Film: The complacent cowboy

If you don't like John Ford, they say, you don't love the cinema. So where does that leave the film critic Sheila Johnston? BLIND SPOTS
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The Independent Culture
I have many blind spots. There is Quentin Tarantino, the king of cult, the director superstar, who has yet to prove that he's more than a one-trick pony. There are Beat Takeshi and John Woo, the latter declared "God" only last year in an overexcited poster campaign. There are Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, smug, humourless meat-heads good only for the occasional camp chuckle (but not other boys' club heroes, not Stallone or Schwarzenegger or Harrison Ford, who all display a saving dash of self-doubt or mocking irony: these I like). But they are all small motes, barely worth considering; none of them has nabbed a secure place in the critical Pantheon. The beam in my eye, my biggest blind spot, is John Ford.

Not to love Ford, it is sometimes said, is not to love cinema (I can practically hear Lindsay Anderson, a huge devotee and the author of a book on the director, harrumphing scornfully up there in the great cinemathque in the sky). So let me say quickly: I respect Ford's films; I value their directness; sometimes I catch my breath at their pictorial beauty. But there's a vast gulf between politely admiring a director and loving him (or her) passionately, looking forward to a film by him with a deep, dark thrill.

Blind spots are by their nature slightly irrational and it's hard to mount a firey case against something that leaves you cold. I'm aware of several reasons for this one, though. One is the accident of birth which meant I cut my film teeth in an era, the Sixties and Seventies, in which the western was in severe decay. (Ford worked in other genres, of course, but that one had his name on it: he once introduced himself famously: "My name is John Ford. I make westerns.")

For my generation, childhood memories of cowboys mean Sergio Leone's baroque, decadent Spaghettis, and above all Bonanza and The Lone Ranger - cramped, small-screen reductions with no sense of the space and landscape that are the very essence of the American frontier. We caught up with Ford later, but he didn't tower over our formative years.

But I love other directors' westerns; there is something else with this Ford thing. Part of it is his paternalistic idealism: the way he systematically sidelines women. Wives, mothers, school-ma'ams, girls next door: his heroines are boring, de-sexed creatures, displayed with a sentimentality that's patronising. What girl, dreaming in her cinema seat, could take flight with them?

Compare them to the red-blooded females stalking through the films of Howard Hawks - a director with whom Ford is frequently compared - and not only the screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire, His Girl Friday). Hawks proved that there could be a place for smart, sexy, humorous women in the western, like Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo.

Ford gives his Indians short shrift too, at least until the late films like Cheyenne Autumn and, especially, The Searchers: in its portrait of the John Wayne character, an obsessive, violent, near-psychotic loner prepared to kill his niece rather than let her live with her Indian abductors, it offers a more complex, troubled view. Interestingly, The Searchers is the Ford film that most other critics seem to love best.

This isn't just knee-jerk political correctness, but a more general disquiet at Ford's misty vision of his country's history. Hollywood has always been obsessed with America - with the forging of an idealised national identity and, after Vietnam and Watergate, with its erosion - ever since the first immigrants hung out their shingles in California. Directors are still obsessed with it today: look at Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, or at Robert Redford's Quiz Show (both open in Britain later this month). The best movies portray their own culture quizzically - indeed anything made in America much after 1960 seems to do little else. But the more complex and the more satisfying of the early Hollywood films do it too.

Ford's work is almost always coloured matte and rose. As one of the characters says at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." And, as David Thomson, a fellow critic who shares my blind spot (and a fellow-Brit, incidentally) says in his influential Biographical Dictionary of Film, "adherence to legend at the expense of facts will ruin America". Ford, he adds tartly, is trite, callous and evasive, bigoted, grandiloquent and maudlin; he peddles a "booze mythology of complacency... a cinema of distracting pipe dreams". In Britain, that remote colonial outpost of Hollywood's film empire, we are used to spending most of our time in cinemas pondering another country's national anxieties. That's already bad enough; what's worse is wallowing in another country's sentimental jingoism.

There are broader conclusions to be drawn from this (and everyone else's) blind spot. The centenary of cinema, 1995, is also the Golden Age of critical lists and charts and taxonomies: the "personal all-time Top 10" that I, like most reviewers, am invited to compile from time to time; the 360 "Treasures of the Archive" selected by the British Film Institute for preservation and regular screenings; the "100 Best Films" being screened throughout the year by the BBC; the polls of critics and directors commissioned at 10-yearly intervals since 1952 by Sight and Sound magazine.

All these selections vary significantly. The cinema is still a youngish art form and its canons haven't yet been set in concrete (perhaps that's why we're so keen to construct them); they shift and change shape, eroded or built up by the winds of intellectual fashion and print availability. Certain films and figures emerge from the shadows: Ford, whose reputation was cemented in the early Sixties, is still out there (although it's notable that only one or two of the women critics and directors polled by Sight and Sound found space for him in their 10-bests).

But whoever happens to be sitting in the Pantheon, our deepest loves and hates will always be shaped by the quirks of our individual histories. Which is not to say it's impossible to assess the merits of a film and debate them sagely with all the educated detachment in the world. But the things that make us respond to it emotionally, the reasons why it grabs us by the throat, will always be wayward, irrational and partly absurd. My indifference towards Ford springs from a personal cocktail of class, race, nationality, age, education and gender. That's why all those critical lists can only, at the end of the game, make a pass at objectivity. That's why, when you sit staring a work of art in the face, you're on your own.