John Ford: The Westerns


Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood film director John Ford (John Feeney, 1894-1973).

Ford is too large a topic for a single blogpost. I’ve done a few smaller ones on him to date. Since we are in the midst of amping up exploration of Americana and the western genre, today we take the obvious tack of talking about his westerns. Now some of you may say, “What John Ford movies aren’t westerns?” — in which case you obviously don’t know Ford very well. Ford may well be considered by many to be the greatest director of Hollywood westerns, but in point of fact, westerns constitute a minority of his impressive canon (at least in the sound era), and he distinguished himself across many genres many times over. There are his comedies with Will Rogers, his Shirley Temple movie Wee Willie Winkie (1937), films of Irish identity like The Informer (1935) and The Quiet Man (1952), films of sympathy with the underclass like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941), and of course many, many war films. In fact though Ford had distinguished himself in the western genre during the silent era in movies like The Covered Wagon (1924), by the time he plunged back into the genre again with Stage Coach (1939), he had been so long disassociated with the genre that he was essentially starting fresh.

Yet, westerns are what we associate him with primarily somehow. The west (in particular  Monument Valley) was like a canvas onto which Ford could paint big aesthetic and moral statements. Right and wrong (and sorting out which was which during the Fog of War) mattered to him very much. And of course he understood “the earth” better than most of those who sat in the directors chair. His parents (and many preceding generations before them) had been Irish peasants. He himself had been born and raised in the rural state of Maine.

His older brother Francis Ford had gotten in on the ground floor of the film industry as an actor, director and western star. Through Francis, young Jack found employment as a handyman, extra, stunt man, and an assistant, eventually working his way up to director and surpassing his brother in prestige. These are westerns for which he is known. Note: Ford directed scores more westerns during the silent days than are mentioned below. We just mention a few key ones from the silent days, as the majority of them are lost or unavailable.(Warning: we always include spoilers).


Straight Shooting (1917)

While Ford had directed a handful of shorts previous to this, Straight Shooting is his first feature, and his oldest surviving film. It depicts a battle on the western prairie between farmers and cattle men.  It stars Harry Carey, with whom Ford would long have a working relationship, even to the extent of casting his son Harry Carey Jr in his films as late as Cheyenne Autumn (1964).  The film also features Hoot Gibson.


The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1919)

Also starring Carey, this one is notable for having been based on a story by western writer Bret Harte. It is now considered lost.


Marked Men (1919)

Also starring Carey, this one is notable for being a remake of the 1916 film Three Godfathers, which Ford would then remake again in 1948 (see below).


Just Pals (1920)

This film, starring Buck Jones, was Ford’s first for 20th Century Fox, a studio with which he would long be associated with.


The Iron Horse (1924)

A grand, sweeping epic, already recognizable as Ford’s work. Like How the West Was Won 40 years later, the film juggles broad, historical developments with a personal story (or two: a romance and a swindler’s intrigue) and adds the other traditional Ford feature, painful comic relief.

It is of course the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad. Shot on location with a cast of thousands, the scale of what Ford staged is impressive by any standards. (Interestingly many shots seemed out of focus, which counterbalances the lavishness of the production with a homemade documentary feel). Hundreds of coolies, Indians, Irishmen, and Italians are the workers. The Irishmen provide the comic relief in the same tiresome way they do in all his films–drinking and fighting.  Herds of buffalo and cattle roam about to dress the set.  Amazing locations. Some beautiful shots. One shot of Indian shadows projected onto the side of a locomotive is particularly memorable.

The story itself is highly conventional. We start in Springfield Illinois for no other apparent reason than that Abe Lincoln lives there. His neighbors are a surveyor who dreams of helping build a transcontinental railroad some day — and a businessman who pooh-poohs the idea (but will actually go on to build that railroad). In Romeo and Juliet fashion the surveyor has a son, the contractor a daughter, each about 12, who are in love. The surveyor and his son head west. The father is killed by Indians–but not before showing his son the perfect mountain pass some future railroad might take! Then: years later. The contractor is now building that railroad. His daughter is set to marry some squirrelly-looking dude with a moustache. And the father is partners with an even more evil looking guy in bronze make-up who is clearly one of the evil villains who killed the other guy’s father. The contractor has a problem–if he can’t find a short cut, he’ll lose his railroad. The bad guys scheme so he won’t find the pass. Our hero shows up (the surveyor’s son, now a Pony Express messenger played by George O’Brien) quite coincidentally. He tells them about the pass. The girl’s fiancé goes with him to find it, and tries to kill him, but the guy lives and comes back. The swindle is foiled, the good guy gets the girl etc.

