it seems like a true miracle of the movies: a breath of life, moving over the face of the earth.  No less formidable a filmmaker than Jean-Marie Straub has called “The Civil War” John Ford’s masterpiece; for the first time, thanks to this magnificent new edition, I think I know what he’s talking about. Birth, death, rebirth.

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Note:  This epic of the west is long, at 164 minutes.  Voice-over narration is by Spencer Tracy.  Music was by Alfred Newman.  In addition to this piece, Dave Kehr was the writer of a 2005 documentary on director Budd Boetticher entitled Budd Boetticher:  A Man Can Do That.  After fourteen years of writing a column for the New York Times on new DVD releases, of which this was one, he now works as a film curator for the MoMA in New York.

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Sergeant Rutledge

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 3, 2014

Sergeant Rutledge—Jeffrey Hunter, Woody Strode, Constance Towers, Juano Hernandez, Willis Bouchey, Billie Burke, Carleton Young (1960; Dir:  John Ford)

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A late John Ford movie, a combination of a pretty good cavalry movie with a so-so courtroom drama.  Woody Strode is the eponymous sergeant in the 9th Cavalry, ex-slave and now buffalo soldier First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge.  Stationed at Fort Linton in Arizona Territory, he is accused of the murder of his commanding officer and the rape and murder of the officer’s daughter.  The story moves around in time, built around testimony at Rutledge’s court martial.  The prosecutor is Capt. Shattuck (a persnickety Carleton Young), sent from Gen. Nelson Miles’ headquarters for the assignment.  Defense counsel is the apparently overmatched Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), who has long served with Rutledge and likes and admires him. 

As the story develops, largely in flashbacks, Rutledge is wounded on the night of the killings and flees Fort Linton.  He thereafter kills several renegade Mescalero Apaches and saves Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) who has just returned from the east.  Rutledge is captured by Cantrell’s patrol, escapes custody and saves the patrol, only to be finally returned to Fort Linton as a prisoner.  His patent nobility is such we never think he actually did what he is accused of, and the eventual solution and confession seem to come out of nowhere—somewhat like that in Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln. 

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Woody Strode, always kind of a wooden actor more comfortable in a supporting role, gives his best performance here, and Hunter and Towers are fine, although we don’t really care much about their supposed romance.  Hunter doesn’t have a lot of acting heft, and Towers (previously used by Ford in The Horse Soldiers) seems like an actress from the 1930s.  The movie just seems to be lacking a bit in star power.  This was Billie Burke’s final movie, and, at 76, she plays the flibberty-gibbet wife of Col. Fosgate (Willis Bouchey, age 53). 

This is one of Ford’s last movies, and it is not top-flight Ford—kind of like Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn in that regard.  Still quite watchable, though.  It features Ford’s usual excellent use of Monument Valley.  Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.  In color, even though Ford was still shooting some movies in black and white (e.g., The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).  One looks in vain for John Wayne, James Stewart, Richard Widmark or somebody of similar stature.

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Jeffrey Hunter as Lt. Tom Cantrell, with his buffalo soldiers.

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Drums Along the Mohawk

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 30, 2014

Drums Along the Mohawk—Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, Edna May Oliver, John Carradine, Ward Bond, Francis Ford, Roger Imhof, Arthur Shields, John Big Tree (1939; Dir:  John Ford)

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Based on Walter D. Edmonds’ 1936 best-seller of the same name, this is the story of life on the frontier in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York during the American Revolution.  Whereas the Iroquois tribes and the British had been allies of the American settlers during the French and Indian War of the late 1750s (the setting for the events of Last of the Mohicans), they are now the enemies of the Americans trying to assert their independence from the British.

The movie opens with the marriage in Albany of Gil Martin and his new bride Lana in 1776.  The same day they move on toward his new farm near Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley.  Lana is taken aback at the rustic nature of his cabin and the sudden terrifying appearance of an Indian, who turns out to be Blue Back, a friend and a “good Christian.”  Lana meets neighbors at the nearby Fort Herkimer in German Flats, and Gil takes his place in the militia commanded by Gen. Nicholas Herkimer (Roger Imhof).

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The young couple heads west from Albany.

