One of several John Ford films made outside the US, Mogambo is also one of his most atypical films, although in its focus on a group of people brought together in a potential dangerous series of events, the narrative itself is not unfamiliar in his work. I’ve put the film down as an early example of Hollywood ‘inward investment’ in the UK film industry. In fact, Hollywood studios had been making films in their own studios in the UK since at least the 1920s when Hitchcock worked for Paramount in East London. In this case though, the film became part of a major move by both British and American studios into location shooting in colonial British East Africa during the early 1950s with The African Queen as one of the big successes of this move. With interiors shot at MGM’s Borehamwood Studio, the outdoor locations for Mogambo ranged across Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda and Congo. With major Hollywood stars and Ford as director of an American property it’s a Hollywood film, but the supporting cast and many of the crew were from the UK (including the great art director Alfred Junge and cinematographer for the studio scenes, Freddie Young).
Perhaps the the biggest surprise about the film is that there are none of Ford’s stock company on board. Working for MGM (because he needed money after the box office failure of his own company’s The Sun Shines Bright), Ford was forced to accept Clark Gable and Ava Gardner as the two leads. Mogambo (the title is Swahili for ‘passion’) is a remake of the 1932 pre-code film Red Dust with Gable and Jean Harlow. Gardner plays the Harlow part and Ford was able to insert at least an undercover ‘Irishness’ into the project by persuading MGM to cast the young Grace Kelly in the role taken by Mary Astor in 1932. Kelly was from a middle-class Irish-American family in Philadelphia. The film would make Kelly a star as well as reviving the careers of Gable and Gardner.
The setting of the 1932 film was Indochina and Gable was a rubber planter. In the 1953 film he runs a safari business with an important sideline in collecting animals to sell to zoos and circuses. The Harlow/Gardner character is a kind of up-market floosie who arrives at Gable’s base by chance and the Astor/Kelly character is the wife of a husband somewhat less overtly ‘masculine’ than Gable (Gene Raymond/Donald Sinden). In Mogambo, he is an anthropoligist. Originally from a play (by Wilson Collison) the adapted screenplay by John Mahin is full of one liners and the ‘play origin’ is still visible in the large number of interiors balanced by the exterior ‘action’ scenes. Many of the scenes with animals were shot by second unit crews. Ford was particularly sensitive about the treatment of the animals and declined to shoot these scenes.
‘Safari narratives’ were popular with UK/US audiences during the 1950s and 1960s and I remember that TV shows featuring Armand and Michaela Denis were popular on the BBC. Armand Denis was a Belgian filmmaker with a long history of documentary filmmaking in Africa. In the UK, Born Free, the story of the Austrian Joy Adamson who raised lion cubs in Northern Kenya was made into a major film in 1966. Earlier in 1951, the Royal Command Performance film selection had been Where No Vultures Fly, an Ealing picture about the struggles of Mervyn Cowie to establish wildlife conservation areas in Kenya. There were many others. From a contemporary perspective there are two major issues connected with such films. One is the question of animal welfare. Mogambo isn’t actually about the white hunter and ‘game’, but animals are killed, though not deliberately. The practice of collection of animals for circuses is now unacceptable to many audiences but game hunting as a ‘sport’ is still accepted in many countries (including the wealthy in the UK unfortunately). The other concern about these kinds of films is how they represent colonised peoples and the colonial experience. Mogambo as a narrative doesn’t fair too badly on this score. Gable’s character, Victor Marswell treats his African employees in a reasonable way (he’s much harder on his white worker Boltchak) and the main characters don’t make racist comments as far as I remember. Maybe the American story means that British colonial attitudes are less visible? The film credits each of four tribal peoples from Kenya, Tanganyika, Congo and French Equatorial Africa which seems a progressive step, even if there are no named individuals. On one occasion the safari reaches a village where the population is protesting about an aspect of colonial rule, but the party retreats without direct conflict. More to the point in 1952/3 was the impact of the production on the local economy. Ford was in effect the commander of a tented village housing over 300 people and making the film was like a military operation (the film’s producer Sam Zimbalist stayed in Hollywood). Three people were killed in road accidents and since this was the period of the Mau Mau campaign against the British, there were some security issues. In some ways, the representation questions are familiar from Ford productions in the US featuring Native Americans and African-American characters. The production received support from three colonial governments and doesn’t seem to have done great harm to local people while boosting some parts of the local economy. Ideologically the film does underpin the idea of wealthy whites enjoying African scenery as privileged tourists but it does at least give western audiences a chance to see ‘real’ African landscapes, rather than a Hollywood back-lot. My problem would be that Gable’s character exploits rather than conserves wildlife.
