Tag: John Ford

The Quiet Man (1952)

The Quiet Man (1952)

Ford’s sweet and funny Irish fable is possibly his most purely enjoyable film

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Sean Thornton), Maureen O’Hara (Mary Kate Danaher), Barry Fitzgerald (Michaleen Oge Flyyn), Ward Bond (Father Peter Lonergan), Victor McLaglen (Squire Will Danaher), Mildred Natwick (The Widow Sarah Tillane), Francis Ford (Dan Tobin), Eileen Crowe (Mrs Elizabeth Playfair), Arthur Shields (Reverend Cyril Playfair), Charles B Fitzsimmons (Hugh Forbes), James O’Hara (Father Paul), Jack MacGowran (Ignatius Feeney), Sean McClory (Owen Glynn)

John Ford wasn’t born in Ireland, but he loved the place in the way only the child of ex-pats could. The Quiet Man is a loving, romantic, almost fairy-tale view of Ireland, an affectionate feelgood fantasy that transcends any possibility of patronising its subject through its warmth and charm. It’s an unashamedly feel-good film, a delightful fable full of luscious scenery and tenderly sketched characters that plays out like a warm end-of-term treat where we are all invited to the party. It’s possibly Ford’s most purely enjoyable and heart-warming film.

Set in 1920s Ireland, Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to his childhood home of Inisfree after growing up and becoming a boxer in Pittsburgh. Sean loves his home country, but with his American upbringing is out-of-step with the customs and traditions of Ireland – something that becomes very clear when he falls in love with Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara), sister of local squire Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Their rules-bound courtship – overseen by matchmaker Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) – eventually leads to marriage, but via tricking Will, who withholds Mary Kate’s dowry, the sign of her independence. Mary Kate wants Sean to fight for it – but the former boxer is haunted by the accidental killing of an opponent in the ring and wants to live-and-let-live. Problem is everyone, from Mary Kate down, sees that as cowardice.

Ford was desperate to make The Quiet Man, the rights for which he had paid $10 for in 1933 when the short story was published by Maurice Walsh (Ford ensured Walsh received another $5k when the film was finally made). B-movie studio Republic Pictures was the only one willing to take a punt on it. But, alarmed by Ford’s insistence to shoot in colour and (even more expensively!) on location, they were convinced they had a box office bomb on their hands. They insisted Ford and his cast made a western first – the literally for-the-money Rio Grande – to cover the expected losses. They even demanded Ford couldn’t make it longer than 2 hours. Ford screened the final 2 hours and 9 minutes cut to them, stopping the film on exactly the two hour mark and asking them what they’d cut. They released the film unchanged. The film was an Oscar-nominated smash-hit.

It’s not a surprise why, because the film is a whimsical delight. Ford isn’t often remembered for his sense of fun, but The Quiet Man is unarguably funny. It’s crammed with sight gags – from sly double takes (there is a delightful one from the railway station workers, who watch first a determined Sean then a horse walk straight past them), to Sean and Will grimacing in pain but smiling as they exchange a brutal handshake, to Mary Kate jumping over obstacles as Sean drags her back to the village to have it out with her brother. It famously ends with an extended comic set-piece as Sean and Will launch a mano-a-mano “Queensbury Rules” fistfight that takes most of a day, moves across the whole village, and is interrupted only by a break for a pint.

All of this takes place in an Ireland that, while it never feels entirely real, is drawn with such loving affection and cast with such careful exactitude that it hardly matters. Ford’s insistence on shooting all the exteriors on location paid off in spades. The country has never looked more ravishing than through Winton C Hoch’s technicolour lens. Rolling vistas, gentle brooks, quaint villages, perfect beaches. You totally understand why Sean, on arrival, simply stands on a stone bridge and stares across the valley of Inisfree, lost in memories and his emotions.

Sure, it’s a romantic vision. And 1920s Ireland wasn’t the sort of haven depicted here, where Catholic and Protestant lived in perfect harmony, politics never reared its head and the local IRA man is a jolly joker in the pub. If The Quiet Man had not been so well-meaning, you can imagine people taking offence at a picture of the country full of roguish charm, horse-drawn carriages, drinking and fighting. (You could say The Quiet Man shaped many Americans’ perceptions of what the country is like.) But Ford never makes any of this a subject of humour. In fact, it’s a subject of love. The joke is never on the Irish. Inisfree is in fact a haven of community spirit, a supportive village where its people are wise, caring and decent, tradition is respected and what people say and do matters.

It’s why so many are shocked by Sean’s seeming cowardice at not raising his fists earlier. That’s not what “men” do. John Wayne is very effective as the easy-going Sean, a guy who just wants to settle down to marriage. It’s a decent playing-against-type by Wayne, that balances his quiet sense of dignity with the sort of manly determination we know will eventually come through. It’s easy to see why he and Mary Kate fall in love. Also, why she is both swept up in his masculinity and also enraged that he doesn’t behave enough like a man, by refusing to take a stand to defend her honour and secure that dowry that will make her a true wife.

O’Hara is marvellous in a challenging role as Mary Kate. This is a feisty and determined woman, who knows what she wants but denies to herself what that is. She and Wayne share a striking, windswept early kiss – her mood in it going form surprise, to fascination, to irritation, to surrendering to her own desires. While you could suggest the film’s comic set-piece of Sean dragging her (sometimes literally) back to the village so she can watch him fight her brother the way she’s demanded from the start feels uncomfortable today, but it’s also Sean not only delivering what she has wanted him to do from the start, but also strangely the thing that finally bonds them together.

A bond is what they have, both of them straining against the confines of the courtship rules of Ireland. Together they flee the chaperoned carriage ride Michaeleen (a delighful Barry Fitzgerald) takes them on to ride a tandem through the streets. Mary Kate constantly, bashfully, tries to go after what she wants – and a large part of that is the lurking “bad boy” tendency that she detects under the surface of the quiet Sean. Something her less-bright brother Will can’t see.

Victor McLaglen (Oscar-nominated) swaggers, slurs and puffs himself up as this rough-and-tough, punch-first-think-later bruiser, who constantly thinks he’s being cheated. He and Wayne throw themselves into the long dust-up that ends the film with the same comic energy and enthusiasm they did exchanging handshakes. Part of The Quiet Man’s success comes from the comfort and familiarity the cast felt for each other. The trip to Ireland was like a friends-and-family holiday: old mates like Ward Bond, Ford’s brother, O’Hara’s brother, Wayne’s children – they all round out the cast. It helps build even more the family and community feeling that makes the film a delight.

