"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.
|Claude Jarman Jr, John Wayne, Rio Grande|
|Harry Carey Jr, John Wayne, The Searchers|
|John Wayne, Constance Towers, The Horse Soldiers|
|Woody Strode, Sergeant Rutledge|
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 (1966). 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 Wagon Master) 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.
|Richard Widmark, James Stewart, Two Rode Together|
|Edmond O'Brien, Lee Marvin, James Stewart|
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), could well be, as Peter 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, Sue Lyon, Seven Women|
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.
|Richard Widmark, Cheyenne Autumn|