The Iron Horse was a smash, one of the top grossing films of the 1920s, and it’s really what put John Ford on the map.


3 Bad Men (1926)

This one, like Marked Men, is kind of a dry run for Ford’s later 3 Godfathers. Only, in this case, the three heroes look after a young lady instead of a baby. The men are not so bad, of course—that’s a constant theme in Ford. They have a criminal past, yes, but when they see that the girl needs help their rough old hearts melt and they gradually reform. (They are older men here than the guys in 3 Godfathers). The story is set in the black hills of Dakota. Gold is discovered on Indian land so there is about to be a land rush. The girl’s father, an old Virginia colonel, is killed by a gang of crooks, one of whom is the town sheriff (who just happens to have ruined the sister of one of the Three Bad Men). So unselfish are the 3 guys, that just to make her happy they foster her budding romance with a dashing young man (George O’Brien). O’Brien is one of the heroes of the picture, but at a sort of junior, apprentice level.  The 3 Bad Men and others start a revolt against the sheriff’s forces, who are so evil they attempt to burn down a church full of women, children and old men. The fight goes out to the desert and one by one the three bad men are martyred protecting the young lovers. In an epilogue the parents name their baby after the three men, and the 3 bad men are like guardian angels watching over them. Very magical, like a fairy tale. This may also be Ford’s funniest movie, full of genuinely delightful comedy (instead of forced, boorish comedy).


Stagecoach (1939)

Nowadays Ford is so much associated with westerns that it is odd to consider that for around a decade they were thought of as part of his past. He’d made his reputation making westerns during the silent era, but when talkies came in his movies tended to be comedies, sea stories and tales of Ireland. Westerns weren’t considered appropriate for A-list directors in the thirties. After the failure of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail in 1930, the major studios shunned them, although little outfits like Monogram Pictures churned them out as B movies by the bucketload. Stagecoach marked Ford’s return to the genre, and the start date of its rehabilitation as mainstream, serious entertainment. The great period will last another twenty years, then tapering off in the sixties.

I consider Stagecoach one of the best, most perfect movies ever, western or no, bar none. Its screenplay (by Dudley Nichols, with uncredited work by Ben Hecht) has become a sort of a template that has been copied countless times since and in many genres: the little microcosm of misfits trapped in a dangerous situation.

The film (like most of Ford’s westerns) was shot in Arizona’s gorgeous, iconic Monument Valley.  The stagecoach, run by Andy Devine, is set to make its usual run, but the cavalry rides up to inform him that Geronimo is on the warpath so the army will be providing an escort. The passengers include a prostitute (Claire Trevor) and the drunken town doctor (Thomas Mitchell), both forced to leave town by a morality committee. Also on board is an oddly religious whiskey salesman (Thomas Meek) and a pregnant lady (Louise Platt). At the last second, three others get on board: the sheriff  (George Bancroft), for protection; the town banker, because he has just stolen the contents of the bank’s safe (Berton Churchill); and a gambler (John Carradine), who is a son of the South and is chivalrously drawn to protect the pregnant lady, also of the south (whom he recognizes as the daughter of his old Confederate general). Just outside of town, they pick up John Wayne, the Ringo Kid, an escaped convict with a heart of gold. Stagecoach was to be the breakthrough film for Wayne, who’d starred in the ill-fated The Big Trail, and had been relegated to low-budget B movies ever since.

Soon, the cavalry bails on them (“we have our orders”, a constant theme in westerns: the letter vs. spirit of the law) and they are on their own. Another major theme is honest goodness vs. hypocrisy. Very Christian in the real sense. The downtrodden, though “bad” by society’s standards, are stripped of pretension and therefore free to be honestly good. The characters in this camp are the doctor, the prostitute (who cares for the pregnant woman’s baby even though the pregnant woman shunned her) and the Ringo Kid (who treats the prostitute like a lady when everyone else treats her like a pariah. Unlike the other men, here the Kid is the REAL gentleman). The gambler is sort of in the middle. He lives by the code of chivalry, the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Though he is a gambler, we approve of his single-minded protection of the pregnant lady. Yet, he is among those who are cruel to the prostitute, and — in a beautiful, terrible moment at the climax, when it looks like they will be captured by Indians, he is about to shoot her in the head rather than let her be raped. Ford clearly disapproves of this impulse, and lets us off the hook when Carradine gets an arrow in him at the last second. The cavalry arrives anyway, but if she had been captured by Indians…well, he comes back to that question in The Searchers. The other major hypocrite is the banker, a blowhard who speechifies about the American economy, etc, while he is nothing more than a cowardly thief.

