Three by John Ford
by Fernando F. Croce

Museum of the Moving Image’s series The Essential John Ford ended August 2, 2015. Judge Priest screened July 2 and 3; Wagon Master screened July 12; The Wings of Eagles screened July 25.

A visual poet with a penchant for knockabout brawling, an idealist who gravitated to tales of melancholic loss, a notorious tyrant who cultivated long friendships, a nineteenth-century sensibility revered by many a hardcore modernist: John Ford, as they say, contained multitudes. To tackle his oeuvre (more than a hundred films over five decades of uninterrupted activity) is to climb an Everest of epics and shorts, documentaries and experiments, and historical battlegrounds and fragile communities—to say nothing of the myths and misconceptions that go with them. In that sense only a gargantuan retrospective could truly do it justice, though the twenty films chosen for the month-long series at the Museum of the Moving Image provide an invaluable overview of the artist’s often paradoxical moods, ranging from the spacious buoyancy of Young Mr. Lincoln to the claustrophobic bleakness of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The canon classics are there (including Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, andThe Searchers), and so are lesser-known titles (the thorny maternal journey of Pilgrimage, the travelogue surrealism of Mogambo, the rowdy theatrics of Upstream) ready to be rediscovered.

Made in 1934 near the end of his second decade in the business, Judge Priest is a young man’s version of an old man’s film, and a dandy introduction to Fordian territory. Based on novelist Irvin S. Cobb’s anecdotal remembrances (the opening crawl describes the events as “familiar ghosts of my own boyhood”), it unfolds in 1890 in a Kentucky town casually presided over by the eponymous cracker-barrel philosopher. Played by the cannily lackadaisical humorist Will Rogers in the second of his three collaborations with Ford, the Judge is introduced in the middle of a typical day at the courthouse: a pompous prosecutor pontificates while the accused dozes off, old soldiers keep repeating old stories to each other, and a symphony of humorous vocal inflections fills the air. More interested in the newspaper funnies than in the case at hand, the Judge perks up when a would-be chicken thief (Stepin Fetchit) mentions the local stream’s supply of catfish; Ford dissolves to the two men side by side ambling down a dirt road, fishing rods slung over their shoulders.

This lovely early sketch illustrates one of the various contradictions in Ford, namely how his reputation as a magisterial storyteller clashes with his predilection for leisurely digressions, for moments when characters gaze at the world outside their windows, engage in vaudeville turns, or simply sit and talk and remember. Ford’s art is an essentially meditative one, and Judge Priest’s flavor lies less in its dramatic plot than in the way small human details—say, how a party is viewed as an occasion both for matchmaking and for vote-hunting—are woven together into an affectionate picture of a teeming community. The past is a constant topic here, not just in the Civil War memories still fresh in everybody’s minds but also in the personal conflicts that seem to tenderly chip away at the protagonist’s genial façade. When not chuckling at the town’s more intolerant citizenry or surreptitiously playing cupid, the Judge contemplates the family portrait in his darkened bedroom and carries one-sided conversations with the graves of his wife and children. That the good-humored sage of this tale is also a very lonely man engraved in the old days is not lost on Ford, who at times shoots this Kentuckian hamlet with the edges of the screen coated in Vaseline—the warmth of nostalgia, along with its creeping blurriness.

Like the auteur’s other microcosms, the paradisiacal surface of the postbellum village in Judge Priest cloaks a collection of tensions kept in often precarious balance. Because he understood that societies are erected on ideals of independence and realities of prejudice, celebratory and destructive energies are in perpetual collision in Ford’s America. In fact, there was originally a scene in the film featuring an angry mob going after Fetchit’s character, but it was deleted by censors reportedly worried about the picture’s reception in states where the lynching of black people was a horrifically common occurrence. (Ford’s exceptional 1953 remake, The Sun Shines Bright, pointedly restores this sequence.) By contrast, such moments as Rogers’s hymn-singing duets with Hattie McDaniel offer disarming hints of progressive hope, of a mutual delight in humanistic art that transcends racial and social barriers. It’s no coincidence that the film’s climactic courtroom recollection—delivered by The Birth of a Nation’s Henry B. Walthall as a wizened emblem of Southern gentility—is visualized as meta spectacle: a shamelessly rousing mini-movie-within-a-movie about a gesture of solidarity in the middle of a nation-ripping war, slyly stage-managed by Rogers complete with a teary-eyed audience in the jury box and a ragtag band supplying the musical accompaniment.

Civilization in Judge Priest, embodied in the merry parade marching down Main Street at the film’s close, is something that can still be mended. In 1950’s Wagon Master, it is something to leave behind and restart somewhere else. On the move rather than firmly rooted, the community this time around consists of marginalized groups, a wagon train of Mormon settlers and a troupe of traveling entertainers coming together in the empty expanses of 1880s Utah. At the start, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) and the other pioneers are banished from town like Claire Trevor’s hooker in Stagecoach; they shrug soulfully as they head into the desert (“The Lord will provide…”), and two free-spirited horse traders, Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.), promptly ride by to guide the way to their destination in the San Juan River. Along the way they are joined by a medicine salesman (Alan Mowbray) and two showgirls (Joanne Dru and Ruth Clifford), members of “what used to be called a hoochie-coochie show.” The promise of a sacred garden is not complete without snakes: enter the murderous Cleggs, a clan of fugitives lorded over by the self-righteously vicious Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper).

