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John Ford’s West


When André Bazin described John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) as “the ideal example of the maturity of a style brought to classic perfection,” he employed an apt metaphor, that of a “wheel so perfectly made that it retains its equilibrium on any axis in any position.” No image is more common in Ford’s westerns than that of a wagon wheel, lost or abandoned, set upright against the horizon, or more emblematic.

He had been making westerns since his early days in silent films, so many one- and two-reelers that he could never remember them all.1 But as he established himself in his profession, his “trade” as he called it, he had moved on to other material. Stagecoach was the first western movie in thirteen years, and the first one in sound. From now on, though, his most significant films would be westerns, and they are the ones with which this essay will deal. Taken together, they compose a profound, contradictory, troublesome image of America, of our history and our landscape. It becomes, in the final films, a melancholy image.

Stagecoach‘s classicism, its scrupulous adherence to tradition, is present everywhere—narrative, characters, and, especially, relationship of character to setting. Ford had discovered Monument Valley, on the Utah–Arizona border, and would use it for most of these westerns—thirty miles of mesa carved by winds into immense and foreboding towers of sandstone, abrupt and absolute. In their very density of effect they are not typical of the desert, but rather, as a prism does, they force together the desert’s spacious and humbling cruelties. Monument Valley has been, as it were, premythicized. So closely are the valley and Stagecoach held together in memory that it comes as a shock to discover how little of the movie was shot there, and almost none of the scenes involving the principals were. Even the shot that brings John Wayne, the Ringo Kid, into the film, what Joseph McBride in his biography of Ford calls “one of the great star entrances in film history,” was done in Hollywood.

You get what you see in Stagecoach, without the ironies, the sadnesses, the shadows of Ford’s later westerns. A coachful of strangers sets out from one Arizona frontier town to another called Lordsburg—a whore named Dallas (Claire Trevor), who has been kicked out of town; Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a rum-soaked Civil War veteran given to misquoting Shakespeare; a pregnant army wife, Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), from the aristocratic but defeated South; a timid but not cowardly whiskey salesman (Donald Meek); Hatfield (John Carradine), once a Confederate officer but now a card sharp; an absconding banker. Atop ride Andy Devine as the driver and George Bancroft as the sheriff, keeping an eye out for the Ringo Kid. The Kid has broken out of prison to confront his brother’s murderers, the Plummers, who are holed up in Lordsburg. Driver and sheriff have a sneaking affection for Ringo and so will we.

Stagecoach rests upon the visual contrast of immensity and confinement—the vast, grotesque desert and the passengers locked within their separate pasts and their fear of an Apache war party. They are all stock characters, drawn from the warehouse of types which westerns had been accumulating. Hatfield has been lifted bodily from Bret Harte, but the voice and mannerisms, the air of deadly and self-assured hauteur, are all Carradine. God be with the days when the movies gave us supporting actors like Carradine and Mitchell: you knew where you were with those fellows. Ford rarely seeks to go beyond the stereotypes. Rather, he brightens and sharpens them, setting them against one another in ways that can pierce.

Quietly, seemingly casually, he establishes contrasts of gesture which bespeak differences of spirit. Hatfield pours water for the genteel Lucy Mallory from the shared canteen into a silver cup bearing the crest of his lost Virginia plantation, but “forgets” about the other “lady,” as Ringo calls Dallas. The contrast in ways of being a gentleman is devastating.

Even Ringo had come originally from the property box of the genre—the good badman—but Ford was already at work transforming Wayne into one of his most important symbols, an image of one kind of American, and therefore, perhaps, of an aspect of America itself. But he simultaneously transformed the actor into something rather different from that. As Joseph McBride puts it, “The combination of gentleness and authority Wayne brought to the role of Ringo represented Ford’s idealized image of himself, an image the director artfully created on-screen, but had trouble incarnating in reality.”

During the filming, Ford had borne down hard on Wayne, subjecting him to a barrage of insults and taunts, and to every physical humiliation short of flensing. Claire Trevor offers the usual explanation: “He was trying to take away Duke’s bad habits.” At twenty-nine, Wayne was already too old for the part. Ten years earlier, when he was playing the part of the frontier scout in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, he would have been perfect—young, lithe, and, well, graceful. But here he does just fine, and he would go on to do much better. Back in the silent days, when he was making two-reel and four-reel westerns, Ford, an eloquent but inarticulate creator, had found ways of using a surrogate self so as to place himself within the narratives of his films—first Harry Carey as “Cheyenne Harry” and then George O’Brien. Over the years, as they aged together, Wayne would prove the perfect fit.

He would have been hopeless, though, as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, the film that Ford made a year later.


McBride remarks that The Grapes of Wrath is rare among Ford’s films in confronting a major contemporary social issue:

Ford’s films had begun to turn increasingly to the past, to historical issues with more distant resonance for his audience. Ford’s cinema was a cinema of memory and meditation rather than a meeting-hall for action.

