She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) movie poster

director John Ford
viewed: 11/22/2013

A few months back, the kids and I watched John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), one of the great Westerns and it was pretty well enjoyed.  In looking for some post-Halloween horror direction in our movie-watching schedule, I bethought myself to watch another Ford/John Wayne Western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which I had never seen.

While it’s a beautifully-shot film, in full Technicolor glory with amazing shots of Monument Valley and lightning strikes across the grand sky, it’s a bit more run of the mill overall.

It’s the second of what is considered Ford’s Calvary Trilogy, following Fort Apache (1948) and followed by Rio Grande (1950).  Resultingly, it’s not pure Western but a Western with a bit of a War or military aspect.  The story takes place at a cavalry outpost where Capt. Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is set soon to retire his military duty.  But on his final patrol, he’s asked to take two women along so that they can catch a stagecoach, amidst an uprising of Indians following Custer’s Last Stand.

Wayne is quite good as Capt. Brittles, but the best part of the film for me was the cinematography.

Typical of our movie-watching of late, Felix skipped out and went to bed and it was Clara and I who watched the movie.  She enjoyed it okay, as I did, though it’s no Stagecoach.  I’ve decided that we’re going to delve a little further into the Western, a genre I shunned as a kid, only came around to as an adult.   More to come.

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939) movie poster

director John Ford
viewed: 03/29/2013

John Ford’s first “talkie” Western, Stagecoach, was also the launchpad of “the John Wayne” that had been toiling in movies for over a decade. Seen as a watershed in both Ford’s and Wayne’s careers, it has long been considered a significant and important film.  And it’s also pretty damn great.

This was only the second Western that I’ve watched with the kids.  A year or so ago we watched The Magnificent Seven (1960), but for all of our movie-watching we hadn’t really delved into the Western.  Maybe this is part of a watershed for us of sorts, venturing into a more full spectrum of movies.

Stagecoach is the story of a group of characters who have boarded the titular conveyance, crammed together and then beset by warring Apaches, most notably Geronimo.  There is the aristocratic lady who is heading to be with her cavalry officer husband, the once aristocratic gambler, the meek traveling whiskey salesman, the drunken doctor, the prostitute, the sheriff, driver, thief banker, and then there is Wayne’s Ringo, a strapping young man escaped from prison out to avenge the murders of his father and brother.  Everyone has their own story, some more explicitly than others, but it’s also a study of class, prejudice, and redemption.

I had to explain to the kids what a prostitute is and why the people of Tonto, AZ decided to chase her and the drunken physician from town.  And then I went on to explain that the film was critiquing that behavior, showing that its sympathies sided with the outcasts.  So, not only do I have to talk about sex and commerce, but I tap into the basics of film analysis.  We certainly talk about the movies we watch, but it’s possibly the first time I found myself describing the narrative with those specific “tools” in mind.

Interestingly for me, this Criterion Collection edition of Stagecoach featured a commentary track by a former professor of mine from grad school, “Big” Jim Kitses (the “Big” was added by a colleague of mine and is not a commonality, I believe, in referring to the man.)  But it did take me back a bit to hear his loping, erudite old-school film professor voice booming from my television.  It impressed the kids a little, but probably just a little, to hear that I had worked/studied with him.  They tolerated only about 10-15 minutes of commentary.

It’s truly an excellent film, probably one of the most satisfying I’ve seen all year so far.  I’ve read that Orson Welles has said that he watched Stagecoach 40 times prior to making Citizen Kane (1941), as a tutelage in the art of cinema.  True or not, it would actually do quite well to operate as such a guide.  The narrative deftly weaves the stories of the many characters, the pacing and cinematography are prime, the Monument Valley landscapes definitive, and that dolly shot that introduces us to the Ringo Kid, Mr. John Wayne is straight-up cinematic iconography.

The kids both enjoyed it quite well.  I loved it.  And I can certainly proclaim: more to come!

The Iron Horse

(1924) director John Ford
viewed: 07/15/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

One of my favorite things is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a now 4 day event showing any number and variety of silent films.  I’ve been attending now for a few years and was excited to go to the opening night showing of John Ford’s epic silent Western, The Iron Horse.  I’d never seen it before, but it seemed a great film to check out, an early epic Western by the film director most associated with the genre.

