| Just Pals | The Iron Horse
| The Shamrock Handicap
| 3 Bad Men | The Blue Eagle
| Four Sons
| Born Reckless | Up the River
| Seas Beneath
| Pilgrimage | Four Men and a Prayer
| Stagecoach | The Grapes of Wrath
| Fort Apache | She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
| When Willie Comes Marching Home
| The Quiet Man | What Price Glory
| The Long Gray Line | Screen Directors Playhouse: Rookie of the Year
| Gideon's Day | The Last Hurrah
| The Horse Soldiers
| Sergeant Rutledge | The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Classic Film and Television Home Page
John Ford's films are noted for their pictorial beauty. Ford became
a director long before that other great creator of visual beauty
on the screen, Josef von Sternberg, and
his films constitute a parallel tradition to those of Sternberg
and his followers.
Tag Gallagher's book on John Ford is available as a free download at his
Its index traces out many subjects in Ford, and in which films they occur.
Some common characteristics of Ford films:
- Westerns set in Monument Valley
- Deliberately set small fires, as a campaign tactic (Seas Beneath, Cheyenne Autumn)
related (villain sets big fire: Hangman's House)
- Sailors and ships (Hearts of Oak,
The Blue Eagle, Seas Beneath,
cruise ship to Europe: Pilgrimage,
Steamboat Round the Bend,
The Hurricane, The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable, Mr. Roberts,
boat and waterfront: "1921" episode of The Rising of the Moon,
The Growler Story, Donovan's Reef)
related (lighthouse: The Face on the Barroom Floor,
small skiff: Hangman's House,
Oxford crew, boat at finale: Four Men and a Prayer,
river boats and canoes: Mogambo)
- Water technology (backyard wash area: How Green Was My Valley,
damaging Western water supply: 3 Godfathers,
sprinkler, water barrel in Wayne's room: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
holy water basin: The Quiet Man,
villains hoard water: The Colter Craven Story)
- Parades, with militaristic discipline (sailors return after war: The Blue Eagle,
Gold Star mothers enter ship: Pilgrimage,
finale: Judge Priest,
West Point: The Long Gray Line, political: The Last Hurrah,
kids march off to war: The Horse Soldiers)
- Uniforms (railroad uniform: Just Pals, sailors: The Blue Eagle,
Foreign Legion, British Army: Hangman's House,
World War I, police: Born Reckless, convicts: Up the River,
World War I: Seas Beneath,
Army, NY police, stewards, waiters in hotel: Pilgrimage,
The Lost Patrol,
British Army, police, Irish in trenchcoats: The Informer,
Arizona State Troopers, California inspectors, gas station: The Grapes of Wrath,
Navy: They Were Expendable,
World War I: What Price Glory, baseball: Rookie of the Year, Navy: The Wings of Eagles,
yachtsman, fireman, motorcycle police: The Last Hurrah, Cavalry films)
- Buglers (sailors on ship: The Blue Eagle, "boigler" becomes bugler: Born Reckless,
row of buglers at Tomb of Unknown Soldier: Pilgrimage, horse race: The Quiet Man, Cavalry films)
- Trains (kid thrown off freight train: Just Pals, building Transcontinental Railroad: The Iron Horse,
soldiers ship out, mother leaves town: Pilgrimage,
farewell at train station: When Willie Comes Marching Home,
opening at train station: The Quiet Man, Irish train station: "A Minute's Wait" episode of The Rising of the Moon,
Civil War soldiers destroy train tracks: The Horse Soldiers,
suspense at train and station: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Family meals (Born Reckless, mother and son: Pilgrimage, meal interrupted by soldiers: The Informer,
first view of Joads: The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, breakfast: Gideon's Day)
- Childbirth and women who need help (Pilgrimage, Stagecoach, 3 Godfathers)
- Older man - younger man relationships (3 Bad Men, Dan O'Malley: 3 Bad Men,
priest and sailors: The Blue Eagle,
hero, young Irishman Dermot: Hangman's House,
hero, nephew: Judge Priest,
hero, nephew: Steamboat Round the Bend,
John Wayne, Ben Johnson: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
Ethan Edwards, Martin Pawley: The Searchers,
hero, nephew: The Last Hurrah,
Rutledge, Cantrell: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Fallen women encounter respectable women (finale: The Informer, Stagecoach)
- Men who seek permission to marry (Hangman's House, Born Reckless, Pilgrimage,
Judge Priest, The Quiet Man, Gideon's Day)
- Young man courts heroine whose father is an authority figure in uniformed organization
(police: The Blue Eagle, Army: Born Reckless, cavalry: Fort Apache, London police: Gideon's Day)
- Working class men who love women, who are in turn in love with a middle class man
(Just Pals, 3 Bad Men, Born Reckless, Lieutenants and heroine: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
related (men attracted to woman spies controlled by officer: Seas Beneath)
- Working class man and middle class man as friends (hero, man courting sister, rich guy in Army: Born Reckless,
Tracy, Bogart: Up the River)
- Men who can move between classes (hero: Born Reckless,
enlisted man's son goes to West Point: Fort Apache,
hero: The Quiet Man,
Scotland Yard inspector: Gideon's Day)
- Teenage girls, usually independent and energetic (Shirley Temple: Fort Apache,
classical musician: Gideon's Day, Lucy: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Horse races (Kentucky Pride, The Shamrock Handicap, Hangman's House, The Quiet Man)
- Training in riding horses (Rio Grande, Sgt trains girl: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Baseball (soldiers: Born Reckless, convicts big game at end: Up the River,
sportswriters and rookie: Rookie of the Year)
- Boxing (brother wants to be boxer: Little Miss Smiles, on ship: The Blue Eagle,
flashbacks: The Quiet Man, cadets: The Long Gray Line)
related (fist fight in saloon: The Iron Horse, wrestling: Flesh)
- Human targets (knife throwing: Upstream, knife throwing: Up the River,
hay tossed at people during festival: Pilgrimage,
spear throwing at Clark Gable: Mogambo,
shooting and splattering paint: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
- Cue sticks for pool (gang members on street, zany cop: The Blue Eagle,
in gang headquarters: Born Reckless,
in fight: Judge Priest,
informer who phones hero: Gideon's Day)
- Cards (villain Joe plays solitaire: Born Reckless,
good guy Ben Johnson doesn't play cards: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
villain builds houses of cards: The Colter Craven Story,
poker game at court martial: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Actors reciting Shakespeare (hero stars in Hamlet: Upstream,
Hamlet: My Darling Clementine, actor turned officer and Richard II: The Horse Soldiers)
- The Bible (mother reads: Pilgrimage, Agar's father reads: Fort Apache,
prophecies: 3 Godfathers)
- Poetry, often of the Romantic Era (William Blake "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" and "All that lives is holy": The Grapes of Wrath,
William Wordsworth "Peter Bell" and "A primrose by a river's brim": The Quiet Man,
Robert Burns "Comin' Thro' the Rye": Mogambo)
Politics and society:
- Anti-war films (Four Sons, Pilgrimage, They Were Expendable,
Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Long Gray Line)
- Training military recruits leads to their death (Fort Apache, What Price Glory,
The Long Gray Line, The Colter Craven Story)
- Gold Star mothers (The Blue Eagle, Pilgrimage)
- Concern over weapons, seen as evil (munitions manufacturing: Four Men and a Prayer,
new Nazi weapon: When Willie Comes Marching Home)
- Shootings prevented by another character (Wayne stops killing of minister: The Horse Soldiers,
heroine stops shooting of Sergeant: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Sugar and war (stealing sugar from Army: Born Reckless, high price in Civil War: The Horse Soldiers)
- Ethnographic portraits of a culture, time or place (nearly all Ford films)
- Concern with Civil Rights and racial prejudice (Chinese build railroads: The Iron Horse,
Jewish mother among Gold Star mothers, Jewish soldier's grave: Pilgrimage,
Native Americans: Fort Apache,
first West Point cadet from Philippines: The Long Gray Line,
Native Americans: The Searchers,
black Cavalry soldiers: Sergeant Rutledge,
Pacific Islanders: Donovan's Reef,
Native Americans: Cheyenne Autumn)
- Hungry, starving people (Irish go wild over free fish dinner: The Informer,
starving children: The Grapes of Wrath, Native Americans: Cheyenne Autumn)
- Sinister actions of the rich
(Four Men and a Prayer, ranch owners: The Grapes of Wrath, The Last Hurrah, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
- Democracy and voting
(election coming up for DA: Born Reckless, Stagecoach, The Last Hurrah, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
- Schools (teacher heroine, school fund, kid sent to school: Just Pals, fight in school yard, supportive teacher: Pilgrimage,
hero drops kids off at school, Royal Academy of Music: Gideon's Day,
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Quaker schoolteacher and classroom: Cheyenne Autumn)
- Informers (villain: Hangman's House,
crooks rat on each other, hero refuses to inform on friend: Born Reckless,
Irish rebellion: The Informer, Plummers inform on Ringo: Stagecoach,
informer phones policeman hero: Gideon's Day)
- Politicians who love oratory
(DA: Born Reckless, Pilgrimage, Senator: Judge Priest,
When Willie Comes Marching Home, The Last Hurrah,
prosecutor: Sergeant Rutledge,
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cheyenne Autumn)
- Big City politics, often Democratic (New York: The Prince of Avenue A,
DA's office: Born Reckless, Mayor, massive satire: The Last Hurrah)
- Oppressive small towns persecuting people (outsider hero: Just Pals,
young Jimmy for being illegitimate: Pilgrimage, heroine of unknown parentage: Judge Priest,
Joads thrown out of California town: The Grapes of Wrath,
hero despised for non-combat role: When Willie Comes Marching Home)
related (locals want to lynch Rutledge: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Emigration to the United States (The Shamrock Handicap, Four Sons,
hero and heroine want to go to USA: The Informer, How Green Was My Valley,
back story of hero's family: The Quiet Man)
related (Irish, Italian, Chinese immigrant labor build railroads: The Iron Horse)
- People from the US going to Europe (war remembrance trip: Pilgrimage, move back to Old Country: The Quiet Man)
or the South Seas (hero at end: The Whole Town's Talking,
The Hurricane, Donovan's Reef) or the Caribbean (Arrowsmith, The Prisoner of Shark Island)
Vision and alternate reality:
- Mining communities (Wales: How Green Was My Valley,
West Virginia: Rookie of the Year)
- Hot working environments (ship's stokehold: The Blue Eagle, Pittsburgh steel mills discussed: The Quiet Man)
- Food suppliers (hero fails as cook's helper: Just Pals,
American hero runs delicatessen: Four Sons,
family-run grocery, French bar bakes: Born Reckless,
restaurant, fish and chips shop: The Informer,
diner, Ma Joad and kids: The Grapes of Wrath,
peeling potatoes in Army: When Willie Comes Marching Home,
heroine cooks for field hands: The Quiet Man,
hero as dishwasher, West Point dining hall: The Long Gray Line,
restaurant, hero works as waiter: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
- Milk arrives in early morning (after kidnapping: Born Reckless, opening: Gideon's Day)
- Tributes to retiring heroes (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Long Gray Line)
- Heroes who don't like routine work
(lazy hero is town tramp: Just Pals,
gangster pretends to be working man: Born Reckless,
son wants to get away from farm: Pilgrimage,
horrible office versus dreams of adventure: The Whole Town's Talking,
absconding banker: Stagecoach,
rich Carey considers leaving Army: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
training job vs combat duty: When Willie Comes Marching Home,
boxer retires and moves to Ireland: The Quiet Man,
dishwasher becomes athletic coach: The Long Gray Line,
hero wants better newspaper job: Rookie of the Year,
playboy son: The Last Hurrah)
- Respectable looking banker villains are secret embezzlers (Just Pals, Stagecoach)
related (rich heir steals church funds: The Village Blacksmith)
Architecture and Settings:
- Hoaxes, deception and double lives, which often give the hoaxer pleasure
(fake family: Just Pals,
lying about best railroad route: The Iron Horse,
hero disguised as monk and blind man: Hangman's House,
covert mission: The Black Watch,
hero's alleged honest job, fake alibi with clock, convict claims to be in Europe: Born Reckless,
hero pretends to be abroad, prisoner pretends to be Englishman, escaped convicts pretend to be friends, heroine as fake medium: Up the River,
mystery ship, panic drill: Seas Beneath,
hero conceals romance from mother: Pilgrimage,
doubles and impersonation: The Whole Town's Talking,
taxicab: Four Men and a Prayer,
Hatfield's new name out West: Stagecoach,
Ma Joad and grandmother: The Grapes of Wrath,
trick about suit played on McLaglen: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
claims woman likes McLaglen, hero's painted house: The Quiet Man,
deception at finale: Mogambo,
Ward Bond's new identity: Rookie of the Year,
prison escape scheme: "1921" episode of The Rising of the Moon,
television political spot and its phony imagery: The Last Hurrah,
eavesdropping through stove: The Horse Soldiers,
shooting: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,
fake father of children: Donovan's Reef)
- Concern over lying in the press, and its effect on society
(Fort Apache, The Last Hurrah, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cheyenne Autumn)
related (newsman's idea ascribed to DA: Born Reckless, should press publish harmful truths: Rookie of the Year)
- Visionary experiences, which people see, and sometimes later enter
(fake family: Just Pals,
pass where railroad might be built, father's murder, saloon fight: The Iron Horse,
brother's murder on submarine: The Blue Eagle,
mystery ship, panic drill, dance sequence: Seas Beneath,
trip to Europe: Pilgrimage,
revolution: Four Men and a Prayer,
trip abroad: When Willie Comes Marching Home, Fitzgerald's courtship rituals: The Quiet Man,
tour of West Point, kitchen: The Long Gray Line,
watching ball games: Rookie of the Year,
campaign: The Last Hurrah,
flashbacks: Sergeant Rutledge,
shooting: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
- Visions (dying Captain hears voices of family: Hearts of Oak, dead friends appear to hero: 3 Godfathers)
- Mental imagery (vision of hero in railroad uniform: Just Pals,
fireplace: Hangman's House, montage of heroine's memories: Pilgrimage, wanted poster: The Informer,
memory recreates the past: How Green Was My Valley,
hero remembers mother's stories: The Quiet Man)
- Story telling strategies (film turns out to be dream: Wild Women, plot turns out to be joke by friends: The Girl in No. 29)
- Men who almost magically appear (friend on bus: Four Sons, Frankie in restaurant: The Informer,
Rutledge at train station: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Visual analysis by characters (Ben Johnson analyzes arrow: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
sportswriter watches rookie and discovers truth through visual analysis: Rookie of the Year,
reading sign, deductions from photo, identifying cross, coat: Sergeant Rutledge)
- High tech communications (building telegraph wires, telegraphing sound to Washington: The Iron Horse,
telegram: Hangman's House,
police call in taxicab number from box, printing press: Born Reckless,
home movie camera, telegraph: Pilgrimage,
long distance phone calls, code machine, flashing light "bell": Four Men and a Prayer,
telegraph in prologue: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
film within a film: When Willie Comes Marching Home,
newspaper, teletype, long distance phone, radio and TV discussed: Rookie of the Year,
television: The Last Hurrah,
telegraph: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Vertical architecture, which the hero climbs up or down
(barn loft: Just Pals,
hero climbs down cliff by rope: The Iron Horse,
ladder from stokehold, trap door from dock down to boat: The Blue Eagle,
escape from high jail window: Hangman's House,
staircase at parents, moving down from gang headquarters to street: Born Reckless,
riggings, ropes, balcony: Seas Beneath,
roof, hay loft: Pilgrimage,
Frankie and shoot-out: The Informer,
ship's masts, rigging: The Hurricane,
steep building staircase: Four Men and a Prayer,
steep outdoor staircase: Stagecoach,
ladders up to roof of hero's cottage: The Quiet Man,
boy cadet climbs down from window by vine: The Horse Soldiers)
- Gaps or chasms, over which people cross or meet
(Ship-submarine gap: Seas Beneath,
jumping cliff gap on horseback: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
dock-ship: When Willie Comes Marching Home,
jumping over cliff gaps: Cheyenne Autumn)
- Men who swim to ships (Seas Beneath, The Hurricane, Four Men and a Prayer, hero swims to shore: Donovan's Reef)
- Walls of windows (windows seen in mirror: Hangman's House,
control room: Air Mail,
recruiting station, French apartment: Pilgrimage,
candy store: How Green Was My Valley,
telegraph desk at train station: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Bridges (New York City, small bridge near shack: Born Reckless, Paris: Pilgrimage,
to California: The Grapes of Wrath,
pedestrian bridge, train bridge, bridge over stream: The Quiet Man,
final battle on bridge: The Horse Soldiers)
related ("London Bridge" as theme music: Gideon's Day)
