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Reviewed by:
  • How the West was Sung: Music in the Films of John Ford
  • Kevin Donnelly (bio)
Kathryn Kalinak , How the West was Sung: Music in the Films of John Ford (University of California Press, 2007), 271 pp.

Having interviewed film makers and musicians, I have been aware of the very genuine risk of scholars taking their rhetoric at face value. When it comes to film or music publicity there is a greater risk. This is illustrated well in How the West was Sung: Music in the Films of John Ford. Publicity contained in the film My Darling Clementine's press book claimed that director John Ford insisted on absolute authenticity and that 'the research department had a job on its hands', yet the songs chosen included Ten Thousand Cattle, which was not written until some 25 years after the era being portrayed (79). As Kathryn Kalinak declares, 'Historical accuracy was never Ford's strong suit' (116), and indeed, it was not. However, his interest in the mythic dimensions of history and film's potential in this has rarely, if ever, been matched. I thought that I knew a fair amount about John Ford's Westerns and their music, but Kalinak's exquisitely detailed book immediately told me otherwise. Indeed, at times I wondered if I might be reading the definitive study, as it not only synthesises existing debates on the subject, but also reconfigures these debates and understandings through extensive archival research. This provides a great sense of authority for the book: there is a massive listing of archival sources at the outset that underscores the solid scholarship that is the foundation of such a commanding work.

There has been little written about music in the Western, and even less about the music in John Ford's Westerns. However, there is a large body of literature on John Ford's films, due to the fact that generally he is accepted as the premier auteur director inside the Hollywood studio system's factory production line during its heyday. This body of (sometimes conflicting and contested) work was something substantial for Kalinak to contend with, but she has done admirably well. This is to be lauded, as there has grown an insistent strand of film music writing that tends to ignore previous film studies scholarship, as if writers think they are entering totally virgin territory, in a manner not unlike the settlers of the American West. [End Page 77]

Ford's status as a film maker is singular. Andrew Sarris, in his celebrated book The American Cinema, ranks Ford in his top echelon of 'Pantheon Directors', calling him a ' ... storyteller and poet of Images' (1968: 49). His films such as The Informer (1935) and Stagecoach (1939) have long been considered outstanding films of Hollywood's Golden Age. The Quiet Man (1952), perennially considered a piece of embarrassing nostalgia that spawned a surrounding tourist industry, now is being reassessed as a far more complex statement on Ireland. Ford's The Searchers (1956) is now firmly lodged in 'top film' lists both on television and in cinephile journals. He famously described himself as a maker of Westerns and indeed, it is within this genre that Ford made many of his best films. Since the advent of 'genre theory' in Film Studies, film genres have relinquished the pejorative tag that they held (largely, it has to be said, from the negative sense that Hollywood film production tended to associate with the cheap manufacture of 'genre pictures'). Rather than seeing the Western as a standardised product, Robert Warshow described it as 'an art form for connoisseurs, where the spectator derives his [sic] pleasure from the appreciation of minor variations within the working out of a pre-established order' (Warshow 1964: 66). Rather than wholly individual films that set their own terms, genre films are now recognised as working across an existing matrix of ideas and icons, in a process where the smallest of details and variations can be of the highest significance. Books such as Jim Kitses' Horizons West (2007) have enabled Westerns to be considered as ur-Americana, meditations upon such lofty themes as the nature of civilization, history, good and evil, the role...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1753-0776
Print ISSN
1753-0768
Pages
pp. 77-82
Launched on MUSE
2009-07-24
Open Access
No
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