As the neighbors are helping Gil to clear his land, the farm is attacked by Indians led by one-eyed Caldwell (John Carradine), a Tory.  The farm and crops burn and the settlers straggle to Fort Herkimer, where Lana suffers a miscarriage.  With no farm, the Martins hire on to work for the widow Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver).  Soon Gil leaves with the militia, and after the Battle of Oriskany, they straggle back.  The Americans have won, but at a cost.  Gen. Herkimer is wounded in the knee; his leg is amputated but he dies from blood loss.  Gil is wounded but survives.  Lana is expecting again.

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The enigmatic and serpentine Caldwell (John Carradine).

Tories and Mohawks attack German Flats, and the settlers again take refuge in Fort Herkimer.  Mrs. McKlennar is mortally wounded, and powder and ammunition run low.  Gil escapes and runs toward Fort Dayton for reinforcements, followed by three Mohawks.  Those in the fort are pressed hard, as the Mohawks force the gates and attack the church where the women, children and last defenders are holed up.  At the last moment the regular army from Fort Dayton appears, the Mohawks are vanquished, Cornwallis has surrendered to Washington, and the new nation is born.  The implication is that Blue Back has killed the Tory Caldwell.  Mrs. McKlennar has left her place to the Martins, and they resume the life they had planned in 1776.  The film has covered a period of about five years without being very specific about the passage of time.

This was director John Ford’s first film in Technicolor, made right after Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln.  You can see elements of his developing visual style in shots with a two-wheel horse-drawn cart along a ridge against a looming sky, and with the three Mohawks pursuing Gil outlined against a red sunrise as they crest a ridge. 

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The Widow McKlennar (Edna May Oliver) buys a round; Lana holds off the savages.

Henry Fonda is good (it was his second film made with Ford, after Young Mr. Lincoln), and Claudette Colbert is fine as previously-pampered Lana who adapts to life on the frontier.  (Jean Arthur would have been spunkier and more interesting, and Claire Trevor would have been sweeter and a little more age-appropriate.) 

The strength of this movie is in several strong performances by supporting characters, starting with Edna May Oliver as the forthright Mrs. McKlennar.  Roger Imhof is an avuncular Gen. Herkimer with an appropriately German accent.  Arthur Shields is good as Rev. Rosencrantz, the German Flats pastor, and Chief John Big Tree is excellent as Blue Back, the Christian Indian.  Big Tree had been in 1924’s The Iron Horse and Stagecoach (1939), and will show up again in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as an old Cheyenne friend of Capt. Nathan Brittles.  In fact, he was a Seneca who was in 59 films between 1915 and 1950.  Ward Bond is effective as Adam Hartman, Gil’s close friend in the militia, and John Carradine is a good but shadowy figure as the villainous one-eyed Tory Caldwell, apparently based on the Tory leader Walter Butler.  John Ford’s brother Francis plays an aging scout captured by the Mohawks and torched in a wagon filled with straw.  There’s lots of Technicolor fire in the movie.

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Gil Martin races Mohawks against a Technicolor sunrise.

This film was a big success at the box office in Hollywood’s greatest year ever.  Ford had planned to spend three weeks in filming the Battle of Oriskany at great expense, but studio head Darryl Zanuck ordered him to find ways to cut the expense.  The battle and its results are narrated effectively by the wounded and delirious Gil as he receives medical care at the Widow McKlennar’s farm.  The screenwriter was Lamar Trotti, who also wrote the screenplays for Young Mr. Lincoln and The Ox-Bow Incident.  The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress for Edna May Oliver’s performance as the Widow McKlennar and for Best Cinematography.  Music is by Alfred Newman.  Filmed in Cook County, Pennsylvania, and even in southern Utah, but Monument Valley doesn’t show up.

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As with Gone With the Wind, 1939’s biggest movie, there are a few attitudes that can seem archaic to modern tastes.  Lana’s a little too hysterical initially for modern feminist sensibilities.  The Mohawks are faceless, menacing savages.  The alcoholic comic relief doesn’t play as well now as it did then.  And John Ford’s pre-World War II unquestioning patriotism is on display as the new nation is born at the end.  Still, it’s a mistake to expect a movie from 75 years ago to conform to more modern social attitudes.  On its own terms, it’s pretty good and eminently watchable.

