Four Essays: Painlevé; Jennings; Vigo; Ford.

1. Jean Painlevé

Jean Painlevé was born in 1902. He died in 1989. He made his first film in 1927 and his last in 1982, in all more than 200 films, many now lost. With few exceptions the films were documentary shorts of marine fauna, small animals, predominantly crustaceans whose homes were at the floor of the sea, in caves, mud, amongst algae: shrimp, sea urchins, the sea horse, octopus, animals who are seemingly most distant and peripheral from humans, least attended to, written about, documented, or mythologised, no Moby Dicks, no sharks, none of the big game fish of Hemingway and Howard Hawks.

Painlevé wrote the commentary for Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes. He was close to Vigo (as was Franju) and all three filmmakers employed French modern music in their films, particularly that of Maurice Jaubert or musical collages from classical composers. Painlevé was also to use compositions by Duke Ellington for his Le Vampire, a film about blood-sucking bats with a cuddly hamster as victim.

Painlevé, like Franju, Buñuel and Vigo, was close to French Surrealism. He would break his ties, however with Breton’s Surrealism essentially because it seemed doctrinaire, therefore prescriptive and limiting, and because Breton was hostile to the use of music. And, Painlevé had a different view of reality to the official Breton one. For Breton, and it is obvious in Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or and Un Chien andalou, surreality (that is reality plus) was dream and fantasy made real; for Painlevé, surreality was not the projection of dream onto the everyday, but rather the discovery of the marvellous in the everyday. In that respect he was closest to the poet Ivan Goll, who also broke with Breton and ‘official’ Surrealism along these lines. It may seem to have been not a great difference since both positions involved a paradoxical relation between the objective and the banal on the one hand, and the subjective and fantastic on the other, and both were concerned with shattering the appearances of reality with what was hidden within it and imperceptible (a reality to be revealed) or unconscious (a reality to be uncovered).

Breton’s ideas and the positions taken by the Surrealist group that initially included Dali and Buñuel, whose work Breton had embraced, were most interested in the transformation of the real, its refashioning and revision by imagination, whereas Painlevé and Franju were primarily documentarists, factual and ‘objective’, following what existed and finding within it the strange and dreamlike. Most of Painlevé’s films, for example, have a ‘scientific’ and pedagogical sense: the life cycle of sea urchins, crabs, sea horses and a celebration of its wonderousness and the visual abstractions of these processes (not unlike the early experiments of Jules-Étienne Marey which Painlevé admired immensely). Painlevé’s films are connected both to science and to the European avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s and its concerns with visual and graphic form: colour, movement, rhythm, syncopation, line, temporality, the interaction and overlapping of different realities and materials as in collage (to this extent Marey can to be thought of as an exemplary model that Painlevé extended, not least for their interest in light as a formal quality to give shape and outline). Painlevé’s commentary for Le Sang des bêtes is probably chiefly responsible for the juxtaposition in the film of different contexts: blood and water, dance and slaughter, steam and clouds, and above all the singing of La Mer as animal blood is collected to flow out from the slaughter rooms of the abattoirs into the sewers of Paris. It was a poetry of opposites that highlighted each term and substance yet saw them as a continuum, in which the one magically became the other.

Painlevé had approaches to film that bring him close to Vertov since what Painlevé ‘sees’ or more exactly his camera ‘sees’ by speeding up or slowing down time, manipulating light and bringing about unlikely juxtapositions which, though objectively present, is only visible by means of the camera, not the human eye, rather like Vertov’s camera eye (opposed to natural vision) that documents and is true and goes beyond surface realities, image-documents captured by the camer to be later reconfigured by montage-juxtapositions, like the chance encounters dear to Surrealism. That is, for both filmmakers ordinary reality was only apparent. It took the eye of the camera to make the true manifest, that which was behind or within ‘mere’ appearance (Marey had a not dissimilar position). If Painlevé, however, was most concerned with revelation (scenes recorded by the camera), Vertov’s concern was with reconstruction (montage) in line with the creation of a new (and Soviet) reality.


Jean Painlevé had a privileged upbringing. His father, Paul Painlevé, was well known: a brilliant mathematician and a powerful politician (he was Minister of War in the French Government). Jean Painlevé directly and indirectly was affected by the destructiveness of the First World War, the world depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, avant-garde experiments of the interwar period, the rise of fascism and the political polarisations it entailed, the occupation of France by the Germans in the Second World War, the puppet Vichy government, French collaboration with the German occupation and a Resistance movement that however heroic was relatively limited. Politically, Painlevé was close to the avant-garde and to the Surrealists, who, in varying degrees, were anti-fascist and either directly involved with or sympathetic to the French Communist Party (PCF). This political loyalty by artists and writers raised a number of issues for them and for Painlevé, namely, under the social and political circumstances of fascism (and communism) and of competing ideologies and violence, what kind of art should one produce and what kind of culture strive for. If, for example, the art work was to become instrumentalised and politicised, serving a cause or an ideology, almost certainly it would have an effect and possibly a damaging one to artistic innovation and experiment. On the other hand, such experiment might also seem to be socially exclusive, opaque and difficult to grasp, that is, of little or no political effect. The European artist who perhaps best negotiated between these terms of commitment to art and political/social commitment was Bertolt Brecht and there are as well the examples of the Soviet cinema and the films of not only Vertov, but Eisenstein and Dovzhenko.

One of the reasons Painlevé distanced himself from Breton and the main body of Surrealism was a view of reality that in part related to a desire (and practice) to be ‘scientific’ in his work, that is, to be objective, truthful and factual. The films he made (for the most part), he thought of as scientific and instructive. Their beauty and fascination was in nature, that is, it resided in the real itself. It could be argued that such revelation of the real went beyond morality, interpretation, tradition, convention or psychology. It was reality seemingly stripped bare. If there is an ethic in his work, it is to be accurate, that is, to be true. The revelation of the beauty of what was revealed was an extra, an addition, literally superabundance, Sur-reality, the poetry inherent in the real.

It was the unaccustomed combinations and relations that Painlevé’s films revealed (as his commentary in the Franju film attests) where sea horses or sea urchins doing their dances and giving birth were so anthropomorphised that they were brought close causing the struggles of the little creatures living in mud to seem human. It sparked not simply identification, but imagination and dream for an audience especially so for the strange colours of the undersea and the transparencies and movements of the animals, dancing in another and mysterious world followed by the music of Jaubert, not unlike the character Jean in Vigo’s L’Atalante searching for his lover in the Seine…and finding her as if in a dreamt Atlantis.

Painlevé more than others avoided either the obscurity of the Surrealists (these were shrimps and octopi after all, doing what they always do) or the abstractions and difficulties presented by the avant garde (its reorganisation of space, extreme collage, condensations of time, evident distortion and disconnection as in Cubism and as in Buñuel-Dali’s films). Painlevé’s films were charming, fascinating, accessible, popular, distributed by the major French movie companies and exhibited in their theatres. They had traces of avant-garde formality and of Surrealist concerns, but they were not scandalous, obscure or distressing. They skirted a line between innovation and, if not exactly the traditional, found distortions and the wonder of the real within reality and by association (the anthropomorphism) so that rather than distorting (and often offending as with Buñuel and Duchamp), Painlevé simply (more or less) recorded and he could claim and did claim truth and objectivity on the one hand (never compromised) and beauty and subjectivity on the other (spectacle, fictionality, dream, wonder, an identification and continuum between small creatures of the sea and the human).


The social and political situation in Europe (and America) in the 1920s and 1930s that in part related to the world Depression and in part to the appearance of right-wing movements (Nazism, Fascism and their accompaniments of racism, nationalism and anti-semitism) had a positive consequence for the development of the documentary film and it did so along two lines. On the one hand, it defined, indeed demanded, that the documentary be politically and socially committed (revealing injustice, condemning fascism, supporting the socially deprived and exploited), that is a documentary that would be variously liberal, or politically radical and extreme. On the other hand, because documentary in the broadest sense, was outside the commercial industry and could be made for little money (the documentary film was seldom feature-length, had no stars and its technology and production were relatively cheap and accessible), it provided an opportunity for experiment, not simply in content (non-fictional, socially committed) but in form.  This situation led to what in the 1930s brought together (as it had politically) a social and political left and the avant-garde for which Brecht is the best example. In part, Surrealism was a symptom of that conjunction and a response to it as was Painlevé and his films.

It could be claimed (and it was so claimed) that a corollary could be drawn in Painlevé’s films between the marginalised fauna, crabs, shrimps and urchins in his films that he poeticised and the social realities of the period as if in seeing beauty in the neglected and even in the despised, was as in the case of Vigo, both an indication of hope and an accusation concerning injustice. It could also be argued (and was so argued) that the subjects of his films and the forms they took were distant from traditional, conventionalised and commercial films, films that were dominant and by extension represented or embodied dominant social forms, particularly in the case of Vigo, social class. Thus, documentary as a form and a practice could be thought of, potentially at least, as politically disruptive and committed because less institutionalised and more devoted to the ‘real’, a real that challenged conventional fictionalisations of reality, in short, the illusions created by most films (and of the society that produced and celebrated these films), hence the need by some for shock (Buñuel, Vigo, Franju, Duchamp), or for abstraction and formalisation by others (Eggeling, Ray, Epstein, and again Duchamp), or a lyricism and poetry by still others (Vigo, Painlevé). In any case, a refusal of convention (especially naturalist ones) and a commitment to experiment and therefore to possibility and in the name of what was claimed to be not illusion but truth, the real…often in superabundance.

It is perhaps worth noting that despite any contestation of either fiction or convention that can be claimed for documentaries, the short documentaries that were traditionally screened before the main feature in most movie theatres until relatively recently functioned to establish a transition from the real world to an imaginary one, from the real to images of it, that is, they functioned to help place the audience in a mood to better accept the make-believe in the purely fictional film or films that were to follow. It is precisely this transition that some documentaries (the best I believe) have as their principal theme, notably those of Painlevé, and also of Franju and more recently of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker with their emphases on time, memory and the dreaming spectator. Resnais’s Nuit et brouillardGuernica and Toute la mémoire du monde are perfect examples as are Marker’s La Jetée and Sans soleil. And there is of course the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard in whose films the line between fiction and documentary is openly breached and challenged.  That is, in these instances with these filmmakers, the relation of document to fiction is put in question rather than serving as an easy accommodation from the real to the real-seeming. It is the latter, a verisimilitude, that is disrupted.


