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Category Archives: John Ford

3 Godfathers

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There haven’t been too many westerns that are set around Christmas, in fact I’m struggling to think of any others apart from 3 Godfathers (1948) and the earlier versions of the same story. While it starts out as a fairly standard western it soon turns into a play on the nativity story and the journey of the three wise men. It’s one of John Ford’s more sentimental pieces and the symbolism is laid on a little thick at times, but the cast and visuals carry it through the sticky patches. I’ll grant that the whole thing can seem a bit contrived yet the story, and its message of redemption and the good that lurks within all of us, remains affecting.

The movie opens in fairly conventional fashion, with the three main protagonists Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro (Pedro Amendariz) and The Abilene Kid (Harry Carey Jr) surveying a town they’re about to enter and rob. Before they can get down to business, however, they get chatting to a local resident (Ward Bond) who turns out to be the local lawman. Thus far much of the action is played for laughs, and broad Fordian laughs at that, and the light heartedness even extends to the raid on the bank. The first really serious note is struck when The Abilene Kid takes a bullet to the shoulder as they attempt their getaway. As the three men race out into the desert with the law hot on their heels, one shot finds its target and punctures the vitally important water bag. Safe in the knowledge that no one is going to travel far in the parched wilderness with only a limited supply of water the lawman eases back and sets about laying a trap. That singe shot has essentially sealed the fate of the three outlaws, as they discover that the law (with the help of the railroad) is one jump ahead of them and bent on keeping them away from any source of water. In an effort to outsmart the authorities, the men double back but in so doing stumble upon a situation that will bring about profound changes within them all. They come across an abandoned wagon containing a pregnant woman who’s about to give birth. Their most basic human instincts are aroused by this pitiful scene and, after seeing that the baby is delivered, find themselves giving their oath to the now dying mother to protect her infant son. From this point on a gradual transformation takes place wherein each man suppresses his own selfish needs in order to ensure the fulfillment of their promise. As they trudge across the gruelling desert, shedding their possessions along the way, they come to view the protection of their new godson as the only purpose in their lives. As such, their trek turns into a kind of pilgrimage to cleanse themselves of the evil that had motivated them until that time. As I said the symbolism can be a little heavy handed (following a star to the town of New Jerusalem etc.) but the hardship of the journey and the fact that these hardened criminals are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of an innocent and a promise prevents the film from becoming a parody.

Three wise men? - Harry Carey Jr, Pedro Armendariz & John Wayne in 3 Godfathers

John Ford opened the film with an onscreen tribute to his departed friend Harry Carey Sr and then took the further step of casting the latter’s son in the pivotal role of The Abilene Kid, the conscience of the three bad men. However, that’s about as far as the old man’s sentimentality went for it’s well documented that he drove his cast mercilessly in the searing heat of Death Valley. Despite, or maybe because, of this the performances of the three leads are first rate. Carey in particular is touching as the callow youth who’s simultaneously running from and striving to retain some of his boyish innocence. The way he calmly accepts his fate before such thoughts enter his companions’ heads is a fine piece of acting. In fact, Ford granted the young man some of the best scenes in the movie: singing over the grave of the baby’s mother and then his own death scene. Both Armendariz and Wayne were handed more straightforward roles as the older and more experienced men and they don’t disappoint either. The part of Robert Hightower has none of the complexity of Wayne’s more famous and prestigious performances yet he does all the script and director ask of him, and carries the picture alone for a significant time. The bulk of the action takes place outdoors on location in Death Valley and Ford creates some beautiful and bleak images – the dust storm (with all its attendant symbolism) being a particular highlight. The support cast is filled up with all the familiar faces from the “Stock Company”, Ward Bond and Mae Marsh getting the lion’s share of the screen time.

3 Godfathers is widely available on DVD from Warner. I have the R2 disc, but I’ve heard that the US version is the same, and the transfer is a good one. Print damage is minimal and the colour is strong, the outdoor scenes faring best to my eyes. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer, and a variety of subtitle options. While this is not one of Ford’s very best, it remains a top film by anyone’s standards. In a way, it’s what you might call a typical Ford movie in that it contains most of his trademark visual and thematic motifs. All in all, it’s a satisfying and uplifting production that works well both as a seasonal film and as a traditional western.

