John Ford | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Rankings | John Ford and Allan Dwan

Films: Straight Shooting | Bucking Broadway | Hell Bent | Just Pals | The Iron Horse | The Shamrock Handicap | 3 Bad Men | The Blue Eagle | Upstream | Four Sons | Hangman's House | Born Reckless | Up the River | Seas Beneath | Pilgrimage | The Lost Patrol | The Whole Town's Talking | 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 | Alcoa Premiere: Flashing Spikes

Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors) | Mathematics and Visual Style | Color in the Arts

John Ford

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 excellent book on John Ford is important. Its index traces out many subjects in Ford, and in which films they occur. See also his web site.

Please mail your comments to me at (Clicking here will bring up mail.) I am eager to hear what you think, and how you learned about this site. You can also download a free E-book of my mystery stories in EPUB or Kindle format.

John Ford: Subjects

Some common characteristics of Ford films: Water: Relationships: Sports: Books: Music: Anti-War themes: Politics and society: Work: Clocks: Controls:

John Ford: Structure and Story Telling

Vision and alternate reality:

John Ford: Visual Style

Architecture and Settings: Lights: Weather: Camera Movement: Frontal Shooting: Visual Style: Geometry: Color: Costumes:


Here are ratings for various films directed by John Ford. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended. The ratings go from one to four stars. All of these films are ones I've seen.

Films, silent:

Films, sound:

John Ford and Allan Dwan

John Ford began directing films in the 1910's. So did another prolific Hollywood director, Allan Dwan. A number of running elements in their films are shared by both Ford and Dwan: Some of these might be broadly shared among other filmmakers as well, rather than being restricted to Ford and Dwan.

Straight Shooting

Straight Shooting (1917) is an early Western.

Considered as a movie, Straight Shooting is not very good:

Straight Shooting seems basically like an apprentice work, something John Ford made while still learning his craft. It has some interesting material. It also has traces of visual approaches used in his later films.

Water and Private Property

The villains are ranchers trying to drive farmers off their land. They try to do this in part by brute force, and partly by making water unavailable to the farmers. They post a sign saying a water source is private property.

Water is a main theme running throughout John Ford, especially in his Westerns. Water sources and thirst play a big role in 3 Godfathers and Wagon Master.

Late in his career, Ford will return to the subject of Straight Shooting in his Wagon Train episode The Colter Craven Story (1960). The villains in The Colter Craven Story are also holding water as private property rather than sharing it. They are making big money extracting huge prices from ordinary people needing water.

The sign in Straight Shooting explicitly uses the words "Private Property". Straight Shooting seems to be expressing skepticism about the concept of Private Property, especially when it comes to something as essential as water.

The Grapes of Wrath will contrast the banks and absentee landlords, who are the legal owners of the farm land, with the farm families who have worked the land for generations. It suggests the families should be the real owners of the land.

Unfortunately, water and its supply and ownership are today bigger issues than ever. Ford's skepticism about private ownership of water supplies is more relevant than ever. So is his parallel concern with hunger in his non-Westerns.

The Heroine and Food

On of the best scenes in Straight Shooting has the heroine mourning her late brother, while setting his place at the table.

This scene draws on two key subjects in Ford:

Sheriff Davies

Most of the clothes in Straight Shooting are rough-looking working garb of the old West. An exception: Sheriff Davies is all done up in the sort of fancy garb that will later be worn by the heroes of singing cowboy movies. His costume is made more conspicuous, by being revealed when he takes off his rain slicker.

Sheriff Davies is just in two scenes, and plays little role there. Why is he dressed so spectacularly, and what is he doing in the film? Admittedly, there seems to be some missing footage in this saloon sequence in Straight Shooting; perhaps this footage gave the Sheriff a bigger or clearer role.

We do learn at the saloon scene's end that the Sheriff is a supporter of the rancher villain. This is perhaps an example of corrupt authority. Later, we see him cowering and holding back, when the hero and Placer have their Big Shoot-Out in the street.

Vertical Architecture

During a big fight, characters escape from the second floor of the saloon, down to the street below. Such movement around vertical architecture runs through Ford's films. It is interesting to see it at this early date.

