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.
The proof rests in the films—his greatest, it seems to me—which he made during the dark years of the Fifties. Critics with high-powered lenses have, I am sure, discovered strands of rabid reaction—paternalism in particular. But the remarkable truth is that these films, bearing upon the “wars” between the army and the Indian tribes of the far West, are extraordinarily balanced in their presentation of a many-sided tragedy. And of none is this more true than the earliest of them, Fort Apache, which sets the tone for the ones that follow.
First, though, he had to make a film owed from before the war to Twentieth Century Fox. When My Darling Clementine was released in 1946, it was welcomed as a straightforward western, this time one about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Ford claimed to have known Earp, and he probably did. The old man had hung around the silent-film studios, a thin-haired, neatly dressed geezer who in the olden days had been a policeman in Dodge City and then a deputy marshal in Tombstone, Arizona, and had gone on to be a prospector in Alaska, a real estate speculator in California, a prize-fight referee. He had made a reputation throughout the West, faded now, because of thirty seconds of lethal gunfire in or near Tombstone’s OK Corral on October 26, 1881. Before his death, he decided to “set the record straight” by telling his story to a western buff named Stuart Lake. Lake burnished the legend of the town-tamer who had civilized Wichita, Dodge, and finally Tombstone. After his death, two films were made about him, one with George O’Brien and one with Randolph Scott. “Shit,” Ford said of them, “I can do better than that.”
Ford knew that the battle at the OK Corral had not been one between good and evil. It was a gunfight between a bunch of rustlers and stagecoach robbers, the Clanton bunch, and a gang of gamblers, brothel keepers, and dance-hall enforcers, the Earp brothers and their murderous pal, Doc Holliday, a tubercular dentist with a reckless disregard for his own life and that of others. The Earps, known at times to fellow townsmen as “the fighting pimps,” possessed a variety of town and territorial badges, behind which they intended to avenge a murdered brother. As a peace officer, Earp was well above the average, phlegmatic and sensible, but he was inclined to confuse the law with his code of personal honor. That, however, was not the movie Ford intended to make: the nation was not yet ready for the noir western, although it would be soon.
Toward the end of his life, in one of his final westerns, Ford has a newspaper editor say: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It has the hollow ring of most pseudo-profundities. As both a creator and a celebrant of our folk imagination, he was at work in a time when he could draw upon the incalculable resources of our most powerful creative engine. It is the Earp created by Ford and Henry Fonda which lingers in the mind, laconic, self-possessed, courteous, sardonic, respectful of the law within limits, and a dead shot with a pistol or shotgun.
Fonda gives a superb performance. Ford seems to have thought of him as the image of a kind of American equal to Wayne in heroic qualities and yet strikingly different in tone, movement, attitude toward experience and self. It was a type common on our frontier, or at least in its literature, as far back as 1902, when Owen Wister wrote The Virginian. In Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Fonda played Lincoln as a variant of the type, a prudent fellow for all his joshing ways, looking every gift horse in the mouth, ready to cheat a bit at the tug-of-war. Of course, there was something else about him: our knowledge of what he would become, a man almost sacred. Scoff if you will: it is our mythology, not Lincoln’s.
In Ford’s Tombstone, Earp and his brothers are heroes and Old Man Clanton and his slack-jawed sons are nearly motiveless dispensers of evil. Walter Brennan, who like other professionally trained actors came to loathe Ford, makes of Old Man Clanton a compact bundle of cunning and insane rages, who disciplines his sons with a bullwhip. “When you draw a gun,” he tells one of them, “kill a man.”
The movie, as everyone in the movie-house knew, is moving inexorably toward the OK Corral, but Ford takes his time getting there. We get to know the town, its barber shop, its hotel and restaurant, a church under construction, a livery stable, a saloon. And a gentler Earp who remembers, as do his brothers, a childhood, churches, schools, and civility. There must be a jail but we never get to see it. Earp seems to conduct business while sitting lazily on the hotel’s long porch, greeting town worthies, and telling crooked gamblers to be on the afternoon stage.
A second plot develops. Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), a beautiful nurse from the East, comes looking for her fiancé, who is now a poker-table gunman, but had once been a brilliant young surgeon from Harvard or someplace like that, who has carried to the West the corrosive knowledge of his own fatal illness and a mysterious self-loathing. Meanwhile, he has been consoling himself with Linda Darnell disguised as a Mexican Indian saloon entertainer named Chihuahua. Left to his own devices, he controls the gambling, kills disagreeable visitors, and impresses Earp by quoting Shakespeare from memory.
