Tag: John Wayne

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.

True Grit (1969)

True Grit (1969)

The Duke wins an Oscar in this solid Western (already old-fashioned in 1969) put together with a professional solidity

Director: Henry Hathaway

Cast: John Wayne (Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn), Glen Campbell (La Boeuf), Kim Darby (Mattie Ross), Jeremy Slate (Emmett Quincy), Robert Duvall (Lucky Ned Pepper), Dennis Hopper (Moon), Alfred Ryder (Goudy), Strother Martin (Colonel Stonehill), Jeff Corey (Tom Chaney), John Fiedler (Daggett)

By 1969 John Wayne had been pulling his six shooters against rascals and rapscallions for thirty years, ever since making one of the all-time great entries in Stagecoach. He’d been an American icon, box-office gold and practically the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood. What he never really had was recognition that, underneath the drawl, he was a fine actor who knew his business. He’d only had the single Oscar nomination in 1949, so by 1969 there was a sentimental urge to correct that – especially since illness had already seen the Duke (one of the first major stars to be open and frank about his cancer and urge others to get checks) lose a lung a few years previously.

And correct that they did, as Wayne beat out two respected thespians (the perennially unlucky Burton and O’Toole) as well as the whipper-snapper stars of Midnight Cowboy (the sort of cowboy film the Duke would never even consider making!) to scoop the Best Actor prize for taking a character-role lead (all Wayne roles are lead roles) in True Grit. Wayne was “Rooster” Cogburn, a hard-drinking but hard-riding, always-gets-his-man US Marshal, hired by Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) the teenager daughter of a murdered father to track down his killer Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey). Rooster develops an avuncular relationship with Mattie, despite his penchant to get pissed and (of course!) eventually proves he has the ‘true grit’ that made Mattie hire him in the first place.

True Grit is a traditional yarn, directed with a smooth competence (but lack of inspiration) by Henry Hathaway. It must have felt quite a throwback in 1969: you could imagine it pretty much would have been shot-for-shot identical if it had been filmed in 1949 (especially since Wayne had been playing the veteran since at least Fort Apache). Compared to other major Westerns made that year – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, especially, the grim nihilism of The Wild BunchTrue Grit looks like the cosiest film imaginable. It even shies away from the book’s ending where Mattie loses an arm after a snake bite (something the, frankly superior, Coen Brother’s remake would not do 40 years later).

It does feel odd to see Wayne, that bastion of old-school Hollywood, sharing the screen with New Hollywood icons like Dennis Hopper (playing a yellow-bellied squealer at the baddies hideout) and Robert Duvall (a belated villain, looking uncomfortable in this genre saddle-flick as a bad-to-the-bone gang leader). But Hathaway makes sure it’s The Duke’s show. Which it is from start-to-finish.

Rooster isn’t really a stretch for Wayne. Compared to his work in The Searchers and Red River, Cogburn is a cosy and straight-forward hero, a straight-shooter who always holds to his word. But it’s a perfect showpiece for his charisma. Wayne shows a decent comic-timing (he has a nice line in deadpan reactions, particularly when he meets Mattie’s famed lawyer Daggett for the first time, discovering far from the imposing figure he imagined he’s actually the mousy John Fiedler) and there’s just a little hint of lonely sadness in Rooster as he talks about the family who left him or the homes he’s never known.

Wayne also has a lovely chemistry with Kim Darby, the relationship flourishing in a rather sweet big-brother-“little sister” (as Rooster calls her) way. Although of course it takes time to form: Rooster spends most of the first half of the film trying his best to shrug her off so he can hunt down the gang Tom Chaney runs with (and collect the bounty for them) unencumbered. The two of them form a tenuous alliance with Texas Ranger La Bouef, who is far keener to deliver Chaney to another state for a higher bounty than that offered for the killing of Mattie’s father.

La Bouef is played with try-hard gameliness by singer Glen Campbell, largely hired to commit him to singing the film’s best-selling theme tune. To be honest, he makes for a weak third wheel – but it’s hard not to hold it against Campbell when he charmingly later said he’d “never acted in a movie…and every time I see True Grit I think my record’s still clean!”. Far better is Kim Darby, who gives a spunky tom-boyish charm to the shrewd and persistent Mattie who is far too-smart to either by cheated by short-changing landlords or to be ditched from the trail by Rooster and La Bouef.

