Friday, June 8, 2012

Lessons in Filmmaking #1: John Ford

This ol' blog is always about a hair's breadth away from becoming THE OFFICIAL JOHN FORD APPRECIATION STATION. (That is the first and god willing the last time I ever use colored text.)

John Ford is the greatest director who ever lived. He was born John Feeney in Maine in 1894, he died in California in 1973. His older brother Francis Ford was also a very good director, a contemporary of Griffith's. Francis appears in many of John's films, and vice versa. John directed 140 films and won more Best Director Oscars than anyone else - four. He deserved more. He went to war. He had an eyepatch. He once punched out Henry Fonda. He's on a postage stamp. 

Among others, Bergman, Eisenstein, Spielberg, Satyajit Ray, and Scorsese all fell to pieces for Ford. Orson Welles famously prepared for Citizen Kane by watching Stagecoach forty times. He later declared the great masters of film, "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." Akira Kurosawa hero-worshipped the man, saying "when I'm old, that's the kind of director I want to be." He called My Darling Clementine "a model of what cinema should be." I agree.

I just can't help it myself - I love the man. I love him for saying in his last printed words: "I am not a poet, that's horseshit" and I love him because with all due respect to ol' Pappy (it's appropriate that he and the equally complicated Hemingway had such similar nicknames), John Ford was a poet, and he knew it, and that quote is horseshit. He printed the legend on himself, marking himself as a simple and unremarkable workingman director who just got lucky, and he did such a good job the film community half-believes him now.

I have seen 55 of John Ford's 140 films, from his 1917 Straight Shooting and Bucking Broadway to his broken-hearted posthumously-released 1976 documentary Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend. There is a might to the work of Ford that you rarely see elsewhere. It's some kind of physical effect - John McPhee would call it "a sense of where you are." Not all 55 are successes, but nearly every one has at least one such mighty scene, a moment of utter unity when the characters, setting, and story all hum in a perfect harmony. This is the poetry of Ford, what Robert Frost once termed "a momentary stay against confusion."

Spielberg approaches it in those moments when his camera assumes consciousness (what did Deleuze call this? The movement image?).  Ridley Scott nailed it a few times early in his career, like when 1982 Pinewood Studio and 2019 L.A. become inseparable. And Jack Arnold, of all people, got there when the Creature danced beneath Julie Adams in the Black Lagoon.

We can't codify it and we can't force it but maybe if we take a long look at the man and how he worked, we can get a glimpse into just how John Ford got there so many times.

Now without further ado, I present:

Lessons in Filmmaking from the Old Masters:
John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford

Pilgrimage (1933)

It's all about where you put the horizon.
Maybe that's all it takes.

That's how the song goes: "It's all about where you put the horizon, said the great John Ford to the young man rising."

That's a true story - the "young man rising" was a 15-year-old Steven Spielberg, whose War Horse is an object lesson in the continuing influence of John Ford. Young Mr. Spielberg visited with Ford and was gifted with one of his only documented pieces of advice: 
“When you’re able to distinguish the art of the horizon at the bottom of a frame, or at the top of the frame—but not going right through the center of the frame—when you’re able to appreciate why it’s at the top and why it’s at the bottom, you might make a pretty good picture-maker.”
Look at these shots from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Wagon Master, identical in nearly every way except the placement of the horizon:

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Wagon Master (1950)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon's big sky bears down on the cavalry - God-like and unconquerable. Wagon Master's high horizon line (which rises in gentle, surmountable steps) is hard but manageable. The characters aren't crammed into the bottom of the frame, they stretch across it majestically. 

It's an optimistic image, and the horizon is key here, but in a general sense what he's really talking about here is that magical harmony between setting, character, and story. Coordinate your frame to tell your story visually. In this instance, Wagon Master's more comfortable left-to-right motion, orderly placement of wagons, and calmer weather all tranquilize while Yellow Ribbon upsets.

After his Murnau period in the late '20s and early '30s, Ford rarely used rain or wind effects in the way of Kurosawa or von Stroheim; but when he did it was always a meaningful and powerful moment. Look at that lovely moment in How Green Was My Valley when Maureen O'Hara's wedding veil flies up:

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

It's such a small and idiosyncratic gesture that most people assume it was merely a stroke of luck. It wasn't. It was three carefully placed wind machines targeted right at that veil.

The Long Gray Line (1955)

In this quiet moment from The Long Gray Line, the artificial horizon of useless cannons is a sad compliment to the old soldier Marty Maher, weighed against the pastoral majesty of West Point.

Of course, Ford also exercised such tight control over interiors. In fact, for a man (rightly) known as a pioneer of rugged location shooting, Ford may have been at his best working in small rooms. Look at this shot from My Darling Clementine, in which Wyatt Earp faces his enemies:

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Tag Gallagher calls them "feathers on a arrow." Elsewhere in the film, the geography of the same bar is used to envelop Doc Holliday in the Earp clan (the mirroring of families is used to great effect in that film). What a clever and natural way to exploit that setting! He turns the very form and shape of the space into a character, or at least into an editorial.