Finally, as this will be my last post before the holidays I want to take the time to wish all those who have followed, commented or just stopped by a very happy and peaceful Christmas. Be seeing you again in the New Year.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1940s, John Ford, John Wayne, Westerns

 

Two Rode Together

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“The worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years.” Those were John Ford’s own words when assessing Two Rode Together (1961). Even now, critics never seem to have anything very positive to say about this film. Ford’s work in the 60s was certainly patchy, even more so when it’s held up for comparison against his earlier movies. I’m not sure this is as much of a dog as its reputation suggests; it’s a weak John Ford film for sure, but even a lesser work from the great man always had some points to recommend it.

Two Rode Together is frequently referred to as a rehash of themes explored in The Searchers, and that’s one of the problems identified right away. Where the earlier classic had depth, gravity and passion this film feels superficial and, at times, cartoonish. However, I’m not convinced the two movies ought to be compared too closely. For one thing, The Searchers focused on the quest and those involved in it, whereas Two Rode Together is really about the consequences of rehabilitation for the rescued captives. Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is a marshal in the town of Tascosa, an enviable position in that it entitles him to a 10% cut of everything in the place. His idyllic lifestyle is interrupted, however, when Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) and his troops arrive to escort the dissipated lawman back to the fort. The army intend to press the reluctant McCabe into acting as a scout/intermediary in order to make contact with the Comanche Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon) and trade for the release of white captives. McCabe is nothing if not a coldly realistic man, and he knows full well that what the army is asking is basically a fool’s errand. Although his cynicism is viewed with contempt by the soldiers, subsequent events will prove that it’s his assessment that’s more grounded in reality. Lt. Gary is sent along to keep a watchful eye on McCabe (he’s regarded as an amoral mercenary at best), and in so doing has his eyes opened and his preconceptions challenged. When it becomes apparent that the surviving captives have been so deeply integrated into Comanche life as to be unrecognisable the decision is taken to return with only two captives: a teenager, Running Wolf, and a Mexican woman, Elena (Linda Cristal). Instead of being greeted as heroes and saviours, both McCabe and Gary find themselves viewed as being partly responsible for the tragedy that ensues. The fear, hatred and suspicion of the Comanche are so deeply ingrained in the whites that there can be no happy homecoming for anyone, and McCabe’s cynicism and skeptcism that were initially painted as repugnant are now seen to be vindicated.

Getting down to business - Richard Widmark & James Stewart.

John Ford’s penchant for broad, knockabout comedy is very much an acquired taste, and you’re either ok with it or you’re not. I mention this because Two Rode Together is liberally laced with instances of trademark Fordian humour. A good deal of this is centered around Andy Devine’s grossly overweight Sgt. Posey and it’s of the hit and miss variety. What’s altogether more successful is the gentle jibing that takes place between Widmark and Stewart as it helps to flesh out and humanise their characters. Ford’s direction is unaccountably flat in general, and really only strikes home in the scenes that focus on the desperation and emotional pain of the homesteaders who yearn for news of their loved ones. Even the landscapes look dull and uninspiring, which is atypical for a Ford film. Of course, news came through during shooting of the passing of the director’s old crony and frequent collaborator Ward Bond, and that may go some way to explaining the slightly detached feeling that permeates the whole picture. If it weren’t for the performances of Widmark and Stewart then this movie would be a real tough slog. Their scenes together constitute the core of the film and help keep it afloat. Widmark is good enough but I didn’t get the impression that he was operating at full throttle, whereas Jimmy Stewart throws himself into the part completely. By this time Stewart had mastered the art of icy indignation and half-suppressed emotion, and it serves him well in the later scenes where he confronts the ugly face of naked racism back at the fort. Of the female characters Shirley Jones received third billing but her part is an undeveloped one and seems to peter out just when it should have taken centre stage. Linda Cristal fares much better as the former captive who’s deeply unsure of her place in society; her discomfort is nearly tangible when she’s paraded in front of the army wives, and she visibly wilts before their prying eyes.

