Tag: Ward Bond

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.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo header
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.

Joan of Arc (1948)

Joan of Arc header
Ingrid Bergman shows France the way in po-faced epic Joan of Arc

Director: Victor Fleming

Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), José Ferrer (Dauphin Charles), Francis L Sullivan (Bishop Cauchon), Roman Bohnen (Durand Laxart), Geoge Coulouris (Sir Robert de Baudricourt), George Zucco (Constable of Clervaux), Gene Lockhart (Georges de la Trémoille), John Emery (Duke d’Alençon), Richard Ney (Charles de Bourbon), Lief Erickson (Dunois of Orleans), John Ireland (Jan de la Boussac), Hurd Hatfield (Father Pasquerel), Ward Bond (La Hire), J. Carrol Naish (Count of Luxembourg), Frederick Worlock (Duke of Bedford), Shepperd Strudwick (Father Jean Massieu), Alan Napier (Earl of Warwick), Cecil Kellaway (Jean Le Maistre)

A light descends from heaven, and a young girl is seized with a sense of purpose. Joan of Arc (Ingrid Bergman) believes – as do her countrymen – that she received a message from heaven to help deliver fifteenth-century France back to the French, and out from under English occupation. For three years, this young woman strikes fear into the hearts of the English, inspiring the French into a series of victories (most of all at Orleans) and improving the French position such that the ambitious Dauphin (José Ferrer) is crowned Charles VII. But Joan is a target for the English, and she’s eventually  captured and burned for heresy after a trial notably free of justice at Rouen.

A huge investment at the time, with its colossal cast and loving recreation of medieval France, Joan of Arc is historically a luckless film. Despite its box-office winnings, it failed to cover its immense cost. It gained seven Oscar nominations (and four wins!) with no nomination for Best Picture. Its director, its cinematographer and actor Roman Bohnen (playing Joan’s uncle) all died prematurely after its release. Ingrid Bergman was caught up in scandal – and effectively exiled from Hollywood – shortly after when her affair with director Roberto Rossellini became public knowledge. Producer Walter Wagner was imprisoned three years later for shooting his wife’s lover. The film itself had 20 minutes sliced from it and, for decades, was only available in its truncated version.

Aside from these historic curiosities, Joan of Arc is a well-made, handsomely mounted but fundamentally rather dry and at points rather dull historical drama, mixed with more than enough touches of Biblical worthiness. Victor Fleming himself felt the film was a disappointment, that a trick had been missed – perhaps  aware that his own old-fashioned, rather flat direction fails to bring any inspiration out of the drama.

If drama is quite the right word for what, all too often, are too many scenes made up almost solely of a group of men sitting around a table in medieval garb talking at length of current affairs. Too many of these scenes lack in pace or urgency and many end up feeling forced, with too much of the dialogue reduced to recounting events rather than driving the story.

The structure of the story feels off as well: it can be split into three rough acts: Joan’s search for her purpose, Joan’s time as the inspiration of the French, and Joan’s imprisonment and trial. The trial, in particular, takes up almost the final 45 minutes of the film. The play the film is based on used a troupe of actors performing the life of Joan as a framing device for further insight into the life and impact of the saint. Without this framing device, the actual film becomes a rather dry history lesson.

It’s not helped by Bergman’s performance, which serves to capture in capsule the film’s po-faced piousness. It was a dream of Bergman’s to bring her Broadway performance of Joan to film. Sadly, the script’s lack of wit (or insight into the personality of Joan), means the majority of her scenes fall into a stock pattern: her lines are delivered with a breathless intensity with her hands are clasped across her chest. Aside from a few brief scenes where Joan questions why her voices have fallen silent, there are very few moments where either Bergman or the film seek to delve down into the motivations and inspirations of Joan. Like the film, her performance is bereft of any wit or warmth – instead it is almost devotional in its careful respect.

It’s part of the film’s seriousness. It makes some excellent points on the lasting impact of Joan, the horrific unfairness of her trial and the fact that, by burning her, the English merely cemented her hold on the French people rather than ending it. But too many other issues are pushed to the wayside, along with Joan’s character and motivations. No questions are raised around Joan’s interpretation of her visions. The conflict between faith and war is unexplored. The film sets its store out clearly: this is a devotional work and we should take it as that, and any questions around faith, legitimacy or what drove a fanatical teenager to embrace a life of military campaigning goes unexplored. In truth, we know as little about Joan at the end as we did at the beginning.

Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its plusses. As a piece of devotional film-making, it has a lovely score from Hugo Friedhofer, with just the right uses of heavenly choirs singing through the most devout sections. The design of the film is beautifully done, heavily inspired by medieval manuscripts, with the same striking primary colours and framing. It has in fact a beautifully old-fashioned look to it, a wonderfully designed artificiality. The siege of Orleans is a dramatically staged sequence, with a particularly striking orange-drenched sky. Visually you can imagine this as an incredibly stuffed-shirt Adventures of Robin Hood, but still glorious to look at.

Bergman is also wisely surrounded by a strong cast of character actors, all providing the sort of colour and corruption that Bergman’s stiffly written Joan can’t provide. José Ferrer landed an Oscar nomination for his film debut as the ambitious, weak-willed and envious Dauphin, more interested in realpolitik than doing the right thing. Francis L Sullivan connives and blusters wonderfully as corrupt Bishop Cauchon, fixing the trial. George Coulouris gives his usual hurried authority to de Baudricourt, while Cecil Kellaway inverts his Irish kindness as Joan’s Inquisitor. Off-the-wall casting choices like Ward Bond as a French captain surprisingly tend to pay-off. Shepperd Strudwick makes the biggest impression though as Joan’s sympathetic bailiff (he also speaks the prologue).