Such vertical movement also seems to have been fairly common in the 1910's, in other directors. Spectacular stunts up and down buildings and trees were a trademark of Douglas Fairbanks: see his films with Allan Dwan. Such stunts were ideally suited to silent film, being purely visual.

The Blankets and Geometry

Native American Blankets are on the walls of the saloon behind the bar, and at the rancher villain's home. They add some vigorous geometric patterns to the shots. Ford occasionally liked to add some strong geometric figures to his compositions.

Frontal Shooting

Ford, especially in his silents, sometimes shoots so that the plane of the screen is parallel to the back wall of the set. One gets some of this "frontal shooting" in Straight Shooting, in the saloon, the hotel lobby linked to the saloon, and in the villain rancher's home.

Some of the shots of riders crossing the river, also seem shot in a such a "frontal" fashion, with the screen parallel to the stream.

Bucking Broadway

Bucking Broadway (1917) is a Western with much comedy and romance. It is also notable for its often beautiful visual style.

A beautiful shot near the start has the hero sitting quietly on his horse, perched above a huge landscape. It anticipates the final credits of the TV series The Virginian (1962), showing the hero sitting quietly on his horse in front of a landscape. Both evoke awesome feelings of men contemplating nature.

Links to Up the River

Bucking Broadway has a certain resemblance to Ford's later Up the River. Both films:

Architecture: Links to The Blue Eagle

Aspects of architecture anticipate The Blue Eagle:

Gay Subtext

Much of Bucking Broadway deals with heterosexual romance. But like much of Ford, there is also a gay subtext in Bucking Broadway.

One cowboy pats another cowboy on the butt, in an early shot. This scene features a prominent look at the men's attractive rears, done up in cowboy clothes.

The relationship between the hero and the rancher is an early example of Ford's interest in younger man / older man relationships. This is idealized and emotionally involving.

We also have the "working class hero loving a heroine who loves a middle class man" triangle that runs through Ford. Unlike later examples, there are no signs of gay attraction of the working class man to the middle class man. In fact, the middle class man is remarkably unattractive, unlike later Ford. He is a conventional ugly villain, complete with villain's mustache. Contrast him with the Adonis played by Randolph Scott in Born Reckless, for example.


The villain's only attractive feature are the big riding boots he wears in the scene where he woos the heroine. The same actor (Vester Pegg) was booted when he played Placer Fremont in Straight Shooting.

White Tie and Tails

Many of the men in the final hotel sequence are in white tie and tails. They look terrific.

Until seeing Bucking Broadway and Upstream, I always thought that white tie was mainly absent from Ford films. And that he had as little interest in it as Joseph H. Lewis. By contrast, Vincente Minnelli loved white tie and tails, and it is virtually his signature style of dress for the men in his films. However it is not only aesthetes like Minnelli who favor tails. Directors often compared to Ford, Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan, liked tails and regularly employed them in their films.

Ford's huge body of silent films are mainly either lost or inaccessible. Who knows how many or how few men in them wore tails? White tie and tails were immensely popular in silent films in general. Men are frequently in tails in The Craving (1919), a picture directed by and starring Ford's brother Francis Ford. Some sources list John Ford as co-director of this, although he denied it.

Broadly speaking, white tie and tails is often a signifier of upper class status in film. It is worn by men who are rich and/or from the upper crust. See the District Attorney in Regeneration (Raoul Walsh, 1915). They also can be worn by men properly dressed for sophisticated theatrical events: the men at the ballet in Chapter 2 of Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915), the men at the concert in Trilby (Maurice Tourneur, 1915), the men at the concert in the Italian palace in Humoresque (Frank Borzage, 1920), the London theater goers at a first night performance of "Hamlet" in Upstream (Ford, 1027). By contrast in Bucking Broadway tails are worn by "city slickers". Most of the guys at the end in tails are clearly NOT members of the social elite. They have vulgar ways and are more what were known as "sporting types". A much more sympathetic sporting type will be played by Spencer Tracy in Up the River.

Hell Bent

Western Subject Matter

Hell Bent (1918) is a Western.

Unlike Bucking Broadway, Hell Bent is not "high concept", with some unusual premise. Instead, it has such classic Western features as:

Ford manages to make all of this fun.