Great touches in the film : Andy Devine calling out to his team of horses (“yah!”) as they speed along: it’s magical, reminds me of Santa Claus and his reindeer. The team running (especially against the backdrop of the gigantic mesas) is a beautiful sight. And then there is Yakima Canutt’s famous stunt that made it look like the Ringo Kid crawled under the rig as it charged along — a spectacular moment.

Then the hair-raising climax, with the stagecoach chased by Indians and nearly caught, then rescued by cavalry. At this stage, you’d think the movie is over, but there’s an added prize, a climax after the climax. A showdown between the Ringo Kid and the three brothers he wants to kill. How do you think it turns out?


Drums along the Mohawk (1939)

This is a sub-genre I call the “Eastern” — the small number of Hollywood movies about Indian battles that took place on or near the East coast. (I have theories about why are there are so few of these, but we’ll save them for another time). Oddly, before I saw this movie I had always thought for some reason, that it was adapted from part of James Fenmore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo quintology. It ain’t! It’s set in the New York state frontier during the American Revolution. But Indian fighting plays a major role in the movie and it’s easy to relate it to the proper westerns in Ford’s body of work. Similar themes of weak-tea civilization versus the ruggedness of the frontier. This is Ford’s first color film and it is extremely gorgeous to look at. was it Ruskin who said the reds and oranges of someone being burned alive could be beautiful from a purely aesthetic point of view? If anyone can make that that kind of beauty out of that kind of subject matter, John Ford can. Can you imagine he made this movie the same year as Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln? That must be some kind of record. It stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. 


My Darling Clementine (1946)

It’s a classic —  though not among Ford’s best or most significant westerns (in my view). But it is the one that launched his permanent return to the genre with which he had started his career back in the silent days. Just a well made film. The title always confuses me, I can never remember that this is the one about the Gunfight at the OK Corral. They named it after Doc Holiday’s fictional love interest Clementine and obviously to identify it with the famous folk song. It’s not a good title for the movie though. The story is almost completely fictionalized. Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) comes to Tombstone with his brothers on a cattle drive.  After a badly needed trip to the barber shop he returns to find his cattle are stolen and the youngest brother is killed, and it seems pretty clearly to have been done by Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his oafish sons. Earp decides to take a job as town marshall.  He gets to know Doc Holliday (a rather lackluster Victor Mature) who runs a saloon and gambling place, and is known to use his guns. The two share a sort of mutual admiration and a wary respect. It all ends in the showdown in which the Clantons are defeated and Doc is killed (which did not happen. Holliday lived to fight for many a day after this famous gunfight). Earp leaves town in the denouement, giving the titular Clementine a chaste kiss on the cheek before he goes.


Three Godfathers (1948)

As we have said this one is a remake of Ford’s own 1919 silent Marked Men, and is dedicated to one of the stars of the original film Harry Carey, who had died the previous year.

This is one of my favorite Ford films, yet I had never heard of it til I started my westerns project in 2007. It seems to me vastly better than the better-known Cavalry Trilogy or My Darling Clementine for example. Full of breath-taking, jaw dropping photography, it is a tale of redemption, based on the story of the Three Kings in the Gospels, but with a twist.

John Wayne and his two buddies (a Mexican played by Pedro Armendariz and a kid played by Harry Carey, Jr.) are cattle rustlers. They decide to rob a bank in a small town. Before they do, they meet a guy (Ward Bond) tending his flowers in the front yard and tease him about his name: “B. Sweet”. But they hit it off with him. His wife (Mae Marsh) makes them coffee. Just as they leave, they learn that he is the sheriff. He is suspicious, but just as he digs out their wanted posters, he hears them rob the bank. The sheriff and his men shoot at the departing crooks, winging the kid.

The three hightail it into the desert. They don’t have much water. What little there is they reserve for the kid. They elude their posse of pursuers for awhile, but wherever they expect to find water, they can’t get it. At a certain stop they find a wagon that has met distress. It happens to have been the wagon of some relatives of Ward Bond. The husband was a greenhorn who accidentally destroyed the water hole with dynamite, lost his cattle, and killed himself. His suffering wife (Mildred Natwick) is now going into labor. With the men’s help, she delivers the baby. Then she dies, making the men godfathers and giving them the responsibility of caring for the baby.

There is a brief comical section that seems to be the inspiration for Three Men and a Baby. But it gets quite serious. They have a tiny amount of water and condensed milk. Their horses were lost during a sandstorm. They seem likely to die. But the kid believes a passage in the open Bible will give him direction. So they start to head out on foot for New Jerusalem. They literally follow a star.

