Feature Review: Ford At Fox

[Screening the Past asked Bill Routt to review this archival DVD set documenting most of the surviving films John Ford directed at (Twentieth-Century) Fox from 1920—1952. More of the review will appear in future issues.]

Ford at Fox. Published by Twentieth-Century Fox, 2007. 21 disks. Includes coffee-table photo album, Ford at Fox, 168 pp. with essays by Joseph McBride (“Ford at Fox: A Great Director’s Professional Home”) and Richard Ashton (“The Silent Years: A Chronology”). Current rrp: $US300.00.

Part One

[Oog. I wrote too much. These 15000+ words take us only to the last of the silent features included in the set. The whole review, then, will be appearing in Parts; and at this point I don’t know how much – or little – will be included in the next Part(s). I think I will have got past the theory stuff by then.]


Initially I didn’t see the point of this review. Everyone knows that the Ford At Fox box set is a wonderful thing and no one needs me to say that all over again. But when I got the set and looked over what was in it, and when I read the (rather sketchy) discussions of the films by Joseph McBride and Richard Ashton, it occurred to me that not a lot of attention was being paid to the secondary works in this collection. There are 24 features directed by John Ford in the set of which only 5 are the kind of films that most people think of as “classics” or “masterpieces” (The Iron HorseYoung Mr. LincolnThe Grapes of WrathHow Green Was My ValleyMy Darling Clementine). In addition, by my count there are 5 more which a lot of critics and academics might agree are “great films” (3 Bad Men,Four Sons, Pilgrimage, Steamboat ‘Round the Bend,Drums along the Mohawk). That leaves no less than 14 movies which need some discussion. Of these I would say that at least 10 are likely to be virtually ignored or inadequately discussed in most of what has been written about Ford’s films (Just PalsHangman’s HouseBorn RecklessUp the RiverSeas BeneathThe World Moves OnFour Men and a PrayerTobacco RoadWhen Willie Comes Marching HomeWhat Price Glory). Just to complete these lists, only Doctor BullJudge PriestThe Prisoner of Shark Island, and Wee Willie Winkie are left – films that more than a few writers find interesting and worthwhile but that somehow rarely make it into the A-list. This division is inevitably idiosyncratic and doubtless will be contentious for some, but for better or for worse, the 14 movies that I think need discussion will be the ones with which this review will be most concerned. And, let me clear that I am not wagging my finger at any of the very perceptive people who have written so well on Ford’s many better known movies. Just as has been the case for the new box set itself, constraints of space, time and editorial taste tend to shunt any artist’s “minor” work to one side in favour of reconsidering the undoubted beauties of whatever is currently perceived as “major”.

But if John Ford is as great a director as people say he is, surely his lesser films ought to be worth our critical attention. Indeed, I would argue that it should be in the lesser work – the journeyman productions, the minor successes, the turkeys, the failures – that we find the most certain marks of his artistry, as the artist overcomes the constraints of production, expectation and at times his own disdain. Moreover, it seems to me that Ford’s “classics” are, by and large, too “classical”: ambitious A-pictures exquisitely sensitive to what mainstream audiences might consider “art” – in short, Saturday Evening Post cinema. The excitement and the risks of these films – the moments when they peer us into the abyss – are oiled over by craftsmanship, the Hollywood machine, and their all-too self-evident good intentions.

It is just that aspiration and that polish which is lacking in Ford’s minor films – and, unfortunately, just that aspiration and polish which is foregrounded in the perspective on Ford that this set explicitly endorses by highlighting the influence of William Fox’s aesthetic ambitions, the craft of F. W. Murnau and the structural ability of Darryl Zanuck on Ford’s work. But I don’t think that Ford’s art particularly or especially benefited from those influences, although each surely influenced the intentions, look, and narrative style of certain films. Instead, I think that John Ford was an artist of such prowess that he would have made wonderful films even if he had had nothing whatsoever to do with any of these good people.

This is because I think that Ford was a visionary artist, someone whose art was crucially derived from and dependent upon his vision. Now “vision” is a much abused word, even a much abused concept, and I don’t know that I am doing Ford or myself any good in invoking it here, but I can’t think of another that suits the circumstances so well. This is partly, of course, because the topic is the cinema, and historically “vision” has been linked to the supposedly visual art of the cinema. But in that sense every film and every film maker demonstrates vision, even if the particular vision in question is clichéd or mundane. Ford’s particular vision – or do I mean the particular vision of certain of his films? – may well arise from his own training (or interest in) the visual arts. It is common for critics to point out shots in Ford films that look as if they might be paintings or magazine illustrations as evidence of his interest in these matters, and I agree that such shots do just that. Godard implied as much when he famously wrote that for Ford “it is primarily the images which conjure the ideas”,[1] but his words also point beyond a tendency to mere visual virtuosity to a sense of vision as image and idea tied together, one giving rise to the other. This is much closer to the sense I want to make of Ford’s art.

Let me tell you a story.

I once met John Ford. It was not a special meeting. I was one of a number of university students granted an audience with the great man as he lay in bed one morning in Chicago, doing what I learned recently he apparently did a lot in the latter part of his life. In this case he also held court. And we all asked him questions, all the old questions, all the questions everyone always asked him and he always answered (sometimes this way and sometimes that). For example, I asked him about the phoney folk music in The Fugitive (1947), and he said he didn’t think it was phoney and then that he actually hadn’t listened to the soundtrack. And I asked him which Irish Catholic he was supporting for the Democratic Presidential nomination and he growled, “neither of the bastards”.

And so it went … until someone mentioned that I was a graduate student in cultural anthropology (which I still was back then). Suddenly Ford became animated, very excited. He asked me if I knew about the recent discoveries of marks on some of the oldest pueblo sites in the Southwest that seemed to suggest a connection with “old world” cultures in the Near East. He said that he had seen such marks recently and that he was certain that they did indeed show that there had been some kind of connection, some worldwide culture now lost. He asked me what I thought.

But I disappointed him. I was not an expert on such things. Epigraphy was not then, and is not now, a big part of anthropology, I don’t know if it even had a name at that time; and besides, I was concentrating on the anthropology of society and culture, not on archaeology. I am pretty sure that the tone of my attempt at an encouraging, measured response told him that he was not talking with a fellow believer. Soon the topic changed and he sank back into character.

Still, his excitement had excited me. I thought that it showed that artists and craftspeople like Ford had lives beyond their work – and so it did, in a rather trivial way. Yet that brief exchange, and especially the intensity of it, has returned to me many, many times over the years. It was not until I began to write this that I recognised why it had done so and that my memory was trying to tell me I had learned something.

What excited him was what he could see that others could not. What excited him was that he could almost discern a whole culture, a whole history, in a few scratches that others would overlook. Further, what excited him was the pastness of what he sensed, how far away it was from today, the huge chasm between; all that was now and forever unknown, unimagined even in his privileged sensing. I am now certain that this is what he had been doing all his life: envisioning, glimpsing whole, sensing worlds not our own that others did not. This is why I do not believe that the refinements of Murnau, Fox and Zanuck that Ford incorporated into his work made any real difference to it (and why, indeed, his films remained hit and miss right up to the end). Those refinements made “more perfect” films, but they did not ameliorate his vision, nor make it any easier to realise or more efficient in its realisation. Ford went through such influences, came out on their other sides (most notably in Zanuck’s case) and went on making messy, unrefined movies that were somehow nonetheless entire, complete, so perfectly imperfect.

Ford was also a drunk, a pretty awful drunk, and visionary artists who are drunks (and/or other sorts of substance abusers) are something of a commonplace, real true cultural clichés. There seems to be a kind of destructive symbiosis between the “art” of such people and their alcoholism. Ford – again like some others of this sort – apparently was able to keep himself sober when he was making movies; but when he was not practising that art he drank heavily again. Inability to stay off the drink is no evidence for the importance of what I am calling vision in Ford’s work, but in the cultural context within which Ford lived, vision and drink were well-established partners, the one often serving as something of an excuse for the other. I think it would not be surprising if this were the case for Ford.

Now, it ought to be clear that the kind of vision I am attributing to Ford is not quite the same as the sort of “vision” or “perspective” that is an accepted aspect of the figure of the author in some types of structural literary analysis.[2] Every text manifests the latter sort of vision, but only some Ford’s sort of vision. Yet at the same time, the two sorts of vision seem to have a lot in common. Perhaps Ford’s more visionary vision manifests itself as a more emphatic, controlling, instance of what can be sensed in all texts, a kind of hyperbolised authorial intention. I write “perhaps” here because I am not certain: perhaps such hyper-vision is just showing-off, posturing – over-anxious exscription of art’s de- and re-territorialising activity (and just what one would expect from the paralytic Irishman at the other end of the bar).