The overall film though is one more for history buffs than for movie goers. With its seriousness, odd pace (some events take forever, while others – such as Joan’s capture – either rush past in seconds of happen off-screen) and general lack of any humour or warmth, it’s not always an engrossing watch. Well-made as it is, it’s also directed with a certain flat professionalism rather than inspiration and Bergman seems constricted by the script and the part. A curiosity, but not a complete success.

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.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

James Stewart discovers he has lived a good life in It’s a Wonderful Life

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Henry F Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy Bailey), Henry Travers (Clarence Odbody), Beulah Bondi (Ma Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie Bishop), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet Bick), HB Warner (Mr Gower), Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S Hinds (Pa Bailey)

For many people it’s as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and Santa. Any list of the greatest Christmas films of all time – in fact any list of the most beloved films of all time – isn’t complete without It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s emotional, heart-warming, seasonal tale encourages us to take a breath and look at the riches in our life, to look past the surface frustrations and disappointments. It seems to have something to say to everyone. There’s a reason why it has been a staple of Christmas for decades.

The small town of Bedford Falls is a place George Bailey (James Stewart) has always dreamed of leaving for a life of adventure. However, circumstances always meant he has stayed in the town, running the family savings and loans business. He’s made a success of the business, raised a family with his wife Mary (Donna Reed – extremely good in an unshowy role), helped half the town into decent affordable homes, and changed his whole community for the better. So why is George standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve, contemplating throwing himself into the river? And will his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) persuade him there are things worth living for?

Capra’s film is very easy to see as a wallow in sentimentality. Certainly, the film is in love with its image of small-town America, here a nirvana of folksy lightness where everyone knows everybody’s name. In reality, America as a whole, even at the time, probably had more in common with Potter’s grasping capitalism or the nightmare vision Clarence conjures of a neon-lit Potterville of loose morals and vice. But the film would never have worked if it was just sickly sentimental – or if it had been a cynical satire for that matter. Instead it works because it is overwhelmingly human, empathy dripping from every pore. It invests us deeply in this whole community and succeeds in making the viewer relate to them at every step.

This is partly because Capra has such a masterful skill for how the little touches can make a story come to life. The loose banister cap that Bailey keeps dislodging in his home. The drawing Donna has made of George’s offer to lasso the moon. The film is full of small moments of character, that create the over-whelming richness of a whole life. It’s also a story full of charm and genuine feeling for its characters, that understands the pain little griefs and small tragedies have.

Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons for the love people have for it. Because, let’s not forget, this is a film set on the darkest day of its lead character’s life, when he considers ending it all. One of the things I find the most touching about the film is that it never stigmatises depression, guilt or feelings of inadequacy. If someone as universally loved as George can look at his own life as a disappointment, and that this feeling is treated as both reasonable but also mistaken in the best way, it reassures as all not only that we shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling this but hopefully that we are as mistaken as George is. Failure is all in the perception – and It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that perception is often unreliable when we turn it on ourselves.

Capra’s film relies strongly on our bond with George – so the casting of James Stewart in the role plays off perfectly. Stewart is quite simply superb, completely human and deeply moving. Capra provides Stewart with several striking set-piece speeches (all of which he delivers with aplomb). The entire film is essentially a riff on Stewart’s charm and likeability – but also his everyday quality, the sense that when we watch him we are looking at someone like us. Stewart makes Bailey honest, decent and kind. You can immediately see why people like him. His principles and sense of justice drive him every day to do the right thing – and what makes him such a deeply relatable character is that this so often flies in the face of his own desires and interests.

What Capra also understands – and taps into so well here – is the darkness in Stewart. Because someone so like us is surely as likely to suffer from  depression and disappointment as the rest of us. You can never forget this is a man who has dreamed his whole life of leaving this town, of making it as an architect, of forging a broader life for himself. He never wanted to be the pillar of the community and family man he becomes. There is disappointment in Bailey at every turn, however much he treats the world around him with warmth. This isn’t what he wanted. No matter if it has won him love and respect from all around him.

And who hasn’t ever felt that? But we know that deep down – even if he doesn’t always realise it – Bailey is happy with his lot. That if he didn’t care deeply about town, friends and family he would have left years ago. We know he’s a good man: that later he will deeply regret berating his poor befuddled Uncle Billy (a gloriously cuddly Thomas Mitchell) for losing $8k and losing his temper at his wife and children on Christmas Eve. There is a pain for us to see such a good man, a loving man, who we feel we understand, angrily ask his wife why they had so many children. Everyone has lashed out like George – and everyone has, at some time, looked at where their life is and felt “I could have been more than this”. Far fewer people have taken the time to look at all the good alone in their lives and what a good mark they have made on the world.

But that’s the genius of the film. Taking its cue from Dicken’s Christmas Carol (I’d also say Lionel Barrymore’s brilliantly hissable Potter is clearly a version of Bleak House’s vile moneylender Smallweed), effectively Clarence is the Ghost of Christmas Present, showing George what the world would have been like without him. Sure some of this is overblown – Potterville for goodness sake! – but the impact is those personal stories. The brother drowned as a child. The pharmacist imprisoned for manslaughter. The affordable homes never built. The family that never even existed. The mix of science fiction and classic morality tale helps us all to reflect – so many of us have people all around who care for us, whose lives would have not been as rich as they are without us, however much we may disappoint ourselves at times.

That’s perhaps behind the love for the film. It’s about hope, while never closing its eyes to despair. It recognises that sometimes we are not happy – and it tells us that that’s okay, so long as we don’t lose hope. It encourages us to take a look at ourselves in the round and to appreciate the whole picture, not just a part of it. You can call that sentimentality if you want – but at Christmas time this message of hope and love is sometimes exactly what you need.

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.

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.