It is a tough ordeal. First the kid collapses and dies. Then the Mexican trips and breaks his leg. As Wayne departs with the baby, the Mexican shoots himself, the only option. Wayne is really dragging at this point. He lets himself give up. But the ghosts of his friends (whether they be angels or hallucinations is left up to the viewer) rally him. He makes it all the way to town and goes into the saloon where the piano player is playing “Silent Night”. Then he collapses. The sheriff catches up to him here. Along the way he has gone from admiring Wayne’s ingenuity to being ready to kill him on sight (he thinks he murdered the family and dynamited the water hole). But the story of the baby changes everything. The two men become buddies as he originally predicted. But Wayne will have to do some time (about a year). And he will get custody of the kid when he comes out. The town (Welcome, Arizona) is ready to welcome him with open arms, and he even has a girl waiting for him. Not bad!

The film was remade as a Japanese anime in 2003.


Fort Apache (1948)

Fort Apache is the first in Ford’s so-called “Cavalry Trilogy”, the other two pictures being She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. It is one of the first Hollywood movies to acknowledge that Native Americans actually have a perspective and that they may often (probably more often than not) be in the right.

The story is essentially a fictionalization of Custer’s Last Stand, transplanted from Sioux country to Apache Country. John Wayne is a seasoned cavalry officer with much experience in Indian relations who is passed over for promotion to commander of Fort Apache, an army outpost in the middle of the desert. The job goes to a political appointee, a by-the-book, vain martinet played by Henry Fonda, in one of his best performances. Fonda considers the assignment to be a type of exile — he’d rather be fighting “great nations like the Sioux or Comanche”. Wayne’s character knows better — he respects the Apache. The film is all about class distinction, prejudice, and the military life. Fonda’s character is a snob who won’t let his daughter (Shirley Temple) date one of his young officers (John Agar) because he is Irish, and the son of a colorful sergeant at the post (Ward Bond). And in a dispute between the Indians and the crooked federal agent with whom they have a grievance, he sees it as his duty to side with the agent. It inevitably ends in a massacre, one in which Fonda redeems himself somewhat by choosing to die with the men he has incompetently sent to their deaths.

It’s hard to pick my favorite Ford film, but this one is way up there — I think every American schoolkid should see this movie. My only quibble is a coda at the end where Wayne’s character pays lip service to duty, probably obligatory to keep the movie from seeming too seditious. But this is a Hollywood movie after all — our eyes are wide open to the politics that inform and complicate its products.


She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

This is the second film of Ford’s so-called Cavalry Trilogy. To me, the human drama is less strong in terms of conflict than in the other two (Fort Apache and Rio Grande), but it has some of the prettiest color cinematography I’ve ever seen. The film, shot in Monument Valley, won an Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1950.

In this film, John Wayne does something he almost never does — play a character other than John Wayne.  He dons make-up, mustache (and occasionally eyeglasses) to age himself 20 years to portray a retiring cavalry captain. This character is mellower, even nicer than most of his famous roles. He is a beloved figure at the frontier outpost where he’s stationed. It’s 1876, we are in the southwest someplace, in the wake of Custer’s Last Stand. All the major Indian tribes of the west are banding together for one last decisive battle. Wayne is supposed to take his unit out for one last patrol, on which he is also escorting two ladies (his commander’s wife and niece, played by Mildred Natwick and Joanne Dru) from the post to the stagecoach to get them to safety. But there is peril all along the way; he must return to the fort with them. Wayne wants to return to the detachment he left out in the field and finish the fight with the Indians, but his commander (George O’Brien) doesn’t let him as he is technically retired. Wayne does it anyway and receives a promotion to chief of scouts.

The title of the film comes from song of course, and the cavalry tradition of sweethearts wearing a yellow ribbon for their soldiering beaux. The niece in the story is a coquette, playing one young lieutenant (John Agar) off another (Harry Carey, Jr), and even flirting with Wayne. She wears the ribbon for all three. (Eventually she chooses the worthier of the two lieutenants). The story’s human drama is supposed to come from that triangle, but with the exception of Wayne the actors are all too weak. This is a frequent weakness is Ford’s films. He seems either not to give a hoot about casting, or to know or care too little about the actor’s art, in comparison with his genius for shooting, editing and story construction. Very few of his films don’t have that flaw. To offset his trio of generic mannequins, however, the film at least gives us Ben Johnson as Tyree, a knowledgeable and humble southern sergeant, and Victor McLagen as the usual Irish drunken comic relief.


