A great deal has already been written about legenadry film director John Ford (1895-1973)... I hardly propose to add any fresh, insightful comments as to his innovative, skillful genius, or the like. This page is just a quick look at some of his movies which I've seen, and which struck me as particularly noteworthy. But, man, what a great director!
"Straight Shooters" (1917)
A great silent western, starring Harry Carey, Sr. in the role of anti-hero Cheyenne Harry. It's range war: the farmers vs. hardbitten and wicked cattle ranchers. The law has failed, the range is open, and murder is in the air. Carey is a killer, hired by the ranchers to force the farmers out; he has a change of heart and takes on the cattlemen, with the odds piled against him. Even so, this is at its core a surprisingly dark film -- the conventional good guys are nowhere to be seen. An early oater, but more technically ambitious and emotionally complex than most. Cool stuff. (The print I saw was in fairly rough shape, though... it always amazes me how tenuous our hold on this early era of popular culture is...)
"Judge Priest" (1931)
Will Rogers stars in this hammy, troublesome film about a crotchety small-town judge whose wisdom is made manifest as events unfold in a case involving several rolling-eyed local darkies. The racial politics of the film, which are meant to be progressive, are still kind of creepy. Didn't do much for me.
"The Hurricane" (Samuel Goldwyn, 1937)
Wow. Incredible special effects close out the last half hour of this film, in which a small Pacific island near Tahiti is obliterated by a collossal hurricane. The action scenes are amazing, as buildings, boats, people and trees are swept away by unstoppable nature. The plot revolves around the noble seafaring Terangi, a native who runs afoul of an unbending legal system, and has to go to great lengths to return to his family, and to prove his valor and nobility. Played by athlete-turned-actor John Hall, Terangi has a major "me Tarzan" quality to him, but is compelling nonetheless. Dorothy Lamour, in her trademark sarong, also plays a Polynesian. If you can get past the silliness of these white folks playing "ethnic" roles, this is a superior, and quite stunning film. As ever, a tightly crafted movie.
"Long Voyage Home" (Warner, 1940)
Director John Ford took big lug John Wayne out of his usual prairie wanderings in this sad, slowly deliberate film about a group of merchant marines eager to make it home, with the shadow of WWII hovering over them, and German U-boats haunting the waters of the Atlantic. It turns out the Germans are less of a menace than their fellow sailors, as Wayne's naive young Swede, Ole Olafson, falls prey to a criminal pack of shanghai-ers in a seedy local tavern. The ever-dependable Thomas Mitchell brings this film its emotional core, playing his old-timer experience beautifully off of the Swede's wide-eyed innocence. Nice flick; not as exciting or robust as other wartime offerings, but complex and emotionally resonant. From a story by Eugene O'Neill.
"How Green Was My Valley" (1941)
The film that beat Citizen Kane out as Best Picture in the 1941 Oscar awards...
"December 7th" (1943)
John Ford's quirky, semi-documentary look at Hawaiian life before and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor is certainly one of the oddest historical films ever made.
"They Were Expendable" (Warner, 1945)
A superior war film, shot just as WWII was winding down. Tightly scripted, beautifully shot, with suspenseful, visceral action, this tells the story of how PT boats -- mobile torpedo ships -- made their mark in the Pacific war theatre. John Wayne, playing second billing to Robert Montgomery, delivers one of his most understated and enjoyable performances. Realistic but full of optimism, this film matter-of-factly captures the visceral sense of danger the war brought with it -- from the early Japanese raids following Pearl Harbor, to the sense of dread and helplessness soldiers felt under bombardment while convalescing in hospital bivouacs. A fine cast of supporting actors project the same sort of pragmatic American amiability as seen in the Terry & The Pirates cartoon strip. The film is particularly notable for the atypically bleak, inconclusive ending, which shows the disheartening midwar defeat of the American forces in the Pacific theatre -- we know, from the modern vantagepoint, that the Americans ultimately won, but Ford doesn't show it in his film. Excellent film; highly recommended.
