“Ford and Hawks, the directors closest to the Griffith tradition, project different aspects of Griffith’s personality. Ford, the historical perspective and unified vision of the world, Hawks the psychological complexity and innate nobility of characterization” (Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema).
This “historical perspective” covers an incredibly broad spectrum of the American experience. Sarris again: “No American director has ranged so far across the landscape of the American past, the worlds of Lincoln, Lee, Twain, O’Neill, the three great wars, the Western and trans-Atlantic migration, the horseless Indians of the Mohawk Valley and the Sioux and Comanche cavalries of the West, the Irish and Spanish incursions, and the delicately balanced politics of polyglot cities and border states.” (Film Culture, No 25, Summer 1962).
In that landscape, evoked in all its immediacy, Ford reflects the uniqueness of the American experience; from the wilderness to the garden, moments of that experience crystallise out of the flow of time and are transfigured forever as a standing testament to their creator.
In his mature work (from The Searchers onwards) Ford has projected increasingly ambiguous attitudes towards a whole range of issues that are a continuing part of that experience (war, problems of assimilation, racial intolerance); and he has questioned the myths of his own creation (the achievements of the legendary western archetype; a contemplation of that figure’s position vis-à-vis the changing landscape). This has given his work a total richness, a spiritual density, denied all but the greatest artists.
Rio Grande (1950) is Ford’s last cavalry film cast wholly in the heroic mould; it celebrates its heroes through the ritual of fanfare and flag, bold and daring feats (e.g., the grand show of horsemanship by Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr and Claude Jarman Jr) and above all, the kinetic excitement of battle. The legendary, isolated figure of the career soldier receives its mythic incarnation in the craggy relief of John Wayne’s Kirby York. York’s loneliness – the loneliness of command, accentuated by his estrangement from his wife (Maureen O’Hara) and son (Claude Jarman Jr) is never allowed its personal tragic proportions, as this would override the values and ideals of the group-carving its order into the wilderness – at the centre of the film. Such values are realised in the sublime visual expression of ordered ritual patterns across the Monument Valley desertscape, and the heroic-epic elements attain further dimension in the inspired choral commentary of The Sons of the Pioneers. Rio Grande therefore summarizes the classical Western forms developed by Ford through the 1940s in Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
The Searchers both looks backwards to these forms and forwards to the terser, reflective forms of Ford’s 1960s work in which the old ideals are turned inward, and the myths are examined in a more personal’ intimate frame of reference. The Searchers is complex enough to demand a complete analysis, but it should be noted here that the Monument Valley landscape receives a stylised colour treatment which simultaneously captures the film’s epic sweep through a whole gamut of seasons and moods, and exteriorizes the personal conflicts of its tragic hero, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). As Peter Wollen pointed out, (Signs and Meaning in the Cinema), Ethan Edwards’ quest represents the destructive pole in the vision of the conquest of the wilderness. At the end of their trek in Wagonmaster, the group of Mormon settlers surmount their final physical and moral obstacles, and enter The Promised Land. For Ethan Edwards, the end is not salvation but destruction; in carrying out his personal revenge on the Indian chief, Scar, he forfeits the New Jerusalem and is condemned to wander through the wilderness all his days. Peter Wollen sums up his tragic destiny thus: Ethan Edwards…remains a nomad throughout the film. At the start, he rides in from the desert to enter the log house. At the end, with perfect visual symmetry, he leaves a house again to return to the desert, to vagrancy. In many respects, he is similar to Scar: he is a wanderer, outside the law: he scalps his enemy. But like the homesteaders, of course, he is European, the mortal foe of the Indian. Thus, Edwards is ambiguous…The opposition tears Edwards in two: he is a tragic hero.” (Signs and Meaning in the Cinema). The heroic gesture that marks the end of the search, as Wayne sweeps up Natalie Wood with the gentle but broken “Let’s go home, Debbie”, is indicative in its irony of an increasingly bitter view of the old code.
