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New Left Review I/29, January-February 1965

Lee Russell

John Ford

The cinema of John Ford is rooted in history. He has steeped himself in those crucial periods of American history which have determined popular American consciousness: the colonization of the west, the waves of immigrants, the three great wars, the depression. Today America has emerged as the most prosperous and most powerful nation in the world. Yet, for Ford, something irretrievable has been lost. History for him has been a search, a long trek across hostile country towards the ‘promised land’ (Grapes of Wrath), the ‘New Jerusalem’ (Three Godfathers), the ‘Crystal City’ (Wagonmaster), ‘H-O-M-E: home’ (Cheyenne Autumn). More and more he has come to see the search as a delusion, the prospect of arrival as a cheat. In revenge, he has put back the golden age into the past; history has become tradition and hope memory. In the work of Ford we see the celebration of a vast panorama of the American past. We see the American dream as it inspired immigrants and pioneers: the dream of an ideal moral community. But we see also the renunciation of the American present, the corruption of the dream. Compare, for instance, the Wyatt Earp of My Darling Clementine—upright, devout, courageous—with the Wyatt Earp of Cheyenne Autumn, decadent, dissolute and cowardly. The drive westward, the major theme of Ford, has become the battle of Dodge City: a grotesque rabble, thrown into panic by the sight of one Indian. The victims become the heroes and the civilizers savages; when a group of starving Cheyenne, the last pathetic standard-bearers of the old west, stop and beg for food, they are shot and scalped.

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Lee Russell, ‘John Ford’, NLR I/29: £3

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