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 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.
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.
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.
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.