The Horse Soldiers, on the surface, has the physical force and drive of an epic in the old Ford tradition. Dealing with a known Civil War incident involving a Union sortie behind Confederate lines, he has John Wayne as a Union Colonel who lives by the old chivalric code-obliged to do as he has to do, with no questions asked. The film opens with a line of horse soldiers moving across the skyline-a traditional ritual which appears to determine the tone and overall visual style of the film. But additional elements create a highly ambiguous attitude towards the nature of war and the old notions of duty and honour, where there was an implicit understanding between officer and men in the carrying out of that duty. William Holden’s bitter, insubordinate Major Kendall is something outside of the old concept of the soldier, but Ford never allows the balance of sympathies to move radically away from the direction of Wayne and Holden. Indeed, Holden’s appreciation of the suffering and carnage is somewhat reflected in Wayne’s sober defences. In the raid on Newton Station, Wayne follows orders but at one moment is seen to turn away in disgust from the sickening ordeal. There is a point, too, where Wayne comforts a dying soldier, which has the physical urgency and horror of a similar sequence in Samuel Fuller’s powerful war film Merrill’s Marauders where a dying soldier asks Merrill (played by Jeff Chandler) – “Did Lemchek get through?” and the soldier is Lemchek. There is a fine line between heroism and physical suffering in The Horse Soldiers. Wayne and Holden grow to some understanding of each other’s attitudes and points of view: this is indicative of the generally expansive notion of warfare in which Ford can accommodate both attitudes, the idealized and realistic notions of a soldier’s duty, an ambiguity as finely drawn as the tone that can absorb humour, horror and distorted ritual into the scene in which children march out of the Jefferson Military Academy against the Union soldiers.
The old notions of a soldier’s duty and responsibility receive an even more highly refined consideration in Sergeant Rutledge, treated as it is against a background of racialism in a melancholy evocation of the Monument Valley tableau, where the old myths were born and perpetrated. Even the Fordian humour emerges as disturbingly grotesque in the context of the negro soldier’s trial. This film paves the way for further critical enquiry into the values of the old army code in Two Rode Together.
While The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers retain a great deal of the epic sweep of the Cavalry Trilogy, Two Rode Together isolates its issues into a confined area of conflict; its terse, low-key lighting creates something of a bitter mood that characterises 1960s Ford, which culminates in the growing circles of darkness that surround a group of missionaries in Seven Women. The traditional heroic figures in Ford’s films had always subjugated their personal duties through a driving commitment to group ideals, a group code; this is one face of the American spirit that pushed outwards into new frontiers (as in Wagonmaster) and tamed those frontiers (Rio Grande). Two Rode Together, by contrast, presents the viewer with Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart), a cynical and pragmatic opportunist to the core, His values have nothing in common with the traditional Ford hero. In The Searchers, John Wayne twists the old concepts of duty and responsibility into a personal obsession, but it is something that lies outside of his control. The Stewart character in Two Rode Together makes no pretence about where his values lie: he has no commitment to duty, the common good or whatever else comes his way without his ten percent cut. Ford was at a low ebb when he made Two Rode Together. His close friend and drinking buddy Ward Bond had died suddenly at the age of 57. It has been said that his behaviour on the set reflected his genuine grief and he characteristically kept Stewart shivering in icy waters while he plonked his camera for a single take.