It’s Wayne’s film though, and a final act face-off with the villains shows that there were few people better with a gun on screen (his one-handed shotgun twirling reload while riding a horse is surely the envy of Schwarzenegger’s similar move in Terminator 2). The whole enterprise is carefully framed to showcase Wayne and he rises to the occasion. Think of it like that, and it hardly matters that Hathaway offers uninspired work behind the camera and fails to provide either any moments of visual interest or dynamism (or work effectively with the weaker actors).

True Grit is an entertaining, second-tier Wayne film, lifted by his charisma and enjoyment for playing a larger-than-life gravelly cool-old-timer and cemented in history by his reward with that sparkling gold bald man. Compared to other Westerns – both before and at the time – it’s traditional, straight-forward and unchallenging. But it’s fun, has some good jokes and offers decent action. And it’s a reminder that no one did this sort of thing better than the Duke.

Rio Bravo (1959)

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John Wayne, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan are supremely unbothered by danger in Hawks’ High Noon riposte, Rio Bravo

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: John Wayne (Sheriff John T Chance), Dean Martin (Dude), Ricky Nelson (Colorado), Angie Dickinson (Feathers), Walter Brennan (Stumpy), Ward Bond (Pat Wheeler), John Russell (Nathan Burdette), Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (Carlos Robante), Estelita Rodrigues (Consuelo Robante), Claude Akins (Joe Burdette)

When they saw High Noon Hawks and Wayne were unimpressed. Who was this sissy cry-baby, blubbing in his office, begging all and sundry to join him in an impending gunfight with an outraged gang? This wasn’t the West they knew. How un-American was that? So, heads went together and they came up with their counterpoint: Rio Bravo, where the Duke does the right thing, locks up the bad man, is supremely unruffled by threats of violence from his gang, turns down offers of help from across the town (he doesn’t need to worry, they all help anyway) and even finds time for an unfazed, late-night jail-room sing-along with his deputies. Take that Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman!

The Duke is John T Chance, a grizzled, experienced sheriff, still in-his-prime, who arrests the brother of Nathan Burdette (John Russell) after he shoots an unarmed man in a bar brawl. When Nathan demands his release – or there will be hell to pay – Chance relies on the men he can trust: old-timer Stumpy (Walter Brennan), recovering alcoholic former-deputy Dude (Dean Martin) and (eventually) plucky young gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson). The three simply have to wait for the Marshalls to arrive and take Burdette away – but will the Burdette’s strike first? On top of which, Chance’s eye is caught by the widow of a cheating gambler, Feathers (Angie Dickinson) – does he also have time for a bit of love?

Rio Bravo is possibly one of the most “shooting-the-breeze” films ever made – even though the general air of manly cool is punctuated by the odd gun-fight. Wayne and his gang are far too cool, confident and quick on the draw to ever be that worried about the approaching threat of the Burdette family – not that you can blame them, since Hawks spends only the minimum amount of time fleshing them out. Instead, the film is a chronicle of a few days where they hole-up and basically shoot-the-breeze – their banter carrying over to exchanging bon-mots during the final gunfight (“You took two shots!” “I didn’t take the wind into account”). It’s the sort of unfazed cool against the odds that you can see has carried across to a whole host of modern action and superhero films, heroes who are so confident in their skills they crack wise even under fire.

Rio Bravo is directed at a gentle pace but complete assurance by Hawks. It occasionally has a feel of settling down and watching a relaxed after-show party, with a group of actors so comfortable in each other’s company, that they simply filmed themselves having a whale of a time. Wayne marshals the whole thing on screen with authority and confident precision: the part is far from a stretch, but he hits the beats with a naturalness that really works, from a fatherly mix of encouragement and disappointment in Dude’s slow turnaround from his drunken collapse, to a crusty flirtatiousness with Feathers (Angie Dickinson at her most radiant here).

The film is full of delightful little moments that pop-up with a perfectly judged regularity. Colorado and Feathers save Chance’s bacon with a perfectly timed flower-pot through the window, matched with Colorado’s pitch-perfect shooting skills. Dude judges exactly the location of sharp-shooter through the drops of blood on a full beer-glass (a lovely image from Hawks). Chance and Colorado confront a card cheat. Chance is so cool under fire, that pinned with two guns on his back in a small room, he never once feels like he thinks there is any real danger.

