A Dreamer Walking

John Ford- An Observation- A Thousand Fights

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 21, 2012

In the 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood everyone was under contract, especially the directors and actors. For the most part Ford had little say in the movies he made. He needed to work with the scripts the studios gave him. Ford said he would tell the studios if the script would make a lousy, good, or great picture, but no matter what he was given he would do the best he could with it. This, along with the little time Ford was given to plan, brought about some mediocre films in his career. Very few could really fight against the studio system and make it through with a strong career. Frank Capra and Orson Welles are examples of directors who fought tooth and nail against the control of the studios. As a result both directors had great beginnings to their careers but ended up burning out or slowing their success down considerably ten to twenty years into their career. You might say ten to twenty years is good, until you contrast it with Ford’s forty plus years of success.

Ford said he got into a thousand fights with the studios in his career and he lost them all. I disagree with Ford here. He might not have completely won many, if any, of them. But, he rarely lost a fight. Unlike Capra or Welles, Ford was a master at working the Hollywood system. He learned to work in a way that gave him the power over most of the movies he made without exhausting himself or making the studios too mad. Ford was a shifty fellow, he would not fight through direct defiance, but rather through being more clever then his opponent.

Ford knew the studios had the power in the editing room. So he fought this by giving the studio the minimum amount of coverage to work with. In Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) there is a beautiful scene where Angharad, the most beautiful woman in the town, is just leaving after being married to a rich man who she is not in love with. The minister, Mr. Gruffydd, is the person she is truly in love with and we see him come out of the Church in silhouette looking at Angharad before she leaves. Ford was asked while shooting if he wanted to do a close up of Mr. Gruffydd. Ford replied, “Jesus no. They’ll just use it”. Most of Ford’s pictures were already cut in his head before he started shooting. He was usually so convinced in his interpretation of the story that he only shot what he absolutely needed. Even though the studios had power over Ford to edit his pictures, they could only edit in a limited amount of ways because Ford only gave them a limited amount of film to work with.

Whenever Ford had the opportunity to shoot on location he did. Ford wanted to be as far away from Hollywood and his producers as possible. One of the reasons Ford shot so many of his films in Monument Valley was because it was away from all the distractions of Hollywood and its control. There were no phones, producers, or set limitations in Monument Valley. Without the restrictions of the studio we see greatness at work. Great classics such as Stagecoach and The Searchers were made in Monument Valley. Ford’s pictures at Monument Valley are so legendary directors today refuse to shoot there out of respect of Ford and fear they would do the Valley and Ford a disservice.

The studios might have picked the scripts but it was Ford who chose what he used and what he discarded. Ford was just fine with improvisation and using the script only as a guide.  He was known for getting rid of dialogue or even getting rid of a scene or two entirely if he didn’t think it helped the story’s purpose. I have come across the story, more then once in my research of Ford, where he was given a hard time by a producer for being a few days off schedule. Ford angrily called for the script, ripped several pages out and said, “There! Now we are back on schedule”. Whether this story is true or not, it does represent Ford’s philosophy on scripts; they were never set in stone. He was always looking for the happy accident or the improvisation that enhanced or out did what he read on the page.

Ford’s tough guy demeanor was also a way to defend himself in fights. To prevent himself from always needing to argue his case when directing his crew Ford created an image of being a “hard ass”. Deep down Ford was a compassionate man with a great amount of insecurities. The sentimental scenes in Ford’s films work because he believed in them and his crew knew if a “hard ass” like Ford believed in them, they could too. No matter the insecurities, what drove Ford was ambition. Ford would never let his crew or producers see his soft side. Failure did not bring Ford down it just made him want to prove himself even more. Ford’s crew and the studios he worked for knew he was not someone to mess around with.

Movies like The Quite Man, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were ambitious pieces of cinema that would never have been made without Ford. Ford needed to fight for these films. Ford was able to get the go-ahead for his more personal films by first making the films the studios wanted him to make. Ford worked on several mediocre, at best, stories in order to get the green light for his personal projects. He understood the system better then anyone. He knew he could not get his way every time. Filmmaking was an expensive medium and Ford needed the studios in order to participate in it. He was willing to sacrifice in order to get the opportunity to perfect his art form and tell the stories that really spoke to his heart.  It took him thirty years to get the okay for The Quite Man.

