Home Video Reviews
No doubt, that is an inscrutable description of one of American cinema's great filmmakers, if not its greatest. Whether or not that is a flattering portrait of Ford, or perhaps one with a zinging ring of criticism, Ford would probably dismiss the assessment with something profanely unprintable. But ambivalence about the director's true character brings up a strange question about John Ford's reputation today. Over the years since his death in 1973, and really, even before his death, when the counter-culture revolution turned on the spokesmen for their parents and grandparents, John Ford has been regarded as something of a 'given' in some critical circles, which is less than glowing praise. The subtext of that assessment is that Ford, while certainly important historically, doesn't really matter, and may even be overrated. In his indispensable book, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson wrote, "The glorification of Ford's simplicity as an artist should not conceal the fact that his message is trite, callous, and evasive."
Ford often eludes contemporary appreciation for a number of reasons. For one thing, his oeuvre is so immense (over 100 films during his 50+ year career), it can not be justifiably qualified or quantified; most of his early films are lost. Ford also had an unmistakable, but invisible style that was not showy or arty. Critic and filmmaker Richard Franklin wrote, "Ford's style was one of measured simplicity. His pace is slow, his shots simple and unpretentious." Even during his expressionistic phase in the late '20s and early '30s when he made films such as Four Sons (1928) and The Informer (1935), Ford's camera was largely reserved. He wasn't an artist that used his films to say, "Look at me! I'm an artist." What he did instead was tell great stories. And often those stories were marked by what some would call "sentimentality," a dramatic device that does not translate well to modern audiences, nor do films about the mythology of the American experience, a constant theme of Ford's films. In those kinds of films chronicling American history, audiences today demand the "Warts & All" treatment, without a hint of affection for the patriarchal point of view that says, "It's a Man's world, and he will abide in it with honor, love his mother, and cry when he's drunk."
Ford was, in his words, "a picture man." He didn't do comedy like Howard Hawks or George Stevens, nor was he known as particularly strong in a variety of genres like Hawks. His critical contributions to film were largely within the Western genre, or at least that's how he is best remembered by casual fans of cinema (never mind the fact that of his six Academy Awards, none were for a Western). But Ford was much more than a director of Westerns, much more than a picture man. He was, as Orson Welles called him, the greatest poet cinema has given us.
All of this is to say, that since we have many of Ford's later pictures, particularly the ones he made with his on-screen muse, John Wayne, already available on wonderful DVD editions, it is a boon to film fans everywhere that 20th Century-Fox Entertainment has produced a mammoth box set called Ford at Fox, a gift of more than 24 films John Ford directed at Fox. Of all the studios Ford worked at during his career--Universal, RKO, MGM and others-it was at Fox that he enjoyed the longest run of creative freedom and relative personal amity with a studio's management, in this case being Darryl F. Zanuck. Fox Entertainment has spared no expense in making Ford at Fox one of the best DVD sets ever produced, more than worth its fairly hefty retail price. Most of the films look better here than they ever have. Judge Priest (1934), for example, has looked and sounded murky and sad in existing prints for some time. Finally, Fox has cleaned this film up and restored it along with the others to their exacting standards. The transfers will not disappoint, giving a pristine window into Ford's unwavering eye (as well as a brilliant new appreciation for Ford's frequent cinematographer during his Fox years, George Schneiderman).
The set spans films from 1920 to 1952, and includes not just fiction films, but also documentary films that Ford made while serving with the U.S. Navy during World War II. There are five silent films, including The Iron Horse (1924), the epic film that put Ford on the map as being one of the best directors in Hollywood, as well as Hangman's House (1928), an expressionism-influenced film that includes an appearance from a former football player and bit actor named John Wayne (The Duke is an over-enthusiastic spectator who smashes a picket fence at a steeplechase). Up the River is a crime comedy that also happens to mark the film debut of Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart's second credit. All three pictures Ford made for Will Rogers are here, as well as one he made with Shirley Temple called Wee Willie Winkie (1937). And from 1939 to the beginning of his service in World War II in 1942, some of Ford's greatest films are included: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941), the latter two for which he won consecutive Best Director Academy Awards. Rounding out the decades are Ford's first postwar Western, My Darling Clementine (1946), When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950), a Preston Sturges-type comedy, and What Price Glory (1952), the first pairing of Ford with the fellow Irish-blooded James Cagney.
There are far too many films to discuss at length here, but given that so many of Ford's films are firmly within the pantheon of great movies--Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, My Darling Clementine, and the like-there are several other key films worthy of special mention here. Just Pals (1920) is the only film included in this DVD set in which Ford was billed as "Jack Ford," and it was the first film he directed at Fox. It is the small-town story of a ne'er-do-well played by Buck Jones who befriends a young orphan scamp, and the two overcome class prejudices and their own humble circumstances to save a lady's reputation and the fiscal health of the town's civic coffers. Jones is a sort of cross between a cowboy ruffian-the type played by Harry Carey, Ford's frequent Western star at Universal-and the homespun, ropin' fool, as exemplified later by Will Rogers. In this film, Ford shows near negligence towards a sensible plot. Improbable turns abound, but Ford couldn't have cared.