Visionary vision like Ford’s is usually thought of as the inspiration for dreams and fantasies, but it is hard to imagine a director less suited to say, The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings than John Ford. Indeed, the content of Ford’s vision is almost always social and historical (which is to say, political as well), and this gives what he depicts a quasi-“realistic” aspect: he seems to be showing us how things are/were/ought to be in a fairly direct way. But if Ford is a kind of social or cultural historian, and I think he is, he is one in the mould of Herodotus. Like the Greek “father of history”, Ford’s idea of historical truth includes, but is not confined to, the legend that some critics think he advocated printing instead of the truth. Herodotus is notorious for his supposedly naive inclusion of tall tales and questionable data in the account of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians that he produced; but there is nothing at all naive in Herodotus’ writing, which mobilises those incidental reports to construct a cultural context for the stupendous events it was intended to honour. In the end we know a great deal about Herodotus’ world precisely because he has refused to exclude impossibility from it. In films where Ford more or less explicitly raises the question “what is history?”, like Ford Apache(1948), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), his point is that, like it or not, history is vision, is poetry; historians are visionary poets, and poets (and film makers) are always writing history.

It is crucial that in Ford’s vision what we understand as historical truth can, and perhaps must, change over time – and that the understanding we have today of what happened in such and such a past event is never, and perhaps never can be, strictly accurate. That is, the neverending weaving of time is crafted into Ford’s vision. Far from being nostalgic freeze-frames of utopias that never were, Ford’s good films are always involved with a world coming-to-be and passing-away, awakening and dreaming, tomorrow and yesterday. And each such film represents this transient world differently, each presents different specific circumstances leading to different specific outcomes. And in each there are some things that cannot be stitched into the end – some then, that are overlooked this time: elements of the vision that bear witness to the contingency of history, its indeterminate, forever unfinished nature.

Some of this I think I have understood about John Ford’s films for a long time. I thought he was a Herodotean historian before he told me about those marks on the pueblos, although I probably would not have made that argument about the particular sense of time and contingency in his work back then. But what now seems most important to me is the way in which what I understand as Ford’s reliance on vision places him at odds, or at least in an uneasy relation, with approaches to the cinema that stress narration – that is, with the idea that “classical” movies are terribly efficient, or overdetermined, story-telling machines. Some such notions surely must lie behind the assumptions about the positive and lasting impact of Fox, Murnau and Zanuck – who all figure in this set as people who knew the value of telling a story properly. But it seems to me that the vision of Ford’s films needs to be apprehended in some sort of disjunction with their stories – which is not to say that the two can, or ought, be entirely separated, only rethought.

I don’t think I have the mind (never mind the space or the time) to do more than look at one productive way in which “Ford’s vision” has been written about and to derive one or two ideas from it. This productive way appears in Jean Mitry’s two volume work, John Ford (Paris, 1954), a book I once knew very well – and which has clearly influenced what I believe about Ford – but which seemed almost entirely new to me when I returned to it in writing this review.[3]

Significantly, I think, Mitry does not posit Murnau as a specific influence on Ford, but instead opts for a more general German Expressionist influence, visible at least as early as 1921 (before it is likely that Ford had seen Murnau’s work) and he says that Ford “retained only the equilibrium and the harmony [of this style], notably the play of shadow and light that underlined volume and gave an almost ‘tactile’ sensation of space”, while rejecting its “symbolism” (71). Jackie (1921), a film which Mitry tells us is a dramatic comedy, is his prime example of how Ford used that influence.[4]  “The plastic image in effect gives weight to what it shows at the same time that it signifies it”, lending an air of tragedy and foreboding to “the adventures of a little Russian refugee whose ambition is to become a dancer”. This stylisation has the effect of suggesting that neither the director nor the main character is fully part of the (mostly) lighthearted story being told onscreen (72-73). It throws “the ‘imaginary’ aspect” of the image into relief at the expense of its ‘realistic’ side. “The stylisation of the real acts as a ground for the stylisation of characters and facts. This will become one of the most significant aspects of the Fordian aesthetic” (74).

What Mitry seems to be suggesting is that Ford learned from Expressionism in general how to use lighting and decor as signs of affect. His undeniable interest in what Murnau did at Fox would then have been rather more pragmatic – how specifically were these or those effects obtained? – than the crucial, style-shaping, lessons some commentators on the Ford At Fox set may seem to claim. But Mitry makes another, more interesting, assertion about the development of Ford’s style in the years immediately after the end of the war: that he was learning how to remove himself from what was going on in his films. Apparently in Jackie he was able to use his directorial power over lighting and decor to distinguish a narrating voice from a protagonist’s point of view and both of these from what might be called ‘the story’s point of view’: author, characters and story. Moreover, in Jackie Ford seemed to be using these differing ‘perspectives’ to conflict with one another; he had not merely learned how to articulate an authorial voice more or less cinematically, but how to set up a dialogue between that voice and other important aspects of cinematic experience, all without sacrificing a certain unified effect – that is, without shattering the representational illusion – or ‘classical system’, if you will.

I think that the distancing which occurs, as it were, within a Ford film is integral to what I sense as his vision. It is not that his vision is itself distanced, as it is in Lang’s equally visionary work, but that Ford’s vision encompasses his own distance from, as well as his own closeness to, what he shows. It is bifurcated, even schizoid; and of course such a vision can lend an extraordinary degree of ambiguity to what happens on the screen.

Later, in a telling discussion of 3 Bad Men (1926), Mitry recasts this discussion into something like a complex set of interactions between director, “reality”, characters, diegesis and story.

John Ford constructs characters who take the same disenchanted attitude towards life that he himself took as a result of an objective examination of it – which is to say that his universe, already a highly sensitive one, is intensely subjective. The artist strives to substitute his vision for the primitive reality of which he is a part. He is at once in the characters which he has created and outside them. At the instant in which he projects himself into them by constructing his personal stylisation into their traits, he detaches himself from them and watches them living. He observes them with an attention that is at the same time indifferent and passionate. (81)

The originality [of 3 Bad Men], as can be seen, is less in the subject than in the three characters who give the film its tone, climate and colour. (82)

In [3 Bad Men] the West not only grounds the adventure that is recounted to us, giving that story its movement, its colour, its frame, it also grounds its psychological methods. The comportment of the characters, the characters themselves are unthinkable under other skies. They exist only as a function of a milieu and an epoch: they are in harmony with its climate and its geography as well as with the customs of the time. (83)

Let me try to gloss some of this. Ford “constructs” characters that are at once himself and not himself. And surely, as the discussion of Jackie told us, he similarly constructs the “milieu” and “epoch” of the West (a complex diegesis, part reality and part fiction). This in its turn “gives” the story a particular movement, colour and frame, “grounding” the particular psychology that is then said to make the characters a “function” of itself – characters that also “give” the film a particular tone, climate and colour. There does not really seem to be much straight line logic in the creative process that is described here; indeed, it is rather like a black box with a film as its result. But still, I am attracted to what Mitry is saying. It captures very well the (perhaps irrational) complexity of the relations I sense between elements in Ford’s films, and by so doing evokes an intuitive understanding of the fascination of those films and the conviction produced by their various fictions. If the creation machine evoked by Mitry is a shambolic contraption, in that way it parallels the baggy, yet detailed, worlds envisioned in Ford’s work. One can sense how the labyrinths fashioned by such bricolage might seduce, entrance and entertain, looming larger, more important, than the stories his films pretend to tell. That is, I believe that Mitry does begin to explain how Ford’s vision may work.

For this kind of vision is first of all diegetic construction, and diegetic construction is something we do not comprehend nearly so well as we do narrative construction. When I was thinking about Ford’s vision without Mitry’s help, I had a sort of picture of a protagonist connected by webby strands to lots of secondary characters that circled him (because in most Ford films the protagonist is a “him”). My idea was that Ford invested a great deal of time and work on these secondary characters (although not so much on the connections between them) and that the power of “Ford’s world” was a product of the interaction between protagonist and the often incidental detail of these secondary characters. The story being told would be, then, only one element of those interactions, and in that sense what I was thinking about was diegetic. But there was a lot missing from my schematic: the diegesis for one (milieu and epoch, and how they are treated), but also the tripartite relation between author, fiction (character, diegesis) and “the primitive reality of which he is a part” (society, history) that Mitry’s description implicitly evokes, and which seems to me to complicate and characterise Ford’s vision particularly.

Mitry concludes his discussion of 3 Bad Men with these observations:

Because of its unity of place and action The Iron Horse is perhaps better constructed, denser. The images, organised within a precise dramatic space, are more studied. But to that ‘dramatic space’ John Ford here opposes space, period. In place of a static frame the film creates its universe and transforms it instead of perpetually submitting to it. The first is more ‘architectural’, the second more poetic in its unforeseeable unfolding. To closed drama, folded on itself, it opposes a narration perpetually open on what it will become.

We will rediscover these two aspects throughout John Ford’s career through a search tending towards their union. One or other of these, in spite of everything, will always dominate. The Long Voyage Home and Stagecoach will be the best balanced outcomes. We will have, on the one hand, The Lost Patrol, The Informer and on the other, The Grapes of Wrath, The Fugitive. (84)

Thus Mitry senses two “large form” structures in Ford’s films, two ways in which the complex set of relations he has postulated are worked out. I think the first thing that ought to be said about these two forms is that, pace Mitry, they are both “architectural”, having to do with the cinematic making of place and space.[5]  I think that Ford tends to be more successful with what Mitry considers the “more poetic” of the two, and I would even go so far as to say that his vision almost always highlights a trajectory of some kind, even if some of those trajectories are completed in the course of some of his films (not always at the end) and some trajectories are elliptical. This tendency, it seems to me, is part of the historical cast – even the historical message – of his vision. Characters and settings move through time and change. Being is an illusion, only becoming abides.