The film’s sense of community among those living on the frontier, based around a church, is quite good.  The American Revolution has seldom worked well in movies, and this is one of the best of such films.  It would have been nice to have a little more background on the Mohawks and other Indians involved, as well as the enigimatic Tory Caldwell.  That wasn’t done much in 1939, and the movie budget and pacing probably wouldn’t have allowed for it anyway.  If you want more information on the actual history of this branch of the American Revolution in Iroquois country, see Glenn F. Williams’ Year of the Hangman:  George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois (2006).  The title refers, a bit sensationally, to the year 1777, when the Battle of Oriskany took place and the 7s were thought to resemble gallows.  But the scope of the book is much broader than that. 

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Great Directors: John Ford

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 15, 2014

John Ford.

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Even those who are not fond of John Ford concede that he’s probably the greatest director of westerns ever.  And it’s not even close.  Ford made more great westerns than anybody else, even if most of his work in silent films has disappeared.  He pioneered location shooting, being the first to use the dramatic landscape of Monument Valley as a setting.  He was also known for a certain kind of long shot, showing his human protagonists against a vast western terrain and sky.  He made a star of John Wayne, the biggest star western movies have yet seen, although he’s not the one who gave Wayne his first starring role.  (That would be Raoul Walsh, in 1931’s The Big Trail.)  Ford’s visual sense remains with you after his movies are over. 

Born John Martin Feeney in Maine in 1894, Ford was the son of Irish immigrants.  He moved to California and began working in film production in 1914 with his older brother Francis (1881-1953), using “Jack Ford” as a professional name.  Ford had an uncredited appearance as a Klansman in D.W. Griffith’s classic Birth of a Nation, as the man who lifts up one side of his hood so he can see clearly.  Despite an often combative relationship with Francis, within three years Jack had progressed to become his brother’s chief assistant and often worked as his cameraman.  By the time Jack Ford was given his first break as a director in 1917, Francis’ career as a director was hitting the skids, and he ceased working as a director soon afterward.

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Ford as a young director, and directing 1924’s The Iron Horse (on the right).

Ford started working as a director in 1917, probably on the silent two-reeler The Tornado, and he was an active director for the next fifty years.  Of the seventy silent movies he made, sixty are considered to be “lost.”  Although he made westerns almost from the start, he did not specialize in them at this stage of his career.  He made everything else, too.  He made 25 films with silent western star Harry Carey, only two of which survive.   Of his surviving silent westerns, probably the two best are The Iron Horse (1924), an epic account of the building of the first transcontinental railroad, which was one of the biggest cinematic successes of the 1920s, and Three Bad Men (1926), his last silent western.  He would not make another western for thirteen years, until Stagecoach in 1939.

However, when he did make another western, Stagecoach revolutionized how Hollywood saw western films.  The genre had mostly fallen out of favor with the studios in the late 1920s, and almost all westerns made during the 1930s were low-budget quickies.  Stagecoach was not expensive to make, but it had a good story, an excellent acting ensemble, strong visuals both in the landscape and in shot composition, and state of the art stunt work for its day.  Westerns were starting to be a more significant cinematic art form.  Reportedly, Orson Welles watched Stagecoach forty times as part of his preparation for making Citizen Kane.

This immediate pre-World War II period was also the time when Ford was making such box office and critical successes as Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley—a remarkable string for anybody.  The last won both Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards.

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Ford-Fonda Prewar Collaborations:  Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Grapes of Wrath.

He made documentaries for the Navy during the war, and was wounded during filming on Midway during the Battle of Midway.  He won two more Academy Awards for this documentary work.  It was on his return from the war that his impressive string of westerns began, with the story of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone in My Darling Clementine, followed by his cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande), 3 Godfathers and Wagon Master.

Writer Nunnally Johnson said of Ford and his need for control (not uncommon among directors), “I think John Ford almost dies because he can’t write.  It just runs him nuts, that he has thoughts and ideas and has never trained himself to put them down on paper.  And I’ve found that true of so many directors.  They’re just so thwarted.”  But as a writer, Johnson also thought that writers were among the least appreciated participants in the movie processes.

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In the 1950s, he didn’t make as many westerns.  He won another Best Director Oscar for The Quiet Man in 1952; it was his fourth such award.  But one western he did make during the 1950s was one of his very best:  The Searchers, with John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter.  And he closed the decade with the Civil War cavalry story The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne and William Holden.  As he moved into the 1960s, his best remaining western was 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  There were other good westerns—Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn—but they were not among his greatest.  His health declined in the late 1960s, and he died in 1973.