The film retells the tale of the building of the transcontinental railroad, a crowning event in American history, and a fascinating and meaningful story.  Of course, it’s told through the story of the son of a “dreamer” who, while a neighbor of Abraham Lincoln’s, pondered the possibilities of a railroad that connected America’s East with the American West.  But it’s his son who works the railroad, helps to find the passage through a tough area, not to mention some conniving villains which all add this up to a much more traditional “oater” as the writers of crossword puzzles like to call Westerns.

What is fascinating is that the two trains that meet at Promontory Summit the where the “golden spike” was driven in are the two actual locomotives that were at the real event.  Ford has much dedication to this narrative and sought to make it as true to life and accurate as possible from an historical standpoint.  Additionally, according to some of the notes, some of the Chinese workers on the film also participated in the building of the railroad.  But I have to wonder, since the railroad was completed in 1869 and this film was made in 1924, one has to wonder about the potential accuracy of such a statement.  (I also have read that the story about the locomotives being the actual engines is also potential hooey.)

It’s a rather rip-roaring yarn, though, and quite a bit of fun.  One other aspect that is quite interesting is the dedication Ford puts into showing the diversity of the work effort.  Irish, Italians, Chinese, and even the good natured Pawnee indians are on the side of good, and he likes to show the combatative members of each various group of national origin working alongside each other.   A strong melting pot message.  Of course the Cheyenne are the baddies, though the two-fingered main bad guy is supposed to be a white man who poses as an indian.

What’s additionally interesting is the whole of the Western genre, what will continue to be a popular genre through the better part of the 20th century, was already going through its ups and downs.  The festival offers an insightful booklet on the films, plus a slide show of images and facts prior to each film, plus an introduction by experts or notables on each film.  I tell you, it’s a great way to see these movies.  I keep telling people about them and I really think they’d enjoy getting to see these films on the big screen with full musical accompaniment.

They Were Expendable

They Were Expendable (1945) movie poster

(1945) dir. John Ford
viewed: 12/04/09

I like John Ford’s Westerns, such as The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but I’ve never been a big fan of War films.  But as any cineaste who follows anything along the lines of auteur theory, the director as film author, especially through classic Hollywood genre films, I’m open to seeing just about any of his films.

The real reason I queued up They Were Expendable was not because I had a sudden interest in the Pacific Theater of WWII and the noble efforts of the PT torpedo boats that innovated during the war to save money, and yet be able to bring down big war ships.  No, it was really a bit more of a commentary of my feeling when I was recently let go from the company that I’ve worked for for the past 10 years.  But good to my quip, I queued it up.

It’s an interesting war film, made during WWII, roughly based on real people and events, though typically written with artistic license.  It stars John Wayne, Robert Montgomery (who had been a “real life PT skipper” in the war), and the lovely Donna Reed.  The PT boats were small speedboat style ships, made cheaply to run errands and deliver payloads to torpedo down Japanese destroyers.

The film does have some riveting action sequences.  The nobility of the war effort, the bravery of the enlisted men, even the decency of men to one another as the last plane out is loading passengers, just exudes ideology.  Reed’s character is interesting.  She’s a nurse who dresses in slacks, a somewhat de-sexualized attire.  There is something going on with the portrayal of women here, but I’m a little inapt to analyze it.

At 135 minutes, it’s a near epic, and apparently a film that was quite a personal effort for Ford, a pretty damn proud American and war veteran himself.  It’s funny too because as a younger person, John Wayne just seemed to symbolize so much of this type of American ideology and conservative philosophy, but in reality, I don’t know how many films I’d really seen him in.  He’s a commanding and charming presence, perhaps not with a massive range, but he’s quite good.

To be expendable in war, to know that you are part of a group not expected to survive, but who must go and fight the good fight for the greater good, for God and country, it does almost take that wide-eyed determination and sense of right and wrong.  And the nobility of such a commitment is not questioned here, just commended, admired, and recognized.