Two Rode Together remains absent on DVD in the US but it’s widely available in R2. Sony’s UK disc offers an anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s goodish without being in any way exceptional. It could use a bit of a clean up but there aren’t any serious flaws. Both colours and sharpness are reasonable enough but, like the movie itself, don’t exactly pop off the screen. There are absolutely no extras at all but this title can be picked up very cheaply, so one shouldn’t complain too much. Well, this is a long way from classic Ford but the playing of the two leads does raise it above the mundane and lends some class. The truth is it’s not a bad little western – it’s just not a great John Ford western.

 
 

Cheyenne Autumn

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John Ford made Cheyenne Autumn in 1964 and with it he bade farewell to the western, the genre with which he was and is most frequently associated. By his own admission, Ford wanted this to be his attempt at setting the record straight with regard to the injustices visited upon the American Indians. Taken as such, it is fairly successful in depicting a people hounded almost to the point of extinction, without indulging in the politically correct schmaltz that more recent Indian centered epics have fallen prey to. Yet it is not a perfect film and does have its faults, not the least of which are the uneven tone and, to a lesser extent, some of the casting decisions.

The story concerns the Cheyenne who, having been moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, were dying a slow death as a result of disease, starvation and neglect. When a promised meeting with a Congressional committee fails to materialise, they take the bold and, in their minds the only viable, decision to strike out on a march back to their tribal homeland in Montana, 1500 miles to the north. Their journey is seen from the perspective of both the Cheyenne chiefs (Gilbert Roland & Ricardo Montalban) and the soldiers (under the command of Richard Widmark) charged with running them to ground. While the film’s sympathy lies with the hunted, the main focus is on the the various soldiers and civilians who pursue or encounter them. This is both a strength and a weakness of the film; a weakness because the characters of the Cheyenne are never explored in any great depth. The strength comes from the way the white characters are represented as holding a whole variety of, often conflicting, views on the fugitives.

The roles of the principal Cheyenne characters are filled by Mexicans (Montalban, Roland & Dolores Del Rio) and an Italian (Sal Mineo). In truth, this doesn’t work out too badly (I’ve never felt that a part can/should only be played by an actor of the same ethnic origin as the character – it’s called ‘acting’ fer chrissakes!) although Sal Mineo is far too much of a wuss to be taken seriously as a fiery Cheyenne warrior. Richard Widmark is good, as always, as the reluctant cavalryman who knows he has a job to do but also knows he doesn’t have to enjoy it. Pat Wayne is quite wooden as a young Lieutenant who experiences a “road to Damascus” type conversion, going from rabid bloodlust to outraged empathy over the course of the story. Karl Malden is a caricature of a Prussian officer whose blind devotion to duty and orders ultimately leads to tragedy. There are also small roles for George O’Brien (a ‘the-only-good-Indian-is-a-dead-Indian’ Major) and Sean McClory (a professional Irishman). Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jnr appear as cavalrymen and get to show off some mighty impressive horse-riding skills – and there’s a nice running joke where Widmark can never remember that Carey is playing a character called Smith, referring to him variously as Jones, Murphy etc.

Figures in a landscape - a typical Ford shot.

Now a word about the Wyatt Earp scene in the movie. To be blunt, I hated it when I first saw it and I still hate it. The whole thing feels wrong, like it was grafted in from another picture. It’s the kind of sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘Carry On’ film – that bad! We get twenty minutes of Earp (James Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy) playing poker in Dodge City and having their game interrupted by the news of the Cheyenne being sighted nearby. There follows a Wacky Races type chase through the desert, culminating in a saloon girl losing her dress and winding up with her legs around Stewarts neck. Laugh, I thought I’d never start. In his biography of Ford, Joe McBride claims that the director used this sequence as a means of highlighting (through satire) the casual racism of the civilian population, but I don’t buy it. That bigotry had already been shown when a trail hand (Ken Curtis) callously murdered and scalped an Indian begging for food. In fact, the power of the aforementioned scene is effectively ruined by the subsequent clowning of Curtis in Dodge. I can’t think what came over Pappy but this part of the movie definitely didn’t need to be shot.

Warners put Cheyenne Autumn out on DVD as part of their ‘John Ford Film Collection’. As far as I know it is still only available as part of that set. The transfer is probably the best of all the films in the collection. It’s anamorphic scope with no damage of any consequence and strong true colors. The disc carries a commentary from Joe McBride and a featurette on the film and the historical events that inspired it. Maybe it’s not Ford’s best film but it works well enough for the most part, offering a different perspective from Pappy yet retaining his trademark visual and narrative touches.