- Fences, often of rails (with gate: Just Pals, opening shot: The Iron Horse,
at race: Hangman's House, farm: Pilgrimage,
Illinois countryside: Young Mr. Lincoln, Oklahoma farms: The Grapes of Wrath,
miners' homes with gate: How Green Was My Valley,
cemetery: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, fields, near boy cadets: The Horse Soldiers)
- Stone churches (finale: The Informer, Welsh chapel: How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man)
- Homes all together in a row (Welsh village: How Green Was My Valley,
cavalry quarters: Fort Apache)
- Shots down covered porticos or walkways (town sidewalks: My Darling Clementine,
near stagecoach at start: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
train station at start: The Quiet Man,
heroine's mansion porch, hospital house at end: The Horse Soldiers, near courtroom: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Nocturnal cityscapes, full of street lights
(The Blue Eagle, outside hero's nightclub: Born Reckless,
train station, Paris bridge: Pilgrimage,
The Informer, Stagecoach,
train station, town after murder: Sergeant Rutledge, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
related (guardhouse lit up: Up the River,
lanterns and lights at West Point dance: The Long Gray Line, in color and more distant: Gideon's Day)
- Moving circular lights at night (spotlights move over street in opening: Born Reckless,
British Army shines flashlights: The Informer)
- Storms (big rain storm when hero dies: Pilgrimage, The Hurricane,
lightning on patrol: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
romantic scenes in wind and rain: The Quiet Man,
wind at train station: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Mist, steam, fog (mist: Hangman's House,
fog at night: The Informer,
mist over cemetery, morning smoke from chimneys, smoke from burning wagon, smoke signal, cigar smoke: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
smoke from cannon: The Horse Soldiers,
steam at train station: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Lateral camera movements, recalling the track-to-the-swamp in Sunrise
(monk through the countryside: Hangman's House, through a swamp to kidnapper's shack: Born Reckless)
related (opening with similar imagery but little camera movement: Pilgrimage,
soldiers in swamp, filmed through weeds: The Horse Soldiers)
- Moving camera shots in the air on city streets (opening shot, view from upper hall window: Born Reckless,
residents in French building seen from street windows: Pilgrimage)
- Propulsive forward camera movements into a region (opening shot in city: Born Reckless,
entry into Okie camp: The Grapes of Wrath)
- Strong composition
- Frontal shooting, with back wall parallel to film frame (The Iron Horse, The Blue Eagle,
many shots: Born Reckless)
- People framed through open doors (first shot in fort: Hangman's House,
lovers framed by barn: Pilgrimage,
British soldiers seen through street opening at start: The Informer,
miners in street: How Green Was My Valley,
fort gate: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
start and end: The Searchers)
- Silhouettes (fight shown as shadows on tent: The Iron Horse,
jewelry store robbery: Born Reckless,
credits, hero enters as shadow: The Informer,
heroine's shadow on tombstone, Ben Johnson rides after John Wayne at end: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
horsemen procession, hero's shadow on heroine: The Horse Soldiers)
- Reflection (windows seen in mirror: Hangman's House,
hero and heroine in shop window: The Informer,
Ma Joad and earrings: The Grapes of Wrath,
heroine frightened by her own reflection: The Quiet Man,
Robinson in photo of Lincoln: Cheyenne Autumn)
- Spirals (gate: Hangman's House, jewelry store, swinging doors at end: Born Reckless,
music rack on harpsichord: The Quiet Man,
balcony with boy cadets: The Horse Soldiers)
- Chair backs filled with circles and arcs (judge's chair: Hangman's House,
side of chair on balcony: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
Billie Burke's chair: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Triangles (Irish cottage: Hangman's House, bridge: Born Reckless,
roof when telegram arrives, mantel ornament: Pilgrimage,
Joads' house, tents, dance with tents and lights: The Grapes of Wrath,
chapel exterior: How Green Was My Valley,
church, roofs, castle: The Quiet Man,
roof of heroine's house: The Long Gray Line, teepees: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
Army tents, house roofs: The Horse Soldiers)
- Geometrical extravaganzas (jockeys' silks: Hangman's House, night club murals: Born Reckless,
Native American pottery: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon)
- Spectacular red sunsets (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, credits: The Quiet Man)
- Red, yellow and blue color schemes (opening at fort, stopped fight, retirement: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
Gideon family home interior: Gideon's Day,
uniforms and heroine's red dress, burning train: The Horse Soldiers,
hero and heroine on train, heroine first meets Rutledge, hero and Rutledge: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Red and green color schemes (O'Brien's office, heroine on balcony, Native American attack parties: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
Gideon's car, Gideon family home front yard, school, corridor at Scotland Yard: Gideon's Day)
- Red and blue color schemes (Arapaho procession: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
heroine's clothes, brother's jockey silks: The Quiet Man,
boy cadets: The Horse Soldiers)
- Clothes the same color as backgrounds (McLaglen's gray suit and Wayne's room: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
daughter's blue sweater and pale skirt and hall: Gideon's Day)
- Cloth caps with visors (hero: The Blue Eagle, American hero: Four Sons,
hero at end: Hangman's House,
hero's working man disguise, crooks: Born Reckless, kids in school: Pilgrimage,
hero, Frankie, others: The Informer,
hero: The Grapes of Wrath,
singers in street: How Green Was My Valley,
John Wayne at start, in fight: The Quiet Man,
informer at start: Gideon's Day)
related (Ken Curtis' high cloth cap: The Horse Soldiers)
- Hard round hats (rival: The Blue Eagle, Spencer Tracy: Up the River,
john tries to pick up Katie: The Informer,
John Wayne courting: The Quiet Man)
- Women in feminized versions of menswear (heroine's jacket and tie, riding clothes: Hangman's House,
modified Cavalry uniforms: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon)
- Leather (buckskins: The Iron Horse,
French taxi driver's coat: Pilgrimage,
banker, lawman, ranch enforcer: The Grapes of Wrath,
hero's jacket: When Willie Comes Marching Home,
crook in buckskins: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
hero's jacket while riding horse: The Quiet Man,
motorcycle police: The Last Hurrah)
- Boots (hero's big boots: The Iron Horse,
hero's uniform, Dermot's riding boots: Hangman's House,
Randolph Scott's Army dress uniform: Born Reckless,
Robert Warwick's Army dress uniform: Pilgrimage,
tractor driver: The Grapes of Wrath,
Cavalry, John Wayne sleeps in boots: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
injured hero has boot cut off: The Horse Soldiers,
Cavalry: Sergeant Rutledge,
Widmark talks with Stewart: Two Rode Together)
- Trenchcoats (Irish partisans in trenchcoats: The Informer,
hero: The Quiet Man)
- Men getting dressed (hero dons working man disguise: Born Reckless,
miners wash after work: How Green Was My Valley,
John Wayne gets dressed in morning: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,
hero puts on fancy trimmings before court: Sergeant Rutledge)
- Men with shirts off (hero and villain with shirts torn off in fight: The Iron Horse,
ship's stokehold: The Blue Eagle, desert: The Lost Patrol,
hero: The Hurricane, miners wash: How Green Was My Valley, John Agar at start: Fort Apache,
spear throwing at Clark Gable: Mogambo,
injured Rutledge: Sergeant Rutledge)
Just Pals (1920) is a delightful comedy drama.
The small town and characters are like an expanded version of the Springfield
prologue of The Iron Horse.
The small town persecutes the hero, as an outsider. Later, in Pilgrimage,
the small town will torment young Jimmy for being illegitimate.
The hero of Just Pals hates work. Later young men in Ford will also express
disinterest in routine work:
- The hero of Born Reckless pretends to be working man, concealing his life of crime.
He clearly relishes his imposture, as a defiance of the work ethic.
- The son in Pilgrimage wants to get away from the farm, and its backbreaking toil.
- The office in The Whole Town's Talking is depicted as a nightmare.
- The absconding banker in Stagecoach perhaps wants to get out of the rat race.
- The hero of When Willie Comes Marching Home wants to get out of his training job.
- The hero of The Quiet Man wants to retire, and live in Ireland.
- The hero of The Long Gray Line dislikes his job washing dishes, and gets a
better position as an athletic coach.
- The rich son in The Last Hurrah is a playboy, disappointing his father.
Several Ford films include shots of heroes ascending or descending architecture:
- The barn loft in Just Pals is accessed by rope.
- The hero of Born Reckless goes up and down the staircase at his parents.
- Sailors in Seas Beneath climb riggings, and also climb up ropes to board ships.
A sailor also climbs a balcony, on shore.
- The hero of Pilgrimage leaves his house via the roof. Later, he goes up
into a hay loft, rather like the one in Just Pals.
- People climb ship's masts and rigging in The Hurricane.
- The steep building staircase is used by the revolutionaries in Four Men and a Prayer.
- The heroine at the end of Stagecoach, goes up and down a steep
The young man in Just Pals envisions the hero as working on the train, and
sees the hero in his fancy train uniform. Ford's films are full of trains
(The Iron Horse, Pilgrimage, The Quiet Man).
We usually see uniformed train men as well. Ford idolized ships even more, and always
included shots of the uniformed crews.
Several Ford films have scenes in which characters watch an experience from the outside.
Sometimes these experiences are deliberate deceptions. Both are true of the fake family,
into which the young man gets adopted. The family deliberately creates a fake maternal
image for the tough woman, so that the family can be seen as a source of maternal care.
The fake family's reasons are purely mercenary. But they deceive everyone in town.
The whole fake family is quite surrealistic.
The young man goes to live among the fake family. As in some other Ford films, the young
man experiences the vision from the inside. He participates in it.
The fake family suggests skepticism about "family values". This family's values are just
a hoax. The fake mother anticipates the rotten mother of Pilgrimage.
The Iron Horse
The Iron Horse (1924) depicts the building of the Transcontinental Railroad across the United States.
The hero (George O'Brien) does not appear as an adult till nearly one hour into the film.
We see his character as a boy earlier, then he drops out of the story. This construction is odd.
This was the first big role for George O'Brien, so audiences in 1924 were not sitting there, waiting breathlessly
for him to appear.
The hero has a visionary "dreamer" of a father, who is always talking about a railroad spanning the USA.
His young son, the film's hero, is deeply impressed.
One suspects that films like The Iron Horse were designed to inspire young people,
encouraging them to think big and dream big, and take up careers in engineering or science.
The young boy is a character young people in the audience could identify with.
And The Iron Horse dramatizes the possibilities of innovative technology in an exciting way.
A later film about an innovator A Dispatch from Reuter's (William Dieterle, 1940),
also opens who a little boy who is an enthusiastic proponent of a local scientist
who is inventing the telegraph. This film is very much in the tradition of The Iron Horse.
Railroads are not the only innovative technology glorified in The Iron Horse. The finale
shows telegraph poles built alongside the tracks. The use of telegraph to transmit sound to Washington
during the pounding of the Golden Spike is emphasized.
The young hero's experiences out West as a boy, include things he sees but does not participate in:
Only years later will the hero enter into these visions, finding the pass for the railroad builders,
identifying his father's murderer.
- The pass his father says would be a good place to build a railroad.
- His father's murder.
The adult hero enters the film, by running and jumping on a moving train. This is an exciting stunt.
But it also has elements of the Ford approach of entering a visionary world.
At first, the train is something the hero can only see. The train is moving at high speed down a track.
It looks like a separate world. But after running and leaping on it, the hero is suddenly inside a new world:
not just the railway car itself, but also of the great project of building the railroad.
The hero is now involved with a great enterprise, which can can participate with from inside.
The heroine sees the fight in the saloon tent, as shadows projected on the wall of the tent.
She is an outsider - literally outside the tent - watching what is going on inside.
It is a pure "vision", of something she can see but not participate in. She then cuts the tent wall with a knife,
allowing her to enter the tent. She has now entered into the visionary realm.
Her cutting not only effects an entrance, it also destroys the tent as a shadow screen.
Vision has been destroyed, while a path has been created to enter the arena of actuality.
The tent and its shadow show might be a metaphor for cinema. The shadows displayed on the tent wall,
resemble images projected on a movie screen. Eventually, the heroine destroys this screen,
and enters into the world of reality instead.
The hero and heroine watch, but do not take part in, the climactic pounding of the Golden Spike.
The sound of this is conveyed though telegraph wires. This turns the pounding into
a "visionary experience" for those listening in far off Washington.
Action, Visual Style and the 1910's
Two scenes show dramatic action. Both scenes echo approaches used in 1910's films:
One suspects that both moving train shots, and vertical climbs,
were fairly widespread in early cinema. For example, a vertical climb also appears in
The Soul of Youth (William Desmond Taylor, 1920).
All of the above films are available on DVD.
- A camera movement shows us the view from the top of the moving train, as it moves forward down the track.
Such shots were common in 1910's adventure serials, such as
The Hazards of Helen: The Escape on the Fast Freight (Helen Holmes, Leo D. Maloney, 1915).
- The hero climbs down the cliff using a rope. This echoes all the vertical climbing done in Douglas Fairbanks films,
such as the hero raised and lowered by a rope into the Grand Canyon in
A Modern Musketeer (Allan Dwan, 1917).
Vertical climbing runs through the films of John Ford. It is already present in the barn in Just Pals (1920).
Interiors in The Iron Horse can have the sort of frontal composition later found in
The Blue Eagle. The saloon that turns into a courthouse near the start, is often shot
so that the saloon wall is parallel to the camera frame.
The railroad car interior where the hero meets the grown-up heroine,
is often shot with the screen parallel to the back wall of the car.
The hero's clothes underline that he is a rough-and-ready man of the working class:
The hero's clothes follow a Hollywood movie paradigm: showing the hero in dressier and dressier clothes,
throughout a movie, till he is duded up to the max at the film's end. In many Hollywood films,
this matches the hero's "rags to riches" success story: starting out poor in cheap clothes,
ending up rich and successful at the film's end, and looking it.
- He enters the film wearing a spectacular fringed buckskin outfit.
This is frontiersman gear, suggesting he is from the far reaches of the West.
The hero's big boots are also emphasized.
- When he goes to work on the railroad as a gang boss and builder, he is in Western working gear
of a shirt and trousers.
- During the scene when he contemplates the finished railroad, the hero is in black clothes.
This is still workingman's gear, but it is sharper and dressier than his actual working outfits.
These black clothes are only seen in this one episode.
- During the celebration at the end, the hero is in a Western suit with shiny vest.
But this rags-to-riches tale is NOT what is generally going on in the plot of The Iron Horse.
The hero is never personally affluent; he is probably paid a small salary as a railroad "gang boss" and laborer.
At the end, he is experiencing a dream fulfilled with the railroad built. But there is no sign
of personal success for the hero: no money, fame, promotion, career success or public personal recognition.
On the other hand, he is marrying the boss' daughter, and does seem better integrated into society at the film's finale.
Instead, the hero's dressier-and-dressier clothes tell the story of the "civilizing of the West":
- His buckskins are frontiersman gear, worn by early explorers of the West.
- His Western working gear symbolizes the next phase, builders of Western infrastructure and civilization.
- The hero's Western suit at the end represents the coming of civilized life to the West.