One of Ford's innovations was the concept of shooting up into a room, revealing the ceiling (this is one of several Ford innovations falsely attributed to Citizen Kane - Welles was a true genius and contributed greatly to film grammar, but ceilings and deep focus were Ford's game first). He dismissed the importance of this true to form - something like "I didn't invent the ceiling" - but it really was a breakthrough. Why do you think John Wayne was so commanding? Because in Ford's films, he didn't just occupy a room, he filled it from top to bottom.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Light your actors' eyes.
As Ford told John Wayne on Stagecoach - you don't act with your mouth, you act with your eyes. "I like to keep my audience's attention on eyes," he told Alex Madson in 1966. In a 1935 interview he claimed lighting as his strong suit, bragging that he could "take a thoroughly mediocre bit of acting, and build points of shadow around a ray of strong light centered on the principals, and finish with something plausible." Film actors lead with their eyes. Montgomery Clift knew it, Marilyn Monroe knew it, and Ford was one of the first directors to take advantage of this.

It's effective on bad acting and it's simply radiant on good. Look no further than the haunting finale of The Grapes of Wrath, that long monologue (more on that next) held in medium close-up, with a few pinpricks of light dancing in Fonda's sad eyes. Or that lovely moment in Stagecoach when Ringo and Dallas's simmering romance comes to a boil with a look.

Stagecoach (1939)

Which brings me to my next point:

Bucking Broadway (1917)

Don't speak until you have something to say.
That same 1935 interview tells us that 40% of the time, Ford uses a silent camera and doesn't bother recording sound at all. This is phrased as a revelation, but it's really no surprise. "A good picture," to Ford, "is long on action and short on dialogue."

Fort Apache (1948)

Look at his underrated 1929 The Black Watch, his sound debut. Unlike so many filmmakers coming into the sound era, he doesn't overload his film with useless chatter (I'm looking at you, Tod Browning). The Black Watch is practically a musical. Beautiful Scottish and Indian tunes swell on the soundtrack, at times even drowning out unnecessary dialogue.

We don't need words to communicate, and oftentimes (as in the case of Lincoln's fumbling speech at the beginning of Young Mr. Lincoln) they merely complicate a beautiful, instinctual impulse. After all they've been through, what more can Wyatt say to Clem at the end of My Darling Clementine than "I sure do like that name, ma'am."

The Informer (1935)

But unlike, say, Sergio Leone's heavy and self-conscious silences, Ford has a light touch. The quietude in a John Ford film is not the creak of a rusty windmill and the buzz of a fly, it's the lazy hum of a Sunday morning. It's that Tarantino bit about "comfortably enjoying the silence."

He was famous for ripping dialogues pages out of his scripts, but I don't think he just removed those lines, he replaced them with a set of gestures and the intimacy of the small moments in between speech. Small gestures are of the utmost importance to John Ford. There's a great deal of visual repetition in his work, a private lexicon of revealing poses:

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Tobacco Road (1941)

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

These gestures take the place of that petty speech Ford jettisons.

Common consensus on Ford, there: Actions matter. Music matters. But in his usual coy manner, I think in all this talk of "short on talk," he's deliberately underselling the power of speech when it does occur in his films.

Monologues and speeches are a great occasion in Ford, probably because they're surrounded by so much thought. Words tend to come slow and measured - Will Rogers turning over every syllable in Judge Priest, Henry Fonda speaking like he's uncovering some holy artifact in The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln, or Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark rounding the same topic two or three times in that wonderful, elliptical, languid dialogue scene in Two Rode Together.

I believe words matter to John Ford, and I believe that's why he features so few of them.

Wagon Master (1950)

Take time for the little moments.
Now we're getting to the bone.

Interesting trivia about John Ford: he was in Birth of a Nation. He loved to tell a little story about the time he fell off a horse mid-scene. D.W. Griffith ran over and called for some whiskey. Ford said he didn't drink (a decision that he would reverse with a vengeance), and Griffith replied: "it's for me." For all his life Ford would cite Griffith's incendiary original sin of cinema as the best movie ever made. He liked it for the little things, the way Griffith keyed in on small details to allow the scenes time to breathe.

Ford tended to start his scenes a beat early, the way Fassbinder ran them a beat long in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Remember that scene in The Searchers when Ethan Edwards agrees to ride off with Ward Bond? (Incidentally, I'm sorry I'm mixing character and actor names so unprofessionally, but sometimes you're Ethan Edwards and sometimes a man is just always Ward Bond, ya know.) Most of the scene is just little Debbie goofing off at the table and the troops scarfing down breakfast. Our goal is to get Ethan out of the Edwards homestead so they can get murdered, but that's just plot mechanics. Plot isn't the same thing as story, and that's rarely more evident than in John Ford's films. Our plot point here may be getting Ethan to the Jorgenson spread, but our story is about a community and how they interact with one another.

