Monday, September 17, 2012

History of Film Criticism : Andrew Sarris on John Ford

‘History of Film Criticism’ is a new series that I will be starting to highlight important and/or influential film criticism essays. These pieces will be pulled from books and/or magazines, accessible or not, but which I think deserve more attention. They stand out due to their eloquent prose, critical position, and historical context.
For the first post in this series, which I would like to dedicate to the late Andrew Sarris, is his piece on John Ford – one of the fourteen Pantheon Directors – from The American Cinema – Directors and Directions: 1929 – 1968.
This is the first out of three blog-posts that I’m planning to post about John Ford. – D.D.
John Ford (1895-1973)
If John Ford had died or retired at the end of 1929, he would have deserved at most a footnote in film history. The Iron Hourse and Four Sons attractyed some attention in their time, and seem to be the only Ford silents in the American museum repertory. The Iron Horse  is clearly influenced by Griffith, and Four Sons by Murnau. Neither work is a revelation in itself, though there are privileged moments in these films that belong to Ford alone. Above all, there is a nostalgia for lost innocence on the family level of history.  Ford’s technical competence has been established even at this early stage in his career, but up to 1929 he cannot be considered one of the major artists of the medium. His personal vision has not been developed to the level of a Lubitsch or a Lang at this stage of film history.
            If Ford hard died or retired at the end of 1939, he would have deserved at least a paragraph for The Informer and Stagecoach, the former allegedly the first creative American sound film, and the latter representing the renaissance of the Western. He would now be a faded, dated establishing figure like Marcel Carné, a vulnerable target for all the New Critics after Bazin. Dated also would be the calculated expressionism and maudlin sentimentality of The Informer.  Ford’s style stil lingered in the shadow of Murnau’s in 1935, but no one had seemed to notice Steamboat ‘Round the Bend and The Whole Town’s Talking that same year. Ford has never been sufficiently appreciated for the verve and snap of his visual storytelling. Critics of the thirties always joked about the fact that the Hollywood system compelled Ford to make three Wee Willie Winkies for every Informer. The joke, then as now, was on the critics. Despite the monstrous mythology of Shirley Temple, Wee Willie Winkie contains extraordinary camera prose passages from the wide-eyed point of view of a child. What the critical establishment of the thirties admired in Ford was his ability to avoid so-called woman’s pictures despite studio pressures. Nor was Ford too much interested in the fancier forms of sexual intrigue. Being Irish and Catholic and action-oriented to boot, he tended to gravitate to public places where men spoke their minds openly. The Left has always been puritanical, but never more so than in the thirties when Hollywood’s boy-girl theology threatened to paralyze the class struggle. In such an epoch, even an Irish-Catholic conservative like Ford could be mistaken for a progressive force.
Ford’s critical reputation reached its peak and then began its decline during the forties. The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home and How Green Was My Valley firmly established Ford as the Hollywood director despite the extraordinary challenges of Orson Welles and Preston Sturges. The New Dealish propaganda of The Grapes of Wrath has dated badly, as has John Steinbeck’s reputation. Ford’s personal style was particularly inimical to Steinbeck’s biological conception of his characters. Where Steinbeck depicted oppression by dehumanizing his characters into creatures of abject necessity, Ford evoked nostalgia by humanizing Steinbeck’s economic insects into heoic champions of an agrarian order of family and community. By the time of How Green Was My Valley, Ford mastered his narrative style to the point that he could embroider it with those pauses and contemplations that expressed his feelings. Even in Tobacco Road, Charlie Grapewin’s Jeeter Lester was transformed from a greedy barnyard animal to a seedy but serious mainstay of tradition. Ford had more in common with Welles than anyone realized at the time. Ford was forty-six when he made How Green Was My Valley, and Welles was only twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane, but both films are the works of old men, the beginnings of a cinema of memory.
            Ford’s The Battle of Midway is ostensibly a documentary, but it is as personal a statement as any of his fiction films. He focuses her on the ordinary scale by which the most gallant heroes are measured. It is not the battle itself that intrigues Ford, but the weary faces of rescued fliers plucked out of the Pacific after days of privation. World War II was the last war to be endorsed by the intellectual establishment as a valid artistic subject. Ford proceeded into the fifties to photograph the Korean war, an act symptomatic of his downfall with the taste-makers.
            Only the Lindsay Anderson-Gavin Lambert generation of Sequence and Sight and Sound kept Ford’s reputation alive in the period beginning with They Were Expendable in 1945 and ending with The Sun Shines Bright in 1954.The British critics could appreciate Ford for the flowering of his personal style at a time when the rest of the world (this critic included) were overrating Carol Reed and David Lean for the efficient, impersonal technicians that they were. Finally, the New Critics in London and Paris rediscovered Ford after he had been abandoned even by the Sequence-Sight and Sound generation. The last champions of John Ford have now gathered around Seven Women as a beacon of personal cinema.