The title is a bit misleading. There is nothing "hellish" about the film. It is definitely not a horror film, and has no horror aspects. It is a pure Western.

In that era, Westerns and crime tales sometimes used the word "hell" to convey a tough and/or criminal milieu. See the famous Western film Hell's Hinges (William S. Hart, Charles Swickard, 1916). See such pulp magazine crime short stories as "Hell's Pay Check" (1931) and "Hell Couldn't Stop Him" (1935) by Frederick Nebel and "Hell House" (1933) by Theodore Tinsley. There's nothing supernatural about these tales either.

Gay Relationships

The hero and heroine have a heterosexual romance. But other scenes have a gay subtext, as is common in Ford.

The hero demanding to share a tough guy's bed has undertones of gay courtship. This is played for rowdy comedy.

The painting at the start shows a man knocked out on the floor of a Western saloon. When the painting turns into a motion picture scene, the man's clothes change to black leather chaps and big cowboy boots. He is displaying himself bottoms up. Gay imagery about men with good-looking rears recur in other Ford films.

This opening is echoed in the finale, where men lay themselves face-down flat on the ground to survive a desert sand storm. The villain in this sequence wears leather trousers. He also has conspicuous boots.

Men on the ground during storms will return in Ford's The Village Blacksmith, whose disabled hero crawls heroically along the ground during a ferocious rainstorm.

In addition to leather clothes, Hell Bent has both its hero and bad guys in shiny slickers. Like leather clothes, these are a Ford tradition.

Painting to Film: Visionary Experience

The opening of Hell Bent is startling. It shows a writer thinking about a painting, and turning it into a story. This is an example of visionary experience, a central approach in Ford.

The sequence is different from most other visionary experience in Ford: it is an underlining premise of the whole film. In most Ford films, visionary experience is rather one character's experience within the film.

The painting-to-film sequence shows stationary people gradually coming to motion. A somewhat similar transition occurs in one of the film's best shots: the elevated angle of the saloon after the hero rides upstairs on his horse. Fist this shot shows the people in the saloon standing stock still. But gradually, they start simple movement. And then transition to full dancing. It is beautiful and imaginative.

The Writer

Ford films are full of reporters. Hell Bent is unusual in showing a writer of fiction, rather than a reporter.

Hell Bent follows popular conventions of its era in depicting writers. The writer is:

Hell Bent shows these conventions at an early date (1918).

Just Pals

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:

Vertical Architecture

Several Ford films include shots of heroes ascending or descending architecture:


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.

Visionary Experience

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.

Inspiring Children

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.

Railroad Fiction and Engineering Tales

Western fiction has absorbed a huge number of old tropes, subjects and related genres.

Railroad fiction used to be a popular genre. Writers like Canadian Frank L. Packard used to specialize in this, in books like Running Special (1925). This often intersected with tales of both the Old West and Contemporary West, in silent films like The Great K&A Train Robbery (Lewis Seiler, 1926) with Tom Mix. It also was a staple of silent serials like The Hazards of Helen (1915). Helen was a young woman with pluck and grit, a telegrapher at a remote railroad outpost, who wound up all over the tops of moving trains. Railroad thrills were a staple of silent comedians: Keaton in Our Hospitality and The General, Harold Lloyd in Off the Trolley and the finale of Girl Shy, Monty Banks in Play Safe.

Engineering fiction was a popular genre way back when. Tales of handsome, virile young men, out to build great engineering projects across the vast continent, were big sellers. Authors like Francis Lynde's Scientific Sprague (1912) showed young engineers building railroads in Nevada. Famed newspaperman Richard Harding Davis also popularized this kind of fiction. In silent films, key examples are The Iron Horse and the science fiction tale of building a moon-rocket Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang). This persisted into sound films like Suez (Allan Dwan), Carson City (Andre de Toth), Western Union (Fritz Lang) and Joseph H. Lewis' three films about road-builders: Texas Stagecoach, Pride of the Bowery, Bombs Over Burma. Some of these are Westerns, some are not.

