FILM / Fine horses and reliable hacks: Kim Newman argues that, as a film director, John Ford was a professional first and a genius second

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Careers have been built on the film styles of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks or Ingmar Bergman: indeed Brian De Palma's best Hitchcocks are better then Hitch's worst and the most slavish of Woody Allen's Bergman wannabes at least have (or had) Mia Farrow. But the sorry example of Andrew V McLaglen shows the folly of trying to imitate John Ford: McLaglen's McLintock], The Undefeated or Cahill: US Marshal are John Ford films in identikit. All the features are there: the splendour of Monument Valley, the grizzled star presence of John Wayne, the familiar clutch of supporting players (Ben Johnson, Hank Worden, Harry Carey Jr), the knockabout comedy fights, the underlying theme of the price paid for the civilising of the West. But the personality is missing; the films are cheap and vulgar where Ford's are neat and resonant.

Everyone admits a debt to Ford, but his vociferous admirer Lindsay Anderson has never (except maybe in The Whales of August) tried anything that might seem comparable with Ford's works. Pictures that echo Ford's themes (as Taxi Driver draws on The Searchers) often use the camera in a way Ford never considered and would not have liked. Though Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa both claim to have learnt much of the nuts and bolts of film-making from Ford, you'd be hard put to make the connection from an in-at-the-deep-end this-is-cinema triple bill of Stagecoach, Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai.

In later years, the mendacious one-eyed coot harrumphed that his style was to shoot straight between the characters' eyes and churn out simple, unproblematic entertainments ('My name's John Ford, I make westerns'). That he did more than stand in front of two cowboys pointing the camera is demonstrated by the heavily- shadowed and heavyweight tone he almost always took with high- falutin' subjects. By the time he got around to being interviewed, he knew posterity was kinder to movies (Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers) that indeed seem effortless than it was to The Informer and How Green Was My Valley. On their release, the latter won the Oscars and were demonstrably more 'important' by virtue of top-of-the-second-division literary sources (Liam O'Flaherty, Robert Llewellyn) and impeccably expressionist visual style. But when was the last time either got picked as anyone's favourite film?

Of his 'serious' pictures, only The Grapes of Wrath now ranks with the westerns that are the cornerstone of Ford's lasting reputation. Given his surprisingly frequent falling-back on literary subjects, it's worth noting that when he tackled Rudyard Kipling, the major leaguer whose tone perhaps suited him best, he came up with Wee Willie Winkie, a film even die-hards are unwilling to admit they enjoy (it stars Shirley Temple). Ford was happier with the works of American Kipling imitator James Warner Bellah (the Cavalry Trilogy) or unassuming western craftsmen like Alan LeMay (The Searchers), Ernest Haycox (Stagecoach) and the underrated Dorothy M. Johnson (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), perhaps because he didn't have to worry about being faithful to their works. Embroidering and tinkering as he couldn't when faced with well-established characters, he could take a story knot and string it out into a classic.

I follow the herd in listing The Searchers on my personal 10 Best list, respond to the western triumphs of My Darling Clementine, Wagonmaster or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and have come at last to recognise the greatness of They Were Expendable, but I'd like to put a case not for the poet-storyteller but for Crap John Ford, the hack who made all those two-reel Harry Carey westerns in the silent days and, between all those musty big productions, spent the Thirties on brisk pictures about submarines, prisons and soldiers, showing just how good formula film-making could get. The Lost Patrol (1934) is a case in point, with an isolated group of soldiers in the desert being picked off one by one by an unseen enemy; it is set in Mesopotamia in the First World War but it makes as much sense as a western, an urban thriller or Alien, and it takes a true pro to pull off.

Crap John Ford still galloped through cheerful half-achievements like The Horse Soldiers, Two Rode Together, Donovan's Reef and Sergeant Rutledge well into the Sixties. These are movies you have to love if you have any relationship at all with American cinema, lit up by moments of wonder: silhouette-against-the-sunset, ballad-on-the-soundtrack scenes.

For my generation, these are pictures one could remember on theatrical release rather than revived in art-houses or collected in commemorative television seasons. I now know Liberty Valance is a masterpiece and only makes real sense as a penetrating return to the themes of Clementine, but I first encountered it in a three- page adaptation in a Sixties comic annual and I remember replaying the climactic gunfight in a school playground. I saw Cheyenne Autumn not with the reverence due a flawed late work by a genius, but as an overlong second feature to When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. This Crap John Ford was the man I first met, and I'll stick by him even as the academics and critics are printing the legend of the genius of Americana.

Our man, Crap John Ford, signed off his career not with the spare, perfect Liberty Valance or the sprawling mea culpa of Cheyenne Autumn but with Seven Women which, even more than other late films, seems a disaster on first viewing but somehow starts to make sense on late-night television, as missionary Margaret Leighton and doctor Anne Bancroft fend off Chinese bandits in the middle of another of those Third World insurrections to which Ford was obviously attracted.

John Ford didn't invent the aspects of his films that have stood up best - scenery, Wayne, great character actors, the underlying melancholia of the Western story, the brutal navete of America - but he discovered them and revealed them to those came afterwards. A film-maker doesn't have to imitate Ford to be influenced by him, and audiences, whether casually taking in the visual joy of Wagonmaster on afternoon television or meticulously isolating the ingredients of Young Mr Lincoln in a classroom, don't have to understand his films to love them.

The first part of 'Omnibus - John Ford' is broadcast at 10.25pm tonight on BBC 1. 'Sergeant Rutledge' is on BBC 2 at 6.00pm

(Photograph omitted)