Either side of these events, the film is full of a sublime lackadaisical charm, as our heroes riff off each other, never once letting events get too heavy. You couldn’t cast Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson without having them break into song – so of course, they do just that in a late-night sing-along. It seems to be about blocking out the sound of Degüello, the cut-throat Mexican song that plays non-stop outside the town overnight, warning them of the perils to come. But really it’s just because we are watching three blokes chilling and simply too cool to be that flustered by scare-tactics. (The Degüello here, by-the-way, was composed by High Noon’s composer Dimitri Tiomkin – another one in the eye for that film).

Wayne’s charges all do a fine job on screen, with Dean Martin in particular fitting the role like a glove and bringing a wonderful sense of sixties brashness as well as a surprisingly affecting struggle with alcohol. Ricky Nelson does his duty when pushed. Walter Brennan wheezes and cackles as only he can. Angie Dickinson is wonderfully vibrant and sexy – surely, with those tights, she’s too much for even the Duke to handle?

Duty is what it is all about, and these are men’s-men who knuckle down and get on with it rather than complain. People may offer to help, but only those qualified will do so (two of them rock-up to help at the final gunfight anyway). That film’s concluding shoot-out is rousing, dramatic and literally explosive. Hawks shoots it all with assured skill – the film’s long silent opening, is a wordless delight of reaction, implication and careful character development (Chance and Dude are wordlessly, but perfectly, established).

Rio Bravo is one of those films people has have their “favourite” – and that might be because it’s laid-back, fun and invites you to join on it. It’s free of pretension and shows you the sort of men you’d like to be, going about effortlessly the sort of things you’d like to do. No wonder people love it so much.

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.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

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Max von Sydow carries a heavy burden in Steven’s far-from The Greatest Story Ever Told

Director: George Stevens

Cast: Max von Sydow (Jesus), Dorothy McGuire (The Virgin Mary), Charlton Heston (John the Baptist), Claude Rains (Herod the Great), José Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), David McCallum (Judas Iscariot), Donald Pleasance (“The Dark Hermit”), Michael Anderson Jnr (James the Less), Roddy McDowell (Matthew), Gary Raymond (Peter), Joanna Dunham (Mary Magdalene), Ed Wynn (Old Aram), Angela Lansbury (Claudia), Sal Mineo (Uriah), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), John Wayne (Centurion)

You could make a case to prosecute The Greatest Story Ever Told under the Trade Descriptions Act. In a world where we are blessed (cursed?) with a plethora of Biblical epics, few are as long, worthy, turgid or dull as George Stevens’ misguided epic. Just like Jesus in the film is plagued by a Dark Hermit representing Satan, did Stevens have a wicked angel whispering in his ear “More wide shots George, and even more Handel’s Messiah. And yes, The Duke is natural casting for a Roman Centurion…”. The Greatest Story Ever Told has some of the worst reviews Christianity has ever had – and it’s had some bad ones.

The plot covers the whole life of the Saviour so should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Gideon’s Bible. It was a passion project for Stevens, who spent almost five years raising the cash to bring it to the screen. When he started, the fad for self-important Biblical epics was starting to teeter. When it hit the screen, it had flat-lined. It didn’t help that The Greatest Story Ever Told was first released as an over four-hour snooze fest, laboriously paced, that managed to drain any fire or passion from one of (no matter what you believe) the most tumultuous and significant lives anyone on the planet has ever led. The film was cut down to about two hours (making it incomprehensible) and today exists as a little over three-hour epic that genuinely still feels like it’s four hours long.

Stevens gets almost nothing right here whatsoever. Self-importance permeates the entire project. The film cost $20million, double the largest amount the studio had ever spent. Ordinary storyboards were not good enough: Stevens commissioned 350 oil paintings (that’s right, an entire art gallery’s worth) to plan the picture (which probably explains why the film feels at times like a slide show of second-rate devotional imagery). The Pope was consulted on the script (wisely he didn’t take a screen credit). Stevens decided the American West made a better Holy Land than the actual Holy Land, so shot it all in Arizona, Nevada and California. It took so long to film, Joseph Schildkraut and original cinematographer William C Mellor both died while making it, while Joanna Durham (playing Mary Magdalene!) became pregnant and gave birth. Stevens shot 1,136 miles of film, enough to wrap around the Moon.