A Still Photograph
A famous, much reprinted film still for The Iron Horse is misleading.
It shows the hero in the fancy vest, white shirt and tie he wears in the film finale,
directing a rough looking crew of working men building train tracks. No such shot appears in the film.
In the still, the hero looks very upper middle class, as if he were an executive or skilled professional like an engineer,
directing the work of lower class subordinates. This is completely different from the film.
The hero seems absolutely working class throughout the actual film.
While the hero does work as a "gang boss" directing a rail crew in the movie, he is in working clothes,
and labors along side his men. He also works by one-on-one discussion,
as opposed to the executive-giving-mass-order in the still.
The still is also misleading, in that it shows the hero with his jacket off, working in shirt-and-vest.
This is a strikingly different appearance from the film, where the hero keeps his jacket on in the finale.
His suit jacket has a bit of a working-man-in-his-Sunday-best, giving the hero a working class look even during
the big celebration at the finale. It is less elegant than the classy shirt-and-vest look in the still.
Silent film costumers were expert at everything they did, and one suspects the hero's suit jacket
has actually been de-glamorized a bit, to make him look less elegant and more awkward.
It has a sack-like hang, making the hero look chunky and a bit of a rube. By contrast, the hero's buckskins show off his physique.
I'm glad the still exists; it is a striking image in its own right, and shows O'Brien in a costume
that would otherwise not be preserved. But it is very different from the actual film.
The still can be found in Joe Franklin's book Classics of the Silent Screen (1959).
Film stills were usually made by professional photographers employed by the studios, and were used to publicize the film.
They often recreate scenes from a movie. But stills can also show things that never existed in the film itself.
They can be quite different in "feel" from the actual movie. I have no idea of the thinking behind this film still.
It could have been made by the photographer at a time when John Ford was absent from the set, and without any input from Ford.
On the other hand, it might been based on a suggestion from Ford! Who knows?
The Shamrock Handicap
The Shamrock Handicap (1926) is a horse racing picture,
set in both Ireland and the United States.
The Irish scenes at the beginning are the best part of The Shamrock Handicap.
Even at this early date, Ford is oriented to an ethnographic reconstruction
of folk life styles and customs. I have no idea if other silent film makers
also liked this approach. I have never seen anything else like
it, but my knowledge of silent film is still woefully fragmentary
and incomplete. Here, Ford is recreating Ireland. Two years later,
in Four Sons (1928), Ford is showing us Bavaria. Ford will
follow this throughout his entire career.
There is a similar approach in such later works as
How Green Was My Valley (1941). Ford uses the same techniques
in 1928 and 1941.
There are plot elements in common, as well.
All of these films put heavy emphasis on parent-child interactions.
All have emigration to America as a major theme.
3 Bad Men
3 Bad Men (1926) is a Western. Its first half is mainly
comedy and romance; its second half is full of drama and action.
Outlaws and Good Guys
The men of the title are three outlaws, who look after the heroine
of the movie. The three outlaws are treated both comically and
sympathetically. Their rich characterizations are terrific. They
anticipate the comic, good natured crooks that will show up in
Ford's prison comedy, Up the River (1930). Both films have
a complete lack of realism in dealing with crooks: real life criminals
are a pretty sorry lot. But both films' crooks are a swell bunch
of ordinary guys, whose villainy takes place off screen, prior
to the films' beginnings. Both get involved in much irresistible
comic and sentimental business. In both films, the rowdy crooks
protect and look after a young, refined romantic couple.
Later, in Stagecoach (1939), Ford will make an outlaw himself,
the Ringo Kid, be the romantic lead in the picture. In 3 Bad
Men, the hero played by George O'Brien is a complete good
guy, and the outlaws are his girl friend's protectors. In Stagecoach,
the young hero once again has older men protectors, but here they
are honest characters: the sheriff and the doctor. This is a role
reversal between the two films. A bunch of older male characters
also look after the young romantic hero (John Agar) in Fort
Apache (1948), although neither Agar nor his protectors are
crooks in that film.
Although George O'Brien is the romantic lead, in many ways the
actual lead is one of the three bad men, Bull, played by Thomas
Santschi. Although Thomas Santschi made nearly 150 films, mainly
silents, thus is the only film of his I've ever had a chance to
see. This is an index of how poorly silent films are preserved
and distributed today. Santschi gives a fine performance as Bull,
the leader of the three outlaws.
3 Bad Men has a pattern that runs through Ford: a lower class man
promotes the romance of an upper or middle class man, and a woman the lower class guy
supposedly secretly loves. This also appears in Born Reckless and
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. One suspects that this triangle
disguises the real feelings: the lower class hero is in love with the upper class
man. And that he also enjoys the apparent masochistic self-sacrifice to the
upper class hero. The upper class man in both 3 Bad Men and Born Reckless
is limitlessly handsome and well-dressed. Here this upper class romantic idol
is played by George O'Brien. He gets duded up in a fancy cowboy outfit,
giving him an archetypal leading man look. By contrast, the outlaw Bull
is always in working class clothes.
In 3 Bad Men, the lower class Bull tracks down and finds O'Brien,
as a suitable boy-friend for the heroine. He is looking for a real man,
who will be a suitable marriage partner and lover for the woman. These scenes can
look like "cruising", with Bull searching for an ideal man. His two partners among the
3 Bad Men, also engage in a similar man-hunt, but with more comic results.
They do a lot of staring at men. Such staring is taboo in traditional US culture,
because of its gay overtones. In 3 Bad Men, it is supposedly OK, because it
is trying to find a marriage partner for the heroine. These scenes are a farce version
of men breaking such a taboo - at least on the surface. But they can also seem like
an extended episode of cruising.
The two partners in 3 Bad Men have a touching relationship. This too can seem gay.
The less-than-macho "marriage partner" comically stalked by the two partners,
is also a man with gay characteristics. A title card suggests he is not really a member
of the male sex. In other movies such title cards can simply be mean-spirited put downs: see
The Great K&A Train Robbery, a non-Ford Western with Tom Mix. But in 3 Bad Men,
the title card instead suggests an interesting look at a gay man, and his non-standard gender
identity. This man later has a comic encounter with the Sheriff that is a gem. It too has
The Land Rush
The year before, silent movie cowboy William S. Hart had made
his farewell appearance on the screen in a classic Western, King
Baggott's Tumbleweeds (1925). Tumbleweeds had shown
the Oklahoma land rush, with thousands of settlers dashing across
a line to claim newly opened lands. 3 Bad Men contains
a straightforward imitation of this, depicting the Dakota land
rush of 1877 in a similar fashion. Both rushes are the spectacular
set pieces of their pictures, huge spectacles. Both films have
their complete plots built around these land rushes. In Tumbleweeds,
the rush occurs at the climax of the picture; in 3 Bad Men,
two thirds of the way through.
Ford likes to shoot his characters, so that they are seen as small
but important figures on the horizon. This gives a tremendous
sense of atmosphere. It is if they were the harbingers of change,
a new force that is about to enter the life of the world. We frequently
see groups people on horseback at long distance, including the
three outlaws of the title. And the long panning shot, showing
the settlers as a thin line on the horizon, awaiting the start
of the land rush, is one of the great spectacles of the film.
This shot pleasantly seems to go on forever. One keeps expecting
Ford to run out of image. Instead, the shot keeps turning and
turning, revealing more and more settlers lined up on the horizon.
Meanwhile, beautiful hills tower above them, seeming to convey
a message about the West, or maybe about life.
The photography of 3 Bad Men consistently uses masking:
the blocking off of the edges of the screen in black, to create
a differently shaped frame around the action. Masking was a widely
used device in the silent era, but has rarely been employed in
the United States since sound came in around 1929.
looks like an anti-illusionist device. It makes the viewer conscious
that what they are seeing on the screen is a photograph of reality,
not reality itself. That other silent movie device, cross-cutting,
also has a similar effect. (Cross-cutting is not much employed
in 3 Bad Men.) In general, silent films often seem more
like a "collection of photographs about a subject",
and less like an illusionistic "you are really there watching
the action of the film" medium. I suspect that such anti-illusionism
is only a side effect of masking, however.
Its real purpose seems
to be to add to the beauty of the compositions shown on screen,
by adding a differently shaped screen border surrounding the composition.
It is consistently employed in this way by Ford throughout 3
Bad Men. Masking is rarely used to highlight a piece of action,
or to make a story point. Instead, its main use seems to be to
add to the beauty and complexity of the compositions. Masking
often appears in long shots, when Ford is creating beautiful panoramas
of Western spectacle, such as horse riders, wagon trains, or the
settlers organizing for the land rush.
The Blue Eagle
Male Bonding and Sailors
The Blue Eagle (1926) is a male bonding picture about two
brawling sailors. It is hugely entertaining. It is set in modern
times, and is much less ethnographic than are many Ford pictures.
It reminds one a little bit of The Lost Patrol (1934),
another Ford picture whose main subject is a bunch of soldiers.
In both films, the focus is relentlessly on the characters. Ford
clearly finds them fascinating people (I agree). Just shooting
the characters, watching their reactions, faces and bodies, is
good enough to justify most shots. The Blue Eagle is as
comic as The Lost Patrol is tragic, however. Nothing really
bad is going to happen to these guys, and we know that everything
will be great for a happy ending.
Much later in Ford's career, Donovan's Reef (1963) will also be
a contemporary-set comedy about brawling retired sailors.
The second half has its ex-sailor heroes fighting drug dealers in their city.
This whole plot startlingly anticipates the anti-drug thrillers that would be made
sixty years later, like Miami Vice.
One difference between The Blue Eagle and most later films: The Blue Eagle
emphasizes attacks on the villains smuggling drugs into the city.
The villains have their own submarine, and the battles over smuggling make the film
be a nautical adventure thriller. This nautical storyline allows its sailor heroes to shine.
Where is This Film Set?
The Blue Eagle seems to take place in an unnamed, fictitious city.
It clearly resembles New York City. And perhaps Boston. It has a waterfront area where the heroes live.
The waterfront set is vivid, but it doesn't seem to specifically evoke New York.
Title cards refer to a police base on "Federal Island". New York City has several small islands off-shore
used for government buildings. "Federal Island" seems to evoke these. However,
an Internet search has not revealed any real-life islands near New York or other US cities
named "Federal Island".
In 1792, "Federal Island" was a name given to one of the Marquesa Islands in the South Pacific by Joseph Ingraham.
The name seems to be obsolete and no longer used. It is possible that John Ford,
with his love of the South Pacific, knew about the name "Federal Island". And re-used it as the
name of an island near New York.
Setting: Links to Regeneration
The urban scenes recall the New York City setting of Regeneration (Raoul Walsh, 1915):
These similarities might be a direct influence. Or maybe they reflect a standard background for this
sort of slum tale.
- Both are set in tough East Coast urban neighborhoods.
- Both focus on men in two-bit street corner gangs.
- Both have idealistic, classy figures maintaining a presence in the district and trying to fight its
social problems: the social worker in Regeneration, the priest in The Blue Eagle.
The hero's ward gang is known as the Terriers. "Terriers" is what the hero's
railroad work crew called themselves in The Iron Horse.
This is likely either a homage to or in-joke about Ford and O'Brien's previous giant hit The Iron Horse.
The Wikipedia describes Terriers as a breed of "small, wiry, very active and fearless dogs".
This perhaps symbolizes O'Brien and his men.
The Heroine's Father: A Uniformed Authority Figure
The hero courts the heroine, but he also has to deal with the heroine's stern policeman father.
This is a bit like Fort Apache and Gideon's Day, where a young man is a member
of the same uniformed organization as the father of the woman he's courting.
In all of these films, the subject is played for broad comedy.
The Blue Eagle differs, in that the hero is not a policeman, and thus not a member of the
Some Ford films stress visionary experience: a character sees events, but cannot take part in them.
Reality in these scenes becomes almost like a hallucination or vision that the character witnesses.
In The Blue Eagle, the hero watches helplessly while his brother is murdered on a submarine.
The hero is in another boat, too far away to help, and also restrained by two policemen who
have him under arrest. While the hero "only" sees the events, he also participates in them,
at least emotionally: they affect his brother, thus making him deeply emotionally involved.
Some of Ford's steep vertical environments:
The sailors have to hold the boxing ring rope up: dozens hold this rope by their hands.
I've never seen this effect in any other movie. It gets the spectators
physically involved with the boxing match.
- The stokehold has a steep ladder rising out of it.
- A trap door leads down from a dock to a boat below. We do not see what architecture, if any,
is below the trap door.
The hero first gets into "civilian clothes", in a scene featuring one of Ford's
nocturnal cityscapes. It comes complete with a typical-for-Ford streetlight.
Soon the characters are seen on a much bigger set,
also representing a nocturnal city.
The Blue Eagle has an unusual compositional style. Many
shots are fully frontal. The plane of the shot is parallel to
the wall behind the characters. We see a pure geometric grid,
with doors, windows and other wall markings, shot dead on, forming
the compositional geometry of the shot. The characters are also
often shot straight on. They are often directly facing the camera.
This unites the characters and the backgrounds into one unified
series of design principles. Ford gets an astonishing amount of
mileage out of this stylistic approach. The compositions, while
they often have a primitive look, are often forceful and beautiful.
George Schneiderman's photography has a startling, "you are
there" quality. It seems as immediate as modern day video
filming, used for soap operas and news broadcasts. One often feels
that one is in a room with George O'Brien, and that he is standing
right in front of you. There is none of the filtered, shadowed
silent art photography that one sees in many great silent films.
A diagonal, tilted mask, is used to highlight a cop's feet walking upstairs.
It recalls a bit the diagonally masked-off inner staircase in The Bat
(Roland West, 1926).
George O'Brien and William Russell are introduced in a ship's stokehold.
They have their shirts off - standard in this environment.
They recall O'Brien and the villain with their shirts torn off in their climactic fight in The Iron Horse,
and anticipate the early shots of a shirtless John Agar in Fort Apache.
In civilian clothes, the hero wears a visored cloth cap,
similar to one the American Joseph wears in Four Sons.
His rival wears a hard, rounded bowler, rather like Spencer Tracy at the start of Up the River.
Four Sons (1928) is a pacifist picture, looking at how
a Bavarian mother's children get caught up in the horrific war
machine of World War I Germany. Ford would return to pacifist
themes later in his career, notably in Pilgrimage (1933)
and The Long Gray Line (1955). Both Four Sons and
Pilgrimage are based on stories by I. A. R. Wylie.
(Four Sons is an example of Ford's preference for adapting films from short stories.)
Ford had consistent liberal messages throughout his career, from
such pacifist attacks on World War I as Four Sons (1928),
to his pro-black Western Sergeant Rutledge (1960). He depicted
himself as a Democrat, and supported Roosevelt and the New Deal
in the 1930's, and JFK and Civil Rights in the 1960's. Such a
politics in his personal life was consistent with what appeared
on screen. Ford was clearly neither a conservative nor a Communist.
Attempts to herd him into either of these two categories are clearly
counter to much evidence.
Director Rex Ingram made anti-war films: the famous The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921),
which made Rudolph Valentino a star, and the less interesting Mare Nostrum (1926).
Ford's pacifist films like Four Sons tend to be set among more everyday working class
or middle class people, rather than the glamorous denizens of Ingram's stories.
Leaving New York on the Bus
The American son Joseph (James Hall) boards a double-decker bus in 1917 New York City.
A friend in uniform almost magically appears on a seat beside him.
The bus anticipates the Army recruiting truck that opens Born Reckless,
also in a 1917 US city. Both are large vehicles with uniformed men on top;
both serve to draw men into World War I, which the USA was just entering in 1917.
The waiter does comedy drill on the sidewalk with his broom.
Ford films often feature military drill. The waiter's white apron anticipates
James Stewart's waiter's outfit in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The delicatessen anticipates the family-run grocery store in Born Reckless.
The policeman who stops the bus perhaps resembles the young constable at the start of Gideon's Day,
who is also involved with traffic. Gideon's Day opens with shots of London buses during its credits.
