Monday, August 25, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: John Ford

John Ford vs. Anthony Mann

John Ford may be the most influential and respected director ever. He was universally well-regarded by his peers. He won best director Oscars four times (a record) and has 18 films, more than any other director, on the TSPDT top 1000 films, the largest compilation of critics’ lists from around the world. He also holds the record, at 10, for most films I’ve disliked.

Ford and I were just never meant to be. His specialty, classical westerns, is one of the very, very few genres that I don’t particularly like. His stock company includes some of my least favorite actors of all time, from leading man John Wayne to character actors like Victor McLaglen. I hate (not dislike) his taste in music. I find that his themes of courage, honor and manliness are undermined by his jingoism, hawkishness and chauvinism. I’m bothered by many of his reoccurring motifs, like favorable depictions of alcoholism, advocacy of boxing/brawling to settle differences and his use of extended dancing scenes.

I’m sure a lot people reading that last paragraph are thinking, “Wow. That’s just a list of personal hang-ups.” Yup. Pretty much.

I just don’t get the whole cowboys versus Indians infatuation. I don’t fall in with the cavalry uniform fetishism, the manifest destiny bravado or the gung-ho militarism. I can’t accept Wayne’s iron-jawed stoicism and paternal dictatorship as the American ideal. I can’t stand his condescending attitude towards women, which occasionally crosses over into outright misogyny (see “The Quiet Man”). Ironically, I think Ford did a better job casting women than men (who act about as real as toy soldiers), but he forced them to bear up under restrictive, monotonous roles.

Do I have anything good to say about John Ford? Yeah. I like his gorgeous outdoor photography. One can hardly overestimate the importance of moving the shooting location from the creaky sound stages of most studio westerns – where a fire in the foreground, a cardboard cactus in the midground and a painted backdrop were considered good enough – to the awe-inspiring vistas of Monument valley.

There’s also a few Ford films I can tolerate, namely “The Grapes of Wrath” (because it is so fantastically well-shot) and “Stagecoach” (for its neatness, balance and efficiency). Of what I’ve seen, I consider “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to be his only masterpiece.

My preferred alternative to Ford would have to be Anthony Mann. Mann shares the predilection for westerns and built up his own reputation for location shooting. Though Mann entered the genre decades after Ford, their careers overlapped and cross-influenced. They are both famous for their work with James Stewart, though they gave him markedly different roles.

Anthony Mann’s background in noir, a genre I really savor, certainly helped give his westerns an inflection I could appreciate. His heroes have doubts, flaws, fears, troubled pasts, questionable motives and dangerous obsessions. The old west isn’t [as] idealized, and anyone wishing to survive there has to contend with more than just Indians. There’s vicious bandits, unscrupulous business partners and corrupt lawmen, not to mention the harsh landscape, tight economy and “frontier justice.” Add a host of inner demons like revenge, addiction and lust, and you’ve finally mussed up the western’s buttoned-up, waxed-mustache image.

Though John Ford was a self-proclaimed progressive, his films tend to implicitly embrace a conservative agenda. Mann’s films come off as more concerned with the personal than the political, with a more ambivalent stance towards the government, military and society. This emphasis on the lone character has an existential quality I enjoy.

Mann doesn’t shy away from complicated plots and unusual structures. He often covers multiple winding lines of action with characters forced to fight or unite in unexpected combinations. His “Winchester ’73” is a good example of his structural innovation, following a rifle as the protagonist as it passes through the hands of men who cheat and kill to possess it. However, his dark and unusual spins on the western genre made him less popular than Ford, who was better tuned to the type of “good old-fashion” entertainment and classical Americana mythology that audiences loved.

Mann clearly borrows a lot of his cinematography from Ford, particularly in the triumph of capital-n Nature. Both directors held the opinion that the great outdoors was not to be tamed; rather it should be respected as an indomitable force that spared only the resourceful. They also knew its beauty and majesty, its faithful companionship and its generous gifts of food, shelter, hideouts and gold. To my mind, Mann took things a step further than Ford, adding to his visual toolbox by delving into the shadows and crevasses of the countryside and contrasting deep-focus close-ups of human faces with landscape long-shots that diminished men to decals.

I’ve mentioned before that I consider Anthony Mann the bridge from classical westerns to revisionist ones. He was the forward patrol that explored territory later settled by Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. Ford fits into the lineage as well, and I can acknowledge that he is a necessary step, even a foundational one, in the evolution of an important American genre, yet I doubt I’ll ever be able to bring myself to idolize him as a grandmaster on the level of Welles, Hawks, Huston, et al.

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

Anthony Mann is cool.

I can't think of much to add, but just wanted to second it.

Also! Molly! Where are you on this one?