            The late André Bazin damaged Ford’s reputation with New Critics by describing Ford’s technique as a hangover from the scenario-dominated thirties. Bazin overrated the use of deep focus in The Little Foxes as the antithesis to Ford’s “invisible editing” in Stagecoach. What Ford had been evolving all through his career was a style flexible enough to establish priorities of expression. He could dispose of a plot quickly and efficiently when he had to, but he could always spare a shot or two for a mood that belonged to him and not to the plot. A Ford film, particularly a late Ford film, is more than its story and characterizations; it is also the director’s attitude toward his milieu and its codes of conduct. There is a fantastic sequence in The Searchers involving a brash frontier character played by Ward Bond. Bond is drinking some coffee in a standing-up position before going out to hunt some Comanches. He glances toward one of the bedrooms, and notices the woman of the house tenderly caressing the Army uniform of her husband’s brother. Ford cuts back to a full-faced shot of Bond drinking his coffee, his eyes tactfully averted from the intimate scene he has witnessed. Nothing on earth would ever force this man to reveal what he had seen. There is a deep, subtle chivalry at work here, and in most of Ford’s films, but it is never obtrusive enough to interfere with the flow of the narrative. The delicacy of emotion expressed here in three quick shots, perfectly cut, framed, and distanced, would completely escape the dulled perception of our more literary-minded film critics even if they deigned to consider a despised genre like the Western. The economy of expression that Ford has achieved in fifty year of film-making constitutes the beauty of his style. If it had taken him any longer than three shots and a few seconds to establish this insight into the Bond character, the point would not be worth making.  Ford would be false to the manners of a time and a place bounded by the rigorous necessity of survival.
            Ford’s major works can be traced in a rising parabola from Steamboat ‘Round the Bend to Seven Women, but even when Ford is in less than top form there are marginal compensations. His sentimentality extends to his casting not only of leads but also of the most minute bit roles. As Jean Mitry once observed, there is a John Ford world with a distinctive look to it. How Green Was My Valley established Maureen O’Hara as the definitive Ford heroine just as Stagecoach established John Wayne as the definitive John Ford hero. The extraordinary rapport of the Wayne-O’Hara team through Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and Wings of Eagles adds a sexual dimension to Ford’s invocation of tradition in human experience. How Green Was My Valley is also notable for introducing Ford’s visual treatment of the past as a luminous memory more real than the present, and presumably more than the heroic future. 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, and Hawks the psychological complexity and innate nobility of characterization.
            Ford can never become fashionable again for the rigidly ideological critics of the Left. Too many of his characters wear uniforms without any tortuous reasoning why. Even the originally pacifistic What Price Glory is transformed by Ford into a nostalgic celebration of military camaraderie with the once-raucous Charmaine emerging from the dim shadows as an idealization of the Chivalric Code. As a director, Ford developed his craft in the twenties, achieved dramatic force in the thirties, epic sweep in the forties, and symbolic evocation in the fifties. His style has evolved almost miraculously into a double vision of an event in all its vital immediacy and yet also in its ultimate memory image of the horizon of history.
            Ford’s failures tend to be objective rather than subjective in that he tends to be faithful to his own feelings at the expense of his material. Mary of Scotland is patently biased in favor of Mary against Elizabeth even in Maxwell Anderson’s blank-minded verse version. Ford Completes the travesty of historical objectivity by treating Katharine Hepburn’s Mary as a soft focused, unfairly slandered Madonna of the Scottish moors. (Curiously, it is not until Seven Women that Ford can bear to look at women with a degree of sexual ambiguity.) When Willie Comes Marching Home seemed to be a Preston Sturges project that Ford directed with undue seriousness, and The Last Hurrah loosed much of its satiric sparkle in the transition from novel into film.  The Fugitive, like The Informer, runs counter to Ford’s sense of order. Graham Greene’s renegade priest and Liam O’Flaherty’s renegade informer are clearly beyond Ford’s comprehension and in both instances Ford’s causal Catholicism cannot grapple with the causal Catholicism in the two novels. Nor with the Left-wing politics of the two novelist. Cheyenne Autumn is a failure simply because Ford cannot get inside the Indians he is trying to ennoble.
            Ultimately, Ford’s cinema must be considered a continent full of mountain peaks and desert valleys. The Horse Soldiers is weakest when the characters are talking abstractly about war, but the march of the little boy soldiers lingers in the mind long after all the dialogues have been forgotten. Tyrone Power may have played very broadly in The Long Gray Line, but who can forget the first materialization of his family at the kitchen table or Maureen O’Hara’s standing in the doorway and watching a son-substitute go off to war. Ford is more than the sum of his great moments, however. A storyteller and poet of images, he made his movies both move and be moving.

Andrew Sarris

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