The easiness of pace allows for one of the loveliest sequences in Ford’s cinema. There is a Sunday morning dance on the floor of what will one day be a church. Clementine and Earp walk to it from the hotel, down the long street of the barebones town in its Sunday light and quiet. Then, with the other dancers drawing back, Earp leads his “lady fair,” as a church elder calls her, in a dance that (on his part) combines grace and awkwardness, one which Fonda had invented for Young Mr. Lincoln. It is an exquisite moment, hushed, tender, emotionally complete.
The central relationship, though, is that between Earp and Doc Holliday. As a perceptive critic noted, “Wyatt is one of the few Fordian heroes allowed a friendship with a man who is clearly his equal.” Victor Mature plays Holliday with great effectiveness: he was an intelligent actor cursed by destiny with the face and muscles of a debauched lifeguard. Here he is a Holliday turned murderous and suicidal through self-contempt and self-pity. He answers to an aspect of Earp that only McBride seems to have caught, “signs of dandyism and cold fanaticism that Ford treats with some ambivalence.”
The West existed spatially for Ford as Monument Valley, but there was also a temporal West, which can be placed with equal precision. It begins with the transcontinental railroad, which was planned during the Civil War and which simultaneously asserted the nation’s ultimate union even as it spelled the ultimate end of the West as a wilderness Eden. Ford’s first major film, The Iron Horse (1924), provided images of both aspects, the final, golden spike being driven in, and the scout Davy looking along the track which spells the end of his calling. The end of what once were called “the Indian wars,” is nowadays taken to be the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1891, an event so late in the day as to seem anachronistic.
Ford, though, chooses to end his narrative of the West with Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and the astonishing march of the Cheyenne some 1,500 miles from their reservation to their ancestral home in the Dakotas. The Civil War was Ford’s background, and the Indian wars both foreground and text. The notable exceptions are Clementine (1946) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a sunset film, in which the admission of a territory to statehood completes the process begun by the railroad. Either the plots of these late westerns or else specific episodes and tones are drawn from the major events of those terrible years—the Sand Creek and Washita massacres by the army in 1864 and 1868, the destruction of Custer’s cavalry at the Little Big Horn in 1876, the bad-faith negotiations with the Apache chief Cochise, the army’s hunt for Geronimo, the final Apache raider.
Ford liked to say, “I’ve killed more Indians than Custer, Beecher and Chivington put together,” and he was taken at his word, the growling word of a Hollywood director stuck in the past and sharing its brutal prejudices. He was in fact an artist, although a deeply flawed one, with an instinct for the tragic even as he swerved away from it.
What is now called the cavalry trilogy—Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950)—was never intended as such, but the three are held together by time, setting, characters, and theme. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon has a thinner narrative than the others, but it is a stunningly beautiful film. It is the only one in color, and it seems to radiate those colors so that in memory they touch the other two. For all three, Ford worked closely with the paintings and engravings of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and from their art, as McBride says, “and his own painterly eye for composition and movement, he developed a Western iconography distinctly his own, instantly identifiable in distant long shots of lines of riders outlined against the horizon, swift tracking shots of charging troopers arrayed in depth….”
“Who better than an Irishman,” Ford asked, “could understand the Indians, while still being stirred by tales of the US Cavalry? We were on both sides of the epic.” The crucial word here, however loosely it is being used, is “epic.” He sees this historical conflict in terms that are essentially aesthetic, and thereby takes on the burdens as well as the strengths of that way of seeing.
All three films deal with the army’s war against the Apaches, but spend much of their time, as we have come with him to expect, creating a thickly detailed sense of life in an isolated military outpost in the immediately post– Civil War years. They never spell out the historical truth, which is that the railroads, the various Homestead Acts, the greed of prospectors, and the safety of settlers require that the tribes be “pacified,” removed from their vast hunting grounds, and herded onto reservations. There, they live at the mercy of corrupt agents and cynical politicians, cheated, swindled, and otherwise degraded. Occasionally, they will break out of the reservation. This will be termed “another Indian uprising” and the army will be called into the field.