Politically, liberals tended to support such projects, conservatives oppose them. This was true decades ago with the Tennessee Valley Authority; it is true today, with the proposed tunnel between New York and New Jersey. The presence of such books and films likely did much to inspire previous generations of Americans to construct huge public works. I get nervous, when I see modern Americans watching drivel about the supernatural and paranormal. Instead, Americans should be thinking about and taking action on Global Warming and building infrastructure.

Visionary Experience

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 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.

Vertical climbing runs through the films of John Ford. It is already present in the barn in Just Pals (1920).

Visual Style

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.

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":

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 over 300 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.

Gay Relationships

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 gay overtones.

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.

Today, masking 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.

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 father's organization.

Visionary Experience

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 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 control wall in the stokehold is full of dials, with a row of tall levers sticking up below. It looks entertaining to run this ship.

Visual Style

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.


Upstream (1927) is a tale of the theater, mainly set in a theatrical boardinghouse. It is often described as a comedy, and indeed it has many comic elements. But it also involves some serious dramatics.

Visionary Experience

Ford films are full of visionary experiences, which characters see, and sometimes enter. Thinking of Upstream in terms of visionary experience helps one understand the structural form of the film. SPOILERS in this section.

First, some single scenes:

There are more extended scenes of visionary experience. The hero starts envisioning himself as Hamlet, while watching himself in a mirror. His performance as Hamlet is something he sees. It is almost as if he were watching a movie. The fact that he is getting a new idea, is underscored by the way he wipes dust of the mirror. It is as if he is clarifying his thoughts.

The finale of Upstream is a long episode of visionary experience. Here Brashingham wanders around the boarding house, witnessing events there. The boarding house is something he sees. It is like a giant vision that appears to him. And like several Ford characters having a visionary episode, he tries to enter the vision. Sometimes Ford characters are fairly successful at entering their visions. But in Upstream he is actively repelled by people in the vision. He is first denounced, then forcibly expelled from the boarding house. The denizens of the vision are removing him by force from the vision.

Older Man / Younger Man

The relationship between the old Shakespearian actor and Brashingham is one of the many older man / younger man relationships in Ford.

The Shakespearian actor trains Brashingham to perform Hamlet. Later, Ford will make two TV episodes in which older men train young baseball players: Flashing Spikes and Rookie of the Year. In both the baseball films and Upstream, this training is completely free of charge.


Ford films are full of elaborate manners. They often evoke the social codes of different times or places. Watching his heroes use these manners is both fun, and revealing of the world where the film is set.

In Upstream, the hero gives special bows at the end of the performance. These also include bows towards the "royal box". The hero has special ways of holding himself, and of bowing.

Soon afterwards, the hero uses special postures in front of his fans in the street, and getting into the car. All of these look like special manners, only used by men trying to convey they are Great Stage Actors in London.

The hero looks both phony - we've seen him just a few minutes before as a starving actor in a boarding house - and also appropriate to the unique manners of a time and place.

The Star Boarder

Raymond Hitchcock plays a resident designated as the "star boarder" of the house. My mother used to use that phrase jokingly, when anyone of us especially liked her cooking. In Upstream, the phrase is used literally: this man actually has a star on the door of his room.

A title card calls him "Hitchy". Otherwise, we never learn his name.

The actor looks a lot like Barry Fitzgerald to come in The Quiet Man.

Stage Lights

The beautifully composed scenes at the theater playing Hamlet, feature bright indoor lights, both in the dressing room and in the theatre. These indoor lights seem like a variant on the outdoor street lights so prominent in other Ford.


The list at the start of this article documents the large number of circles in Upstream.

Four Sons


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.

Jack Pennick

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.

Hangman's House

Hangman's House (1928) is a serious drama set in Ireland. It is an absorbing work that one can watch and enjoy many times.

In my article on Joseph H. Lewis, I point out ways in which Hangman's House might have influenced Lewis. See my list.

The Villain

The very evil villain is played by Earle Foxe, previously the comic anti-hero protagonist of Upstream. He is completely unrecognizable as the same actor. For one thing, he is now bearded: a beard that makes him look like traditional portraits of Satan. Perhaps more importantly, his glaring, vicious look in Hangman's House makes him seem to be a completely different person.

The villain is introduced wearing white tail and tails. In Hangman's House this symbolizes his wealth and power.

