John Ford, the masterpieces of the western and the myth of the American foundation

Table of Contents

The most famous phrase was this: “My name is John Ford and I do westerns”. This sentence is very hasty and meaningful. The director has a strong awareness of being just a tradesman at the service of an industry, who classifies his products into specific categories and genres. Hollywood creates genres and, together with genres, seeks the most suitable actors and directors to make them. 

John Ford had no artistic claim to be a filmmaker, author of his own films like many European directors. John Ford and other directors like him participated in the wealth creation of the dream machine and was at the service of the public, ready to meet its demands.

Hollywood had created and consolidated narrative cinema and had given it certain strict rules in which films were made. It is forbidden to discover and point out to the public the technical means of the set, the actors are forbidden to look directly into the camera, the continuity errors that endanger the verisimilitude of the film universe are forbidden. The classic narrative seeks the total verisimilitude of the filmic universe. The Western evolved together with narrative cinema and there were few cases, at its birth, of western films made by independent productions. 

The birth of the western


From The Great Train Robbery of 1903, by Edwin Porter, from Griffith’s westerns such as The Massacre of 1912 and by Thomas H. Ince The Heart of an Indian, from 1912, the Western genre asserts itself as the main genre that enhances the codes of narrative cinema. Western films are based on linear editing and classic decoupage, of the stereotypical division between good and bad. 

It also makes use of narrative leitmotifs that recur in many stories, such as the railway, the contrast between nature and society, between white man and red man. The western tells of the mythical conquest of the Western territories and the birth of the American nation. Wild territories populated by barbaric characters who must be civilized. The scenario of the boundless deserts is opposed to that of the small towns. 

In the beginning, the Indian is always seen as a dangerous individual and negative. Over the years, this conception will fade until it is completely reversed in the 70s, when the white man appears as a negative on the screen. Western cinema of the 1930s and 1940s will be accused of imperialism and racism. In 1924 John Ford directed his first film The Steel Horse. John Wayne made his debut in the sound western The Big Trail of 1930. 

Cecil B. Demille makes a film that blends several legends, stories and heroes of the west with The Plainsman, from 1936. The Western genre explodes thanks to John Ford in 1939 who created the masterpiece Stagecoach

John Ford ‘s first masterpiece: Stagecoach


Stagecoach, inspired by Boule de Suif, a short story by Guy de Maupassant, is the story of a traveling stagecoach threatened by Indians against the backdrop of Monument Valley, a landscape from that moment on will become very frequent in Western movies. In the film, two universal archetypes are confronted. that of the microcosm and of the closed place both in a physical and moral, social and psychological sense, and that of travel and boundless spaces. 

Monument Valley is the perfect setting for the dramas of nine characters in search of a new awareness of their lives: Ringo, Dallas, drunk doctor Dr Boone, a mysterious gamer, an officer’s pregnant wife, a alcohol salesman, a thieving banker and the two driving the stagecoach, Sheriff Wilcox and his aide Buck. The forced intimacy of these characters in the diligence and then in the inn explodes the conflicts that John Ford’s direction shows flawlessly. The seats in the diligence, the meeting of seductive gazes, the decisions to be made on the journey, the sharing of meals in which conflicting views on racism emerge.

Claustrophobic shots indoors and depth of field outdoors, music that changes rapidly with the changes in the action. Mythical scene of the assault on the stagecoach with a cameracar at a speed of over 60 km per hour and the use of stuntman, where the acrobatic jump of an Indian on the stagecoach will be mentioned many years later by Steven Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Civilization and wild nature


The diligence is a closed world, the world of civilization is populated by heterogeneous characters, and crosses the barbarism, a piece of civilization traveling in the wild nature of the Valley, constantly threatened by the onslaught of the Indians. At the same time, the different personalities within the diligence also come into conflict with each other. Each of these characters represents a way of life, a stereotype, a type of morality. Military, criminal and bankers who reflect morality and immorality, corruption and loyalty. Some represent the values ​​recognized by the community and its aspirations; others the independent demands of the individual. The depth of Red Ombre lies precisely in the evolution of these characters from one world view to another and in their inner change. 