Fort Apache

Fort Apache (1948) movie poster

(1948) dir. John Ford
viewed: 05/10/09 at the Stanford Theater, Palo Alto, CA

Part two of the John Wayne/John Ford double bill at the Stanford Theater was Fort Apache, one of Ford’s many films that I hadn’t seen before.  Certainly, I wouldn’t classify it as one of his masterworks, but a solid film through and through, starring Henry Fonda alongside Wayne and Shirley Temple and John Agar.  Not purely a Western, I would suggest, because it’s also a bit of a military film or war movie to an extent, with the nearly ever-present refrain of “You’re in the Army Now”, reminding the audience of some of the more comic asepcts of military life.  It also seems significant in that this film comes only a couple of years out of World War II, and the miliatry dignity is a key issue at the film’s heart.

Roughly based on the legendary fiasco of Custer’s Last Stand, the film centers around Fonda, a Civil War hero who, brought into the army is shifted out to the outskirts of civilization to the post at Fort Apache, which he deems to be well below him.  The camp is populated heavily with Irish-Americans, who drink heavily and offer much comic relief.  At times, in fact, the film almost seems more comic than dramatic.  When Henry Fonda’s Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday sees an opportunity at glory on the range, bringing back the Apache tribesmen who’ve abandoned the reservation due to mistreatment, he starts a battle that he cannot finish, much against the recommendations of well-respected Captain Kirby York (Wayne), who sizes up the situation accurately.

The film actually is quite poignant regarding the plight of the Native Americans, a noble groups of tribes, who have come to agree to peace, yet will not be crushed or insulted.  The life on the plantation has been far from positive for them, in which they are lead to alchoholism (a somewhat ironic comment given the giddy, good-nature of the drunken Irish-Americans), and the Apache refuse to be exploited more.  But Thursday, against better judgment, leads his cavalry to decimation and a highly symbolic insult to the leadership of the Native tribes.

It’s interesting to see this in 1948, and while it’s far from bleeding-heart liberalism, it shows a greater humanity toward the Native Americans than one might anticipate.  It’s Thursday who is the foul-mouthed racist, despite his West Point background and stiff, military rigidity.  Of course, it’s that very rigidity that turns out to be his weakness, rigidity and pride in search of glory.  Wayne is the pragmatist, who speaks “a little Apache” and who understands their plight and dignity.  The film tends to blame their exploitation more on an individual capitalist rather than the American government, and the ending suggests a cover up of Thursday’s death to translate him into a hero for the recordbooks, something that will be good for the country, the goverment, and the military.  An oddly ironic contrast with the tonality.  Wayne clearly grimaces at the fabrications but justifies it nonetheless.

As always, Ford is a master at the landscapes and the character, imbuing the Western with great depth and social criticism, despite his denials that he put too much into them.  And it’s just plain awesome to see these films in the cinema.

The Searchers

The Searchers (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. John Ford
viewed: 05/10/09 at the Stanford Theater, Palo Alto, CA

One of the greatest Westerns ever made (my personal favorite) and perhaps one of the greatest movies ever made, John Ford’s awesome film, The Searchers was totally awesome to see on the big screen.  Playing as a double feature at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto with Fort Apache (1948), I actually got myself down to the peninsula for only the third time to this terrific theater to catch one of their awesome shows.  Incredibly well worth it, too.

I’d initially seen The Searchers when I was living in England, a time that I hearken back to with some frequency.  Being 1995, the BBC and Channel 4 were doing great retrospectives of world cinema and The Guardian newspaper offered insightful descriptions of the films, leading me into a number of terrific discoveries.  The Western had not been a favorite of mine growing up, and though I was getting to like watching many Westerns while there in England, it was The Searchers that totally sold me on the genre and on John Wayne.

I, like many, always think of Wayne as the symbol of American manliness that so many came to perceive him: upright, strong, tougher than hell, the savvy one in the bunch, the ass-kicker among shit-kickers, and noble, forthright and true.  Whether he is or was or even represented any of this stuff isn’t so much the point, as much as he symbolized and embodied that for not just a generation, but enough to be as iconic as any Hollywood star ever will be.  But with that, there is the oppositional aspect, the part that rebels against such authoritative figures, symbols that belie themselves, hide the ugly beneath the veneer of good, and lack the complex nature of reality.  Of course, in true experience, Wayne is startlingly more deep and powerful than any one single image can stand.  And The Searchers is his personal masterpiece.

