She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is punctuated by dates crossed out in red on the calendar that mark the time left before the retirement of Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) from the cavalry. It is measured in days, then, with the conferral of the watch by the troop to mark his retirement, by hours and minutes. Brittles does not wish to retire, no one wishes it, certainly not the audience, but time and the army require it. The film, like They Were Expendable, brings forward the inevitable and delays it as if waiting for a miracle. And the miracle comes. There is always “someday”, MacArthur will return to the Phillippines, America will win the war in the Pacific, the battle of Midway, despite the losses, will be a victory, and Nathan Brittles, at the last minute, will be appointed as Chief Army Scout.
And yet there is the melancholy of time passing and its irreversibility. Ford’s films are set in the past, are ‘historical’, and, because we know the present, know what will happen since it has already happened, is already part of history – the Americans will be defeated in the Phillippines, Colonel Thursday will lead the 7thCavalry to be massacred, the Old West will die, the Clantons and Doc Halliday will be killed at the OK Corral, the Green of the Valley will become a slag heap – there is the perpetual sense of loss in Ford, of a mournful inevitability, yet the holding back of what will be, a delay, a retardation of time.
Ford’s films fall between these two contrary movements. His sequences alternate between those that move the narrative forward and those that hold it back, interrupt it, deflect it, resist it, but without ever losing it. The interruptions of low comedy, sentimentality, Irishness, the beauty of a moment snatched from despair and mourning – Sandy coming to dinner in They Were Expendable, Doc Holliday reciting Hamlet in a saloon in My Darling Clementine, Olivia’s shadow falling on the gravestone of Nathan Brittle’s wife in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Lincoln placing the first snowdrops of Spring on the grave of Anne Rutledge in Young Mr Lincoln, Martha caressing Ethan’s coat in The Searchers, Sean Thornton’s first sight of Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man – not only delay the inevitable but are the reasons for the delay. They are why time is deferred, to make what is passing precious and to hold on to it for an eternal instant. The sense that nothing will last makes it precious, yet because it is so it seems imperishable.
There are two perfections in Ford’s films. One is compositional and essentially visual, the way movements are choreographed in the frame whether of riders strung out across a rise, shadows disappearing into the dust or darkness, the grouping of cavalry, the organisation of a party, a ball, a dinner, a fight, sailors or their boats peeling off from a dock individually or in small groups, an orchestrated ‘at ease’ of servicemen, an Indian attack, a lynch mob. The appreciation of these moments is not exactly after they occur in which you can say, or the film says, “look, isn’t this lovely”, but rather it seems anticipated as if coming before itself. It does so because it belongs to the past. Even the most violent scenes, or the most silly, in Ford are elegiac. And because what you see is so wonderfully organised and since you will never see it again, it is at once instantaneous and contemplative, perfect harmony and balance, not to be upset or dismantled, but only to disappear, a disappearance, however, that is merely historical, the image of it will remain. It is what constitutes the resistance in Ford to time and history.
The other is rhythmic and essentially musical. Part of it is the moving forward of the narrative and the temporary delays that halt it like interludes or elaborations of a minor key or tone brought gracefully (Ford is never jarring) into prominence and the counterpointing of dominant and minor, neither of which is ever sustained, because nothing in Ford is ever finished, nothing is concluded because the past is never gone. It remains because the film endures. Ford’s films are the tombstones of the presence of the past addressed by Ford as Nathan Brittles, Young Lincoln, Judge Priest and Hallie Stoddard address the dead whom they still love, and so intensely to make them live, like a photograph of an instant to be contemplated indefinitely.
Created on: Sunday, 9 December 2007