But is the film worth watching today – as a film narrative? I would say yes. The central trio of Gable, Gardner and Kelly are to my mind the equal of Gable, Harlow and Astor, though it is many years since I saw the earlier film and I know some critics think Red Dust is more erotic with the advantage of pre-code lack of self-censorship. It’s intriguing that Ford was the one who saw that the virginal, repressed wife of Gary Cooper in High Noon could become the ice blonde with the passion below the surface. Hitchcock latched on very quickly once Ford had shown the way and put Kelly into three films with great success during 1954-55. But Ford’s use of Ava Gardner is the high point of the film for me. The stories from the set suggest that Ford’s relationship with Gardner mirrored her character’s relationship with Gable/Marswell. At the beginning, Gable wants to send ‘Kelly’ (Eloise Kelly) away as quickly as possible, but chance means she has to stay and by the end of the narrative, he views her as a ‘real trouper’. Much the same happens with Ford, who begins treating Gardner with his ‘mean’ act, mainly because he wanted Maureen O’Hara for the part and he didn’t like to have to take orders from MGM. Gardner was of course upset, but she had it out with him and the two became friends. She joined the group of actors who even after his appalling behaviour found that they produced some of their best work for him and ended up praising him. Ava Gardner was often called the most beautiful woman in Hollywood during the late 40s and early 50s. I’m not going to argue with that statement. She is delightful in the film and a perfect foil for Gable and Kelly.
Mogambo makes great use of Technicolor and the location footage (by Robert Surtees) does justice to the landscape. Ford still preferred black and white for its artistic qualities but his time working with Merian C. Cooper and his own sense of visual qualities had already one one Oscar for colour photography (for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949) The music for the film is not conventional scoring but makes use of traditional local African music plus a player piano which supports a song by Ava Gardner – the combination of folk song and diegetic music reminds us of Ford’s Westerns. Mogambo appears to have been a big hit for MGM and I am surprised by the amount of promotional material still available. There also seems to have been many stories about the shoot, but that’s often the case on large overseas productions like this. The film is widely available today and still worth watching.
This odd film unites John Ford’s ‘Irishness’ with his love of the US military, but also finds him tackling his first CinemaScope feature. I watched the film for the first time on a recording I made from Film 4 but I see it is now available in a four film Blu-ray box set from Indicator celebrating Ford at Columbia. (The other three films are The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), The Last Hurrah (1958) and Gideon’s Day (1958), with a host of extras – I’m certainly tempted.)
The star of the film is Tyrone Power and this alone makes the film intriguing for me. Power (born 1914) was a big star in Hollywood from 1936 up until his early death from a heart attack in 1958. Like Ford he was American-born but his family history saw him related to a leading Irish theatrical family. As a young man he was a matinee idol, a great ‘swashbuckler’ and a handsome romantic lead. He was tied in to a long contract with Fox but broke away to develop his theatre career and by 1954 was free to sign up for Ford’s Columbia picture. His was a name I knew, but I have seen few of his films. We tend to forget just how many Hollywood films there were in the 1930s/40s and how so many films were very popular on release but subsequently forgotten. I remember him as a beautiful young Indian doctor in the melodrama The Rains Came (1939) but little else. It’s also intriguing that given Ford’s long association with Fox as a studio, he didn’t use Power before this picture.