It was a concentration on story and character that mattered most to him, even in this early film. Filmmaker and Ford champion Lindsay Anderson said of Just Pals, "For all the artifice of its plotting, the way people behave is real; feelings are experienced, not just represented, and in this way the stereotypes are brought to life."
In 1927, the great German director F.W. Murnau came to Fox to make Sunrise, an extraordinary film that was an immediate influence across all of Hollywood, making waves not quite as large as The Jazz Singer (1927), but still created something of an artistic mini-revolution. One who took immediate interest in Murnau and his expressionistic filmmaking style was John Ford. It was on Four Sons that Ford applied this heady new artistic impulse learned from Murnau. You can see many of Murnau's influences in the film. The film opens with a nimble, moving camera, following a postman as he walks through a happy Bavarian township. This was a technique Murnau used on Sunrise and The Last Laugh (1924). Ford even re-used sets from Sunrise during a harrowing World War I sequence in Four Sons. Aside from Murnau and his stylistic influence on Ford, Four Sons is noteworthy for a truly wonderful performance from Margaret Mann, as the mother to the four siblings. It is a vastly understated performance, devoid of common silent film overacting for the camera. Ford evidently trusted her to deliver a sensitive and tragic performance. Indeed, his other silent film performers usually lack histrionics that were typical of so many other silent era films.
There simply isn't anyone like Will Rogers around anymore. That's not to say we couldn't use one. With his penchant to send up the rich, the famous, and the important, Rogers was a voice for the people undone by hard times. Rogers was a former vaudeville star who hailed from Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1879. He earned his reputation as a trick lasso performer and cowboy in a wild west traveling show. He eventually got into the movies, radio, and newspaper columns where he found his voice as a genuine man of the people, who spoke the same simple truth to the man on the street as he did to the Man in Power. He was absolutely beloved by millions. Before he died in a 1935 plane crash with famed pilot Wiley Post in Alaska, Rogers made three delightful pictures with Ford, all included in the Ford at Fox set. Doctor Bull, Judge Priest, and Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935) are simple, understated and gentle comedies that celebrate our differences and ridicule our prejudices. The latter film, previously available on DVD, features an excellent and illuminating commentary by Ford scholar and biographer Scott Eyman.
There is a wealth of supplemental features befitting such an expansive and expensive DVD set. Admittedly, the outstanding audio commentaries and documentaries from previous editions of Steamboat 'Round the Bend, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and My Darling Clementine are carried over to the Ford at Fox set. (It should be noted here that the exclusive extras on the Criterion Collection's edition of Young Mr. Lincoln are not included on the Ford at Fox set.) But there is a wealth of new extra material included on several titles. Drums Along the Mohawk includes a lively commentary by Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, both of whom made the new feature-length documentary Becoming John Ford, which is included in the Ford at Fox set. Redman and Kirgo delve into American Revolutionary history and the production story behind the making of Mohawk. Making its Region 1 debut is The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), the thrilling story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician falsely accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth in aiding and abetting in his flight from justice. (It's from the doctor's story that we get the pejorative phrase, "His name is Mudd.") Historian Anthony Slide provides an illuminating commentary for this underappreciated gem.
As previously mentioned, the set also includes the new documentary Becoming John Ford, a work rich in personal impressions of Ford's work from a diverse cast of interview subjects: screenwriter Lem Dobbs, Ford scholar Joseph McBride, historian Rudy Behlmer, actor Peter Fonda and filmmaker and conservationist Jean-Christophe Jeauffre. Director Nick Redman has experience covering Ford, having already made the documentary A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers (1998). For this film, Redman uses an interesting device of having directors Walter Hill and Ron Shelton "play" John Ford and Darryl F. Zanuck, respectively, in dramatic readings of quotes and correspondence. This choice works to humanize the two giants, bringing them back from myth into the realm of here and now. The documentary also includes several clips from early silent Ford films, some of which may show up on Ford at Fox, Vol. 2, if we're lucky. On the same disc as Becoming John Ford are documentaries Ford made during World War II, including The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943), both of which earned Academy Awards for Best Documentary. The Battle of Midway is filmed with splendid 16mm color photography, featuring voice over narration by Jane Darwell (who played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath), Henry Fonda and Ford himself. Ford was actually at Midway during the historic battle, his cameras furiously capturing as much as possible.
Rounding out this mammoth set of Ford films and documentaries is a companion photo book that is covered with rare stills and behind-the-scenes photographs from Ford's Fox films, as well as an introductory essay by Joseph McBride, author of the biography, Searching for John Ford. The Ford at Fox companion book is a rich, detailed and loving look at how relaxed Ford's sets seemed to be, how they were more like a family than a film crew. One astonishing photo to look for: Ford horseracing Henry Fonda on the set of Young Mr. Lincoln with Fonda in full costume as young Abe.
As Howard Hawks observed, "Ford could control the movement of the sky in Monument Valley. The rest of us have to use sound stages." Of his artistry and his impact on American history and culture, Hawks' praise for his friend and colleague only scratches the surface as to why Ford remains America's greatest filmmaker. Ford at Fox will bring you a good deal closer to understanding and appreciating this master filmmaker.
For more information about The Ford at Fox Collection or to purchase it, visit Fox Home Entertainment.
by Scott McGee