As I said at the beginning of the post, I do not think Ford lost very many fights. However, I do think he was beat up. Ford was abused through out his life and he became an abuser to many people, especially the ones closest to him. Fighting has consequences. Unlike Capra, Welles, and countless others, Ford did not allow the studios to kill his creativity. He did lose many friendships through being a bully and we do see a much more cynical view on life in Ford’s later films. Ford’s last great Western, The Man who Shot Liberty Valence, is considered one of the most melancholy westerns of all time. In it we don’t see the vast landscape shots and great action scenes we are so used to seeing in a Ford Western. Instead we are given a story about the ineffectiveness of law against the true evil of the world. We see a love story that does not end the way most want. And, we are shown how the world rather believe a myth over the truth when it is more convenient.

In order to understand the unbelievable length and strength of Ford’s career all you need to do is look at his Westerns. He started by defining the Western in the silent era in the shorts he did with Harry Carey Sr. and the epic western The Iron Horse (1924). In the middle of his career he made the Western one of the most powerful genres in Hollywood with the movie Stagecoach (1939).  Ford ended his career turning Hollywood and the public’s concept of the Western on it’s head, with movies such as The Searchers (1954) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1960). To have the kind of career Ford had you needed to be a pretty good fighter. Ford wasn’t a fighter without a cause. He fought with the studio systems, his crew, and the changing ideals of America in order to bring us his visions of the country and ideals he loved and believed in. He fought to tell his stories in the best ways he knew how. He fought with conviction, courage, and an unwillingness to stay down. Because of this he had one of the greatest careers in the history of filmmaking.

John Ford- An Observation- The Old School Director

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 10, 2012

John Ford consistently got his films done on budget and on time. He made films full of character and story without convoluted plot. He used a minimum amount of dialogue in his movies and did not move the camera unless he needed to. Ford did not consider himself an artist. Filmmaking was his job and his mission was to create an entertaining picture for the rest of the world to see. John Ford is an example of someone who did not learn filmmaking from a school or book, but rather from on the job experience through trial and error. He stands toe to toe with the great filmmakers of the past who were not just masters at using the language of film but the ones creating it from scratch. With little money, demanding schedules, and constant monitoring with excessive restrictions from the studio systems, Ford was able to bring us classics that are hailed even now as being some of the greatest films ever made.

John Ford is the definition of an “Old School” director. He was part of the group that started it all. He was one of the ones who made us realize the power and importance of filmmaking. He was not artsy or self-indulgent. Ford’s only objective was to do well at his job. Ford wasn’t interested in showing the world the man behind the camera through huge tracking shots and clever compositions, rather his interest lied in letting the action unfold as if the camera wasn’t even there. The camera hardly moved in Ford’s films. When he moved the camera it was for a thought through reason. If he moved in on a character we knew we needed to pay attention to what the character was doing or saying. If Ford made a cut it was because he was finished exploring that particular moment in the story. These days filmmakers are afraid to keep the camera still. They will use handhelds and cut excessively just because they are worried about boring the audience. Ford believed in his crew and his directing abilities enough to follow his ambitions and not cave into the public’s demands.

The advice Ford gave for making good films was simple, “Photograph the eyes”. He knew the power of film came through human connection. Sure we liked the fist fights, horse charges, and gun fights in Ford’s films, but what kept his movies relevant was the simple study he did on the human psyche. He explored the individual and his or her obligations to family and society. He constantly contrasted the individual with the development of what many would consider the progression of History. Many filmmakers of today do not spend enough time connecting the audience to the characters and world of their film before moving on with plot. We often have BIG ideas but usually don’t have the patience to explore them or understand them. Ford didn’t care for big ideas, he explored simple things. Like the obligation a child has to his father in the movie How Green was My Valley (1941), the overpowering remorse that comes when betraying a friend in The Informer (1935), or the concept of finding worth when everything seems to be taken away in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

John Ford made a name for himself through simplicity. He made simple stories and he filmed them in simple ways. He did not feel the need to make a blockbuster time and time again, like so many high profile directors do these days. He did not treat the actors as if they were the most important members of the film crew. Ford’s school was the films he worked on and the movies he went to. All the film student of this generation can do is stand on the shoulders of the great directors of our past. Ford was one of those great directors. In 1971 Ford said, “I never felt important. Or as though I was a career director or a genius, or any other damn thing”. This is the very reason he was a genius and why he has become an important filmmaker to study today. Ford put his art form ahead of himself. He did not make movies for fame and admiration, but rather because he had a passion for telling a story.