The hero's friend, the Iceman, is played by Jack Pennick. Pennick was a Ford regular,
appearing in small roles in Ford film from 1926 to 1962. Pennick appeared in more John Ford films than any other actor.
A Comic Riff on Gangster Films
Born Reckless (1930) is a comic look, at a man who is at the fringes
of gangdom. The film dances around the edges of the "gangster picture"
as a genre, without ever becoming a full-fledged gangster movie. The film is almost
as much of a burlesque of the gangster genre, as Ford's next film Up the River
will be of the prison movie.
The hero starts out as a crook: a member of a gang that commits burglaries. While
technically thus a "gangster", he never becomes a big time criminal, and never becomes
involved in bootlegging or other typical activities of Al Capone era gangdom. And he keeps
trying to get out of this world, during most of the picture. Neither Born Reckless
nor Ford approve of gangsters. Unlike most "real" gangster movies, Born Reckless
does not idolize or glorify gangsters. Instead, it views them in a negative and
Born Reckless is based on the novel Louis Beretti (1929) by Donald Henderson
Clarke. By 1929, gang tales were popular in stage and prose fiction, as well as movies.
Both before and after Born Reckless, night clubs were common in gangster tales.
The owner-manager of such clubs were glamorous, but often sinister figures, always tough,
sometimes more honest and sometimes more crooked. This is a great role for hero Beretti,
allowing him interaction with everyone from rich to working class to gangster characters.
The City and Democratic Politics
Born Reckless begins on the East Side of New York City. This is a famous area filled
with working class poverty. Ford's earlier silent (apparently lost) The Prince of Avenue A (1920)
dealt with political machine politics in the East Side. That film starred famed boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett, no less.
The DA is a politician trying to appeal to the East Side. He is explicitly a Democrat:
like the Boston mayor hero to come of The Last Hurrah.
An Episodic Film without Goals
Both Andrew Sarris (1976) and Tag Gallagher (1986) accurately and insightfully describe
the unusual plot construction of Born Reckless. Both record the exceptionally episodic
nature of the movie. Both also note the way the film moves in many different directions (Sarris)
and how "the building up of tangential incidents diverts us from a pointless story" (Gallagher).
Today, it seems useful to re-state Sarris' and Gallagher's points in the terminology of David Bordwell.
Born Reckless lacks a goal. Many films, as Bordwell points out, have a goal:
something which the hero is trying to accomplish throughout the picture, and at which he succeeds or fails at
the film's end. Born Reckless is completely without such a goal. Individual scenes move
towards a bewildering multiplicity of sub-goals, as Sarris points out, but there is no
overarching common goal to the picture.
Sarris implies that this lack of goal makes Born Reckless a failure (and he condemns the film
in no uncertain terms). I have respectfully to disagree. I don't want to claim that the lack of goal in
Born Reckless is a positive virtue - or that it is the most interesting thing in the film.
Still, it does not hurt the film either. It has the mild virtues-in-passing, that it
encourages a rich diversity of plot material in the movie. It also helps to surprise us - the audience
never knows where the film is going next. If the movie could be retitled Thirty-two Short Films
About Louis Beretti, it is at least rich in plot and incident throughout.
Born Reckless is full of thinly disguised gay relationships and themes.
Much of the first part deals with the hero deciding whether or not
"to approve" of a man courting his sister. This in many ways shows a man
courting another man. The two men develop a relationship, one leading to a
permanent family bond. Both men are remarkably handsome. Both are dressed
to the nines. Both show lots of warm feelings for each other.
Next, Ford moves to a service comedy. Here he stresses the growing bond between
the hero, and a rich man who's also joined the Army. Like his brother-in-law,
we have the contrast between the ethnic hero from a poverty stricken family, and a
more respectable guy from an upscale background. Both of these male friends
are young, good looking and appealingly innocent and naive. They make a contrast with
the bull-like and street smart hero, a man who has his own strong feelings
and sense of honor.
In both cases, the hero wants the approval of a man outside his own class. The hero's
urge to be more "upscale" is a constant one throughout the film. He keeps trying
to move away from the crime foisted on him by his "gang". The film is a story of a man
trying to escape from peer pressure.
Up the River will have related characters: a good guy crook from the streets
(Spencer Tracy), and a young man from a refined upscale family (Humphrey Bogart).
It too will show a strong bond between the two men.
The hero develops a hopeless crush on Jack's sister. This goes nowhere, as she promptly
marries a handsome officer (played by a young Randolph Scott). There are hints of
masochistic feelings on the hero's part here, as the officer is clearly what the hero thinks of
as an ideal man: upper class, really good-looking, heroic. The officer is kind-hearted and
welcoming to the hero. The hero reciprocates by calling him Skipper - a recognition of his
Earlier we met the father of rich Army buddy Jack and his sister. He is a high ranking Army officer.
This is another Ford film, in which a man courts a woman whose father is a uniformed authority figure.
Born Reckless includes some scenes of musical parade, which would become a Ford staple.
It opens with an Army recruiting truck driving through 1917 New York City, with a band on top playing
George M. Cohan's "Over There".
And in France, the soldiers ride out of a village singing "The Caissons Go Rolling Along",
another huge hit of 1917. The song is sung by male chorus, a common feature of Ford films.
In an orchestral version, it is also played over the start and end credits.
Hoaxes and Double Life
The hero at the opening is another Ford character leading a double life.
He is hoaxing his family, pretending to be a working man, when actually he is part of a gang of thieves.
As in much Ford, the hoax is exuberant and emotionally rewarding to the hoaxing hero.
Later, the hero will perpetrate another hoax, with the clock and the alibi.
Big Shot pretends to his family to be abroad, when he is actually in prison.
This anticipates Humphrey Bogart in Up the River.
The newsman (Lee Tracy) comes up with the idea to send the crooked hero off to war rather than prison.
Tracy deliberately ascribes this idea to the DA, giving him credit, which the greedy DA takes.
This is an early Ford film worried about lying in the Press. It is given a comic treatment,
and concerns a minor idea, unlike the serious treatment of lying in the Press in later Ford films.
Despite this, the Press is mainly treated fairly well in Born Reckless.
We see the printing presses roll: an important technology with major social implications.
Born Reckless uses sports imagery familiar in other Ford films: baseball, pool and cue sticks.
Ford emphasizes phallic equipment, such as baseball bats and cue sticks:
The villain Joe is seen playing solitaire, with cards.
- A hapless soldier gets handed the bat, used to hit a ball that attacked a General's horse.
Much comedy ensues with the soldier unsure how to carry the bat while standing at attention.
Some of this suggests drill. It recalls a bit the waiter doing drill with his broom in Four Sons.
- A cue stick is used by a gang member playing pool back at gang headquarters.
Ford tends to associate pool with low lifes, slum hoodlums, etc.
Born Reckless is full of clock imagery:
Clocks and staircases are important in Born Reckless. Later, both will be major imagery
in film noir. By 1930, both were already staples of Fritz Lang films.
- The clock outside the jewelry store, on the street and supported by a tall pole.
- The alarm clock given to the Army recruit as a joke. It later goes off.
- The clock in the parents' apartment, used an an alibi.
Flat Wall Shots and Accompanying Camera Movement
Many scenes are largely staged with the camera frame parallel to the back wall of the set.
This is what we've dubbed Ford's flat wall approach. Flat wall scenes include:
While the flat wall approach is prominent in the above scenes, Ford also includes scenes shot at angles to the set.
The climactic debate between Ritzy and Big Shot over Ritzy's informing, is shot at such angles, for instance.
Earlier parts of the scene are more "flat wall" in approach. This is an angle used to highlight a dramatic confrontation.
- The family kitchen/eating area.
- The room where the man courts the hero's sister.
- The hallway below the family apartment where the hero changes clothes.
- The gang hideout.
- The DA's office.
- The bar in the hero's nightclub.
- The main room at the club.
- The exterior entrance of the club.
- Shots showing the hero and/or his friend in the car.
Other shots seem to use angles for convenience: if a shot at an angle reveals more of the action, Ford will use it.
Some scenes use camera movement, to follow a character from an angled view to a flat wall view, or the reverse:
- In the family kitchen/eating area, the camera moves slightly to show the mother's actions on the right,
or the father's actions on the left.
- The hero enters the room where the man courts the hero's sister, from an angle. The camera moves with him,
till he has joined the couple and the camera is in flat wall position.
- The bar in the hero's nightclub has camera movements following people exiting to the left.
- When the hero enters the main room at the club to help the women foil the kidnapping, a pan follows
his entrance (at an angle) over to the women (a flat wall approach). Later, a second pan moves back to the door.
Camera Movement: Large Scale
The opening shot is a wonderful forward crane through a huge set representing an
urban street. The forward motion recalls Murnau, as does the large city set. The Roman
numerals on the clock, anticipate the later clock in the parents' apartment.
Spotlights are moving rapidly through the street as part of a celebration: a variant on the Fordian
nocturnal cityscape lit by street lamps.
A striking camera movement moves forward through the upstairs hall of the gang hangout.
Through the front hall door window, we see more and more of the street below.
Towards the end, there will be a track through a swamp. This recalls the track through
the swamp in Murnau's Sunrise. It even has the hero going over a fence, just as in
Murnau. Murnau's track was often right-to-left, while Ford's here is left-to-right. One can
get the feeling that Ford is restaging Murnau's track in reverse.
The final shootout involves a rapid pullback of the camera behind swinging doors.
The effect is complex, with the doors partially blocking the action, and swinging at the same time as the shootout.
Born Reckless includes spirals in the early shots of the jewelry store: either
shadows or grillwork are all over the lowest region of the store front. And the swinging doors at
the end have spiral tops.
The grillwork gates outside the night club also have curving metalwork on top.
This is shown in one of Ford's nocturnal cityscapes, with two lights beaming from the front of the club.
Later, we see the same locale next morning, in daylight.
Hangman's House contains spiral metal work in the gate, and spirals in the wood of the judge's chair.
The bridge outside the kidnapper's shack, is composed of striking triangular designs. Ford uses this to make compositions.
Two shots towards the start, show police entering an existing shot. This adds to a sense of excitement:
the police are seen as new complicating forces. They are shooting in both shots. Later, in
Pilgrimage, the daughter-in-law and her child enter an existing shot at the train station.
Up the River
Up the River (1930) is a tongue-in-cheek comedy, mainly set in a prison.
Up the River was made only two years after sound came to
Hollywood. Sound itself might not have as revolutionary in cinema,
as the change of attitude at the studios that went with it. Old
silent players were often not considered good enough anymore;
instead, vast numbers of actors were imported from the stage.
Here, we see stage actor Spencer Tracy in his feature film debut, as well
as screen newcomer Humphrey Bogart in his second movie. Movies
became virtually a branch of the Broadway stage during this period.
Bogart is not playing the tough guy of his later years, however.
Instead, he is playing one of Ford's refined young heroes, the
sort of role that will be taken by John Agar or Jeffrey Hunter
in later Ford. Even here, Bogart has a bit more of an edge than
Ford's later heroes, playing a young man who has accidentally
killed another man in a fight, and who has been sent to prison
Ford includes some of the songs that will be a recurring feature
of his storytelling. Even in his silent days, the heroes of his
films were associated with songs, that would be played as tunes
by the instrumentalists that accompanied the films in the theater.
Now, with sound technology, the music is sung right on screen.
- Bogart pretends he is really in China.
- The heroine has a past as a phony medium.
- The prisoner who impersonates a refined Englishman, while talking to
the woman social worker, recalls the "English" character Sir Maurice in
- The escaped convicts pretend to be friends.
Ford never tired of poking fun at refined New Englanders; he grew
up in Maine. Here he has a lot of fun with both the ladies who
visit the prison, and Bogart's ultra-proper mother.
The young lovers have a courtship, constrained by the narrow
opportunities in prison. They anticipate The Quiet Man,
and its courtship under the strict eyes of a matchmaker and traditional custom.
The scene of Tracy throwing knives onstage at Hymer are comic.
One suspects that Ford likes the phallic imagery of the knives.
The two men wear a common costume: another instance of uniforms in Ford.
The knife-throwing anticipates:
- The boxing scenes in The Long Gray Line, where Tyrone Power
takes a lickin, like Warren Hymer here.
- John Wayne shooting at paint cans while Jimmy Stewart is nearby in
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Like the knife-throwing,
this is a comedy scene with a human target.
The guardhouse on top of the wall at the start is shown lit up at night.
It is a bit of Expressionism, recalling the street lights in the nocturnal cityscapes
in other Ford films. The guardhouse is octagonal, and strikingly geometric.
Seas Beneath (1931) is a World War I drama, about naval conflicts.
It's a grim movie, in which the characters on both sides (American and German)
rush towards killing each other. Indeed, Seas Beneath anticipates
Fort Apache, in its relentless march towards annihilation. It actually seems like
a pasted-on happy ending, that any of the characters survive this struggle.
Seas Beneath treats both Germans and Americans with great respect. In this, it recalls
Four Sons. Tag Gallagher's book reveals that there was a German version for the
German film market. In any case, these are some of the most glamorized Germans anywhere
in a Hollywood film. Seas Beneath is also unusual in classical Hollywood,
for the huge amount of untranslated German dialogue.
The film has a good deal of that favorite Ford subject,
male bonding among sailors. However, Ford's best films on this subject
take place in peacetime, and are cheerful comedies. The entertainment value
of Seas Beneath is sunk by its wartime setting.
Several Ford films deal with young men who deceive their families, and who live
double lives. They plainly get a great deal of kinky satisfaction out of this -
see the pleasure the hero of Born Reckless has in his double life.
Seas Beneath contains deception on a massive scale: only here, the
Americans and Germans are trying to deceive each other. Once again, while
there is entertainment value in these elaborate masquerades, they are torpedoed
by their grim wartime purpose.
In Born Reckless and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the hero is hopelessly in love with a woman,
who is in love with another man. There are aspects of masochistic fantasy to this.
In Seas Beneath this is pushed further. Both the hero and Cabot are
attracted to women, who are secretly German spies, and under the command of German Franz Schilling
(John Loder). Loder is an upper class, sharply uniformed hunk, like Randolph Scott in
Born Reckless. He is clearly far more powerful than Cabot, just as Randolph Scott
outclassed the hero of Born Reckless.
There are also masochistic elements, in the commander ordering the sailor to play a woman's
role in the panic drill.
Young Cabot is as good at climbing rigging, and making spectacular dives off
them into the water, as the hero of The Hurricane to come. Such ascents to heights
are a common Ford image.
The men on the ship reach out across a narrow gap, and talk with the men on an American
submarine. This perhaps recalls a bit the horsemen jumping gaps between cliffs in
The nocturnal cityscapes in the Canary Islands are also part of a long Ford tradition.
These moody shots are lit by lantern-shaped street lights, as is common in Ford. These scenes
create a strong mood, while everyone is searching for the missing Cabot before returning
to the ship.
Cabot deliberately set small fires, as an attack on the German ship. These will return as
a tactic the Indians use against the Cavalry in Cheyenne Autumn.
The "panic drill" is an elaborate visual hoax. It is designed to be watched by the Germans from afar,
and mislead them about conditions on the American ship. Scenes in which characters watch spectacles
will recur in almost "experimental film" ways in The Long Gray Line and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The mystery ship as a whole is a visual hoax.
The dance sequences in the cantina also have something of the same effect. They start out
as a pure spectacle among the women. The man Cabot can watch in awe - but not take part.
Then soon, he gets a chance to participate in the dance spectacle, with the tango. Cabot is
astonishingly effective at his dance, much to the amazement of other crew members, who comment
on this in the dialogue. This is different from the hero of The Long Gray Line,
who is ineffective when he tries to take part in spectacles he has seen, such as the
boxing demonstration he was put through by the Captain.
The tango is one of the best on-screen tangos in a Hollywood film. At times, Cabot could
give Rudolph Valentino a run for his money. The footwork is surprisingly racy, anticipating the Lambada
and Dirty Dancing.