So. I am interested in the ordinary, not so good and awful Ford films in the Ford At Fox set for what I think they tell me about Ford’s vision. Most of all I would like to be able to find out how vision in the sense I have been using the word is implemented, and I think that this may be more apparent in work from le deuxième rang and below just because those movies are likely to be more unevenly realised than the recognised “masterpieces” are. It seems probable, for example, that some of these films won’t be any good because they don’t articulate that vision very much at all and that others will be just about perfect in terms of vision, but will have earned a lower critical status because of defects in (oh, let’s say) storytelling – and that most will fall between these two poles. It is also likely that some of these films will point me towards things I have not foreseen (or, anyhow I hope that will be the case). And throughout I will be trying to locate what I think is particularly “Ford” in the films, both since that quality and the vision I associate with that label are closely related and since I would like to believe that “my Ford” is at least a bit different from the canonical one (the Saturday Evening Post artist I mentioned before).

I cannot imagine why any of this would interest you, but it would be nice to have your company – if only so that I have to make myself clear every now and then. I have listed the titles of all of the films in the set in chronological order so as to provide an easy way of working out the Ford context of the 14 upon which I am concentrating. Some of those titles will also have prompted me to write short remarks that I imagine will be updated over time.

Just Pals (1920)

I (via Mitry) played a very tiny role in re-introducing Ford’s silent films to the American film society circuit in the early seventies (I used quotes from Mitry for a section on Ford’s silents in a 1970 catalogue of “rediscoveries”), and I guess one thing that concerns me about this set is that the silent films it contains are, with the exception of Hangman’s House (1928), the same films that had been featured in that catalogue almost forty years ago: Just PalsThe Iron Horse (1924), 3 Bad Men and Four Sons (1928). Given that other films have been made available since then, it is disappointing that only these four have become canonical. Hangman’s House, which is discussed a bit further on, is a bit of a downer, and it would be useful to have more of the director’s silent work for the studio to make a context for these films. Tag Gallagher lists 6 “more or less complete” surviving Fox features that are not in this set as well as “odd reels” from 2 others. It is a shame that some of this material could not have been included. McBride’s survey of the Fox films written for the set has interesting comments on Lightnin’ (1925: “virtually plotless comedy about an old layabout”), Kentucky Pride(1925: “a small gem”), and Mother Machree (1928: “shows his debt to Murnau”); Gallagher likes The Shamrock Handicap (1926) and Riley the Cop (1928) as well as Machree (which he says shows the effect of having been begun before the strong point of Murnau’s influence and finished after); and Mitry thinks that Cameo Kirby(1923) “marks the point where the artist comes into his own as himself” (73). All of these, except Mother Machree, are apparently available in more or less complete prints, and the “odd reels” of Machree must contain some pointed stuff or else McBride and Gallagher wouldn’t have anything to say about it.

Fairly complete prints of at least three of Ford’s earlier Universal Harry Carey westerns exist: Straight Shooting(1917), which was his first feature length movie, Bucking Broadway (1917)[6] , and Hell Bent (1918).[7]  It would be nice to know more about Ford’s pre-Fox work, but it is probably too much to hope that Universal is game to release three silent westerns on DVD even if they were directed by John Ford.

Just Pals is the earliest Ford film in this set, and the earliest surviving movie that he directed for Fox. The image quality of the set’s DVD is excellent, and Jon and Al Kaplan’s specially-composed soundtrack music is better than good. Mitry has nothing to say about Just Pals, and the paragraph I wrote for the catalogue was non-committal. This was because I thought this film was all-too typical of its type (rural drama) and its period – and that was because I was insensitive, inexperienced and prone to snap judgments. At the same time, it is fair to say that Just Pals is not a ground-breaking movie for its time. It belongs to what was at the very least a recognised sub-genre dealing with the foibles of rural small town life, but it is realised with a great deal of canniness and, as I hope you will see, is an extremely worthy film.

Buck Jones, a popular western star, plays Bim, the town layabout. Bim rescues Bill (George Stone), a homeless boy, from the clutches of a railway guard and through Bill gains a new lease on life as a productive member of the community. A subplot deals with Mary Bruce (Helen Ferguson)[8] , Bim’s unrequited love, who is victimised by Harvey Cahill, the apparently upright cashier of the local Express Office (William Buckley). Mary is, in her turn, rescued by Bim and responds to his love for her. The film is characterised by a painterly visual style and what seems to be a richly detailed exposition of a highly stylised American small town.

This shot introduces Bim

Gallagher notes a resemblance to King Vidor’s work in the same period, but he claims that what is “typical” of Ford in this film is a certain mixture of action and humour and a certain dark vision:

lynch mobs, hypocritical social strata, pompous churchgoers, busy-bodies, and the unobtrusive blacks (unnecessary in a story set in Wyoming, yet ignored by whites and drama). Humour is already gruff and sentimental, fighting a necessary part of friendship. (35)

Only one black person plays a significant part in the action, and he is treated somewhat equivocally. He is a cook (actor uncredited) who runs his own small- time eatery; and he asks Bim and Bill to kill some chickens for him in return for a meal, which they sorely need. Young Bill, however, is upset by the prospect of killing innocent fowl. His soulful look convinces Bim not to do the deed; then he opens the pen to let all the chickens out. While I was watching I appreciated the ethical conflict of the situation and what its resolution meant for Bim in particular, but I also appreciated that it is much slicker to instigate class conflict by depriving fictional members of an ethnic minority of their livelihood than it is to confront the question of how the cook and the two derelicts are ranked on the town’s socio-economic scale.

Ford’s attitudes towards African-Americans have been the subject of some critical comment, and this little sequence is a pretty good example of what often seems to happen to that minority in Ford’s films. That is, their situation is presented with quite a degree of sensitiveness to actual social and historical circumstances, but at the same time such characters act within and are subjected to stereotyped conventions which are equally a product of social and historical circumstances. As Gallagher notes, there are often African-Americans in Ford’s films where they would not be in other films, as in this instance; and, as happens here, they are often presented sympathetically (the cook gives the derelict pair a chance to eat when no one else in town will). But Ford’s understanding of their situation also extends, as it does in this film (and in the case of the Irish), to the masks that circumstances place upon their faces and the parts they play for the sake of their own and others’ fantasies. Indeed, it is fair to say that these masks and roles make up his entire understanding: for while he clearly recognises that how people behave is a kind of camouflage put on in response to the circumstances in which they find themselves, he does not suggest that racial or ethnic groups inherently possess specific cores of biologically determined vices or virtues. In Ford’s fictions characters’ “selves” are not their inner being, but what they cannot help displaying to others, including to us. The camouflage of stereotypical behaviour is another kind of skin which, if it covers anything at all, covers something individual and utterly unknowable, perhaps the soul.

The reason it is worth wasting some time on this is that the combination of sympathetically “objective” presentation of circumstances and highly stylised, conventionalised, stereotyped, action is not only one of the features of Ford’s particular vision, but one of the sources of the ambiguity or indeterminacy of that vision. If Ford is a racist, then it is because race (or, actually, ethnicity) is a significant component of the worlds he makes, not because he represents African-Americans, for example, as inherently inferior. Rather, he is extremely interested, not to say fascinated, with the camouflage that African-Americans have adopted, just as he is with the camouflage adopted by the Irish and by Irish-Americans in particular. I strongly suspect, without having much to support my suspicion, that Ford believes that the broad, comedic and self-destructive aspects of those different camouflages connote pain and suffering, and that for such as these laughter arises in tears.

Two women play maternal roles in Just Pals, and everyone knows that John Ford was as greatly interested in mothers as he was in Irish- and African-Americans. But I will put off discussing these characters until we come to Pilgrimage, which focusses on the issue. Instead, let me return to Gallagher’s point about the rather nasty underside of small town America shown in the film. He lists some negative character/social types that seem to me as conventional as Bim, the worthless lazybones, Bill, the boy hobo, and Mary, the naive schoolmarm. If that were all there was, Just Pals would not be one quarter as interesting as it is (unless, of course, Charles Chaplin directed it).

But there is actually more, and it is peculiar stuff. First of all, there is the Bad Family in which wandering Bill winds up, partly to keep him away from Bim. These are rather more than hypocrites – truly terrible folks who pretend to care for Bill only because they expect a substantial reward – and their idea of child-rearing is Victorian in the worst way. And the town constable[9] , who acts like the Chorus of classical comedy, spitefully puffed up with his own petty authority, ridiculing Bim, avoiding all danger, and saying over and over again, “The law’ll take care o’ this!” – opening and closing the film, in the end forgiven everything.