Red Shadows is a great epic about the immense spaces of the West and the mission of creating a legal world that triumphs over wild instincts. The film is imbued with values ​​such as honor and loyalty of the individual and the community, populated by the archetypes and stereotypes that will give life and inspire subsequent western films. While retaining all the canons of classic Hollywood cinema, the film brings a broader and deeper gaze, the moral gaze that uses depth of field to describe the feelings and emotions of the characters, managing to become a universal myth. 

The searchers


In 1956 John Ford signed another masterpiece of the western genre, The searchers. After the end of the Civil War, Ethan returns home to his family. One day Reverend Clayton arrives at the farm and convinces Ethan to join their group to fight the Indians who steal livestock. A fight begins between whites and Indians, with repeated assaults by the Indians on the farm until the massacre of Ethan’s parents and the kidnapping of their daughters Lucy and Debbie. The search for the girls to bring them home will take years.

Considered by American film institutions as one of the most beautiful films in the history of cinema, the film is based on a novel by Alan Le May and on real-life Indian kidnapping events. The strength of the film lies, as in other John Ford films, in the spectacular natural settings, in the tragic symbolism evoked by deserts and boundless spaces. The film is a tragedy that explores in depth all the themes of the myth of the West and American cultural archetypes: the conflict between rules and morals, violence and freedom, the need to build a community and individualistic tensions, the mixing of races, village and nature. wild, desire to wander aimlessly and the value of family.

The characters in the film are less stereotyped and simplified than in John Ford’s other films, the division between good and evil is not clear-cut. Ethan is an ambiguous man, fragile and dangerous at the same time, torn inside by opposing internal tensions. The Indians are cruel but at the same time they represent a wild world in decay, destined for an end by the advancement of the law and civilization. 

John Ford ‘s other films


Ford made numerous other films, from Darling Clementine’s Infernal Challengeof 1946 to Rio Bravo Rio Grande of 1950. The latest westerns of the 1960s are now twilight westerns such as The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance The Man Who shot Liberty Valance from 1962. 

John Ford’s characters repeat themselves film after film. They are classic heroes who embody values ​​and have a very American way of thinking. If we want to be specific, a very Roosevelt way of thinking. A universal lyric and epic poetry out of time. John Ford creates a simple and rigorous style made up of long shots that enhance the great natural scenographies that become indispensable protagonists of the western. 

The characters are outlined in an extremely simple and stereotyped way, without complexity. John Ford also makes films outside the western genre, but always of an explicitly Rooseveltian matrix. Like Furore Grapes of Wrath of 1940, La via del tobacco Tobacco road of 1941, and How Green was my valley How Green was My Valley of 1941. The director develops a poetics and his personal reflection on the conflict between man and nature, between social community and individual, between individual and collectivity. John Ford thus succeeds within an industrial and impersonal mechanism such as that of the System studio to become an author with his own personality and his own poetics. 

Food for thought 

The white man has gone against nature and the communities that live in the wild in an attempt to civilize it and bend it to its laws. In this way it failed miserably and created conflicts and genocides. One cannot be arrogant and have a spirit of conquest towards nature and the communities that still live in symbiosis with it. We must respect it and integrate it into our ways of living. Is it possible to conquer wild nature and its peoples in the name of a law and a civilization created by man? No, it is impossible, because we ourselves are part of nature, and those wild men are connected to us, they are a part of us. Destroying and dominating the wild places is a suicidal act, a mistake that future generations must not make. When we go against nature to forcefully affirm the social rules, energy turns into hatred. If, on the other hand, we enjoy together with nature in total harmony, love and connection with each other grows. Man must learn to approach the wilderness in order to connect to it. He can only live happily together with nature, not against nature

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