The panic drill deception is linked to theater. The examples of theater given are of
humorously old-fashioned Victorian melodramas: East Lynne (1861), from the novel
by Mrs. Henry Wood,
Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl (1871) from the story by Frances M. Smith.
Pilgrimage (1933) is a drama.
Links to Sunrise
Both Tag Gallagher and Joseph McBride note the resemblance of the opening to
Murnau's Sunrise (1927). McBride further notes the similarity to the track
to the swamp in Sunrise, and the way both films have the hero moving
over the fence. One might add other similarities: the pool where the heroine
is first seen; the tall grasses; the full moon at which the couple later gaze.
Both films also have broad similarities of locale. Both start out with naive,
poor farm families isolated in rural areas; both bring them to big glamorous cities
in their second halves. Both films have their characters wind up in urban beauty parlors.
In both, the visit to the big city is an eye-opening experience. In both, there
is comedy about the contrast between the peasant heroes and urban sophistication.
A frightening difference concerns the films' look at sexuality. The hero of Sunrise
is having an adulterous affair. The hero of Pilgrimage wants to leave his mother,
and get married: a far more innocent dream by any standards. His mother treats
this as horribly transgressive.
Sexuality and Suppression
On the surface, Pilgrimage looks at an attack on heterosexuality. McBride
says the film's subject is American Puritanism. This is a plausible interpretation.
But there are other possible interpretations, just below the surface. It is less common
in real life, for parents to try to suppress their children's desires to get married.
It is very common for parents to try to suppress and control their children's homosexuality.
Even today, many parents would rather see their children die, than have a loving gay relationship.
Such a preference for death over sexuality, is exactly what happens in Pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage finds its most realistic meaning, if one sees a gay subtext in the film.
Several Ford films have young men heroes who deceive their mothers, and sneak out
for a hidden double life:
All of these could be allegories about the most common-in-real-life thing many grown children
conceal from their parents: homosexuality.
- The hero of Born Reckless is concealing his double life as a crook from his parents.
- In Up the River, Bogart is concealing his prison term, and the real nature of his male friends,
from his mother.
- The hero of Pilgrimage is concealing his romance with a woman from his mother.
In Born Reckless and Up the River, this concealment is mainly played for comedy.
But in Pilgrimage it is tragic - and linked to sexuality.
The trip to Europe has aspects of the "visionary experiences" found in Ford films.
The heroine takes part in it, and can see everything shown in the trip.
But the trip is entirely pre-planned by the authorities. The heroine cannot affect it in any way.
It is like a pre-created vision that the heroine can see, from the inside, but not actually act in
or interact with.
One of the mothers on the trip is carrying a home movie camera to record it.
This suggests the trip is like a film: something one can watch, but not otherwise change or interact with.
This anticipates the documentary film made about the subject of the hero's "visionary journey"
in When Willie Comes Marching Home: a film within the film.
Both the American small town of Three Cedars, and the French village in the second half,
are the subject of Ford's ethnographic treatment.
The festival in the French village, is benignly presided over by the local priest. This anticipates
the Irish village in The Quiet Man.
In Born Reckless, the hero is sent off to war, as a public relations stunt by government officials.
They want good treatment in the press. In Pilgrimage, both government officials and the
military are clearly milking the Gold Star mothers for press coverage and image.
The great character actor Robert Warwick is the Major in Pilgrimage. Usually, Warwick plays
sympathetic characters. Here, he has a dark side. All his charm cannot conceal that he is a PR
agent for Death.
Warwick's courtesy to the ladies never falters. In this, he is treated more generously than the
beautifully mannered prosecutor in Sergeant Rutledge, whose mask eventually slips revealing a
contempt for a woman witness. Warwick also passes a major test, when he shows the same courtesy to a
Jewish mother, as he does to all the other ladies.
Still, Warwick and the other officials, are clearly trying to get good publicity, for the horrors
of war mongering and militarism. It is a creepy look at how governments and the military promote war.
Some scenes in France echo experiences the heroine had back home:
- The young man and his girlfriend recall the heroine's son and girlfriend back home.
- The hay festival is a joyous echo, of the grim scene where the heroine chews out the men driving the hay truck back home.
- The apartment where the heroine talks the young man back to life has a wall of windows.
The recruiting station where the heroine signed away her son's life had a wall of windows, looking out on a snowy landscape.
The first shot shows the leads' farm house, including a small bridge over a gutter to the gate. This is echoed
at the end, by a bridge in the cemetery. The track-to-the-swamp in Sunrise included a similar low,
There are at least three more bridges in France.
When the mayor comes to deliver the sinister telegram, he is in a composition, in which
the peaked roof of the building in the background forms a large triangle. The apex of the triangle is cut-off by the film frame.
The peaked roof is also shown in the wood sawing scene.
The girlfriend's house has an ornament showing two triangles, on the mantel. It is like a miniature version of the two triangles
on the bridge in Born Reckless.
Pilgrimage has uniforms of every sort. These are extremely dressy and ornamental.
Costume designer Earl Luick was skilled at fancy uniforms: see Chances (Allan Dwan, 1931).
Chances showed upper class British officers; Pilgrimage mainly focuses on Americans,
and occasionally the French.
Robert Warwick's Army dress uniform recalls Randolph Scott's in Born Reckless.
Both men sport huge, shiny boots, designed to be as impressive and imposing as possible.
Scott's boots seem like part of a fantasy of an upper class stud imposing himself on the hero.
By contrast, Warwick's have sinister elements of glamorizing and propagandizing for war.
The 32-year old Scott was a leading man type; the 53-year old Warwick looks like a "social authority figure" -
or a man playing one for war-mongering propaganda purposes.
The police wear dress uniforms, including white gloves, when the Gold Star mothers leave for Europe.
This brings the police into the film's military propaganda elements.
Service people wear what resembles dress military uniforms:
- The stewards on ship wear white mess jackets and black trousers.
- The waiters in the fancy hotel are in somewhat hussar-like uniforms.
These are more commonly seen on hotel busboys. Perhaps these men are bellboys,
even though they are seen serving drinks in a hotel lobby.
Four Men and a Prayer
Four Men and a Prayer (1938) is a mystery film. A strange mix of genres, it has a
background of world travel and adventure, and much political commentary.
The film's fierce denunciation of the arms trade, is consistent with the anti-war films Ford made
throughout his career. The subject of the munitions industry is still relevant, unfortunately.
It is now a trade protected by the conservative half of the public, who thinks war is good,
and constantly promotes war-mongering politicians like George W. Bush.
The opening impresses: it shows equal concern with both the Indians and British who were
killed in the senseless battle. This recalls Seas Beneath, and ford's concern with both
the German and American sides of World War I. Ford in the 1930's was years ahead of
conservative Americans in the 2000's, who are racistly indifferent to Iraqi dead in the Iraq War.
The revolution scenes are witnessed by Loretta Young and others. Young sees the scenes, but does
not take part in them. Her presence is ignored by everyone. It is as if she is not there. Or as if
she is having a vision. Such visionary scenes recur in Ford. At the start of The Long Gray Line,
the hero witnesses drill at West Point, in a similar visionary manner. Young is seemingly ignored in
Four Men and a Prayer, because she is rich and American; the hero of The Long Gray Line
is ignored because he is poor and Irish - both are outsiders to the countries and events.
These are the most powerful scenes in the movie.
Another kind of "vision" in Ford involves elaborate hoaxes, designed to fool people who
watch them. In Four Men and a Prayer, the taxicab is such a hoax. There are no taxicabs in
the small British village, something previously established. But a most convincing looking
one appears at the train station. It astonishes the railway porter (a common character in Ford).
Links to Superman
Four Men and a Prayer denounces the arms trade, by showing how it causes a bloody
revolution in a South American country. The first Superman story, "Revolution in San Monte"
(Action Comics #1 and 2, April and June 1938), has a similar political theme and plot.
The stories are so close, that one wonders how they could be a coincidence. Four Men and a Prayer
was shot from late January to April of 1938, and released in late April 1938.
Early comic books often agreed with Superman, in publishing many stories about how the arms trade was
a cause of war and conflict. Details can be found in my list of comic books with social commentary.
Four Men and a Prayer is full of media of communication. Much is made of the long distance
phone call from India to Argentina - truly a technical marvel in 1938. We also see telegrams,
the code machine at the British Embassy (a fascinating device), and the flashing light "bell"
in the ship's cabin at the end.
The steep outdoor staircase used by the revolutionaries, is in one of many Ford scenes in which
people go up and down outside buildings.
The youngest brother rows on a crew at Oxford. This is a typical British sport. But it
also reflects the many Ford heroes who love boats and the water. As is often the case in Ford,
these scenes are the occasion of male bonding. We get a powerful idealized image of
In the finale, the heroes swim to a boat, and board it, like characters in Seas Beneath
and The Hurricane.
Stagecoach (1939) is one of Ford's finest films.
The women wearing the blue ribbons at the start, recall the Gold Star Mothers with their medals
in Pilgrimage. Both films have women enforcing puritanical social standards, that harm
other women. Babies being born play a role in both films.
Links to Born Reckless
At first glance, Stagecoach is completely different from the earlier Ford-Nichols
collaboration Born Reckless, being a Western. But Stagecoach is also a crime movie.
It has two crime subplots, one about Ringo, the other about the banker. Crime plot links include:
None of these crime elements are in the original short story Stage to Lordsburg.
They have all been added to the film version. In fact, they are among the principal additions
to the film's plot, which is otherwise often quite close to the short story. The hero of the short
story is merely involved in some sort of unspecified feud, with the men with whom he duels at the end,
- As in Born Reckless, a family
member of the hero is murdered, and the hero has to track down the bad guy.
- Other bad guys in Born Reckless inform to the police, causing people
to be sent to prison, just as the Plummers inform on Ringo in Stagecoach.
- A safe is robbed at the start of Born Reckless, a safe is looted by the banker
at the beginning of Stagecoach.
- Friendships between a decent cop and a criminal hero are key in both films. (The hero of
Born Reckless is a real burglar, the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach is merely falsely accused.)
Other links to Born Reckless include the following, which are also not found the short story:
A few links to Born Reckless do have antecedents in the short story:
- The banker's sententious speeches about the Army in Stagecoach, echo earlier bluster about the Army
satirized in Born Reckless.
- Both films emphasize the Army bugler. He is given a shot at the start of Stagecoach,
and the bugle plays a key role in the attack.
- The scene where the mob discusses the informer in Born Reckless, is profoundly
extended in Stagecoach to scenes of actual voting. The Stagecoach vote is
a deep tribute to democratic tradition.
I liked the short story very much. In addition to its gripping plot, preserved (and extended) in the film,
the story is full of lyrical descriptions of nature and the desert. These verbal descriptions are
impossible to transfer to film. They have been replaced in the movie by Ford's beautiful images.
- The stagecoach itself, resembles the band wagon on which people are riding at the start of
- Parades and mounted processions occur in both films, with the stagecoach followed by the Cavalry in key shots
throughout the first half of Stagecoach.
Finale: Visual Style, Murnau, Joseph H. Lewis
The track in the red light district has hints of Murnau, although it is much less
directly imitative than many previous tracks in Ford. It includes a low bridge,
like the track in Sunrise.
The shot includes many views of people in the buildings as they pass. This recalls a bit the
moving camera shot in the Paris street in Pilgrimage, during the taxi dispute.
Ford's use of street lights and darkness during the scenes in the Lordsburg streets is superb.
It recalls the night-and-street-light cityscapes of Ford's Seas Beneath (1931) and The Informer (1935).
They anticipate the nocturnal cityscapes in Joseph H. Lewis. As best as
I can tell, street lights first show up in Lewis in Arizona Cyclone (1941), two years after
Stagecoach. They could well reflect the influence of Ford. They appear in Arizona Cyclone
in a final night time shoot-out in the street, a plot event that recalls the finale of Stagecoach.
On the other hand, both Ford and Lewis might be echoing an earlier movie tradition.
Stage to Lordsburg (1938) was the original short story, on which the film Stagecoach was based.
It was discovered by the director's teenage son, Patrick Ford, who read it in the magazine Collier's.
Collier's was what was known as a "slick". Technically speaking, this meant it was printed on
expensive glazed paper. Reading the "slicks" was virtually a religion in America at the time. The most
popular slick magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, was read at its peak by one out of every ten Americans,
an astonishing number. The popularity of writers was clinched by their appearance in the slicks.
Such writers simply became the most famous and widely read authors in America. Serials in the slicks
would typically go on to be published as hardback books - but much of their actual readership occurred
when people read them in the original "slick" magazines.
The opposite of the "slicks" were the "pulps". These were inexpensive magazines, that were printed on
cheap wood pulp paper. There were hundreds of pulp magazines, and they printed Western stories in huge quantities.
There were vastly more pulp magazines than there were slicks, and they printed a lot more stories.
Despite their profusion and cheap price, nothing in the pulps was as widely read or as prestigious as anything that appeared
in the slicks. Black Mask, the most famous pulp, rarely had its circulation go above 100, 000,
while Collier's had a circulation of 2.5 million.
Ernest Haycox, the author of Stage to Lordsburg, was among the Western writers most successful at getting
his writing into the slicks, as opposed to the low paying "pulp" magazines. The appearance of a Western
story like Stage to Lordsburg in the slick Collier's was already a breakthrough in getting
this tale before a vastly greater audience than a Western story normally would have had in the pulps. It also
probably helped cause folks like John Ford and producer Walter Wanger to view the story with respect.
This was not some obscure pulp tale. This was a story that had already had a breakthrough in public acceptance,
readership and prestige. Similarly the original short story for The Quiet Man appeared in a slick,
The Saturday Evening Post, in 1933.
Hollywood filmmakers regularly adapted works from the slicks, such as all
the films like Lady for a Day made from Damon Runyon tales, or the slick magazine crime serials
that served as the source for films like Secret Beyond the Door (Fritz Lang),
The Big Heat (Lang), or The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls).
Stagecoach is regularly cited as the film that rescued Westerns from their B movie obscurity,
and turned them into prestige productions in sound-era Hollywood. One might point out that
Stage to Lordsburg was already something of a breakthrough work in terms of getting
prestigious publishing for a Western.
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is an adaptation of John Steinbeck's famous left wing novel.
The couple who run the diner are some of Ford's food providers. They turn out to be some of the best people in the film.
Ma Joad temporarily becomes a food provider herself, when she provides breakfast to the starving kids at the camp.
This is one of the film's most powerful sequences.
The Joad family is introduced at another key Ford institution: a family dinner.
The bridge into California is elaborately photographed. It recalls other bridges in Ford films that are
spectacularly films, like the New York City bridge the hero crosses in Born Reckless.
The composition feature triangles in a number of shots:
- The Joads' abandoned house, and its peaked roofs.
- The tents the Joads live in one night.
- The dance near the end, with the tents in the background. Hanging lights with triangular outlines are everywhere.
Sinister enforcers of capitalism wear leather jackets in The Grapes of Wrath:
The much more benign truck drivers also wear leather jackets:
- The banker who forecloses on the Joads.
- The lawman early on who also throws people off their property. He wars a star on his leather jacket.
- The anti-union enforcer at the ranch, who wears a similar jacket and star, and who carries a menacing baton club.
His clothes seem like a deliberate echo of the earlier lawman's.
In 1940, leather jackets were still mainly associated with professions, such as truck drivers, lawmen and pilots.
They had not become the fashion craze they would be after 1944 and the post-war years.
Hollywood films in the 1930's tend to link leather jackets to such professions -
and this is mainly true of The Grapes of Wrath. However, the banker near the start is wearing one,
even though leather jackets were hardly bankers' garb in real life!
- The truck driver at the start is in leather. He is treated by the hero as a prying, intimidating figure of civilian life.
However, this viewer feel's the hero's sarcastic, biting comments are a bit unfair: after all,
the driver's main actions are to give the hero a lift, against regulations, a kindly act.
