Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

A few years ago, Quentin Tarantino offered this blunt assessment of Irish-American (not Anglo-Saxon) John Ford:

One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity—and the idea that that’s hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the Thirties and Forties—it’s still there. And even in the Fifties.[1]

John Ford’s Revolutionary War-era drama Drums Along the Mohawk—made in 1939—is among his films that include “faceless Indians” and in this way serves as one helpful means of examining Tarantino’s view regarding Ford’s racism.[2] Tarantino isn’t alone in his assessment of Ford’s work, but I find Ford’s films, including his Westerns, to contain a rich and varied portrait of figures of all kinds, colors, and genders.

When it comes to uncomfortable scenes with racial overtones, I won’t deny there are several in Ford’s oeuvre. Drums contains one especially egregious scene recently examined by Mike D’Angelo, where two drunken natives mean to burn down a house, and end up rescuing a bed inside when an old woman protests their actions. Ford’s comic sensibilities don’t always land near my own—he tends toward the broad and the slapstick—and this scene certainly illustrates that tendency well.

However, Ford does something else in this film that complicates the picture of Tarantino’s vision of Anglo-Saxon superiority. And this more complicated picture better reflects the American experience of race through my own lenses—a mixture of good and bad, of outreach and insensitivity, of helping hands and murderous ones.

The film opens with a Northeastern U.S. wedding among colonists of some means. The house, the décor, and the dress all highlight the fact that these people expect to live according to certain standards. The people have gathered to witness the nuptials of Gil Martin (Henry Fonda), who recently built a home on the frontier of Mohawk Valley, and Lana (Claudette Colbert), daughter of high colonial society.

The film follows the Martins through their early years as settlers in the Mohawk Valley. More importantly, however, Ford proceeds to throw obstacles at the naively haughty Lana throughout the course of the film. It turns out that “wonderful” Anglo-Saxon upbringing yielded Lana few frontier survival skills, with all its emphasis on obtaining the elemental things of life—food and shelter most importantly. While Gil puts his back into his work, Lana loses her expensive and impractical possessions and discovers that there’s more to life than the latest fashions from Europe. When Lana stoops to nurse soldiers injured in a Revolutionary War battle, we get the sense that her transformation nears completion.

The final sequence of the film completes an excellent bookend with the opening wedding scene. The European settlers have to fight off a band of Native Americans (led by a pro-British European no less). Lana is among the group of settlers in the local fort, and during the fight, she even picks up a weapon and shoots a man. Not only has she lost all outward claims to gentility that she brought to the frontier, she has lived with the settlers through their darkest moments, where all become equals in the face of imminent death.

Soon after this battle, Gil and Lana visit the fort, which the settlers have set to repair. Here they discover that the Revolutionary War has ended, and someone mounts the flag atop the church steeple (the highest point within the fort). As this occurs, Ford cuts to four separate, still shots of people gazing upon the flag that stands for newfound freedom: a black woman, a blacksmith and his wife, a Native American, and finally, Gil and Lana.

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Interestingly, Ford shoots both the black woman and the Native American from below, attributing to them something like hero status. With the camera pointed upward, Ford makes these people seem larger than life, emphasizing their place in this land of freedom. Of course, these two shots aren’t without irony—as these people would have had nothing like the freedom enjoyed by the blacksmith and by Gil and Lana. In this way, this final montage has a multivalent effect—it celebrates the victory for freedom; it chides the victors for their unbalanced or incomplete views of freedom; and it reveals a yearning for something more, seeing as winning the revolution most certainly did not mean freedom for all. There’s a poignancy to these images that the Tarantino’s of the world don’t seem to count in their reckoning of Ford on race.

The last of the four shots, the one of Gil and Lana, closes the film. It also includes the only lines in this brief sequence, and in it we see the final transformation of the elite as they take on the qualities of the everyman. Gil turns from the flag to his wife and says, “I reckon we’d better be getting back to work. There’s going to be a heap to do from now on.” They no longer have the luxury of leisure. Work beckons, just as it does to many, many others who hope to have a roof over their heads or food on their plates. In the end, Ford presents Gil and Lana as equals with everyone else under the new American flag, an equality borne out of shared suffering, shared surviving, and shared needs.

[1] You can find the original interview here.

[2] Kent Jones has already offered a cogent response to Tarantino, though Jones doesn’t consider Drums. See also Richard Brody’s recent introduction to a Ford retrospective playing this summer.