Above all, The Quiet Man leaves you with a smile on your face. With expertly filmed set-pieces – a horse race, Sean and Mary Kate’s long walk back to Inisfree and the epic punch-up – combined with luscious shooting (also done with wit – a sexually frustrated Sean pounds through the countryside, tossing heavily puffed cigarettes aside, after Mary Kate withdraws favours) – it’s also fast-paced, witty and warm. The cast even effectively take bows as Ward Bond’s (his finest hour) priest delivers a final voiceover. Full of affection and charm, it’s a delight and is perhaps the only foreign “Irish” film that has been embraced by the Irish.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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John Wayne embodies the honour and duty of the American man in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Captain Nathan Brittles), Joanna Dru (Olivia Dandridge), John Agar (Lt Flint Cohill), Ben Johnson (Sgt Tyree), Harry Carey Jnr (Lt Ross Pennell), Victor McLaglen (Sgt Quincannon), Mildred Natwick (Mrs Abbey Allshard), George O’Brien (Major Mack Allshard), Arthur Shields (Dr O’Laughlin)

If there is a film that marks John Ford as the great American Artist of the West, it might just be She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Shot in glorious Techicolour on location in (where else?) Monument valley by Oscar-winning cinematographer Winton C Hoch, it’s a gorgeously lit celebration of everything that made the American West a legend. Streaking red sunsets, rolling plains, lightening that slices through the sky, masculine military ruggedness beautifully bought to the screen. It’s Ford’s biggest push to become a Winslow Homer or Edward Hopper of the wide-open American space.

Nuzzling in the middle of Ford’s unofficial Cavalry trilogy (either side of Fort Apache and Rio Grande), John Wayne plays Captain Brittles (who might as well be Kirby York again, since he shares the same personality and most of the same backstory), is counting down the last few days until retirement. After Custer and his men are slaughtered at the Battle of Little Big Horn, he’s ordered to lead a cavalry patrol to fly the flag and help prevent a new war with the Indians. At the same time, he’s to escort his commander’s (George O’Brien) wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanna Dru) to an eastbound stagecoach (and safety). Olivia herself is in the middle of a love triangle with the two lieutenants eying taking on Brittle’s command, Cohill (John Agar) and Pennell (Harry Carey Jnr).

The film tells the story of that patrol and the subsequent follow-up mission to save those caught protecting the rear guard (needless to say Brittles continues the mission after his supposed retirement, bending the rules). There isn’t actually much in the way of plot in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Instead, Ford’s intention is to front-and-centre those particular American qualities of loyalty, honour, dedication to the cause and self-sacrifice. The men of the cavalry always put their country and fellow soldiers first, willing to sacrifice themselves to the greater good and show not one jot of hesitation in doing so. Ford shoots all this with real beauty and more than a touch of whimsical wit, coming particularly (where else?) from the Irish American contingent among the soldiers.

At the film’s heart is Wayne himself, now cemented in Ford’s films not as the traditional romantic action hero, but an elder statesman, wiser and less trigger-happy than his fellows, an unflappably experienced man who guides and inspires, shrugging off praise with an aw-shucks-just-doing-my-duty nobility. If Fort Apache and Red River were first steps towards Wayne – at this time only just past 40 – starting to act as if he was ten years older than he actually was (and in Red River’s case a little bit older than that!) – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon cemented him as the grizzled, inspiring man of action, a role he would play in variation for most of the rest of his career.

And he’s very good in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford had of course been impressed by the depth and shade of his performance in Red River. This is a simpler role – it would be a few more years before Ford used the darkness in Wayne as well as that film – but it shows Wayne slotting into place as part of What Made America Great. Wayne plays Brittles with a sadness – he’s a touching grieving husband, who takes a familiar chair out every night to talk to his wives tombstone – and a fatherly concern for his men, but tolerating no selfishness or greed. He mentors and pushes Cohill and Pennell like a second father, and has a brotherly banter with his loyal sergeant (inevitably Victor McLaglen as a hard-drinking, extremely Irish drill sergeant). He will do his duty, but he also respects Indian culture, will fight but prefers a peaceful option, will follow orders but never blindly. He’s all that’s good about the American fighting man, and this is one of his finest performances (and a personal favourite of his).

The yellow ribbon wearer is Joanna Dru as Olivia, the sort of spunky young woman Ford’s films frequently feature in key roles. Dru is just about the archetype: brave, determined, smart – much smarter than both of the rather dull men playing court to her. She’s also sensitive and understanding of Brittle’s grief and can hold her own with the men out in the field. Dru’s very good in the role, bringing it a great deal of depth and more than a touch of heart.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, plot wise, is more of a day-in-the-life movie. At heart not a lot actually really happens in it other than following the cavalry on two missions (one of which fails) and far from averting the war, it’s explicitly suggested they are just delaying it. The status quo is almost completely restored by the film’s end. The real focus of the film is the detail of what the men set out to do, the determination and humanity with which they go about it – not least the self-sacrificing bravery – and then the return to rest and prepare to go out again. All shot in some of the most striking and beautiful images of the West ever committed to the screen. As a visual tribute, the film is a rich feast.

It’s Ford’s celebration of America and the West and his case for the beauty and majesty of a generation and the values that they placed above all others. For this, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon may be one of the finest of its kind. It lacks the narrative thrust of Fort Apache – and like that film is, in the end, as unquestioning and uncritical of the actions and legacy of those pioneers out West, or the dangers of imperial expansionism or blind veneration of deeply flawed heroes like Custer – but it’s beautiful, very well acted (particularly by Wayne) and a fine film from a director at the top of his game.

How the West Was Won (1963)

James Stewart helps us see How the West Was Won

Director: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Narrator), Carroll Baker (Eve Prescott Rawlings), Walter Brennan (Colonel Jeb Hawkins), Lee J Cobb (Marshal Lou Ramsey), Henry Fonda (Jethro Stuart), Carolyn Jones (Julie Rawlings), Karl Malden (Zebulon Prescott), Raymond Massey (Abraham Lincoln), Agnes Moorehead (Rebecca Prescott), Harry Morgan (Ulysses S Grant), Gregory Peck (Cleve van Valen), George Peppard (Zeb Rawlings), Robert Preston (Roger Morgan), Debbie Reynolds (Lilith Prescott van Valen), Thelma Ritter (Agatha Clegg), James Stewart (Linus Rawlings), Rus Tamblyn (Confederate deserter), Eli Wallach (Charlie Grant), John Wayne (William Sherman), Richard Widmark (Mike King)

How the West Was Won was the Avengers: Endgame of its day: every star of the biggest box-office genre in America coming together for one epic adventure that would stretch over generations. Stewart! Fonda! Peck! Wayne! Together for the first time (only of course they are not, none of them appearing the in same scene). Even more than that, How the West Was Won would be filmed in Cinerama, a three-screen shooting method producing a panoramic image. All this would make How the West Was Won the biggest, grandest, largest film ever made. It was a massive box-office success, nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Picture) and wowed audiences.

Plot wise though, it’s basically a series of short films cobbled together into a single film. The stories are basically self-contained, although some actors cross over (especially George Peppard and Debbie Reynolds). The first episode The Rivers covers the migration west, down the river, of the Prescott family, taking on river pirates and allying with James Stewart (looking at least twenty years too old as a young drifter). The Plains sees Debbie Reynolds, daughter of the Prescott family, migrate further West and eventually marry gambler Gregory Peck. The Civil War sees Stewart’s son George Peppard caught up in the war. In The Railroad, Peppard reluctantly runs security for ruthless railway builder Richard Widmark. Finally, in The Outlaws an older Peppard attempts to retire, but not before one final shoot out with old enemy Eli Wallach during an attempted train heist.