‘The Long Gray Line’ refers to the cadets at the American Military Academy at West Point. The film is an adaptation of a book by Martin (‘Marty’) Maher, an Irishman who landed in New York in 1898, aged 22 and became a waiter in the refectory at West Point. After various adventures he enlisted and somehow stayed at West Point, becoming an instructor, for a total of 50 years. He died in 1961 aged 84. Power plays him in the film and has to age from 23 to 75. (He was 40 when the film was made.) It’s clear why the film property appealed to Ford and he called up some of his regulars, notably Maureen O’Hara who has to be similarly ‘de-aged’ as she is meant to be a young woman off the boat (and she was 34 at the time) who falls for ‘Marty’. Ward Bond is more convincing as the sports coach Capt. Kohler who recognises Marty’s qualities as a possible instructor and Donald Crisp (the father in How Green Was My Valley) as Marty’s father, who comes over from Ireland to see his son ‘settled’. Harry Carey Jr. plays Dwight D. Eisenhower as a cadet and there are similar roles for John Wayne’s son Patrick and Ford’s son-in-law Ken Curtis.
It seems that Ford and his scriptwriters changed several aspects of Maher’s story, but the film narrative is substantially the same. I surprised myself as I watched it. I didn’t really enjoy the first quarter of this long film (136 minutes) and I found the clumsiness and clowning of the young Maher just too much. But gradually I was drawn in. Maureen O’Hara received praise for her performance but I didn’t warm to her this time, unlike her earlier roles in Rio Grande (1950) or The Quiet Man (1952). However, I did begin to appreciate Tyrone Power and although Gallagher calls him ‘wooden’, I began to be captured by Ford’s sentimentalism. Despite attempts to resist I was in floods of tears by the end of the film. Ford does this to me even when I am not on the side of the US military or the broad brush approach to Irish cultural identity and I am all too aware of what Ford is doing as he manipulates my emotions. In the final scenes Marty is honoured by a parade of all the cadets. This in a sense looks back to Fort Apache as those close to him who have died during his time at West Point also appear to him. He is part of the Army, and those who were with him will never be forgotten, just like the cavalry soldiers who died in Arizona in 1876.
This was Ford’s first film in CinemaScope. (He made only three in all in a ‘Scope ratio, although he made three other films in various non-standard widescreen processes.) In 1955 this meant the very wide initial Scope of 2.55:1 before the replacement of a magnetic stereo audio track on separate projection prints by a standard optical track reduced the width to 2.35:1. Ford was initially sceptical and he stuck to the beliefs that the cumbersome ‘Scope cameras and anamorphic lenses were unable to achieve the range of shot compositions, especially for Technicolor, that might be achieved by ‘flat’ shoots on 35mm designed for Academy ratios. As a result the film uses long shots and long takes extensively. Fritz Lang famously mocked ‘Scope as fit only for “snakes and funerals”. The sweeping vistas of West Point (e.g the railway station and the Hudson River) and the long lines of marching cadets were actually ideal even for Lang’s blinkered view of the format. Ford has been seen as a filmmaker who often shot his pictures with detailed ‘master shots’ – i.e. characters brought together in relatively static compositions in long shot or MLS/MS. He couldn’t manage his usual swift cutting but he was able to get plenty of movement into the wide frame and some of his trademark low angle shots are used on occasion. There is only one shot I remember where the trap of ‘Scope caught out cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. This is where the two female leads, Maureen O’Hara and Betsy Palmer, are seated opposite each other across a table and the composition has one at each each extreme of the ‘Scope frame, leaving an uncomfortable large space between them. I didn’t feel that made sense in the narrative.
For me, The Long Gray Line is minor Ford, though it is quite beautiful to watch and develops as a form of family melodrama in which the military background becomes less important than the relationships between Maher and his family and the cadets as they grow older. Lindsay Anderson in his book on Ford sees the film as an example of Ford’s ‘professional’ drive to keep working and therefore accepting projects that are designed to suit the studio’s new policy of ‘Scope spectacles rather than Ford’s personal artistic interests. Monthly Film Bulletin comes to the same conclusion in a review by ‘GL’ – Gavin Lambert?: “Expert as it all is, the spectacle of this confident self-travesty is something one would rather have missed.” I can’t disagree with this analysis but its tone is that of the high culture critic who can seemingly ignore the pleasure offered by a professionally-made popular entertainment. (As an interesting sidelight in the review, there is an implication that the Leicester Square Theatre, where presumably a Press Show was held, was not able to show the full width of the ‘Scope print – and possibly not the 4-track stereo?).
