Thursday, March 19, 2015

The History of John Ford: "The Cavalry Trilogy"

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.

Ford's Monument Valley
photographed by the writer in 1976

Fort Apache (1948)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Rio Grande (1950)

"This is the West, sir. When the Legend becomes Fact, print the Legend"

Chronologically, they're out of order. Two are in black and white. The third in glorious Oscar-winning color. Some characters appear in two of the three films. One man's story forms a character arc across two films, but you don't have to see both to know his story. They're all about honor. They're all about duty. They're all about family. They're all about the U.S. Cavalry during the move West. They're about carving civilization out of a rough-hewn wilderness.
And they're about the devastation of the Native people to achieve it. Ford would tackle the subject of the inherent racism behind that tragedy starting with The Searchers five years after the last of these films, then throughout the rest of his westerns. He touches on it in these films, in the duplicity of the white bureaucrats, military men and profiteers and you can see the crack forming in history as it occurred and History as it was presented in text...and the movies, as obvious as the crags etched into the location of all three films-the magnificent Monument Valley on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
And there is a fourth story not told in these films, but behind the scenes, of a film director bucking the studio system, and in so doing, casting a safety net to a civilization whose extinction was being chronicled, and often celebrated, in that system.

Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948)
At Fort Apache, a finger of civilization has poked through the wild west. For the U.S. Cavalry, the isolated post has become home to some of the families of the men, and so tensions are high—there is unrest among the Apaches, led by Cochise—and security is a priority. Brought in to lead the way is Civil War general Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), an arrogant ideologue and martinet, with his own vision of the West that has nothing to do with reality.

Any similarity to George Armstrong Custer is strongly suggested—this at a time when the legend of Custer was still very much in keeping with his widow's intentions of keeping her husband in the most heroic of lights, aided and abetted by fawning newspapermen, nickel-biographers, covetous land-barons, and even the Anheuser-Busch company.* Indeed, the "legend" of Custer would extend deep into the 1960's, decades after Ford's film.

Thursday takes no prisoners and no guff from his veteran cavalryman, Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), passed over for command of the fort, and who prefers a policy of negotiation. York doesn't blame the natives for the Apaches' anger, but, instead, the double-dealings of corrupt Indian agents. After watching years of uneasy relations shattered by Thursday's inflexibility, York must grit his teeth and watch as it leads to disaster, and then defend his superior officer's reputation for the good of the Corps.
Years later, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the dictum behind York's reactions were spelled out plainly: "When the Legend becomes Fact, Print the Legend." York does what he does for the good of the Cavalry, but by promoting the myth. he is complicit in the further hard-nosed approach exemplified by Thursday and the decimation of the tribes. The film's triumphant huzzahs to the U.S. Cavalry have a tinge of melancholy to them, as York's words are matched by a shot of riding troops in a pane of glass—a reflection.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949) Ford was encouraged by Wayne's performance in director Howard Hawks' Red River** to cast him as retiring Cavalry Officer Col. Nathan Brittles, a by-the-book cavalryman who bends rules until they almost snap. That includes personally negotiating with Cheyenne Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) to head off a bloody up-rising. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is full of Ford's hi-jinx and low humor, with squabbling lovers (Joanne Dru, John Agar and Harry Carey, Jr.), drunken sergeants,*** and the imminent retirement looming. Ford had worked in color before (Drums Along the Mohawk) and his set-pieces are bright contrasts to the red clay of the Monument Valley dirt. There is one unnervingly beautiful sequence of a night-time trek through Monument Valley in the middle of a lightning storm, done over the objections of the Technicolor Consultant, who subsequently won an Oscar for their "work."
Along with Carey, McLaglen and other members of the Ford stock company, a new face appeared—Ben Johnson, who in 1971, would win an Academy Award for The Last Picture Show. He was a horse wrangler and rider in Ford's productions and proved invaluable on the set. So much so that Ford rewarded him with a speaking part as Trooper Tyree, the Unit's invaluable scout, the first of many roles Johnson would play for Ford.
And it contains one of my favorite Ford moments: Wayne 's Brittles confronting the Chief Pony That Walks , played by Seneca Chief John Big Tree. In a quavering, ancient voice and shouting his dialogue, the old man still holds his own against Wayne, who usually blew other actors off the screen. "Hallelujah, Nathan! I am a Christian!" he shouts in greeting. His appearance must have given strokes to the "suits" in Hollywood. A native! Doing a speaking part! And you can't understand him! Why couldn't Ford get Anthony Quinn or something?****
And here, we interrupt to tell a tale. An aside, certainly, but on a subject more important than movies. There's a reason Ford consistently shot his Westerns in Monument Valley. Pictorially, it has a lot to do with a representation of vast, uncivilized space--rough-hewn ancient structures that show no sign of man, an unmarked slate. But, practically, it was more than that. Monument Valley sits square in the Four Corners on the Navajo Reservation. And to use that location, Ford had to pay the tribe. If he'd gone to Arches National Park a day's drive away, the money would have gone to the State of Utah. But, Monument Valley, the tribe.
On top of that, Ford and his production team used the Native's as extras, stuntmen, horsemen, consultants—money in the pockets of each tribesman. Those long lines of native riders beading the horizon in Ford westerns? All paid employees. The women and children that stuff the frames of village shots are not merely there for "color." They were all paid to get the tribe through a tough winter in one of the more inhospitable environments on the continent. And the Chief John Big Tree, though he may have had difficulty with his lines (and probably learned them phonetically) was paid the highest scale, merely for speaking lines in the script. There is a reason there is a John Ford tourist center at Monument Valley, and why he was made an honorary chief. Ford's Westerns saved more Indians than were represented to be killed. And his politically incorrect first suggestions of white duplicity in the "taming" of the West (which would culminate in his films The Searchers and Cheyenne Autumn—in which he endeavored to make a movie about "The Trail of Tears") began to seep in the true story behind the "shoot-em-up's" and "Cowboys-and-Injuns" pictures which were a staple of American entertainment.
Ford's color sense and composition has a Master's eye.

Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950) To finance the third Cavalry film (after the $1.6 million budget of Yellow Ribbon), Ford turned to B-movie studio Republic Pictures. Ford yearned to make The Quiet Man there, but studio head Herbert Yates, with no confidence in the script, persuaded Ford to first make a sure-to-be-profitable John Wayne Western first, which would become Rio Grande.

Rio Grande takes a look at the further career of John Wayne's Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (he's sprouted an "e" on the end of his name, for one thing). Estranged from his wife (
Maureen O'Hara), posted to the frontier to protect settlers from attacking Apaches, with inadequate forces to do the job, Yorke is feeling a lot of pressure, especially when Phil Sheridan asks him to cross into Mexico to confront the renegades where they're hiding. Then, on top of that, Yorke's son is stationed to his troop. Throughout the course of the movie, Yorke comes dangerously close to becoming the type of commander his old superior, Owen Thursday, was.

Ben Johnson returns as Trooper Tyree, as does Victor McLaglen as now Sgt. Major Quincannon. Harry Carey, Jr. plays another role entirely.
Ford made other westerns during this time period--Three Godfathers, his "Christmas Western," with Wayne, "Dobe" Carey and Pedro Armendariz, and Wagonmaster about the Mormon trek to Utah, with Ward Bond, Carey and Ben Johnson. But Ford's next film with a Cavalry presence would be The Searchers, in which, accompanied by a jaunty Irish tune, the heroes of this trilogy would be responsible for the murder of women and children, and one of the main characters would turn to the other and question them "What'd they kill her for? She didn't hurt nobody!"
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a newspaperman tells Jimmy Stewart's Congressman Stoddard "This is the West, sir. When the Legend becomes Fact, print the Legend," "becomes" in the sense of casting a better light on the Truth.**** Ford filmed his "Cavalry Trilogy" with that maxim in mind, and had even showed its employment in distorting History. Now, in the last part of his storied career, he would tear the Legend away to expose Truth, and show Americans in their entertainment, what was lost in winning the West.

* The beer giant commissioned a painting (below) that was distributed and hung in every saloon that carried their product.

** "I didn't know the dumb son-of-a-bitch could act!" he would remark to Howard Hawks.

*** Played by Ford favorite, Victor McLaglen, whom Ford directed to a Best Actor Oscar for The Informer. McLaglen's character Sgt. Quincannon appears in the next Cavalry picture, Rio Grande, as well. There is a Sgt. Quincannon in Fort Apache, played by Dick Foran, rather than McLaglen. McLaglen plays the similar role of Sgt. Mulcahy in Fort Apache.

**** It was a common Hollywood practice to give the most prominent "foreign" role to white actors in make-up, and Ford was as much a victim of the practice as any director. In order to get his "Trail of Tears" epic Cheyenne Autumn made he was forced to use "name" stars such as Latinos Gilbert Roland, Dolores Del Rio, and Ricardo Montalban, and Italian Sal Mineo. Quinn, Mexican-American, has played Latino, Arab, Greek, Italian, Inuit, etc., etc.

***** He would feature the U.S. Cavalry again in two more movies in the last decade of his career—Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn—but the focus was less on the troop's accomplishments than on their failings that had been forgotten in the tellings of the tale.

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