All these short stories – each about 30-45 minutes in length – are entertaining. So entertaining that you won’t mind at the end that you have no idea how the west was actually won (I assume it’s something to do with progress and the law) or that the characters are basically actors riffing off their own personas rather than fully realised individuals. Despite the attempt to build the story around one  family (the Prescott-Rawlings), the stories are so disconnected and the characters so lightly sketched, with such huge time jumps, each story might as well be about completely new characters.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that. But it boils down to the key issue with How the West Was Won, a very flabbily constructed film that lacks any real sense of guiding narrative or vision behind it. It’s a series of set pieces, which are all about scale – the river rapids, the battles of the Civil War, the final train-set shoot out – in which some loosely defined characters live their lives. There are some decent performances – Debbie Reynolds does a very good job anchoring a couple of stories (plus we get to see her do some song-and-dance routines), while Peck (a smooth operator) and Fonda (a gruff woodsman) have the best parts among the stars. Others, like Wayne, pop up for but a few seconds.

They needed all these stars to fill the frame. How the West Was Won’s main problem is also its principle reason to exist. It was designed to showcase the wideness of Cinerama, one of only two films to use the technique. Designed to be projected into curved screens, the technique essentially used one massive camera to produce an image so large it needed three synchronised projectors to screen it. This led to an impossible wide frame to fill, with two clear joins in the middle. The challenge of shooting this was not an enjoyable one for the directors.

To cover the visible joins, nearly every scene in the film sees an object placed one-third and two-thirds of the way through the image (usually a tree or a post). The actors stand carefully on their marks in their assigned third of the image. Close ups involved flying the massive camera almost into the faces of the actors (and even then it only produced an image from the waist up). Awkward compositions abound – either with actors standing rock still in front of huge scenery, or actors standing in carefully assigned rows, standing on marks they never move from.

The sweeping shots of the American west look impressive, but in a National Geographic way – it’s simply fitting as much of the imagery of the countryside in as possible. It was a hugely difficult job for the directors. It was not helped by two of them being competent journeymen and all three of them having done their best work in 4:3. Quite frankly I don’t think any of them have a clue about how to fill a frame this mighty. Instead, the film for all its grandeur is frequently visually conservative and unimaginative to look at. It’s got huge landscapes, but no real inspiration.

How the West Was Won is an enjoyable curiosity. It is very rarely, if ever, seen as it was intended on a Cinerama screen (the version I watched on a large television, still showed the slight fish-eye effect at points of a curved image flattened). Telling five short stories, each of them entertaining enough, it keeps the interest. It has a lusciously beautiful (famous) score by Alfred Newman that captures the spirit of the West. But, for all its grandness, it’s a strangely small experience.

The Searchers (1956)

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Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne on a long search, in John Ford’s exploration of racism in the West The Searchers

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Ethan Edwards), Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), Ward Bond (Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton), Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards), John Qualen (Lars Jorgensen), Olive Carey (Mrs Jorgensen), Henry Brandon (Scar), Beulah Archuletta (Look), Ken Curtis (Charlie McCorry), Harry Carey Jnr (Brad Jorgensen), Hank Warden (Mose Harper), Dorothy Jordan (Martha Edwards), Walter Coy (Aaron Edwards), Pippa Scott (Lucy Edwards)

John Ford’s career was a long tribute to the decency of the regular American. How fascinating then that one of his greatest films is in fact a dark investigation into the dangers of obsession, vengeance and prejudice in ordinary Americans. Working with his regular leading man, John Wayne, together they created a character who shared many qualities with Ford’s other leading men – a rugged, determined, taciturn man of the wilderness – but laced him with deeply negative attitudes and a horrendously damaged psyche. The Searchers becomes a masterpiece, presenting how narrow the line between hero and villain can be while – in an admittedly very gentle way – posing questions about the claims of the settlers to moral superiority.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother’s homestead from an unspecified (though clearly morally questionable) career as a gun for hire after fighting for the confederacy (a cause he sees no reason to disavow). He’s an awkward presence, with an unspoken love for his brother Aaron’s (Walter Coy) wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and a racial hostility towards their adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who is one-eighth Cherokee. Shortly after his arrival, an Indian raid draws him and most of the local men on a futile chase. While they are gone, the Edwards’ homestead is destroyed, with the family all murdered except daughter Debbie. Ethan and Martin begin what becomes a five-year quest to find her and bring her home – although as he discovers Debbie has become wife to her kidnapper, the war chief Scar (Henry Brandon), Ethan’s aim shifts from rescue to executing Debbie for racial disloyalty.

Racism is what lies at the heart of The Searchers and around discussions of the film today. Firstly, let’s acknowledge how brave the film is in presenting Ethan’s racially motivated rage without excuse. This was after all John Wayne, the straightest shooter of the lot. Here, in no doubt his greatest ever performance, Wayne’s Mount Rushmore-like qualities are inverted into a bitter, lonely man whose murderous rage against the Native Americans is extreme, even within an environment which sees the tribes as a dangerous “other”.

Edwards’ racism tips into everything and is there right from the start: “I could mistake you for a half breed” he scowls at Martin. Later he will prevent Martin drinking alcohol – a clear reference to the belief among settlers that one drop of alcohol turns Indians into savage beasts. One of his first actions on the trail is to desecrate the buried corpse of an Indian, shooting out his eyes (condemning him to walk sightless in the afterlife). In a gunfight he has to be stopped from shooting retreating Indians in the back. Later, in a crazed fury, he guns down buffalo simply to deny them as food to the tribes. That’s not to mention his disgust with every trace of indigenous culture.

What’s striking watching the film is that, even though he’s the central character and is played by John Wayne, Ethan may well actually be the villain of the piece – or at best an anti-hero wild card. Our actual hero is the kindly, decent and brave Martin Pawley, played with a slight nervousness by Jeffrey Hunter. Martin is appalled by Ethan’s violence, his anger and above all by his plan for enforcing racial harmony by exterminating the niece he sees as a race traitor. It’s not just the fact he has Cherokee blood that makes Martin appalled by the danger in Ethan. It’s the simple fact that he’s just a decent guy, who recognises that good and bad isn’t a question of race but a question of people. And his presence on the quest, it’s made clear, is as much about protecting Debbie from Ethan as it is finding and rescuing her.

You can see these attitudes quite clearly late in the film, where the pair encounter white women who have been recovered from Indian kidnappers. These women are confused and traumatised. But while Martin attempts to communicate with and comfort them, to Ethan they are worse than nothing now. “They ain’t white anymore” he scowls at a soldier. Leaving them, Ford holds the shot on Wayne who turns to look back at them with a face dripping with such disgust and loathing, it sears into the memory.

Does the film condemn these attitudes? You can argue that the film plays into a racial nightmare – white women kidnapped and violated by savage tribesmen. But Ford is, I’d suggest, presenting racism here – and going as far as he could in the 1950s to attack it. Ethan and Martin encounter an Indian settlement that has been attacked by the cavalry. The settlement is a burnt-out husk, with Indian women and children among those indiscriminately slain – visually it is immediately reminiscent of the burnt-out Edwards homestead. Another later cavalry charge against the Indians will again see panicked women and children flee in terror. Even Scar, the villain of the piece, is motivated just like Ethan by anger – his actions are a response to the murder of two of his children. And his scalping, rape and murder don’t look so different from Ethan, who shoots people in the back, plans to murder his niece and later scalps a dead man.