Joseph McBride in his Ford biography is one of the few Ford critics to break ranks on The Long Gray Line. He acknowledges all of the film’s flaws, but also declares that it is Ford’s ‘schizoid film’ with a dark side to the image of West Point showing through in the overall context of an Eisenhower era, bright, light image. He’s right of course, but I don’t think this critique of the military emerges clearly enough from the sentimentality. McBride also reveals just how popular the film was, grossing $5.6 million (against a negative cost of $1.8 million). McBride too praises O’Hara and perhaps I should take another look at her performance. He reveals that she fell out with Ford on the picture and that Ford transferred his affection to Betsy Palmer, a young actress he used again in the ill-fated Mr Roberts (1955).
Fort Apache seems like a good start for thinking about John Ford’s films in the current context. It comes at a precise moment in Ford’s output and is possibly one of his most misunderstood films. Tag Gallagher in his magisterial book on Ford (University of California Press 1986), posits a ‘periodisation’ of Ford’s long career. He suggests five periods, taking the first as an ‘apprenticeship’ between 1917 and 1926. Period 1: 1927-35 is ‘Introspection’ and Period 2: 1936-47 is ‘Idealism’. Fort Apache is then the first film of the Third Period (1948-61), ‘Myth’. (The ‘Final Period’, 1962-65, is the ‘Age of Mortality’.) In the ‘Idealism’ period Ford had directed big ‘prestige’ pictures, including his two ‘straight’ literary adaptations How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath and his study of Young Lincoln. He’d made two ‘art films’ in The Long Voyage Home and The Fugitive. He’d also been to war and served his country well. He was a popular and ‘serious’ filmmaker producing films respected by his industry peers. Then, just as European producers and aspects of Hollywood production were turning towards forms of realism and stories about social issues, Ford seemed to turn in on himself and make highly personal films, which were often couched in popular genre terms. One very pragmatic basis for Ford’s decision was to make money for his company Argosy Pictures. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Ford tended to work ‘with’ major studios through his own company (which he started with Merian C. Cooper). He had lost money on The Fugitive after taking only minimum payment for his wartime work.
Fort Apache is the first film in Ford’s unofficial ‘7th cavalry trilogy’. All three films were adapted from short stories by James Warner Bellah that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1947. The story ‘Massacre’ became Fort Apache and, as adapted by Ford’s new scriptwriter Frank Nugent, it fictionalised aspects of General Custer’s actions in 1876, changing the Native American warriors to Apache rather than Plains warriors from further North. Ford’s Custer-like character is a West Point officer with no knowledge of ‘Indian Affairs’ who refuses to listen to his officers with real experience – but it’s also much more than that.
The opening to the film is quite brilliant at introducing the narrative and all the layers of meaning. The credit sequence offers a montage of shots from scenes across the whole narrative and the narrative proper begins in Monument Valley, which during this period becomes a kind of ‘Fordlandia’ seemingly extending across Arizona and Texas (it is actually between Utah, where Ford also shot on location, and Arizona). A stagecoach is heading for a staging post and on board is a sarcastic, stiff-necked officer Lt. Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda). With him is his lively daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). Fonda had starred in four of the top Ford pictures between 1939 and 1946 and in The Fugitive. Temple was the star of Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie in 1937. At the post Philadelphia is delighted to find a bare-chested 2nd Lt. John O’Rourke (John Agar) who is waiting for transport to take him to Fort Apache, returning after his commission at West Point.
The Scottish inn keeper and the stagecoach driver and guard are all old friends and recognisable Fordian characters. To emphasise this it is Ford’s older brother Frank, playing the stagecoach guard, who hawks with astounding accuracy to make the spitoon several feet away dance a little jig. When the fort’s ‘ambulance’ arrives it’s manned by a quartet of sergeants led by another Ford regular Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Mulcahy, who will turn out to be O’Rourke’s godfather (McLaglen was the star of Ford’s first Oscar winner The Informer (1935) and he played alongside Shirley Temple in her Ford film in 1937. If we’ve noted the credits we can probably guess that Ward Bond will be the boy’s father and we know that Wayne is in the film and that he will be the opposite of Fonda as a presence. The crucial exchange in the staging post is the news that the telegraph wires are down – a potential sign of Apache action. With this information and the arrival of the three ‘outsiders’, Ford has effectively set up his narrative. We note that the Fonda character is a WASP Bostonian who gets O’Rourke’s name wrong twice and treats him curtly while Philadelphia is already smitten (Temple and Agar were married just before shooting started). At least Thursday buys a round of drinks.