The Romantic Triangle

The hero is a poor but upper class man, who loves the heroine, who is pressured into marrying the rich villain. This resembles somewhat the triangle found in other Ford films: working class man loves heroine who loves middle class man. There are differences in Hangman's House though:

Born Reckless

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 satirical light.

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.

Gay Relationships

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 authority.

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.

Musical Parade

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.


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.

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.

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:

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.

Entering Shots

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 for manslaughter.

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.



Ford Subjects

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:

Visual Style

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.

The mother's house has distinctively shaped flattened arches, between some of the rooms. These anticipate the flat arches in the courtroom in Sergeant Rutledge, both the doorway and the covered walkway on its side outdoors.


The dressy uniforms worn by the prison guards, look like naval officer's uniforms. They anticipate the German naval officers in Seas Beneath. Ford idealized navies, and clearly like their uniforms.

Prison guard uniforms often look like police uniforms, in films or comics books created by people other than Ford. This is not true in Up the River: its guard uniforms don't look like cop uniforms at all. They do not even have chest badges.

Seas Beneath

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 Cheyenne Autumn.

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.

Visionary Experience

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 gayness. 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.

Double Lives

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: gayness.

In Born Reckless and Up the River, this concealment is mainly played for comedy. But in Pilgrimage it is tragic - and linked to sexuality.

Visionary Experience

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.

Public Relations

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.

Plot Echoes

Some scenes in France echo experiences the heroine had back home:


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, small bridge.

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 Lost Patrol

The Lost Patrol (1934) is a war movie. This description is a bit misleading: it is more like a "serious drama" with a war background, than any sort of action film.

Visionary Experience

The Lost Patrol is another Ford film to feature visionary experience. The characters wander through events that are like a (bad) dream. They have little control over them, and seem to be experiencing the events passively. It is as if they were dropped into the situation, and are experiencing it, without doing anything that affects it or changes it. It is as if they are taking part in a group vision.

One big difference between the events in The Lost Patrol and visionary experiences in other Ford films: the characters in The Lost Patrol are harmed by what they experience. the "visions" in most Ford films leave their participants physically unchanged. People see the events as in a dream, then wake up later. This is different from The Lost Patrol, in which most of the characters do not survive the experience.

The events in The Lost Patrol anticipate the Theater of the Absurd. The characters are trapped in a situation that is "absurd": They have no idea where they are, or why they are there. The experience symbolizes the absurd side of life: being stuck in a meaningless, incomprehensible situation.


There are strong class aspects to the predicament. The patrol's sole officer got them into this mess. He is killed at the start of the film, without having shared his orders, information or knowledge with his men. So they know nothing and are helpless. The upper class man, the officer, has lead his working class subordinates, the enlisted men, to disaster. The enlisted men agree that the officer was a "bad", incompetent soldier.

The class aspect is underlined by having the characters be British. Britain was closely identified with its rigid class system.

The Lost Patrol was made in the depths of the Depression. The Depression was widely seen as caused by incompetent rich people, who lead society into disaster. So The Lost Patrol is an allegory about the horrors that incompetent upper class men inflicted on the poor through the Depression.

In addition to social critique, there are hints of masochistic fantasy. A handsome young officer has caused the film's characters to experience a bad situation. This recalls Born Reckless, whose working class hero loses the women he loves to aristocratic young officer Randolph Scott.

Frontal Shooting

After the officer is killed at the start, there are some frontal shots:


The officer at the start is in a much fancier uniform than his men. He is wearing boots and a leather Sam Browne belt: dressy accoutrements that his men lack. This underscores the class divide, making it visible in the clothes the characters wear.

The Whole Town's Talking

The Whole Town's Talking (1935) is a mixture of dark comedy and the gangster film.

Society: Police and Prisons

American society in The Whole Town's Talking focuses on the police and prisons, recalling earlier Ford films: Police and getting in and out of prisons will later be the focus of the Ireland-set "1921" episode of The Rising of the Moon. This film too will have dark comedy and satirical aspects.


There is much emphasis on informing in The Whole Town's Talking, anticipating Ford's next film The Informer: These scenes are played for laughs. But this should not disguise the fact that this is a society in which informing plays a major role. There is actually more informing in The Whole Town's Talking than in The Informer.