Shot on a relatively low budget between larger projects, Wagon Master was, according to Ford himself, one of his “purest movies.” The implications of the drive into the wilderness are unmistakably mythical, yet the tone is relaxed, humorous, endlessly fresh. Simplicity goes hand in hand with experimentation. In the singular pre-credits prologue, a robbery committed by the Cleggs is presented as a swift procession of iconic friezes, with actors posing wordlessly while a superimposed reward poster flaps over them. When the characters climb through the most dangerous patch of their journey (“Mighty rough going,” drawls Travis), a very brief panning shot uses a slightly distorting lens to give a vertiginous image of elongated riders and wagons. Above all, there’s the music. Like Nicholas Ray, Ford seems forever on the verge of staging a musical sequence, and here the soundtrack hums with melodic patterns. The refrain playing over the opening titles (“Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’…”) continues for the rest of the film as chorales by the Sons of the Pioneers function as an off-screen Greek chorus and characters suddenly yet naturally express themselves through song. The ceremonial dance from My Darling Clementine is reimagined as a sort of sublime sagebrush ballroom, with the dusty ground covered by wooden planks and made to vibrate by stomping feet.

In this near-literal horse opera, the country is a still-unformed horizon where conflicting types (the old and the young, the pious and the tawdry, the pacifist and the pitiless) come to feud and harmonize. Ford savors the contrast between the genial rawness of stunt rider-turned-actor Johnson and the elaborate gruffness of veteran hams like Bond and Mowbray, only to movingly bring them together in their characters’ shared search for a home. The ostracized groups have their own prejudices to overcome, yet the director at his most optimistic evokes a reconciliatory spirit. When friendly Navajos invite the travelers to a tribal ritual, Ford cuts from the wary looks of the Mormon matrons to the curious expressions of their children, including a little girl who smiles brightly. Though it inexorably builds to a violent confrontation, Wagon Master maintains an atmosphere of extraordinary gentleness and grace. The flow of images is so airy that viewers don’t realize they’re being prepared for a miraculous vision until they arrive at it—a small herd of horses wait by a sparkling river at the end of the voyage, as magical a sight as the equine composition that closes Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. “I make Westerns,” Ford famously once declared, and even his greatest ones don’t quite have Wagon Master’s fable-like limpidness.

As Ford was ever obsessed with the chasm between elevated paragons and earthy actualities, his path was a continuously darkening one, so that by the time he got to the 1960s his films (especially The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and 7 Women) were direct expressions of disintegration. Made right after The Searchers, 1957’s underrated The Wings of Eagles anticipates much of the following decade’s despair while etching a fascinatingly conflicted self-portrait of the artist as grounded daredevil. As befits a story of diverging urges, the film oscillates between boisterous comedy and bitter tragedy, kicking off its biographical study of real-life Navy aviator Frank “Spig” Wead (John Wayne) with an aerial joyride crashing into a fancy officers’ gathering. A scene or two later, Wead and his wife, Min (Maureen O’Hara, in her final role for Ford), weep disconsolately following the death of their infant son. Cut to some time later, when a jocular rivalry between the Navy and the Army leads to a series of pop-eyed, cake-throwing, pool-splashing scuffles. Returning home to two little daughters who don’t recognize him, Wead embodies the classic American tension between roaming and settling, a tension forcibly resolved when he accidentally tumbles down a staircase and breaks his neck.

From the raucous, whirlwind motion of the early sequences, the film slows to a standstill to capture the protagonist’s condition. Saved from death but paralyzed below the chin, Wead is left sprawled horizontally on a hospital bed and, in the film’s most daring passage, icon of masculinity John Wayne is for fifteen minutes pared down to the back of a head and a lost, wavering voice. (When Ford finally cuts back to Wayne’s baggy, stubbly face reflected in an upside-down mirror, it’s a poignant shock.) His depression dissipating as mobility is slowly regained, Wead trades the aviator’s goggles for the writer’s pen and starts a career in Hollywood with military-themed screenplays, including one for a certain irascible “John Dodge” (Ward Bond, wielding Ford’s formidable tinted shades and pipe). Despite his newfound success, “star-spangled Wead” remains an outsider wherever he goes, whether it’s aboard a battleship after Pearl Harbor, in a studio screening room, or in his own living room. Old soldiers abound in Ford’s filmography, constant reminders not just that his world is inevitably made up of regiments, but that those regiments inevitably fade.

Structurally lumpy and tonally jarring, The Wings of Eagles fails as a biopic while triumphing as something more valuable—a comedy of marriage, an allegory of disarmament, a profoundly felt fusion of action and contemplation. Ford scholars have pointed out the similarities between the director and his subject, both stubborn men suspended between macho rituals and domestic responsibilities, and indeed the film’s disconcerting shifts suggests close and messy emotions at play. If it includes some of Ford’s most frantic comic episodes, it also has some of his most delicately expressive interludes: a moment in which Wead stammers his way through a reunion with Min while she gently kisses the top of his head displays the sort of life-worn intimacy that makes viewers feel like intruders for watching it. “Thanks for the ride,” says Wead in the closing scene before being hauled from one ship to another by breeches buoy, and the mortality-infused line seems to speak for a whole lifetime of ardor, rue, and illumination. That such spiritual tranquility can finally arise from such a bustling screen is just the kind of unsettled paradox that makes John Ford’s work so enduringly absorbing.