Ford was known for “cutting with the camera,” especially when he was younger.  That meant shooting only the film he wanted to use, and it also meant visualizing the finished film as it was being shot.  According to Ford that practice reduced opportunities for the studios to mess around with his work.  He did that with Stagecoach, for example.  While it saved on film and gave him a greater degree of control over the final results, it was in effect working without a net.  “I don’t give ’em a lot of film to play with.  In fact, Eastman used to complain that I exposed so little film.  I do cut in the camera.  Otherwise, if you give them a lot of film ‘the committee’ takes over.  They start juggling scenes around and taking out this and putting in that.  They can’t do it with my pictures.  I cut in the camera and that’s it.  There’s not a lot of film left on the floor when I’m finished.”

He was also known for having a recurring cast of characters, most of whom are still strongly associated with his work today.  Most prominent among these was John Wayne, although he also used Henry Fonda and James Stewart, among the biggest stars of their time.  It was the supporting characters who came back time after time:  Ward Bond, Mae Marsh, Victor McLaglen, Jane Darwell, Harry Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., John Qualen, George O’ Brien and a number of others.   There have even been books written about “the John Ford stock company.”  (See Bill Levy’s Lest We Forget, 2013.)  Loyalty was important to Ford.

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Ford with a portrait and an Oscar, and an aging Ford in his natural habitat.

That doesn’t mean he was always pleasant to work with; he was known for riding even his stars and treating them badly during shooting.  He thought it produced better performances, and he’s not the only great director to take that approach.  In 1955, Warner Brothers hired Ford to direct Mr. Roberts, with Henry Fonda, who had played the role on Broadway and who had misgivings about some of Ford’s direction.  In a meeting with Fonda and producer Leland Hayward, Ford lost his temper and punched Fonda, creating a lasting rift between the two.  After repeated clashes during the filming of 3 Godfathers, Pedro Armendariz would never work with Ford again.  Some stars, like Wayne, would put up with Ford’s sometimes abusive style.  Maureen O’Hara said of him, “John Ford was the world’s greatest storyteller because he was the world’s most convincing liar.  He rarely told the truth and rarely lived the truth.”  Taking its title from Ford’s last silent western, the 2013 book Three Bad Men by Scott Allen Nollen applied that title to Ford, Ward Bond, and John Wayne, in part because of their politics.  That’s too harsh, but Ford could be difficult to work with and in his private life as well.  And he was always one to tend his own legend, too.

On the other hand, a story is also told about how during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, he bluntly and effectively stood up to a bullying Cecil B. DeMille, who was trying to get Joseph L. Mankiewicz removed as head of the Directors’ Guild of America and require a loyalty oath.  After four hours of DeMille and his supporters dominating the meeting, Ford stood and made this statement:  “My name’s John Ford.  I make Westerns.  I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille—and he certainly knows how to give it to them…. [looking at DeMille]  But I don’t like you, C.B.  I don’t like what you stand for and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.”  After the vote, Mankiewicz remained president.

Ford’s work can sometimes seem old-fashioned, and it probably did in his day to some degree.  His occasional sentimentality, nostalgia and fondness for a certain kind of comic relief do not always play well today.  But for Ford, more than for any other director, you can’t know westerns without being familiar with his work.  There have been a number of biographies of Ford; my favorite is Scott Eyman’s Print the Legend:  the Life and Times of John Ford.  Ingmar Bergman called him “the best director in the world.”  Frank Capra referred to him as “the king of directors.”  And Alfred Hitchcock said that “A John Ford film is a visual gratification.” 

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Directing The Horse Soldiers, 1959.

Ford Essentials:  Ford has a larger body of must-see work than any other director of westerns.  These include Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Second-Rank Ford:  Not as good as his top-flight work, most John Ford westerns are nevertheless well worth watching.  These include Drums Along the Mohawk, 3 Godfathers, Rio Grande, Wagon Master (said to have been a personal favorite of Ford’s), The Horse Soldiers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn.  Counting the Essentials and the Second-Rank, that makes fourteen westerns.

Non-Western Essentials:  The Informer, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and The Quiet Man.