- The truck drivers in the diner turn out to be the most kindly figures met in the family's journey.
One is carrying, but not wearing, a dark leather jacket.
Uniformed groups of men are everywhere in the world of The Grapes of Wrath.
While tough looking, they range from kind to friendly to harmless, in their actual behavior:
Uniformed men in The Grapes of Wrath tend to be men integrated into society.
Ward Bond is a former Oakie, like the Joads, but he has found a secure job and place in California's social system,
as a cop. He is part of society, unlike the desperate outsiders the Joads.
- The Arizona State Troopers have the spiffiest uniforms. They look like full dress Army uniforms,
such as those seen in Born Reckless, complete with Sam Browne belts.
- The California State inspectors are the kindliest of the uniformed figures.
- Also friendly: Ward Bond's cop the family meets in California. Although he does enforce the law and tells
the Joads they have to move outside the city.
- The gas station attendants have the spiffiest civilian uniforms. They are in head to toe white,
with black visors on their sharp caps.
Are Poor People Human?
Similarly, the men at the gas station tell each other that the Oakies aren't human:
an idea this film powerfully contradicts and critiques. The men are part of a mainstream way of life,
and have secure enough jobs in the midst of the Depression. Their uniforms symbolize these jobs and social integration.
These men have intellectual blinders on. They are unable to understand people whose life is different from their own,
or who are desperately poor. Their uniforms suggest a limited "field of vision".
They are part of society, and can only see their own sector of the culture.
In these men's favor: while privately critical of the Joads after they leave, they are polite to the Joads and even friendly acting.
Anti-poor people attitudes, like those critiqued in The Grapes of Wrath, have been relentlessly
promoted by today's conservatives, Republicans and libertarians. These ideas, which "dehumanize" the poor,
are among the most powerful propaganda weapons of today's vicious conservatives.
It is great to see this idea so powerfully critiqued in The Grapes of Wrath.
Fonda is another Ford hero wearing a soft cloth cap with visor.
The man driving the tractor wears the big boots that run through Ford films.
He is an ordinary looking guy, whose only imposing feature is the boots he has on.
Similarly, he is just an ordinary guy, an Oakie like the Joads, whose sole power is the big tractor he drives.
The composition emphasizes the man's boots, placing them front and center in the image.
Grant Withers' kindly New Deal camp runner is in the film's softest, most gentle looking clothes:
first a sweater, then a bow tie. He really looks avuncular, or like a kindly father figure.
He's got that Mr. Rodgers look!
Fort Apache (1948) is the first of Ford's unofficial "cavalry trilogy".
It takes a detailed look at every aspect of life on a Cavalry outpost, and is one of Ford's
ethnographic looks at another time and place.
The relationship between Kirby York (John Wayne) and Michael O'Rourke
(John Agar) is one of many Ford relationships between a mature
man and a young, good looking guy. These relationships are in
most ways gay love stories, although Ford never makes this fully
explicit. They tend to be the heart of Ford films in which they
As a gay man, York is the main character who tries to resist the
huge social machinery that Col. Thursday has put in motion. A
machine that will eventually send the whole troop to their deaths.
York is also the one who reaches out to the Other: the Native
Americans Thursday is determined to attack. York communicates
with the tribal leaders through Spanish: he is a man who has made
a conscious effort to open himself up to other cultures, and develop
a practical working relationship with them. Gay people are depicted
as a point of openness in society, connecting individuals who
allow the society to reach out to other groups outside its borders.
Such connections are a source of hope and growth for the society,
even its main chance for survival, if the society will allow such
a reaching out to take place and flourish.
Just before the final attack, York sends O'Rourke off to carry
a message. This is York's attempt to preserve O'Rourke, who he
worships. The thought of O'Rourke's beautiful body being harmed
by violence is anathema to York. This is the only resistance to
sinister course of events that York is now able to achieve. Because
of this, O'Rourke is able to survive, get married, and have children,
just as York intended. This shows York's commitment to the life
force, even in face of the disaster that overtakes the troop.
Fort Apache has imagery that recalls previous Ford films:
Fort Apache anticipates later Ford films:
- It opens with a stagecoach ride through Monument Valley, recalling Stagecoach.
- The raising of the US flag recalls The Battle of Midway.
- The young Cavalry officer and a spunky woman meet in a remote way station, as in
- Young recruits are trained for war in seemingly comic, cheerful scenes.
Then later we see the devastation of battle, and we learn the severe downside of this system.
This returns in What Price Glory, The Long Gray Line,
The Colter Craven Story.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is the second of Ford's unofficial "cavalry trilogy".
Ford films sometimes feature a "working class man in love with a heroine who in turn loves a middle class man".
The love triangle in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon of John Agar, Joanne Dru and Harry Carey Jr. has
aspects of this, with Harry Carey Jr. being a rich man's son, who doesn't need to depend on his Army pay.
However, the characters in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon are not the standard ones in such Ford triangles:
- Both Agar and Carey are Lieutenants, and so have equal social standing. This is different from
Born Reckless, where the hero was an enlisted man from the slums, and his rival Randolph Scott was an officer.
Agar and Carey are social equals. In fact, Agar has slightly higher rank, being a First Lieutenant.
- Usually in Ford films, the woman is firmly in love with the middle class man, and the working class hero's
passion is hopeless. But in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Dru is torn between the two men, and enjoys
the courting of both suitors. Hero Agar is always in the romantic running.
The Hero's Relationships
The hero is an older man, and has no open romantic relationships. Ever since his wife died many years
ago, he has been what Tag Gallagher refers to as one of Ford's "celibate heroes".
The young heroine (Joanne Dru) is impressed with Wayne, and his accomplishments, character and behavior.
This also leads her to be attracted to him - a little - and kiss him. This is carefully nuanced.
She is a woman who allows herself to be attracted by a man of genuine stature.
But she also carefully restrains this - it is nothing that she is going to allow to blossom into full romance.
The age gap allows this to be a "safe" expression of feeling, one that is socially and morally legitimate.
Wayne develops a full scale friendship with the young Sergeant (Ben Johnson). This is one of many
older man - younger man friendships in Ford. The scene at the end, where Johnson rides after Wayne, allows full expression
of feelings in this relationship.
Bright young Sergeant Ben Johnson figures out which Native American tribe produced the arrow.
He does this by visual analysis of markings on the arrow.
Visual analysis and thinking pop up in other Ford films too.
Ford likes to frame people through open doorways. The giant gate of the fort is used to frame several shots
in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon:
- Harry Carey is shown driving out, alone, to his picnic. This comic shot is light-hearted,
but it serves to establish the geometry of the gate in the viewer's mind.
- The bedraggled, weary survivors of the failed patrol enter through the gate.
This is an image of the cost of war. It includes civilian refugees. It also shows the Ford subject of "defeat".
- Wayne enters at the end. This happy-and-serious shot shows instead the success of peace.
Mist and Smoke
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is full of shots of mist or smoke:
- Mist over the cemetery,
- Morning smoke from chimneys at the fort,
- Smoke from the burning wagon after the attack,
- The smoke signal used by the Native Americans,
- Cigar smoke.
The teepee scenes are full of the triangles Ford likes. The compositions are made more complex
by the diagonal lines of the sticks at the top of the teepees.
Ford occasionally shows a tent used by the Cavalry. These tents have some triangles.
But few compositions that use tents are really dominated by such triangles.
A chair is on the balcony, where we first see the heroine. The chair side has the circular arcs
and nested circles Ford likes in chairs. One design looks like a spiral.
Native American pottery is shown when the expedition leaves the fort. The pottery displays
the geometric extravaganzas occasionally found in Ford. One pot has an elaborate maze pattern.
Another has designs that look a bit like triangles or teepees.
Color: Red, Yellow and Blue
The long opening at the fort is mainly in a single color scheme:
most scenes are designed in a mixture or red, yellow and blue.
The blue and yellow are provided by the Cavalry uniforms. The red comes from other sources:
This long opening stretches from the just after the brief historical prologue, to when the
patrol leaves on its mission.
- The ground is usually a reddish earth. Many of the scenes take place outside.
- Red horses.
- A brilliant red sunset, and the red light it sheds.
- A brick red shawl worn by the heroine.
- The red-and-white flag of the 7th Cavalry.
- The red marks on Wayne's calendar.
- The red cyclamen flower carried by the heroine.
- John Wayne's red undershirt, briefly seen.
- The blacksmith is in a similar red shirt, plus a red scarf.
- The red sash worn by John Agar.
- What might be a cluster of chimneys, seen over a fort wall. These are red cylinders.
A few shots have some green, but it is mainly rare in the opening:
- The signs at the fort have a blue-green background. Perhaps this color is as much blue as it is green.
- The safe in George O'Brien's office.
Some later scenes have the same red, yellow and blue color scheme:
- The fight that nearly starts between Agar and Carey while on patrol. Agar takes out his yellow cape,
ostensibly as part of the fight - but stylistically it brings more yellow into the scene.
This scene is a bit of interlude in the serious patrol sequence, recalling in romantic rivalry subject matter the opening.
- The retirement ceremony. This is back at the fort, just like the opening, and uses the same visual elements.
Color: Red and Blue
The Arapaho village on the move, wears costumes in red-and-blue.
Color: Red and Green
Our first view of the heroine on the balcony is in red-and-green. She wears a red shawl; the roof is red wood;
a green chair is at one side.
O'Brien's office shows red-and-green elements:
The office scenes as a whole are not in red-and-green,
because the Cavalry men are in blue-and-yellow uniforms.
- A wooden mail holder on the wall is red.
- A safe is green.
- There are two green lamps, one with a green globe shade, one with a green base.
Some small attack parties of Native Americans are in red-and-green compositions. The warriors include leaders in red costumes.
The red rocks and sand are mixed with green vegetation.
The sinister agents are first seen in neutrals. Two are in dark jackets, and the post behind them is gray wood.
Only a red scarf worn by the man in buckskins offers a note of color.
When McLaglen is in the gray suit, the suit's color nearly exactly matches the walls of Wayne's room.
It is a startling color harmony. It underscores the suit, and perhaps enhances the comic tone of the scene.
When Willie Comes Marching Home
When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950) is a comedy with a World War II background.
The long trip to Europe, that dominates the second half of the film,
is one of Ford's visionary sequences. The hero witnesses events in this sequence -
but he does not cause them or affect them. He is an observer, seeing things unreel before his eyes.
In this he recalls Loretta Young's witnessing the revolution in
Four Men and a Prayer.
The hero's status as an observer is built into the plot. The key aspect of
his trip is that he actually saw the new weapon. Because of this,
his eye-witness account is invaluable to the Allied High Command. It is the act of
seeing which is crucial here.
Seeing is linked by the plot to filming. The French Underground also makes a
film of the weapon. This film shows exactly what the hero also saw. The plot
equates the hero's act of witnessing, with the making of a documentary film.
This is one of the few "film within a film" sequences in Ford. It links Ford's
profession of filmmaking, with one of the "visionary" characters in his oeuvre.
What the hero sees goes beyond what the film records. He is asked to authenticate the film.
And also to provide a background story for its context and making. He is also asked
to identify a character in his story, by looking through an album of photographs.
The hero has to jump to the ship. Such gaps or chasms are a Ford image.
Ford depicts people in the hero's small town as obsessed with dubious ideas.
Ford is nowhere as savage here, as he was in showing the vicious small town in
Just Pals (1920). Still, this is a portrait without too many positive features.
One notes that everything about the military is depicted as positive. The young man
who becomes a pilot is the only one in town to offer the hero any support. The pilot
recognizes realistically that military service is not all grandstanding. His
understanding is far beyond what any of the civilian townspeople believe.
The bands urging people to enlist recall Born Reckless.
So do the basic training, and the later French locale.
The hero's numerous attempts to get out of his training job, and go abroad, perhaps
relate him to other Ford heroes who dislike routine work.
Many Ford heroes lie to their families, about their secret lives. The hero of
When Willie Comes Marching Home tries to tell his family the truth about his
secret experience - but no one will believe him!
The hero's (unintentional) secret adventure relates to the (deliberate) schemes of
other Ford heroes. The hero of Born Reckless sneaks off to commit a robbery.
The hero of Up the River sneaks in and out of prison. Willie similarly
moves in and out of his training job so quickly, that people hardly realize
he is gone.
One can see the "Fox comedy style of 1950" in Love Nest (Joseph M. Newman, 1951)
and When Willie Comes Marching Home (John Ford). Both have:
Despite this studio style, both films also show their directors' individual talents.
- Good-looking, gentle "ordinary guys" who deal with frustrating problems
of everyday life as well as the US Army.
- A loyal nice girl next door.
- A kindhearted but ultra-sexy woman he innocently meets (Corrine Calvet or Marilyn Monroe).
- A similar comic tone.
The Quiet Man
The Quiet Man (1952) is a comedy, beautifully filmed in Ireland.
The romantic scenes in the wind and rain, recall the storms in Pilgrimage
and The Hurricane.
The hero talks about his background working in fiery Pittsburgh steel mills.
This recalls the ship's stokehold in The Blue Eagle.
Permission to Marry
Several of Ford's films involve a suitor getting permission to marry from a relative:
Much of the plot of The Quiet Man revolves around the attempt by the hero and his
girlfriend to get her brother's approval. The brother is as fierce and as monstrous in his
refusal as the mother in Pilgrimage. Both films take place a setting of rural houses and farms.
- In Hangman's House, the heroine is forced by her father to marry a monstrous rich man,
rather than the man she loves.
- In Born Reckless, a man seeks the hero's approval to marry the hero's sister - and easily gets it.
- In Pilgrimage, the mother prevents a young woman from marrying her son.
- In Judge Priest, the mother does not want her son dating a woman of unknown parentage.
- In Gideon's Day, a young man wants to romance the hero's daughter.
The hero paints his house in what he thinks of as typical or ideal Irish colors. This prompts
sympathetic but humorous comments from the minister's wife. She points out that only an American
would use Emerald Green! The house is something of a fake. It is more endearing than many such
Ford fakes, being created out of love for Ireland, not an attempt to deceive.
The courtship and marriage rituals enforced and staged by Barry Fitzgerald, are also kinds of
"visionary" experiences. The hero takes part in them. But they are recreations of ancient traditions,
played out before his eyes. He is more involved with these rituals, however, than are many Ford
heroes who simply passively witness visionary experiences.
We get a Ford perspective shot down a covered portico at the train station, at the film's start.
The opening has numerous beautiful shots of bridges:
When the hero is fixing up his cottage, long ladders allow workmen access to the roof.
This is one of Ford's steep vertical environments.
- A pedestrian walkway over the tracks, with big stairs leading up to it.
- A railroad bridge over a road. The carriage drives under this bridge.
- A road with a bridge over a running stream.
The heroine walks between long buildings in her farm. It's a large complex. The farm complex reminds one a bit
of the farm in Murnau's Sunrise, always a film with a big influence on Ford.
The scene of the heroine dishing up food to the farmhands, also recalls a bit the heroine serving a meal in Sunrise.
Several shots of buildings are built around triangles, an important kind of composition in Ford:
The race course path is curved. There are also curved streets.
- The main street of the village, with a pan past triangular roofs of various buildings.
- A distant view of the church, showing a tall triangular steeple, and various triangular roofs.
- A closer view of the church after Sunday service, with a prominent triangular roof of the chapel.
- Shots of cottages and their roofs.
- A castle and its many triangular gables.
- Another shot of a street and its roofs.
The heroine flips up the music rack, when she plays her harpsichord. The rack is full of spirals and circles.
It is half-way between the spiral designs that run through Ford films, and the complex designs on chairs full of circles.
The credits show a brilliantly red sunset, recalling She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
The heroine is dressed in red-and-blue, when first seen by the hero. Later, she is in red-blue-and-white,
with the white provided by an apron.
Her brother also wears red-and-blue, the colors of his jockey silks at the race track.
The widow's study seems partly in a mix of green and purple, at first sight.