In these films, it is once again a small, professional army, drastically cut back from Civil War days. Promotions will once again be slow. Even the dashing George Armstrong Custer, a general at twenty-three, has had to accept peacetime rank as lieutenant colonel. Similarly, Fort Apache’s Owen Thursday, during the war a distinguished major general, had had to accept the same rank, together with command of a sandy Arizona garrison. Custer had no intention of letting his career languish, and neither does Thursday. Their only hope would be through a splashy victory over the savages. Thursday is thought to be based on Custer, but there the resemblance ends. Custer came from solid Wisconsin farming stock, a self-infatuated show-off who finished at the bottom of his class. Thursday comes from genteel and scholarly Boston, and has studied the tactics of Caesar and Bonaparte.
It is an army rich in codes and rituals, traditions recently invented. Even in this outpost, tradition and a respect for hierarchy governs conduct. All three officers are veterans of the war—Thursday himself and his two captains, Kirby York (John Wayne) and Sam Collingwood (George O’Brien). The sergeants too are veterans, save for a Johnny Reb who had held a Confederate commission. O’Rourke (Ward Bond), the top sergeant, had been an officer himself, in the Irish 69th, an impressive man, sure of his worth whatever rank he holds. The buck sergeants, with Victor McLaglen as ringleader, drink to stupefaction, but sober up when duty calls. The wives on the post are held together in sisterly affection, while staying within the boundaries of caste. Ford tests these boundaries by bringing to the post Sergeant O’Rourke’s son, a West Point lieutenant who falls in love with Thursday’s daughter.
Thursday regards Apaches as half-naked barbarians: he had seen a handful of them while traveling to the post. “If you saw them,” York says, “they weren’t Apaches.” York knows that they are formidable warriors, brave and sneaky. Thursday’s inability to believe his subordinate brings disaster. Cochise has led his Mescaleroes off the reservation and has begun raiding. Thursday allows York to ride out, alone and unarmed, and to promise Cochise that the terms of an earlier treaty will be kept. But Thursday dismisses promises made to savages and breaks the treaty by planning a trap which will earn him a reputation as “The Man Who Brought Cochise Back.” But it is Thursday and his regiment who are caught in a trap from which there are few survivors. He himself is killed, recognizing too late his arrogant folly.
There is a final sequence, set a few years later. York, who now holds the command and is about to lead the pursuit of Geronimo, says to visiting journalists about Thursday, who has become a national hero: “No man died more gallantly. No man brought more honor on his regiment.” Then, with Lt. O’Rourke, his adjutant, he rides out of the fort. Young Mrs. O’Rourke, Thursday’s daughter, takes her place on the balcony with the other women. The band plays “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” as it had for Thursday.
In the context supplied by the scene, York’s “noble lie” is being affirmed, by the film and probably by Ford himself. When questioned by Peter Bogdanovich on the point, years later, Ford replied, “Yes—because I think it’s good for the country.” Clearly, McBride argues, we should trust the tale here, though, and not the teller. In Ford’s case, teller and tale knew all about each other.
The Indian stands at the center of Ford’s West, enigmatic, mute, doomed. He was easier on Indians in earlier films, when they were trailing along behind Union Pacific track-layers, or, as in Stagecoach, a silent line on a ridge. In towns, their dusty jackets and blankets mock a distant, flamboyant freedom. Wyatt Earp kicks a drunken Indian out of Tombstone and tells Chihuahua to get back to her reservation. But Ford knew that Indians were the best light cavalry and that within their unknowable world bravery was honored and rewarded with titles, insignia, distinctions; feats of skill under fire were applauded. Very much, in fact, as with the United States Cavalry. History, though, was on the white man’s side, a pair of aces tucked up a blue-clothed sleeve. Ford’s conservatism, a kind of fatalism, begins with his acceptance of such iron laws.
Eight years after Ford Apache he made a film about the races, white and red, which is unquestionably one of the greatest American films ever made. The Searchers (1956) begins with the return of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) to a Texas farm in 1868. He is wearing a Confederate overcoat with sergeant’s stripes and carrying a Confederate saber. He is greeted by his brother Aaron, Aaron’s wife, Martha, and their children. He has presents for the children—a locket for Lucy, the saber for Ben, for little Debbie a medal which the quick-of-eye can recognize as earned by service in Mexico under Maximilian. But for the adopted boy, Martin, grown now, the one-eighth Cherokee survivor of a wagon attack, he has only the remark that he is “dark as a half-breed.” Martha, as she tenderly brushes Ethan’s cavalry coat, lets us know that secretly she loves him, and he her. In the long, star-crowded evening, Ethan sits alone on the step of the long veranda.