The Searchers takes a slightly nihilistic view that the West was a violent place – for all the beauty Ford discovers in his crisply sublime shots of monument valley – and that many of the people in it had questionable motives and principles. A ”hero” for this time might well be Ethan, a sullen and violent man under a veneer of gentlemanly politeness, clearly motivated from the start far more by a desire for revenge for the murder of the woman he loves. Ford, Wayne and Jordan establish this love between Ethan and Martha subtly but unmistakably – the opening scenes are littered with moments of the two of them sharing glances and a hesitant but unmistakeable physical intimacy.

Again, a lot of the quality of this comes back to the wonderful work Ford draws from Wayne, helping the actor to find the cracks and flaws in this marble bust of Americanism. Wayne’s Ethan is awkward, angry, distant, difficult, cruel – a natural outsider, who has grown bitter against the world. Discovering Martha’s body, Wayne also allows Ethan to crumple into the sort of grief that translates within seconds into an iron loathing for the world and everything in it. He talks of the certainty of finding Debbie – but it’s a certainty born more of his idea of his own superior (white) determination rather than any faith (for all the language could suggest that). Ethan is in fact hostile and contemptuous of faith of any sort.

Ford frames Ethan frequently as an outsider, often framed uncomfortably in doorways, darkened walls seeming to close around him. Nowhere is this more beautifully done than in the film’s final shot which finds Ethan alone and forgotten outside the Jorgensen homestead, a man who has no place in the civilised world of family and friends, but an outsider with no place anywhere who must return to the wilderness. Wayne does this with a quiet, deflating gentleness – a beautiful suggestion of Ethan’s knowledge that the world is leaving him behind. Ford frames this beautifully in mid-shot to create one of the iconic images of cinema.

The Searchers isn’t perfect. There is a prolonged, slightly comic, sub-plot around Martin’s marriage to Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles in a thankless part), which culminates in the sort of fisticuff based comic stuff that looks more suited to The Quiet Man than here. The beautiful shots of monument valley are brilliantly done – but they also serve to point out the odd decision to shoot many of the exteriors on such obviously fake soundstages. While the film questions the attitudes and assumptions made about the Native American people in Hollywood films, the violent figure of Scar is the only Native American character given any real screen time (Martin’s accidental “wife” Look is treated as a joke, right up to her surprisingly tragic fate), making it easier to still see the tribes as an existential threat to civilisation, for all that Ford tries to contrast their suffering with the death of the settlers.

But Ford was trying to sneak something in here under the wire, at a time when people would only accept straight-forward stories of goodies and baddies in the West. He did this by turning Wayne for a pillar of taciturn goodness into someone who is almost a mirror image of his nemesis Scar, both men motivated by racial hatred. He parallels the violence of the Indians with the cavalry. He suggests in fact that there was good and bad on both sides. And I can’t think of another film where the viewer is convinced for a huge portion of the runtime that our hero intends to carry out an honour killing. The Searchers presents a man who holds racist views and trusts that we are smart enough to see the danger in Ethan’s extremism. Thankfully most of us are.

Fort Apache (1948)

Henry Fonda and John Wayne face off in John Ford’s Fort Apache

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Captain Kirby York), Henry Fonda (Lt Colonel Owen Thursday), Ward Bond (Sgt Major Michael O’Rourke), Shirley Temple (Miss Philadelphia Thursday), John Agar (Lt Michael O’Rourke), Dick Foran (Sgt Quincannon), Pedro Armendariz (Sgt Beaufort), Miguel Inclan (Cochise), Victor McLaglen (Sgt Festus Mulcahy), Guy Kibbee (Captain Wilkens), George O’Brien (Captain Sam Collingwood), Anna Lee (Emily Collingwood)

Fort Apache was the first of Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”, exploring problems and personality clashes of remote cavalry posts in the middle of what used to Native American territory. Contrary to what you might expect, this is a complex, intriguing film that brilliantly explores tensions between very different ways of thinking and issues of class in America, which are so often overlooked. If it sells some of the tensions of clashing ideals down the river with an ending that fully endorses the myth over the reality, the fact the film makes clear that the idea of a well-meaning army all pulling together is a myth says a lot.

John Wayne is Captain Kirby York experienced, more liberal minded acting commander of Fort Apache. Aware of the difficult balance of maintaining good relations with the Apache tribe while protecting American expansionist interests, he’s perfectly suited for keeping the peace in the West. Unfortunately he’s replaced by Lt Col Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), an arrogant, class-conscious – if polite and honourable man – who applies the letter of the law to all his dealings, so obsessed with rules (he protests “I’m not a martinet” while bemoaning the lack of proper uniform in the dust filled heat of the West) that he sees no reason to moderate even the most corrupt of the local officials who have driven the Apache to revolt, instead demanding the Apache submit. Disaster is on the cards.

Ford’s film revolves around the personality clash between York and Thursday. While both dutifully respect the chain of command, it’s clear that York has a closer bond and understanding with both the men under them and the complex considerations to balance when dealing with the Apache. Thursday, on the other hand, is an arrogant, prickly character, bemoaning his “demotion” from a field rank of General in the Civil War, to an “obscure” fort. A posting he is determined to escape from with an honour laden victory as soon as possible. 

With Ford’s romantic regard for the ordinary soldier and regular Joe, the sort of posh New-Englandish Thursday is a clear stand-out. A stiff-backed martinet, he never listens to others (he constantly needs to be reminded about names) and has a snobbish disregard for Lt O’Rourke (a callow John Agar) whose father, far from being officer class, is an Irish Sgt Major at Fort Apache. Thursday is notably uncomfortable at such Fordesque events as a NCO ball, or when talking with the men – he even looks unsettled in the desert, wearing full uniform and avoiding a hat in favour of an army cap with a dust-sheet attached at the back (no Ford hero would be seen dead wearing such a thing). 

The character works so effectively because he is played so delicately and skilfully by Henry Fonda. Cast against type – and looking older – Fonda plays Thursday as a frustrated man, terrified of failure who simply lacks the flexibility to adjust to situations. Rules instead are there to be followed in detail, regardless of his personal feeling. Corrupt government agent Meacham he treats with contempt, but he will defend his incompetent regime in Apache land to the death. With the Apache he can’t see past his own inbred ideas of superiority, treating them with a paternal disappointment, certain that they are no match for American cavalry might (spoiler, they certainly are). Fonda however keeps Thursday human, a flawed, rigid man dropped into a role he is ill-suited to and struggling to adjust.

John Wayne offers an equally careful performance as York. Unlike Thursday, York adjusts his actions and decisions based on situations and personalities, rather than enforcement of rules. Army regulations can be respected but applied with sense. Meacham to him should be hounded out of town as the root cause of all the problems. Cochise, the Apache chief, he treats with respect and honour – abiding by deals and attempting to compromise with him to find a peaceful solution (a negotiation Thursday of course torpedoes with his arrogance and intransigence). Wayne is often thought of as the action hero, but here Ford starts to explore his elder statesman quality, as well as his underlying decency and honour as an actor.

