Sunday, November 26, 2006

John Ford

I was reading some of David Thomson's older essays tonight and came across his piece on John Ford, the one that got Thomson in so much trouble with so many students of film.

What he basically said was that the only really good film Ford ever did was The Searchers and that the rest of them--paerticularly those he's celebrated for--are mawkish, formulaic, ham-handed melodramas set in a west that never existed. He does allow that at least a few of the later films such as Cheyenne Autumn do try to get away from his claptrap about the Army in the west. Read a military journal sometime if you want to see how full of beans Ford was.

God, I'm glad Thomson wrote that. I've always felt the same way about Ford. I agree especially with what Thomspon said about My Darling Clementine. What a piece of bullshit, a drunken Mick's mauldin tribute to a "code" that is laughable. Give me Deadwood any day.

As Thomson suggests, look at the directors who worked at giving us a more realistic portrair of the west--Anthony Mann certainly and later Sam Peckinpah. Gunsmoke at its best was far truer to the reality of the frontier than Ford ever was.

This is beginning to sound personal. And cranky. I apologize for the tone. -Ford was an important director in the development of a certain type of stagey and paper-thin melodrama. He was both popular and influential. I'm not taking anything away from his success. But even as a kid I thought all the John Wayne stuff was a crock. I knew a lot of tough guys growing up and not a one of them remotely resembled Duke because Duke was another of Ford's fantasies. I had relatives die in WW11, Korea and Nam and never saw a soldier yet who spoke the Duke comic-book crapola about the glories of war and the wonders of machismo.

Ford and an array of other directors spent decades turning a serious part of American history into racist lies for the masses. And I don't mean this in any PC way. Dances With Wolves was just as much a left-wing distortion of Native American history as Ford's was a right-wing distortion.

I'm just glad Thomson had the nerve to speak up.
Aren't you sorry you asked?


Jim Winter said...

The problem is, and I discount DEADWOOD from this because Milch's fantasies are more truthful than some people's "facts," is that most directors have an ax to grind.

And they insist on using the audience as an unwitting whetstone.

My guess is even a sanitized DEADWOOD would have frightened off a lot of people in the Western's heyday.

Of course, Peckinpah had an ax to grind, too. But his ax was, "Hey, this wasn't as glamorous as you were told it was."

Worked, didn't it?

Ed Gorman said...

Good points, Jim. One of the few western novelists who got a good deal of it right at length was Luke Short. In most of his books it was politics=greed that one way or the other drove most of the storylines. This idea that gunnies ruled the west is nuts. John D. Rockefeller and his minions hired cops and other assorted thugs to kill strikers. Many women died. There was a move in congress to charge him with murder. He outsmarted them. He hired away a famous New York newspaperman to change his image. The man sent Rockefeller west where he gave the widows and fatherless children a few bucks and had himself filmed (silent of course) singing hymns with them. This was the true birth of public relations. And it happened on what was still the frontier west. I'm surprised Milch didn't do any episode along these lines. Maybe he created fantasies of his own as you suggest but the were damned persuasive ones.

Anonymous said...

I love many of John Ford's films. Most especially, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which is a story of courage and grace. John Wayne plays a retiring officer with a gentleness that is memorable. The romanticized West was a marvelous place to be, long ago.

Richard Wheeler

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Mr. Wheeler took the words out of my mouth. I don't think that Ford had any intention of creating history. He wanted to present images of heroism, pathos, and the strictures of duty.

I. Michael Koontz said...

Some Ford films suffer from all that heroic icon crap, but others are more mature in their portrayals (LIBERTY VALANCE, GRAPES OF WRATH, FORT APACHE) and, subsquently, less irritating.

But even I can't stand THE QUIET MAN; too much cutie-pie-Irish frosting--typifies the annoying brand of Ford for me than any other of his films.

I just don't know that we're SUPPOSED to take a lot of his films so seriously; especially those with Wayne as the central heroic character.

And couldn't many of the criticisms about Ford also be said about Spielberg? Seems like he, too, sometimes takes the 'easy way out' in a tale.