- The Westerns and War Films of John Ford by Sue Matheson
Think of the famous filmmaker John Ford and you'll probably think of the famous actor, John Wayne. Think of John Ford and John Wayne and you might imagine a triumphalist, violent, strutting Americana, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. Sue Matheson's The Westerns and War Films of John Ford would show you, though, that your opinion was awfully incomplete. This exhaustively researched and elegantly written study convincingly argues that when it comes to John Ford and his westerns and war films, what meets the eye is much more than you might think.
A professor at the University College of the North in Manitoba and an accomplished film scholar, Matheson is the author of, among other works, Love in Western Film and Television: Lonely Hearts and Happy Trails (2013) and A Fistful of Icons: Essays on Frontier Fixtures of the American Western (2017). The Westerns and War Films of John Ford is part of Rowman and Littlefield's "Film and History" series.
Matheson organizes The Westerns and War Films of John Ford chronologically. She begins, in Chapter 1, with a brief overview of Ford's long career. Each of the remaining thirteen chapters considers selected Ford films including, for example, early works like Straight Shooting (1917) and The Iron Horse (1924); Ford's World War II films; the "Cavalry Trilogy" –Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande (1947-1950); The Searchers (1956) and The Horse Soldiers (1959); and finally, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Matheson knows Ford and Fordiana well.
Ford is, of course, enormously influential; as Matheson notes, "[Steven] Spielberg still regards Ford as his mentor and watches Ford's films before making his own" (xvii). Matheson's thesis is that there is nothing simple about Ford's work. Matheson approvingly cites Scott Eyman's judgment that Ford was a "mass of contradiction" (xiii), but as Matheson skillfully demonstrates, these many contradictions do not cancel each other out, but rather enrich Ford's immense body of work.
Ford was a photographer at heart; film for him was a photographic art and each image in his films is not only carefully composed but also evokes a wide range of visual associations. The Battle of Midway (1942), his documentary about the epic naval battle, includes sweeping images of cloud and sky, echoing the nature mysticism of the nineteenth century Hudson River School of landscape painters (101). Images from his "Cavalry Trilogy" are shaped by Civil War photographs. His earliest films reference Renaissance art. As Matheson notes, Ford had a "painterly eye" (30).
At the same time, Ford was a storyteller, a narrative artist who turned as often to books as to paintings when composing a film (xvii). The child of Irish immigrants, Ford became, Matheson writes, "a seanchaí, a traditional Irish storyteller" (xv). He thought that there was such a thing as an "American character" (227) and his great goal was to show, and tell, its story.
That story was complicated. Ford was a Victorian and Matheson agrees with Gaylyn Studlar that "Victorian sentiment informs what have come to be regarded as Fordian values" (xvii). Victorian sometimes means "hierarchical" and "oppressive" but such characteristics aren't typical of Ford. He did not make simple-minded "he-man" pictures (11); as prosperous as he became, he never forgot that he was the child of immigrants. Matheson writes: "Always sympathetic to the underdog, Ford adopted the stance of the outsider" (xiv) both in his films and in his personal life. Racism was, of course, pervasive in Ford's America, which makes Sergeant Rutledge (1960) all the [End Page 104] more surprising. A murder mystery set in Ford's beloved west, the film tells the story of an African American sergeant (Woody Strode) who is wrongly accused of rape and murder–a remarkable film for such a Victorian and patriotic filmmaker.
John Ford was a "greatest generation" patriot. In...