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.
Since Ford’s cinema is about history, it is also about politics. During the period of the New Deal, when critical orthodoxy leant to the left, Ford was discovered and thrust forward, but badly misunderstood. Critics saw what they wanted to see: the hardships of the masses, contempt for the rich, a cinematic expression of the social realist novel. By their premature judgements and unilateral approach, they contributed to Ford’s postwar critical ruin. When a new school of criticism emerged, Ford was discredited along with the orthodoxy which had extolled him. There is almost no mention of Ford, for instance, in the whole
Ford’s work is full of contradictions. Perhaps this is true, above all, of its politics. Ford’s political thought springs from Jacksonian populism, reflecting its criss-crossing strands of liberalism and conservatism. Populism is not a system of ideas but a melange of paradoxes, vacillating and unstable: the individual and the people, the golden age and the utopian future, for private property but against big business. The peculiarly American current of Jacksonian populism has produced thinkers as diverse and antagonistic as Wright Mills and Barry Gold-water, forced as they attempt to transcend the contradictions in their thought into positions they do not fully understand. Most critics were quick to label Cheyenne Autumn as ‘liberal’. But further reflection suggests that it might almost have been made by Barry Goldwater himself, who is, after all, a great expert in Indian lore, censor of moral decay and opponent of the crude pork-barrel interests of big business. The same contradictions emerge in the interpretation of Ford’s great hero, Lincoln, The Lincoln of Neruda’s Let the Rail-Splitter Awake? Or the Lincoln of expanding Yankee capitalism? Populism is troubled by the dilemma, but has no answer.
Ford’s chief love is the old west; it is there that the roots of his populism are to be found, in the society which produced Andrew Jackson, frontiersman and Indian-fighter. (The degree of Ford’s attachment to the old west can be seen from the self-portrait of a Hollywood director in Wings of Eagles). The landscape of Ford’s west is well-known: the gaunt rock outcrops of Monument Valley. Nature is hostile; to survive, man must be as tough as the cactus. In this barren environment Ford’s protagonists are, in Sarris’s words, ‘champions of an agrarian order of family and community’. The community is organized around the church, the saloon, the barber’s shop and the square-dance, the nodal points of social life and of a typically populist kind of local and direct democracy. The community is very tenuously linked to the outside world by the overland stage and by various itinerants: saloon entertainers, quack doctors, travelling Thespians, etc. But the real mediation between the community and the world at large is provided by the us cavalry, who both receive their orders direct from Washington and become involved and enmeshed with local issues and conditions. Thus, very often, the real transmission of the popular will and the real democratic struggles go on inside the army, between the public-spirited officer and the command-transmitting officer. Authority within the community is maintained by the sheriff; disorder comes, not from internal contradictions, but from outside disruptive forces who,
The role of the military is particularly important to Ford; it is one of the themes he has developed throughout his career. In Stagecoach the army represents, to all intents and purposes, the hand of divine providence; it has no place in society, but appears miraculously when it is needed. In this respect it resembles the ass and young colt which appear miraculously in Three Godfathers shortly after the exhausted Hightower has read about them in the bible. These divine interventions are an endorsement of both the just cause and the determination of the human protagonists. In his later films, however, Ford begins to consider the responsibility of the army as part of society. Thus, in Sergeant Rutledge, centred around a negro troop of the us cavalry, general questions of race are raised: whether negroes should agree to fight against Indians and so forth. (This film also broaches the moral degeneration of the small village shopkeeper). Strangely, however, one of Ford’s lasting themes about the army is the theme of defeat. Consider, for instance, Fort Apache, a transposed Little Big Horn, the idolization of MacArthur in retreat in They Were Expendable or the child cadets marching out to battle in The Horse Soldiers. For Ford the values of military life reside not in victory (often hollow, as in Cheyenne Autumn) but in the opportunity it gives for decisive action, true camaraderie, etc. This attitude embodies both a critique of civilian life for its constrictions, petty competitiveness and animosity, etc, and a dangerous and somewhat thoughtless militarism, hardly mitigated by Ford’s sympathy with indiscipline.