Imagine this situation: a young movie lover comes up to you, a big John Ford fan, and says, with all sincerity, “Hey, I like a lot of John Ford’s films—and maybe I really like some of them—but all this talk about him being such a great director baffles me. I especially want to understand what makes him such a good filmmaker (use of the camera, mise-en-scene, editing, use of sound, etc.).” Here’s a genuinely sweet kid (not one of those smart-ass, know-it-alls) sitting in front of you waiting to be enlightened.
I would ask him first what is it about John Ford’s films that he likes.
Read Tag Gallagher damn it!
Also I find funny your tactic to make others to engage in civil conversation :)
(Interested. Patiently wating for responses)
I say, “Sorry kid. I can’t think of a Ford film I’ve seen besides ‘The Searchers’. I haven’t even seen ‘Stagecoach’ yet. But if you want, we can pick a good cross-section of his films to watch and come up with our own assessment.”
Here’s our young film lover: “Well, let’s take The Searchers. I loved the Wayne’s complex and dark character. I loved some of the composition (Ethan standing in the doorway; the shots of the landscape;). I liked the dramatic elements of the story—searching for their sister/niece. Basically, I like the stories and the characters, and the films often look good, but not extraordinarily so. There are other Hollywood directors who make films that look good, but either the artistry is too subtle for me or it’s more technical proficiency than artistry. I can appreciate the artistry in the filmmaking of someone like Orson Welles or FW Murnau, but not so much with Ford.”
Listen kid, ‘The Searchers’ is a highly-problematic film. Piles of debate have been heaped upon Wayne’s character. I felt him to be cruel and uninteresting, as was the entire film. That shot of Wayne standing in the doorway is overrated to me. I’m not sure why it has entered the film lexicon. Anyway, it seems you appreciate the artistry of certain directors who have traces of Europeanism in their work. Ford is cut from a purely American cloth. He’s an original. I talked bad about ‘The Searchers’ but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in exploring a good deal of his filmography.
Kid: "Well, Mr. Wise, I really don’t want to get into the merits of the story or characters in The Searchers (at least for the time being) because I’m more interested in learning about what Ford’s skills as a director (e.g. use of camera, etc. Btw, I also enjoyed Stagecoach quite a bit, primarily for the plotting and combination of drama and action. Again, I didn’t notice any great filmmaking in terms of editing, camera work, etc.)
When you say that I’m interested in filmmakers with “traces of Europeanism,” I think there’s some truth to that. Maybe I just notice the “Europeanism” more than “American” form of artistry. It’s this latter thing that I’m interested in learning about."
I think that Ford was actually one of the first directors to try and employ European styles in his lighting techniques. If you compare his films to others of his early era, you’ll be surprised. He elevated the Western beyond the standard serial and the use of flat lighting. Monument Valley was the guy’s canvas. Films like My Darling Clementine and the Grapes of Wrath would not have looked this way in the hands of a hired studio director. I could go on..but…..
Kid: Please do go on Pierre (and be as specific as you can, if you dont’ mind).
I’d say, “Kid, watch the movies. It’s not about the technical tricks. Technique should serve the telling of the story, not be an end in itself. If you are marveling at the technique, you are probably missing the story. If the technique is being used properly, you probably don’t notice it, but it affects the way that you interpret what you are seeing.”
I don’t find The Searchers to be problematic, as Bobby Wise does, because I don’t believe that John Wayne’s character has to be viewed as the hero of the movie. It is natural to do so because Wayne starred in so many of Ford’s films, and he was often clearly the hero, as in Stagecoach, They Were Expendable and Fort Apache. In The Searchers, Jeffrey Hunter’s character is just as tough as Wayne, but motivated by love instead of hate. You could view either as the hero of the movie, and I wonder if Ford ever decided which one he thought was the hero of the story.
There is a tendency to view the characters in a movie as mouthpieces for the filmmakers, but Ford is often too complex for that view.