Soon, we see light blue or gray walls, and a blue globe.
The hats John Wayne wears have a long history in John Ford:
- Wayne wears a visored cloth cap when he first arrives, and in the big fight,
like the heroes of The Blue Eagle and Four Sons.
- While courting Maureen O'Hara, he wears a more formal looking hat with a hard rounded top,
like the hero's rival in The Blue Eagle and Spencer Tracy in Up the River.
What Price Glory
What Price Glory (1952) is a World War I film.
Training for Battle
Ford's film version of What Price Glory emphasizes the role Captain Flagg and Sgt. Quirt
play in training raw recruits - then sending them into battle. It starts out looking like
a comic lark. Then gradually one realizes one is watching a death factory, a place where
men are trained for slaughter.
This aspect of the story is greatly expanded in Ford's film, from the original play.
Ford has added many scenes of military drill. Ford's films are full of military-style
parades. Ford regularly gets spectacle from such scenes. He does so here again in
What Price Glory. But such scenes in What Price Glory subtly develop into
spectacles of the training of new and very young recruits.
What Price Glory relates to other Ford films attacking war. Fort Apache
also shows officers leading their men into death. Just as Wayne in Fort Apache
sends Agar back to spare him from the carnage, so does Sgt. Quirt in What Price Glory
have two very young soldiers locked up to prevent them from going into battle.
What Price Glory also anticipates The Long Gray Line, in looking at the
training of recruits for war - and its sinister consequences.
What Price Glory comes immediately after The Quiet Man in Ford's career.
There are reasons why The Quiet Man is famous and What Price Glory is forgotten.
The Quiet Man is a genuinely endearing comedy about a bunch of civilians. While the characters
of The Quiet Man all have their faults, they are basically non-violent people. The Quiet Man
is about the Innocent; What Price Glory is about the Guilty.
Play to Film
Captain Flagg is a much richer character in the play. He offers a non-stop stream of
sardonic, bitter observations about the war. A major strength of the play What Price Glory is
its brilliant dialogue. Much of this has been cut for the film.
Captain Flagg in the play often seems like just another soldier caught up in the horrors
of World War I. He is an Everyman, expressing anti-war sentiments of those trapped
in an evil war. His personal responsibility for the training and death of enlisted men,
in not emphasized as it is in the film.
Captain Flagg is the lead character in both play and film. But despite the presence of James Cagney,
no less, as Flagg, the movie Flagg seems like much less of a character. The film's somewhat
surprising lack of strong characterization is an unexpected weak point. It also seems atypical
of Ford, who is usually good at characterization.
The battle sequence in What Price Glory is shot on what looks like a studio set.
It preserves the Murnau tradition that Ford used in his films of 1928-1932: shooting
in highly stylized, non-naturalistic sets, for the sake of an emotionally expressive
visual style. It is startling to see such scenes in a color film of the 1950's. If you've
ever wondered what Expressionism might look like in color, here's your chance!
The scene of the heroine on the outdoor staircase at the start, recalls Maureen O'Hara
walking on a similar outdoor staircase in How Green Was My Valley on her wedding day,
veil blowing in the wind.
Costume Designer Edward Stevenson is best known for his 1930's films, and their fabulously
elegant evening wear for men. Here he creates what at first seems like a drastically different
kind of costume: working uniforms for soldiers in World War I combat duty. However, these uniforms
are unexpectedly spiffy too, even when they are work-oriented. We first meet the soldiers marching home,
wearing long coats. The casual looking coats are shiny and rubberized. Their long skirts are
also spectacularly elegant.
The Long Gray Line
The Long Gray Line (1955) is a drama about West Point, the training academy for
US Army officers.
Links to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: An Experimental Film
The early scenes show the hero wandering around West Point for the first time. He is completely
ignored by everyone except his guide: as if he were not really there, or invisible to
everyone else. He inspects everything, looks down long lines of cadets, makes comments -
none of which has any effect on the "world" he is seeing.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance will have John Wayne and Woody Strode watching a scene
we have already seen before in the film. They "interfere" in its action, in a complex and almost avant-garde way.
The scenes in The Long Gray Line are simpler, and less experimental in terms of film narration.
But they produce a similar effect. It is almost an experimental film fantasy, showing a character wandering
around, invisibly inspecting action in front of him.
Both films anticipate the House of Fiction episodes in Celine and Julie Go Boating
(Jacques Rivette, 1974).
Later, in The Long Gray Line, the hero's courting of the heroine will have something
of the same effect. He will fix her sink in her kitchen, while she silently goes about her cooking
job, completely ignoring him. Once again, the hero seems to be watching a scene where he is invisible to
the other people. As in the early shots, the hero talks constantly, without any response from those he is
Discipline and Uniforms
The opening of The Long Gray Line emphasizes discipline. Corporal Heinz (Peter Graves) explains to the hero
that the cadets are there "because they want discipline." Scenes of disciplined pageantry are
common in Ford. This film explicitly associates them with discipline.
Soon, another sequence will link discipline and uniforms to sexuality. The hero has no interest in
either, till he meets and decides to court the heroine. The hero immediately
gets himself in a fancy uniform like Corporal Heinz, and takes an exaggerated comic interest
in precision walking and saluting. He views these as an advantage in courting.
The hero tries to take on the characteristics of the men who've been in charge of him and disciplined
him. He gets a uniform like Heinz, and he tries to re-run the boxing scenario the Captain
pulled on him, on a new student. Both of these events can also be seen as the hero trying to
"enter" the world of the story, he has previously witnessed. They carry on the "experimental" aspects
of the film narrative.
Screen Directors Playhouse: Rookie of the Year
Rookie of the Year (1955) is a 25-minute TV show, an episode of Screen Directors Playhouse.
Links to The Searchers
According to Tag Gallagher's book, Rookie of the Year was shot in Summer 1955, which would be
either immediately before or at the same time as the filming of The Searchers.
Rookie of the Year has many of the same cast members as The Searchers:
John Wayne, his son Patrick Wayne, Ward Bond, Vera Miles.
Most importantly, its basic situation and characters have elements in common with The Searchers.
John Wayne, typically a hero in other films, plays bitter, morally corrupt anti-heroes in both.
In both, he is planning and scheming throughout the whole film to destroy an innocent young person:
the baseball player in Rookie of the Year, his niece Debbie in The Searchers.
Both films move towards a similar moment in their finale, which resolves the drama.
Both moments have Wayne embracing a young woman.
Vera Miles is terrific in her role as the young woman in Rookie of the Year.
Her climactic moment is especially powerful.
Viewing and Visual Analysis
Wayne makes his discovery about the rookie through visual analysis. He watches and watches the rookie,
partly because it's his job as sportswriter, and partly through personal fascination. Suddenly,
Wayne notices visual patterns in the rookie, that reveal the truth to him. This recalls other
scenes of "viewing" in Ford, such as When Willie Comes Marching Home.
Wayne as reporter is an observer of the characters' lives, not a participant. This is often symbolized
by having Wayne behind wire baseball fences. He is behind such baseball fencing both while watching the rookie play
pro ball, and while watching the rookie's father guide little kids playing ball. This make Wayne one of Ford's
characters having visionary experiences.
Like the others with visions in Ford, Wayne sees events happening, but cannot alter or take port in them.
The wire fencing at the kids' ball park, also is used by Ford to create the most complex compositions in
Rookie of the Year. Buildings in the background also get incorporated in these elaborate designs.
Hoaxes and Double Life
Ward Bond plays another Ford character with a hoax and a double life.
Work, Society and Media
Wayne's working environment at his two-bit newspaper is nearly as bad as
Edward G. Robinson's office in The Whole Town's Talking. Wayne might not be
opposed to routine work, like so many Ford heroes, but he definitely wants to move up to a bigger paper.
His rotten boss emphasizes micro-control over Wayne's working hours.
Wayne's good opportunity at the end involves travel to East Asia,
just like Robinson at the end of The Whole Town's Talking.
While Wayne doesn't talk about such changes-to-routine-work in his dialogue - he only wants to be a success -
such an opportunity for adventure is seen by Ford and the film as a positive outcome.
It seems more important in the film, than "success", which the writer also gets a little of.
There is much in Rookie of the Year about media of communication:
newspaper, teletype, long distance phone, discussion of radio and television. This seems to be Ford's first work
for television, so some of the discussion is perhaps a bit self-referential. Media will return in
The Last Hurrah, with another, more sympathetic newspaper writer (Jeffrey Hunter) and a
satire on television.
Several Ford films look at the harm lying in the press does to democracy and society.
Rookie of the Year looks at a related but different issue: should the press publish
true information that might harm an innocent person's life?
James Gleason, an archetypal urban actor, will return in Ford's big city portrait The Last Hurrah.
There are little vignettes showing sportswriters' life. These take the place of
the ethnographic looks at other cultures found in many Ford films.
The hometown visit takes place in a mining community. This recalls How Green Was My Valley.
Secrets and Outing
Rookie of the Year centers on dark personal secrets possibly getting exposed, thereby ruining
a man's life. In Rookie of the Year, these involve baseball. In real life, the most common
such secret is homosexuality: a closeted gay man having his orientation exposed.
This possibly gives Rookie of the Year a gay subtext. Gay aspects of various types run
The rookie uses a baseball bat, and his team number is 4. Both are phallic symbols.
Such symbolic numbers as 4 have a long history in sports films. Please see the article on
Sports Numbers and Their Symbolism for many examples.
Gideon's Day (1958) is a crime drama, showing a day in the life of Scotland
Yard Inspector Gideon.
Links to Born Reckless: Ford's Crime Films
Gideon's Day resembles Born Reckless (1930) among Ford's work:
- Both are crime dramas - but neither contains any mystery.
- Both have tough urban settings (New York City in Born Reckless, London in Gideon's Day).
These get a full ethnographic treatment, in the Ford manner.
- Both give an inside look at both the police as an institution, and criminal gangs.
- Both have English characters (Sir Maurice in Born Reckless, everyone in Gideon's Day).
- Both are episodic tales, made up of numerous disconnected subplots.
- Both films skirt the edge of subgenres, containing gangsters in Born Reckless,
a serial killer in Gideon's Day - but avoid making such characters the leads as they would be
in typical gangster or serial killer films.
- The heroes are both tough, bull-like men of around 40, handsome and well built. They share
a dry sense of humor, are exceptionally macho, and fully understand a tough
urban world of crime, without being mean spirited themselves.
- Both heroes are between classes, dealing effectively with characters who range from the poor
to the rich.
- Horrendous crimes which attack women's home life are denounced in both films
(kidnapping in Born Reckless, the rapist in Gideon's Day).
- Both heroes have to deal with betrayal to their organization (mob informers in Born Reckless,
a corrupt policeman on the take in Gideon's Day).
- Widows relate to the heroes in both films (his sister in Born Reckless, the cop's widow in Gideon's Day).
- Both heroes have a warm - and honest - family base, which contrasts with the criminal
world outside the door.
- Food is important in the family world - the family actually runs a grocery store in Born Reckless,
and the hero has to get food for the family in Gideon's Day. Meals at home are in both films.
- Both heroes deal with, and have to approve, the courtship of a nice, refined-but-staunch, younger man for a female relative
(a sister in Born Reckless, a daughter in Gideon's Day).
Links to Fort Apache
The first meeting between the daughter and the constable recalls the opening of Fort Apache.
In both films:
The father in Gideon's Day is a much better man, though, and is far more decent to the youth.
- The daughter meets a nice young man in uniform.
- The young man is under the command of her father.
- The father is also present and in mild-but-annoying conflict with the young man, concerning their organization.
The glowing color of Gideon's Day resembles The Quiet Man.
The Gideon family home interior at the start is mainly in that familiar Ford combination "red, yellow and blue".
The kitchen has yellow walls and refrigerator, red curtains and tablecloth. It is bright and vibrant.
The downstairs hall is blue. The stair carpet is reddish.
Gideon is first seen in a red robe, while his daughter wears two different blue outfits throughout this scene.
Only the mother in green is not part of the color scheme. She does have some bright red on her apron.
The daughter's sweater at the start matches the blue walls of the family hall.
Her pale skirt echoes the white trim on the walls.
Some objects have red-green color schemes:
- Gideon's car is very light green, with dark red upholstery.
- The Gideon front yard is mainly green vegetation. But a few touches of red are visible.
- The kids' school is also mainly green vegetation, while the building is a reddish brick.
- A corridor at Scotland Yard has light green walls, red fire extinguishers.
The Last Hurrah
The Last Hurrah (1958) is a political satire, about contemporary
United States politics.
The viewpoint character throughout much of The Last Hurrah is the hero's nephew. The nephew
is given a chance to view the entire campaign, strictly as an observer. He can watch, and ask questions,
but otherwise cannot take part in any of the events. He becomes another of Ford's visionary
characters. The entire film is one of Ford's visions: the longest and most elaborate in Ford.
Links to Born Reckless
The political activity in the Mayor's office, recalls the politics at the DA's office we saw in
Born Reckless. Both films show a big city politician and his loyal staff of men, all
discussing ways to spin current events to their political advantage.
The urban parade that opened Born Reckless recurs, as the several political parades in
The Last Hurrah. Both emphasize music and marching bands.
The hero of Born Reckless helped people who came to him, especially his widowed sister
and his old girlfriend. The Mayor in The Last Hurrah has a steady stream of public
petitioners he aids. Most important: the widow at the wake. Many of the other petitioners
seem to be women too: they outnumber the men in the last line-up by three-to-one.
A Phony Family
In Just Pals, a crook and his wife create a phony "loving family", with the
tough wife pretending to be caring mother image. It is a scathing satire on family values.
In The Last Hurrah, we have a phony family image created for the rival candidate McCluskey.
Here, handlers show his alleged home life, for a TV campaign sound-bite. This family is presented
with a fake pet dog, who they allegedly love. And the wife reads her "family values" dialogue
off of scripted cue cards.
While this is presented as a satire of political image creation, one suspects there are
deeper subtexts as well. Both films offer a devastating critique of the "normal, heterosexual family"
as an imaginary fake, created by evil people. In both, we see what one suspects is a gay
Fordian critique of "family values" as a complete sham.
Both films center on a phony love for children. The fake motherly woman in Just Pals
is just miming mother love, so that the family can get the kid away from his "unfit"
male friend. The Last Hurrah also has fake caring for kids: the mother's expressions of love
for her kids are read off of cue cards. Also: dogs are standard substitutes for children
in advertising, and we get a phony affection for a dog, followed later by a look at the mother's
real feelings about this dog.
The phony image making, for a television spot, also embodies Ford's theme about the
dangers of political lies in the press
Lots of Ford characters have a fondness for uniforms - and the director liked to be
part of a uniformed yachting crew in real life. Such an interest in uniforms is made
into an explicit part of the plot of The Last Hurrah. We see the Commodore first
in his yachtsman's outfit, then lured by the prospect of a fireman's uniform.
This sequence allows feelings that have been implicit in much of Ford to be
talked about openly. Once again, this is disguised as political comedy.
The Last Hurrah gets men into leather uniforms. Black leather jacketed motorcycle
cops show up twice.
The Last Hurrah shows the rich business elite of the city oppressing the poor.
They fight the Mayor's plan for slum clearance, and bankroll a candidate with phony
appeal as a mask for their Republican agenda.
Ford will soon do a similar scathing look at the rich's class war on working people in
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both are films are unusually trenchant, in showing
the schemes of the rich to oppress the average person.
The Last Hurrah was created in an era in which writers were treated with
enormous respect in the media. They are shown to be brainy, deep thinkers, and
sources of moral and intellectual strength for the community. Hunter's
newspaper columnist gets this treatment.
Hunter is always dressed in a tasteful suit, often pinstriped. He is first seen
wearing sweater a with his suit, a sign of an intellectual man. Vincente Minnelli
(a name not often linked with Ford's) used this same convention in costuming intellectual leaders
and scientists in The Band Wagon (1953), The Cobweb (1955), and
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). Hunter also smokes a pipe, the other
signifier of a writer in old films.