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The Sun Shines Bright (1953)

John Ford is generally known for his westerns starring John Wayne, the larger than life hero set against the backdrop of Monument Valley. However, Ford made a wide variety of films, some large and others small. And it was of these latter pictures that Ford once said, “My most beautiful pictures are not westerns; they are little stories without big stars about communities of very simple people.”[1] One of those “little stories” is The Sun Shines Bright, a film Ford made in 1953. Based on a series of stories by Irwin S. Cobb, the film follows a judge named William Priest and the many stories taking place in and around his town of Fairfield, Kentucky around the turn of the twentieth century.

The town, ironically named Fairfield, contains its share of racial injustice, long-term feuds, militant temperance unions, prostitution, and deep-seated family strife. The Judge—with something of a secret alcohol habit himself—stands as a sort of quiet, albeit active, witness to these troubles which in certain cases threaten the lives of innocent people.

The many threads of disunity and disagreeableness come to a head on Election Day. Judge Priest’s rival, Maydew, campaigns for the judge’s office, speechifying on progress and the beginning of a new age. The speech ends, however, when a white, horse-drawn hearse rounds the corner onto the main street of town. In its wake, we see Judge Priest, walking alone, in turn followed by a carriage full of prostitutes, appropriately wearing all black. The crowd around Maydew looks on with a curious, haughty gaze, one that is repeated often—both silently and through laughter—as the procession moves through town. The dead woman, long-since banished from her family for her loose ways, returned home already ill and begged for a proper funeral just before she died. The only ones to even hear, much less heed, her request were the outcasts of society: a group of prostitutes, a mortician, a black carriage driver, and, oddly enough, the popular judge.

Ford films the funeral procession for more than seven minutes. The rest of the film moves along at a brisk pace, with cuts coming quickly on top of one another. However, the duration of the shots lengthen considerably during this sequence, Ford indicating formally the importance of slowing down and taking in the events of this procession. As the group moves through the town, Ford cuts across the axis twice, making it seem as if the procession were criss-crossing all over town, up this street and down the next, everyone a witness, everyone accountable. Slowly, as the group winds its way toward its destination, one or two individuals here and there join the march—some the judge’s friends, others outsiders not in with the “respectable” townspeople. Ford films all of this nearly without words, placing the emphasis on the visual movement through the town, the judge keeping a stoic look throughout the march while the crowd becomes something of an arrow being shot through town. The people in the procession understand the significance of joining this march—by doing so they are aligning themselves with the “sinners,” recognizing their own culpability in making this town an unjust place to live.

The funeral procession eventually enters a poorer part of town, where the blacks live separately from the whites. And then it becomes clear—the funeral will take place in the black church, because the respectable white church won’t have them. An all-black choir greets the group with hymns outside their small church building, and the mourners file in to a plain room. Ford scholar Tag Gallagher describes it well, noting that the “casket and mourners funnel away from us and upward into the chapel. This, and the fact that inside the chapel is stony and cavelike, is appropriate for the goal of the symbolic journey. The blacks stand outside, not by custom of segregation, but because this is a ceremony of white penance. Priest’s sermon will transform public confession through absolution into redemption.”[2]Before the sermon is even preached, before the Word comes directly into the scene, we have before our eyes a visual presentation of the public’s admission of guilt, their desire to turn from their sins, and their entrance into the cave from which new life will come to the town. In the simplest of sequences, Ford masterfully uses the tools of the medium to illustrate the drama of redemption. It should come as no surprise, then, that in the last sequence of the film, another parade—this time in front of Priest’s home—a group walks by holding a sign—“He saved us from ourselves.”


[1] Bertrand Tavernier, “John Ford à Paris,” Positif 82 (March 1967), 17.

[2] Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (Berkley: University of California Press, 1986), 296.

This Is Korea! (1951)

In the latter months of 1950, John Ford was asked to make a film for the Navy chronicling the efforts of United States troops in the Korean conflict. Ford, with his love for the rigors, tradition, and camaraderie of military life, quickly agreed. He and a small team of his most trusted photographers took off from California on Christmas Day and arrived in Korea on January 1, 1951. After spending five weeks on the ground, at sea, and in the air, Ford and his men returned to edit the footage, turning in a 50-minute documentary that proved unsuccessful with theater owners and audiences alike. Though it lacked popular success, Ford’s film provides a fascinating insight into the mood of a country (the U.S.) and a shifting Western ethos that continues to this day.

