Thursday, June 21, 2018

The History of John Ford: How the West Was Won: The Civil War

When Orson Welles was asked what movies he studied before embarking on directing Citizen Kane he replied, "I studied the Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." 

Running parallel with our series about Akira Kurosawa ("Walking Kurosawa's Road"), we're running a series of pieces about the closest thing America has to Kurosawa in artistry—director John Ford. Ford rarely made films set in the present day, but (usually) made them about the past...and about America's past, specifically (when he wasn't fulfilling a passion for his Irish roots). 

In "The History of John Ford" we'll be gazing fondly at the work of this American Master, who started in the Silent Era, learning his craft, refining his director's eye, and continuing to work deep into the 1960's (and his 70's) to produce the greatest body of work of any American "picture-maker," America's storied film-maker, the irascible, painterly, domineering, sentimental puzzle that was John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.


How the West was Won (George Marshall, Henry Hathaway, John Ford, 1962) How the West was Won was the top-grossing film at the box-office of 1962; based on a series of Life Magazine articles it was a multi-generational story of the expansion West covering the years between 1839 and 1889. It was the last Cinerama film shot in its original, costly three-camera process. 

The film had three directors: George Marshall (who directed "The Railroad"), Henry Hathaway who directed "The River," "The Plains," and "The Outlaws") and John Ford, who, at the age of 68, directed one section, "The Civil War," which encompassed the story of young Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard), who, after years of tending to the Rawlings farm, follows his father Linus (James Stewart) who has joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. The section reaches its dramatic high-point at the bloody battle of Shiloh, a battle that kills Linus, a fact unbeknownst to his son, who in the same area, manages to prevent the assassination of General Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) by a Confederate soldier (Russ Tamblyn). 
Despite his age, Ford's section is the one that manages to utilize the wide format the best, hiding the "joins" of the three camera shots in posts, trees, and general architecture of the compositions, where the three projected images would meet—and frequently reveal the flaws in the process. Also, his images have the most interesting look when projected on the intended curved screen for the format, creating a deep three-dimensional sense of field while "tilting" the intended image to give it its most panoramic flatness. Subsequent "straightening" of the image (as in the contained screen-shots) give the image a bowed quality with the images closest to the edge of the frame a faraway sense that is not there in the image projected on a curved screen.
Pretty impressive for an old guy. But just as Howard Hawks had managed to make an impressive use of Cinemascope in Land of the Pharoahs, the veteran director's research into the format provided the best example of how to utilize the unique photographic aspect ratio (2.65:1) to the best extent...and width...of the directors (including sections by the uncredited Richard Thorpe) creating the film.
Despite the results, Ford hated the process. For one, he couldn't watch the filming as he was used to—sitting beside the camera (no doubt chewing on his handkerchief) while it was rolling. "Takes" were sometimes ruined by Ford inadvertently entering the frame, so it was arranged for Ford to sit above the camera and behind it, so that he could see exactly what was going on.
The other thing he hated about it was that the image included so much space that the crew had to be limited to where they could stand and (most annoyingly) that a set had to be completely "dressed" and prepped, lest some discrepancy be caught by one of the three cameras taking in the scene. There was more of a chance for a mistake to happen with so much image being recorded at the same time.
But, the images are impressive. Ford always had a painter's eye for composition and despite having to shift to a mural-canvas (let alone a curved mural canvas), he still manages to keep the focus on the mid-range of the shot and using the rest of the frame to express the isolation of the farm by including its far horizon in the frame, as well.
At this point, in looking at these images, displayed flat in 2 dimensions, it's a good idea to imagine them with the edges curving towards you to create the seemingly three-dimensional image that Ford is trying to communicate using the Cinerama format. In that presentation, the figure on the left of Carroll Baker (center-screen) would actually be closer than what the flat image indicates, while Peppard's figure to her right is farther away—just as he's contemplating leaving the farm and going to war.
When Baker's mother character learns of his plans, she retreats to the house, in shadow, leaving the young Zeb standing in the stark sunlight in the center of the frame torn between his responsibilities at home—represented on the right—and his plans to go to war—represented by the image of wilderness on the left, the same stand of trees through which Corporal Peterson (Andy Devine)—"There ain't much glory trompin' behind a plow"—drove his wagon to arrive at the Rawlings farm.
The Rawlings graveyard, to which Baker's character retreats to mourn her son's leaving—when he returns, her grave will be there, as well. But, for now, she can only weep outside its crude timber fence.
The shot below is one that haunted me when I saw it at the age of seven. the field hospital at the Shiloh battlefield, where the wounded are treated—the doctor systematically cleans the operating table in the most efficient way he can given the circumstances—he takes a bucket of water to splash the blood off the table, as the wounded are brought in so regularly, there's no time to do anything more. That image haunted me and haunts me still. It's Ford's refutation of the glory of war.

It is underpinned by the next soldier brought in—it is Linus Rawlings, Zeb's father, already dead and not even worth a cursory glance by the sawbones on duty. The character we've already seen in the first part of the movie is unceremoniously pulled off the table, not worth the time or the trouble.
Below is the wide shot of Peppard and Tamblyn, by a stream that runs red with the blood of the fallen from the battle that has tainted it, not offering comfort but horror. Ford's perspective slightly straightens out the gulley on the curved screen. The two are about to have a rendezvous with destiny.
Moving closer to the camp, they see William Tecumseh Sherman (John Wayne) and Ulysses S. Grant (Morgan), exhausted from the bloody battle they have overseen for the Union side. Grant is having his doubts and Sherman will not hold with it, upbraiding Grant for a weakness of will and for listening to his naysayers.
It's a studio shot, something Ford has used before in his films, especially for night-scenes, but much expanded in scope from previous examples. Wayne's role is basically a cameo, but the larger physical presence of Wayne dwarfs Morgan's Grant in comparison, as he is physically (and emotionally) diminished by the perspective.
A staple of Ford westerns is a literal fording of a body of water by man and animals. Ford's short "Civil War" segment includes one.
Ford bookends the battle of Shiloh with a wide-wide shot of cannon extending across the screen, firing in a line from left to right. It's impressive enough to repeat.
Ford's segment is a small part of the almost three hour roadshow attraction, but it still manages to stand out from the rest for its hard-edged view of war, and its concentration on family—the entire film does, after all, center on one family's story with the challenge of the West as a back-drop. But, Ford's film is intimate, concentrated, less centered on spectacle or "the money shot" and merely using the bizarre Cinerama format in its most effective story-telling capacity.

Did I mention he was 68 at the time?

He had started his career in the age of silent pictures.





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