Attention to beasts and animals in 1930s films (and later, in Hitchcock’s The Birds, for example, in the 1950s and Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar) created a cinematic bestiary: Painlevé’s undersea creatures and his vampire bats, the pussy cats in Vigo’s L’Atalante, the cows, dead donkeys and dogs in the Buñuel-Dali films, the scorpions that open L’Âge d’or, the horses, cattle, lambs and calves slaughtered in Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes and the killer dogs in his Les Yeux sans visages. And there is too the title of Buñuel’s Un Chien andalou(The Andalusian Dog), not to forget either Welles’s story of the scorpion and the frog in The Lady from Shanghai and the scenes in that film in the aquarium or Chris Marker’s obsession with (grinning) cats, Clint Eastwood’s and Howard Hawks’s simians or the monstrous ape (King Kong). And finally there is Painlevé’s vampire which includes a direct citation from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. The bestiary not only approaches the human and serves symbolic and aesthetic ends, in Painlevé’s case almost ‘purely’ so, but also social and political ones while making possible a poetic bestiary, a sense of the marvellous even when horrible (bats, the abattoir, killer dogs, vampires). The beasts and their performances are objectively real and concrete with Painlevé while they add a sense of an extra reality, the fantastic combined with our own identifications and projected subjectivity upon them.

Painlevé’s original commentary for Le Sang des bêtes had the animals ‘speaking’ in the first person, narrating their happy lives in the countryside just before being put to death as if they are witnesses of their own extermination.

Franju tells the story of the smiling man undergoing brain surgery, how happy he seemed while remaining conscious as the surgery progressed and how fascinating, beautiful and compelling the details of the medical procedure were of the inside of the brain. Franju was interested in the double contrast between the beautiful and the horrible, the objective and the fascinating, life and death. André Bazin tells a similar story and he adds to it another one of the exquisite beauty in a film of a cancerous lung during surgery where art, science, fiction and fantasy seem to have come together. His essay, written just after the war in 1947, Beauté du hasard: Le film scientifique (The Beauty of Chance: the Scientific Film) – the presence of Surrealism in the title and in the substance of the essay is unmistakable) – is in praise of Jean Painlevé, in particular Painlevé’s film of the vampire-bat, its combination of beauty and reality, choreography and violence, Duke Ellington’s music and beastliness, cuddliness and blood-sucking, in short, a surreality. And then you realise that what is important and compelling in these films is the way they overcome and disrupt boundaries, definitions and fixities. It is in that operation, I think, that their politics and beauty come together. It is the case in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma as well within which the stability of things, images, sounds, identities, realities are put at risk, after which nothing much, least of all the cinema, is secure.

2. Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings was born in 1907 in England. He died in 1950 on the island of Poros in Greece as a result of a fall while looking for locations for a film. Jennings was a poet, painter, essayist, theatre designer and film-maker. His most important and best films were made during the Second World War and just after. He was involved with and sympathetic to the French Surrealists. He helped to organise the first International Surrealists’ Exhibition in London in 1934 that included his own paintings. He also translated a collection of surrealist poetry written by Paul Éluard.

Jennings was involved from 1934 with the British Documentary movement whose central figure was John Grierson. He was the director of the Empire Marketing Board film unit and then of the GPO film unit. Grierson was concerned with creating films that would chronicle the everyday lives of ordinary people and in doing so dignify these lives and the work people did (trawler fishing, driving trains, coal-mining) demonstrate the social utility of such work and by implication the social responsibility attached to what might be thought of as the courage and virtues of ordinary people going about their daily tasks, activities that, however humble, helped to sustain the community and the nation. Behind Grierson’s documentary idea was a nationalism and patriotism (for Britain) and a liberal politics (freedom, liberty, democracy), an ethic of social responsibility and a view that documentaries should be educational and enlightening that they might better serve political, social and national needs: the strength of the nation and the solidarity of its people in the midst of crisis.

The 1930s was a period of world depression and economic hardship, the growth of a determined and dangerous right throughout Europe and of political turmoil and instability (the civil war in Spain, fascism in Italy, the coming to power of the Nazi party in Germany, anti-semitism and racism). Much of Grierson’s ideas and practices were a response to these political and social events.

The British Empire Marketing Board was a government agency devoted to the promotion of Imperial trade within Britain’s colonial empire. Government economic policy in the 1930s was essentially protectionist as it was in a number of European countries independent of differences in political ideology. For reasons of funding and a relative lack of success for its trade policies, the Empire Marketing Board was dissolved by the government in 1933. Grierson and the EMB film unit, dependent on public finance for its ability to survive, managed to shift to the General Post Office, which, like the EMB, was keen to publicise its achievements and saw documentary film as a means to do so.

Jennings joined Grierson at the GPO, which, when war broke out in 1939, became the Crown Film Unit, concerned primarily with propaganda for the war effort. The 1930s, with its political and economic insecurities was a great period throughout Europe and the United States for experiments in the arts, much of which, due to the depression, was publicly financed. Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray, for example, among others, were beneficiaries of United States Government programmes, at once populist and innovative, in support of the arts. The combination of artistic experiment, social responsibility and liberalism marked both the EMB and GPO under Grierson.

Jennings and Grierson did not get on very well. Grierson found Jennings to be disorganised, too much an aesthete rather than down to earth and too poetical rather than plain, direct and to the point. It was precisely these somewhat indistinct and indirect qualities that make Jennings’ films as interesting as they are. Jennings, however, was not alone at the GPO in pursuing experiment. The unit attracted poets, novelists, painters and composers who, in varying degrees, contributed to the making of the extraordinary GPO films of the 1930s having to do with transport, the mail, factory work, housing, agriculture, fishing, land reclamation, suburban living and education. Beside Grierson and Jennings, there were the filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Watt and Basil Wright, the animators Len Lye, Norman McLaren, and Lotte Reiniger, the composer Benjamin Britten, the writers E M Forster and J B Priestly, the poet W H Auden, the actors Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson and the pianist, Dame Myra Hess. Some of these artists, the Brazilian Cavalcanti, most notably, were, like Jennings, close to the French Surrealists or like Lye and McLaren to an avant-garde. The GPO films were experimental in form even if (or precisely because) their subjects were social or industrial, like Night Mail(1936), for example, directed by Watt and Wright, written by Auden with music by Britten and there was also the wonderful animation films by Lye, McLaren and Reiniger with their play and investigation of sounds and images.

In 1937, while Jennings was working in the film unit at the GPO, he became involved with the founding of what was called Mass Observation. The others who were involved included William Coldstream and Graham Bell (both painters), Charles Madge (a poet), Kathleen Raine (a poet, critic and scholar particularly interested in William Blake, a poet of great importance to Jennings), Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist), Humphrey Spender (a photographer), William Empson (a critic) and William Trevelyan (a collagist). The aim of Mass Observation was to observe, take note and record the daily activities of ordinary people in Britain. Its manifesto letter of 1937 read as follows:

Mass Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man – but it plans to work with a mass of observers. Already we have fifty observers at work on two simple problems. We are further working out a complete plan of campaign, which will be possible when we have not fifty but 5,000 observers. The following are a few examples of the problems that will arise:

Behaviour of people at war memorials
Shouts and gestures of motorists
The aspidistra cult
Anthropology of football pools
Bathroom behaviour
Beards, armpits, eyebrows
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke
Funerals and undertakers
Female taboos about eating
The private lives of midwives

Topics such as these, seemingly random and arbitrarily chosen, and more particularly their combination and juxtaposition could just as well have served as a programme for a Surrealist collage or composition and many of these subjects feature in Buñuel-Dali’s Un chien andalou and L’Âge d’or.[1]

The formation of Mass Observation coincided with the coronation of King George VI. Mass Observation recorded, through diaries, recollections, interviews and direct witness, the thinking, attitudes, views, habits, conduct, rituals of the British people. It gathered these together and by so doing provided a picture of British life at various moments. The result was necessarily heterogeneous and dependent on chance, consisting of encounters between small fragments of reality. In effect, these were social documents. 12 May 1937 was declared Mass Observation Day and all items that could be collected during that day were brought together by the organisers and teams of volunteers with a view to publication and thereby, it was hoped of social document and enlightenment.

Once the reports came in – twelve main texts, written by ‘professional’ observers, compiled from a number of volunteer diaries – it fell to Jennings and Madge, with the help (among others) of William Empson and Kathleen Raine, to cut and shape them into a narrative mosaic, a collage or montage technique closely analogous to film editing and to Surrealist work concerned with the strangeness of the everyday, the possibilities inherent in chance, accident and unforeseen encounters of people and of the juxtaposition and overlapping of such ‘documents’ of reality to include images, writings and ideas, a super if not over determined Surreality. The resulting May the Twelfth may be regarded as a documentary ‘film’ in prose, as much a social and anthropological experiment as it was a literary, artistic and poetic one.

The following is a comment by Kathleen Raine who worked on Mass Observation, and who was married to Charles Madge, both of whom were close friends of Jennings and both involved with Mass Observation:

To Charles, who seemed at that time a man inspired, the idea of Mass-Observation was less sociology than a kind of poetry, akin to Surrealism. He saw the expression of the unconscious collective life of England, literally, in writings on the walls, telling of the hidden thoughts and dreams of the inarticulate masses. In these he read, as the augurs of antiquity read the entrails or the yarrow-stalks, those strange and ominous dreams of the years just before the Second World War.[2]

It is interesting, I think, that many of the important pursuits of the 1930s such as Surrealism with its attachment both to Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism were interested in uncovering ideas and structures that were beneath appearances, like the unconscious and economic determinations often hidden within the banal and the ordinary. Mass Observation exemplified this view of things. The work of Mass Observation and Jennings’s involvement in it had a noticeable presence in Jennings’s films: the sense of constructing a film out of material, often commonplace, with a variety of textures, glimpses, images, occurrences both personal and quotidian, often temporally and spatially disconnected, that is, not easily nor strictly narrativised (or only loosely so), highly fragmented whose fragments resonated with one another creating a depth of free associations and new pathways as they met one another in the space of the film as if revealing not only new social realities and possibilities but a social unconscious. It is difficult not to see in the practices of Mass Observation not only an accord with poetic works under the influence of Surrealism (Madge and Jennings in Britain, Éluard in France, and further back, to the Symbolists, Rimbaud and Valéry) and a key to Jennings’ poetic documentaries (also true of the documentaries of Basil Wright, Edgar Anstey, Lindsay Anderson and Grierson himself), but an accord with the methods of Jean Rouch particularly his Chronique d’un été, a film created out of relatively chance meetings and for the most part improvised in its details however organised in its overall structure and intention, as was the case for Mass Observation.

