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.

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