There’s something a little sad about all that effort so completely wasted. But the film is a complete dud. It’s terminally slow, not helped by its stately shooting style where the influence of all those paintings can be seen. Everything is treated with crushing import – Jesus can’t draw breath without a heavenly choir kicking in to add spiritual import to whatever he is about to say. Stevens equates grandeur with long shots so a lot of stuff happens in the widest framing possible, most ridiculously the resurrection of Lazarus which takes place in a small part of a screen consumed with a vast cliff panorama. Bizarrely, most of the miracles take place off-screen, as if Stevens worried that seeing a man walk on water, feed the five thousand or turn water into wine would stretch credulity (which surely can’t be the case for a film as genuflecting as this one).

What we get instead is Ed Wynn, Sal Mineo and Van Heflin euphorically running up a hilltop and shouting out loud the various miracles the Lamb of God has bashfully performed off-screen. Everything takes a very long time to happen and a large portion of the film is given over to a lot of Christ walking, talking at people but not really doing anything. For all the vast length, no real idea is given at all about what people were drawn to or found magnetic about Him. It’s as if Stevens is so concerned to show He was better than this world, that the film forgets to show that He was actually part of this world. Instead, we have to kept being told what a charismatic guy He is and how profound His message is: we never get to see or hear these qualities from His own lips.

For a film designed to celebrate the Greatest, the film strips out much of the awe and wonder in Him. It’s not helped by the chronic miscasting of Max von Sydow. Selected because he was a great actor who would be unfamiliar to the mid-West masses (presumably considered to be unlikely to be au fait with the work of Ingmar Bergman), von Sydow is just plain wrong for the role. His sonorous seriousness and restrained internal firmness help make the Son of God a crushing, distant bore. He’s not helped by his dialogue being entirely made-up of Bible quotes or the fact that Stevens directs him to be so stationary and granite, with much middle-distance staring, he could have been replaced with an Orthodox Icon with very little noticeable difference.

Around von Sydow, Stevens followed the norm by hiring as many star actors as possible, some of whom pop up for a few seconds. The most famous of these is of course John Wayne as the Centurion who crucifies Jesus. This cameo has entered the realms of Filmic Myth (the legendary “More Awe!”exchange). Actually, Stevens shoots Wayne with embarrassment, as if knowing getting this Western legend in is ridiculous – you can hardly spot Wayne (if you didn’t know it was him, you wouldn’t) and his line is clearly a voiceover. In a way just as egregious is Sidney Poitier’s wordless super-star appearance as Simon, distracting you from feeling the pain of Jesus’ sacrifice by saying “Oh look that’s Sidney Poitier” as he dips into frame to help carry the cross.

Of the actors who are in it long enough to make an impression, they fall into three camps: the OTT, the “staring with reverence” and the genuinely good. Of the OTT crowd, Rains and Ferrer set the bar early as various Herods but Heston steals the film as a rug-chested, manly John the Baptist, ducking heads under water in a Nevada lake, bellowing scripture to the heavens. Of the reverent, McDowell does some hard thinking as Matthew, although I have a certain fondness for Gary Raymond’s decent but chronically unreliable Peter (the scene where he bitches endlessly about a stolen cloak is possibly the only chuckle in the movie).

It’s a sad state of affairs that the Genuinely Good actors all play the Genuinely Bad characters – poor old Jesus, even in the story of his life the Devil gets all the best scenes. That’s literally true here as Donald Pleasence is head-and-shoulders best-in-show as a softly spoken, insinuating but deeply sinister “Dark Hermit” who tempts Jesus in the wilderness and then follows Him throughout the Holy Land, turning others against Him. Also good are David McCallum as a conflicted Judas, Telly Savalas as weary Pilate (he shaved his head for the role, loved the look and never went back) and Martin Landau, good value as a corrupt Caiaphas (“This will all be forgotten in a week” he signs the film off with saying).

That’s about all there is to enjoy about a film that probably did more to reduce attendance at Sunday School than the introduction of Sunday opening hours and football being played all day. A passion project from Stevens where he forgot to put any of that passion on the screen, it really is as long and boring as you heard, a film made with such reverent skill that no one seemed to have thought about stopping and saying “well, yes, but is it good?”. I doubt anyone is watching it up in Heaven.