At about the same period (1937), Jennings began work on a project that he maintained to the end of his life and that remained unfinished at his death in 1950 when he was only 43. It was entitled Pandemonium (Hell, the Devil’s Work, chaos and confusion, destruction) after the description of the construction of Pandemonium in Book One of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, published in 1667. (Looking further back there is also the early Renaissance model of Dante’s Inferno from his Divina Commedia and the figurative examples of Hell in sacred paintings and also, looking forward and quite recently, the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini – La divina mimesis – and his film Salò both with images of Heaven, Earth and Hell). The full title of Jennings’s Pandemonium was Pandemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as seen by Contemporary Observers. It was a kind of archive of Mass Observation on a grand historical scale. The original manuscript consisted of twelve books. Soon after Jennings’s death, his widow, Cicely, gave the manuscript to Charles Madge to edit and arrange for publication. Pandemonium was first published only in 1985, more than 30 years since Madge began work on it and 35 since Jennings’ death, in an edition edited by Madge and Jennings’ daughter, Mary-Lou Jennings, who had become a University-based historian in Britain.[3]

Pandemonium as published is divided into four parts each of which has its own heading and refers to a particular historical period:

– Part One: Observations and Reports (1660-1729)
– Part Two: Exploitation (1730-1790)
– Part Three: Revolution (1791-1850)
– Part Four: Confusion (1851-1886)

The book consists of citations and extracts from a variety of sources: poetry, the sciences (biology, astronomy, zoology, optics, physics, mathematics), memorandum, letters, industrial information, mechanics, hydraulics, theatre, biography, philosophy, aesthetics, criticism, the novel, official reports, memoirs. The citations are arranged chronologically and as they are brought together certain themes and groupings begin to emerge. Effectively, the citations are images in the sense of glimpses of what was imagined and thought at specific times in particular contexts. Taken together, they produce an historical picture that emerges from their association and juxtaposition few of which are continuous or homogeneous with respect to sources, material or authorship though they have a temporal consistency even if they lack spatial contiguity. It is an immense collage. Most important, I think, is the way the material is staged by Jennings, what he chose to cite and the precise order of their arrangements, namely the effect of the industrial revolution on what was until the middle of the seventeenth century a predominantly rural and agricultural society.

The effect of industrialisation and mechanisation (the modern) was, for Jennings, though not exactly something to be regretted, nevertheless entailed a loss of tradition, of community, of artisanal work and by implication of skills thought of as ennobling and individual. If such modernisation was not for Jennings exactly the loss of imagination, certainly it was the loss of the wonder and mystery of things, the poetry of the world, for the sake of the advance of rationality, ‘progress’ and wealth.

Much of nineteenth and twentieth century art and intellectual thought centred around an ambiguity and unease regarding economic, scientific and technical progress. Artistic modernism, in part refashioning and overturning a lengthy tradition of naturalism and realistic representation (from the Renaissance onwards), was at odds with the artistic and social-cultural consequences of industrialism.

The interest of Pandemonium, I think, may lie less in this regret and suspicion of modernisation, than it does in its insistence (by implication and by structure) on the opposed alternative ‘other’ value of poetry, at the very least a certain kind of poetry, not only as an example, but as a tool. These tendencies are evident in the method and organisation of Jennings’s Pandemonium, namely, its collage of documents, at once a record of the ‘real’ (documentary) and its power when fragments of it are juxtaposed to set off new relations and resonances (a montage), not unlike, on a smaller scale, the ordering of words and phrases in poems to produce rhythms, cadences, rhymes, images and associations in such a way as to refresh language, as Pandemonium refreshes the documents and epochs it cites and thereby the traditions and history of what is brought back, made anew in the light of the transformation of society and of poetry and writing of which these documents are the evidence, sometimes direct, more often indirect.

There are other important artistic-philosophical works of the 1920s and 1930s, equally unfinished and monumental, like Pandemonium in their structure of citation, memory and collage, a kind of archive or museum of the past and a space within which documents and fragments of reality might encounter each other and in so doing create unforeseen and surprising associations and pathways and thereby refashion time and space. The three most important projects of this type were:

– Aby Warburg’s Mnémosyne Atlas project of the 1920s, whose starting point was gestures in the depiction of movement in the paintings of the Italian Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli, but which ranged throughout the entire past of the history of art to connections with theatre, American Indian rituals, dance, music and psychology;

– André Malraux’s Le Musée imaginaire which is a study of museum culture and photography that transformed the perception of art works and created entirely new terms for relating works to each other and thereby transformed practices of history.

– Walter Benjamin’s great work, the Arcades Project, perhaps closest of all to Pandemonium which, like it, consists entirely of citations though exclusively from the nineteenth century and just after concentrating on the city of Paris as the cultural capital of the century; by these citations, Benjamin creates a collage of testimonies relating to the construction of glass and steel arcades in the city and what these reflect of social, technical, political and material forms and attitudes.

Curiously, though Pandemonium might be thought of as a kind of historical record (it is chronological), the history is less causative or linear than associative, that is, it is musical and tonal, each citation either a note or a melodic line with its particular sonority, depth and resonance. Jennings, I think, was not looking for the ‘causes’ of the industrial revolution so much as he was in search of the remnants of it, the leftovers in the present of the society that the industrial revolution had for him destroyed. What you have then is a series of different atmospheres or images from the perspective of the present, a looking back, a memory, a remembrance and a memorial. In that turning from present to past and back again what is at stake is the strength for Jennings of the poetic, not only the way it shines through the documents, but the way it is a document that cuts into and reshapes the others, poeticising them. However banal or utilitarian these documents are, they form part of the poetry of Pandemonium, not unlike the citation of Milton’s poem whose own depiction of Pandemonium is constructed poetically in verse or, much later, in the cited poems and the images they call up from the works of the nineteenth century poet William Blake, one of Jennings’s heroes. Jennings’s book is itself a collage poem, that is a modernist work brought to bear against modern society on behalf of lost traditions, including a certain kind of poetry.

Pandemonium, that so resembles Mass Observation, is a clue to appreciating Jennings’s films. His best films were made during the war. On the one hand, the war was a dangerous, threatening, fearful experience. It could be thought of, along with the First World War, as a perfect expression, indeed high point and epitome of industrial society. These wars were mechanised, technology in the service of a madness, brutality and insanity, the direct inheritor of the history of science, rationality, industrialisation and the concentration of capital whose history is the substance of Pandemonium. In Jennings’s films for the Crown Film Unit, meant to contribute to the war effort, his emphasis is on the spirit of the British. The British resistance to German bombs and mechanised destruction in the films is primarily constructed as spiritual and cultural, rather than material. It is not the Germans that Jennings attacks or denigrates, but rather modern warfare, materialism and the modernisation and industrialisation these embody, not unlike Benjamin’s Arcades though his name for it was capitalism.

Perhaps one of the most powerful (and repeated) images in Jennings’s war films, is that of the British pianist Dame Myra Hess (Jewish with distant German roots) playing the great music of German culture (Bach, Beethoven) in the National Gallery in London stripped of its paintings in order to protect them from possible bomb damage. In other words, what is strongest and most powerful (and most moving) for Jennings in the situation of war is not only the spiritual that he represents in the ‘people’, their spiritual unity, a ‘Britishness’ of almost indifference (London Can Take It), the soul of the people, but artistic culture (music, poetry) and the traditions from which they issue (in painting, music, literature and in people) and which war, though threatening, cannot crush. It is precisely the culture that is made to be the sustenance for resistance, the core of thought, unconscious, unavowed, beneath the surface.

His films, I believe, and Pandemonium, both organised as poet, are examples of such resistance and the value of poetry even as they describe the building of Pandemonium (industrialisation) and its expression in war. In that sense, the war films are less about winning than enduring and affirming and on behalf of something not quite palpable, certainly not material. Despite all the instances of quiet courage that are exhibited as the people of Britain and especially London go about their daily tasks (shopping, travelling, working, dancing) taking in their stride the bombs and killings and that are drowned out by their voices in song (stronger than a bomb). That something is staged by Jennings as a spiritual inheritance, part of a tradition that he not only illuminates and reaffirms but also practices and deems indestructible despite everything. The titles of his films are themselves evocative of such strength and resistance: London Can Take ItWords of BattleI Was a FiremanListen to BritainDiary for Timothy. However modernist these films are in their structure, they seem on viewing to be essentially nostalgic for a Paradise Lost, and thus Milton’s poem that begins Pandemonium and the poems of Blake, Shakespeare, Donne and Kipling that are quoted in his films seem, like the past he evokes, to be ever present and ever strong, in effect, ever-lasting, in the very marrow of the British.

How strange to find in this very British (and patriotic) cinema (a cinema that Godard for the most part despised), an echo that brings into view not only Benjamin, Warburg and Malraux, but Godard and his Histoire(s) du cinéma.

3. Jean Vigo

Atlantis is first mentioned in Plato’s dialogues in the fourth century BC. It is a mythical place, a kingdom both perfect and lost. Plato (and others) insist on the reality of Atlantis, that it had existed, yet where and when are impossible to locate. It remains a chimera longed for but unattainable. Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) is that kingdom at once present (real) and lost (imaginary), actuality and dream.

Jean and his crew, Père Jules and the cabin boy, and his new bride Juliette, take a journey on his river barge, L’Atalante, without, it seems a clear destination. Juliette, and earlier in the film, Père Jules, take flight from L’Atalante, to escape its confines and its reality in order to find some other world, an elsewhere but of no definite address. The barge, though immensely concrete, ‘real’, like the river, weather, fog, light, are as lost as those on it, lifelike but intangible, evanescent, vivid in its reality and insubstantial like a dream,. The film shimmers between these two dimensions as if every present has emerged from a past, every past already a present, reality but a dream and dreams intensely realistic. The going nowhere, being nowhere and the sense of an irreducible presence are qualities not simply of the story, characters, events, but of the structure and sensation of the film, a poetry of the everyday, the most ordinary and banal made extraordinary and lyrical, washing dirty clothes, shaving, dressing, speaking, rising up in the morning, kittens, the cats listening to the gramophone, the joy of morning, the cold of water, the blank stare of misery. The joy of the film is in the joy of life. Everything in Vigo is sensual. And this sensuality both disrupts the film’s narrative and is its substances such that when the film goes off, goes away, it is most present.

Vigo’s film is essentially indifferent to notions of continuity with all that implies of a directionality in space (the film goes nowhere), a play of looks determined by points of view (there are few reverse shots), a hierarchy of shots leading toward a dramatic unity (the film is made up discontinuous situations) in order to create an illusion of reality as fluid and singular (reality in L’Atalante is exceedingly concrete, as in a documentary, yet every object, scene, exchange veers off into a dreamlike imaginary, from the first shot of the film to its last). Rather than creating a make-believe reality, Vigo decomposes that make-believe by insisting on the concreteness of things and at the same time their lack of substance, as if on the one hand, everything you see must be believed and on the other that nothing you see is material, but only an image, a vision. Juliette, for example, finds Jean, in a reflection in water and we find both in images in a film. He is her dream and they ours and it is to that dream that she is attracted to and marries, in order to enter a world not encumbered, narrow and provincial like the one she comes from, but open, glittering, exciting, marvellous and unknown, an Atlantis. What she is confronted with instead is the tedium and habits of work, the barge, the unease of the crew, Jean’s moods, jealousies, temper, seriousness and sense of duty, that is, with everyday realities, that only Père Jules successfully transforms in the restricted space of his overcrowded cabin filled with the flotsam and jetsam of memories, travels to everywhere and their objects. This lightness and play as in fresh and erotic love, the first dreams and desires of Jean and Juliette, seem unable to sustain. When Juliette appears to be hopelessly lost to Jean, gone forever, separated, she by her desires, he by his loneliness and jealousies, he finds her again by diving into the river from the barge, seeing her reflection from a past (dressed as a bride) projected into a future. And when Père Jules does find her, Juliette is listening to music, the music associated with her love affair with Jean and their first moments, when daily life had been music and poetry and at that moment when the two are marked out by the music in the seedy café as inseparable, does Père Jules know by the music where she is and hauls her back to L’Atalante and her lover, and this time, because she had gone off, the return is to a difference.