"My Darling Clementine" (20th Century Fox, 1946)
A perfectly realized western, retelling the classic story of the shootout at the OK Corral... Henry Fonda first appears onscreen as a grizzled, shaggy cattleman, soon revealed to be the legendary lawman, Wyatt Earp. Walter Brennan excels as the heartless patriarch of the Clanton family, whose sons draw Earp into an unavoidable blood feud. Brennan's performance, like Fonda's, is magnificently understated, as is pretty much everything else about this film -- director John Ford embues every scene with an economy of presentation that takes the western genre into the level of high art. Everything about this film rings true... well, other than the romantic melodrama surrounding 'Doc' Holliday, and Victor Mature's geefy, mannered portrayal of the tubercular gunman... with frontier life evoked with the same richness of detail that Ford later brought to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Here, though, the choke of dry dust and sense of fast danger are much more present. The Clantons are a much more sinister set of badmen than Lee Marvin's exaggerated schoolyard bullies; Brennan and his boys simply sidle up and ooze menace and dark violence. The B&W cinematography is typically gorgeous, and Ford never misses a beat in his calm, patient direction. Highly recommended.
"Three Godfathers" (MGM, 1948)
A lesser-known Ford western, featuring John Wayne, Pedro Almendariz and Harry Carey, Jr., son of the great silent western actor, Harry Carey, to whom Ford dedicated this feature. The three are an affectionate trio of would-be bankrobbers whose big heist goes kaflooey when they find themselves trapped without water in the Arizona desert with a posse on their trail. The story takes a comedic twist after the desperados are made guardians of a dying woman's newborn son. This "three banditos and a baby" plot had been filmed several times before (and survived intact in other genres later on...) but it still has its charms. Ford's direction is typically solid and entertaining, and Wayne is pretty much at his physical and charismatic peak. Fun film -- not great, but a nice afternoon oater.
"The Searchers" (Warner, 1956)
"Fort Apache" (Warner, 1948)
"She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" (Warner, 1949)
"The Quiet Man" (Republic, 1952)
"The Wings Of Eagles" (MGM, 1957)
John Wayne stars in this sluggish war-related Technicolor bioflick profiling Navy aviator-cum-Hollywood screenwriter Frank Wead, who (apparently) was influential in developing naval strategy before and during WWII... It's not gripping or as grim as Ford's similarly reverential "They Were Expendable," but it works in its own way. Dan Dailey steals scene after scene as Wayne's salty Navy sidekick, as does Ward Bond who has a delicious role as John "Dodge", lampooning the director himself, who apparently brought Wead to Hollywood. Maureen O'Hara does her Hepburn-y best as Wead's long-suffering wife. Of particular interest, plotwise, is the depictation of her as a boozy, chainsmoking modern gal, as well as the lengthy exploration of Wead's struggle to overcome a severe physical disability, which kind of undercuts the smothering machismo of the pre-feminist military world. Nice use of stock footage, too. Not Ford's best, but he definitely makes it better than it would have been otherwise.
"Sgt. Rutledge" (Warner Brothers, 1960)
This strident civil rights drama, set among a troop of African-American "Buffalo Soldiers" in the post-Civil War frontier, is more than a little heavy-handed, but has its heart in the right place. Woody Strode plays a veteran cavalryman falsely accused of molesting a white woman, and facing a legal lynching at the hands of a kangaroo court presumably typical of the times. The script is relentessly one-sided, but is aided by an innovative narrative structure, with Ran-like flashbacks leading backwards to the whole big picture that absolves Strode (yet still may not be enough to save his live). Strode, typically stolid and reserved, coolly unfolds his character's emotions, coming to a rousing crescendo at the film's end. Interesting Hollywood "issue" film made as the Civil Rights Movement was still doing a slow simmer in the American South.
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962)
One of John Ford's best. A perfect western, and a tightly-woven set of characters studies with an apolplectic Jimmy Stewart as the civilized man of Law, beleagured by wild west outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, who deliciously plays the part as if he were an insecure fifth grade bully). In between them in John Wayne, whose Tom Donophin is an amoral, good-natured he-man who dislikes Valance, but thinks Stewart is too much of a namby-pamby city slicker, and has no place out West. Tightly scripted, perfectly acted and beautifully shot, this is a thoroughly engaging film that stands up to repeated viewings without losing any of its arresting charm. Highly recommended.
"Donovan's Reef" (Paramount, 1963)
Ford's last film with John Wayne...
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