Vester Pegg and Molly Malone in Bucking Broadway, John Ford, 1917
In a recent issue of Sight and Sound, the critic Michael Atkinson grumbled "I can hardly understand how any cinephile can still hold the view that John Ford is one of the greatest film-makers after reading [David Thomson's] torching [of Ford in Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film]. There are many potential rejoinders to this, and the one I like most this particular morning is "Tell it to Jean-Marie Straub." In any case, the cinephiles still holding to this irrational view are, so far as I can tell, forever unsatisfied as per the representations of Ford available in the DVD format. This despite last year's remarkable "Ford at Fox" box set from Fox, and two wonderful Ford collections released prior to that by Warner. We want more. And we pay high prices and make unusual searches to get more.
The Warner "John Ford Collection," a six-picture sampling of films Ford did during his on-off association with RKO and Warner Brothers, spans from 1934's The Lost Patrol to 1964's Cheyenne Autumn. Conspicuous in its absence, though, is Wagon Master, a 1950 effort with the team of Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson standing in for the John Wayne figure. So suffused with Sons of the Pioneers music that it sometimes resembles an operetta of sorts, Wagon Master is, per Ford, "the purest and simplest" Western he ever made.
It's available on DVD from France, via Editions Montparnasse, which a couple of years ago initiated a "Collection RKO," numbered editions of films from that studio, in slimline casings, featuring intros from voluble French critic Serge Bromberg. The series initially appears to be manna from heaven—Damsel in Distress, On Dangerous Ground, and so many others that, at the time the series was initiated, were nowhere to be found in Region One hunting grounds—but on closer inspection the blessings were mixed. The notes for Thirteen Women gave a running time of over 90 minutes—the rarely seen original release!—but when played, was the same slashed-to-bits 70-minute version we've been living with for years. For every title with superb image quality (H.C. Potter's Mr. Lucky looked damn good) there were three that looked mediocre or worse.
Sad to say, the Editions Montparnasse version of Wagon Master, here titled Le Convoi des Braves, falls into the "worse" category. You might not notice right away, during the film's unusual, dynamic pre-credit opening, depicting a crime and criminals the significance of which will only be revealed much later in the film:
And indeed, to judge by the screen grabs I got (that's the very effective Charles Kemper as the thoroughly slimy Shiloh Clegg, flanked by young James Arness as Floyd Cregg, below), you'd think this would be a pretty good-looking disc, in fact.
The problems start when the image actually moves. A transfer bug renders all movement in a flickery fashion, like poorly-drawn animation, rendering the whole thing a pain to watch, rather than a pleasure. Putting U.S. Fordians back at square one, begging for a decent Region One version of this crucial film.
One very fine foreign-region disc of a very fine Ford film is found in a modest cardboard sleeve loosely glued to the first page of the eighth issue of a French quarterly called Cinema. It is 1917's Bucking Broadway, one of 60 or so Ford silents, most of which are lost. Bucking was long thought lost itself, until found gathering dust on a shelf in the archives of the French National Center for Cinematography in 2000.
Ford biographer Tag Gallagher wrote a fairly definitive account of the picture for Senses of Cinema (http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/26/john_ford_rises.html), pronouncing it "astonishingly good." Indeed it is.
One of the astonishing things about it is how, a mere two years after D.W. Griffith supposedly codified cinematic grammar, Ford, in one of almost ten quickie Westerns made in this year, appears to advance it. This story of a rough ranch hand's love for a wide-eyed girl who's seduced and brought to the big city, where she's to be abandoned, is remarkably fleet and fluid. The film is old, yes, but there's not a lot about it that feels antique. A climactic fight scene, for instance, gets convincingly, shockingly brutal:
Triumphant in the battle is "Cheyenne" Harry, the cowpoke, played by Harry Carey, a Fordian Western hero before John Wayne even got to high school.
The film contains a genuinely bizarre sequence that I can't quite read. There's a scene in which Cheyenne Harry goes to a general store to buy some city clothes, the better to woo his love. Decked out in a not-particularly sharp white pants and jacket, he ventures outside, and sees this African-American, just hanging out, looking much, as they say, "cleaner" than he. The cat smiles broadly, waves his smoke around, and Cheyenne, in some sort of disgust (it seems, disgust at being one-upped, but it's hard to tell), stomps back into the store and gets his old clothes back.
I understand that in white racist iconography a very nattily dressed African-American man hanging out on a corner means "pimp," but the scene, which has no intertitles, doesn't really give off that vibe. And then there's the poster behind the fellow, reading "Infallible." It's an entirely arresting image, and I really have no idea about it. Get your copy of Bucking Broadway via Amazon Fr. (search for the film by title, or just search for "Cinema 08") and let's talk about it...