Music in the film is everywhere (the dance, at the café, from the radio, the accordion, the phonograph, the singing) and it is from music, its lyricism, that the film takes off and takes flight, as in the magical scene when Père Jules seems to make a record play with his finger, only to find, more magically still, that it is the accordion being played by the cabin boy, momentarily off screen. This sense of an ‘off’, an elsewhere, a magic is constituent of every shot, every scene, every ‘real’.

The music is elusive, interruptive, fugitive, takes hold of reality but only for an instant. It is a reality that transports the film, characters and itself into another realm entirely. It is the operation of the film and the hinge on which it pivots.

In most films, every shot is programmed into an arranged structure where editing is an operation of integrating shots into an already determined edifice such that there is nothing more to find, nothing not known beforehand to encounter, only something (safely, reliably) to illustrate. What occurs in L’Atalante is based on separate, individual, stunning shots, beautiful and marvellous in themselves because of their interior tension and wavering between concrete reality and the lyrical and dreamlike, whose overall place in the film will come later, like Juliette’s incredible return to Jean and their joyous desirous embrace, like finding the film, not beforehand, but at the last moment, like the voyage of the barge L’Atalante and of the characters, wandering eyes wide shut in their dreams. What is constant in the film and crucial to its structure is an insistent relation to what is not there.


Godard’s Nouvelle Vague (1990), like Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and L’Atalante, to which it refers and with which it resonates, is a film about finding images (poetry, lyricism, fantasy, the imaginary) in realities and delicately treasuring the discoveries as if by chance rather than design, that is, not trying in that terrifying way in Vertigo to force reality to be other than it is rather than accepting its mystery and wonder, the multiple images and uncertainties that every aspect of the real contains and provokes and that Godard equates with the sacred and mysterious, a sacredness of art and poetry, not the fetishised sacredness of religion. The resurrection in Nouvelle Vague as in L’Atalante is of images within images, always some kind of (eternal) return to and from a beyond.


Jean Vigo died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis. He made four films only: two documentaries, À propos de Nice (1930) and La Natation de Jean Taris (1931) and one short feature, Zéro de conduite (1933) and a full feature, L’Atalante. Each film is a masterpiece and L’Atalante one of the great and most beautiful films of all time. Vigo was the son of a militant anarchist opposed to the First War, hated by the Nationalists, imprisoned by the French government as a spy and traitor and strangled in his cell in 1917 when Jean Vigo was only 12 years old. His father had adopted a new name for himself, Miguel Almereyda, the last name an anagram for “y’a la merde” (“that’s shit”).

The ostensible subject of La Natation de Jean Taris, a film only a few minutes long, is a study of the swimming technique of Jean Taris, an Olympic world record holder and an unrivalled record holder in France with nearly 29 medals earned in various swimming events. An ordinary person goes into the water and is transformed into pure motion and the water, as he moves through it, a fantastic play of bubbles and waves of light, like music or dance, and Taris, by the magic of the camera, worthy of Vertov and his image manipulations in the camera, emerges from the water fully dressed, lifts his hat to the camera (and the audience), an ancient mythical god reincarnated as an ordinary bourgeois complete with hat. Just as Taris is transformed into pure movement (while still Taris), the water is transformed into a play of light and waves (while still only water) and the swimming pool into another and fabulous world, an underwater set for a ballet (while still only a swimming pool), not unlike the momentary and exquisite transformation of the Seine into the river of memories (Mnémosyne) in L’Atalante and Jean and Juliette into pure reflections. Vigo breaks up the movement of Taris into its effects in the water as he divides up the parts of Taris’s body (head, arms, legs, mouth, eyes) and by these dissolutions creates a new body of fluidity and perpetual movement, of unfixity and instability, not of Taris but of images (their natation, the performance of Taris becoming the performance of the film.)

The film exceeds its subject (the swimming style of Taris), goes beyond its brief narrative which is ‘arrested’, halted, diverted into other directions by the beauty and music of the images which constitute that narrative and disagregate and disperse it, at once attest to the reality of Taris and his swimming and go beyond them, off, into a realm of unreality and poetry, of water and light and music, into things difficult to state and that only film can present. It is this duplicity of the film, its wavering between boundaries, its ability not only to transform, but to exhibit the transformation as an excess which alters not only all the objects in the film, but their temporality and space. It is a lesson on how you can make a film about everything and above all about the cinema and its possibilities with almost literally nothing and in no time. It is also a lesson in perspectives, that what matters in the cinema are those moments and images which fix your attention away from the represented world of the film, as if halting it, setting it aside, creating another pathway, seizing on those moments in reality which cannot be planned but only found and discovered, that come like a dream, and go beyond the ordinary world and the reality of things into another realm while reaffirming the reality from which they not only issue, but to which they return, and each time as different. When Taris doffs his hat, he is himself and someone else, an imaginary other, a reality and an image, overlapped, superimposed as occurs in the fade in/fade out at the end of the film, pointedly realistic, and completely unreal.

Like many early ‘documentaries’ of the 1930s, but further back to the experiments of Marey and the first films of the Lumières, what is discovered (and the Surrealists underlined it) is the invisible beauty not imposed on reality but revealed within it by film, unveiled, not exactly reality transformed, but reality realised, a poetic realism that brings Vigo, like Franju, close to Marcel Carné and to each other and by that fact, Carné is made anew.


Nice is a resort town in the South of France on the French Riviera in Provence. It is a town for the rich to take a holiday, to relax, play tennis, promenade, ride horses, flirt, display themselves and most of all, to gamble. À propos de Nice was made during the annual Nice festival, a time of parades, mock life-size dummies, masquerades, parties, crowds, in other words, the grotesque, making up, self-parody, the bourgeoisie at play. Vigo, not unlike Franju, activates a series of contrasts, to see each as a commentary on the other, the bourgeoisie and ordinary people, the rich and the poor, those being served and those who serve them, a beautiful place with ugly people whose flesh and age are made disgusting, already lost, disintegrating, shadowed by mortality. Nice, the playground, becomes Nice the cemetary, Nice, the city of liveliness, a mortuary of death and decay (of a class, of a society), though nothing is ‘said’. Instead, the images, editing, montage and its juxtapositions speak and insinuate themselves, that make the real grotesque, hypocritical, unnatural, forced, obscene, like an essay on pornography, fixed in the eternity and evanescence of images.

On the one hand, the film presents what is. On the other, it shows what is as different and nastier than it proposes itself to be, dream made flesh, like the lady in a series of lovely gowns, then naked, her body no longer firm, breasts sagging, neither seductive nor desirable, simply meat on display as in a butcher shop or like the puppets in a series of duplicates in the festival parade, mannequins and the bourgeoisie on the Promenade des Anglais indistinguishable. The film is a dance of death. The images fix the nastiness and the decay (record it), but it is the montage that reveals it (by juxtaposition) that less presents reality than explodes, violates it, and makes the security it displays insecure, its apparent permanence only apparent. It is the reverse of a dream and of L’Atalante.

4. John Ford

In John Ford’s Stagecoach, the stage to Lordsburg from Tonto, is literally a journey toward a future, in the obvious sense that Lordsburg comes after Tonto in the same way that conventional narratives move forward. For the characters, the journey toward Lordsburg is an appointment not only with their future but with their past as if it is the past that drives them forward such that every progression is a return. Mrs Malory, for example, like Clementine Carter in My Darling Clementine, travels by herself from the ‘East’ to meet with her husband in the ‘West’, a deferred appointment as happens to Mary Beecher in Sergeant Rutledge, to Amelia Dedham in Donovan’s Reef, to Anita Louise in Judge Priest, while in Young Mr Lincoln, the entire film hinges on a deferred appointment promised in the past to Annie Rutledge and more narrowly by an earlier exchange with the Clays. The Ringo Kid is going to Lordsburg to avenge (a future action) the killing of his father and brother (an action from the past); Gatewood the banker arrives in Lordsburg to find that his past has caught up with him; Dallas finds her future (love and happiness with Ringo) determined and promised by her past (the misery and necessity of whoring). That future depends on Ringo putting to rest his dead father and brother in the shoot out with the Plummers enabling him to become what he will have been, a Western Hero and the film star, John Wayne.

In some films, notably, The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceSergeant RutledgeJudge PriestHow Green Was My Valley, Ford uses flashbacks to invoke the past. In Sergeant Rutledge and Judge Priest, the flashbacks are intermittent as part of the evidence in a court trial; in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How Green Was My Valley, the entire film or most of it, is a flashback narrative. Nevertheless, in all of Ford’s films, the past is a constant shadow, not only of the present, but of the future. All his characters bring the past along with them. And since all of Ford’s films are set in the historical past – his Westerns pre-eminently – they too bring the past along with them, but revivified, brought back to life in Ford’s images which tend to be split: fixed, immobile, tableau-like, often reminiscent of old photographs and paintings (Frederic Remington’s paintings and illustrations of the West, for example) and yet open to ‘life’, to immediate occurrences and the present, hence Ford’s method of relying usually on a single take to retain the freshness and glow of a performance. His lighting and especially, the Expressionist lighting he learned and imitated from Murnau, has this split, duplicitous temporality, of a present in light and a past in shadow and all at once in the same shot and composition. “J’aime bien que les ombres soient noirs et la lumière du jour blanche. J’aime bien aussi mettre quelques ombres dans la lumière.”[4]

That sense of moving toward a future in the present but composed by the past and pursued by a past that consecrates the future and inflects the present is particularly strong and noticeable in Young Mr Lincoln. What leads Lincoln forward to what he will become is the presence of the past in every moment of his present. The effect is to make the present appear ghostly, unreal and legendary, turning the concreteness of history into the fiction of myth, however effectively such a past is brought to life and given body and colour by Ford: the initial exchange with the Clays that brings Lincoln back to his past and predicts his future meeting with the Clays in Springfield to acquit not only his initial debt to them, but his debt to his own origins stalked by death and voices from the grave (Nancy Hanks and her questions to Lincoln carved on tombstone that begins the film; the death of Annie Rutledge whose theme music, association with nature and with the river haunts the character of Lincoln in a perpetual melancholy that finally concludes, most melancholic and triumphant of all, with Lincoln’s walk up the hill, a hill of time into the future glory that will be his but though it is a future that has been during the whole of its becoming.