Rio Grande (1950)
A terrific movie. The third in the so-called “Cavalry Trilogy”.  Like all the best ones, is not just a movie about Indian fighting, but is also a drama about the people in that situation. And not just a drama, but an INTERESTING DRAMA, an INTERESTING situation, otherwise why bother to write and film the damn thing? In this one, John Wayne is the commanding colonel of a very rough cavalry fort in West Texas Apache country. The post is undermanned. The men live in tents inside the stockade. A new group of recruits shows up. There are 18 of them; Wayne had asked for 180. One of them turns out to be his son, very young and recently thrown out of West Point for having flunked math. Wayne hasn’t seen him in 15 years. This is the compelling hook for this whole film, and feels surprisingly grown-up, the way it is handled. Wayne and the boy’s mother (Maureen O’Hara) split up during the Civil War. She was a Virginian. He, a Union officer, under Sheridan. His worst crime in her eyes was, under Sheridan’s orders, participating in burning everything in the Shenandoah Valley, including her family plantation. Now she comes to the fort and tries to get his son out of the army. Both father and son refuse to comply. One of the many strands of the story is the father-son relationship, which we admire. Neither father nor son believe in privilege. Wayne treats the boy like any recruit, talks to him the same, doesn’t break up a fight he has having with another man. We admire this. This is American–democracy. And the absence of this spirit is un-American!

The action plot is a little more run-of-the-mill, but interesting enough, the way Ford handles it. The Apaches are preparing to go on the warpath. They keep attacking and retreating into Mexico over the Rio Grande where the American army can’t pursue them. Now Sheridan gives Wayne’s character unofficial permission to take the fight over into Mexico. Wayne sends the women and children out in a separate wagon train to safety, but this wagon train gets attacked. The Apachees take the children as hostages. (The scene is sanitized of course. No massacre, no deflowering of women, and only four troopers dead.) Wayne’s troops arrive. They send three men including Wayne’s to infiltrate the Apache camp and protect the children for the main camp. They are successful. The kids are rescued. Wayne is shot by an arrow. The son pulls it out. Wayne now — finally — calls him “son”. Then they all get medals pinned on them by Sheridan


Wagon Master (1950)

This one is a real formal gem, in the same ballpark as Stagecoach, Clementine and the Cavalry Trilogy. Harry Carey Jr and Ben Johnson are a pair of good-natured horse traders whose good hearts compel them to sign on to be wagon masters for a wagon train of Mormons that are being expelled by a town out into a harsh wilderness. Ward Bond is their leader (he would later star in the tv show Wagon Train, which was inspired by the film). Along the way they pick up a broken down medicine show, whose members are dying of thirst. They also pick up a gang of fleeing outlaws against their wishes. (One of these is played by James Arness, soon to become famous playing Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke). In the end the guys take on the crooks and kill them and the wagon train makes it to its destination. Along the way we get four songs by the Sons of the Pioneers.


 The Searchers (1956)

Ford’s masterpiece. Texas 1868. John Wayne is a Confederate vet (and outlaw). His family is massacred by Comanches. (The film’s most memorable scene: the horrible tension when the family realizes Indians are coming and they’re all alone. They put the lights out. The daughter screams, goes into hysterics. They hide). Wayne takes a large posse out to look for her, led by Ward Bond, who is both a reverend and a captain in the Texas Rangers. Also along is Wayne’s adopted nephew (Jeffery Hunter), who is an Indian or half-breed.

They keep on the chase long after the rest of the posse quits. One niece is raped and killed. (Wayne is called upon to do some of the most emotional acting of his career in the scene where he finds her. He doesn’t quite pull it off but he gets an A for trying). Another niece (Natalie Wood) is kidnapped. Wayne is mean to the boy the whole time though he has more reason to want his sister back than Wayne does. Wayne is merely an angry man who wants blood payment. In time, the posse drops out and it’s just Wayne and the young man. When they finally reach the girl, several years later, she is now a squaw, the wife of a chief. Wayne wants to kill her. The kid won’t let him. They bring the girl back to live with another family. The film has a lot in common with Red River: an epic cross-country quest led by Wayne with an Ahab-like obsessiveness, and countered by a younger, more reasonable young man, who’d been raised as a son from infancy as an adopted foundling. Wayne’s catchphrase: “That’ll be the day”. The film has Ford’s most famous shot, going from the inside of the cabin to the gorgeous outside of Monument Valley. And the reverse, at the end of the picture. The theme song puts a chill up my spine. This picture makes me wanna bawl just thinkin’ about how great it is.