1. The constable in the first shot of the film

2. The constable in the penultimate shot of the film

Then there is Mary’s attempted suicide, the cashier’s misappropriation of funds and his attempt to abduct Mary, the degenerate look of one of the bank robbers (a hillbilly zombie) and the unexamined motives of a mustachioed chauffeur who has driven off with another boy in a crucial backstory plot point.

These add up to a pretty seamy underside. The first pertinent thing about these bad things is that they, like the more general instances cited by Gallagher, are clichés of their time and genre. Throughout his career, Ford chose to deal in conventions – stereotypes, clichés – often of the most outrageous sort. Convention is integral to his vision, which does not mean his vision is conventional – only that it manipulates convention, sets one beside another, against another, on top of another. And the impersonal filter of convention is a way that Ford manages to maintain the stance of being simultaneously within and outside his material which Mitry describes. Some conventions in every Ford film appear to be intended to be read ironically, from outside, while others, perhaps, do not. Yet all are clearly conventions, and the question of how to apprehend any of them reasonably arises, leading to a kind of unresolvable investigation on the part of the viewer, where the outcome of say, a happy ending may be as ambiguous as an “open-ended” conclusion. In Just Pals, for example, we are given both: the film makes the Right Couple, but as they leave the screen they are comically replaced by the peeping constable, whose corrupted point of view thus survives the triumph of the good.

The second thing about the instances of nastiness that I have cited is that Bim does not see them at first, although we do.

The town (and the story) is otherwise shown to us very much from Bim’s point of view. That is, the nostalgic old-fashioned feel of the town comes down to what Bim sees from a position at the moral bottom of the ladder (or indeed, off the ladder entirely) where he is all-too aware that he has no right to judge even the pesky constable. The film disrupts and corrects Bim’s vision for us even as the story details his redemption from self-involved bone idleness. In keeping with maintaining Bim’s point of view, what he does is not subject to the same textually highlighted judgment meted out to others. Bim is not only paralleled with two boys (Bill and the abducted boy), his vision seems to be a boy’s too. Everything happens as though they were all pals in a Rover Boys adventure.

A Daring Escape

Bim fights to avenge Bill, but will not kill chickens because his pal is upset by the thought of killing them. Bill fights other boys and even Harvey for his pal Bim. The abducted boy rescues Bim and Bill when they are tied up. One for all and all for one.

Honi soit qui mal y pense. This is a John Ford film.

The strongest moment of the film’s foregrounding of Bim’s vision is also the point at which that vision is most obviously corrected. It is a sudden and seemingly inexplicable cut to a speeding automobile containing a man and a boy neither of whom we have seen before. This cut has the effect of briefly throwing the film out of its rural idyll of the way things were into a quasi-urban space of how things are now. But it is also a cut to events that are soon to furnish a narrative payoff in the form of an outrageous dime novel coincidence. The car crashes, hurtling the chauffeur to the ground. The boy escapes the crash and then goes to help Bim and Bill, who have just been hogtied by a bunch of (horse-riding, out-of-town) robbers.

But Bim, as I have said, does not initially see the prevalent, grown-up nastiness around him. It is interesting that the film too, does not show much of this: for example, Mary’s attempted suicide, or the immediate result of pistol shots that cause Bim and Bill and a horse to end up in the water by a bridge. These omissions may be due to cuts or print damage, but the story moves along at such a pace and asks so few questions of itself, that it may also be the case that they were not considered significant. That is, it may well be that such things were not important for Ford – that his diegetic vision was more important than telling the story.

It also seems that some of the film is “undercranked” – that is, it moves faster than life. This is certainly true of the action scenes featuring riding, and was common in westerns from this period. It also happens in the film’s first scene when Bim sees how hard (fast) the men in the farmyard are pitching hay. Intercutting between action scenes is also swift (à la Griffith), which has the effect of substituting affect for cognition/understanding, as in a boy’s adventure story. That is, throughout Just Pals “cinematic” effects are being used in conventional and “unrealistic” ways that are akin to the point of view of its protagonist.

Finally, and in something like a counterpoint to Bim’s initial inability to see corruption, there are two significant instances of “crossing the line” to dramatically lit shots of Bim that seem spatially unrelated to the shots around them, which have the effect of displacing or disorienting our perception at the same time that their lighting draws attention to the specific visual qualities of the image. One of these shots is split into two close-ups and these are followed shortly by a dramatically-lit midshot of Bim in a doorway. They take place during Bim’s revelatory confrontation with Cahill, and they seem to function partly as indicators of his furious internal state and partly as markers for changes in his perception/understanding of the world around him. They are thus “psychological” images, images of what is going on “inside” Bim, but they are presented in a distancing manner that puts us far “outside” of him – examples, then, of how Mitry says Ford handles characterisation.

1. Bim displaced and distanced in close shot

2. Bim displaced and distanced in medium shot

One of the questions that I think is raised by Just Pals is why it seems so much a better film than other contemporary work of the same general type (i.e. the Australian films The Man From KangarooOn Our Selection and Robbery Under Arms, all made in 1920). The explanation is surely not simply that this film is stylistically in advance of those others. Indeed, the composition and cutting here do not seem particularly “classical” or advanced for their time, not all that far from those on display in The Man From Kangaroo. Nor do I think that the obvious production values bestowed on the film by Fox Studios have anything to do with this kind of perception of quality.

One possibility is that this film seems better because, as I have been arguing, it is using Ford’s vision and his cinematic acumen to articulate a drama of appearance and what lies behind appearance, looking and seeing, a general literary/dramatic thematic that structures many, many films (but not all that much of Ford’s work through the early thirties). I believe that Ernst Lubitsch and Mauritz Stiller, both “naturalistic” film makers like Ford (and Vidor and Chaplin), were among the first to consciously and systematically adopt this thematic into a consistent style of cinematic narration, and that the style begins to be obvious around 1917-18 in Stiller’s Thomas Graal’s Best Film, at a point when elements of so-called “classical narration” – which I don’t think is the same thing – become evident in the American films of Maurice Tourneur (Victory) and Frank Borzage (The Gun Woman). Of course, the impersonal enunciation of the cinema is predisposed towards the articulation of appearance (looking), and human beings are predisposed towards attributing invisible motivations to what appears (seeing); but not all films are as involved with those predispositions as this one is, and of those that are, like The Man From Kangaroo, not all make effective use of the medium to explore those relations.

In addition to the disjunctive “psychological” shots noted above, Just Pals contains some instances of “expressionist” visual treatment (mainly lighting) that, had they occurred in a film made after 1921, might have been attributed to Murnau’s influence. Some of these shots are used in the sequence where Bim brings Bill, who has fallen from a speeding train trying to steal a conductor’s uniform for him, to the doctor for treatment.

1. Bim and Bill at the doctor’s door

2. Bim reacting to Bim’s condition

The doctor’s wife identifies Bill as a wandering boy for whom a reward has been offered and the pair scheme to keep Bill and get the reward. When Bim leaves there is a very elegant illustration of how to articulate looking and seeing without using shot-reverse-shot. Note how much of what is seen in this short series must be imagined by viewers (indicated by italics in the captions).

1. A door opens? closes? No other action

2. Bim leaves the doctor’s house

3. The pair look right: after Bim

4. The doctor turns left to his wife

5. They face one another

6. She begins to turn left

7. The pair look left: back to the room where Bill is asleep. End of sequence.


[The Iron Horse (1924)]

I am afraid that I find The Iron Horse pretty dull. Mitry’s sympathetic and positive assessment, in the comparison with 3 Bad Men touched on above, seems to me an implicit criticism of the film for its stilted qualities. However, the point-to-point construction of the diegesis is pretty interesting – at least to think about. This is a universe made up of places with nothing in between. This idea is emphasised in intertitles which point up the similarities between North Platte and Cheyenne (towns which boom briefly as they are used for bases and which were, in fact, the same location), in the key role that the “end o’track” plays, in the recurring, repetitive shots of track laying and of a cattle drive, and even in the way in which the “Hell on Wheels” and rail office sets are similarly designed in supposedly different locations. The goal of all the track laying is a kind of axis for the world, Promontory Point, where East and West are joined (not “united” as the intertitles suggest). Here is an iconic image from the end of the film that seems to say visually what I have been fumbling to express in words.

To be fair, the last 75 minutes, after George O’Brien (playing Davy Brandon) first rides across the frame, are lot more interesting than the first 45. I think this is because Davy’s story actually traces a line that interlaces what is around him rather than continually rehearsing what has gone before. Here the location scenes that Ford apparently improvised actually have something to do.

It doesn’t make the film any better to have two versions – on two discs – represented in the Ford At Fox box set: a more complete American print and an attenuated version circulated in the United Kingdom – both fine prints and both supported by a musical score composed and conducted by Christopher Caliendo. There is a reason for the two discs, but it is not a good one. You see, the disc with the “international version” (taken from a negative of “second takes”, and including one downright mistake) also contains a commentary track, a featurette on the music written for the film and some samples of what digital restoration has meant to the quality of the images in the film. This is the only commentary for any of the silent films in the set and the only extra material to deal with any of the music composed for this release of Ford’s silent film work.