As Lincoln proceeds forward, he meets his own monument (the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC) set to the music of The Battle Hymn of The Republic, as if he is swallowed up by time and the marbled image of it, an entry into legend. Strictly speaking, there is no true historical tense, no past definite in Ford’s films, however much the past is invoked, because the past is always presented as a becoming though what becomes already has been. By that join of past and future in his narratives, framings, lighting, use of music, characterisations, settings, the past is rescued, made and eternal in the shadowed light of a mythical, essentially unreal past brought to life.

Though Ford films have an apparently consequential, linear narrative, the presence of the past causes his narratives to zig-zag internally and to split his characters between different temporalities despite the various celebrations and social rituals of dance and dinners that bring them momentarily together. His method of narrative construction is that of vignettes and tableaux, almost as if composed of incidentals, of moments taken from time where plot and narrative progression are secondary to the vigour of scenes even if these have about them a mortuary, shadowy, melancholy feel. They are scenes at once of the moment (the spark of life) and of eternity (a perpetual past).


F W Murnau came to Hollywood in 1926, one of the first of many German filmmaker emigrés, among them Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer, Douglas Sirk, Otto Preminger, Henry Koster, Ernst Lubitsch and Max Ophuls. Murnau was perhaps the most influential on the American cinema for his ‘expressionist’ lighting and organisation of space. Ford admired Murnau’s films especially Sunrise which Murnau made in the United States in 1927, one of the most beautiful films ever made, said Cahiers du cinéma. Ford went to Germany to make Four Sons in 1928 and to meet Murnau and learn from him.

Ford’s enthusiasm for Murnau was not for his subjects or representations, but for the pictorial qualities of his films, his manner of sculpting with light and composing in space, the way, for example, Murnau explored the relation between framing, the surface of the screen, objects and actions within the image, the use of shadows and the play of darkness and light.

Just as Ford’s appreciation of Murnau was more for his image than his stories, so was Welles’s appreciation of Ford. It was not the narrative, still less the social positions exemplified in Stagecoach that caused Welles to screen it repeatedly (forty times it was said) before he made Citizen Kane, but rather its framing, lighting, use of sound and the way Ford structured interior spaces, the length and depth of his sequences, his organisation of objects and persons within the frame, the interior framings in the shot (doorways, ceilings, furnishings) and the nocturnal shadows and unreality of Lordsburg. These scenes, I believe, are not only echoed in Citizen Kane but in other films of Welles’s, the musical accompaniment, for example, in the walk of Dallas and Ringo in Lordsburg’s red light district like the opening sequence of Touch of Evil.

In the critical writings on film, of the Nouvelle Vague/Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s and 1960s, there is almost no mention of the fictions of films, their stories, characters or meanings, but instead a stress on stylistic and formal elements in order to relate films not only to other films but to other works of art. The fraternity that the Nouvelle Vague writers invoked was a fraternity of filmmakers and artists of the past, the present and the future (of which they would be a part) based on style and form, what Godard called “a fraternity of metaphors”. This view of the cinema (and its history) had a profound effect because it separated (and therefore liberated) film from its subjection and subordination to storytelling, imitation and the illusions of verisimilitude by pointing to a gap between the images of a film and what was represented by them, between structure and the semblance of reality, between commentary and mimesis, between an avowed subjectivity and the disavowal involved in a false objectivity.

What is striking about Welles’s view of Ford is that he saw the gap even if (or especially since) Ford sought to close and efface it. Ford is a classical filmmaker (invisible editing, transparency, apparent objectivity). Welles, by opening up Ford’s films, was opening up the cinema to something entirely new. It is as if we see Ford now not exactly for what he was, but for what the cinema would become and for that reason the films of Ford are as precious as the atmospheres he creates and the melancholy in which they are enveloped.

The finest moments of Ford’s films are almost unnoticeable as if occurring casually, by the way, in corridors, in passing, in the black leader ellipses between scenes or in the in-between of banal nullities as if only whispered or imagined, like Gypo’s act of betrayal in The Informer, the losses of the boat crew and life in They Were Expendable, the shootout at the close of Stagecoach. Ford’s marks are discrete. At the most dramatic moments, his tendency is to turn aside. Narrative outcomes seem to arrive from nowhere rather than being plotted, dramatised or engineered and none ever seem final. Ford seldom rehearsed his actors, usually needing only one take to catch a spark of something intimate and unremarked that overshooting or rehearsing might destroy. In his best films, his scripts are rough guides, none iron-clad.


She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is punctuated by dates crossed out in red on the calendar that mark the time left before retirement from the cavalry by Nathan Brittles. It is measured in days and then by hours and minutes with the bestowal of the watch by the troop to mark his retirement. Brittles does not want to retire, no one wishes him to, 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 like reprieve. There is always ‘someday’: General 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 an army scout.

And yet there is the bitter sweetness of time passing and its irreversibility. In Ford’s ‘historical’ films, because we know what will happen since it has already happened, is part of history: the Americans will be defeated in the Philippines (They Were Expendable), Custer will lead the cavalry to massacre (Fort Apache), the Old West will die (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), the Clantons will be killed at the OK Corral (My Darling Clementine), the green of the Valley will become a slag heap (How Green Was My Valley). There is the perpetual sense of loss, a mournful inevitability, yet the holding back of what will be.

Ford’s films fall between these contrary movements. This in-between, the holding back that is at the core of the films. He shoots in sequences that alternate between those that move the narrative forward and those that detain it, interrupt or deflect it without its thread lost. The interruptions, however, those of low comedy, sentimentality, Irishness, the beauty of a moment snatched from despair, destruction or 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, and Lincoln placing the first snow drops of Spring on the grave of Annie 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. It is why time is deferred, to make what is passing precious, to hold on to it for an eternal instant. The sense that nothing will last makes it precious. Yet, because it is precious 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 it be 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, boats peeling off from a dock individually or in small groups, an Indian attack, a lynch mob. The appreciation of these moments are not exactly after they occur in which you can say, or the film says, “how beautiful”, but rather it seems to be anticipated as if it comes before itself and does so because it belongs to the past. Even the most violent scenes, or the most silly, are elegiac. Because what you see is 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.

The other is rhythmic and essentially musical. Part of it is the moving forward of the narrative and the delays that temporarily halt it like interludes or elaborations of a minor key or tone brought gracefully into prominence and the counterpointing of dominant and minor, neither of which is ever sustained, because nothing in Ford is ever concluded because the past is never gone and because the film endures. His films are tombstones of that presence addressed by Ford as Nathan Brittles, Lincoln, Judge Priest and Hallie Stoddard address the dead whom they still love and so intensely as to make them come alive, like a photograph of an instant to be contemplated indefinitely.


Wagonmaster is a journey film in space like other Ford films (StagecoachShe Wore a Yellow RibbonThe SearchersThey Were Expendable). Characters move in a wilderness between settled places often ‘stages’ and resting places as in Stagecoach and in They Were Expendable, or from an established place to a new and promised one, ‘The Promised Land’ in The Grapes of Wrath (bitterly), Donovan’s Reef (comically) and Wagonmaster (joyously). Ford’s journeys sometimes are journeys in time, back to a past or forward to a future (The Promised Land is an ideal place and a temporal one). These realms are always ‘between’. The wandering of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers is emblematic of a nowhere in which Ford’s actions and dramas take place and where his characters reside. His wilderness is less a location then a form of estrangement, of emptiness, like a passageway or corridor. The West for him is that corridor. Its essential conflict is between the Law (belonging to settlement) as a fixed place and a Not-Yet where nothing is settled and law is personal, direct and immediate, where there is violence and ‘someday’ (settlement) is ever reiterated. In the wilderness of Wagonmaster, there are four pariah groups: the Mormons (seeking the Promised Land), the Cleggs (fleeing the law), the theatrical trio (lost between gigs) and the Navajo (savages), as much a group as part of the landscape. The masters of the wagon train, Travis and Sandy, are occupationally wanderers, horse traders, who sometimes come to town but never for long.

The beauty and the interest in all Ford’s films depend on such contrasts. While these belong to the represented content of the film, are concrete, visible and palpable, they are also the forms of the film, orchestrated differences, each with their own tone, colour, mood, gesture, style and rhythm. As the past is always present and the future is present in the past, so every order and settlement is temporary, shadowed by the wilderness, by violence, loneliness and the disasters and disappointments of the Nowhere, as every point of light is in a field of darkness and every openness, a place that constrains and limits.

The contrasts are played polyphonically in the interplay, interweavings, going forward and returns, by Ford’s counterpoint. In Wagonmaster, though not exclusively, they are a matter of sounds, especially of music in its melancholy, celebratory, mythological accompaniment to the images of the wagon train on its way to The Promised Land, the shouts and calls, the screech of the animal horn, the fiddles and drums of the dance and the shattering of silence or order by a gunshot, a fall or the whooping of the Indians. The Indian chase after Travis, like that of Tyree in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, characters played by the laconic, graceful Ben Johnson, is a narrative and dramatic scene and a formal one made of oppositions, of pursuer/pursued, the horde/the individual, the civilised/the savage, and of sounds, lines, tempo, space, movement, of silence and cacophony.

The accomplishment of Ford and the best of the Hollywood cinema, is his and its ability to be at once orientated towards content and sense and towards form where neither is the master of the other, where lighting, is a dramatic content, character an arrangement of planes and sounds natural and musical of an orchestrated piece. Wagonmaster is Ford’s closest film to a musical, the most ideal and make-believe, also the most down-to-earth and simple. It is like ancient Greek theatre, the Sons of the Pioneers a chorus of observers to lend resonance to the action but not part of it.

Whatever is in Ford is also something other than it is and always the two simultaneously, not one or the other, not exactly an addition, but complementarities.

On the one hand, and in Wagonmaster particularly, there is the document of the journey. Each moment, character, encounter is closely and objectively observed. There are few if any mechanisms of identification in Ford – details are there, but not focussed upon or dramatised as, say, with Hitchcock. They belong to a realism, the everyday, the commonplace even the banal (helping a lady into the stage or a showgirl onto the ground, the flicker of a smile, a glance of interest, a flirtation, mounting a horse, a hesitation), above all the passing, the momentary, the casual. The script is only an outline, a suggestion for Ford, often ignored during filming. Instead, Ford listens to the music of things, what is present, not writing on a page.

On the other hand, these moments are often intensely and self-consciously aestheticised, at worst vulgar and kitsch, but at best beautiful, ‘memorable’, an elegy in a country churchyard: riders in silhouette along a hill, the crossing by wagons of a river, a portrait, women waiting, genteel drunkenness. Even the Cleggs have their beauty. Ford is a lyricist and nothing and no one in his films is incidental or without form.


