Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The World of John Ford

The Searchers (Directed by John Ford) 
Ford’s major works can be traced in a rising parabola from Steamboat ‘Round the Bend and Judge Priest in the mid-Thirties to the extraordinary American trilogy in 1939 – Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk – and then on to the postwar classics beginning with My Darling Clementine and culminating with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. How Green Was My Valley established Maureen O’Hara as the definitive Ford heroine, just as Stagecoach established John Wayne as the definitive Ford hero. The extraordinary rapport of the Wayne-O’Hara team through Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and Wings of Eagles adds a sexual dimension to Ford’s invocation of tradition in human experience. How Green Was My Valley is also notable for introducing Ford’s visual treatment of the past as a luminous memory more real than the present, and presumably more heroic than the future. Ford and Hawks, the directors closest to the Griffith tradition, project different aspects of Griffith’s personality: Ford, the historical perspective and unified vi­sion of the world: Hawks: the psychological complexity and innate nobility of characterization. Of course, Ford can never become fashionable for the rigidly ideological critics of the Left. Too many of his characters wear uni­forms without any tortuous reasoning why. Even the orig­inally pacifistic What Price Glory is transformed by Ford into a nostalgic celebration of military camaraderie with the once raucous Charmaine emerging from the dim shad­ows as an idealization of the Chivalric Code. As a director, Ford developed his craft in the Twenties, achieved dramatic force in the Thirties, epic sweep in the Forties; and symbolic evocation in the Fifties. His style has evolved almost miraculously into a double vision of an event in all its vital immediacy and also in its ultimate memory-image on the horizon of history. – Andrew Sarris

The following extract is from an interview with John Ford by Jean Mitry. It appeared originally in Cahiers du Cinema, No. 45, March 1955 and was translated by Andrew Sarris.

The Informer (Directed by John Ford) 
Ford said he made films because it was his trade, which he liked. ‘But for producers,’ he continued, ‘there are other considerations, commercial ones, which must be re­spected. You see directors disappear, or make nothing but mediocre pictures. It is not that they have less talent, or that they have lost their ability. It is that they have turned out one film after another without box-office appeal, with the result that they lose their prestige and wind up on the beach. They must start again from the bottom to regain the confidence of producers. That can take a long time, and sometimes they are restricted to mediocre projects.’

The best directors can be defeated by this process of aesthetic attrition, and after enough setbacks they lose their ambition.

According to Ford’s calculations, directors who want to make only artistic films get a chance to do so about once every ten years. If the film is a commercial success, they get another chance, but otherwise they are through. ‘Only rarely,’ Ford added, ‘does the opportunity arise to make such films two or three times in a row.’

The secret, Ford said with the utmost seriousness, is to turn out films that please the public, but that also reveal the personality of the director. ‘That isn’t easy,’ he added.

I asked if he didn’t always do what he wanted.

‘What I want, yes, but what I would like to do, cer­tainly not.’

Stagecoach (Directed by John Ford) 
‘Do you choose your scripts or are they chosen for you?’

It depends, he explained, on the studio that employs him and on the kind of contract he signs. In rare exceptions Ford has what amounts to a choice – from among a dozen possible projects he may choose the one he likes best. In all his films, he said, he tries to maintain a certain feeling, a unity, and to retain in the script only that which contributes to this unity and sets forth his personality.

‘But that isn’t always possible,’ he exclaimed, ‘and I must make films whose success is assured in advance in order to have the right, and the opportunity, to make oth­ers that are commercial risks but more worthwhile. On their success hangs my freedom of action. In this way I have been able to make some films I wanted to make, and to make them according to my tastes and weaknesses. But I haven’t been able to make ten such films.

‘I waited four years to do The Informer and got the chance only after every sort of hesitation. Then I had a little more luck and was able to choose films which left me a certain leeway in which to express myself.’

‘But are you not also a producer?’

‘Yes, but like all producers, I am subject to the de­mands of the distributors. There’s not much freedom in being a producer. In fact, one takes on more worries – the financial ones. One is doubly responsible – for the film, and for the money. Like other producers, I hesitate to throw myself into an attractive but risky project.

Fort Apache (Directed by John Ford) 
‘At the moment I want to make – in Ireland, for very lit­tle money, a picture for my pleasure, to be called The Three Leaf Clover (later filmed as The Rising of the Moon). I hope it will express some of the poet­ry of my native land. After that I shall undertake a big Western with a subject that interests me – one that corre­sponds to what you call ‘my world.’ It is called – The Search (sic) and is set in the Rocky Mountains and concerns some pioneers who seek a little girl taken away by Indians. It’s a kind of psychological epic.’

I then ventured, the opinion that he seemed in almost all his films to have this theme of a small group of people thrust by chance into dramatic or tragic circumstances.

‘On purpose?’ I asked.