Robert Birchard’s commentary shows that he understands where the strength of Ford’s work lies, but tends to rely on potted biographies of some of the actors and what he knows about the circumstances of the production (he does fifteen minutes straight on O’Brien’s career up to The Iron Horse following that actor’s first appearance onscreen). The featurette told me absolutely nothing of interest about writing music for silent films, much less this one – but it does have its weird moments.[10] The bottom line is if you didn’t have these extras on this disc, you wouldn’t have any extras for any of the five silents at all.


[3 Bad Men (1926)]

The surviving material from 3 Bad Men is sometimes scrappy (particularly at first). There are sections in it that were poorly duped at some time, and possibly chopped around. However, things settle down after a time and the film ends up looking pretty near as good on DVD as, say, Just Pals does – and the new score by Dana Kaproff is just fine. I love 3 Bad Men even more after having re-read what Mitry says. Here is a still from the shot that introduces Dan O’Malley (George O’Brien), the hero, and associates him with a trajectory – that is, a visualisation of “narration opening perpetually on what it will become”.

The three bad men of the title, as well as the heroine, Lee (Olive Borden), are also engaged in tracing paths that do not loop back upon themselves. On the other hand Sheriff Layne Hunter (Louis Tellegren), who is the major villain, is associated with a big building bearing his name located in the center of town.

The film ends with a coda in which Dan and Lee go through a gate, then through the front door to their home, and seek and find their baby, who has been named for the three bad men. Two shots then show us figures of these men far away on the horizon, riding slowly away and over a rise. The trajectory of the movie – and of its title characters – continues to the end of this story and on to the beginning of others.


[Four Sons (1928)]

Four Sons figures a lot in this set as the most obviously “Murnau influenced” of Ford’s Fox films. It also boasts one of the best prints in the collection and another overblown score by Christopher Caliendo (The Iron Horse). But there is no commentary track with the film – and it seems to me that Four Sons cries out for informed, judicious commentary.

First there is the Murnau stuff. I can remember how excited I was when I first saw Four Sons and recognised that The Postman (Albert Gran) was clearly based on Emil Jannings’ doorman in The Last Laugh – almost every move reproduces something Jannings did in 1924. Back then what this proved to me was that Ford was a consciously “artistic” film maker, not afraid of quoting from – and implicitly comparing himself with – the work of others he admired. But back then I didn’t know The Last Laugh nearly so well as I do now, and I didn’t realise how Four Sons keeps on referring to The Last Laugh throughout its entire length (for example, a shot from inside an elevator near the end of Four Sons evokes a shot from inside an elevator from the beginning of The Last Laugh). Sunrise (1927) is also suggested at one or two points. There is a lot of symbolic fog during the short war scenes. Finally, the film even hints at the notorious “happy ending” structure of The Last Laugh, by finishing unhappily after about 73 minutes and then tacking on a (more elaborate and very well realised) upbeat denouement. Today the whole film seems to me to be crafted to mimic a “continental” film.

I say “continental” rather than “German” or “Weimar” because of the Soviet references in it. There are fewer of them, but at least one is quite obvious.

The elements of this sub-sequence that mark it as a reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s Potemkin (1925) are the framing shots of the bespectacled face of the young man reacting to the violence he has witnessed. Later in the film, when the last of the four sons (Andreas, played by George Meeker) is forced into the German Army there are scenes that seem to me to be intended to evoke Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother.

But the film as a whole is a pastiche of a Weimar studio film – the kind of thing that Frank Borzage was doing so beautifully for Fox at the time (and will be included in the forthcoming Murnau, Borzage And Fox set). In the context of the silent Ford films included in this set, it rather stands out for its studio look. Absolutely nothing appears to have been shot “on location”. It is also the case that Four Sons is positively the best-crafted, sleekest of any of the films in the set until The World Moves On (1934).

Everything takes place in kitschland. Initially kitschland is a Bavarian fantasy of comical fat old men, sweet old women in black shawls, strapping men in lederhosen and fetching women in dirndls, intruded upon by an evil Prussian officer (Earle Foxe), but later in the film it extends to a kitsch New York made of expanding businesses, streets full of cars, and lots and lots of extras. It doesn’t help viewers of my generation that there is a slight resemblance between James Hall, who plays Joseph the son who emigrates, and Gene Kelly, who made kitsch New York his literal stamping ground about twenty years after this. (June Collyer, who is terrible in Hangman’s House, is just right here as Joseph’s relaxed, normally kitschy city girl).

It is easy to get the idea that Ford could not do any ethnic groups except Irish and American. But the fact is that Ford could only do fictional (or kitsch) ethnicity. Usually he didn’t bother with anyone but the Irish and the Americans. In this case he did bother – and what he produced was pure blarney, a movie that most people nowadays would call “pure Hollywood”. In Four Sons there is a fusion between incident and event, between metaphor and narrative that is notably efficient throughout. Significant narrative ideas, like Andreas’ induction into the army, are neatly embedded in emblematic images, like the way Andreas’ head is shorn as if he were one of his own sheep. This is “classical narration” at its overdetermined best.
Maybe this is what I don’t like about the film – and try as I may, I can’t make myself like it. It is all so well engineered: everything fits together, everything reflects everything. The damn thing is a mirror of Narcissus. What would be mistakes in another kind of Ford film, like the importance of (not) learning the English alphabet for Frau Bernle (Margaret Mann) which is then conveniently forgotten once she wanders away from the immigrant detention centre, are in this movie well and truly glossed over with the elegant sleight of hand that is the hallmark of a really professional, really smug production.

I am no longer quite so certain that Four Sons ought to be looked at as a great film maker’s gesture of respect to his peers. Instead it seems to me that a kitsch Germany populated by dead men, widows and clowns, coupled with all that referencing of Murnau’s work and the work of others, may be rather like jeering. Look, all this art stuff: it’s just a series of tricks that anyone can do. While Murnau was working on Sunrise for Fox, William Fox told business students at Harvard that The Last Laugh was a work of art but that no one understood it; and once Sunrise had won the Oscar for artistic achievement that Fox had wanted, the studio never again gave Murnau the opportunity to work with such freedom. That is, it was in the interest of Fox Studios at that time to indicate just how much Murnau was not needed – and I think it was in the temperament of John Ford to be a signatory to the studio’s message.


Hangman’s House (1928)

This film is surprisingly out-of-date for its time – at least in the work of a director supposedly seen as one of Fox’s most important and “artistic” and one who had made Just Pals, 3 Bad Men, and Four Sons. In some ways it is comparable to Griffith’s Way Down East (1921) in that it comes off like the kind of old fashioned stage melodrama which many people at the time would have ridiculed. (Indeed the film was preceded by a stage version that was ridiculed and is not cited in the film’s credits.[11] ) Again, visual quality of the print on the DVD is excellent; and the newly-composed score by Tim Curran is decent, if a little heavy on the twittering flute.

Hangman’s House, the novel by Donn Byrne (Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne) upon which both play and film were based, was first published in London in 1925. Byrne was enough of a literary figure in the twenties to warrant serious contemporary discussion and an entry in the current Wikipedia. An Irish American born in New York in 1889, he moved to Ireland in early 1922, where he died in June 1928 – that is, around a month after Gallagher says Ford’s film was first released. Hangman’s House is an important book in Donn Byrne’s oeuvre and has gone through some 13 editions thus far, including a talking book.

It was with Hangman’s, though, that he began to identify himself with the traditional Irish storytellers, noting in his preface (“A Foreword to Foreigners”) that: “I have written a book of Ireland for Irishmen. Some phrase, some name in it may conjure up the world they knew as children.” It is also in this novel that Byrne returns to his Irish nationalist ideas by alluding to the ongoing strife of the Irish Civil War and fight for Independence. (“Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne”, Wikipedia)[12]
“Wry Blarney”, (Time, 17 May 1926) [13]


The Story* of how James O’brien, he that had been Ireland’s curly-headed rebel poet before he hushed his tongue and earned the name of Jimmy the Hangman for sitting, iron-jowled, on a high bench of justice as Lord Glenmalure; of how this man married his sweet daughter Connaught to John d’Arcy, a tricky swipe but polished, instead of to fine young Dermot McDermot of Dermotstown, as brave a lad of the old land as was in it, so that she might be a great lady and go about the world instead of stopping always in the quiet country among horses, dogs and simple folk; and of what came of it, including the talk that Jimmy the Hangman’s house was haunted after his death until it blazed to the ground — all this is a strange, touching story that might or might not have happened just as it did; and no great matter, either, if likelihood is sometimes owed small debts..


There is a stirring meet of ladies and gentlemen on their tall horses to find, chase and kill, with due ceremony, that somewhat mystical reddish mister, Dan Russell the fox, with impudent wisdom seeking sanctuary from a choir of hounds. There is a mighty steeplechase with the bookies hawking odds, the hoofs thundering and two poor jocks killed. There is lambing-time, on the spring hills thinly lit with frost and starlight; and coursing the whippets after Pussy, the dodging hare; and benign old gentlemen in red coats “hacking bitterly at small white balls and saying very evil phrases. . . .”