Ireland in The Informer and "1921" episode of The Rising of the Moon is an occupied country, forcibly controlled by the British Army. It makes an odd parallel to the 1935 United States, which was a democratic regime. The men in custody in the Irish films are revolutionaries; the man being hunted in The Whole Town's Talking is a non-political gangster.

Visionary Experience

The hero's arrest forcibly puts him through a whole strange experience: arrest, parading through town, interrogation, meeting the DA, interviews by the press. This is like a vision the hero has. He does not cause any of this. It is all something he is put through, something he experiences like a vision.

The gangster is another Ford character who materializes as if by magic. He shows up in the near darkness in the hero's room.

The gangster is into hoaxes: He pretends to be the hero; he uses a fake gun to escape from prison.

The police have an elaborate hoax at the bank at the end. They pretend to be the bank's tellers. This recalls the similar mass hoax on the ship in Seas Beneath. The bank hoax has considerable entertainment value.

The Press and Truth

The newspaper articles supposedly by the hero, are actually written for him: first by the reporter, then dictated to him by the gangster. This relates to Ford's long term interest in lying in the press. Unlike many such Ford films, we do not see any social consequences or effects of this lying in The Whole Town's Talking.

The press rushes to get the story out. They often report "facts" given them by the police, that the audience knows are incorrect. We also see "facts" reported changing minute by minute, as new "facts" emerge. This too relates to misinformation in the press.


The restaurant is another Ford building with glass walls. A panning shot across these windows occurs when the hero is first arrested there.

The office lobby has glass doors and window walls.

Ford Imagery

The hero is another Ford character shown getting dressed.

The hero's bath tub overflows. This is an example of Ford's interest in water technology. This is an interest Ford shared with Allan Dwan. Dwan was trained as an engineer, and his films are full of elaborate "water works". By contrast, Ford films often show simple containers for water, such as the bath tub.


The police are in elaborate dress uniforms. The city has an endless supply of police, all identically dressed. These all seem to be big tough men, a common physical type. They are often armed with phallic rifles or nightsticks. This is both threatening and sinister, and comically exaggerated.

The ship stewards at the end look more benevolent and joyous. They have fancy white mess jackets.

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.

Visionary Experience

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 male camaraderie.

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.

The Telegraph: A Vision of Reality

The emphasis on the telegraph throughout Stagecoach is consistent with Ford's interest in high-tech communication. It keeps playing a role in the plot.

The telegraph is used by authorities to help them run society: the Cavalry, the marshal in Lordsburg at the end. This use by social authority of high-tech communication runs through Ford. The information passed through the telegraph paints a picture of society, used by the authorities. It offers them a portrait or vision of reality. This is linked to other "Visionary" experiences in Ford.

There is no sign in Stagecoach of the other chief users in Ford of high-tech communication, the press.

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, for example.

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: 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.


Dallas is a prostitute, and oppressed and discriminated against by society. It is easy to suggest that she symbolizes other Sexual Outsiders who are oppressed, such as gay people.

The man most active in promoting discrimination against her, Hatfield, is a member of the Confederacy. While slavery is not discussed, we have a man who fought for racial slavery also being the chief oppressor of sexual outsiders. Hatfield promotes both racial hierarchies and sexual hierarchies.

Hatfield is the self-proclaimed "protector" of Lucy, the Southern Army wife. His oppression of Dallas is in Lucy's name, and of what Lucy represents. Hatfield eventually plans to kill Lucy, to "save" her from capture by the Apaches. This anticipates Ethan Edwards, and his plans to kill his niece, because she slept with her Native American captors. In both cases, this man's alleged "idealism" and "protection" means death for the woman. Both Hatfield and Edwards were champions of the Confederacy, a fact stressed in both films.


Dallas keeps going "invisible". She is ignored during the vote, as if she were not there. Only Ringo "sees" her, and insist she can take part in the vote. Dallas is also made invisible in other social occasions.

Ford films sometimes feature "visionary" experiences, in which a character "sees" events as in a vision. The central seer is more-or-less invisible, in practical terms: an observer ignored by everyone.

Dallas' invisibility is instead linked to her role as oppressed outsider.

