John Ford in "Undercurrent"
Chris Fujiwara has assembled a wonderful, diverse dossier of essays on John Ford in the new issue of Undercurrent. The roster of 18 writers is first-rate--and the range of pieces a real treat.
One of my favorite 'minor' Fords is She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and since it doesn't appear in the Undercurrent special section, I thought I'd say a few words about it.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon--the first thing we notice about it is the searing Technicolor!--is the middle work of the Cavalry trilogy, sandwiched between Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950), both of which are in black-and-white. It is a comedy, a romance, an adventure film, but most of all it strikes me as a Cavalry procedural. An elaborate web of rituals--and their underlying rules--envelops this film. These rituals aren't grand but small-scale, ordinary, everyday.
For Ford, these Cavalry rules and procedures form a grid that serves two purposes: (1) To ground the film, moment by moment, in the minutiae of the work that Cavalrymen do; and (2) To provide a solid support structure within the film through which emerge its humor, romance, and pathos.
Ford uses, repeatedly and with great imagination, that lowliest and least-respected of bureaucratic activities: making a report. In a moving moment, a corporal is rescued after being seriously wounded in a Cheyenne attack. But before being attended to, and half-fainting, he insists on delivering his report. Capt. Brittles (John Wayne) listens attentively, then replies according to proper procedure without acknowledging the man's wounds: "That's a good clear report. It'll join your record. You'll come up with that extra stripe in 2 or 3 years." As written, the words are unemotional but Wayne's expression and delivery undercut their neutral, businesslike quality with sadness. Later, when the corporal is being operated upon by a surgeon, Brittles refuses to bend the rules and stop the troop for even a few minutes ("You know I can't halt even if it were my own son!"), and so the operation takes place on a wobbling, lurching wagon with the inebriated nurse (Mildred Natwick) singing a lusty perversion of the title tune ("She wore a yellow garter/wore it for her lover/in the US Cavalry").
In another report-making instance, a former Confederate brigadier-general, now a trooper for the US Army, spends the final moment before his death praising, with Cavalry formality, the sergeant (Ben Johnson) who aided him. At the close of the film, Brittles is brought out of retirement in a photo-finish--just as he is about disappear into a flaming-red John Ford sunset--and returns to the fort. A celebration dance--that Fordian axiom--is about to begin. But business comes first: Brittles must make a report. We see him exit through a door but puzzlingly, the camera stays in the ballroom, with his commanding officer (to whom he would ostensibly report) in full view. Who on earth could Brittles be making his report to instead? To his long-dead wife, it turns out, as he kneels at her grave.
In his essay on Fort Apache, Dan Sallitt proposes the fascinating idea of the Fordian "container"--a deliberate authorial setting of mood that operates independently of story, often undercutting or deflecting the deep tragedy and sadness of the film. There is nothing in Yellow Ribbon that is close to the shattering ending of Fort Apache but when we peer through the thick net of work and ritual, procedure and process in Yellow Ribbon, we find that at the heart of the film lies defeat: the complete and utter failure of "the last patrol," the mission that forms the film's central section and occupies most of its running time.
Leaving aside what are often considered to be the 'major' Fords--The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, Liberty Valance, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.--I'm curious to learn if you have any favorites among his other, possibly 'minor' works?
The Ford at Fox collection has gathered great praise but its very size (21 DVDs!) has daunted me. I'm wondering: what are (in your opinion) the high points of this set, the films you might recommend first?
Also, any ideas or comments on the Undercurrent essays? Please feel free to share.
Cavalry procedure? A lieutenant (John Agar) embraces his sweetheart (Joanne Dru) and turns around to ask his captain (John Wayne) a silent question. The captain barks: "Well, haul off and kiss her back, blast you, we haven't got all day!"