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2013: The Year of the Ford

jf

On one level, every year is the “Year of the Ford” in the Smith household. I am, after all, watching his movies all of the time, both for my own pleasure and in classes that I’m teaching. I’ve shown more films by John Ford, and in a greater variety of film studies classes (Intro to Film, Film and Society, Perspectives on Film, World of Cinema, etc.), than any other director. In less than five years I’ve managed to screen seven Ford features: Stagecoach (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); and this is not to mention that I also frequently show Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary feature Directed By John Ford in full — as well as clips from various other Ford films, including 3 Bad Men (1926), The Informer (1935) and The Battle of Midway (1942). My insistence on teaching Ford is in part because his very name seems synonymous with the American cinema — in much the same way that William Faulkner might be said to be synonymous with American literature or Bob Dylan synonymous with American music. (I’ll never forget how intensely gratifying it was to hear a young Korean student say she felt she was able to “understand America better” after watching Ford’s movies in my class.) Yet, even given my Ford-o-philia, 2013 was something special.

The year began on a sour note for some Ford aficionados when Quentin Tarantino repeatedly badmouthed Ford’s movies for their supposed “racism” to anyone who would listen (including Charlie Rose and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) while traveling around the world to promote his presumably more enlightened Django Unchained. Fortunately, Ford soon received the most eloquent defense his admirers could have hoped for in the form of a Film Comment rebuttal from the great Kent Jones. Then, in the following months, the world was reminded of the maestro’s continued relevance when four of what I would argue are among his five best movies were released on Blu-ray for the first time: How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (Ford’s other best movie, The Searchers, was released on Blu-ray years ago.) Incredibly, none of these titles were released together as part of any sort of Ford-themed package or box-set deal. Instead they were dropped, coincidentally and separately, by three different labels: 20th Century Fox, Olive Films and Paramount UK. TCM and Sony also teamed up to release the “John Ford Columbia Films Collection” box set but the five titles included there were made available on DVD only (and as much as I welcome the digital debuts of such underrated gems as The Whole Town’s Talking and Gideon’s Day, I passed on this set because I no longer purchase DVD-only releases). Finally, 2013 also saw the very welcome DVD release of the recently rediscovered Ford silent Upstream (included on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s “Treasures New Zealand” anthology). The rest of this post, however, will be devoted to the four new Ford Blu-ray titles that rocked my world in 2013.

how

How Green Was My Valley is my second favorite Ford film and my favorite of his non-westerns. I am also fond of stating that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences correctly named it the Best Picture of 1941 over Citizen Kane, with which it curiously shares a flashback structure and a “subjectivity of memory” theme. This beautiful, melancholy story of one family’s disintegration in a turn-of-the-20th century mining town in Wales (though Ford was clearly thinking of Ireland) is set against the backdrop of union struggles and was one of the director’s most personal films. In it, he presents a vision of an idealized family life, the kind that he personally never knew (where Donald Crisp presides with benign authority over a brood of dutiful, mostly male offspring), and offers a stirring illustration of his Catholic belief that one’s physical death is not “the end.” Yet the film’s obsessive focus on the inevitability of change simultaneously marks it as one of Ford’s most pessimistic works. How Green Was My Valley has amazing deep-focus cinematography courtesy of the great D.P. Arthur Miller, a poignant Alfred Newman score and a star-making performance by the lovely Maureen O’Hara (working with Ford for the first of many times). Fox’s Blu-ray, which I reviewed at length back in February, is perfect.

quiet

The Quiet Man is the most impressive of the new batch of Ford Blu-rays, not only because it looks and sounds incredible but also because it represents the most dramatic upgrade over all of the film’s previous home video incarnations. This movie has never looked good on VHS or DVD, the old video transfers of which were soft and blurry and sported sadly faded color (a particularly offensive crime since Ford insisted on shooting in Technicolor, the premiere color process of the day, over the objections of Republic Pictures boss Herbert Yates, who had patented his own color process — the cheaper and more lurid TruColor). So Olive Films did the world a huge favor by taking Ford’s single most personal film (and the only passionate love story he ever directed) and restoring it to something approximating its original luster. This new version boasts a high-definition transfer and remaster of the original camera negative and the results are glorious: primary colors (especially greens and reds) are vibrant and saturated: when John Wayne’s Sean Thornton first spies Maureen O’Hara’s flame-haired Mary Kate Danaher walking barefoot in an impossibly green grassy field, he wonders aloud “Is that real? She couldn’t be.” I said the same thing when I first watched this Blu-ray.