Other sub plots interweave neatly around this. John Agar’s young O’Rourke flirts with Thursday’s more liberal daughter (played brightly by Shirley Temple) – needless to say this relationship meets with no approval from Thursday. Thursday’s old colleague Sam Collingwood – now a time-serving captain at the Fort – is paralleled with him and York, as a time-server and mediocrity, a decent family man but lacking the will to do what he knows is right. Ward Bond provides both comedy and also a warm fatherly quality as Sgt Major O’Rourke, proud of his son and re-enforcing discipline on his (mostly Irish of course!) soldiers. 

And of course the action is handled extremely well. A chase sequence with Apache, cavalry and a wagon (under-manned and out-gunned, because Thursday believes a few men and rounds of ammunition should be enough to see off the Apache) is filled with excitement. And, of course, the film builds towards the inevitable disaster Thursday’s rigid mismanagement was always heading towards: a suicide charge against a well defended Apache position, fighting to defend a corrupt agent who Thursday and York both know should be replaced.

It’s a film that quite daringly shows that American’s “mission” in the West was often founded on corrupt officials, and that the military leaders were sometimes rigid, incompetent martinets who led their men to avoidable disaster. It’s shame then that the York – and the film – chooses in a flash forward at the films end to promote the idea of Thursday’s charge being a glorious defeat, rather than an avoidable disaster. And that, this printing of the legend, is important to protect the “why we fight” idea of America. It’s the downside of Ford’s love of the past, of the mythology of the West, that even in the end of a film about incompetence, it’s still seen as noble and important to protect people from the truth and promote the legend, than tell the truth. But then for Ford, protecting the memory of the ordinary soldiers who died is the key – and if that means never questioning the how or why, well then that’s a price worth paying. It’s an idea we perhaps have far less sympathy with today.

The Last Hurrah (1958)

Spencer Tracy runs for office in John Ford’s toothless satire The Last Hurrah

Director: John Ford

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Major Frank Skeffington), Jeffrey Hunter (Adam Caulfield), Dianne Foster (Maeve Caulfield), Pat O’Brien (John Gorman), Basil Rathbone (Norman Cass), Donald Crisp (Cardinal Martin Burke), James Gleason (“Cuke” Gillen), Edward Brophy (“Ditto” Boland), John Carradine (Amos Force), Willis Bouchey (Roger Sugrue), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Weinberg), Wallace Ford (Charles J Hennessey), Basil Ruysdael (Bishop Gardner)

Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is running for a fifth term of a “New England city”. Skeffington’s roots lie in the town sprawling Irish population, and has successfully played the game of machine politics all his life. He’s alienated the members of the towns traditional elite – who can trace their ancestors all the way back to the Mayflower – but he’s loved by the regular people of the city. But is Skeffington going to find himself out of touch with a political world starting to embrace populism and the power of television?

John Ford’s adaptation of a hit novel by Edwin O’Connor, is one of his rare “present day” pictures. But it’s a bit of a busted flush. What should have been an exploration of a tipping point in American politics, totally fails to successfully land any of the points it could make. It’s a film that doesn’t understand the Kennedy-esque world America was moments away from embracing, and looks with such ridiculously excessive sentimentality at old-school politics it manages to tell us nothing about the corruption and dirty deals of this sort of machine politics. Effectively it’s a film that takes two long hours to tell us almost nothing at all. 

The film adores two things – and it’s not a surprise in a Ford film – the past and the Irish. Anything from yesteryear is covered in a halo, with the parade of old-school Hollywood character actors from the Ford rep company taking it in turns to denounce and condemn anything and anyone less than 40 years old. Every young person in the film is either a feckless idiot – Skeffington and Cass’ sons are a playboy and an embarrassing moron – or, like Jeffrey Hunter’s Adam Caulfield (Skeffington’s nephew covering the election for the local paper) is there merely to provide doe-eyed adoration. 

As for the Irish, the film loves the grace and charm of this old immigrant community. Skeffington’s Irish political machine is sanitised beyond belief. In the real world these sort of organisations operated on a system of back room deals, intimidation and careful arrangements to deliver set quotas of votes on polling day. Sure many of these politicians also delivered a number of social reforms – as Skeffington does – but any suggestion that any of Skeffington’s dealings could ever be described as dirty are roundly dismissed. Here it’s all about what Skeffington could do for other people, and no mention of the endemic corruption in many politicians like this. Instead Skeffington is presented with nothing but rose-tinted sentimentalism, a respectful widower, a kind man, whose actions are often more about other people than politics.

Former Boston mayor James Michael Curley – who Skeffington was clearly based on – was imprisoned for corruption. No chance of that happening to Skeffington who only uses intimidation and back-street savvy to fight the causes of orphans and widows (literally) and takes nothing at all from the public purse (although he still lives in a lovely big home). By contrast his elite opponents are the sort of scowling, greedy, penny-counters you might find in a Frank Capra film, shameless bankers and newspaper types who care nothing for truth and justice and only their own selfish needs.

Perhaps that’s why Skeffington’s opponent McCluskey (an early Kennedy substitute with his perfect family life, war record and lack of actual accomplishments) is portrayed as such an empty suit, a mindless, grinning yes-man who has nothing to say and no goals to meet. Ford’s contempt for him – and for the new word of television – drips off the screen. The TV shot we see McCluskey shooting is a farcical mess, poorly shot, edited and delivered with stilted artificiality by McCluskey and his tongue-tied wife. Not only is it not particularly funny, the presentation of this just shows how out of touch Ford was with modern America. Two years after this, Kennedy would win an election largely off the back of his ability to present a dynamic image on TV. Skeffington even crumbles in the election due to his traditional, press-the-flesh campaign not competing effectively with TV slots. How can that look even remotely convincing when Ford shows his rival has no mastery of the new media at all? That in fact he’s worse at making TV than Skeffington proves to be?

What exactly was Ford going for? By failing to criticise anything at all about the old-school politics and pouring loathing on the new politics, he ends up saying very little at all. Skeffington is a twinkly angel, but we never understand why so many in the church and the city oppose him – other than the fact I guess that he is Irish. Donald Crisp’s cardinal promises at one point near the end to reveal why he always opposed Skeffington – only to be hushed. If anything bad ever happened, Ford ain’t telling us making this one of the most dishonest of his tributes to Old America.

None of this is to criticise much of the acting, which is great. Spencer Tracy dominates the film with his accustomed skill and charisma, his Skeffington both a twinkly charmer and a practised flesh-presser who manages to subtly pitch and adjust his character depending on his audience and whose physicality helps to assert his dominance in every scene. Pat O’Brien does fine work as his fixer and Basil Rathbone is suitably sinister as a his principle financial opponent. Ford also puts together some memorable shots – especially a long walk Skeffington takes past a victory parade – and scenes, but the film is an empty mess. And, with its extended final twenty minute coda, goes on way too long.