New arrivals in Ford’s films usually disrupt an established order: Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Judge Priest’s nephew in Judge Priest, the Cleggs in Wagonmaster, Lincoln in Young Mr Lincoln, Sandy in They Were Expendable, the baby in Stagecoach, Olivia in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man, Amelia Dedham in Donovan’s Reef, Dr Cartwright in 7 Women, Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Clementine Carter in My Darling Clementine. What their arrivals provoke is the story. Indeed, the story is the story of the consequences of their coming. Effectively, because narratives are an ordering of events in time, with their arrival (a new event), everything changes and time enters a world marked as lost in time, timeless as eternity. When these figures depart, in most cases (the arrival and departure of women are different) either they leave behind a lost world or, having brought history and narrative into eternity, temporality into legend, they, strikingly in The Searchers, return to a wilderness of no-where, no-time, no-story, no-history having rendered to the community and to culture a future, having enrolled it in time, at once a defeat (the past is lost) and a victory (it is made into myth).

Once departures occur and the story ends, time does not end with it, but rather, because Ford’s stories are stories about time and its disruption, about the coming of story, narrative and history, the conflict of the legendary with the historical, rather than that being resolved, it inevitably reappears. The story of stories, of the birth of narrative and the tragedy attendant on it and the loss of legend, is in Ford repetitive. The inscription of history produces the legendary because history induces a loss and marks it, remembers and consecrates.

If, on the one hand, Ford’s stories occur in a coherent and singular world, on the other hand, in every frame, the essential conflict between an a-historical lost past and a historical and destructive, disruptive present is evident in the way a movement, gesture, action, spark of energy and life, ignites a composition or setting that had seem fixed, inevitable, like a tableau and, in so doing, it catapults the past into the present. The past is in Ford’s distant shots, his most objective and often most lyrical. The present is the close shots and instants of violence. The interest of these scenes and of individual shots is their indecision between possibilities, which is the sense, drama, beauty and above all, uncertainty, of what is one of the most wonderful moments in all of Ford’s films, when Ethan Edwards, about to kill Debbie, instead lifts her into his arms to return her to a home that has no place for him. Embracing Debbie is her salvation and the salvation of the community. A major tear within it has been repaired. But it is damnation to perpetual wandering for Ethan. Debbie is restored to history, time, a future. Ethan disappears into legend, the wilderness, the deserted valley of monuments and shadows.

History and Time associated with it in Ford, belongs to civility, the modern, the East, and often thereby to women: Amelia Dedham, Hallie, Mrs Malory, Clementine Carter, Linda Nordley (Mogambo). Sometimes, as in Mogambo, the East, gentility and civility are associated with the English (almost always caricatured) and the English with theatre, the stage (WagonmasterMy Darling Clementine) and the artificial. What the English represent is in opposition to an eternal and elusive Irishness of warmth, drunkenness, populism, brawling, rough humour, in some films associated with the West or the American South, in one case with Celtic Wales (How Green Was My Valley), all Irish transplants. Having come to Tombstone from Boston, Clementine Carter provokes in Doc Holliday an awareness of loss and destruction, provokes a dream in Wyatt Earp of the immensely desirable and utterly unattainable, not only because Clementine is pretty, but because she represents civility. Earp’s violence is the instrument for civilising the West and thereby the beginning of its end. The settlement he helps to institute makes him irrelevant, an outcast, a loner (like Ethan Edwards). At the gate by the road leading West in the final scene of My Darling Clementine after the gunfight that removes the lawless Clantons forever from Tombstone, Clementine bids farewell to Earp. She has elected to stay in Tombstone as a schoolmarm. Earp disappears down the road leading further West, to California, the Promised Land, the last frontier. It is a scene that The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance duplicate nearly a decade later and with greater violence, bitterness and sadness. Wyatt Earp, like Ethan Edwards and Tom Doniphon will take the road to eternity as Clementine, Debbie and Hallie turn away from them toward history.

In Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a military legend and a political one are built upon a lie to preserve the past to become thereby the oxymoron, a historical myth. In these instances, the lie is a necessity to sustain a higher truth that history, story and time both deny and construct. False and true, myth and history are crucial for Ford. The result is a purity and a mournful, melancholy sentiment, relieved but not renounced, indeed affirmed by broad comedy.

The response of artistic modernism and what has succeeded it is to subvert coherence rendering it as lost and broken, a world in fragments, but not to mourn (as happens with Ford), rather an opportunity, an opening, something to celebrate, as in the films of Antonioni, where nothing is secure and therefore much is possible and which redefines courage as the seizing of the new. Ford’s response to the modern world and what modernity has caused to be lost for him has been ‘classical’, to reinstall past harmonies and clarity and sustain these by making forms not only instruments for creating a legendary eternal time resistant to history, but to put forward form as legends, at once a classicism, defeat and a lost ideal. It is not only Tyree, silhouetted on his horse at dusk in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, or Ethan Edwards, Tom Doniphon, Young Mr Lincoln, Wyatt Earp, Nathan Brittles that disappear into legend, but Ford and his films.


The Quiet Man was made in 1952 in Technicolor. Ford had wanted to make the film for nearly a decade, but no studio wanted it. It was finally accepted by Republic if Ford would agree to make an inexpensive black and white Western first, which he did. That film was Rio Grande in 1950, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, the stars of The Quiet Man. As things turned out, The Quiet Man, was Ford’s top-grossing picture at the time, won an Oscar for direction and cinematography and was nominated in six other categories, also won the award from the Screen Directors Guild. The National Board of Review and Look Magazine declared it best film and it was third runner-up for the grand prize at Venice.
The film is set in rural Ireland, Innisfree in Connemara, a place lost in time, like Brigadoon. For Sean Thornton who arrives there from Pittsburgh, it is the Promised Land. Thornton was born in Innisfree. He is a boxer, who killed a man in the ring, an event and violence he wants to forget. His family emigrated to America when Thornton was only a boy. As Thornton is driven to town in a horse and buggy by Michaeleen Og Flynn, a pipe-smoking Elf and the keeper of tradition in Innisfree, including marital traditions (he is the town’s matchmaker), the buggy stops on a bridge with a view of a small cottage where Thornton had been born (now owned by the widow Tillane). As Thornton gazes at the cottage, he hears the voice of his mother who asks him to remember various incidents (like the voice of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, speaking to him from the grave).

The film is haunted by memories of the past and is itself a memory-flashback narrated by the priest, Father Lonergan. Innisfree is bound by strict conventions of courtship, marriage, dowries, social hierarchies where most everything is symbolic. Thornton becomes bound by this past and its traditions and also disturbs by his arrival.

Thornton’s second vision on the ride with Michaeleen is of Mary Kate Danaher tending sheep in a romantic, pre-Raphaelite vision, as if in a fairy tale. “Can this be real?” he asks. It is these two dream visions that Thornton pursues. But the one (acceptance into the community) and the other (desire for Mary Kate) are deferred for the length of the film by obstacles of custom and tradition. Every step for Thornton is problematic: initial contact, courtship, marriage, consummation. The obstacles are each overcome by a mixture of deceit, wheedling, bluff, intrigue and violence.

The various pasts and therefore memories in the film interconnect: Thornton’s memories, Father Lonergan’s, and the pastness of Innisfree. The film is filled with memorabilia: each secretly connected. There are Thornton’s pasts: his boyhood in Innisfree, a place and feeling he wants to return to, idealised memories, and his life as a steelworker and boxer in America, actual real experience that he is fleeing from. Returning to the ideal past is not made easy. Innisfree has its rituals and ceremonies that constitute it and keeps Thornton outside (the “Yank”). To enter the community and to secure Mary Kate requires Thornton’s acceptance of the rituals, like an initiation and also requires him to restage what he has left behind or thought he left behind in America: his violence.

Innisfree is an ancient world of symbols where everything signifies something else, reality is never direct and emotions and desires obstructed by social signs. In the dream nothing is as it appears to be, hence its unreality. Every gesture, sight, movement, dance, song, word, burial is ritualised and accounted for before it occurs where the form of things governs and constrains their substance.

Fiction films create a seeming reality, produce reality as its primary effect, whose coherence and believability depends not so much on what constitutes it, but on the absence of what may oppose or disrupt it, some ‘other’. It is the other to it that fiction represses. The Quiet Man is openly marked as legendary and unreal, as unreal as Thornton’s first sight of his mother’s cottage and then of Mary Kate, enchanted visions, that tempt him into another world, one he wants to possess, as if to possess a dream. Interior to Ford’s fictions, without exception, is a distinction between a ‘true’ world and ‘legendary’ one. The films narrate the story of a legend shaped within a reality and so thoroughly as to transform reality and history into legend. While Ford presents legend as fact, he also presents the opposite, facts contrary to legend, one story against another (Fort Apache and The Searchers are emblematic in this regard). In The Quiet Man, the legendary imposes itself, and though things ultimately work out, the path, as in fairy tales, is far from idyllic, unambiguous or without obstacles.

Ford’s film ‘writing’ is characterised by its invisibility and transparency, in effect, by the effacement of its forms and writing, the price of the real-seeming What is so created is also regretted because it represents a loss, reality made into an image. Ford’s films are engaged in a constant struggle for their own realisation (for the dream to come true) joined to the denials it necessitates (these are only images). Making a dream seem true is a way to reach the impossible. Thornton’s struggle negotiating symbols and signs in order to enter fairy land is also Ford’s struggle. Once in the fiction, in the ideal promised land, its unreality, its status as legend and tale and therefore only writing reasserts itself.

Technicolor in which The Quiet Man was shot with its highly saturated and unreal colours was used by Hollywood, most often in musicals and in some costume films, from the early 1930s to 1952 (when The Quiet Man was released). The film is like a musical with its narratively motivated ‘numbers’: the love sequences like duets and carefully choreographed dance numbers: the race, the fight, the scenes of Thornton dragging Mary Kate across the countryside, their bicycle escapade, the scene of Thornton discovering Mary Kate in his cottage at night, her attempted flight through the door when he grabs her and she pulls away, their arms outstretched and then, as he pulls her back, they embrace like the dance sequence on the banks of the Seine at night between Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly in Minnelli’s An American in Paris, made in 1951 in Technicolor).
The reds and browns and dark shadows of Ford’s film are used expressively in the nocturnal love scenes, for passion, desire and violence in contrast to colder blues and greens, the colours of obstacles, constraints, morality, community. As the film nears its conclusion, a reconciliation between desire and social-communal law not unlike the struggle in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but with a different, and bleak outcome. In The Quiet Man differences are more mediated, and as the colours come together and their contrast subdued, Thornton, Danaher, Mary Kate, the past and present, dream and reality, desire and fulfillment are reconciled.