That turning was already well underway. Certainly the plight of the Okies and their migration to the cruel orange groves of California offered the kind of material that was praised as “torn from today’s headlines,” and would call for a harsh, accusatory style, and that Ford’s scriptwriter, Nunnally Johnson, liberated from the godawful cadences of John Steinbeck’s prose and delivered as a lean, direct story. But the film is shaped visually by Ford’s other collaborator, the great cameraman Gregg Toland, who a year later would be filming Citizen Kane. He and Ford were made for each other. Toland rarely employs here what McBride calls “the extreme, show-offy deep focus” for which he would soon be famous. Ford would say jubilantly that there was “absolutely nothing to photograph, not one beautiful thing in there—just sheer, good photography.”

So good in fact that Ford was able to mythicize his story. It seems today not about wrongs that were still being suffered by close to a million migrants from the Southwest, but rather to be set in some realm of the imagination which is sensitive to history but indifferent to time. The early reels in which Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns from prison to the farm of his people is rich with the signifying detail of the Dust Bowl, but they reach back in time beyond themselves.

Ford was struck by the resemblances between the dispossessed Okies and the Irish evicted by their landlords—and by history itself—in the Great Famine, the subject of his friend Liam O’Flaherty’s 1937 novel Famine. The ravaged landscape of Tom Joad’s Oklahoma bears uncanny echoes of the abandoned famine villages of Connaught and Munster. So too does the migration to California resonate against memories of the coffin ships headed across the Atlantic.

The myths thicken the texture. Tom Joad, as I have written elsewhere, “is like the Irish rebel son—sweet-natured but quick-tempered and capable of murderous rages.”2 Casey, the wild, eloquent preacher, drunk on the language of the book, is modeled by Ford and John Carradine upon the hedge priests and prophecy men who tagged along with the Irish rebels. There were other shadowy people in the recesses of Ford’s imagination. Not tough Irishmen alone, but also peasants from China and Italy who had built the Union Pacific. America itself had been built out of migrations, across the Alleghenies and the Missouri and over the Rockies into the promised land of orange groves and gold. In time, he would come to meditate upon those “trails of tears,” the great countermigrations of cheated and harried Indian tribes of the mountains and plains, Cheyenne and Sioux and Apache.

Ford’s own war was a distinguished and often dangerous one, beginning with a Purple Heart earned during the battle of Midway. He and the photographic unit which he had created before Pearl Harbor held naval rank but reported directly to William Donovan’s OSS. He went ashore on D-Day, and was reported as “a great inspiration in his total disregard of danger in order to get the job done”—an accidental echo of his lifelong description of his films as “jobs of work.” He left the navy with the rank of captain and began campaigning for an admiral’s stars.

During the war and because of strong navy insistence, he made only one commercial film, They Were Expendable, a fictionalized account of the torpedo boat squadron led by Lt. John Bulkeley (Robert Montgomery) in the disastrous first months of the Pacific war. Ford disliked it intensely, then and later. It is hard to see why. The mood of the film, battle sequences aside, is reflective and melancholy. A somewhat incredulous James Agee wrote that “visually and in detail, and in nearly everything that he does with people, it is John Ford’s finest movie.”

Throughout the filming, he had been in a state of disgust with Montgomery’s costar, John Wayne. Wayne had turned out to be what in Ford’s day was called a slacker. He allowed his employer, Republic, to wangle for him deferment after deferment, once murmuring that “I better go do some touring—I feel the draft breathing down my neck.” Ford still needed him, though, and he still needed Ford. Ford had made him a star, but he craved superstardom, becoming in the cold war years an icon of proto-fascist politics. The relationship between the two men would become tragicomic, a fit subject for a treatise on the magic and mystery of film.

Ford’s own swerve to the political right in later life, and at times what seemed like the fringe right, is a matter of far greater interest. Wayne and his Ford company buddy Ward Bond were products of Southern California’s junk culture, a kind of muscle beach of the mind. Ford, on the other hand, came from other roots; he was a man of wide and various reading, whose tough-guy mannerisms concealed complex and, as he well knew, contradictory attitudes. To the end, he retained an admiration (he would have called it Irish) for the good badman, the reckless gunfighter with generous instincts. A childhood in one of New England’s Irish ghettos had taught him to side with the poor against the rich. But that same background had given him a reverence for tradition, fierce loyalties, the sacramentalizing of flags, battles, styles of masculinity.

  1. 1

    For an account of Ford’s early career, see my article “Western Star,” The New York Review, November 29, 2001.

  2. 2

    Thomas Flanagan, “The Irish in John Ford’s Films,”in The Irish in America, edited by Michael Coffey and Terry Galway (Hyperion, 1997).

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