This is quite a long film for a Western (128 minutes) and the first part is almost a ‘cavalry fort procedural’ with new recruits to be trained, dances to be organised and the daily life of the fort before the first evidence of Apache action is presented. Then the battle between Fonda’s West Point martinet and Wayne’s Captain Kirby York as the soldier with local knowledge will begin in earnest. But there are other layered narrative strands. Philadelphia and John will have a romance even if Colonel Thursday’s social class rigidity (and army tradition) outlaw it. The sergeants will fall from grace, led by Mulcahy and there is yet another ‘couple narrative’ with the outgoing captain Collingwood (another Ford actor, from the 1920s, George O’Brien) and his wife (Anna Lee, yet another Ford actor from How Green Was My Valley who would go on to other Ford roles later). If actors appeared for Ford and he liked them and what they did, they invariably appeared for him again. The one star name I haven’t mentioned so far is Pedro Armendáriz. He was one of the great Latin American actors of the period and had worked on Ford’s previous picture, The Fugitive (1947), made in Mexico. His role in Fort Apache as Sergeant Beaufort is as the interpreter who enables Thursday to speak to the Apache leader Cochise using Spanish (Cochise is played by the Mexican actor Miguel Inclán). But Armendáriz must have riled Ford on his next picture as one of the three leads in 3 Godfathers (1948), because he never appeared for Ford again (and Henry Fonda only appeared in two further films in which Ford directed alongside others). Ford had his ‘stock company’. He was hard but loyal towards his actors who accepted and embraced his methods or didn’t repeat the experience.There are several well-known Ford character players in the fort including Mae Marsh as one of the officers’ wives and Hank Worden as a raw recruit. Both would go on to play multiple roles for Ford.
Ford’s films of this period are ‘personal’, almost keeping narratives ‘within the family’. Part of this communal family ‘feel’ also comes through the use of music – for marches, for dances and as folk songs/romances. Music is a feature of all three cavalry pictures, reaching a peak in Rio Grande (1950) with the Sons of the Pioneers. In Fort Apache the NCO’s dance is a high point and for me the most important scene in the film. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment, so let’s just say it is Ford at his finest in exploring protocol and comradeship and Western culture. When the dance ends with Capt. York’s return and Thursday’s decision to betray York, Ford makes a clear statement. Ford was working with RKO but he didn’t use any contracted studio creatives. The music was score scored by one of the many European émigrés in Hollywood, the Dutch composer Richard Hageman. He had worked with Ford on three previous films and would continue on the next three before his retirement in 1954.
As with the music, Ford had his own preferred cinematographers. Ford had poor eyesight and eventually wore a patch over one eye. Before that he wore dark glasses. However, he had a brilliant internal eye and knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. As Gallagher points out, Ford worked with big names like Gregg Toland and Arthur Miller, with their own distinctive styles, yet their films with Ford always looked like ‘Fordian films’. Archie Stout had photographed many Westerns in the 1930s including some of John Wayne’s B Westerns. His son was part of Ford’s wartime Photography Unit. Ford trusted him and admired his black and white work. On his Monument Valley shoots Ford would often use infra-red stock to achieve high contrast. One of Harry Carey Jr.’s stories about Ford sees Ford quizzing him about compositions and telling him that “if you can work out why the horizon is near the bottom of the frame in some shots and near the top in others, then you might become a picturemaker”. We can be sure Archie Stout new precisely why and delivered some of Ford’s most distinctive shots just as his director required. Ford also had William Clothier on Second Unit and he would become cinematographer on later Ford films such as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Archie Stout is one of my heroes because he worked with Ida Lupino on three of her early features as director.