sun

In contrast to How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man, both of which are popular classics beloved by many casual movie fans, The Sun Shines Bright has always been the Ford-lover’s Ford movie. A remake of the director’s own Judge Priest (1934), a Will Rogers vehicle that remains a great film in its own right, this 1953 version similarly blends comedy and tragedy in a story of racial intolerance set in post-Civil War Kentucky. But it also daringly restores the incendiary lynching scene that censors ordered to be cut from the original, which was Ford’s acknowledged reason for revisiting the material to begin with. While the film may have looked deliberately old-fashioned by the standards of the early Fifties, this beautiful slice of Americana, and its impassioned plea for tolerance, looks positively ahead of our time today — Stepin Fetchit and all. Again, this is a terrific transfer courtesy of Olive Films: the original black-and-white cinematography comes across as satisfyingly film-like, showing admirable depth and grain, and the DTS-HD rendering of the mono soundtrack is likewise subtly awesome. Both Victor Young’s score and the crisp sound design (notably the rhythmic sound of marching feet in the back-to-back processions that serve as the movie’s double-climax) make a big impression.

manwhoshot

1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was Ford’s last great western — and the first of many great movies belonging to a subgenre concerning “aging cowboys” (followed swiftly by Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country). As the West is on the brink of being “settled,” the way of the gun (John Wayne) must cede to the rule of the law (Jimmy Stewart). While Ford sees this progress as being both inevitable and right, it is obvious that his heart belongs more with Wayne’s rancher-character, Tom Doniphan, and that he mourns the passing of the era when men like Doniphan existed, which turns the whole thing into a complex and ironic tragedy. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is in many ways Ford’s magnum opus (with explicit nods to earlier classics like Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln) and Paramount UK’s hi-def transfer does this masterpiece proud. It bests Paramount’s very good previous DVD in terms of image and sound — boasting a robust new 5.1 mix in the latter area. One does wonder why Paramount U.S. hasn’t yet bothered to release the same title although given that the U.K. edition is region-free (and can thus be played on any Blu-ray player worldwide), the cost of international shipping isn’t too much of a price to pay for a release this essential.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also, of course, contains some of the most important dialogue Ford ever directed: “This is the west, sir. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.” These lines, delivered by a newspaper editor to Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, have frequently been misunderstood — including by Steven Spielberg in the pages of Time magazine — as somehow being an argument in favor of the importance of inspirational “heroes and legends.” I would argue that they actually play out on screen as a sad reminder that official histories are often tragically incorrect. Fortunately, in 2013, John Ford’s own legend has been solidified more than ever due to the magnificent Blu-ray releases of four of his most timeless works. I am jealous of anyone who gets to see them in such pristine form for the first time.

jf

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

15 responses to “2013: The Year of the Ford

  • Joe Johnson

    Thank you Michael for this wonderful post. And don’t you tired of hearing that Ford wasn’t really a great director or that he’s flawed and overrated or that his HGWMV should’ve won over CK?

  • Joe Johnson

    Thank you Michael for this wonderful post. And don’t you tired of hearing that Ford wasn’t really a great director or that he’s flawed and overrated or that his HGWMV should not have won over CK?

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the kind words, Joe. One of the great things about teaching film history is that you can teach your own highly personal version of film history (also true of blogging). I’ve shown seven films by Ford and none by Ingmar Bergman!