The next morning, the men of this and neighboring ranches are lured away, and in their absence Comanches raid the Edwards ranch. Aaron and Ben are slaughtered, Martha raped and killed, the girls abducted. Exhausted, a pursuing posse turns back, but Ethan and Martin set out on a journey which will take them years, in the course of which Martin discovers that Ethan’s racial obsession has reached the point of madness.
A fair swatch of the film is shot in Monument Valley, but the search carries the camera from Canada to Mexico, following faint hints, false trails, the horses wading through the blizzards of Montana and riding the sun-baked deserts of the Southwest. Every year or so, a letter drifts home to their neighbors, the Jorgensons, to whose daughter, Laurie, Martin is somewhat engaged.
Once, in the snow country, the searchers encounter a herd of buffalo, and Ethan kills as many of them as he can, shot after shot into blundering, heavy-hided fur. Why that many? Martin asks. General Philip Sheridan, commander of the army’s Department of the Southwest, could have explained to him that this was “destroying the Indians’ commissary. Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo are exterminated.” Ethan’s eyes give the same answer, but with the fierce, banked fires of savage hatred.
Now Martin knows all of the story. If Debbie has not been killed, as, we have learned, Lucy was years before, she is now the squaw of some Comanche brave and Ethan has been searching for her, not to rescue her but to kill her. Martin, a man of mixed blood, has two missions now, to save her from a Comanche and from a white man.
She is in fact the woman of the war-chief Scar, and the two men briefly confront each other in a Comanche village somewhere in Mexico. Ethan and Martin are posing as traders, but Scar knows who they are. He is an adversary, clever as Ethan and like him sardonic and relentless. Two of Scar’s sons have been killed by white men, and now he takes many white scalps in vengeance. He shows Ethan some of them, strung out along a lance held by an impassive Debbie. Ethan and Scar are locked together, and as McBride wrote in 1974: “As the search progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate the difference between Ethan’s heroism and Scar’s villainy.” Despite a canyon-deep separation of cultures, the two are locked together by similar obsessions.3
Sometime later (months? years?), Ethan and Martin watch the cavalry riding down on a Comanche village, splashing through ice-flecked water, pennons flying, bugles sounding. And we witness the attack itself, the troopers riding past rows of tepees, slashing their sabers down on women and children, the bugles drowned now by screams of terror and pain. It becomes difficult to appreciate the differences between the two peoples.
At the cavalry post, they go one by one through a group of rescued white women—dazed, half-insane, one of them driven forever back into her childhood, clutching her doll and grinning lewdly. As Ethan, leaving, turns around for a last look, the camera twists suddenly toward him for a close-up. It is a shadowed, blood-chilling face, frozen beyond humanity.
But Ethan’s madness, in his case fortified perhaps by his knowledge of his own adulterous love and by his discovery of her raped and tormented body in his brother’s burned ranch house, is but an extension of emotions felt by most Americans. “Fetch what home?” Laurie Jorgenson screams at Martin as he sets out on the final stretch of search. “The leavings of Comanche bucks, sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of their own…. Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain. I tell you, Martha would want him to.”
In the climax, Texas Rangers and US Cavalry ride together into Scar’s village and Scar is killed. Not by Ethan, though, or by the Rangers, but by Martin in the course of rescuing Debbie. But when at last Ethan encounters them, seemingly bent upon Debbie’s murder, he instead swings her high into the air, as he has in her childhood, and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” McBride finds this transformation “convincing and deeply satisfying.” I wish I did.
Ethan’s moment of transforming fulfillment had come minutes earlier when, finding that he had been robbed of his vengeance, he kneels beside Scar’s body and takes out his scalping knife. When next we see him, very abruptly, he is outside the tepee, dazed, not fully aware of where he is or what he has been doing. His face is one that we have not seen before; unfocused, drained, transfigured. It is the face of orgasm.
Race and sex are lashed together in his mind, as in the mind of virginal young Laurie Jorgenson and perhaps in the mind of America. Perhaps, though, as McBride and most viewers feel, redemption has come through this memory of Debbie’s gentle childhood. It is pretty to think so, as Jake tells Brett.