Best Director Oscars:  A four-time winner of the Best Director Academy Award, Ford won for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952).  Interestingly, none of those was a western, although he was nominated for Stagecoach in 1939.

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

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Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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3 Godfathers (1948)

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 25, 2013

3 Godfathers—John Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., Pedro Armendariz, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Mae Marsh, Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Guy Kibbee, Ben Johnson (1948; Dir:  John Ford)

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If one were asked to name a Christmas western, 3 Godfathers would be the first that came to mind.  One might also add the made-for-television Jericho.  The official title of this version appears to have the numeral 3, instead of spelling out Three Godfathers.

This was at least the sixth remake of this story, including two previous silent versions by John Ford and a 1929 talkie directed by William Wyler.  Audiences at the time this was released probably thought it was better than current audiences would.  In fact, this is probably among the least-watched of Ford’s post-WW II work.  It seems old-fashioned, and it was not the first time that Ford had told this story.  It was made during the last period when not only was the reformed-badman theme in vogue but so was a kind of overtly sentimental religious outlook that was part of society’s general consensus.  That consensus has since disappeared.  For purposes of comparison, look at Wayne’s Angel and the Badman and Joel McCrea in Four Faces West, both from about the same time.  If we can’t exactly share those sentiments in our more cynical time, we shouldn’t lose the ability to appreciate the stories, since they were part of life in the American west, too.

Bob Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney, the Abilene Kid (Harry Carey, Jr., “introduced” in a story his father had starred in twice) ride into Welcome, Arizona, formerly known as Tarantula, planning to rob the local bank.  They meet Perley “Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond), the canny local sheriff, and his wife (Mae Marsh).  They hit the bank and as they are making their escape out of town, Sweet wings the Kid and puts a bullet hole in the bandits’ water bag.  They take out into the desert, heading for Mojave Tanks—three men on two horses. 

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At Mojave Tanks, they find Sweet has used the train to get two men there already.  They move on to Terrapin Tanks, only to find that a tenderfoot has ruined the granite tanks with dynamite, seemingly out of greed.  They lose their two remaining horses and are now afoot in the desert.  They find the tenderfoot’s wife—Perley Sweet’s sister (Mildred Natwick)–in her Conestoga wagon, out of water and about to give birth.  Her husband has disappeared four days previously, chasing their own horses.  Pedro, having had an Indian wife, is deemed the one best qualified to help with the birth, and a baby boy is born.  Before she dies, the new mother makes the three promise to be godfathers to the newborn and to save him from the desert.  Also being reborn in this grueling process is the faith of Robert Marmaduke Hightower (Wayne), who starts off as a nonbeliever. 

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The three stagger out toward New Jerusalem with the baby, guided by a scripture on the Nativity and saving their water for the wounded Kid and for the baby.  First the Kid dies, and Pedro takes the baby.  He falls down a bank and breaks his leg.  Realizing he can’t go on, he sends Hightower with the water over the mountain toward New Jerusalem.  Hightower can’t make it, but is urged along by the shades of his companions and the promise made to a dying woman.  As directed by the Bible, he finds a donkey and its colt—enough to stagger into New Jerusalem’s saloon with the baby. 

3 godfathersShielding Hightower shields the dying Kid.

Buck Sweet finds Hightower there just as the cowboy collapses.  When he revives (in jail), he’s willing for Buck and his wife (Mae Marsh) to take over custody of the child temporarily while he’s in jail.  The judge delivers a sentence in a barroom, after Hightower reaffirms his intention to keep the promise he made to the baby’s mother.  Because of his personal reformation and the care he has taken of the child, he gets the minimum, only a year and a day at Yuma.  Even the banker’s daughter seems taken with Hightower and promises to write to him. 

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Just ahead of the posse, Hightower delivers the baby to a bar in New Jerusalem, causing them to burst into the song “Silent Night.”  He collapses.