Rio Grande (1950)

John Wayne is the Colonel regretting past mistakes in Rio Grande

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Lt Colonel Kirby Yorke), Maureen O’Hara (Kathleen Yorke), Victor McLaglen (Sergeant Major Quincannon), Ben Johnson (Trooper Travis Tyree), Claude Jarmon Jnr (Trooper Jefferson Yorke), Harry Carey Jnr (Trooper “Sandy” Boone), Chill Wills (Dr Wilkins), J. Carrol Naish (General Philip Sheridan)

John Ford’s next project was meant to be The Quiet Man, his Ireland-set passion project. However the studio, Republic Pictures, were not convinced the expensive picture could ever be a hit (it later became one of their biggest hits and only Best Picture nominee). So they told Ford he could make it on condition that he, and his proposed stars Wayne and O’Hara, first made a good old-fashioned Western. Because they sure as hell knew they could sell that. So Ford turned out the third and final picture in his “Cavalry” trilogy, three interconnected films (the others being Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) with loosely connected themes and overlapping character names.

Lt Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) is posted on the Texan frontier, defending the settlers against Apache attacks. When Yorke’s son Jefferson (Claude Jarmon Jnr) – who Yorke wasn’t seen in almost eighteen years – washes out of West Point, he volunteers to join Yorke’s regiment as an ordinary Trooper.  This leads to the arrival of his mother – and Yorke’s estranged wife – Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara arriving at the Fort, eager to get her son out of an enlisted life she feels isn’t right for him. But Yorke is determined there will be no special treatment for his son, never mind how dangerous are starting to get with the Apaches. 

Rio Grande is a professionally assembled, classic Ford western that hits all the marks you could expect in terms of action, excitement and that romantic version of the West that you might expect from Ford. But it’s perhaps so professionally assembled it still feels like one for the money at times – it’s a collection of all you might expect from a Ford classic, so much so it doesn’t feel like it offers much new among the director’s other works.

It’s most interesting parts revolve around John Wayne’s complex performance as a man who has buried his emotions beneath a cover of professionalism. Yorke is now martinet, but he’s a man who has put duty above his personal relations. It’s easy to forget that in many of his iconic roles Wayne was often the veteran, and here is man nearing retirement, loaded down with regrets and secretly crying out for a chance at reconciliation. Wayne’s performance is heartfelt and tinged with sadness, the sort of man who looks at his son from a distance as he performs dangerous horse riding stunts, but then backs away into the shadows, anxious that his fatherly concern remains unseen. It’s a quiet, lonely and sad performance from Wayne, a reminder of what a soulful actor he could be.

It also helps that he has wonderful chemistry with Maureen O’Hara, equally wonderful as his wife. A caring and loving woman, O’Hara’s Kathleen is also determined and independent, sure of her own mind and with no compunction about standing her ground against her husband. The two of them make a wonderful pair, two people who fear they have turned their backs on happiness for duty but secretly desperate for reconciliation. That desire certainly drips from Wayne, whose sad eyes beneath his drooping moustache seem to be constantly searching for grasping something from his life – and Ford certainly knew how to shoot this American icon with angles that made him appear like a mournful monument.

The actual plot of the film outside of this isn’t really that strong. Any shade or depth is removed from the Apaches who are faceless, ruthless killers who move like a swarm and spend the nights dancing and drinking after a victory. Even at the time there were feelings that the film was uncomfortably slanted in its view of the Native Americans. The actual story of the battle against the Apache meanders across the screen, with discussions of crossing the Rio Grande to do battle with them largely forgotten in a final act kidnap plotline that serves as the film’s action set piece.

Honestly, most of the plot outside of whether Wayne, O’Hara and son (played with an earnest honesty by Claude Jarmon Jnr) pretty much is by the numbers stuff. There are a host of songs and musical interjections from contemporary Western group Sons of the Pioneers. Ford made a virtue of the studio’s decision to include the band – apparently they loved being in the film and led a number of impromptu sing-alongs during the late night cast sessions, which basically led to Ford putting more of them in the film. The songs do add a wistful, whimsical air to the film which actually works rather well and mirrors nicely the personal drama of a family unit which duty is keeping apart.

The action when it kicks in is enjoyable, even if Ford relies a little too heavily on over cranked cameras to adjust the speed of various falls and horse riding stunts – the sped up effect actually often makes the whole thing look a little too reminiscent at times of keystone kops silent film. The best stunt sequence is done instead in real time, as Johnson, Carey Jnr and Jarmon Jnr take it in turns to “Roman Ride” two horses at a time around a course. Johnson and Carey – skilled horsemen – spent weeks training, the effect was so good that Ford suggested Jarmon have a go.

The cast is rounded out by some solid work from Ford regulars. McLaglen is good value as a decent Sergeant, one of those comic Irish types that Ford had such fondness for. Johnson is very good as a trooper on the run from the law who can’t resist coming back to the do the right thing. But the film belongs to Wayne and O’Hara, a couple looking to seize a last chance at happiness. Rio Grande may be one for the money, but it’s still got a touch of that Ford magic.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Henry Fonda is here to enforce justice in My Darling Clementine

Director: John Ford

Cast: Henry Fonda (Wyatt Earp), Linda Darnell (Chihuahua), Victor Mature (“Doc” Holliday), Cathy Downs (Clementine Carter), Walter Brennan (Newman Haynes Clanton), Tim Holt (Virgil Earp), Ward Bond (Morgan Earp), Don Garner (James Earp), Grant Withers (Ike Claton), John Ireland (Billy Clanton), Alan Mowbray (Granville Thorndyke), Roy Roberts (Mayor), Jane Darwell (Kate Nelson)

In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a journalist says “When legend becomes fact, print the legend”. It could almost be a commentary on My Darling Clementine, a lusciously romantic retelling of the story of Wyatt Earp and his Gunfight at the OK Corrall between the Earps and local cowboy gang the Clantons. John Ford’s film is a perfect slice of Americana, in which the West is seen at its glorious best, and almost no fact in it is true.

In 1882 retired Marshal turned ranger Wyatt Earp’s (Henry Fonda) brother James is killed outside the town of Tombstone, shortly after Earp had turned down an offer to buy his cattle from Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan), the family patriarch. Earp suspects foul play, but decides to stay in Tombstone as its new Marshal, with his brothers Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ward Bond) as his deputies to reinforce the law. In town he meets local gambling man “Doc” Holliday (Victor Mature) and falls for Holliday’s former girlfriend Clementine (Cathy Downs), in town searching for Doc. Will Wyatt find out who killed his brother and find contentment?

My Darling Clementine is almost entirely invented. Virtually nothing in it is true, from the year it’s set (the actual gunfight happened in 1881) to what happens in the actual gun battle. The fates of nearly all the characters have been changed (James, whose death kicks the film off, actually died in 1926) and a host of characters have been invented, not least Clementine herself. The action has been moved to Monument valley from Arizona. Its comprehensive myth-making on screen, with Earp himself changed from an unhappily married man probably “carrying on” with an Irish actress into the pillar of moral decency that is Henry Fonda. 

But does it really matter? Not really. If you run with the film has being part of Ford’s tradition of reworking the past of America into a grand origins myth for the United States, the film works perfectly. It’s directed with great visual skill by John Ford, who creates some luscious shots of Monument valley and some glorious skylines that dwarf the actors into the machinery of myth. His visual storytelling is perfect at communicating character, from the boyish leaning back on his chair from the boy scoutish Earp to carefully building the tentative, ]barrier filled relationship between Earp and Clementine. 