Our story is always about a community.

And our story always takes precedent over our plot. This is kind of a line in the sand between casual movie-goers and... well, I don't have a word for us because I sure as hell will never call myself a "buff." Thing is, though, what does the A-B-Cs of our plot really matter? It's just a blueprint - one of Ford's more famous quotes: "a film director is like an architect" - and if we don't share this wonderful breakfast and get to know this community, what's the point?

We all live in these moments between, so why shouldn't movies?

Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

Cinema is in the present tense.
Something is coming together here. "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford," declared Orson Welles. He continued: "With Ford at his best, you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in a real world."

Of John Ford's non-documentary sound-era work, all but a handful of films, most deliberately un-anchored like The Fugitive, are period pictures. These reach back as subtly as the short hop The Grapes of Wrath takes from 1940 to the Great Depression (an indistinct line which I calculate as about 4 years) to the 350 year gulf between film and subject Mary of Scotland. Most are set about 60-100 years prior, in the era of Western expansion and the Civil War.

Trolling around the IMDb and Amazon reviews, I've seen Ford's stuff dismissed because it's historically inaccurate. This misses the point so much it practically becomes the point. History isn't history for Ford, it's not even really legends - it's the gentle, ordinary day-to-day rhythms that define us.

The Horse Soldiers (1955)

Recently I posted an excerpt from Leland Poaguem's "That Past, This Present: Historicizing John Ford, 1939" which studied Ford's ability to turn history into an "eternal present." I love the double meaning of this phrase. The past is deeply alive in Ford's work because the past is a present - it is an event which occurs before us as we revel not in the currents of history (as we do Eisenstein, who himself volunteered Battleship Potemkin and Young Mr. Lincoln as a valuable pair), but the silly excitement of a new barber's chair or a new church unspooling itself over the desert.

But the past is also a present as in a gift. For example, there's a wonderful moment in Young Mr. Lincoln in which soldiers of the Revolutionary War march past Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Mary Todd. History meets history then, the past interacting with the past, in a film which hinges entirely on the dramatic irony of the viewer knowing the future. Past and future tense blur together into one long present, a direct and traversable story of the nation as the story simply of people and the little things they do. “Your forefathers rest their honor in your keeping," we are told in The Black Watch, as we are not shut out of history but stewards to and an essential element of it.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

This isn't just a way to look at films set in history, though. This concept of film as something occurring instead of something occurred is not only the Achille's heel of a stodgy death march like Revolutionary Road, which has all the vivacity of a daguerreotype, but of the non-historical yet totally identical death march American Beauty. Welles is right - films must live and breathe. Contrary to popular opinion, the worst films are not the spectacular crash-and-burns like Plan 9 from Outer Space, they're the everyday dull quota-fillers and Oscar-grabs clogging up the screen. Passionless films like Pirate Radio or Fanboys, too afraid to succeed or fail on their own terms.

Cinema cannot be history, it cannot be paperwork. Cinema is alive.


  1. awesome post, I've been putting off Ford for so long but I can't any longer.

    please fix the Ridley clip, at the moment it's the same as the Spielberg

  2. Link is fixed, thanks for the heads up. As you can I see I just really want everyone to watch Close Encounters ALL THE TIME.

    I'll give you a piece of unsolicited advice about Ford that I tend to hand out a lot: Don't start with The Searchers. A lot of people do because it's one of his most acclaimed films, but it functions best as a summation of his themes and a commentary on his other movies. It's a hard one to get into if you don't have the experience of some of his other westerns to learn Ford's peculiar style.

    Stagecoach, Grapes of Wrath, and My Darling Clementine are all good entry points. Oh, and this is a great article:

    and this book is an incredible resource:

  3. Excellent post, John, and I second your recommendation on Tag's book.

  4. I'm fairly confident that's the best user name/icon ever.

  5. Wonderful post. Thank you.

    I agree that Ford is the greatest director who ever lived, though I'm not as fond of The Black Watch (it oscillates between being halfway decent and appallingly awkward in that inimitable early talkie way).

    Lovely stills, lovely words, excellent points, and this is wonderfully put: "This misses the point so much it practically becomes the point."

  6. It's uneven, but I have a soft spot for the foggy sorrow of that period in Ford. I mostly love it for the opening and for that incredible goodbye sequence where all the soldiers are at the train station. The duration and depth of each shot is staggering. It might even be better than the goodbye to the soldiers train station sequence in When Willie Comes Marching Home (another underrated one) with that never-ending kiss.

  7. Awesome write-up as always. Going to check out some of those under-appreciated ones.

  8. Thank you! What an interesting read.