Interesting to note that the charismatic Pedro Armendariz had equal billing with Wayne in this film.  He’s very good as an actor, and as a rider—watch him handle the horse as the three make their getaway in Welcome.  However, Armendariz had blowups with Ford during filming and never worked with him again.  There are many Ford regulars in this cast:  Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick (who seems older than the 28 to 30 she’s supposed to be), Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Harry Carey, Jr., and an early role for Ben Johnson.  They do fine, although the story does not move quickly during its period in the desert. It was the last film for Guy Kibbee, who plays the judge who sentences Hightower.  Mae Marsh had started in movies in 1910 at the age of 15, appearing in such classics as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance for D.W. Griffith.  By 1940 she was a favorite character actress of John Ford, appearing in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), 3 Godfathers (1948), and The Searchers (1956).

The movie was a bit old-fashioned even when it was made, and it seems a little more so now.  It shows more than usual of Ford’s sentimental streak, and the Christmas overtones are certainly leaned on.  About the same time this was released (1948), Wayne was starting some of his strongest work:  Fort Apache (with Ford), Red River (with Howard Hawks) and The Wake of the Red Witch.  The next year would see She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (with Ford) and The Sands of Iwo Jima, which garnered Wayne his first Academy Award nomination.  Although not as strong as these other films, this doesn’t need to be ashamed in their company, either.  It’s a kind of a tale, with a sort of sentimental Christianity about it, that has gone out of fashion now, but it’s worth watching.  It features the singing of Ford’s usual “Shall We Gather at the River,” and also “Bringing in the Sheaves.”  Filmed at Lone Pine, in color.  The cinematographer was Winton Hoch, who won an Oscar for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the next year and later shot The Searchers with Ford.

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Posters for the 1916 and 1919 versions of the story, both starring Harry Carey.

Note:  In the original story by Peter B. Kyne, the Hightower character does not survive, unlike the quasi-happy ending in this version.  The Kyne novel, published in 1913, was first made into a movie in 1916, starring Harry Carey as Bob Sangster (the John Wayne role here).  Carey, a mentor to a young John Ford, had died in 1947, the year before this movie was released.  Ford’s first version (and the second on film) was a silent movie Marked Men, in 1919, also starring Harry Carey.  His second (the third movie of this story) was called Action, only two years later in 1921, with Hoot Gibson.  Action is now considered to be lost, as are 60 of Ford’s 70 silent films.  William Wyler did a version in 1929 as Hell’s Heroes, starring Charles Bickford and Raymond Hatton.  A fifth version, Three Godfathers in 1936 by Richard Boleslawski, starred Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan.  This sixth version followed in 1948, and is by far the best-known now.  The seventh and last version (so far) to be put on film was The Godchild in 1974, with Jack Palance, Jack Warden and Keith Carradine as escaped Union POWs during the Civil War.  Some of the themes (three unsuitable stand-ins for parents under desperate circumstances) were used in Japanese Studio Ghibli’s 2002 anime Tokyo Godfathers, but that really isn’t a remake.

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Wagon Master

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 17, 2013

Wagon Master—Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Jane Darwell, Alan Mowbray, Charles Kemper, James Arness, Francis Ford, Hank Worden, Jim Thorpe (1950; Dir:  John Ford)

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The title of this movie is sometimes written in one word, but in the movie titles it’s two.  Even lesser John Ford westerns, like this and 3 Godfathers, are better than average westerns.  This one, although well cast, is lacking in star power, with leads going to actors who usually played supporting roles in Ford’s westerns.  It is normally thought that the title refers to Ward Bond’s character, who went on to play the role of the wagon master in the television series Wagon Train before his death in 1960 at the age of 57.  But in the film Bond refers to Ben Johnson’s character as the wagon master.

Here Bond plays the role of Elder Wiggs, leader of a band of Mormons stranded in Crystal City, a town that doesn’t like them, as they try to make their way toward the San Juan River country, not too far from the Monument Valley and Moab locations where this was filmed.  Wiggs encounters the horse trading Blue brothers Travis (Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey, Jr.) who are familiar with the desolate country and hires them to guide the beleaguered Mormons. 

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The Blue brothers and Elder Wiggs (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr. and Ward Bond).

The first problem encountered is a medicine show (or “hoochie-coochie show,” as Wiggs refers to it) wagon, also kicked out of Crystal City and now stranded in the desert when its team of mules took off.  They’re consoling themselves with Dr. A. Locksley Hall’s elixir.  Hall (Alan Mowbray, who played the alcoholic Shakespearean actor in Ford’s My Darling Clementine) and his troupe reluctantly join the Mormons, who with equal reluctance are willing to give them replacement stock and take them as far as the cutoff to California.  Travis is drawn to Denver (a woman with a past, and named after a city, like Dallas in Stagecoach), the most attractive of Hall’s entourage.  (John Ford’s older brother Francis plays Mr. Peachtree, a minor member of the Hall group.) 

