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John Ford (31. Oct 2011)

By Edo Muric

This is an old blog post. Some of the views expressed in it may not be what I think today.
I won't be bothering you with The Searchers (1956), even though I include it in my list of the greatest films. I'm sure you have been bothered enough by a number of narrative hommages from the seventies (mostly by Paul Schrader) when John Ford was going trough a revival in popularity, or the numerous visual hommages to that famous last scene, made by many film students during their baby steps, when they still believed that making films is the same as watching them.
I will therefore remind you of Ford's less venerated films such as his short propaganda documentary The Battle of Midway (1942), The Long Gray Line (1955), as well as Seven Women (1966) and finally How Green Was My Valley (1941), which is in my opinion his greatest achievement. All these make my list for different reasons. Midway is a shocking account of a maritime battle in the Pacific. Ford managed to capture the horror of the historic battle and the aftermath in a magnifiicent colour footage. And though the narration was provided by, among others, Henry Fonda, it is the footage itself, its rawness, which gives the 18-minutes long film its power.
It is exactly such quality, in spite of the visual perfectionism, which often shines in Ford's other masterpieces, only in different ways. One of the examples the constant presence of John Wayne himself. But in Seven Women it is the brutality of violence, finally translated to a group of female characters, which resonates the most with the notion. And in How Green Was My Valley, this violence is able to intrude into a child's experience as well. The experience is tightly related to what we could call the authentic life experience of a mining town in Wales. The film depicts an everyday experience filled with mining disasters and other forms of hardship, without any of the poverty spectacle of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), filtered trough a child's viewpoint, but eventually uncovered even to the boy as a raw reality, as dark as the coal dirt which becomes part of the miner's destiny.
In order to establish this relation between a child and the harshness of the surrounding, Ford uses some rather incredible techniques. In one shot which shows the boy Huw approaching the house where his sister is married, the house itself is constructed in oversized measures. Such effect makes the boy look even smaller than he is.
The shot towards the end of the film, which I nominate as more powerful than anything in The Searchers, shows the reality of all of it projected on the face and the eyes of the child (magnificently played by the screen legend, Roddy McDowall, then still early in his career). It's all there in the calm look, the sublimation of all the hardship and at the same time a moment of transformation, or perhaps of a realisation that everything had already changed long time ago. His childhood has ended. We could make a link to Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987). In both films the protagonist boys are accepting (defending themselves from) the harsh reality by digesting it as a form of fantasy. Needless to say, Jim (played by Christian Bale) also realises at the end that his childhood was already gone without him noticing it. And yet again this powerful realisation is apparent in the eyes.
The Long Gray Line is a film wich shows a rather different, more cheerful, side of John Ford. I rank it among his best because it marries the discipline of his perfectionism with the military themes, being set around the challenging life of discipline of a military academy. And even though it has those themes, it is a profoundly anti-war film because it gives us all the colorfulness and sentimentality of a military without any war at all.
Such inversion, an embrace of militarism's way of living, without any actual militarism, is typical for many Ford films and was presented in a particularly interesting form in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), which is an ode to a life in a cavalry outpost. Yet, even though it is set in the middle of the large scale Indian war, just days after the battle at Little Big Horn, we don't get to see any large battles at all.
In Gray Line this idea reaches its maximum. And with careful visual discipline (use of only a few colours, for example) Ford makes a precedent for such films as Barry Lyndon (1975).