Fort Apache made the money that Ford had aimed for – though Red River with Wayne made more in the same year. But if it was popular with audiences, the critical reaction was mixed. In the UK, the short Monthly Film Bulletin review praised the look of the film and the spectacular action and picked out John Wayne’s performance but the anonymous reviewer thought there were two many shots of mesas and buttes and riders silhouetted against the sky. They also had no time for Shirley Temple and the narrative strand of the romance. This last criticism is echoed in some American reviews. On the plus side the influential New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther praised Ford’s representation of the Apache as a breakthrough. It is the seeming contradiction inherent in the closing scenes of the film that has proved a stumbling block for many critics. Since the story is based on the historical events involving the death of George Armstrong Custer, I’m not spoiling the narrative by analysing the ending of Fort Apache.
Thursday not only ignores York’s advice but pushes aside his objections about breaking his word to Cochise. Thursday is depicted as a racist from the East, obsessed with his own honour and adherence to Army regulations. The reason he is so bad-tempered throughout is that he believes he has been doubly punished by an ungrateful US Army. His wartime promotion to General was downgraded after the war ended (this was standard practice, not a personal rebuke) and he was sent to the “God-forsaken outpost” of Fort Apache. By contrast, Kirby York accepted his posting after similar success in the Civil War and has found a way to negotiate with the Apache and also to be at ease with the community of the fort. Why then does York at the end of the film praise Thursday’s bravery and attachment to discipline when asked a question by a journalist visiting the fort? The answer, I think, is embodied in the way in which York praises the whole cavalry regiment and maintains that those lost in Thursday’s fatal charge are not gone but ride on with the everyday soldiers who now defend the frontier.
When York, now Colonel, rides off to finish the picture he is wearing Thursday’s kepi and neck cloth. We are here in the territory of ‘fact’ and ‘legend’ in Ford, presented more directly in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Gallagher argues that in most of the films of this ‘Myth’ period, Ford’s focus is on community and often the military community. In his historical films he explores how these communities survived and grew. It is clear that Thursday is a threat to the community, but that to denigrate his memory would hurt the community by undermining the image of the military. But that’s a relatively clear explanation. Ford does more because he shows the ways in which all the members of the community contribute to upholding the social codes of Army life, even if it means they will be individually hurt, so in a crucial scene, Emily Collingwood does not attempt to stop her husband, whose recall to Washington has just come through, from riding out with Thursday. To do so would be to cast him as running from danger. A review of the film by Dennis Schwartz includes comments on Ford’s Irish characters and this:
. . . while the women on the outpost are made into saints. Emily Collingwood (Anna Lee), the wife of Captain Collingwood, is a picture of an ideal wife, who makes Philadelphia feel at home, while the sergeant major’s wife, Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich), is the perfect Army wife and whatever she does is seen as noble.
The danger is in trying to see Ford’s depictions of the historical American West as ‘realist’ – though they are imbued with carefully researched accurate details. I think all the women in Fort Apache have important roles in the narrative and in this case they operate partly within the mythic narrative of army life and partly within the family melodrama which exists within the fort and which is in turn mixed up with the formal codes of social interaction. Thursday treats the O’Rourke family with disdain, safe in the knowledge that as 2nd Lt. O’Rourke is the son of an enlisted man and therefore not a ‘gentleman’ he cannot court Philadelphia. Sgt. Major O’Rourke was highly honoured during the Civil War and this enabled his son to enter West Point. Mrs O’Rourke understands these social codes. Note in detail how Ford directs the Grand March and the dance that follows during the NCO’s ball when Mrs O’Rourke must dance with Owen Thursday and her husband with Philadelphia as the ‘Colonel’s Lady’. Irene Rich does so much here with a few glances (She first worked with Ford in 1921 as a leading lady and then often with Harry Carey Sr. and Will Rogers, two major Ford collaborators.)
Several aspects of Fort Apache, including the representation of the Apache warriors (who apart from Cochise, never speak) will have to wait for commentaries on the rest of the cavalry trilogy, but I don’t want to leave the film without mentioning Richard Dyer’s analysis of Fonda and Wayne together in Stars (1979, 165-168). Dyer offers an early analysis of how Wayne has developed his performance skills in terms of his body movements and gestures in Fort Apache (see the still at the head of this post). I was impressed by this and it prompted my first attempts to work on the film in the 1980s. Since then I’ve read more about how Wayne learned about performance from both John Ford and Harry Carey Sr. and the big group of cowboy performers from early Hollywood. Quite why Fonda was replaced by Wayne in Ford’s casting at this point isn’t totally clear. Much of it was because of the change in the kinds of films Ford wanted to make, but I have seen some suggestions that Fonda himself changed around this time. Perhaps it was something to do with politics? Again, we’ll have to return to this later. The late 1940s became a fraught period when Wayne and Bond became leading ‘hawks’ and anti-communists during the HUAC and McCarthy periods. Ford’s politics were complex and he routinely mixed actors he knew were strongly opposed to each others views – as we will see in later posts.