The main actors in Rio Grande (Wayne, McLaglen, O’Hara) are the main actors in The Quiet Man as if having migrated from Fort Starke in Arizona territory to Innisfree in Coonemara. There are other similarities. In both, a test has be met and won in order for the couple to be reconciled and for the community, disrupted by a new arrival reconstituted by embracing and integrating those who returned and in doing so accomodate past with present. In Rio Grande, it involves the arrival of Lieutenant-Colonel Kirby Yorke’s son, Jeff Yorke, then his wife, Kathleen Yorke, to bring her son home, and arrival of General Philip Sheridan. These appearances from the past bring with them two stories: the devastation of the Civil War fifteen years previously in which the then Captain Yorke under orders from General Sheridan destroyed Kathleen’s family plantation and home in the South; and the breakup of a marriage and family as a result of Captain Yorke fulfilling his military duties. There is another crucial new arrival to Fort Starke, the recruit, Travis Tyree, wanted by the sheriff for the manslaughter of a jealous (Yankee) husband in Texas. Tyree and Quincannon are refugees from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Tyree is also Travis from Wagonmaster as Kathleen is from How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Lieutenant-Colonel Kirby Yorke from Fort Apache (1948) where he was Captain Kirby York – all reincarnations.

The new arrivals are comparable to shadows brought not only into the light, but back to life and to home, freed from the burden of obscurity and the past and what accompanies it, a perpetual wandering and homelessness, like unburied Spirits. Home is the United States Cavalry, the army, Fort Starke and until the past is reconciled, which includes a reconciliation of duty (to the army, to the community, to a set of communal values) with desire (love, affection) – exactly the reconciliation demanded and granted in The Quiet Man – the wandering in a half world, in shadows and in a wilderness (spiritual as well as physical) will continue.

Lieutenant-Colonel Yorke is also a wanderer from a past that required him to destroy what he loved (family, wife, home) for what he also loved (the army, duty, an alternative home) and what compelled him (a filial duty to General Sheridan who, when he reappears, at the Fort, is not only Yorke’s military superior, but in his warmth and complicity, like Yorke’s father as Yorke is father to his own son, Jeff, where duty and affection, at least at the beginning, are at odds). The other unreconciled refugee from the past at the Fort is Sergeant Quincannon, who carried out Yorke’s orders to destroy the plantation (the “Arsonist”, Kathleen Yorke calls him).

The terms for reconciliations and resettlement to Home (real and mythical) centre on two related military actions. The first is a mission to be accomplished against military orders to cross the Rio Grande and pursue the Apache urged upon Lieutenant-Colonel Yorke by General Sheridan to Lieutenant-Colonel Yorke, but not ordered, which reverses an earlier mission demanded by Sheridan for Yorke to destroy Kathleen’s family plantation in obedience to military orders. It is like the necessity imposed on Sean Thornton to fight Will Danaher in order to free him from the burden of the memory of having killed a man in an earlier fight, a past and memory he flees from to Ireland but which Ireland will not free him until he replays the past and thus actively remembers it in fulfillment of a new set of values, no less than Yorke has to fight for his life and home to bury the past. The second mission, as a result of the Apache raid, is to save the kidnapped children, to bring them home. That mission is accomplished by children (Jeff Yorke and Travis Tyree) who in doing so, not in obedience to orders but by actions of voluntary heroism will save themselves. The Army, by deceit, will save Tyree from the sheriff who wants him for manslaughter and Jeff Yorke will accomplish both the ride back to Fort Starke for the relief of the children and the actual relief itself. (Deceit in Ford is always in the service of a higher ethic as in The Quiet ManThe Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceFort Apache and Donovan’s Reef). In the two missions, the division in the past between the dutiful and the desired that imprisoned everyone in that past are no longer oppositions but complements like a debt honourably acquitted. (Lieutenant-Colonel Yorke had carried with him for fifteen years a ten dollar Confederate bill with which he pays Kathleen for ironing his uniform, an unnecessary but telling wifely duty and, because unnecessary, voluntarily done, for love. She gives him his change in Confederate coinage she had saved for fifteen years. Back in the present, at that moment, he, in his white coat, gives her, the standard Ford gift, a bunch of flowers, the husband come-a-courtin’, and the regiment gives both of them a song: “I’ll take you home again Kathleen”.)

Tyree indicates that he will be happy in the future to surrender himself to the courts to face the charge of manslaughter, but only after his sister is married in California since a trial for manslaughter before the marriage might blight the happiness of the couple and thus create for them a past with its shadows and terrible wandering that would be better not created as it had for Captain and Mrs Yorke.

Light in Ford has two corollaries. One is a sense of lightness just as every scene of action and drama is punctuated and mediated either internally or successively with the silliness of broad comedy (Kathleen washing Quincannon’s underwear and exposing its holes). And the other is that of illumination which brings things (essentially the past) to light and forces their entry into the present or, more importantly, into legend where the past is bathed in light, eternally.

Light and shadow are alternative boundaries that define a location and place of action, somewhere between, thereby indefinite and within which the whole of Ford’s films take place. That place, between fixed limits is the place of the imaginary where the real is affirmed by its palpability and emptied of its substance.


Donovan’s Reef was made in 1963. Ford would only make two more films after it: Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and 7 Women (1965). Every shot, sequence, movement, gesture in Donovan’s Reef, no matter how absurd, disorderly or comic is haunted by shadows from the past.

It has three main locations.

First, it is within the fiction and at various levels, personal and historical. These dimensions are interwoven. Doc Dedham (not unlike Doc Holliday from My Darling Clementine or Doc Boone in Stagecoach) has renounced civilisation, Boston, respectability, the East, to live in the South Seas, a frontier, a wilderness, a tropical Monument Valley, however, with beaches, waterfalls, pine forests and langourous Polynesians. In Halelakaloha, Dedham starts life over, creates a new community, essentially of outcasts, rather than conforming to an existing one in the ‘East.’ The community is one of survivors of the War and their children and hangers on, two of whom, Donovan and Gilhooley, were born on 7 December, the date of Pearl Harbour.

The Doctor, before the film begins, had married the island princess, Manulani, and had three (half-caste) children with her: Lukey, Sally and Lelani. Manulani dies in child birth. There is the War, the traditions of the Island community, both native and foreign whose different pasts overlap, return, and texture the film. Amelia Dedham is part of that history as Clementine Carter was part of the world that Doc Holliday abandoned. The war is the reason Amelia is without a father and illness the reason Clementine Carter is without her lover. Their arrival in Halelakaloha (and Tombstone) is disruptive. It brings into the new grouping a past that the escapees had fled from and a reminder of things undone, ill-considered, unfinished, repressed, neglected vows, promises and responsibilities.

The second location is outside the film, but within the world of Ford. He repeats, transforms, resurrects and reconfigures motifs, characters and elements from one film to another. In every Ford film, there is a ‘Ford’ structure and presence. For example, the returns, arrivals, presence of the past, humiliations, comedy, brawling, drunkenness, graveside scenes, losses. The memories belong not especially to Donovan’s Reef, but to a larger structure called ‘John Ford’. Doc Dedham is a variation of Doc Holliday, Doc Boone and perhaps also of Lieutenant Sandy Davis and Doctor Cartwright. Donovan and Gilhooley are refugees from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Miss Lafleur (Dorothy Lamour) migrated from Hurricane (1937) where she was Marama. Monsieur DeLaage, the Governor of the South Sea island in Hurricane, is resurrected as the Marquis André DeLage, the French Governor of Halelakaloha.

The characters in Ford’s films relive their pasts in the present that often includes a real historical past (War) external to the film. The films contain memories of other films and other situations that correspond to similar situations (intruders, new arrivals), recall these films and are shadowed by them, no less than the characters are shadowed by lost fathers, neglected daughters, fallen comrades. To see Amelia Dedham as belonging to a series that includes Clementine Carter, Mrs Yorke and Mary Kate Danaher transforms each on contact with the others, a memory, a variation and a mediation. These serial structures are by no means stable since on contact with their likenesses, they cease forever to be themselves. Just as in a montage, two images, either close or distant, when joined, act as modifiers and new images are born, not exactly between the two but within them, as happens in Donovan’s Reef where the past rises up within each image as it takes its place. The associations and connections that flourish within the series ‘John Ford’ perpetually alters the series in resurrecting (remembering) the films or fragments and variations that compose them.

The third location – and it is tiered (within the fiction and outside it in the series ‘Ford’- is the cinema. Ford began to make films in the late teens of the last century. He is heir to the silent cinema, to slapstick, brawls, custard pie. Donovan’s Reef evokes that cinema. It also evokes Murnau whose films Ford loved. Donovan’s Reef directly cites Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s South Sea Island film Tabu, about two young lovers who try to flee the restrictions and law of the Island that rises up vengefully from the shadows of social tradition. And it evokes Joshua Logan’s South Sea Island musical film, South Pacific (1958), American sailors on a Pacific island. Beyond South Pacific it evokes the musical.

The use in Donovan’s Reef of saturated colours in Technicolor which indicate different moods and sentimental shifts (cool greens and blues to against warm browns and reds), the carefully composed and choreographed brawls like dance numbers and the duets of dueling and dunking between Donovan and Amelia Dedham are set pieces as in the musical. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet saw the presence of Renoir’s La Carosse d’or in Donovan’s Reef, for its polyphony, craziness and theatricality, links essentially formal: music, colour, movement, composition.

If the fictional past comes alive for the characters in their present situation and if the past of Ford’s films make their appearance in more recent ones and in so doing, all the films in the series, as they touch and intersect, are altered, so too is the cinema called up in Donovan’s Reef and in all Ford’s films, not simply remembered but put to use creating create pathways, bestowing densities.
Ford’s films give shelter to objects and figures from past films, their histories, stories and occurrences. Donovan’s Reef is an archive and a museum of the cinema. It is also a graveyard or series of tombeaux where Dorothy Lamour, Liberty Valance and F. W. Murnau can be met, celebrated by a song and a lei of flowers.

In Greek mythology, there are two rivers in Hades: the Lethe, a river of forgetfulness, where dead souls drink its waters to forget their past lives before their reincarnation and the Mnemosyne, a river of remembering. Mnemosyne is the Goddess of memory, memory’s personification. On drinking the water of the Mnemosyne, dead souls remember their past lives. The rivers that flow through Ford’s films are rivers of time, the Mnemosyne reborn as the Rio Grande or the river in Springfield along whose banks Anne Rutledge and Young Mr Lincoln still walk. Ford’s films are an Odyssey, a Long Voyage Home to the past on the Mnemosyne where lost souls gather.


