Rating: The Good – 87.3 Genre: Western Duration: 97 mins Director: John Ford Stars: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature
Few if any directors had an eye for scene composition and linearity like the master John Ford had and this here classic is about as good an example of it as you will find. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play the legendary duo of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday who along with Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ford regular Ward Bond) Earp get drawn into a blood feud with the nasty Clanton clan. That genial old soul, Walter Brennan, plays their murderous patriarch is just one of several factors that makes Ford’s treatment of Earp’s time in Tombstone arguably the most memorable of the lot. Another is Fonda who compliments his oak exterior with all manner of playfulness that gives the Old West legend a genuine humanity and, with that, the edge on the likes of Russell or Costner (to name but a few). Mature didn’t always seem comfortable in his acting skin but he too counts as one of Ford’s aces as he captures the contradictory mystique of his character with presence and pathos alike. Holt and Bond are nothing more than bit players but Linda Darnell turns in a typically brash performance that further embellishes the movie’s emotional quotient.
They’re all aided considerably by Samuel G. Engels’ script which is a veritable peach of mouth watering turns of phrase but, also, seems a little conflicted in how it incorporates the titular Clementine into a plot that inevitably builds towards the showdown at the OK Corral. Cathy Downs does what she can as the woman caught between two friends but her character remains of side interest only. Needless to say, all fall in the shadow of Ford on this one for My Darling Clementine is just a spellbinding testament to the art of the visual pattern. If there was one film that could, on its own, instruct film students in composition, it would be this one. Sight lines that expand the psychological space by drawing our gaze out into the vastness of the desert, dusty light that silhouettes the famed characters of western lore in all of their immortal glory, and action sequences staged with a sniper’s eye for detail not to mention his/her patience. An aesthetic not easily matched nor ever forgotten.
Rating: The Good – 82.3 Genre: Drama Duration: 91 mins Director: John Ford Stars: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster
John Ford’s early feature was made only 14 years after the Irish won their War of Independence against the British so there’s a real sense of authenticity to the characters and events depicted here. Victor McLaghlen headlines as Gypo Nolan, a big lug too fond of the drink, whose recent expulsion from the republican army and desperation for money leads him to inform the whereabouts of his wanted friend to the ruthless Black and Tans and claim the reward on his head. However, when the Tan’s kill his friend, his ensuing guilt combined with his continued drinking throughout the night reveal more and more clues to those around him that he might have been the informer.
The Informer is a dark film shot beautifully by Ford whose eye for staging and lighting imbued it with a heavy tension. The emotional trials faced by the main characters are real and engaging and for the most part the acting is top drawer. McLaglen is unfortunately extremely wooden and the decision to give a non Irish man the central role in a cast full of actual Irish actors was regrettable as his stereotyped accent and mannerisms are exposed all the more. If you can ignore that however, there are plenty of big names from the Irish stage to give the rest of the characters the right tone and thus retain that intimate sense of authenticity.
Rating: The Good – 92.5 Genre: Western Duration: 119 mins Director: John Ford Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles
Bookended by perhaps the greatest opening and closing shots of any film, the image of the great western frontier captured from the dark recesses of the family homestead says it all. The Searchers is an awe-inspiring and sweeping meditation on family and uncharted territory (both physical and spiritual). It begins with the return of civil war veteran, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), to his brother’s home only for the family to be massacred a short time afterwards by a Comanche war party out for revenge. All are killed except for his young niece who they kidnapped instead and Ethan sets out after her but not necessarily with the intention of taking her back. Aware of this, his part Indian nephew sets out with him in order to ensure that his sister is rescued and not killed by the bitter and deeply prejudiced Ethan. The Searchers is a complex and deeply profound examination of love, devotion, and bitterness shot magnificently by a master director at the height of his powers. It also gives us the Duke’s best performance as he towers over everyone else on screen in both the physical and acting sense. It’s not an easy watch in parts but those darker moments are offset by some genuinely funny moments such as the fight between Martin and the fiancé of his would-be bride. But when it does return to darker territory the result is one of the most complicated and fascinating movie going experiences.
Rating: The Good – 85.3 Genre: Western Duration: 123 mins Director: John Ford Stars: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin
John Ford didn’t do one dimensional westerns and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly no exception. James Stewart plays a senator who returns to the town where he made his reputation by killing a local villain years earlier. The film then jumps back to that time as he beings to recount the tale of how he made his name and of his complicated relationship with the one man who the outlaws were afraid of (John Wayne of course!).
The early scenes are beautifully crafted and set up the sentiments of the back-story in a touching and patient manner. There’s a wonderful sense of familiarity as we’re brought back to the time when the now booming town of Shinbone was ruled by gun law. Stewart is terrific in the lead and Lee Marvin made a mean outlaw but John Wayne is the most memorable as the fearless gunfighter forced to make a sacrifice.
As most of the action takes place in the town, we don’t have the wide sweeping shots that defined Stagecoach and The Searchers. However, this is still a great looking film as Ford gives Shinbone a character of its own through his trademark staging and use of light. All told, this is a more pensive and slow burning Western than we typically see but no less rewarding.
Rating: The Good – 85.6 Genre: Western Duration: 96 mins Director: John Ford Stars: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine
The film that blew moviegoers away when it was released was the first Hollywood picture to effectively employ those deeply staged interior and exterior shots that became the trademark of John Ford’s filmography. It certainly raised the quality of the movie experience as hard and square angles were replaced by angled shots that ran along the lines of the rooms or off forever into the distance of the exterior shots. The story is thoroughly gripping as a varied collection of characters are huddled together on a stagecoach that must ride through Apache held territory to find the shelter of a union fort. Stagecoach is the film that turned John Wayne into a megastar and it’s not hard to see why given that excellent introduction and the way he carries himself throughout. There are many great support acts on show all embodying the various personalities and professions which were typical of Ford’s movies. In fact, there’s a blustery banker present whose opinions on Federal intervention in the banks’ business will leave modern viewers with some cold chills. However, Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the most memorable member of the stagecoach’s complement and it’s his backstory that threads through to the end to make for one of the great western showdowns.