Wednesday, December 15, 2010

John Ford's America

Here is an article about my all-time favorite director. To quote:
Ford's cinematic universe is built around a repertory of themes, notably family, community, justice, duty, tradition, self-sacrifice, and redemption. The director favors three archetypical narratives, with strong symbolic components: journeys of ascension toward home, or a promised land; journeys of descent from lost paradises, which can be regained through redemption; and isolated communities or individuals facing dangers of a physical or spiritual nature.

The filmmaker sets his characters in a moral universe where right and wrong, good and evil, have an objective existence. The tragic moment in a Ford film is the crisis of an individual conscience, the moment when a character takes stock of who he or she is, a moment that "allows them to define themselves," as Ford remarked. "It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face-to-face with something bigger than themselves. The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace."
These moral epiphanies are always subtly staged, blended into the action. In The Prisoner of Shark Island, Dr. Mudd, unjustly condemned as a part of the Lincoln assassination plot, honors his medical vows and saves his jailers from the plague. Mary Stuart will face death rather than give up her Catholic faith in Mary of Scotland. In Stagecoach and Sergeant Rutledge, the outlaw Ringo Kid and the brave black soldier, charged with crimes they did not commit, choose to stay and help the Stagecoach passengers and fellow soldiers fend off Apache attacks. Ethan Edwards breaks away from a cycle of rage and revenge by not killing his "contaminated" young niece, brought up as a Comanche in The Searchers. A compassionate doctor forgoes a lucrative practice to help the poor in Arrowsmith. In The Fugitive, a fugitive priest returns to a dangerous country, and martyrdom, for the salvation of a soul.

Ford shows undisguised -- for some, overly sentimental -- affection for the poor, the dispossessed, and the humble, in other words, for those blessed by Christ in the "Sermon on the Mount": the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath, thrown off their land during the great Depression; the Mexican peasants who keep the faith in spite of persecution in The Fugitive, a nod to the suffering of Catholics in communist countries; the Mormon pioneers in search of their promised land in Wagon Master; and the blacks and the prostitutes in the beautiful Christian allegory of The Sun Shines Bright.

Ford's particular fondness for sinners translates into the recurring characters of drunkards, fools, and Mary Magdalens endowed with Madonna-like purity: Doc Boone and Dallas, the drunken doctor and saloon girl of Stagecoach, expelled from town by the sanctimonious ladies of the law-and-order league; Maria Dolores, the fallen woman who helps the priest in The Fugitive; and the drunken but wise physicians of The Hurricane and My Darling Clementine.


Fr John Abberton said...

He is also my favourite director. A true genius whose humanity and faith shone through his art. it is seldom perfect but he would have understood that because he loved imperfect human beings. His is a true Catholic vision - of hope and mercy. I cannot stop watching his stuff over and over again. Yes, at times it is "sentimental" but this is because he wants to make a point, and it is a labour of love. There is compassion and deep sympathy. One of my favourite themes from his films is the love story in "They Were Expendable" It is beautifully told, acted and shot, and Donna Reed was never so good. The relationship with her and Wayne's character "Rusty" is just beautiful (because it is true).

Another favourite scene from a lesser Ford film is the one in "two Rode Together" in the soldiers' dance, where the Mexican woman liberated from indian captivity feels the prejudice and judgement in the room. The James Stewart character explains that she did not kill herself "because her religion forbids it" and then we see the magnificent, celebratory response of the seargent (Andy Devine) as he takes a drink and throws the bottle over his shoulder - sheer Ford magic. I could go on!

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, I know the scene in the film you mean, Father. It is powerful...I could go one and on, too.....;-)

Stephanie A. Mann said...

I certainly agree with you and Father Abberton, Elena Maria. John Ford's movies are so certain and yet so delicate. Another example, from Rio Grande--Maureen O'Hara has laundered John Wayne's uniform and he pays her in Confederate money while she gives him change with Yankee coin. This after the Sons of the Pioneers have sung "I'll take you home Kathleen" after their supper when she arrives at camp. Those details are just so beautiful!