The film is the story of a pair of men, Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter, a young mixed-race adopted member of the family, who set out on a five year long trail of an abducted girl, kidnapped as a child and raised by the Comanches that stole her.  Vengeance is the driving factor, for the murdered family, and for the ruination, as Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards sees it, of the child.

Edwards is a ruthless tracker, seething with hatred for Native Americans, namely the Comanches, whose blood boils at the quietest of times and whose vitriol is demonstrated in his disfiguring the corpse of one of the fallen Comanches, shooting out his eyes, because Edwards knows that the Comanches believe that without their eyes, they will not be able to enter the spirit world.  He hates them beyond this world, he hates them into the next.  And while at first he hopes to rescue to abducted, his mission evolves into one of killing.  The audience is shown the madness to which abducted “white women” fall into after long captivity in this alien culture, no doubt coupled with rape and other suggested horrors.  Debbie, the stunning Natalie Wood, the abducted niece, is no longer human in his eyes, but a creature below contempt, like the Comanches themselves.

The racism in Edwards is the complication of the hero.  His nobility and know-how, returning to the family after years in the Civil War and other mysterious campaigns, has tainted him.  It is Hunter, the adoptive nephew, who stays doggedly by Edwards’ side, knowing what Edwards intends to do, and hoping that he can save Debbie from her rescuer.  It’s a complex portrait of Edwards, who knows more about the Native Americans than does Hunter’s Martin Pawley, despite the fact that Pauley has Native American blood in his veins.

The film is stunningly beautiful, filmed in Utah’s Monument Valley, among the incredible rock formations and hills and desert, against the vast, open skies.  It’s an epic landscape, Ford’s West, a dramatic background for this haunting, gripping drama.  The film is almost blunt about the implied rape and tortures that signify the ruin of the female characters at the hands of the “savage” villains.

This film is amazing.  If you have never seen it, it is well-worth the time.  It’s a true masterpiece, an iconic, tremendous film, still standing high, fifty years since it was released, and a total, absolute pleasure to see on the big screen in a wonderful theater.


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. John Ford
viewed: 06/16/03

Another journey to the realm of the classic Western for me, yet another John Ford film that I had not before seen. With John Wayne, no less!

I, like many people I would guess, have a somewhat prejudiced impression of John Wayne, the macho, drawling image of stereotypical American maleness, tough guy who solves problems by shooting people. Interestingly, this film seems to comment on that very stereotype considerably. And I have to say that the only other John Wayne film with which I am familiar, the brilliant John Ford film, The Searchers (1956), also seems to play Wayne against the types and ideals that from the outside seem to be what he represents.

As the film opens, Jimmy Stewart, a U.S. senator, arrives at the town of Shinbone (love that name) on the train, returning to the now civilized almost modern Western community, which boasts churches and schools and even looks very 1950’s. The bulk of film is told in flashback, as Stewart recounts the tale of how the town was settled, how law and order took over and ousted the wild criminal element embodied by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin, who is totally excellent). It’s an interesting perspective for this film and filmmaker, in the latter days of the studio system and the a late classic-era Western from the greatest of the genre’s directors, looking back at the latter days of the “Old West”.

Wayne represents the classic Western hero, whose tough guy confidence, street-wise smarts, and ability to sling a gun prove to be just the skills that make a man a man in the order of things. Stewart is a lawyer and a pacifist who wants to tame the West with law and justice and shuns the fighting and killing that he perceives makes Wayne’s character just as bad as the villan. Though the story is told from Stewart’s perspective, and presumably the audience is meant to side largely with him, the tension between the two ideologies drives the narrative. In the end, Stewart gets the girl (the usual determinate of who wins in these types of stories), but by compromising his ideals. And ultimately, I am not sure exactly what Ford was saying here, but perhaps it’s that the West needed and authority of violence to instill arepresentative authority of law?

I don’t know exactly, but it’s a very good film, with a well-developed narrative and excellent performances by some truly classic Hollywood stars. If you haven’t seen it, you should add it to your list.