Stewart’s character poses a number of personal ambiguities and contradictions that reflect Ford’s own personal ambiguities – he assumes the role of a shrewd, business-like charlatan in his dealings with Henry J Wringle (Willis Bouchey) but he is the only character to present an honest assessment of the problems of assimilation when he brutally shatters Shirley Jones’ hopes for her captive brother. Widmark’s reaction to this honesty operates within the limitations of the chivalric code He excuses McCabe (Stewart) by comforting Shirley Jones with “It’s the whisky talking”. But Ford makes us see, feel and appreciate with all our senses, the validity of Stewart’s assessment in the violent consequences arising out of a simplified view of assimilation problems. It is Stewart, too, who somewhat arbitrarily accepts his saviour role (on his own terms), and then carries it through to a complete and constructive conclusion. Widmark turns back when he has fulfilled his personal notions of duty; Stewart pursues the line of deeper involvement, and in the extraordinary sequence in which he shoots Stone Calf (Woody Strode) witnesses a real-life demonstration of what he has stated to Shirley Jones. As if by reflex action, Stone Calf’s widow (Linda Cristall, one of the captives, performs a little ritual over Stone Calf’s body, an action that registers the deep, deep roots of a perennial problem…
Guthrie McCabe’s cynical façade betrays his, and Ford’s deeper affinities with the old codes of conduct. His final affirmative gesture to Linda Cristal, has taken the course of the whole film to be revealed openly. But McCabe, like Ford, is apt to question the old values in a changing frontier.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, could well be, as Bogdanovich stated, Ford’s final statement on the Western. Doniphon (John Wayne), the epitome of the Old West, dies without his boots on, without his gun, and receives a pauper’s funeral, but the man of the New West, the man of books, has ridden to success on the achievements of the first who was discarded and forgotten. It is perhaps the most mournful, tragic film Ford ever made. There is nothing wrong with the New West, it was inevitable. Yet as they ride back East, Stoddard (James Stewart) and Hallie (Vera Miles) look out of their train window at the passing Western landscape and Hallie comments on how untamed it used to be, and how it has changed almost into a garden. But one feels that Ford’s love, like Hallie’s, remains with the wildness of the cactus rose.
Liberty Valance, like Two Rode Together, presents a bleak, low-key contemplation of the old myths. One feels Doniphon’s bitter frustration, when, as Liberty Valance crumples into the dust Doniphan’s world crumples with it. Ford makes us live, breathe and partake of Doniphon’s angry awareness that he has crumpled with it. Ford makes us live, breathe and partake of Doniphon’s angry awareness that he has forfeited his life with Hallie, in the ritual burning of his log cabin. As Bogdanovich points out, it takes little perception to realize that Ford’s heart resides in the wild cactus rose, remnant of the old west…
There is no simple-minded nostalgia or wallowing in operation here. Ransom Stoddard is only one of a range of characters (others include Guthrie McCabe in Two Rode Together, Dr. Cartwright in Seven Women) who lie outside of the traditional Ford Vision, and who are treated sympathetically. Often, as in Seven Women, it is the traditional Fordian figures (e.g., Sue Lyon) who appear most out of place as the old-world retreats, and the old Ford characters are situated in more and more isolated positions. Seven Women represents the extreme pole of Ford’s tough-minded examination of his own values, and his honesty determines the film’s mood of utter despair.
Anne Bancroft’s weary cynicism recalls James Stewart’s in Two Rode Together and both characters share a pragmatic tough-mindedness in hostile situations where more idealized values are rendered ineffectual. Both the internal threat of plague, and the external threat of the Mongols are finally exorcised from the missionaries’ midst through Anne Bancroft’s quick and efficient course of action. Ford reflects on his Christian values by pushing the group of missionaries to the extremes of isolation and vulnerability. The Mission walls, and the grip of progressive darkness and fear closes around the group. Only Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) retains control of the situation – Dr. Cartwright, an atheist, pouring contempt on the missionary women, projecting moral anarchy. But it is her very worldliness that equips her to survive the situation far more effectively than the godliness of the others. And it is she who ultimately makes the affirmative gesture akin to Christian self-sacrifice and forfeits, according to traditional Christian beliefs, her right to Eternal Life. The missionaries, on the other hand, are driven through a manifestation of their worldly neuroses into increasingly negative gestures.
Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Seven Women, along with Cheyenne Autumn, constitute the intimate and increasingly melancholy reflections of Ford on his life and work in films. They are filled, like Ford himself, with a dense moral ambiguity that make them one of the richest body of works. if not the richest, of his towering career.