John Ford (1894-1973) was born to parents who arrived in New England in 1872 as migrants from the West of Ireland. ‘Jack’ Feeney was the 10th of 11 children. He moved to Hollywood in 1914 where his older brother Francis was already a successful actor, director and producer. He became first Jack Ford and then John Ford in 1923. He directed his first film in 1917 and his last in 1966. In the intervening years he became the most successful Oscar winner as a director winning 4 times plus two more wins for his wartime documentaries. This is a ‘global film’ blog, so why the interest in Ford? Hollywood is too important to ignore but most of contemporary mainstream Hollywood doesn’t interest me. I am interested in some aspects of American Independent cinema and certainly in African American cinema. I’m also interested in 1940s-1970s Hollywood, especially if it has been influential in global terms.
John Ford made films in Ireland (2), UK (1) the South Pacific (2) Mexico (1) and Kenya (1) as well as numerous territories as required by the US military. He was also one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century with ardent admirers such as Kurosawa Akira in Japan, Xie Jin in China, Satyajit Ray in Bengal, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and many other leading filmmakers worldwide. His impact on global film was considerable.
But I wonder what younger filmmakers and younger audiences make of a director who died over 40 years ago? The Ford film that is arguably the most remembered is The Searchers (1956), a film that was successful at the time with audiences but took much longer to become a critics’ favourite. Younger audiences are most likely to know it because it became an important influence on George Lucas who refers to it in Star Wars (1977) and perhaps also Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) which borrows narrative ideas from it expressed in Paul Schrader’s script. Many younger cinephiles might not have seen The Searchers but they will know the opening and closing shots of the film which have been endlessly re-cycled over the last 40 years. But there is still resistance to The Searchers, exemplified by a recent Guardian piece by a senior film writer who agreed to watch the film having avoided it during his career as a film journalist. In fact, he hadn’t seen any of Ford’s films. Why is that? The answer is that, like several of Ford’s films, this is a Western starring John Wayne. Not only that but Wayne’s character is an embittered racist – or at least that is what is assumed. I’m not criticising anyone who has avoided a Wayne film for that reason – there are several Hollywood stars whose performances I don’t particularly enjoy and therefore whose films I don’t watch (including several of Wayne’s). However, Ford’s relationship with Wayne is complex and The Searchers is, on every level, a remarkable film that does not succumb to straightforward readings.
There are several reasons why John Ford’s films (over 140 of them in all, but a more ‘modest’ 50 or so features since 1929) are still important in 2020:
- his ideas about African American social history and the Civil War
- his ideas about Native American history
- his sense of Irish identity
- his respect for the US miltary
- the roles for women in his films
- his ‘independent’ status throughout the years of the Studio System
- his status within the industry as a highly-skilled visual technician, editor, director and dialogue writer
- his position re the concept of ‘film author’
No doubt there are more but that’s quite enough for now. I will attempt over the coming weeks to explore some of those 50 films and their associated discourses. Perhaps Keith will say something about Ford’s silent cinema films about which I have very limited knowledge? At this time of lockdown, it’s worth pointing out that three Ford Westerns are on BBC iPlayer for the next few months. Otherwise it is becoming quite difficult to find the films on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK. Presumably quite a few are available on Amazon Prime and Netflix? Over the years I have worked with several of the films, but few have made it onto the blog from ‘draft’ to ‘published’, mainly because there is so much to say and they never seem to be completed. One you might find interesting is Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960), a landmark film in some ways.
Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.
This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it puts Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.
The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) and the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely station. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.
Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.
The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African-American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.
Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers (1956), the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).
Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).
This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).
As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be my next task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.