The Longest Day (1962)

John Wayne leads the charge on The Longest Day

Director: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki

Cast: John Wayne (Lt Col Benjambin Vandervoot), Henry Fonda (General Theodore Roosevelt Jnr), Robert Mitchum (General Norman Cota), Richard Burton (FO David Campbell), Eddie Albert (Col Lloyd Thompson), Sean Connery (Pvt Flanagan), Curd Jurgens (General Gunther Blumentritt), Richard Todd (Maj John Howard), Peter Lawford (Brig Lord Lovat), Rod Steiger (Lt Com Joseph Witherow Jnr), Irina Demick (Jeanine Boitard), Gert Frobe (Pvt “Coffee Pot”), Edmond O’Brien (General Raymond Barton), Kenneth More (Capt Colin Maud), Robert Ryan (Gen James Gavin), Red Buttons (Pvt John Steele), Christian Marquand (Cpt Philippe Kieffer), Jean-Louis Barrault (Fr Louis Rolland), Arletty (Mdm Barrault), Paul Hartmann (Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt), Werner Hinz (Field Marshall Erwin Rommel), Wolfgang Priess (General Max Premsel), Peter van Eyck (Lt Col Karl Williams Ocker)

Darryl F Zanuck wanted to make the War Film to end all War Films. So, what better way than to restage D-Day itself, with a cast (as the poster brags) of 42 International Stars, playing out almost in real-time. It’s a grand ‘mock-documentary’ shot in black-and-white (so that actual war footage can be integrated into the film) and aims to show the perspectives of the four main combatants (the Americans, the British, the French and the Germans – with all their scenes played in their respective languages). Adapted from a definitive D-Day book by Cornelius Ryan, it makes for huge, now slightly old-fashioned, Sunday afternoon fun and one of the most iconic second world war films.

To make his dream come true, Zanuck left no stone unturned. Pretty much every single part is played by a ‘name’ actor (although, rather like Around the World in 80 Days, time has left some of them less recognisable than others) no matter how small the role. And I mean no matter how small. Many of the actors appear in no more than one or two scenes. Steiger chips in a brief speech as a Naval officer. Burton has two scenes as an RAF officer, one of the last of the “Few”. Fonda contributes a few minutes of heroism as Theodore Roosevelt Jnr. Robert Ryan briefs The Duke as General Gavin. Jean Servais makes a grand speech as a French Admiral. Gert Frobe doesn’t even speak as a (what else?) bullying German soldier. This parade of stars does though does mean you pay a lot more attention to every single part and it makes it a lot easier to keep track of who’s who.

It’s certainly a ‘producer’s’ film. Zanuck held complete creative control, splitting the directorial duties between three hired hands. Annakin directed all the British and French scenes (and most of the American ‘briefing room’ scenes). Martan, an experienced second unit director, was hired to shoot most of the battle sequences. Wicki looked after the German sequences. With the brief being to replicate the documentary style of actual footage, naturally this basically led to a film that doesn’t have the feel of being ‘authored’ (in the way, say, Saving Private Ryan does), but it’s functional shooting style and design does make it fairly easy to follow.

And it needs to be easy to follow, as this is a very long film indeed – and with the cast frequently changing from scene to scene, can become overwhelming. The quick changes of location – and the lack of time spent with any single character – often means it’s hard to connect to strongly to any of the individual characters. Most of the more prominent characters gain their personality solely from the actors playing them: so I don’t really know what the real Colonel Vandervoot is like, but I know his character here is basically ‘John Wayne’.

The more prominent roles in the script rely on these personality parts. Wayne probably has the largest individual role as the Paratrooper commander who breaks his ankle on landing, but doesn’t let that slow him down from hitting his objective. (Wayne also gets a great little speech, the sort of thing much missed in Ryan, where he praises Brit fortitude under the Blitz, which is a lovely moment of Allied brotherhood). Mitchum gets the juiciest action as General Cota, the highest-ranking soldier on Omaha Beach, who leads the first break out. At the other end of the ranking, Red Buttons brings charm and heartfelt emotion to the most memorable sequence as Pvt John Steele, the paratrooper who landed on top of the church spire at Sainte-Mère-Église, deafened by bells and forced to watch the rest of his platoon slaughtered on landing.

