The fact that Stagecoach, a milestone in the development of the western and the first complete masterpiece of its director, John Ford, begins with the announcement that 'Geronimo has jumped the reservation' and the Apache are on the warpath may be enough to put many off the film, the genre and the director. That would be a pity. Ford was one of the greatest and subtlest artists ever to work in the medium. His films are rich in emotions and ideas; his vision is both compassionate and sceptical.
At the age of 20 in 1915, Ford, the son of Irish immigrants, made his way from Maine to Hollywood, where he entered the fledgling industry as a prop and stunt man before quickly graduating to directing. Over the next 20 years he directed scores of films, enjoyed commercial success and occasional critical plaudits. But it was not until he was past 40 that his style reached maturity. In the films he made between 1939, the year of Stagecoach, and his departure for navy service two years later he created a unique blend of German-influenced expressionism, with its carefully lit compositions, and the easy-going, idiomatic naturalism of US popular culture.
A key element in the crystallisation of Ford's cinematic vision was the Popular Front, which in the US took the form of an alliance between leftists and liberals. The cultural wing of this social movement crossed many boundaries. Government-funded painters filled libraries, courthouses, post offices and schools with murals depicting episodes from US history, usually stressing the role of ordinary people. Various styles of American folk music were recovered and recorded, along with the new songs pouring out of Woody Guthrie. In Hollywood, the political moment left its stamp on the works of Frank Capra and Orson Welles as well as Ford, who described himself in a letter to a nephew serving in the International Brigades in Spain as 'a socialistic Democrat - always left'.
In Stagecoach, the Native Americans pose an existential threat; they are presented as an intrinsic part of a hostile environment. The real conflict in the film is among the whites crammed into the eponymous vehicle. The heroes are an escaped prisoner (John Wayne, mesmerising in the role that made him a star), a prostitute and a drunken doctor, all up against what the latter dubs 'the disease of social prejudice'. The villain is a banker spouting the Republican ideology of the day ('America for Americans!' 'Keep government out of business!'). In the course of the journey, the other characters reconsider their initial intolerance and a democratic bond is forged, though the film ends with a sour-jocular remark by the doctor about being 'spared the blessings of civilisation'.
In Ford's next film, Young Mr Lincoln, Henry Fonda plays the future president as a wisecracking, justice-seeking country lawyer, seeing off a lynch mob, getting an innocent man off a murder charge, discomfiting the pompous with his homespun wit. He's an easy-going populist with a firm moral centre. He's also an introspective man haunted by lost love and future challenges. Ford shows Lincoln responding to the various facets of US democracy: the good-natured rituals of a Fourth of July, a hate-driven mob, a canting elite.
Ford's film of The Grapes of Wrath, made in 1940, is better than Steinbeck's book: warmer, less mechanically deterministic. The tale of dustbowl refugees facing discrimination and exploitation becomes a political learning curve for the protagonist (Fonda as a taciturn but sensitive Tom Joad), who bids farewell to his beloved Ma with an assertion of his oneness with the struggle for justice everywhere: 'Wherever there's a cop beating a guy, wherever children are hungry. . . I'll be there.' Watching it recently, I couldn't help but find the scene in which the big 'cats' (bulldozers) destroy the farmers' homes at the behest of the bankers all too contemporary. Topical as it was and remains, the film gains immensely from Ford's long-term preoccupations with migration, family break up, the rituals of community and the solidarity of marginal groups in the face of a hostile world.
After his return from war service, Ford made the anti-triumphalist They Were Expendable, the story of a bitter US defeat - the loss of the Philippines in the early days of the war - and the fate of those deemed 'expendable'. It is a slow, meditative film, a study of comradeship and sacrifice, a stoic but deeply felt evocation of the futility that marks even a just war.
In the late 1940s Ford took a brief, bold stand against red-baiting in the Directors' Guild but thereafter gravitated to the right, ending his days as a champion of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam war. But that political CV hardly does justice to the rich ambivalences in Ford's work, the complexity of his historic vision. He was, from the beginning to the end, both a liberal and a conservative, an idealist and a sceptic, and this duality gives his films tension and depth.
Ford made his greatest films between 1946 and 1956. Because these were mainly westerns, they received little serious attention in the US, though critics in France and Britain, notably Lindsay Anderson (later to direct the insurrectionary If) began to make the case for Ford as a great artist. In My Darling Clementine, Wagonmaster, Fort Apache, Rio Grande and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford created a densely peopled world in which honour and camaraderie are mixed with defeat and melancholy. Native Americans remain a threat but are increasingly seen as victims of white duplicity. In different ways, each film deals with the contradictions of the 'civilising' process of westward expansion.
Ford's career climaxes with The Searchers (1956), ignored on release but now widely recognised as one of the greats. It tells the story of a five-year search, across a vast and varied landscape, for two white girls captured by Commanche. At its core is the figure of Ethan Edwards, an obsessive anti-hero, driven by a combination of loyalty, vengeance and racism (in particular, disgust at miscegenation), and played by Wayne so majestically, with such contained power and suggested depth, that it's amazing anyone could doubt his genius as a screen actor, however deplorable his off-screen politics. In the course of the film, Edwards comes to resemble more and more his 'savage' adversary. A stark scene depicts the aftermath of a massacre of native civilians by US cavalry. Categories of savaged and civilised, profane and religious, progress and barbarism are subject to an interrogation that is all the more powerful for being implicit.
In its evocations of space and time, The Searchers has a special magic. Here as elsewhere, Ford's famous landscapes are not just picture postcards but images saturated with meaning. He was unsurpassable in orchestrating remote figures across vast spaces. In interiors as well as exteriors he made the actors' movements within the frame, foreground and background, richly expressive.
Ford filled his films with humour, sometimes coarse or childlike, but often riotously funny. He segued from the gravest drama to broad comedy with Shakespearean élan. This was never just for the sake of 'relief'. Ford positively valued informality; stuffiness and self-righteousness were always suspect.
Ford's last masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, revisited the western genre itself and the whole process of history making. It's an austere, elegiac film about memory and myth, dubious about manifest destiny, enriched by a comic-affectionate depiction of frontier democracy.
Ford created his highly personal work within a commercial industry whose constraints he largely accepted, however he chafed at them. As Joseph McBride shows in his authoritative, nuanced biography, he was a multi-layered personality, generous and loyal but also cruel, jealous and insecure. He protected a vulnerable poet's soul within a shell of earthy machismo.
Ford welcomes us into a world that belongs to him alone but is at the same time universally accessible. It's a warm, human world, sad, funny, heroic, tragic. A world of poignant relationships: between culturally diverse communities, between the individual and the collective, between humans and their environment. Anyone with a taste for the dialectics of history should relish it. n
Contending for the living is Mike Marqusee's regular column for Red Pepper
Mike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.