Finally, the door of the nurturing Jorgenson home stands open for Debbie and Laurie and Martin. But Ethan stands outside, somewhere south of nowhere, and the door mysteriously closes on him.
Ford said his goodbyes to the westerns, almost formally, in 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a shadowy, perverse, morally ambiguous film, which both reaffirms and questions the moral and aesthetic values of the genre. André Bazin would have called it a baroque western, and the old man would have agreed with him.
It opens with the arrival of a railroad train, somewhere around 1910, in the town of Shinbone in a southwestern state which a distinguished passenger had helped bring into being. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) carries his fame and his importance easily, as he does his gray hair and the first beginnings of a paunch almost hidden by his white vest. He carries less easily his celebrity from years past, one on which all else has been built. He first became famous back in Shinbone’s wild and woolly days as the man who shot down in a gunfight a mad-dog killer named Liberty Valance.
He and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) have come back to town for the burial of an old friend, whom the town itself had forgotten. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) had been a celebrity himself in those days, a horse dealer from down in Picketwire country, the sort of man with whom you didn’t argue, fair-minded and courteous, but with six-gun skills learned in dangerous places. He hadn’t worn that gun in recent decades, though, drifting downward to become one of the town’s drunks. His pine coffin funeral is to be charged to county expenses. The undertaker may not know it, but he is burying a man of honor and repute. And the man whom Hallie had loved in secret through the years.
Back in territorial days, Shinbone had been an ugly cluster of saloons, cantinas, eating-houses, and jails. Law had been replaced by lawlessness itself, in the person of Valance, a sadistic bully, duded up with silver doodads on his vest and wielding a steel-tipped quirt (Lee Marvin). Stoddard arrives in town, a fish-out-of-water young lawyer from the East, but on his way Valance robs him, horsewhips him,and shreds his law books. With the help of a quizzical Tom Doniphon, Stoddard tries to start a school and meanwhile earns his keep by washing dishes in the eating-house where Hallie, Doniphon’s intended, waits on table.
All this, and most of what follows, we learn in a long flashback—an unusual device for Ford. Wayne and Stewart are men well into their fifties, Wayne with an already notorious hairpiece—and in the flashback Ford uses neither makeup nor lighting to compensate for this. And that is essential to the kind of film this is. It is a memory film about remembered youth and a youthful heroism. Wayne was by now fully established in his “real-life” role as an heroic icon of the political right, but the curious fact is that we don’t see him doing anything heroic. We see him discover the horsewhipped Stoddard on the roadside. We see him face down Liberty in the eating-house, and we know he is the faster draw, but the gunfight we expect never takes place. Far from it. In the closing moments of the flashback (or rather, in the plural, flashbacks) it is a trembling Ransom Stoddard, wearing his long, absurd dishwasher’s apron, who faces certain death from Liberty’s gun. But it is Doniphon who kills Liberty, firing a rifle from night-time shadows. A well-timed shot, but not the stuff of which legends are made. Ironically, one is made: Stoddard will live in Western legend as “the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” As the crowd rushes out, drawn by the gunfire, someone shouts: “It’s Liberty! Liberty is dead!”
We are deliberately kept away from Doniphon’s interior life. We know only what he says and does. But we come to know him as a divided man, with a division which has run throughout Ford’s films, helping to bring a civilization which runs as counter to his own wilderness life as it does to Valance’s. And worst of all, civilization always comes in the form of some windbag like Stoddard who winds himself up and starts talking about schools and gardens and irrigation bills. “We want statehood,” Stoddard tells the convention, “because statehood means the protection of our farms and our fences, and it means schools for our children and it means progress for the future.”
And for this, Hallie gave up the fastest draw west of the Picketwire?
Wayne went on for years after Ford died in 1965, the American icon that Ford had created, beating his drum and scooting along like the Energizer bunny. On Ford’s coffin lay the flag that he had brought back from Midway, a battle which Wayne somehow missed.
—This is the second of two articles on John Ford.
December 20, 2001
Thomas Flanagan, “The Irish in John Ford’s Films,”in The Irish in America, edited by Michael Coffey and Terry Galway (Hyperion, 1997). ↩
Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington, John Ford (Secker and Warburg, 1974; Da Capo, 1975). ↩