Ford’s team arrived within two months of a major Chinese offensive that had pushed back U.N. troops, so the film ends up carrying a grim tone throughout. Ford uses a series of repeated set pieces that contribute to a dark and aimless vision of the war. Several times we see orphaned Korean children or homeless Koreans; soldiers marching down roads and through villages; naval ships firing their guns; artillery blasting barren hillsides; soldiers encountering yet another hill; planes dropping napalm bombs into wooded areas and villages. In the case of the last two, Ford highlights the repetition by having the narrator point out “another hill,” or “napalm again.”

The unrelenting nature of these realities is only compounded by a significant absence: the enemy. While the repetitions carry on throughout the 50-minute run time, we catch a glimpse of the enemy only once—three men who have been taken captive by the Americans and now are being held for questioning. They say little and threaten nothing. Completely disarmed, one fails to see the real danger of these “enemies.” If the enemy were completely absent, the viewer might imagine the terrible tortures of a war against the communist infidels. However, the weak presence of these men only serves to heighten the question lingering and unspoken throughout the film: Why?

Even more interesting is the strong contrast This Is Korea! makes with Ford’s earlier and masterful World War II documentary, The Battle of Midway. Where Korea offers nothing in the way of a clear enemy, and only a grim and mechanical determinism among the soldiers, Midway provides just the opposite. There we see real purpose and resolve on display, a clear and threatening enemy, and ample heroism on display. Where Midway stands as a document of the unambiguous struggle between good versus evil and the clarity of days gone by, Korea plants us firmly in the contemporary cultural milieu—a world without a collective purpose and only a grim resolve pressing us forward.

Throughout his career, Ford shows himself fascinated with the sense of community and tradition so evident in military life. Yet Korea sees an Army where those good things lose their significance in the face of an amorphous goal. Near the close of the film, U.S. warplanes drop bombs on a village, with the camera so near that it shakes violently at each impact. After two or three of these bombs, narrator John Ireland speaks the following lines as we watch the soldiers move in to clear the village: “For this is Korea, chums. This is Korea. And we go in.” The images combined with that line, from which Ford draws the film’s title, offer a chilling reflection on a post-WWII world—men slinking into a smoky ruin, without any apparent reason.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Before 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, John Ford had only utilized vocal narration one time—in his previous film, Tobacco Road. However, while that narration merely opened the film, in Valley, Ford lays in the narration throughout. In doing so, he adds an extra layer of complexity to a film that would likely be merely trite and overly sentimental without it. In the voice over by an older Huw Morgan, a mere child at the time of the events on screen, Huw admits that he is primarily interested in his happy memories of that time, rather than appreciating the full weight of how the passing of time has eroded the firm beauty of the village and its people.

Yet Huw’s admission in light of the disintegration of the Morgan family and the village as a whole creates a dramatic tension that forces reflection on all sides: the family and village embrace of tradition, the extreme reaction of the village youth who push for labor unions and buck the advice of their elders, and finally, Huw’s own sunny memories of the past. With all these competing perspectives, social tensions boil over and the film then poses a difficult question: How does one respond to the inevitable changes that modern society brings? Do you stick with the deeply rooted tradition that got you there? Do you push for radical change in the name of justice? Do you pragmatically slog through it and decide to remember the good times?

Huw’s father prefers to stick with certain principles he has grown up with: sons accept the opinion of their fathers without argument, a man should be paid fairly for an honest day’s work, and that those with opportunities for a better life should take them. However, most of his eldest sons take a second and opposing view: they are distrustful of parental authority, they set themselves against the powers that be in the name of justice, and they place little stock in tradition. Four of the five older Morgan boys plan to make their own way despite their father’s protestations. They eventually leave the valley and the life drains out of it. Who’s at fault here—is it the father’s blind adherence to tradition or the son’s vigor and lack of respect that speeds up the destruction? Or is it something else completely?

Huw’s position offers the opportunity of a third way. He sits between his father and brothers, yet he is given one distinct advantage—an education. With it, he possesses a legitimate way out of the village, one that doesn’t condemn him to a life (and death) in the mines like his eldest brother and father. Neither does it force him to leave the village harboring the distrust and rebellion of his other brothers. He can better his position in the future while remaining closely aligned with the tradition and honor of his father.