  • Victor De Leon

    Fantastic essay, Michael! I love Ford’s movies and I need to read that rebuttal! Thanks for the link. So, no Bergman in your class, so far? 🙂

  • John Charet

    I concur with the other comments here too about director John Ford. Even though I personally place Howard Hawks higher than John Ford in lists of great directors, I still feel that Ford is a great filmmaker and nevertheless one of my favorites. Kudos to Kent Jones for pointing out the errors in Tarantino’s analogy about Ford. Tarantino in the essay comes off as not only ignorant of Ford’s work, but also hypocritical as well. While I deeply appreciate Tarantino’s film knowledge, I must say in the end that when it comes to film knowledge from filmmakers born in the 1950, 60’s or 70’s, I will take Alex Cox (“Moviedrome”) over him any day. Make no mistake, Tarantino has a place on my list of favorite filmmakers (in fact, I think his first two films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction helped secure that), but his views of John Ford has had me troubled ever since he said them. He is truly entitled to his opinion, but his views of him are hard to take seriously when he does not judge his work as a whole and judging what was said in that article, seems to prefer the work of directors that would make Ford seem racially tolerant by comparison. I always believed that Ford was racially tolerant though. Back to the subject though, one wonders how much of Ford’s work Tarantino has actually seen. A pity because I love a lot of the films Tarantino loves, but than again I also have a lot of love for the film choices that Alex Cox picks as his favorites. Anyway, great post as always:)

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks, John. You know, I’ve always thought that cinephiles fall into two camps: Hawks people and Ford people. It’s like with Elvis and The Beatles: you can love them both but you’re ultimately more one than the other. I’m, of course, a Ford man (and an Elvis man).

      • Scott Stone

        I like your analysis here. I prefer The Stones or Zeppelin. ha! Anyway I was introduced to great filmmakers at an early age particularly Hitchcock as my older brother is his biggest fan. He also took classes in college in film and has always told me that the 3 greatest filmmakers of the Hollywood classical era were Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks. Also known as the triumvirate of American filmmakers on their overall body of work, both being not only the most consistent, but the most prolific as well. As well as known as the top 3 who earned the D.W. Griffith award based on their oeuvre. I noticed around web circles that this is indeed the general conventional assessment as the Big 3. Welles has said Ford as great poetry and Hawks as great prose. I used to prefer Hawks’s great prose and overlapping dialogue, but as of late, I may be pulling for the visual poetry and richness of Ford and Hitchcock. Just want to let you know, very interesting website and I spend a lot of time reviewing. As for newer filmmakers, my favorites so far are Scorsese and P.T. Anderson. Keep up the good work!

  • waterfrontcinema

    Wonderful article! I also skipped on the TCM box set just because it’s a bit too pricy. Especially when two of the five films are already out.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks! My main reason for not buying the TCM box is that too many films that have been initially released on DVD only have ended up being released in upgraded Blu-ray editions later on. I don’t want to end up “double-dipping.”

  • Marilyn Ferdinand

    I’d like to add another Ford film that saw a DVD release this year, the first in its history: UPSTREAM, the restored silent that is on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s “Treasures of the New Zealand Archive” collection. It’s not “classic” Ford, but it shows his humor and wonderful skill with ensembles.

  • Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2013 (#10 – #2) | White City Cinema

    […] There were actually quite a few John Ford movies that received their Blu-ray and/or DVD debuts in 2013. The best of them, in terms of image quality, is undoubtedly Olive Films’ unimpeachable Blu-ray of Ford’s beloved Ireland-set romantic comedy The Quiet Man. As I wrote in my appreciation of the recent flurry of Ford releases last week: “This movie has never looked good on VHS or DVD, the old video transfers of which were soft and blurry and sported sadly faded color (a particularly offensive crime since Ford insisted on shooting in Technicolor, the premiere color process of the day, over the objections of Republic Pictures boss Herbert Yates, who had patented his own color process — the cheaper, more lurid TruColor). So Olive Films did the world a huge favor by taking Ford’s single most personal film (and the only passionate love story he ever directed) and restoring it to something approximating its original luster.” Ford’s photography of the red-haired, blue-eyed Maureen O’Hara, herding sheep barefoot in an impossibly green, grassy field, is my idea of visual heaven, a claim I don’t think I would have made until I saw this particular transfer, which was made from the original camera negative. More here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/12/09/2013-the-year-of-the-ford/ […]

  • 2014: The Year of the JLG | White City Cinema

    […] was my inaugural winner, followed by Orson Welles in 2011, Alfred Hitchcock in 2012 and John Ford in 2013.) I’m happy to announce that this year my Filmmaker of the Year award goes to the […]

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