 
 

My Darling Clementine

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John Ford always maintained that his version of the events at the OK Corral was based on conversations that the director had had with Wyatt Earp himself. While Ford probably did know Earp (the old lawman reputedly spent a lot of time on and around the early Hollywood sets in his later years) and likely talked with him about what happened in Tombstone, the story played out in My Darling Clementine (1946) is most assuredly not the truth. Despite Ford’s grandiose claims of authenticity, his film is really a remake of Dwan’s Frontier Marshal. Both movies were based on the Stuart N. Lake book, and both are highly romanticised accounts. The difference is that, where Dwan’s film is a workmanlike effort, Ford’s take has all those little artistic touches that move it onto another level. Of course Ford was known for spinning the most outrageous yarns when it suited him, but the huge historical errors don’t change the fact that his film is still the best version by far of the famous story.

The Earp brothers actually feature in this film unlike the earlier version from Dwan. Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James (Don Garner) stop off outside of Tombstone while on a cattle drive. On the recommendation of Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) they take a trip into town, leaving little brother James to stand watch over the herd. On their return the three older brothers find their cattle have been rustled and James killed. Suspecting the Clantons of perpetrating the crime, Wyatt accepts the position of town marshal. What follows is a picture of the emergence of civilisation (most notably represented by the founding of the town’s first church), and the effects it has on the characters.

Wyatt is transformed from a dusty, unshaven trail hand into the coiffed and suit-wearing face of the law and civic respectability. The scene where Wyatt primly escorts Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) along the main street of Tombstone towards the new church, with the strains of ‘Shall we gather at the river’ playing in the background, is deservedly famous and remains one of the most touching and romantic sequences ever put on film. This contrasts sharply with the Clantons, who are shown as a bunch of barely human barbarians. A marvellously sadistic moment takes place when Old Man Clanton savagely horse whips his sons before berating them : “When you pull a gun, kill a man.” The bridge between the two extremes is provided by Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) – a man with a cultured background (at one point quoting from Hamlet to help out a drunken actor) who is consumed with self loathing at the knowledge of what he has become. 

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) calling the shots at the OK Corral.  

Henry Fonda plays Wyatt with nobility and that quiet dignity that he seemed to bring to all his roles. The self-conscious diffidence he shows fits perfectly for a man who has been more accustomed to living rough in the wilds. It’s no bad thing either that Fonda always seemed comfortable in a western setting, able to mount and sit a horse naturally. I wish I could say the same thing for Victor Mature but, however hard I try, I just cannot accept him in western roles. I’ve seen Mature in many other genre films and thought him fine, but when it comes to westerns – no thanks. I know this is just a personal prejudice but, for me, his casting doesn’t work at all. Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton makes for a wonderful villain, a figure of pure evil who has moulded his sons in his own image – especially the leering Billy (John Ireland) and the slow-witted, and vaguely psychotic, Ike (Grant Withers). Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua is something of a caricature of the typical Mexican spitfire, but she does elicit a lot of sympathy as a woman passionately in love with a man who repeatedly spurns her.

Since the bulk of the story takes place in and around Tombstone, Ford makes less use of Monument Valley than he would in other pictures. However, there are a few scenes that feature his favorite location and they look magnificent as always. Much attention is paid to the town, to all the little rituals of frontier life, and the variety of characters who inhabit it. The celebration of community is pure Ford and you get the feeling he enjoyed recreating this much more than he did the action scenes. Having said that, the inevitable shootout at the OK Corral, though wildly inaccurate, is both stylish and excitingly executed.

My Darling Clementine has been available for some time now on DVD from Fox, but has recently been reissued with the addition of Frontier Marshal as an extra. The transfer is exactly the same on the new disc, but that’s not a criticism since there wasn’t much that needed improvement anyway. You get to choose between the final release version of the film and the pre-release cut, and I’m not really sure which I prefer. I feel the edited version is tighter but I also think Ford’s original cut of the farewell scene between Wyatt and Clementine is better. I suppose we should be grateful that we have both versions to compare. Either way, this is a special film and one that does reward repeated viewings. 

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2008 in 1940s, Henry Fonda, John Ford, Victor Mature, Westerns

 
 
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