The Significance. There are in the world a few unsensitive people for whom the mellow, wry blarney of Author Donn-Byrne has no meaning at all. These are pitiable folk, for they will not understand the astonishing thing he has now done — written a book of modern times with all the glamour upon it that was on Messer Marco Polo, The Wind Bloweth and his other tales of days long gone. His warmest admirers will be quickest to see that he has not done this rich thing without overdoing it occasionally — slipping over briefly into unredeemed melodrama, laying on a few too-thick bits of the Biblical locution; but in the main they will be delighted and amazed to see in this, his best work yet, the subtle operation of his gentle Irish irony, something of that astringent quality that sharpens the art of his countryman, Painter Willie Orpen, who once painted a swarthy, hawk-faced gypsy basking with his woman and trained bear on the lush, noon-flooded Hill of Howth.

Given what Byrne himself and Time’s anonymous reviewer say, one can understand why Ford, a proud Irish-American himself, might have been interested at first in directing a screen adaptation of this book. It seems legitimate to interpret the characters according to their politics and to understand the character of the hanging judge who sets the plot in motion, James O’Brien (Hobart Bosworth), as an indictment of those who collaborated with the English. What is much harder to explain is why the film turned out so badly.

Of course, using an out-of-date style was, and still is, commonplace in Hollywood and occurs quite a bit in the films during the decade 1925-35. Ford seems to have resorted to that kind of style fairly regularly during this period, especially for more serious movies. Most of the story part of the film is quite creaky and so staged that one would be forgiven for thinking that the source for that material was the play based on the novel rather than the novel itself. But I don’t think that what happened was simply the result of a bad choice of style. Rather, it seems to me that at some point Ford realised that Byrne’s book was based on literary, rather than visual, imagery. Byrne’s book held very little that he could use to create images that conjure ideas, in the way that Godard later suggested was typical of him.

As a result, the film seems to split into two sections, only one of which really includes the main story as it was apparently related in the novel and the play. That part is, as I said, creaky – and it involves quite a bit of pretty atrocious melodrama. The other section is all but superfluous to the main narrative, but it contains everything of interest in the film, which is basically the Irish environment.

Most of the story part takes place in a grand house that has generated a number of fairly elaborate sets. These sets are quite detailed and all, but they are treated in a fairly summary way, as background or decoration. The house itself is set up to be a “character” in the film from the second shot, but it never is treated that way. It too is just decoration, even as it burns to the ground in countless shots for the movie’s Big Climax.

The Hangman’s House, even in flames, is not a character. Note the dog, who is.

Most of what I think of as the “non-story” part of Hangman’s House takes place in a variety of fairly detailed and quite evocative sets: an outpost of the Foreign Legion, a pub, a prison, a hideout in a bog (two sets), a number of exteriors or quasi-exteriors (studio exteriors) sometimes used for just one descriptive shot in a series of such shots. Because of their variety all these scenes and shots tend to point up the sterility and downright dullness of the big mansion – and that is underlined by the fact that these scenes are also lit in more interesting ways, whereas the mansion scenes seem all flooded with flat white light – at least after the hanging judge stops staring into the fire about 15 minutes into the film.

1. The Hangman’s House interior 1. Note the dog character again

1. The Hangman’s House interior 2. The dog acting in character.

The movie is thus “opened up” precisely by those scenes that have the least directly to do with the story – and these are, probably not coincidentally, the parts of the movie that are concerned with the character of Denis Hogan (Victor McLaglen) who is not mentioned at all in Time’s reviews of the novel or the play. I presume that he, and most of what is associated with him in the film, was added by Ford and Philip Klein, who is credited with adapting Byrne’s “story”. McLaglen, still a big star after the box office success of Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), receives top billing and doubtless it was kind of a coup for Ford to have worked him into the film – but what happens is that Ford lavishes his attention and talent on whatever is linked with McLaglen’s character, even working him into the main story’s horse race, where his exuberant incidental interventions contrast tellingly with the vapidly histrionic but narratively significant actions of the putative hero and villain.

2. McLaglen does an AGM inside a cage
[Editors’ note: AGM is an acronym for Attention Getting Mechanism.]

McLaglen gets all the neat schtick

3. McLaglen gets all the good visual stuff too

In these parts of the film the materials for Ford’s vision are certain romantic and politically tinged aspects of Irish life. Hogan, an outlawed political exile, is featured from the very start of the film when he abruptly takes leave from the Foreign Legion to undertake a personal mission which turns out to be revenge for the villainous John D’Arcy’s (Earle Foxe), treatment of his sister. Otherwise, however, Hogan plays only a supplementary role in the main story until the end when he helps out Dermot McDermot, ostensibly the male protagonist (Larry Kent), who also has reasons to want D’Arcy out of the way. But crucially, the politics of class and rebellion are hardly evoked after the hanging judge’s death, except by these scenes of Hogan and the “Irish environment”. All of these scenes, including the montages that Judge O’Brien sees whenever he stares into the fire, tend to be visually striking and disconnected from those scenes in which the main story is actually exposited.

1. Irish atmosphere: the races

2. Irish atmosphere: rebels

3. Murnau influence: decorative, not symbolic

There is a contrast, then, between the parts of the film devoted to essential narrative exposition, which are dull, and those devoted to tellingly visualised incident and picturesque description, which are not. Among the latter is one mentioned in Time’s review of the novel: a horse race – a mostly exterior sequence notable for extensive use of footage showing stuff that “really happened” (horses racing and falling) rather than the exposition of dialogue. The success of such scenes, and the failure of their opposite numbers, may have something to do with the directions in which Ford’s interests lay at this period in his career. As we shall see, there is a significant parallel between these interests and the interests of Fox Studios, which was at the time heavily involved in perfecting a sound-on-film system intended primarily for newsreels – that is, for outdoor, more or less unscripted, recording. This quasi-“documentary” conjunction of interests goes some way toward explaining what is happening in Ford’s early sound films and provides a key to appreciating their virtues, indeed why some of them may have been made at all.

To be fair, a lot of care was clearly taken with the first 10-15 minutes of Hangman’s House, and things do not seem completely hopeless until 26 minutes in, when the first part of the story has been told, the judge is dead and his daughter, Conn (June Collyer), married to D’Arcy (the end of Scene 6 on the DVD). But, that being said, excruciating performances by all the main members of the cast, except McLaglen, have already cast an air of foreboding on what is to come. As I have said, creaky melodrama is a staple of Ford’s work at this time, and it is not unexpected that he would have encouraged conventional, stereotyped characterisations. Still, it would be nice to believe that he was defeated by these actors rather than that he encouraged them.

Hobart Bosworth comes off best. He was a veteran melodramatist after all, and it has to be admitted that he does “haunted” very well. But the character of Hanging Jimmy O’Brien also must appear strong-willed, which Bosworth is incapable of projecting.

Bad Acting 1: Haunted, but not strong

The lovers, played by Larry Kent and June Collyer, are both given to posturing. He rarely looks less than spineless (he hunches a lot) and she tends to act by bending one knee or touching her face.

Bad Acting 2: June on the right, Larry on the left

And then there is Earle Foxe, who simply crumples up the role of John D’Arcy and lets it fall on the floor.

Bad Acting 3: Looking ridiculous looking ridiculous

And now that I have had my fun, here is an excuse in the guise of an explanation for all this bad acting. All four characters make the same common impression: weakness to the point of degeneracy, which is what you would expect of a conventionally caricatured upper class (the dog is definitely the strongest character in his scenes). None of the humans are strong enough to do much good for Ireland because none of them come from the common folk, the people. They are, in fact, vapid emanations of the rich over-decorated backgrounds in which they live and do much of their interacting (all of which contrasts with McLaglen’s “Citizen Hogan”). The story has to run its course – that is, the two villains must die and the lovers must be united – but Ford does not have to signal his approval of the class-bias displayed in the original material (and indeed in the variety of nationalist politics it espouses). So he does not.

There is some support for this in the way Hogan (and the dog) are used as counterpoint throughout, particularly in conjunction with Dermot, and finally in the film’s discomfiting coda, which raises more questions than it answers.

Coda 1: The couple that ought to be?

Coda 2: Honi soit qui mal y pense. This is a John Ford film.[14]

Coda 3: The last shot of the film: why isn’t this man smiling?

[In my research for the sources of this failed film I came upon a number of suggestive passages which someone other than myself might have wished to weave together into a well-crafted argument for the specific “Irish-American-ness” of Ford’s approach to the cinema. These passages can be found in an addendum to this review: “Ford’s Irish-American identity”].

Appendix: Ford’s Irish-American Identity

BECAUSE of its fragile positioning within an oral tradition, the Irish poet has always been communal, and the shadow of the Bard lies across Irish poetry. The American poet, partially freed from the communal obligations of a shared oral tradition, has felt more entitled to be experimental. In fact, far from being communal, the American poet can be deeply alone within his or her community, distrustful of the very history which binds the Irish poet to the past and the people.
Evan Boland, “A Visionary Element”, Renascence, Fall 1997

Daniel Corkery

The Hidden Ireland

The Hidden Ireland (1924) is a study of the eighteenth-century literary remnants of an Irish-language literary culture stretching back almost two thousand years. In it Corkery attempts to reconstruct the Gaelic worldview which, he argues, was preserved in reduced circumstances by the poets amongst the impoverished, oppressed Catholic peasantry of the Penal Law era. This mentality is “hidden” in the sense that it was virtually invisible in the Anglo-Irish versions of history that had until then dominated Irish historiography. An instant, influential classic, its version of the past provided powerful cultural underpinning to the traditional nationalist history that became, in the 1930s, the educational orthodoxy of the new state.
– Patrick Walsh, “Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland (1924) and Revisionism”, New Hibernia Review 5.2 (Summer 2001), pp. 27-44.