‘It seems so to me,’ he replied. ‘It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face to face with something bigger than themselves. The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves, and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace. I also like to discover humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic. Sometimes tragedy is ridiculous. I should like to do a tragedy, the most serious in the world, that turned into the ridiculous.’


She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (Directed by John Ford) 
‘Your penchant for unity of time and place,’ I asked, ‘does it tempt you to play down the story in order to make a film more universal, more abstract?’

‘Not at all!’ Ford said quickly. ‘That may be the re­sult, but it certainly is not the end. Unity of time and place is solely a means of defining the drama and individu­als, a way of getting there more directly and quickly. I look, before all else, for simplicity, for the naked truth in the midst of rapid, even brutal, action. To be as selective about time and place as one is about the action is to get rid of useless complications. When the circumstances are clearly comprehended, the force of the conflict is in­creased, since its effects are more completely understood. Time is important only when one follows individuals through all their lives.

‘I suppose everybody pursues one idea in many guises. In any event, everybody tends to emphasize those aspects of life he finds the most interesting. Movie directors cer­tainly do. What interests me are the consequences of a tragic moment – how the individual acts before a crucial act, or in an exceptional circumstance. That is everything.

‘However, a situation must never limit a director. It must never be more than a point of departure.’

My Darling Clementine (Directed by John Ford) 
‘How do you work?’ I asked. ‘Do you just shoot a scenario finalized by others, or do you collaborate on the cutting?’

‘The cutting! I do it myself. And I plan the film. When a subject interests me, I also take part in the scripting. If the subject doesn’t interest me, I am satisfied to do my job to everybody’s best interest. When I work with a scriptwri­ter, he outlines the situations, develops the continuity, writes the dialogue. The shooting arrangements, and the cutting, I do myself. We have numerous conferences with the cameraman, the set designer, and sometimes the actors. Each one knows what he has to do and understands the picture before starting to work it. A well-prepared film is shot quickly.’

I then remarked that some of my colleagues were sur­prised that American directors remain seated during the shooting of a scene. Ford was astonished.

‘What do you want them to do?’ he asked. ‘They ob­serve, they control, they direct. Everything is arranged be­forehand. There are assistants who rehearse the actors, who set the scene. It is quickly done. There is nothing more to do than to integrate it into a whole, to make it flexible. If everything goes well there’s no reason to be nervous.’

The Long Voyage Home (Directed by John Ford) 
‘Do you determine what the camera shall see?’

‘With the cameraman. It’s done in advance. A good cam­eraman knows how a shot should be framed. I have al­ways had excellent cameramen. Sometimes, when the com­position is very detailed, I may take over, but usually a few suggestions are enough.’

‘You never improvise?’

‘Oh certainly – but strictly within the predetermined framework. You can change cue, modify an incident, but the movement of the camera, like its position, is deter­mined in advance. A director who changes his mind is a director who loses time. You should make your decisions before, not during the shooting.’

‘But if a movement of the camera proves impossible?’

‘The director doesn’t know his job. You should know in advance what is and isn’t possible. I sometimes make a film in three weeks – after six months of preparation.

‘What would you think of an architect who arrived at his building wondering where to put the staircase? You don’t ‘compose’ a film on the set; you put a predesigned composition on film. It is wrong to liken a director to an author. He is more like an architect, if he is creative. An architect conceives his plans from given premises – the purpose of the building, its size, the terrain. If he is clever, he can do something creative within these limitations. Ar­chitects do not only create monuments and palaces. They also build houses. How many houses are there in Paris for every monument? It’s the same with movies. When a di­rector creates a little gem from time to time, an Arc de Triomphe, he certainly has the right to make some run­-of-the-mill pictures.’

The Searchers (Directed by John Ford) 
‘And your Arcs de Triomphe – your favorite films­ – what are they?’

Stagecoach; The Long Voyage Home; The Informer; Prisoner of Shark Island. Also The Sun Shines Bright – it’s a very simple story, the kind I like.’

‘And My Darling Clementine?’


‘Yes, if you like. My children liked it a lot. But I – you know.’


I then asked Ford about Henry Fonda, but I gathered from his manner there had been a falling out, so I did not pursue the subject. Ford’s great favorite is John Wayne. I asked him about The Quiet Man. Did he like it?

‘Yes, most certainly, especially because of the Irish set­ting; I shot it on my native heath. The actors were old family friends – they worked on it as pals. That is how I like to work.’

‘And Mogambo?’

‘I don’t know a thing about it. I haven’t even seen it. But why should I have deprived myself of a trip to Africa and the chance to make one more film? One does one’s job. The film of really personal interest is the exception.’

– Excerpt from Jean Mitry: Rencontre avec John Ford, Cahiers du Cinema 45 (March 1955). Translated by Andrew Sarris.