The flashback, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, virtually the entire film, is a narrative of what has disappeared and been lost: the old West (a forgotten Shinbone), lawlessness (Liberty Valance), ordinary heroes (Tom Doniphon), love (Tom Doniphon and Hallie). Ransom Stoddard, by his story, brings the past back as a memory, the conversion of a once-lived-reality into images and words. The story of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is of that disappearance: the displacement of Tom Doniphon by Rance Stoddard, the murder of Liberty Valance, the defeat of the cattleman by the small farmers, Statehood replacing the Territory, the coming of the Law, the supplanting of images and actions (Doniphon) by words and signs (Stoddard), and finally of the Western itself.

Only rarely does Ford move his camera. There is only one instance of it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in the hall at the Territorial Convention, and only one instance in Donovan’s Reef, the tracking shot along the line of Polynesian dancers. Such camera movements are equally rare in his other films. Some of his shots with a fixed camera are like tableaux, more photograph than film (women standing like statues saying goodbye to their men going off to war, Indians massed on a hill for an attack, the silhouettes of riders, cavalry or wagon trains at sunset), or, if they depict movement, it is essentially pictorial rather than narratively relevant as if, as in a painting, time has been frozen. Mobility in Ford is not a matter of pigmentation as in painting but of light as in photography that shapes, creates shadows, is ever-changing and vagabond.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a nocturnal Western that takes place primarily in closed spaces extraordinarily (in the kitchen, restaurant, saloon, meeting hall, class room, anterooms, train compartment, funeral parlour, newspaper office), the still shots are like carefully composed theatrical scenes (they record entrances and exits, corridors, the turning on and off of lights, moving into and out of frame, crossing the frame). The main street of Shinbone is declaratively a studio set. So too is the holdup of the coach at night marked not as occurring in the outdoors, in nature, but on stage. Liberty Valance and his gang are dressed for their parts. Costuming, theatrics and make up are evident in the framing sequences of the flashback (powdered wigs, actors peering out from beneath their false bleached-white faces, elaborate dress). Each time Liberty Valance or Tom Doniphon appear, their clothes are exaggerated, like cowboys and villains, goodies and baddies from the silent cinema where costume (black and white) and objects (whip, spurs, buckles) are defining signs.

The silent cinema, by its visual exaggerations, and silent film westerns in particular, by their stark symbolism of good and bad, displayed their theatrical origins deriving from the popular theatre of melodrama. In that cinema, illusions (characteristic of the cinema) were less important than representations and exemplifications (characteristic of theatre and present in Eisenstein to whom Ford is in debt and not only for his images, but for Eisenstein’s later use of sound in Aleksandr Nevsky, for example). In such circumstances, it doesn’t matter much if Jimmy Stewart or Vera Miles have face powder on or that John Wayne sports a white ten gallon hat and that the gap in age between actors and their roles are obvious and inappropriate. Such theatricalisation is evident in the films of D W Griffith, who, with Murnau, were the decisive influences on Ford. From Griffith, Ford learned the importance of detail, the function of the frame (like a theatrical proscenium arch) to establish relations between characters and between characters and their environment (constructed on the set or in nature), and the need to rapidly and immediately inform the audience by visual details exactly who characters are when they first appear.

The silent cinema is a place of passage from theatre to cinema, from representation to illusion, as much as Ford’s stories are passages between different times and forms of expression, from legendary epic to the reality of everyday.

The objectivity of Ford’s films has to do primarily with the way his images position the audience in relation to characters and action. What is seen is primarily a representation, not an illusion. It is here that Ford is the heir to Murnau and Griffith, as Welles is the heir to Ford and by that fact to the cinema that preceded him. Ford creates a distance between what occurs in the film and its perception by an audience seated as if before a stage. Not only does his audience see the action from a separate space in which Ford keeps them, but one that depicts a different and past time. It is opposed, for example, to Hitchcock’s space which envelops and takes possession of an audience by elaborate mechanisms of identification where identity is the stake in his fiction; it is also opposed to Hitchcock’s time, always now and in the present even in films about memory like Vertigo, about delusion rather than legend. Everything in Ford is set back, veiled, having been. Insofar as his films are theatricalised, they seem less fictive than Hitchcock’s, or at least less immediate, compelling and illusionist. In Ford’s films there is a gap between times and spaces, legend and fact, past and present, memory and actuality, appearance and disappearance, immobility and movement, action and audience. In Hitchcock, in contrast, such gaps are imaginatively overcome. The bridge is the audience and its desires that Hitchcock plays upon and engages.

There are two beginnings to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both begin by the arrival of Rance Stoddard, and both are disruptive. The first is when he returns to Shinbone years later for the funeral of Tom Doniphon, and the second occurs in his narrative flashback where he relates his first (thereby in the time of the film his second) entry into Shinbone, an entry motivated by words (Horace Greeley’s “Go West young man!”). It is words, books, the Law, signs, newspapers, speeches, the chalk board that Stoddard brings with him to do battle with the West and its wildness. Stoddard is heavy with words as Doniphon is swift and light with action. Stoddard returns to Shinbone to pay a debt and to answer a question by relating a narrative just as the story of young Abe Lincoln is the response to his mother’s queries, it too involving the acquittal of a debt, to persons in the past by way of persons in the present. (Such interior narratives are characteristic of the short stories of Guy de Maupassant whose Boule de suif Ford adapted for Stagecoach).

The Ford film closest to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is Young Mr Lincoln. Stoddard’s return to Shinbone in the film frames the flashback of an earlier arrival. It produces a narrative of the consequences of that arrival which requires a response to harmonise and repair a gap and a loss and the subsequent wounds and disappointments perhaps, especially to Hallie. Stoddard’s narrative is the story of the story of the necessity of the return, the tale of Tom Doniphon, replaced by history but reinstalled in memory.

No matter the progress and movement of narrative events in Stoddard’s flashback narrative (the story of the legend of Stoddard, of the man who did not shoot Liberty Valance but is thought to have done so – the false story – and the story of the man who actually did shoot Liberty Valance but has been forgotten – the true story), the flashback taken as a whole is immutable, immobilised in time. Even if Stoddard tells it to correct that immutability, to confront a legend, himself and his marriage with the truth and with History, he can only do so by conserving the legend of the West, the legendary Tom Doniphon, what he represented and the disappearance of all of that in which Stoddard was the instrument, the legendary killer of Liberty Valance, but the real murderer of Tom Doniphon by helping to destroy Doniphon’s world and taking his girl as a trophy.

Ford’s film is shot in black and white which, by the early 1960s, was no longer the format for Westerns, all of which, including Ford’s, were now entirely in colour. Liberty Valance is doubly in the past by the story told and the format of its telling: theatricalised, wordy, in black and white, a still camera, tableaux images like old photographs. An old Western is enlisted to relate the story of its own disappearance. There are no windows here, only the mirrors, reflections and echoes of the past in the distorted present of memory.

Ford uses the cinema, a new form of expression involving movement and the creation of illusion, to reproduce older forms of expression related to painting, photography and theatre. The older forms concern the perennial, the fixed, the represented and the absence of duration (the epic, legends). The cinema that displaces these introduces duration and the real and, as a consequence, the destructive (and liberating) force of time and history (Stoddard’s ‘true’ story that no one wants to hear), inevitabilities, that Ford recognises (and adopts) and resists (and exposes), not like Stoddard, but like Tom Doniphon. As each Ford image is shadowed by and contains within it the past in the present, his films, in their forms, duplicate this double presence and tension.

The brawls in Donovan’s Reef and in Ford’s other films and the custard-pie-in-your-face sequence in Wings of Eagles and its equivalent with the cans of white paint in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance evoke silent film comedies in their choreography and evoke the theatre in their staginess. Such scenes are also present in Renoir’s La Règle du jeuFrench Can CanLa Carosse d’or and Elena et les hommes. The character of Link Appleyard conjures up slapstick (the imprint of his large bottom on the swinging door, his cowardice, his bulk) and also Shakespeare (Falstaff). Appleyard is a Falstaff. Shakespeare is cited with Hamlet’s soliloquy in a saloon in My Darling Clementine and cited too by the theatrical troupe in Wagonmaster. And Ford, like Shakespeare, alternates moods with comic relief and interludes. Liberty Valance, as noted, brings back the visual marks and signs of silent Western films, but, also it brings back more than that, a theatrical tradition and a comic one, partly of film and also of theatre.

Such summonings of the past are the melancholy modifiers of Ford’s films, a past which he revives, and in the same gesture, bids farewell to, a goodbye not simply to the past but to the means of evoking it and memorialising its passing.


Ford’s heros are often wounded or humiliated: Kirby Yorke (and his son) in Rio Grande, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Victor Marswell in Mogambo, “Spig” Wead in Wings of Eagles, Colonel Marlowe in The Horse Soldiers, Ransom Stoddard and Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hugh in How Green Was My Valley, Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine, Rusty Ryan in They Were Expendable, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Ford himself carried a wound to his sight and wore an eye-patch.

Doctors mending gun-shot wounds, arrow-piercings, beatings, are stock characters in most Ford films. What causes wounds is a pig-headedness, an inability to adjust, a resistance to the present, an historically misplaced value system and an unwavering set of beliefs, often rigid, most often backward-looking. It is what makes his heros into heros and creates the legends of them. Whatever the instruments – fists, kicks, arrows, gunshots and in one instance (7 Women), poison – and however deep the hurt and profound the error, these heros, their stories and the past from which they come are indestructible and endure. It is their vulnerability and the force of history that causes them to resist and to persist, not in fact, but in story, in the conceit of an old film form, a traditional narrative and of theatre as old as Shakespeare. Their wounds are the wounds of time and history. What is left of their struggle are the tatters of a story, scenes remembered, a few images, a cactus rose, bars of music, the Anne Rutledge theme, insubstantial perhaps and fleeting, but that is their beauty.

[1] Kevin Jackson Humphrey Jennings London: Picador 2004 p. 184.
[2]  Ibid., p. 188.
[3] Humphrey Jennings Pandemonium London: André Deutsch 1985.
[4] “I very much like shadows to be dark and light to be the light of day. And I very much like to put shadows in the brightness.” Quoted in Patrice Rollet “La Ligne d’ombre” in Patrice Rollet et Nicolas Saada eds. John Ford Paris: Editions de l’Etoile Cahiers du cinéma 1990 p. 86.

Created on: Tuesday, 1 September 2009

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

Sam Rohdie (1939 – 2015) was Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Film at the University of Central Florida. He has held the Chair in Film Studies at The Queens University of Belfast and before that was Professor of Film Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He also held academic posts in universities in England, Ghana, Italy and the United States and was an original member of the Cinema Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Sam was the editor of Screen in the United Kingdom from 1971 to 1974. His work was widely published in academic film journals and books. His books include Antonioni (1990), Rocco and His Brothers (1993),The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1996), Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism (2001), Fellini Lexicon (2002), Montage (2006) and Film Modernism (2015).View all posts by Sam Rohdie →