See also, perhaps, The Threshold of Quiet, 1917 (novel). Corkery also wrote plays and short stories.

Of Ó Rathaille, he [Corkery] writes, “His themes are scanty: one might, indeed, say he had but two; the first, Ireland and it broken…the second, himself, broken too; and sometimes these two themes become one….But in a lyric, the question of theme must ever be of small moment, the method of treatment being so nearly everything.”
– Michael S. Begnal, “The Hidden Ireland; a reading” (Thursday, May 25, 2006 in B’Fhiú an Braon Fola, his blog).

[On the wandering poet Aogán Ó Rathaille, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aogán_Ó_Rathaille]

D.P. Moran

. . . Moran’s model of identity was riddled with irony and ambivalence: He repeatedly argued for a return to Irish (a language which he never mastered) through the medium of English (a language in which he wrote with facility, but which he claimed to despise); he also pressed for the coterminous existence of the Catholic and Gaelic, and excluded Irish Protestants as “resident aliens”, even as he argued that Irish Catholics were an inherently tolerant people, incapable of bigotry. Moreover, Moran declared in support of the Treaty while he simultaneously retained his belief in a united Irish Ireland. He equivocated about the presence of the border, seeing it as both an imperial imposition to be resisted and a cordon sanitaire that provided for policies of cultural and economic protection; he also equivocated about the place of the North (and Belfast in particular), seeing the North and its inhabitants as simultaneously native and foreign.


The glorification of the struggle for freedom had undermined its own legitimacy and had caused Irish people to forget that for which they fought – the traditions, arts, and language that were peculiar to Ireland. For Moran, the concept of the nation was preceded by and dependent upon the existence of a discrete “civilization” or culture; the cause of Irish nationalism, therefore, demanded the recovery of a collective cultural consciousness.
– Paul Delaney, “D.P. Moran and the Leader: writing an Irish Ireland through partition”, Eire-Ireland: Journal of Irish Studies, Fall-Winter 2003.

[Delaney presents Moran as a driven and conflicted polemicist at best, who claimed that what he considered “Irish civilization” was tolerant and inclusive, but argued that this quality allowed it to be intolerant of the dominant and exclusive culture of the conquerors. Moran, unlike Ford, apparently saw true Irish culture as inherently refined and objected to the way most Irish people of his time actually lived – see Hyde below.]

Douglas Hyde

“In 1893 he helped found the Gaelic League. It was set up to encourage the preservation of Irish culture, its music, dances, and language.” (“Douglas Hyde”, Wikipedia)

“Every hill, every lios, every crag and gnarled tree and lonely valley has its own strange and graceful legend attached to it, the product of the Hibernian Celt in his truest and purest type, not to be improved upon by change, and of infinite worth in moulding the race type, of immeasurable value in forming its character.” (Hyde, unreferenced quote)

“It is a most disgraceful shame the way in which Irishmen are brought up. They are ashamed of their language, institutions, and of everything Irish.” (Hyde, unreferenced quote)

We are probably at once the most assimilative and the most sensitive nation in Europe.

I have now mentioned a few of the principal points on which it would be desirable for us to move, with a view to de-Anglicising ourselves; but perhaps the principal point of all I have taken for granted. That is the necessity for encouraging the use of Anglo-Irish literature instead of English books, especially instead of English periodicals. We must set our face sternly against penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, and still more, the garbage of vulgar English weeklies like Bow Bells and the Police Intelligence. Every house should have a copy of Moore and Davis. In a word, we must strive to cultivate everything that is most racial, most smacking of the soil, most Gaelic, most Irish, because in spite of the little admixture of Saxon blood in the north-east corner, this island is and will ever remain Celtic at the core, far more Celtic than most people imagine, because, as I have shown you, the names of our people are no criterion of their race. On racial lines, then, we shall best develop, following the bent of our own natures; and, in order to do this, we must create a strong feeling against West-Britonism, for it – if we give it the least chance, or show it the smallest quarter – will overwhelm us like a flood, and we shall find ourselves toiling painfully behind the English at each step following the same fashions, only six months behind the English ones; reading the same books, only months behind them; taking up the same fads, after they have become stale there, following them in our dress, literature, music, games, and ideas, only a long time after them and a vast way behind. We will become, what, I fear, we are largely at present, a nation of imitators, the Japanese of Western Europe, lost to the power of native initiative and alive only to second-hand assimilation. I do not think I am overrating this danger. We are probably at once the most assimilative and the most sensitive nation in Europe. A lady in Boston said to me that the Irish immigrants had become Americanised on the journey out before ever they landed at Castle Gardens. And when I ventured to regret it, she said, shrewdly, ‘If they did not at once become Americanised they would not be Irish.’ I knew fifteen Irish workmen who were working in a haggard in England give up talking Irish amongst themselves because the English farmer laughed at them. And yet O’Connell used to call us the ‘finest peasantry in Europe’. Unfortunately, he took little care that we should remain so. We must teach ourselves to be less sensitive, we must teach ourselves not to be ashamed of ourselves, because the Gaelic people can never produce its best before the world as long as it remains tied to the apron-strings of another race and another island, waiting for it to move before it will venture to take any step itself.
– Hyde, “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”, delivered before the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, 25 November 1892

Denise Levertov

“[Uncertain Oneiromancy] has the exact qualities which Eliot admired Tennyson for: it is a poem of doubt by a poet of faith.” (Boland, as above).

Uncertain Oneiromancy

I spent the entire night leading a blind man
through an immense museum
so that (by internal bridges or tunnels?
somehow!) he could avoid the streets,
the most dangerous avenues, all the swift
chaotic traffic . . . I persuaded him
to allow my guidance, through to the other
distant doors, though once inside, labyrinthine corridors,
steps, jutting chests and chairs and stone arches
bewildered him as I named them at each swerve,
and were hard for me to maneuver him
around and between. As he could perceive nothing,
I too saw only the obstacles, the objects
with sharp corners: not one painting, not one carved
credenza or limestone martyr. We did at last
emerge however, into that part of the city
he had been headed for when I took over;
he raised his hat in farewell and went on, uphill,
tapping his stick. I stood looking after him,
watching as the street enfolded him, wondering
if he would make it, and after I woke, wondering still
what in me he was, and who
the I was who took that long short-cut with him
through room after room of beauty his blindness
hid from me as if it had never been.
Denise Levertov, Sands of the Well, 1996

Paul de Man/Jacqueline Rose

Jacqueline Rose, “The Iron Rule”, London Review of Books 31 July 2008 (21-24)
Paul de Man, “Excuses (Confessions)”: “shows how Rousseau struggles in exposing the truth of a shameful incident in his past, as the process of confession constantly threatens to bury the offense once more under a fabric of words … how can language fail at something it doesn’t in any case do? But it is central to any understanding of deconstruction that language is caught in this dilemma, which then becomes the dilemma of all of us whenever we use words. Fiction is the place where this dilemma is at once suspended but also given its fullest range and scope … Literature is fiction ‘not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge “reality”, but because it is not // a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world.’” [de Man, “The Resistance to Theory”] (Rose 22-23). Note that de Man’s assessment of the dilemma does not postulate a complete disjunction between language and the phenomenal world, only a question of recognising a possible difference of rules – that is, a critical stance or a guide for the blind.

Rose and de Man were (are?) part of a deconstructive push linked to Freud through Althusser and Lacan. There is a whiff of “the talking cure” in what I have quoted – inasmuch as the dilemma posed by the disjunction between the phenomenal world and language remains insoluble in the terms language proproses to the subject for itself, and requires a ladder to literature, where language may be approached in something like isolation.

In order to make this relevant to Ford’s work, one must grant that film making is a kind of writing which is, or can be, equivalent to what de Man and Rose are calling “literature”, producing fictions in which it is not a priori certain that what is going on “functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world”. In this context I am struck by the way in which Ford’s films seem almost obsessively to proclaim their fictionality (even documentaries like The Battle of Midway do not pretend to function according to real world principles). In my terms, his films are always conscious that they are writing.

One implication of an orthodox Althusserian position is, I think, that the dilemma of language and the phenomenal world is (not) resolved in (false) ideology, more or less because ideology does not recognise itself as fiction in the way that literature does. Ford’s work has already been analysed as the helpless enunciation of ideology. This is the thinking that guided the famous 1970 Cahiers du cinéma analysis of Young Mr Linc that, in its turn, set off fifteen years in which Ford films acted as exemplars of ideologically-driven production (and little else).