The Horse Soldiers (1959)

I give this one honorable mention here, though technically it is a Civil War story as opposed to a western. John Wayne (doing some of the best acting of his career) is a Union colonel, leading his troops deep into Confederate territory to meet up with Grant’s army at Vicksburg. There will be no support the whole way; they are completely on their own. William Holden is an army doctor who’s been assigned to the unit. Wayne has an irrational hatred of him, which we later learn is because a sawbones had killed Wayne’s wife years ago, and she hadn’t even been sick. At one point Holden loses a patient and the two men have a terrific fistfight. At another point, Holden removes a bullet from Wayne’s leg without anesthesia and Wayne actually acts the moment well! Denver Pyle and Strother Martin play a couple of reb deserters.  Hoot Gibson also has a role as an elderly soldier. Terrific movie.


Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
A tremendous movie, which ought to be known as landmark and a classic, but completely obscure today. It’s very frank about race and sex—a completely brave film perhaps only Ford could have made at the time. Jeffrey Hunter is a cavalry officer and a lawyer who has to defend the title character, played by Woody Strode. (It is claimed he was the first African American to star in a film, which is true, but he’s about fifth in the billing nonetheless). Evidence points to Rutledge as the rapist and murderer of a twelve year old girl, and murderer of her father, the commander of cavalry post. The suspicion is exacerbated by the fact that Strode is a magnificent specimen of manhood. He looks to be about six and a half feet tall and all muscle — glistening, sweaty muscle when he takes off his shirt in front of a frontier maiden. He looks like one of those physically idealized Africans Leni Reifenstahl used to like to photograph. Ford even has him standing in tableau while his cohorts sing about him as some sort of idealization.

Rutledge is top sergeant in an all-black regiment (the officers are all white). In the trial, the officers are all implausibly polite about race. It’s the prosecutor from Washington and the public who all want the black man’s head (a flaw in the film — surely there were racists in the army, but the film is too diplomatic to say it or even imply it). Billie Burke is hilarious and adorable as the judge’s wife. But testimony reveals that not only is Rutledge a war hero, a decent, brave and selfless man, but he is innocent. He had come upon the girl already murdered and violated and was forced to shoot back at her father when he (thinking he was the criminal) started shooting at him. The villain turns out to be a perverted storekeep, who finally cracks on the stand.

The film is very much of a piece with other Kennedy era justice vehicles like To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelve Angry Men, etc etc etc.. Times being what they were though, even as he goes to great lengths to humanize blacks, Ford demonizes Apaches. A good part of the film concerns Apache troubles.  The opening segment in the abandoned train station is incredible—some of Ford’s best directing.


Two Rode Together  (1961)

A sort of follow up to The Searchers. As in that film, it touches on Stockholm Syndrome, the insidious way captives come to love their captors, a phenomenon which especially affects children, whose personalities are still forming. (It is interesting to me that this was so much on Ford’s mind at the time. Why? Was he thinking about communist indoctrination?) Jimmy Stewart, playing against type, is a mercenary, corrupt marshal, and Richard Widmark is a by-the-book cavalry officer. (The roles would have been better switched. It also would have been better with Wayne instead of Widmark, who is a sort of 2nd tier Wayne. But by this time Wayne had branched off on his own, producing and directing his own vehicles. Increasingly Widmark would play the parts that might have gone to Wayne).  The two men are sent out on a joint mission to retrieve a bunch of white captives from a wagon train who were taken by Quanah Parker and his Comanches. (More on Quanah Parker in a future post. I have recently learned I am distantly related to the Indian leader). Stewart’s character is a sort of lowlife. He will only perform the mission for money, and he dickers about the amount, at that.

When they arrive at the encampment most of the captives are either dead or have been sold off. Of the handful remaining, one wishes not to go back, another is a crazy hunchback. These are left behind. One teenage boy is now a vicious Indianized warrior who wants to kill white men. He is all they have to bring back. They also bring back a pretty Spanish captive, who is not of the bunch the have come for, but is included  due to a misunderstanding. It’s a pathetic result.

The film has a sort of epic structure. The journey to retrieve the kids is really its own complete story. We now have a second phase: what happens with the captives when they arrive back at the post. The girl is shunned by all the white people (especially the women) at the fort. Stewart gives an excellent speech in her defense, redeeming much of his unsavory behavior to this point. The wild Indianized boy is rejected by everyone as being theirs, except one woman who is so crazy to get her son back that she thinks she is his and takes him in (her husband realizes he is not but takes him to make her happy). The woman cuts the ropes that bind her savage captive and he immediately knifes her to death. He is then hung by a mob. In the film’s best scene, as the young man is being dragged to the hanging tree, he recognizes a music box that belonged to him when he was a boy and has been kept by sister (Shirley Jones) who hasn’t recognized him. She realizes to her horror that it is he, but too late. This scene should be unbelievably powerful. Because we sense it’s potential to be so, it almost is. But the film, as constructed, doesn’t permit it.

