Just Pals (1920)

At any rate he was generous, never mean, like others in the village I could mention if I chose. –Graham Greene, The Second Death

John Ford’s career at Fox began with this charming short feature starring Buck Jones as the likable, but lazy town bum, Bim. The film opens with a series of short, introductory vignettes, beginning with the elderly town sheriff looking out for trouble and a group of rowdy young boys who admire Bim, albeit to their parent’s chagrin. These two scenes serve as a perfect and effortless lead in to Bim, “the idol of youth and the bane of elders.” Already, in a few short scenes, Ford’s sequencing allows the viewer to almost intuitively grasp Bim’s situation in the town and the sources of conflict to come—Bim is an outsider, looked down upon by “responsible” adults for his idle (and thereby destructive) ways.

This outsider mentality is typical of many of Ford’s films, including his well-known later films—Wayne’s characters in Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, not to mention Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. These “good bad men,” as Bogdanovich calls them, all find some kinship with Bim, only able to observe the established community from afar.

But in Just Pals, optimism rules the day. Sure, the townspeople are against him. But Ford presents Bim’s faults in a more whimsical fashion. He’s lackadaisical, but without anyone to support, he only really hurts himself. And underneath the veneer of laziness, he possesses a strong moral code. He protects helpless women and children. For instance, when Bill takes a thrashing from the railroad man, Bim jumps to his defense. With Mary at risk of public ridicule and shame, Bim protects her secret, even at his own peril.

So while Bim is an outsider, he is not completely alone. The helpless and the hungry, the defenseless and the defeated, all find Bim. Bill, the boy hobo, finds Bim. Mary, the compassionate schoolteacher, finds Bim. On the other hand, the established and hard-working townspeople not only look down on Bim, but rush to judgment against him, even to the point of death. Their calloused ways even encourage the use of orphaned children for their own financial gain.

Ford’s humanism is at work in this duality—better to be sitting with the outsiders of the world than conform to the prideful established community that can’t be bothered by stooping below their station to help a fellow human being. But there is a strain of individualism in addition to the humanism. Despite the intimations of the title and the fact that Bim has found companions in Bill and Mary by the end of the film, he would not have found these friends had he not struck out on his own and distinguished himself from the townspeople.

This resulting community of outsiders defines the optimism of this early Ford picture. Nobody’s truly alone. There’s always another “pal” to be had.

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers begins with a door opening, providing a glorious view into Monument Valley and to the approaching Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). It ends with that same door closing, this time with Edwards retreating, back into the landscape from which he came. In between, he scours that landscape, looking for his kidnapped niece, Debbie, who has been taken as a future bride of the notorious Comanche chief, Scar (Henry Brandon).This search provides numerous instances of suspense, comedy, battle, and heroism. But beyond that, and what makes this film so intriguing, is that it provides us a look into the heart of a man (Edwards). And it provides us an opportunity to reflect on the aftermath of one of the great conflicts in US history.

When Edwards returns to the West Texas farm of his brother, he has been out of the Civil War for some three years, and rumors have been flying about just what he was up to during that time (he was probably involved in some kind of criminal activity). He fought for the Confederates, and he brings home loads of money that looks straight from a treasury. He’s probably also a racist, as his frequent comments about the Comanche Indians indicate. But when he decides to pursue the warring Indians that killed his family and kidnapped his niece, he will not bend, even if it means keeping up the chase for five years.

The thing I love about this film is that as viewers, we are forced to sympathize with a man we don’t really want to like, yet his perseverance and the honor of his task compel us to do so. He’s essentially a distant uncle to this girl, a girl that was close to a baby the first time he saw her. Yet he sacrifices himself to get to her – but here is where it gets tricky. Is he trying to save her because she’s family? Is he trying to get to her because no Comanche deserves to be with a white woman (his hate for Indians is his motivation here)? Is he going after her to see to it that justice is done?

These elements work together in him, playing off of each other, revealing themselves at different times in the film. At one moment, we think the motive is familial affection. Then we are convinced it’s the racist and vengeful impulses in him. When he shoots the dead Comanche in the eyes, the racism takes the forefront. When he tells of the way he cared for the body of Lucy, we see the feelings for his family come forth. When he eschews the “too lengthy” funeral service for the search, the motive is more ambiguous. This ambiguity appears to be the dominant theme in his character. One could interpret many of his actions in more honorable ways, but there seem to be a number of factors pointing in the other direction – toward his racism, his thirst for vengeance, and his criminal past.

All this causes me to reflect on questions that arise all the time about motives. Why do we do what we do? Do we ever do anything for purely selfless reasons, or is it more often than not that we act out of our own self-interest, out of our own desires for what we want and how we think things should be? Ford shows us a true man in Edwards, a man who is terribly conflicted (whether he knows that or not), a man who acts in heroic ways, but who may actually be something none of us aspire to.