The next problem is water, scarce in this dry part of the southwest.  Third, they encounter the Cleggs, a Deliverance-style band of related outlaws led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper), wounded in their most recent holdup—in Crystal City, as it happens.  He needs medical attention and decides not to leave the train after he gets it.  The Cleggs’ willingness to resort to violence and gunplay seems to put them in charge, to the dismay of the non-violent Mormons.

WagonmasterCleggs Shiloh and Floyd Clegg.

Next up, Indian trouble:  they encounter what seem to be hostile Navajos, played by the actual Navajos Ford normally used as Apaches or Comanches in his Monument Valley epics—except for Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox, in his last film appearance.  However, the Navajos actually seem inclined to trust Mormons more than normal white men, and the two groups bond over a campfire dance.  Reese Clegg attacks a Navajo woman, and in order to prevent bloodshed Wiggs orders him whipped.

A posse from Crystal City, where the Cleggs robbed the bank and which evicted both Hall’s wagon and the Mormons, catches up with them, seeking the Cleggs.  The Cleggs won’t let Hall’s wagon leave at the appointed place, and it looks like the Mormons are in for it from the Cleggs as well.  They come to a place where the Mormons have to dig a track for their wagons, including their unwieldy wagon with seed grain needed for their colony on the San Juan.  Still resentful at Reese’s whipping, Uncle Shiloh is on the verge of making Wiggs take the seed grain wagon on the track at full speed, insuring both Wiggs’ death and the destruction of the Mormons’ vital seed grain.  But Sandy, attracted to one of the Mormon girls (Kathleen O’Malley), is slipped a gun by her younger brother and starts shooting.  His brother Travis grabs a gun from a downed Clegg and together the two of them finish off the nasty Cleggs.  Wiggs’ comment to Travis:  “I thought you said you never got involved in gunplay.”  “I said, only shootin’ snakes.”

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The medicine wagon and a prominent occupant:  Joanne Dru as Denver.

As far as we know, Sandy ends up with Prudence and Travis with Denver, although Denver is rather uncooperative through most of the movie, even when Travis tempts her with the prospect of joining him at a ranch in a special valley he knows (reminiscent of Ringo’s pitch to Dallas in Stagecoach). 

Historically, the story seems grounded in the actual story of the Mormon pioneers’ grueling journey to the San Juan River country in far southeastern Utah.  A couple of times they sing “Come, Come Ye Saints,” the Mormon signature hymn, although there is also a rendition of the inevitable “Shall We Gather at the River.”  There’s some actual familiarity with Mormons behind all this, although there are stereotypical elements in the portrayal of the Mormons, too.

Bond and the young Johnson are excellent, as are Mowbray (with a whiff of W.C. Fields about him) and Kemper in lesser roles.  Ben Johnson, with his cowboy background, did his own stunts and was one of the best riders in westerns (along with perhaps Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott).  Carey is fine in a slighter role.  Joanne Dru (married to actor John Ireland at the time) here reminds one of her role in Red River, although that was directed by Howard Hawks; she’s good at playing an attractive semi-bad girl.  James Arness shows up in an early role as Floyd Clegg; Hank Worden is a mentally-impaired Clegg.  Charles Kemper is very good as the slimy Uncle Shiloh Clegg; he was killed in an automobile accident not too long after making the movie.  Jane Darwell is Sister Ledyard, who blows a horn to get attention or to get things moving.

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Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) calls for attention.

The movie is short, at less than 90 minutes, but well put together.  It is one of the better wagon train westerns; it would make a good double feature with Westward the Women, from about the same time.  There’s a fair amount of music from the Sons of the Pioneers, as in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande.  This was made between those two cavalry movies.  Ford was clearly enamored of the singing group during this period, although they’re an element that hasn’t aged particularly well for the tastes of modern audiences.  There’s a strong strain of Fordian nostalgia here, as in many of his westerns.  Ford is said to have claimed this was his favorite of his movies, and it’s quite good, if more modest than some others.  In black and white.

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