The scale is really what it’s all about. The recreation of the D-Day landings is stunning (the first boats, though, don’t hit the beaches until well over two hours into the film), and its genuinely hard to tell the difference between what is recreated and what is actual war footage. The film doesn’t shirk from showing the cost of war, or the slaughter on that beach (although of course, it looks reserved compared to Ryan). But the combat and operations elsewhere are also perfectly recreated. Richard Todd is very good as Major John Howard, in an expert reconstruction of the seizing of the Orne Bridges near Caen (in real life, Todd himself was one of the commandos serving under Howard and even has a scene where Todd as Howard talks to another actor as Todd).

These battle sequences make for compelling viewing. Slightly less so is the long build-up of the Allies to the attack. There are many, many scenes in various briefing rooms and for every delight (such as Jack Hedley’s briefing around “Rupert” a model paratrooper, dropped as a distraction) there are po-faced actors staring into the middle distance and discussing how important everything is. By far and away the most interesting content in the first half is less the Allies (waiting to leave) than the Germans (trying to work out how and where the Allies will arrive). These scenes feature a range of German officers, from the quietly resigned to die-hard, head-in-the-sand Fascists, and revolve around a series of fascinating debates on where, when or even if at all the Allied attack will come. With a cast of excellent German actors – Jurgens, Preiss, Hartmann, Hinz and Wolfgang Buttner are particularly fine – these scenes stand out as they present a perspective we don’t often get to explore. (Even though the film squarely accepts the German military view that the defeat was all Hitler’s fault and the army was completely blameless of any of the crimes of Nazism.)

After the slow-build, the explosion of tension and action is done really effectively. Sure, the film is long and episodic, but the ever-changing locations do frequently help with the pace. The film’s documentary style also lends it a great deal of authority that a more ‘fictional’ film would not have. After all, pretty much everyone in the film is ‘real’ and while the film could be seen as a collection of D-Day anecdotes, strange moments – such as a platoon of Germans and Americans passing each other on opposite sides of a low wall without noticing each other – have the ring of truth. The script was doctored by a host of major novelists and playwright (including Noel Coward) to brush it up, but really this is a producer’s triumph.

And it is a triumph for Zanuck. Everything he sought to do, he accomplished here – and the doubts that he could pull it off were moved as wrong, as those who doubted whether the Allied plan to cross the Channel would work. Hugely impressive in its staging, detailed in its recreation and with a cast of stars and top actors giving every scene a fresh bit of life, this makes for one of the all-time classic war films.

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.

Red River (1948)

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift as duelling surrogate father and son in Red River

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: John Wayne (Thomas Dunson), Montgomery Clift (Matt Garth), Joanna Dru (Tess Millay), Walter Brennan (Groot), Coleen Gray (Fen), Harry Carey (Melville), John Ireland (Cherry Valance), Noah Beery Jnr (Buster McGee), Harry Carey Jnr (Dan Latimer), Chief Yowlachie (Quo)

Some say Red River is, even more than Citizen Kane, the masterpiece in American film. That’s pushing it. But Red Rivercertainly is a prime slice of beefy entertainment. Hawks’ first Western (and how odd a director so associated with them didn’t turn his hand to them until late in his career – and then only made six), there is no greater compliment to make than to say you could mistake it for John Ford.

In fact, Ford was beyond impressed, famously observing of Wayne “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act”. Act he certainly does here as monolithic obsessive Thomas Dunson (surely a forerunner to the equally troubled – and troubling – Ethan Edwards in The Searchers). Dunson has spent almost two decades building his Texan cattle empire. Unfortunately, the Civil War means the bottom has dropped out of the Texas beef market. To make good his investment, Dunson needs to take the cattle (all 9,000 of them!) up north to Missouri (over a thousand miles) to sell at a good price. Along the way, Dunson’s ruthlessly focused ambition tips into tyranny, with Dunson (literally) judge, jury and executioner among his team. Can his more liberal adopted son, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), stop Dunson from destroying everything around him?

Red River covers the movement of cattle up the Chisholm Trail, a huge economic migration that saw millions of cattle moved from Texas to where their price was increased by a factor of ten. But the film has only a passing interest in the history – and the romantic, nostalgic look at it here, as a sort of boys-own adventure that goes wrong, is far more about the movies than social history. What the film is really focused on is the personal clash between two generations of men: one a relic of the first years of the new frontier, the other younger, more modern in his thinking, with a streak of humanity the other has beaten down.