The film is strangely disjointed — it’s surprising that Ford made it before Liberty Valance, because it shows signs of decline which Valance does not. It has many comic scenes (way too many in fact) and many harrowing scenes, but they don’t gel together. Ford indulges Stewart way too much, who seems to be improvising in his self-parodying way in several too-long scenes. This may be to make us like him despite his money-grubbing ways, but it doesn’t come together. Far more effective are his frankly brutal monologues to the settlers about the realities of what they will come upon when they find their relatives. From the outset, he advises them against even trying. The language of it is brutal even today and was thus cutting edge in the extreme in 1961, no doubt. But it is hard to reconcile with Stewart’s yut-yut shtick in earlier scenes.

One scene, where Stewart kills a brave who sneaks into his campsite to kill him, can only be called badly directed. Shot on an indoor sound stage which looks like it belongs in an Ed Wood movie, it is very ploddingly and clumsily edited, so that it looks like the Indian is just standing there waiting for Stewart to throw a knife into his chest. The film feels to me about where Hitchcock was in his Torn Curtain period. Mentally, a director at the height of his powers, but physically failing. So you get extremely excellent work alongside slipshod work borne of fatigue.


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

One of Ford’s best films — a literal argument about justice: guns vs. laws. You might say it’s a little TOO literal, the characters overtly have the conversation many times. It might be more rewarding and more cinematic to just tell the story and have the audiences draw their own conclusions. But that’s a tricky business. I have found that you cannot underestimate the obtuseness of audiences. Sometimes the way of the sledgehammer is best.

The story is told in flashback. Jimmy Stewart, as an important senator (rehearsing the way he’ll actually talk in 15 years), and Vera Miles, his wife, return to the fictional town of Shinbone for a funeral. The editors of the local paper are perplexed that this important man has come back for a pauper’s funeral for a man they never heard of, so Stewart tells his story. The bulk of the film takes place in flashback.

A stagecoach robbery. Stewart, as Ransom Stoddard, a young lawyer is among the passengers. He defends a young lady and is brutally beaten for his pains. He vows to put the men who did it in jail. The crooks literally rip his lawbooks, in one of the film’s many symbolic gestures. John Wayne as Tom Donovan, a healthy, good-natured (and good hearted, but tough) rancher, finds Stewart and brings him to his sweetheart Hally’s (Miles) house. Hally and her Swedish parents nurse Stoddard back to health. Stoddard is appalled that everyone knows that the robber is Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and that this Valance character is allowed to roam about to commit his crimes with impunity. He vows to try him in a court of law. Wayne insists that guns are the only way to deal with Valance. Stewart vows not to carry a gun. [Sidenote: the actors are both about 50 here, playing men 20 or 30 years their junior. This makes it singularly strange that in only 7 years Wayne will play Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, as though he’d aged 6 times that span in the intervening time.]

The name “Liberty” seems symbolic. Invariably spoken of as a good thing in our culture, in its pure form it can also be a negative: anarchy, crime. And Valance (which you must admit is a weird name) sounds awfully like “violence”.

To earn his keep, Stewart helps in the restaurant. In the old west this is woman’s work. Liberty and his gang come in, and steal some other guy’s meal. Liberty is one of the best (i.e., worst) villains in movie history. A mean son of a bitch who never has a single redeeming moment. Every gesture is rude and violent, he literally smashes every object he touches. His gang is also the best (worst) gang ever, including Lee Van Cleef (later a major star in spaghetti westerns) and Strother Martin as a loathsome, sadistic, giggling weirdo. They call Stewart a “waitress”, then trip him for sport. Unfortunately, he was carrying John Wayne’s meal, which allows Wayne to defend Stewart without seeming to. There is a standoff between Donovan and Valance. Stewart yells at them both and picks up the steak. He is good and humiliated.

At the same time, Stewart becomes a prominent citizen in the town. He strikes up a friendship with the drunken newspaper editor (Edmond O’Brien) and hangs his shingle as a lawyer there, and also teaches school to both children and grownups, merging lessons in reading and writing with civics. He is an idealist and a born politician. Now it emerges things are getting worse. There is a looming political battle between big free range cattle ranchers who want to maintain territorial status (in this fictional, unspecified territory), and small farmers with fences who want statehood and law and order. The cattle ranchers hire Valance to terrorize the little guys. Nevertheless, the town elects Stewart and the editor to be their delegates. Valance vows to kill them both. It looks like Stewart will escape (Wayne encourages him to do so but he may have an ulterior motive beyond goodness. He’d like to get him away from Hally, his girl). The bad guys beat up the editor and destroy his office. This enrages Stewart, giving him courage to stay. He takes a gun and intends to shoot it out with Valance. Valance plays with him, shoots around him, shoots him in the arm. Just as he is about to kill him, Stewart shoots, apparently killing Valance.