My Darling Clementine features a romance plot line, but it’s played in parallel with a story of feuding that leaves large numbers of the cast dead. Aside from Earp and Holliday there is virtually no overlap between the romance plot and the events leading to the gunfire. Clementine never refers to it, and you can almost imagine this as two films skilfully and gracefully cut together. Perhaps this is Ford’s intent: this is a film about community in the West, about the building and creation of a town and the shaping of relationships and friendships around it – that just happens to have as well a gang of murderers that Fonda needs to take down.

Tombstone is emerging from the Wild West – at a key moment half way through the film, Earp and Clementine dance (Earp with a surprising grace) at an outside ball to celebrate the opening of a church. It’s just one sign of civilisation arriving in the town, with theatre on the way and even Holliday’s gambling den slowly becoming something a little bit less violent. Earp himself is a reluctant but honest lawman, repeatedly asking at the start “what kind of town is this?” and seemingly deciding to stay to sort the place out as well as find out who killed his brother. 

It’s telling in any case that Earp’s reaction to his brother being killed is to pick up a badge not a gun, but then you would expect nothing less from Henry Fonda. Fonda is at his most decent, and bashful, his most just and moral, the embodiment of law and justice. Fonda pitches the performance perfectly, a shy man who knows what’s right, but has the guts to go the extra mile to get it. Fonda also gets some wonderful chemistry from his interactions with Cathy Downs’ Clementine, each scene between them dripping with longing but a sad knowledge that nothing can come of it.

There are a whole host of reasons for that, not least her past relationship with Doc. If there is a second heart to the film, it’s the uneasy semi-friendship that grows between Holliday and Earp. It’s a beautifully judged, wordlessly expressed mixture of regard, respect and suspicion, of two men who have taken very different paths in life but recognise in each other a common world view, a yearning for peace and poetry under the guns. Holliday – dying although you wouldn’t think it considering the hale and hearty look of Victor Mature – is a dangerous man but a fair one, not like the arrogant destructiveness of the Clantons. He’s even able to juggle respectful relations, not least with Linda Darnell’s showgirl. Mature gives a decent performance, hampered by his essential earnest woodenness from really exploring the depths of a TB suffering physician turned gunslinger, but able to express a basic decency and touch of poetry.

It’s a film about small moments between these characters that culminates in parallel with a gun fight that burns out of the clash between the Earps and Clantons. The Earps are of course all thoroughly decent, upright sorts while the Clantons are unclean, unshaven (first thing Wyatt does in the film is get shaved!) types, led by a bullying Walter Brennan. The gunfight is spectacular, but it’s part of one of two films, followed as it is with Earp’s sad departure from the town and the culmination of the unspoken love between him and Clementine. But isn’t that part of the myth? And with its romance, its heroic stand against injustice and its epic sweep and brilliance, My Darling Clementine is a celebration of the myth and power of the West.

Young Mr Lincoln (1939)

Henry Fonda excels in the origins story as the Young Mr Lincoln

Director: John Ford

Cast: Henry Fonda (Abraham Lincoln), Alice Brady (Abigail Clay), Marjorie Weaver (Mary Todd), Arleen Weaver (Sarah Clay), Eddie Collins (Efe Turner), Pauline Moore (Ann Rutledge), Richard Cromwell (Matt Clay), Donald Meek (Prosecutor John Felder), Eddie Quillan (Adam Clay), Spencer Charters (Judge Herbert A Bell), Ward Bond (John Palmer Cass), Milburn Stone (Stephen A Douglas)

John Ford is often called the mythmaker of America, the director who perhaps contributed more than any other to building a romantic vision of America’s roots and past. As an explorer of the legends and mythology that underpinned his country, it’s perhaps no great surprise that he directed a film about the American revered more than any other since the Founding Fathers – Abraham Lincoln himself.

Playing out over 10 years, the film follows Young Honest Abe (Henry Fonda) from his days of autodidactism with a law book in Illinois, through his love for, and the death of, Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) and his arrival in Springfield to practice law (which he does with a shrewdness mixed with the wisdom of Solomon). The bulk of the film’s plot focuses in particular on him representing two brothers accused of murder in a courtroom trial, where Lincoln’s wit, wisdom and determination see justice done.

Okay reading that subplot, it’s pretty clear that this is a fairly rose-tinted view of The Great Emancipator. Henry Fonda had put off playing the role, as he felt it would be like hewing a performance out of marble. It’s hard for non-Americans to even begin to understand the reverence with which Lincoln is almost universally held in America, but it runs through this film like sugar through a stick of rock. Lincoln throughout the film is maybe an increasingly canny operator with a mastery of winning people over and playing crowds large and small, but he’s also always right, always does the right thing and always has a warm regard and love for genuine real people.

If you made the film today it would probably be called Abraham Lincoln: Origins, as Ford shows Lincoln building up all the weapons that would become central to his political artistry. Fonda starts the film gangly and physically awkward, finding it hard to know what to do with his height or long arms while giving speeches (Fonda wore platform shoes to increase his height). But even at the start his words are warm and genuine, even if his delivery is awkward. It’s something he masters to a far greater degree by the mid-way point of the film, when he skilfully diffuses a potential lynch mob with wit, gentleness, calm and a bit of righteous shaming. By the time he hits the courtroom, he’s overwhelmingly confident in his physicality and able to match it up with his oratorical brilliance and his skill at using seemingly rambling, inconsequential stories to suddenly hit home a sharp and painful truth.

Fonda’s impressive performance as Lincoln makes the film. Fonda gives Lincoln not just these positives but also hints at his sharpness of mind and his cunning. Negotiating a legal disagreement between two farmers (which he does with such skill that both end up paying him), he not only gives a fair sentence, but shows how he is not above manipulating men to achieve his ends (and, in biting one of the coins that he is given, that he may be honest himself but he’s not always trusting). He has a romantic regard for the mother of his clients (played very well by Alice Brady), but can still gently patronise her with his romantic ideal of her as an ideal American mother.

But when the push comes, Lincoln is a man of principle, wrapped in a skilful performance. The idea of mob justice is anathema to him, while Fonda makes clear he’s smart enough to not say that outright but to guide the crowd to agree with him. During the selection of the jury for the courtroom scene, he will accept men honest enough to say they favour hanging for the guilty, but turn down equivocators or those who believe they are better than the accused men. During the trial scene, he erupts in moral outage when the boys’ mother is pressured into naming one of her sons as the killer so as to save the other from the death penalty.

But he’s also a clever and brilliant player of the game, able to charm both the working classes and the rich, even if he’s not comfortable with either. During the trial scene, his quick wit and relaxation run rings around the government prosecutor (a good role of absolute convictions from Donald Meek) and he easily wins the crowd over with a series of gags and light touches that also carry with them a real, deep truth. Ford is also able to show his ambition – over the grave of Ann Rutledge he lets the fall of a stick decide whether he will continue his career or stay at home, and he all too clearly lets the stick lean over one way before letting it fall (he even acknowledges this himself).