The Informer is the Ford movie that is most often cited as being influenced by Europe, for adopting German expressionist techniques in lighting, in order to create the feeling that Gypo is trapped and inevitably doomed, like the killer in M. That is probably the one Ford film in which the technique is obvious, but it doesn’t detract from the focus on the story, but serves the intended purpose of conveying emotion. The parallels between the technique in these two movies may also be intended to convey that Gypo, like his fellow killer, deserves what he gets for his crimes, but one can still recognize his humanity and be moved by his plight.
Kid:“I agree that technique should serve the story, but I keep hearing about the greatness of Ford—and I’m assuming that the greatness stems from Ford’s technique (at least in part). I feel like I’m completely oblivious to this great technique, so I’m interested in learning about it. Can you help me appreciate Ford’s filmmaking better?”
From what I’ve heard Ford’s greatness is the seamless manner of his technique. You probably won’t find flashy camera trickery and other effects in his films like you would with Welles or Murnau. I doubt he has a ‘tangible’ style. You’ll have to learn to look for the subtlety, kid. You’ll have to learn to appreciate the subtlety.
^^yeah, he is kind of like Ozu in that regard.
the only difference is that i love Ozu and get bored easily by Ford.
seamless manner of his technique
Yes and that implies that there was much being seemed together.
Ford was a director’s director – not for kids.
Bobby: “You’ll have to learn to look for the subtlety, kid. You’ll have to learn to appreciate the subtlety.”
Kid: “Well, I’m hoping that you knowledgeable old timers (except for the crabby Mr. Peabody :) can help enlighten me. I really hope you guys can help me!”
You mean you get bored for Ford’s technique, his films in general or both?
Have to agree that his reputation suffers a bit for the overpraised Searchers.
That said I love the way he frames the space of the American west. I like to compare it to Budd Boeticher’s more intimate framing of the landscape.
… and the Ringo Kid is safe forever.
Which Ford films have you seen, kid?
I can appreciate the artistry in the filmmaking of someone like Orson Welles or FW Murnau, but not so much with Ford.”
Reporter: “How did you prepare for Citizen Kane?”
Welles: “I watched Stagecoach 40 times.”
Watch Citizen Kane followed immediately by Stagecoach. You’ll make some very shocking discoveries.
Kid: Ford films I’ve seen: Stagecoach, The Searchers, How Green Was My Valley, Young Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Roberts, My Darling Clementine, The Grapes of Wrath, Judge Priest, The Quiet Man, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, sir.
Jazz: If I can speak for the kid for a bit, as he might be a bit shy, how revealing some of the shocking discoveries from seeing Stagecoach after CK. The guy is a dilligent lad, but I’m lazy, so…:)
That’s a very nice array of Ford films, kid. If you’re still questioning him after those, maybe you should revisit him at a later date. I say this from personal experience. It was a good ten years into my cinephilia before Ford clicked with me. I always appreciated him, but it was a full decade of watching great cinema every single day before I realized Ford was the greatest of them all. Don’t force him, but don’t give up on him either.
Also, kid- it wouldn’t hurt to read the Tag Gallagher chapters on the Ford films you’ve seen. The book is out-of-print, but I have a pdf of it with Tag’s permission to spread it around. If you want to pm me an email address, I’ll send it to you.
Kid: Mr Johnson, I want to be clear that I like and enjoy most, if not, all of those films I’ve seen. And I don’t have a problem if people call some of these films great. What I don’t get is why people consider Ford—as a filmmaker—to be so great. Let me be specific, because I’m afraid I may not have been so clear or precise in my writing. By “filmmaking,” I’m talking about things like the editing, mise-en-scene, cinematography, camera movements, but also use of score and sound, too. Now, if I acknowledge that some of his films may be great, one could say, “Well, that’s explains why Ford is a great filmmaker.” I understand that response. But are Ford’s films great because he has great scripts, terrific actors—and maybe Ford is great because he has a special way of working with actors (although I don’t notice this myself)—and his filmmaking (the things I mention above) are very technically proficient, but not necessarily stylish, “artistic” or “recognizable” (as in Ford has developed a unique language of filmmaking—if so, I’d really like to be able to identify this). Is this an acccurate general assessment of Ford or do I not appreciate the artistry and language of his filmmaking?