But although ethnic identity is another fiction, I am not sure that it is, strictly speaking, ideology – or at least I think that ethnic identity does recognise itself as fiction, as performance separate from self. It certainly seems to me that during the first part of the 20th century people who identified themselves as “Irish-American” and who were aware of the debates around Irish identity (not to mention those about being American) would have been particularly sensitive to the fictionalising, myth-making and self-invention in which they were necessarily engaged. Hyde, Moran, Corkery and Byrne are only a few of those whose positions almost hysterically displayed doubt and conflict about the culture, the people and the cause they wanted to espouse as “Irish”. Boland’s two varieties of poet and Hyde’s woman from Boston who views identity as camouflage suggest that an “American” suffix provides no easy way out of the dilemma of “Irishness”, but rather complicates and prolongs it.

Daniel Corkery seems to have had a fairly direct influence on Donn Byrne’s thinking – and I was struck by how his notion of a “hidden Ireland” seemed to provide a sort of ground for my sense of Ford as a self-conscious visionary or voyant. Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that one of the ongoing concerns of the epigraphy which so excited the older Ford has been discovering signs of an early, global, Celtic civilisation. The “themes” that Begnal quotes Corkery attributing to Ò Rathaille will be familiar to anyone who, like me, has a nodding acquaintance with early 20th century Irish culture, and would surely have been known to Ford, as would the various conflicted debates about the importance of Gaelic to true Irishness. Perhaps the issue that would have had the most direct, and negative, impact on Ford would have been that of popular culture. The Irishness Ford’s vision foregrounds is the Irishness of drinking and fighting and singing – precisely the yobbo behaviour that Moran and Hyde considered uncivilised. Moreover, Ford was working in what was then considered an irredeemably crass and commercial medium, one that could not produce true beauty, poetry or spiritual uplift because of its appeal to the masses (rather like the folk poetry declaimed by a wandering bard).

One way of understanding why Ford behaved in the way that he did and made the kinds of films that he did would be to postulate that, for these reasons and others, he found himself at once “inside” and “outside” his Irish-American identity – for it and against it – in much the same way that his films place us “inside” and “outside”, for and against, their envisioned communities, and in parallel with the very protagonists of those films.

There may be a certain degree of helplessness in Ford’s situation. After all, he seemed compelled to make films, compelled to drink, compelled to repudiate friendships, and so on. Perhaps also the hyperbolic conventions he relied on in his films may have been in some measure compulsive, the highly visible marks of their fictionality denying any claim to kinship with the phenomenal world, even that part of it affected by his riven identity. But by the same token, the films’ insistence on their own fiction makes the conflicts within them self-conscious battles of ideas rather than the polemics about things-as-they-are which critics often discern in Ford’s work. That is, the histories which they relate and the communities which they display are not science but speculation, exposited not by investigating but by thinking.

Suppose then that Ford returns a in and again to film making in order to try resolving what is broken within himself. And suppose that even when a resolution is achieved in cinema (that is, when the film works) he finds, as always, that language does not mend what is actually rent, he cannot find what in him the blind poet was nor who the he was who took the long short cut with him. Is it any wonder that he dreams such compelling visions of organic and broken communities where people live in warm dry caves while cats go to and fro, walking by themselves, waving their wet wild tails on their wet, wild lone?

I think that:

1) recognising the dilemma of language and experience leads to “repetition compulsion”, and this is clearly shown in the work of many writers, artists and musicians (what this means is NOT just that words don’t capture experience so artists have to keep on trying, but that artists are compelled to repeat, as James Brown did, because by taking risks, courting pain, entering delirium, doing evil, dying, in short, writing, they live for a time in a guiltless state or, perhaps, in a state where guilt does not matter so much;
2) identity inevitably evokes guilt. That is, that there is no “good” ethnic or national or gender or generational identity. Each has its own terrible secrets, each has its unforgivable sins. I am white, straight male, WASP, American, Australian (and over 65) – and in none of these masks am I good. (Of course in none of my criminal masks am I good either). I cannot find a level for my bad self that will wash away its sins, applying the ladderjack of literature or Gregory Bateson’s way of resolving paradoxes (going to the next level above);
3) a crossed identity, like Ford’s Irish-American identity (or, indeed, any of the fraught *-American identities that Hyde’s Bostonian informant (almost) told him were actually just “American” identities) is constructed out of contradiction and conflict – but then, so is the Irish identity proposed by Hyde and those who followed. I used to believe, so fervently and so strongly, that a mixed, mongrel identity might transcend internal conflict by multiplying selves (resolving the paradox again), but of course all it does is diversify possibilities at all levels;
4) these guilt-ridden identities are not a peculiar product of capitalism, but of a mode of critical intellectual inquiry that is particularly important for the survival of the human species, although it mostly seems anything but;
5) most people are not, even unconsciously, affected by this kind of guilt, and are not, even unconsciously, involved in the dilemma of language and experience. Most people opt for one or another of the two poles of the dilemma depending upon immediate circumstance, and most people are happier than John Ford or me (not to mention Aristotle). That is, most people are not broken; and
6) most people do not waste words trying to write (or read) what cannot be written.

– William D. Routt, Melbourne, August 2008


[1] At least in Tom Milne’s translation (Godard on Godard, New York 1972, p. 117).
[2] As, for example, in the work of Tzvetan Todorov (Qu’est-ce que le structuralisme? 2. Poétique, Paris 1968) and Gérard Genette (Figures III, Paris 1972).
[3] The translations which follow are my own.
[4] Tag Gallagher lists this Fox film as “lost”, which is probably why no one besides Mitry mentions it except as an example of one of Ford’s early “melodramas” or in a filmography. Gallagher’s 2007 revision of his John Ford: The Man and his Movies is available online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/1556055/John-Ford-The-Man-and-his-Movies and I refer to it repeatedly during this review.
[5]I have been interested in “narration perpetually open on what it will become” for some time, and have even used Ford as a prototypical example of it in a piece about architecture and place-making in film (“Demolishing a Wall”, Senses of Cinema 14, June 2001). (See also “‘Keep Young and Beautiful’: Surplus and Subversion in ROMAN SCANDALS”, Journal of Film and Video v42 n1 [Spring 1990], pp. 17-35, co-author Richard J. Thompson).
[6] As of this writing a DVD of Bucking Broadway can still be obtained as an extra in back issues of the French journal Cinéma 08 (Autumn 2004) and can be watched online at the Europa Film Treasures site:http://www.europafilmtreasures.eu/fiche_technique.htm?ID=246
[7] Perhaps this is the point to mention that most unreferenced flat statements about Ford’s films or his career, like this one, are derived from Gallagher’s online version of John Ford: The Man and his Movies (see note 4 for a full reference).
[8] There is some resemblance between the name of this film’s heroine and the maiden name of the woman Ford married on 3 July 1920, Mary McBride Smith. The film was released on 21 October 1920 and may well have been in production just before, just after, or during July.
[9] Existing cast lists for Just Pals can lead to confusion about the actor who plays this role. He is clearly identified as “Johnny Cookie” in the film’s second intertitle, but there seems to be no actor who corresponds directly with that name. Perhaps the actor identified by the Internet Movie Database as “John Cook (1)” is meant: apparently he was often billed as “Johnnie Cooke”, and The American Film Institute Catalog for 1911-1920 credits “John J. Cooke” as “constable” (Film Entries: 483). It also claims that “John J. Cook” is the same as “Johnnie Cooke”, but not as “John B. Cooke” (Indexes: 58), yet the IMDB lists “John B. Cooke” as “constable”, while Gallagher lists “John B. Cooke” as (an) “elder”. What makes these cast lists really confusing, however, is that all of them credit Duke R. Lee as the “sheriff” and bill him fourth, which suggests a big role. The town constable is shown throughout the film sporting a big star on his vest, just like a sheriff, and is only identified as the constable once – in an intertitle late in the film, while the sheriff only plays a minor part late in the piece. I think the upshot of all this mouseturd scholarship is that someone probably named Cook(e) played the constable and Duke R. Lee played the sheriff. Here is a still with the sheriff I am talking about:

He doesn’t believe Bim is innocent

[10] So far as I can find out, there seem to be two extant scores for this film, one of which was composed for the film’s initial release. It is not clear to me why neither of them was used. See:http://www.foxclassics.com/ironhorse-review.php
[11] The stage adaptation, by Willard Mack, was reviewed unfavourably in “New Plays” (Time, 27 December, 1926), which notice can be found at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,729803,00.html
[12]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Oswald_Donn-Byrne (dated March 2008).
[13] The full review can be found at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,769373,00.html
[14] Hangman’s House was Victor McLaglen’s first release after Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port. I don’t know about you, but I can hear Ford chuckling.

Created on: Tuesday, 23 September 2008

About the Author

Bill Routt

About the Author

Bill Routt

After more than 35 years teaching film, media and cultural studies, William D. Routt retired from academia in 1998. Since then he has published work on Australian film (including The Picture That Will Live Forever with Ina Bertrand), early cinema (including “Innuendo 1.5” in LOLA) and anime (including “De Anime” in The Illusion of Life 2).View all posts by Bill Routt →