On the reputation of this, combined, almost superficially, with his gifts for law and politics, Stewart is renowned throughout the territory and going to be made a congressman. (He runs against John Carradine as a hilarious windbag of the old school). Stewart is in a bind. He doesn’t want to glorify killing, or be highly regarded for being a killer (he wants the law to prevail). Furthermore, he is open to criticism, justifiable if true, for being a killer. He is about to bow out when Wayne puts him right. He himself had killed Valance from the shadows. Ironically, now Stewart feels it’s alright, and goes in and excepts the nomination. But most importantly (a point Ford doesn’t stress enough til later) he doesn’t announce he wasn’t the real killer. He lies. He uses the reputation to become an important man. Meanwhile, Wayne, heartbroken at his loss of Hally (which he perceives as she tenderly tends the wounded Stewart in the earlier scene) gets drunk and goes and burns down the house he was building for them to move into when they are married. There is great irony here. Somehow every good gesture Wayne does enriches Stewart and hurts himself. This is what makes it a great, rich story and not just an argument about justice. At any rate, in the end, Donovan (Wayne) dies unknown in the town he helped save, and Stoddard (Stewart) is one of the most important men in the country, and a bit of pettifogging fool, besides. His wife knows the truth and so does he. And the lie will go on: “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend”.  Irony– “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance”.


How the West Was Won (1962)

Ford was one of several directors of this all-star epic. Read my full description of the film here. 


Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

Ford’s valedictory western statement. It feels very Kennedy Era. We have a liberal sympathy with the Indians, but the tone is still paternalistic.  It’s about the moral obligation to care for Native Americans, which is laudable but they’re not yet written, depicted or acted as people. Though the all-star cast includes stars (Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo, Gilbert Roland) playing the Cheyennes, they’re still not humans, but stoic, “how, ugh” objects. Mineo doesn’t even have any lines, he’s just the “fiery one”.

Everyone must have intuited that this would be Ford’s last western:  there are so many stars in it. By rights, John Wayne should be in such an important Ford film, but it’s all in the timing. By now Wayne was building his own empire and I’m sure he had other fish to fry. So Ford cast Richard Widmark, his Wayne stand-in. The always terrible Patrick Wayne is also in it, so Wayne’s DNA at least is in the picture.

The plot is based on a real life incident (one which gets a chapter in Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee). In 1878, the tiny remainder of a branch of the Cheyenne, whose native land was in the Yellowstone area of Wyoming, got sick of living in the barren reservation they’d been given in arid Indian Territory. After a year they decided to go home, and so they did. They were already down to 300 from over a thousand. The film is about the epic trek: men, women and children traveling 1500 miles on foot. But again, this film is not really their story. It’s really about the well-meaning officer (Widmark) who grapples with trying to bring them back humanely (fighting military, political and public pressure to wipe them out). Edward G. Robinson plays the equally humane Secretary of the Interior (which runs counter to Dee Brown’s account). Karl Malden is a German-American officer who is “just following orders” when he imprisons a bunch of them in the cold when they turn themselves in, and his troops shoot them all down as they try to escape. His accent is abysmal! Method, shmethod — your performance is useless, Malden!

In a somewhat irritating digression, meant, I suppose to be comic relief (and I hate Ford’s idea of comedy), Jimmy Stewart is Wyatt Earp, Arthur Kennedy is Doc Holliday and John Carradine is their poker playing, cheating companion. The gang’s all here! (Those characters were in My Darling Clementine. Carradine had been in Stagecoach. Stewart had been in more recent Ford westerns, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Kennedy is more from the Anthony Mann stock company — Stewart probably brought him along). Even this sequence has a point though, illustrating public bloodlust to wipe out these pathetic starving Indians (Earp and Holliday of course run against these tendencies). The movie is full of gorgeous shots, and to-die-for Fordian compositions of humans moving through space. He really is an incredible director.

One Response to “John Ford: The Westerns”

  1. I’ve always thought that the first view of the Ringo Kid was the moment when John Wayne, in effect, became John Wayne, a truly iconic scene.

    John Ford also directed the best World War II movie ever (IMHO), “They Were Expendable.”

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