The tragedy of Huw’s ultimate choice allows the viewer to see clearly the dual importance of honoring tradition at the core of one’s being while adjusting to the cultural changes that rumble through our modern world. Huw is in this sense an opposing figure to Ford’s Young Abraham Lincoln. Where Lincoln combines the virtues learned in his past with the promise he sees in his quickly advancing future, Huw as a young boy has not the presence of mind to make such a transition. The world as he sees it is too simple, leaving him only two choices—stay and be like his father, or go and reject his family heritage. Of course, Huw misses the middle ground, and in doing so, he misses the way to navigate the two opposing positions. He compensates by embracing a false and simplistic view of the past and giving up the cause of justice. Though his view of his life in the village is framed by happiness, it remains an utter tragedy.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Young Mr. Lincoln tells the story of the president’s early years—as a fledgling political candidate, a young lawyer with a sense for justice, and a community leader who had a way with people. The film, in many ways, portrays his initial, absolute embrace of the past, and his eventual slow turn toward what the future might hold for him. It does this in a number of ways: his seemingly apathetic speech while running for the senate, the exchange with Ann Rutledge, his encounters with Mary Todd, etc.

However, the chief example of the connection between past and future comes in the motherly theme running through the film. Before Lincoln is even on screen, a poem appears, written in the voice of Lincoln’s now deceased mother, Nancy Hanks. In it, she wonders what her boy Abe does now, and if he’s made anything of himself. Appropriately, in light of the poem’s placement at the beginning of the film, Lincoln’s connection to his mother comes up several times throughout, most notably in his relationship with Mrs. Clay, a frontier woman who gives him his first law book and whose boys give him his first trial as a lawyer. She reminds Abe of his mother, a fact he mentions on more than one occasion.

Mrs. Clay connects Abe to both his past and his future. Because she so reminds him of his mom, she leads him to reflect on where he has come from. She keeps him connected to that reality. However, because of the trial involving her boys, she also points him ahead toward his future.

The pivotal scene in this regard occurs when Lincoln quells the lynch mob. Abe sees the boys accused and taken off to jail. More importantly, he sees their mother weeping for her lost boys. As the men of the town decide to kill those boys, Lincoln knows what he must do. He has seen this woman, this visual representation of his mother. She reminds him of who he is and who he has been brought up to be. How can he not act on her behalf–a young man providing assistance to a mother in need? Were there any doubts in his mind about acting on behalf of the boys, her presence put them to rest.

In this scene, Mrs. Clay points him back to his roots, but she also points him forward to his destiny. He then walks over to the jail, stands in front of a battering ram—putting his own life at risk—and guides the mob in front of him to do the right thing. He uses all manner of rhetorical devices at his disposal, from righteous indignation to humor to the calling out of individuals, eventually leading the men to drop their weapons and go home. He reveals, in this moment, the seeds of a character that will only come into full bloom some thirty years later.

Young Mr. Lincoln portrays the life of a man in transition. It presents a man whose embrace of the past leads to his glorious (albeit tragic) future. It depicts a man whose humble and self-effacing nature endears him to people—“high” and “low” in society. And it reveals a man who willingly gives of himself in the service of justice and truth—here in smaller ways, but eventually, even unto his own death.

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

John Ford’s collaborations with Will Rogers are some of the more rewarding of the director’s work, particularly his work in the 1930’s. Light and airy with a touch of the poetic, they always remain profoundly humanist in the central character’s love for his neighbors—often in spite of them. The third and final film Ford and Rogers made together, Steamboat Round the Bend, is a wonderful illustration of this humanism in the sectarian South of the 1890s. It reveals the distinctive virtues that help Dr. John Pearly (Rogers) survive and find success in his attempt to save his nephew, Duke, from the gallows.

The two key characters in the film are Pearly and the self-proclaimed prophet against “the drink,” New Moses. Certain similarities unite these two men, yet their relationship is ultimately punctuated by a striking contrast. Both serve others. They both speak to crowds that gather to hear their message of healing. And they both have a set of followers. However, the key difference between them is in the type of service they provide. While Pearly offers his “neighbors” direct and tangible assistance, New Moses offers only “eternal” rewards. Because of this, New Moses comes off looking like a shyster, needing only the raised hand of a drunkard to dispense his “healing” gifts. No “real” or tangible help is necessary. No long nights spent with a man trying to kick a habit—only a sermon, a ribbon, and a passing of the hat to the sympathetic listeners. And when Pearly and his crew have a comedic encounter with “New Elijah” on the riverside, our suspicion of New Moses is confirmed.