Ford’s film is only very loosely based on actual true events – only the final coup Lincoln uses to win the case is really based on fact. The film is covered with smatterings of what look now like clumsy droppings in of key facts or persons from Lincoln’s life – from the cowpoke who plays “Dixie” (“Sounds like a song you could march to” is Lincoln’s comment) to Lincoln meeting future-wife Mary Todd, to his legal (and romantic) rival being none other than Stephen A Douglas his later rival for the presidency. There could have been a lot more, but afraid that it would make the film ridiculous, Ford kept these to a minimum by simply refusing to shoot them (such as a planned scene where Lincoln met John Wilkes Booth).

It all works because the audience knows who Lincoln will become, and it’s told with an earnestness and a certain amount of pace. Ford however really crafts a modern American myth and it even ends in a suitably epic scale: having won the case, Lincoln strikes off for a walk up a hill, trudging into the distance while a storm brews, heading onwards and upwards away from us and into his future. Sure it’s corn, but it works.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood raise Roddy McDowell in How Green Was My Valley

Director: John Ford

Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Mr Gruffydd), Maureen O’Hara (Angharad Morgan), Donald Crisp (Gwilym Morgan), Roddy McDowell (Huw Morgan), Sara Allgood (Beth Morgan), Anna Lee (Bronwyn), Patric Knowles (Ivor), John Loder (Ianto), Barry Fitzgerald (Cyfartha), Rhys Williams (Dai Bando), Morton Lowry (Mr Jonas), Arthur Shields (Mr Parry), Richard Fraser (Davy), Frederick Worlock (Dr Richards)

John Ford is by far-and-away best known for his Westerns, many of which are classics. So it’s a bit of a surprise that Ford always claimed the film closest to his heart was this occasionally sentimental drama about a young boy growing up in a Victorian Welsh mining town. Perhaps it was partly because, despite winning four Best Director Oscars, this was the only time Ford directed a Best Picture winner.

Following the remembrances of young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell), the youngest son (of several) of Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp), long-running foreman at the mine. The village is beautiful and life seems idyllic – until harsh economic conditions start to take their toll on the village. Wages are cut, moves towards unionisation are harshly resisted by the management, one-by-one the sons are laid off in favour of cheaper labour and the slag of the mine slowly turns the village into a dirty, stained mess. At the same time, the village is shown to be increasingly insular and judgemental, distrusting of outsiders, and suspicious of the preacher Mr Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) and the attraction between him and Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) – made worse after she marries. Huw’s youthful innocence and naivety are met with an increasing attack from reality.

Ford’s film is today a controversial choice for Best Picture – among the films it beat were The Maltese Falcon and, most strikingly of all, Citizen Kane. It’s tough for any film to hold onto the same level of public affection, when it’s widely seen to have robbed a film commonly held up as one of the best (if not the best) of all time. But How Green Was My Valley is no travesty of an Oscar-winner. On its own merits it’s a solid, impressive, sentimental piece of episodic film-making that won’t disappoint you, even if it doesn’t inspire as much as it should.

John Ford directs a handsomely mounted film, full of luscious monochrome shots. It’s a shame that the original plans for the film – to shoot on location in Wales in technicolour – were prevented by World War Two, as the sweep of the real locations would have added a real epic scope to the drama, not to mention make the decline of the village even more obvious visually. But the recreation of the Welsh mining village they planned to film in (in Malibu of all places!) is faultlessly impressive, and Ford creates a real Celtic charm in his shooting of the film.

Celtic is perhaps the key word here as, along with the location, the other thing that ended up jettisoned in the film was its Welshness. There is precious little – if anything – Welsh about this film. It contains one Welsh actor (Rhys Williams), and Ford’s cast use a parade of actors ranging from an attempt at Welsh from Crisp to an imperious mid-Atlantic drawl from Walter Pidgeon. Most actors however settle solidly for something close to Irish – and it’s pretty clear to me that Ford, proud of his own Irish heritage, basically saw this a story of the old country forcing its sons to head to the new country, in the same way his own parents emigrated. It also makes sense for casting the film – there seemed to be precious few Welsh actors in Hollywood at the time, but a parade of Irish actors. 

But look past the film’s complete lack of Welshness – not to mention its presentation of the Morgan’s family home as far more clear and spacious than it would have been in real life – and pretend this is an almost Irish story, and you can focus on the film’s strengths. Although presented with sentiment and nostalgia, How Green is actually a more coldly realistic film than that. While shot with a luscious regard for the past, the film’s themes work to undermine this as much as possible – dealing with disillusionment, depression, unemployment and societal collapse. While Huw may remember the past as being a glorious country, we can see from the tumoils of his family that it was far more complex than that.

Of his siblings, most lose their jobs at the mines and are forced to emigrate. One who remains loses his life due to the mine’s working practices. Their father buries his head in the sand, and refuses to support any moves towards unionisation or the worker’s attempt to improve their lot. The family relies totally on the mine, but by the end of the film have been more-or-less destroyed by it. Even Huw’s sister Angharad, who has a good marriage to the son of the mine owner, finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage with her affections for Gruffydd the source of cruel comment from the village. The valley may be green on the surface, but it’s far darker underneath. 

And poor Huw either doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. After struggling through bullying from a teacher at school, he finishes school and is awarded a scholarship – only to reject it in favour of remaining to work in the mine, having learned all the wrong lessons from his life (and to the horror of his father). Ford stresses Huw’s youthful naivety by not ageing up Roddy McDowell (very good) at all as Huw – Huw remains forever a 12-year-old-boy, even as events race on. It’s a neat capturing of both the older Huw (who narrates) imagination of what he was like, and also serves to stress how Huw’s nostalgia is framing the story we are seeing. It also makes Huw seem even weaker and vulnerable than he is – a shot of Huw labouring in the mine behind a seemingly giant cart hammers home his weakness – Ford shoots many scenes with low-angle lenses to make us visually emphasise with Huw and to see the world from his perspective.

How Green’s main weakness is its hesitation to commit to either the cold reality, or the hazy nostalgia that the film’s filming style uses. It lands between the two stools, wanting to tell us the truth while also wanting us to leave with a warm feeling towards the simpler times of the past. It’s perhaps not helped in this by the episodic nature of the script, which moves from event to event without much in the way of overarching narrative. It makes for a film that leans even more towards a slightly maudlin view of the past as a series of entertaining stories, which serves to cover even more the darker themes of the film.

Ford’s cast are a mixed bag. Donald Crisp is superb as the father, part imperious patriarch, part loving father – and won the Oscar. Equally good is Sara Allgood as his wife, the ideal loving mother that a son would remember, but with a spine of steel. Maureen O’Hara brings a passionate romanticism to Angharad, while Barry Fitzgerald and Rhys Williams are entertaining as a drunken trainer and his boxer protégé. Mnay of the rest of the cast though are weaker, with Walter Pidgeon rather stolid as Gruffydd and many of the actors playing Huw’s brothers reduced to balsawood under the burden of odd accents and earnest characterisation.

Ford’s film is a very good one that, if it catches you in the right mood, will certainly move you. I am not sure it caught me in the right mood on any of the occasions I saw it, but I appreciate its technical assurance and excellent direction. It fails to really find an effective balance between its darker tones and its nostalgic outlook, but it still works for all that. It’s not Welsh but it is a good film.