Daily Archives: June 30, 2011

John Ford and the Cinematic Meal

The following essay is based on notes for a lecture I gave in my friend Sara Vaux’s Religion and Film class at Northwestern University in January. The subject of the class was “The Cinematic Meal.” No sex toys were employed during the lecture.

The concept of “the meal” is a prominent and crucial aspect of the John Ford universe. Scenes set around dining room tables are more important in Ford than almost any other director I know. (The stiffest competition would probably come from his contemporary equivalent Clint Eastwood.) But the preponderance of mealtime scenes in Ford is just one facet of the director’s larger obsession with home and the domestic sphere, which is somewhat ironic considering Ford’s association with the western genre. When one thinks of a Ford movie, the first thing to come to mind is probably the spectacular outdoor location photography – in particular scenes shot in Monument Valley, Utah, the central location of thirteen of Ford’s most well known films. I personally associate Ford primarily with the Technicolor imagery of films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, where the big majestic rock formations of Monument Valley appear almost orange under a bright blue sky. Yet it’s one of the central paradoxes of Ford’s work that although his movies may be full of outdoor adventure, typically taking place in an “uncivilized” corner of his mythological version of the 19th century American West, the man always juxtaposed those scenes with equally essential interior scenes depicting domestic life.

This dichotomy between exterior/interior is also closely related to another Fordian paradox, which is that Ford can be viewed simultaneously as a “masculine” and a “feminine” director. In Ford’s own lifetime he was perceived critically as a man’s man and someone mainly interested in male worlds and masculine codes of behavior. Following the lead of critic Janey Place, Joseph McBride, author of the indispensable Searching for John Ford, has more recently argued that Ford can also be seen as an essentially feminine artist. McBride points out that the things Ford values the most – home, family and tradition – are typically thought of as feminine concerns. This is an acute insight because in order to fully understand Ford’s movies one has to understand how they show, and even obsessively dwell on, the disintegration of the family unit; in film after film, John Ford is continually mourning the loss of the things he loves the most.

There are a couple of mealtime scenes in Ford that perfectly illustrate the aforementioned paradoxes, albeit in strikingly different ways. Take for instance The Searchers from 1956, considered by many to be Ford’s masterpiece; early on in the film, Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran played by John Wayne, arrives at the home of his brother Aaron’s family after a mysterious three year absence. Almost immediately upon Ethan’s homecoming, a band of Comanche Indians run off with the prize cattle of the Jorgensens, the family who live next door to the Edwardses. In a highly memorable scene set around the Edwards family breakfast table, the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, the local lawman (who is also a clergyman!), arrives to swear in as deputies the male members of seemingly every family within a hundred mile radius in order to form a posse to reclaim the cattle.

A depiction of community in long take and long shot (The Searchers):

This swearing in scene, which occurs over coffee and doughnuts, is a good example of how Ford depicts a community of people coming together over a meal. It is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite Ford scenes because of what he refers to as the “love” depicted onscreen – not only the love that the characters so obviously have for one another but also the love one feels Ford has for all of them. The feeling of a closely knit community is revealed through the dialogue and the acting, of course, but finds its perfect compliment through the way Ford stages the action. For instance, it is absolutely crucial that this scene unfolds mostly in long takes (i.e., with minimal cutting) and in long shots (i.e., where the camera is at a distance from the characters). This allows Ford to more effectively record the hustle and bustle of people coming and going in the dining room; the togetherness of this fledgling society is highlighted by the fact that we can see all of these characters in relation to one another at all times. There is a little bit of tension in the scene, between Ethan Edwards and Captain Clayton, which is typified by cryptic dialogue about the possibility that Ethan might be wanted for a crime in his recent past. Ford underscores the tension between these characters by having the camera track in to a close shot of the two of them. But because Ford never cuts to separate camera angles that isolate Ethan and Clayton from each other, he also lets us know that the conflict between them is ultimately not that serious. The real conflict, Ford seems to be telling us, will lie elsewhere.

The depiction of community in The Searchers can be fruitfully contrasted with a very different mealtime scene from another one of Ford’s best movies, How Green Was My Valley from 1941. The earlier film depicts life in a Welsh coal mining village around the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, it deals with intergenerational conflict within a single family, the Morgans. The sons in the Morgan family, mostly in their teens and twenties, want to join a newly formed workers’ union but their father opposes the idea. Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp) is an old-fashioned patriarch who grew up without unions and thinks that joining one will only lead to trouble – he dismisses the talk of his sons as “socialist nonsense” even though the mine owners have recently slashed employee wages. This impasse reaches a state of crisis at the Morgan family dining room table when the sons, one by one, stand up, leave the table and walk out of the home for good. Ford stages this tragic scene from How Green Was My Valley with brisker cutting than in The Searchers and by frequently showing the Morgan men in separate close-ups, emphasizing their isolation from each other. It is a perfect example of Ford illustrating how the dining room table can be a place where families break apart as well as come together.

The scenes outlined above have another fundamental thing in common; they both succeed brilliantly as primarily visual storytelling (which should not be surprising given Ford’s origins in the silent cinema). In both instances, if you were to watch the scene with the sound turned off you would still be able to understand everything you need to know about the relationships between the characters because of the framing, the camera movement, the cutting and the lack of cutting. Daryl Zanuck, the longtime head of Twentieth Century Fox (with whom Ford frequently butted heads), said late in his life that he came to realize Ford was the greatest of all directors because of his uncanny ability to shoot scenes in such a way that made “even good dialogue secondary or unnecessary.” There is no higher compliment that a movie director can be paid.

Isolating characters in separate close-ups (How Green Was My Valley):


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