Ringo's ability to "see" Dallas is a powerful social force. It enables Dallas to see a better future for herself. It also allows a challenge to Hatfield's belief that Dallas should be oppressed. Before change is possible, one must envision change. This fundamental truth is often noted. Stagecoach dramatizes this truth in an innovative way.

The Attempted Escape: Visual Style, Murnau

The way station kitchen where Ringo and Dallas plot his escape has a wall of windows: a Ford tradition. Ringo is framed against it. This gives him glamour, and visual interest.

Ringo and his horse leap over a low fence; soon Dallas and Curly walk over it. The camera moves with them. This recalls the track in Sunrise.

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.

The red-light district is full of peaked roofs, seen in the background. It recalls the peaked roofs that run through Joseph H. Lewis.

The Slicks

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.

Food Providers

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 filmed, like the New York City bridge the hero crosses in Born Reckless.


The composition feature triangles in a number of shots:


Sinister enforcers of capitalism wear leather jackets in The Grapes of Wrath: The much more benign truck drivers also wear leather jackets: 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!


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.

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. Rogers look!

Fort Apache

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 appear.

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.

Ford Subjects

Fort Apache has imagery that recalls previous Ford films: Fort Apache anticipates later Ford films:

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is the second of Ford's unofficial "cavalry trilogy".

Love Triangle

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:

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.

Visual Analysis

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.

The Gate

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:

Mist and Smoke

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is full of shots of mist or 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.

A few shots have some green, but it is mainly rare in the opening:

Some later scenes have the same red, yellow and blue color scheme:

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.

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.

Color: Neutrals

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.

Small Town

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 ultra-respectable home of the hero's girlfriend recalls the mother's equally Totally Proper New England house in Up the River.

The Hero

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.

The Parents in Church

A comedy scene early in the film shows the hero's parents in church. The father is an usher; the mother gives him a hard time when he comes for the collection. The relationship between the two anticipates Sergeant Rutledge, and the relationship in that film between Colonel Fosgate and his wife: This is just a single scene in When Willie Comes Marching Home. By contrast, this sort of event is a running gag throughout Sergeant Rutledge.

Studio Style

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.

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.


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.

The big fight is watched by many of the townspeople. It too has aspects of a visionary experience, something they see but do not take part in.


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.

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 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:

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 observing.

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.

The two boxing sessions in The Long Gray Line recalls a bit the horseback riding near the start of Rio Grande. In Rio Grande, first we see a remarkable demonstration of trick riding by two young men. Then the hero's son attempts the same stunt, and fails miserably: not unexpectedly, as he lacks specialized training. This is rather like the perfect execution of the boxing scenario in The Long Gray Line, followed by the hero's botched attempt to re-run it.

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.

More Visionary Aspects

Wayne is not the only character have a "visionary" experience. The rookie is thrilled to be in the Major League, and says he feels playing baseball there is like being in a dream.

Vera Miles is one of those Ford characters who suddenly enter the film, almost as if by magic. She suddenly shows up in Wayne's room, just as he is about to make a bad mistake. The entrance of such characters also has the feel of a vision. It is as if she is magically "appearing" to Wayne.

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 through Ford.

The Park: Visual Style

Ward Bond unofficially coaches local kids in a park. The park is beautifully shot, and the scenes there have the richest visual style in Rookie of the Year. Buildings outside the park are seen in the distant background. They are shot in a gray, hazy style, that is nearly Expressionistic. The geometric patterns formed by the buildings help create compositions. The ball field's wire fence also aids the visual style.


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

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: The anti-drug theme in the police corruption subplot, recalls the anti-drug theme in another Ford crime film, The Blue Eagle.

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.


A number of early scenes can be seen as celebrations of democracy: Democracy returns as a key subject in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.


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:

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.

Class Warfare

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 Writer

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 Son

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 family.

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:

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.

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:


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:


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.

Color: Red-Yellow-Blue

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.

Color: Red-Blue

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

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.

Visual Analysis

Several characters perform a Ford favorite, visual analysis. They look at things, then analyze and make deductions about what they see:

The Map

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.


