If there’s one thing this marathon taught me is that five films isn’t barely enough to get to know a director. Unlike the Cassavetes, where I had watched ten of his films before writing a post like this, here with John Ford I ended up seeing half as many films with even less than half of a thought about what I really feel on all this.
Prior to starting this marathon I had already seen The Searchers and Stagecoach — which were the two biggest glaring omissions from the scheduled marathon, for obvious reasons. So to add Fort Apache, The Grapes of Wrath, Judge Priest, How Green Was My Valley and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to the ‘I’ve Watched’ column on the Ford discussion feels like I’ve taken a less than ample sampling of a filmmaker who directed 144 films (according to IMDb). Or maybe I’m being too kind.
When I think about the films I’ve seen within this marathon I know that I liked each one in their own way, but I also have the distinct feeling that if I were to try and discuss the films a year from now there would be very little I’d remember. Ford‘s style in presenting characters over narrative is something I adore in a filmmaker, but somehow with the films I’ve seen I can’t quite say I actually liked any of his characters. Even in the latest film of the marathon The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, even the good guy — Stoddard — I almost want to say that I feel it was more James Stewart than any other character who I saw when I watched the film. This could also be me carrying in my own baggage and expectations about these kind of characters and actors in these films because I can’t deny I think the same thing about every Ford film that has John Wayne in it. I love Wayne, but every character is the same to me, why not call him Duke and be done with it.
Where Ford shines as a filmmaker is his visual abilities. Not mentioning The Searchers, his framing of films such as How Green Was My Valley, Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are great. Unlike many filmmakers today who constantly feel the need to show detail in specific things Ford was the master of the grand open shot that attempted to have you soak in an entire mural all at once.
As the oldest film discussed, Judge Priest stands out among the rest. Not only stylistically or size of scope envisioned, but also culturally. Ford constantly showed us entire communities and gave us a feel of how the interacted, but with this film it felt like a much smaller light hearted comedy than anything else. While I wholeheartedly enjoyed the protagonist and his quick witted manner, the film plays like just that, a smart fun film with nothing else to show.
The Grapes of Wrath and Fort Apache were, if I can call them this, the duds of the marathon. The more time I’ve had to distance myself from them are the less memorable they’ve been for me. Other than the opening scenes of Wrath and John Wayne’s introduction in Apache I can’t quite remember much. The films take simple tales and attempt to make them the visual feasts Ford has proven himself capable of, but something was missing from them. A soul I’d say. Wrath was about the suffering depression, but it didn’t feel right as it attempted to balance with all the wacky humour of the time, and Apache was about this outpost where these men are on the front lines, but it never felt dangerous as our protagonists just wade around not caring.
The highlights for me were The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How Green Was My Valley. I’d take one shot of a shadow in Valance and one of the workers coming home in Valley and adore those forever as opposed to ever admitting Ford directed anything else in his career. I don’t even want to figure out the rest about it all.
As always I’ll allow the filmmaker to have the final word here…
What do you think of John Ford’s films?