Unexpected grandeur

John Ford's trademark set him apart from all other directors.

JOHN FORD IS my favorite director, and for all intents and purposes has been since the night in 1956 or '57 when I grudgingly settled in front of the TV to watch something called Drums Along the Mohawk.

John Ford Marathon

American Movie Classics channel

from 6am August 6 for 72 hours

The movie started with a wedding. Colbert, looking rosy-cheeked even in non-Technicolor (local stations were still telecasting everything in black and white), tossed her bouquet and climbed up on a rickety farm wagon to accompany her new husband away from her genteel home and into the wilderness. Cut to the couple on the wagon seat moments later—awkward, shy, terrified, yet trying politely to reassure each other that everything was going to be all right—then to a long shot of the wagon traversing a field. Goose bumps rose on my arms as wind and cloud shadow rippled in unison over the long grass. How many times had I walked in the fields and observed the same thing, and wondered why somebody hadn't ever put that on screen? Somebody had, in 1939—and I was hooked for the rest of his glorious film—but I wouldn't know who for a couple more years to come.

In those days, movies on TV were just filler. Nobody cared who had written, photographed, or directed them, so the local channel, saving airtime, just cut from the main title, or maybe the names of the supporting cast, and plunged directly into the action. Nor were there books for looking up directors' filmographies; filmography probably wasn't even a word yet. So I didn't know that Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) was directed by John Ford. Nor did I know that he had also made The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), another historical film—"about the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth's leg"—that looked like a ho-hum prospect until the moment Booth fled the stage after shooting Abraham Lincoln, an empty night street echoed with the clatter of hoofbeats on cobblestones, and suddenly the screen was filled with the silent profile of Lincoln, chin on chest. Someone lowered a lace curtain between him and the camera, like a veil, the focus shifted to the fabric, and Lincoln, resolved into a screened pattern of dots like a photograph, died into history before my eyes.

Around this time, my friend Scott Riley showed me his Information Please Almanac and pointed out the listings for the Academy Awards. It seemed that this fellow John Ford had been voted Best Director four times, more often than anyone else. I hadn't seen The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), or The Quiet Man (1952), but I resolved to. And eventually I discovered that Ford had also made many movies that had impressed me; movies that, whether or not I embraced them totally, contained moments, movements, and moods like no others, passages of unexpected grandeur and emotion that caused my chest to fill—a reaction that, more often than not, could not be accounted for with reference to script and dialogue. People in Ford films stood, gestured, hesitated, lingered on the threshold of something terrible and uplifting in ways that people in no other films did. Light and shadow were both natural and magisterial. He was incapable of a shot that wasn't framed to perfection, that didn't contain and define the world with numinous beauty and at the same time slant the eye into an unfathomable gulf of time, memory, and loss.

DID HE KNOW he was doing it? Of course—though he probably meant it when he told Peter Bogdanovich in 1971, "I never thought about what I was doing in terms of art, or 'this is great or world shaking,' or anything like that. To me, it was always a job of work—which I enjoyed immensely— and that's it." One of the miracles of Ford's career was that often his most world-shaking works were in job-of-work projects for studios, not in the occasional reaches for master status like the self-consciously symbol-ridden The Informer and The Fugitive (1947); he was often most personal when the assignment appeared most perfunctory.

There is no reason to believe but every reason to cherish the anecdote that, when told by a studio functionary that he was x number of pages behind in production, Ford tore that number of pages out of his script and said, "Go back and tell the front office we're on schedule again." And—so the story goes—he never did shoot those pages. What is not in dispute is that Ford was legendary in Hollywood for shooting only what he intended to appear on screen; any producer trying to change his movie in the cutting room found there was no other footage, no coverage, to substitute.

And yet his footage often had something extra at the same time that it was utterly straightforward. There is a moment in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)—the first Ford masterpiece, even more than the classic western Stagecoach (1939) that overshadowed it at the time—when jackleg lawyer Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda) faces down a mob at a jailhouse door. He talks to the crowd, his Illinois neighbors, who have gotten a little carried away at the end of a long, festive Fourth of July, and somehow cajoles them out of their lynch frenzy. Then, nodding at the battering ram they're still holding, he says, "Gettin' a mite heavy, isn't it, boys? Why don'cha put it down for a spell?" Ford cuts to an angle from Abe's point of view, slightly elevated by virtue of his standing on the jailhouse step. That angle is perfectly natural, yet the effect as the men slowly, silently lower the beam to the ground is to crystallize the utter, abject shame of good men who know they have nearly performed an act of evil.

Young Mr. Lincoln isn't part of the three-day, 72-hour Ford marathon that the American Movie Classics channel is running this coming weekend, starting at 6am Friday, August 6. But 24 of his rarest pictures are, including many silents, early talkies, and wartime documentaries. There are also such mainstays as The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley (Ford's only best picture Oscar-winner), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Searchers (1956), and the full CinemaScope version of The Long Gray Line (1955, immeasurably better than in the pan-and-scan format; 5:35pm Sunday). See especially Pilgrimage (1933; 11:45am Sunday), with its devastating leave-taking at a train station; Three Bad Men (1926; 6am Sunday), Ford's best silent and his last western till Stagecoach 13 years later; and Straight Shooting (1917; 6am Friday), Ford's very first film. Amazingly, the opening shot of his debut effort confirms that, at 22 years of age, Jack Ford was already John Ford, with the best eye in movies. As I say, my favorite director—even before I knew who he was.

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