The slick prosecutor deliberately distorts facts, cutting off the heroine's testimony so that it is incomplete and gives a false impression. The hero Lt. Cantrell strongly objects to this. He gives a major speech, showing Army regulations demand that a prosecutor always presents the "whole truth".

What this prosecutor is doing is lying, even if he has not uttered any actual falsehoods. Ford films are full of characters who create hoaxes or elaborate lies. This is sometimes comic or understandable, in other Ford films, but what the prosecutor does in Sergeant Rutledge must be seen in wholly negative terms. It is clearly harmful in major, serious ways to society and justice. And the hero's speech shows that it is a betrayal of the prosecutor's duty as an officer: always a big issue.

The heroine also strenuously objects to having her testimony cut short, as well. She does everything she can to get the full truth out. Her values are identical to the hero's.

The heroine knows little about Army regulations or officers' duties, unlike the hero. She does not have a detailed explicit code of conduct to offer, as the Army-trained hero does. But she has a very strong commitment to the value of truth. She is impressively committed to putting the ideal of truth into actual practice.

Presumption of Guilt

Rutledge is one of several Ford characters who are falsely presumed by everyone around them to be guilty of some crime. At the start of the film, everyone is dead sure that Rutledge is guilty. People are genuinely shocked when Rutledge pleads innocent in court. This is a terrific scene.

Among other things, Ford might be trying to suggest that what we think we know is true, might actually be false.

Femininity, Clothes and Behavior

Young Lucy wears man-like clothes for riding: a shirt and trousers. She is one of several Ford women who favor female variants of menswear.

Lucy is contrasted with Cordelia Fosgate (played by Billie Burke), who emphasizes refined "femininity". Such traditional femininity is mocked by the film as an artificial construct, something learned through training and choice. Women are trained in it by their mothers. Women enforce it by pressuring other women, the way Cordelia pressures Lucy.

Color: Red, Yellow and Blue

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: 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.

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.

When Rutledge covers up the blood on the floor with sand, the blood is bright red and the sand is yellow. Rutledge is in his blue-annd-gold uniform. This shot is made more vivid by adhering to the "red, yellow and blue" color scheme.

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.

Color: Red and Green

Later, the Apaches are in grass across the river. The grass is green, the rocks above are red. Some but not all of the Apaches are in red clothes. This makes the Apaches and their "world" be in a different color scheme from the rest of the movie: red-and-green.

The new color scheme is highly conspicuous. It really serves to mark off this Apache-controlled area as a different territory.

When Rutledge tries to run away, he enters this territory. He has crossed a boundary, taking him away from the Cavalry. The drastically different color scheme underlines the fact that he has crossed a line into a non-Cavalry world.

SPOILER. Rutledge will soon reverse course, returning to the Cavalry and rescuing them from attack.


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.

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.

Alcoa Premiere: Flashing Spikes

Links to Rookie of the Year

Flashing Spikes (1962) is a 53-minute TV show, an episode of the series Alcoa Premiere. It is a baseball drama, as was another Ford TV episode Rookie of the Year (1955). Baseball runs through John Ford films, and one can speculate that Ford worked in TV, in part because it gave him a chance to make some baseball-centered films.

Flashing Spikes and Rookie of the Year share features. Both have:

Hollywood Blacklist

Flashing Spikes has features that suggest it is an allegory about the Hollywood blacklist: The analogy between being banned in baseball and the Hollywood blacklist is not perfect:

Ford Subjects

Long before the Hollywood blacklist started in the late 1940's, John Ford was making films where innocent characters were falsely presumed to be guilty by everyone around them. Flashing Spikes fits into this subject, with the characters played by James Stewart and Patrick Wayne falsely assumed by everyone to have taken bribes. Flashing Spikes reflects this Ford tradition, as well as being a blacklist allegory.

Ford also has a long tradition of making films about informers, usually seen negatively. The racketeer and his "naming names" is an example of such informing. So perhaps is the columnist who denounces Patrick Wayne's ballplayer.

Stewart's character is banned from attending baseball games, among many other things. So he listens to a game on his radio from the parking lot. This recalls Ford characters who are isolated during family celebrations, like Warren Hymer eating behind a screen, separate from the rest of the family and friends, in Up the River. Ford seems to feel this sort of isolation and exclusion intensely.