The hero's son is a playboy, a type that was also emerging in this era. He can be compared
to Cliff Robertson's party animal in The Naked and the Dead (Raoul Walsh, 1958).
This young man is satirized throughout the film, and is clearly not held up as any
sort of ideal.
But the son has some hidden virtues that make him more sympathetic, even while he is being spoofed.
He is a gentle sort, who seems to have no malice towards anyone. He is always friendly towards his
father, even if he shows no interest in his father's political work. When his father gets sick, his first
thought is to take his old man on a cruise. This is frivolous, but is actually a decent idea for
a heart patient. It also shows that he likes to spend time with his father: he is definitely
not the sort of bad kids seen in Tokyo Story, who try to spend as little time with their
folks as possible. Even the young man's hobby, listening to jazz, shows that he is of good will
towards black people. He is miles away from the rich racist Republicans who are the film's villains.
Even the loose woman he is dating shows some mild virtues in this man. She is not the Playboy
bunny style ideal of 60's libertines, but an old-fashioned glamour queen of the nightclub era.
He is in awe of her, and in her own way, she is a queen, not some disposable bimbo.
The Cavanaughs - and real life politics
There was a short lived American TV series, The Cavanaughs (1986).
This was about a Boston, Massachusetts family: Irish-American, Catholic, die-hard liberals
and fanatic supporters of the local Democratic Party. Barnard Hughes played the crusty
family patriarch, one son was a labor union leader, the other a priest. This was a comic look
inside the same liberal milieu as The Last Hurrah. The films differ, in that
while The Last Hurrah looks at power figures such as the Mayor, the Cardinal and their
nasty right wing rich opponents, The Cavanaughs looks at a more ordinary working class
This is also the world that produced the Kennedys - Teddy Kennedy is Catholic, Irish,
and one of the most liberal members of the US Senate.
My family loved The Cavanaughs, and enjoyed seeing a sympathetic look at liberals on TV.
It got great reviews - but poor ratings.
In the real-life 2006 US Election, 55% of Roman Catholics voted Democratic (liberal),
44% voted Republican (conservative). See "The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life",
which does sociological surveys and polls about religion and its impact on US political action.
A majority of US Catholics again voted Democratic in 2008 and 2012.
While the Irish-Catholic milieu of The Last Hurrah and The Cavanaughs is mainly liberal,
among US Catholics as a whole, there is a wide diversity of political attitudes.
Trying to conclude anything about an American's political beliefs from Catholic religious affiliation is futile.
The Horse Soldiers
The Horse Soldiers (1959) is a Civil War story. It often has the feel of a Western:
- It is set in the mid-19th Century, and takes place in rural regions or small towns.
- It stars John Wayne.
- The men ride horses.
- Their US Army uniforms look similar to the US Cavalry uniforms found in many Westerns.
- The Army doctor (William Holden) recalls the Army doctor in the Western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Both wear similar white-coated uniforms.
Characters: Links to John Ford Films
John Wayne's hero is a former railroad engineer, now pressed into military service during the Civil War.
He recalls the young hero of The Iron Horse. Both men:
By a hideous irony, Wayne is now ordered to destroy railroads, as part of the war.
You can tell he hates this. The distaste the film conveys is part of its anti-war message.
There was a similar irony in Days of Glory (Jacques Tourneur, 1944),
whose hero is a former engineer who has to blow up a dam he helped build in peace time.
- Led the construction of railroads.
- Are working class men, who had no training in school or college, but worked their way up to their jobs.
- The hero of The Iron Horse is orphaned as a boy: John Wayne in The Horse Soldiers
began working on the railways at age 10.
John Wayne's officer disapproves of the Army doctor (William Holden) helping the black civilians medically.
Although Wayne's officer couches his objections entirely in terns of "Army doctors shouldn't treat civilians",
one senses that his character is prejudiced against black people. As in The Searchers
and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wayne seems to be playing a character who embodies American racism.
In all three films, he is cast against characters with more progressive views on race.
The films endorse these progressive, anti-racist views, and condemn the racism of Wayne's characters.
His characters serve as reminders of how much sinister racism is embedded in US history and society.
Major Richard Gray is a former actor, now turned US Army officer. He recites Shakespeare at the dinner,
lines from Richard II.
This recalls the reciting of Hamlet in the Western saloon, in My Darling Clementine.
The mother who keeps the boy cadet from serving, is the exact opposite of the mother in Pilgrimage:
she is trying to keep her boy alive, while the evil mother in Pilgrimage wants to send her son off into battle.
Both mothers have houses in the rural South, with fences and gates in front.
John Wayne keeps a soldier from shooting the minister. He jerks up the man's rifle.
This anticipates a similar scene in Sergeant Rutledge,
where the heroine prevents the hero from shooting a man, by moving his rifle.
Links to Sunrise
Some of the imagery towards the end recalls the famous "track through the swamp" in Murnau's Sunrise (1927),
a key influence on Ford:
- The characters wade through a swamp. They are on horses, unlike Sunrise.
- Later, the characters are filmed through tall weeds.
One of the most strikingly composed shots in The Horse Soldiers is an early scene in an Army tent.
We see a succession of tent peaks in the close background, making a beautiful geometric pattern.
Further, unrelated peaks are from more tents in the distant background. This scene is shot head-on,
an ancient John Ford tradition.
Later, some small hovel-like homes have a peaked roof, which Ford uses to make compositions.
These include a home blown up in the final battle; and the house serving as the makeshift hospital in the final shot.
When the soldiers first arrive at the covered portico of the heroine's mansion,
we get a well-composed shot down the length of this portico.
There is also a brief glimpse down the portico of that building serving as the hospital, at the film's end.
Some Ford architectural motifs appear in The Horse Soldiers:
- The boy cadet climbs down a wall by a vine. Ford likes vertical architecture.
- Fences show up in farms, and near the first march of the boy cadets.
- A bridge is the locale of the final battle.
That Ford motif smoke appears in the final battle at the bridge.
The hero's shadow gradually covers the seated heroine, as he approaches her.
This recalls the heroine's shadow slowly covering the tombstone in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Several costumes and/or scenes are in a color scheme of "Red, yellow and blue".
These are the three Primary Colors, and are often used together in design:
This color scheme recalls Seminole (Budd Boetticher, 1953).
Seminole also uses blue-yellow-and-touches-of-red Army uniforms of the 19th Century,
to build its "Red, yellow and blue" color scheme.
In Seminole Native Americans add much red to the scenes; in The Horse Soldiers
much red is added by the heroine and her red dress. Both the Native Americans and the woman are Others,
whose brilliant red costumes emphasize visually that they form a drastic contrast in the story to the US soldiers.
- John Wayne's standard Army uniform of "Blue with touches of yellow" is augmented by a red scarf,
and a red shirt he wears underneath. His dress uniform of blue-and-gold comes with a red sash.
- Sgt. Kirby also wears a red scarf with his blue-yellow uniform.
- During the big dinner scene, the heroine is in a red-and-white dress, that emphasizes red,
much more than the touches of red on the men's uniforms.
- Later, a shot of burning trains shows red and yellow flames, against a deep blue sky.
The boy cadets have red-blue uniforms, and carry dark red drums. This makes some of their key scenes be in a
"red and blue" color scheme. When one of the cadets is first seen at night in the minister's quarters,
another cadet is in red robe, there are red curtains, red on the Confederate officer's uniform,
and the gray clothes of other characters are filmed in a way that makes them look blue-ish, also maintaining a "red and blue" color scheme.
The military academy facade, seen in some shots, is red brick.
Earlier in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the Arapaho village that was on the move also wore "red and blue" costumes.
Like the boy cadets, the Arapahos formed a long procession. Also like the boy cadets, they are
somewhat social outsiders in the film's story, neither the film's heroes nor the chief antagonists.
They are something "extra" in the films' worlds. And both are garbed in the vibrant, eye-attracting
color scheme of "red and blue".
Sergeant Rutledge (1960) is a Western. It is one of Ford's best movies. And most under-rated.
Sergeant Rutledge has an extensive framework story set in a courtroom. Interspersed with this
are flashbacks, which show what witnesses are testifying about in the trial.
The flashbacks often have the "visionary" quality found in many Ford films. They seem to arise as visions
of the witnesses, sweeping them into events that seem even more vivid than life.
In the first flashback, the heroine arrives in Arizona by train. This recalls the hero's first arrival
at West Point in The Long Gray Line: also a "visionary" style experience. At one point, the Sergeant prevents
the heroine from speaking or crying out. This plays a role in the plot: he is trying to keep them hidden from attackers.
But it also has the effect of preventing the heroine from participating in the events around her.
She can see the events, but not speak or take action. The events become more like a vision, a pure experience seen only.
The flashbacks often have dramatic beginnings and ends. They seem to erupt, then later on suddenly disappear.
Entrance of Rutledge: Almost by Magic
Rutledge first appears in the flashback, almost out of nowhere. He is one of several Ford characters
who materialize, almost as if by magic. Such appearances have a "visionary" quality.
Dialogue in Sergeant Rutledge compares his entrance to an event in a dream.
Several characters perform a Ford favorite, visual analysis. They look at things,
then analyze and make deductions about what they see:
- Rutledge "reads sign" behind the station, looking at tracks in the ground, deducing what sort of attack took place.
The heroine knows about the concept of "reading sign".
- The hero looks at a photo of the murder victim after the crime, as well as a mark on the victim's neck,
and deduces her cross was stolen.
- The cross is identified in court, out of a group.
- The hero compares the size of the coat, with that of a suspect.
The hero and his men study a map in the train station, to plan the patrol.
We see them in relative long shot, and are too far away to see detail on the map.
Yet, they use hand gestures to point to items on the map, other gestures to indicate directions of travel,
and keep up a running verbal commentary. Viewers are able to follow all of this, and get a clear idea of the geography,
just as if viewers were seeing the map.
When the hero and the heroine meet on the train, they are in a favorite Ford color scheme, "red, yellow and blue".
It is produced by the same mechanism as Ford used in The Horse Soldiers:
The colors are used in the immediate environment of the two characters:
- The hero is in a blue and yellow Cavalry uniform, with an extra touch of red at his throat (perhaps a scarf).
- The heroine is in a pink dress. This gives a large expanse of a red-related color, balancing the three colors.
A red and white tablecloth at the table where they are sitting.
An unusual aspect: the world surrounding the two characters and their immediate setting, is in neutrals.
This includes the drab clothes of many rough men on the train, as well as the train itself and station.
These guys are living "regular" lives, while the hero and heroine are blessed with romance.
The couple have a color scheme that makes them stand out against this neutral, drab world.
- Blue cups.
- Pale wood walls that might be classified as neutral, but which also can be seen as pale yellow.
Soon, the hero will leave, and Rutledge will arrive. Rutledge is in a similar blue-and-yellow Cavalry uniform as the hero.
Rutledge and the heroine will also make a "red, yellow and blue" pair, standing out from the drab train station around them.
Later in the film, a key scene has the hero expressing his belief in Rutledge. The two men are in their uniforms,
and the "red, yellow and blue" scheme predominates. Rutledge is in his undershirt, which is red, giving a big expanse of red.
When the hero first meets the heroine on the train, he has his knee up, which visually emphasizes his boots.
Rutledge is one of several Ford heroes who have their shirts off. This is when he is tending his wound.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is a Western. It has strong elements of crime fiction,
like other Ford Westerns such as Stagecoach and Sergeant Rutledge.
An Experimental Film
The shooting is one of the more unusual scenes in film history. Its second staging shows new characters
(Wayne, Strode) "interfering" in or "rewriting" events we have already seen once. This has strong
elements of avant-garde or experimental cinema. It is as if characters were re-doing a story, with
their director's cooperation.
The staging is also odd. The original action is in a frieze, with the Western set parallel to the frame of the
screen. It looks completely artificial, in a deliberate way. It is like a piece of paper, or a projected
movie, on which new information is being "written" in the foreground by Wayne and Strode.
The shooting is part of one of Ford's nocturnal cityscapes.
Links to Stagecoach: Democracy
Stagecoach has a key scene, in which the characters vote on which action to take. It is a
tribute to democracy. Such scenes have been greatly extended in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
This film has three scenes of democracy in action:
All three scenes have Jimmy Stewart playing a leading role, and Edmond O'Brien in support.
In all three, threats from the powerful cattlemen are the chief obstacle.
- The classroom. No one votes here - but voting, citizenship and racial equality in a democracy are all discussed.
And the meeting serves as a prototype for the democratic scenes to come. The sign on the blackboard
states that education is the basis for democracy: a key theme of the film.
- The vote to elect the representative to the Capitol. This is the town's first real taste of democracy.
- The meeting in the Capitol, to send a delegate to Congress.
Stagecoach also contributes actors to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
John Carradine is prominent in both films, as an oratorical representative of
politically regressive forces. And Andy Devine is back, doing comedy relief. More sympathetically,
here he is a man married to a Hispanic woman, resembling the way-station owner married to
the Native American in Stagecoach.
Links to Born Reckless: Relations between men
Wayne is a character who deliberately (and skillfully) deceives other people. In this, he resembles the hero of
Born Reckless. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is less comic about this. It treats the deception
seriously, while in Born Reckless the fooling of other people is a lark the hero enjoys.
Also like the hero of Born Reckless, Wayne is a tough guy, a man who can deal with
a rough milieu, but who is not mean or malicious himself. And like the working class hero of Born Reckless,
he allies himself with men who have middle class connections, who are not as tough as he is. Here,
Wayne supports Jimmy Stewart's lawyer. While there are two middle class men the hero befriends in
Born Reckless, the army-buddy and the man who marries his sister, in
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance these have been boiled down to one man, the Stewart character.
Stewart echoes the "weak - but determined" image of the man who marries the sister in Born Reckless,
both being petit bourgeois characters who are out of their depth in a tough world - but who are courageous,
if ineffectual, in standing up to bullies and tough criminal types.
In both films, these middle class guys have an active heterosexual life - the hero does not.
Stewart also resembles the third, upper class guy in Born Reckless, in that he winds up
marrying the woman the hero loves. As in Born Reckless, there is a hint of masochism,
in a hero who watches and suffers as another man marries the woman he loves.
Both films also contain an important reporter character.
Both films have much satire of oratory.
A restaurant is the family business and home base here, just as a grocery store and family meals were
in Born Reckless.
Wayne, Stewart and Society
Stewart can be insufferably condescending, to the other characters. He acts paternalistic, he corrects
them, he presumes to guide their behavior. He can act like ego and vanity run amuck. Yet he genuinely knows
what he is doing. And he keeps taking action that empowers the other characters: he teaches people to read,
and then how to get a functioning democratic government going.
Wayne's character is the opposite. He is much better at dealing with people, on a personal level.
Yet he keeps trying to put the others in politically regressive situations. He prevents Pompey
from learning how to read, and calls him his "boy". And he treats Hallie as a woman who needs no education.
With all his charm, he is hurting the people around him.
Wayne also keeps refusing to step up to the plate, to use a baseball metaphor. He declines to propose to Hallie,
despite the urgings of the reporter - then promptly goes out of town, rather than pursuing his advantage.
Wayne does not push to train Stewart with a gun, playing the paint prank, instead. He refuses a
nomination to the Capitol - a real mark of a lack of civic involvement. Although his image is a
"man of action", the only actions he takes are with a gun.
The White Paint
Wayne takes delight in covering Stewart with white paint. This sure can be seen as sexual symbolism.
If there is a homoerotic attraction of Wayne's character to Stewart's, this can be seen as an
expression of what he wants to do. Wayne also likes the fact that Stewart slugs him.
Print the Legend
Much ink has been spilled on the "Print the Legend" comments. It might be noted, that in
Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Cheyenne Autumn,
the press is specifically criticized for telling lies that promote either racist myths, or violence
as a good thing. Ford is offering a critique of racist and violent ideology. He shows
how lies told in print support these false ideas.