Jazz: If the kid doesn’t want the pdfs, I might be interested in them. :)
I don’t think you’re appreciating the language and artistry of his filmmaking. But it’s hard to pinpoint because Ford utilized so many different styles and he never wanted to call attention to his style.. Like how in Wagon Master (1:1.33 aspect ratio) he only used lateral movement, while in his segment of How the West was Won (Cinerama) he only used in and out movement. That makes no sense- it should have been vice-versa! But it works and that is the artistry of Ford.
I definitely think Ford’s films have a specific look, at least many of his black and white films do anyway. When i first saw Paper Moon, without having read too much about it, i immediately thought ‘FORD!!!’, and that was only after seeing 5 of his movies.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Searchers are all pretty great films. can’t say i liked anything else i watched as much though.
Kid: Like Jerry said, you need to give him time. Though I’m happy to list The Searchers as my second favorite movie, I don’t think that film would have the impact it does without a complete understanding of Ford’s other films. It wasn’t until my third or fourth time seeing that movie that it really clicked with me. His films all seem to be speaking to each other in one long conversation. It’s a conversation that details many subjects – America, community, family, morality…just to name a few. And in that conversation is a fluid, yet shifting, complex worldview that is expressed with such simplicity and authoritativeness. His is a seemingly unaffected cinema that demands a close attention to detail that reveals layers of intricacy.
You might also try Sergeant Rutledge and Steamboat Round the Bend.
John Ford deeply—perhaps innately—understood and effectively managed two key aspects of motion pictures: actors and cinematography.
Here’s my case for why that’s true, and why it makes Ford
one of the most important and gifted filmmakers in history:
Henry Fonda may have been the actor John Ford loved most,
or at least felt the most philosophical kinship with.
He certainly recognized Fonda’s particular screen potential, and his capacity to make manifest (or appear to) certain American characteristics and ideals.
In Young Mr. Lincoln, the center of John Ford’s robust presentation of pre-Civil War America
is Henry Fonda’s profound, gentle rendering of the Lincoln persona.
Ford insisted that Fonda was right for the role, and rather than listing
all the reasons why he was absolutely correct, it’s easier to note that, after seeing this film,
one tends to hear the Gettysburg Address, or any of Lincoln’s words, in Henry Fonda’s voice.
Ford correctly assumed that American audiences might find Fonda
a more than suitable embodiment of Lincoln as portrayed,
or rather codified, by poet Carl Sandburg—not so much mythic as idealized,
perhaps not historically accurate but spiritually authentic.
In The Grapes of Wrath, Ford insisted that Fonda’s quiet midwestern drawl—there may be a touch of Oklahoma twang thrown in for this role—is the ideal voice for a plain, decent guy,
which is precisely what Tom Joad is (“I’m just tryin’ to get on without shoving anybody, that’s all”).
His family may be searching for the Promised Land, a.k.a. the fertile valleys
of California, but he’s looking for answers.
Ford wisely allowed Fonda to expand on this aspect of Joad’s nature,
and in the process renders a distinctly American type of character—the fellow who just has to know why.
Among Ford’s favorite themes are camaraderie and character,
elements perfectly realized by his unofficial “stock company” of actors who appear,
in some combination, in all of Ford’s films. Ward Bond, Russell Simpson,
Jane Darwell, John Wayne, Ben Johnson, and the inimitable Victor McLaglan
clearly developed an engaging chemistry over time.
But being a visual master, Ford always risked matching and juxtaposing his characters
with an even more striking landscape.
That strategy, a hallmark of the director’s style, worked because Ford hired genuinely gifted cinematographers.
Certainly no director to date has more effectively merged the rural American landscape with the American character.
Bert Glennon was behind the camera for Young Mr. Lincoln,
adding to the fable-like quality of the story by bathing certain moments in sunlight,
or lighting Fonda’s face to create those unmistakable Lincoln cheekbones.