Pearly on the other hand, dispenses tangible “medicine” in the form of rum. However, while that is played for comedy, Pearly proves himself over and again as he helps others throughout the film. He makes Duke turn himself in, even though the boy only acted in self-defense. He saves Duke’s young girlfriend from her abusive family. He earns money for Duke’s defense. He steams up and down the river looking for an eyewitness to Duke’s alleged crime. He tries to help Duke escape from prison when all looks lost. And of course, he competes in the race in a last ditch effort to save his nephew. As is made explicit near the end of the film, Pearly’s concern is saving a life, while Moses has been concerned only with saving souls.

Dr. Pearly wears various hats throughout the film—medicine salesman, museum entrepreneur, law-abiding citizen, and steamboat captain, to name a few. While several of the other characters possess their own shifting identities, Pearly has something else that helps him to transcend both New Moses and the other characters. He possesses good will toward others to such a degree that he will put himself out on their behalf. His service to others is tangible and observable. Pearly’s ability to shift to the changing needs of the moment helps him to survive. But his ability to do so while being guided by his care for others allows him to save a man’s life and earn the admiration of many.

The Informer (1935)

John Ford’s The Informer might best be thought of as a silent film. Or better yet, as a film that relies on its images and sounds, rather than its dialogue, to provide story elements, atmosphere, or character development. The dialogue is fine, but the brilliance of the film lies elsewhere. Ford and his cinematographer Joe August are able to ground the film’s characters (especially its central character, Gypo Nolan) and narrative solidly in the images.

For example, in the opening sequence, Ford sets the mood, the narrative, and the characterization with a series of nearly dialogue-free scenes in the streets of Dublin. The film opens on the shadowy image of Gypo, backlit and walking toward the camera through the foggy Irish night. At this point, his surroundings are impossible to determine. He seems almost not a part of the world, a ghost of a man. A series of these shots continues throughout the opening credit sequence, and already we have a sense that Gypo, the informer, is a man without a home.

A title card just after the credits makes reference to the story of the betrayer Judas. Then the film moves from shadow to reality, as Gypo’s shadow gets smaller and smaller on a nearby wall as he finally enters the frame from the left. His lessening image only contrasts with the man himself, who towers over passing pedestrians. Already the camera hints toward Gypo’s contradictory persona—strong or weak, lies or truths.

Ford’s camera follows Gypo down a Dublin street, where he encounters a wanted poster featuring a man called Frankie McPhillip. Gypo, shrouded in fog, stares long and hard at the poster. As Ford superimposes a happy memory of Frankie and Gypo over the mug shot, we not only get the distinct sense that Gypo knows the pictured criminal, but that he is struggling, like Judas, with whether or not to betray a friend. As he tears down the poster in anger, we perhaps can see this isn’t the first time Gypo has pondered this course.

The film then moves to three consecutive sequences, each of which is punctuated with that same wanted poster blowing into the frame. In the first, Gypo continues down the street, stopping only to listen to a young man singing an Irish ballad on the corner. As the man sings about the beauty of the Irish night and sea, Gypo stands removed from his countrymen, alone in the gloomy night. The camera’s focus turns to the poster, which, as if following Gypo, blows right on to his leg, sticking there and causing him some effort to remove it. But Gypo is no friend of the British either, quickly scurrying into the fog as a squad of “tans” rounds the corner. This all sets up the tragedy of Gypo Nolan beautifully, without words, save the song—a man without a home, lost in a moral fog, and even when surrounded by people, stands apart from all.

In the next sequence, a woman with covered head looks toward a rich man. Removing the shawl from her golden hair, she offers herself to the man with noting more than a look. As she walks by, Frankie’s poster catches on her feet, signaling her impending role in the Frankie McPhillip business, as well as indicating Gypo’s impending arrival. Just as the rich man approaches her, Gypo arrives. Perceiving the situation, he runs in to protect his female friend, throwing the man into the street. Here we get the only spoken dialogue of this sequence, as Gypo and Katie lament their poverty, speak of going to America for the required twenty pounds, and then break as Katie’s guilt causes her to ridicule Gypo’s reaction to her selling herself.

Finally, we see one final set of feet, those of Frankie McPhillip himself. As he walks down the city street, the poster blows up to him. Frankie picks it up, sees how much reward is being offered, and then quickly runs away to hide from another squad of “tans.” He is in the city, and the stage is set. The conflict is clear, though the night is anything but.

Ford accomplishes this set up in under ten minutes with only a minimum of dialogue. This aids the inherent suspense in the situation because it allows the viewer the freedom to make the connections of the narrative himself. And it makes clear the foggy moral morass that will imbue the film throughout.