Hawks’ film mixes this up with some terrific location footage. How did they wrangle all those cattle? The film is very strong in capturing the sense of excitement in the Frontier – the setting off on the trail, with its quick shot cacophony of horse-backed men whooping with joy, is full of a sense of adventure. The film is a triumph of quick-quick-slow story-telling. The 15 years of Dunson’s empire-building passes by with montage and Wayne voiceover which begins and ends with Wayne in the same position, but the actor considerably aged. Context is skilfully and swiftly given to us, but the tensions between Dunson and Matt are grow and develop naturally, simmering for a good hour-plus before erupting. Transition text between sequences bridges us from scene to scene, and is especially effective in charting Dunson’s descent into tyranny.

Tyranny is what it is all about. This is one of Wayne’s darkest – but also greatest – roles. Hawks taps into the despotic rigidity in this slab of Americana. Dunson is a man utterly and completely convinced not only of his invulnerability, but his rightness, embodying American manifest destiny. Claiming swathes of land as his own, Dunson is a man on the move, constantly striding forward (Hawks often shoots him in progressive, shark-like motion). He’ll leave behind him everything from the woman he loves (with a shocking toughness, as he looks back on the burning remains of the wagon train he left her in) to the land he claimed, to anyone who lets him down.

Dunson is also a ruthless embodiment of a time before law. No one seems to question the way he executes those who cross him. Practically the first thing he does on arrival in Texas is out-draw and kill the man sent to question his arrival. His farmstead has a full graveyard. A dark comic touch is added with his insistence in “reading the words” over graves of men he’s killed. On the trail he has those who back out, run away or question his leadership whipped or shot. Wayne’s certainty as an actor tips into a (literally) black-hatted despotism. His manly focus and ability to outdraw anyone turns him in the end into a nightmare avenger, a Western Terminator.

Opposite him is Clift (equally superb) as a more modern minded kid. Matt is the sort of man who knows that at times a bit of bend and a sympathetic ear gets better results than a beating. Hawks brilliantly builds the love-hate relationship between these two men who have very little in common, other than mutual affection. (Clift and Wayne themselves were polar opposites in acting style, social views and personalities.) There is a real love there – which makes it all the more inevitable Dunson will view Matt’s questioning of him as a betrayal nothing less than blood will redeem. The two of them, and their clash (like the clash between two sides of America) dominate the film, not letting too many other characters have a look-in.

Of the rest, Walter Brennan is a very good as Dunson’s loyal number 2, who may not always agree with the chief but largely (if reluctantly) sticks by him (for all he mutters to him “You’re wrong Mr Dunson”). John Ireland’s cocky gunslinger, who joins the trail because he admires Dunson’s no bullshit attitude, promises much at first but fails to deliver on much-hyped clashes. (Possibly because Ireland fell out with Hawks over a competition for the affections of his future wife Joanna Dru, his role later cut to ribbons in revenge.) There is however a strange, almost homoerotic, link between Clift and Ireland – mutual respect leading to an admiration love-in and much fondling of each other’s firearms during competitive rock shootings.

Red River’s ending has gained some criticism – largely because the film builds its sense of violence between the two leads so well that it feels a bit of a disappointment that they are effectively told to pull themselves together (by a woman of all things!). But, for all the film mines the clashes between two different outlooks, it never loses track of their very real affection. Sure Dunson may talk about killing Matt – but he certainly won’t in cold blood (even if he happily guns down anyone who gets in the way) and at the end of the day, he’s still the closest thing he’ll ever know as a son. Matt is emotionally mature enough to know Dunson is to-all-intents-and-purposes his father, even if he’s not above throwing a few punches at him. The clash is effectively a narrative dead-end – for all it would be exciting to see them take shots at each other, this is a family. And most families fight and make-up, not plug each other with bullets.

And it distracts from the grand entertainment of Red River, its excited love for the open country (the late act scenes inside are as disconcerting for us as they are the characters). This is a western of psychological depth successfully mixed with grand adventure. It’s hugely entertaining but also feels very true. It has two wonderful performances from Wayne and Clift. It’s not the Great American Film, but it’s directed by a superb understander of cinematic narrative and a hard film not to love.

The Searchers (1956)

Searchers header
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.