During the heyday of the silver screen, Glennon rendered luminous images that practically shimmered with energy. (See Joseph Von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, Blonde Venus.)
Greg Toland shot The Grapes of Wrath for Ford,
using Walker Evans’ famous photographs of the Dustbowl as inspiration.
Daytime scenes have a documentary feel; at night Toland shifts to impressionistic shadows and angles.
It’s a shame that this legendary photographer died so young, at the top of his form;
there’s no telling how many indelible images he might have created. (See also Citizen Kane, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Little Foxes.)
Joe MacDonald’s cinematography is visual poetry;
his meticulous compositions link characters with their mythic setting in some phenomenal landscape shots. One iconic scene from Ford’s My Darling Clementine offers a
silhouette of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) leaning back in his rocker
and placing the heel of his boots on a porch railing just so,
then switching back and forth out of sheer boredom.
A long shot of an outdoor church dance, bathed in sunlight and juxtaposed
with the grandeur of Monument Valley, remains unsurpassed.
(See also MacDonald’s work in the film noir gems The Dark Corner, Pickup on South Street, Panic in the Streets, and Niagara.)
Ford’s interviews are great!!. He is so stubborn and evasive, to the point of complete hilarity.
oldies but goodies:
^^he is really taking the piss here! hahahha.
Goddamn, he was a funny old coot ;-)
I appreciate the detailed post, and I don’t mean to be a jerk, but you mention Ford’s “management of actors and cinematography.” When discussing the former, my impression is that the primary contribution of Ford was his casting. When discussing the latter, it sounds like you praise and credit the invididual cinematographers and say little or nothing about Ford’s contribution. What was Ford’s special contribution to these two factors?
Ford was a master of communicating complex emotional ideas with the utmost economy. One of my favorite examples from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the shot of Stoddard’s tired hand erasing the phrase “Education is the basis of law & order” from the blackboard after Doniphon brings news of the impending threat of Valance and his men. It reminds me of Lang’s shot of the little girl’s balloon caught in the telephone wires in M. Both shots communicate a loss of innocence and idealism within their respective communities. Lang’s composition emphasizes the child’s innocence as a victim of industrialization and the growth of the modern city, where Ford’s says that violence robs a society of it’s stability, and denotes the futility of attempting to build a community in an environment inhospitable to the foundations community requires.
On Dr Lemonglow’s point about Ford’s ability with actors, I don’t think you can chalk it up to casting. My Darling Clementine is a master’s course in non verbal characterization. We learn as much from glances, expressions, body language, and movement as we do from the dialogue. That’s the language of direction.
Good point. It’s my understanding that Ford emphasized with all his cameramen the importance of
longshot composition, working directly with each on camera setups, and, often famously, as with the cavalry pictures and Wagon Master, instructing them regarding lens, aperture, and filters.
Based on what I have read, in other words, he was skilled at demonstrating to cinematographers
what he wished to achieve, after which he didn’t need to detail his ideas (other than insuring that they could cut in the camera).
I assume that’s all because there was no facet of cinematography with which he wasn’t already familiar.
His eye for the poetic and/or symbolic tableau goes without saying, and every film he made is
evidence that he conveyed this vision, considering the number of cameramen who rendered
such similar spectacular results.
Re: Actors – Ford got more out of his actors than almost anyone else. The only director to even come close to equaling Ford in what he could get out of John Wayne was Howard Hawks. Ford was a master psychologist on set. He bullied (Wayne), coddled, tricked (McLaglen), and worked his actors into great performances. He (generally) knew when to cut an actor down to size and when to just let them go (see his work with Will Rogers). He alienated some (Henry Fonda), but could gain fierce loyalty from others. I think he did more than just cast his actors.
Re: Cinematographers – Well, Ford did have the chance to work with some of the best (Toland), but if you look across his body of work, you’ll see that the Fordian touches are there regardless of the DP. He knew where he wanted the camera.