Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Look Back ... John Ford: War Movies

PDF: Westerns US History and the Cold War

A Note on John Ford

By no particular design, as I began sorting through the many West erns of the period, I found myself focusing on a disproportionate number of films directed by John Ford (one-quarter of all the films that I discuss in detail). In retrospect, this is not surprising. Ford fa- mously introduced himself at a 1950 Directors Guild meeting by saying, “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.” But until 1946, Ford had made relatively few Westerns and only one notable sound Western—Stagecoach, in 1939.

After 1946 he directed thirteen. Although none of these films had box-office grosses as high as Shane’s, and none won Ford an Academy Award for either best pic ture or best director (he won his last Oscar in 1952 for The Quiet Man and was never nominated for a Western), Ford was clearly the most prolific and significant director of Westerns during the 1950s. His films, although U.S. critics often disparaged or quibbled with them, even the ultimately canonical The Searchers, attracted sig nificant audiences and often great praise from (mostly French and British) critics.

Ford’s motivations for working extensively in a genre that was so often minimized were seemingly complex. To some degree, they were a matter of routine; to some degree, they were a matter of his engagement with the mythological universe defined by the genre.

Ford was apparently drawn to seize the opportunity that the genre afforded for social commentary that did not necessarily fall distinctly into categories of Left and Right. That is, Westerns allowed the politically complex director to explore ideas that more contemporary plots would have made politically controversial.

Indeed,Ford’s politics were an amalgam of populist socialism and conservatism: He belonged to the rightist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals but also maintained his loyalty to egalitarian social democracy. He gave money to the Eisenhower Campaigns but, in a 1967 interview, declared himself to be a liberal Democrat .

Although it is not my work here to make a case for Ford’s preeminence, I mention it as an aside. In my many hours of watching Westerns, I found his films not just compositionally distinctive but qualitatively so. Ford’s Westerns are visually compelling and thematically rich in ways that no other films in my study approach.

During the beginning of Ford’s career, the majority of his films were Westerns. Ford worked with many well-known cowboy stars such as Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson and John Wayne. Out of Ford’s 145 films, Wayne appears in 24 of them, including Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

So we've discussed that a part of the agenda was to create a no nonsense type quiet man to get the job done as a Cold Warrior. Who would have thought that the quintessential Western movie director was in the OSS and directing movies...-John Adams

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