JOHN FORD’S WOMEN….A HANDY TEN

This is a rare photograph of John Ford without either his eye-patch or trademark dark glasses. It was taken in a military setting (1951 in the Philippines according to the on-line source I copied it from), but it’s appropriate for this post because the old line about Ford wearing those dark glasses to hide his vulnerability is in line with today’s subject…and fully evident here.

Now here’s a subject. Ford has been accused of every bad thing–he might be unique in the degree to which he is suspected of bad-think by progressives and reactionaries in about equal measure–and there are plenty of people who consider his treatment of women regressive at best.

As usual, this view tends to say more about those who hold it than Ford’s actual films. Not more than a handful of directors across the world–forget Hollywood–gave as many good actresses as many good roles. The list of those who delivered breakthrough and/or career-defining performances in Ford films (often against the grain of everyone else’s expectations*) includes Hattie McDaniel, Anne Shirley, Jean Arthur, Claire Trevor, Shirley Temple (as child and young woman), Maureen O’Hara, Donna Reed, Jane Darwell, Sara Algood, Anna Lee, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Olive Carey, Constance Towers and Vera Miles. That’s not even including all the performances listed below (Henrietta Crossman did not, alas, become a big star), the great performances he got from established stars like Claudette Colbert and Anne Bancroft, or the legion of small parts that deepened some of Ford’s best films (see Marjorie Weaver in Young Mr. Lincoln ** or Beulah Archuletta in The Searchers for prime examples).

It’s true that giving great roles to women was not the first thing worth remembering about Ford (as it was, perhaps, about George Cukor), but I suspect the criticisms that have come from the Left (in Ford’s day and ever since) and often been verified by the Right (that’s what “conservatives”  mainly do…accept, and therefore conserve, whatever Narrative emerges, be it true or, as in this case, false), have more to do with disapproval of the kinds of women Ford valued (pretty much all of them, so long as they had a spark of honor and didn’t represent one of Hollywood’s plethora of easy ways out), than the sensitivity and nuance he, almost alone, accorded them.

Even in westerns.

Even in war movies.

The depth and breadth of the women he did portray, and the broad spectrum of actresses he hired to play them, did not really permit a “type” in the manner of Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. There was no room for fantasy creatures, however beguiling, in a canon devoted to understanding how civilizations are built and maintained.

For that you needed a gallery like this one, where Ten hardly scratches the surface.

Henrietta Crossman as “Hannah Jessop”
Pilgrimage (1933)

Knowing Crossman only from Pilgrimage, Ford’s first great narrative film of the sound era, it’s almost shocking to come across pictures of her that prove she was once young and occasionally even smiled. None of that is evident in her harrowing, embittered performance as Hannah Jessop a rural southern woman who signs her son up for the draft in WWI rather than see him marry a local girl of whom she does not approve. In early cinema, this is as striking and unsettling a performance as Renee Falconetti’s title role in The Passion of Joan of Arc, except Crossman’s character is not at odds with either history or herself.

Not, in other words, for the faint of heart.

Claire Trevor as “Dallas”
Stagecoach (1939)

The girl Hannah Jessop didn’t want her son to marry, cast back to the Arizona frontier of the previous century. On one level, it’s a Hooker With a Heart of Gold cliche (though it had much to do with defining that cliche). But it’s also a sound representation of the travails faced by women on the frontier. The life John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is determined to save her from flits in and out of her expressions for an hour and a half.

Then they take a walk into the heart of it, side by side, and, the first or fiftieth time you watch it, you can feel that life closing back around her.

Trevor (and Ford) got that the cliche not only had a foundation in reality, they understood that the reality involved a great deal of self-loathing, which needed only the tiniest scratch on the surface to show through This is one of those performances that seems all about that surface at first, until you realize that’s just how such a person would be forced to live, just the masks they would be forced to adopt–unless, as here, a miracle arrives.

She gets that part–and all that such a miracle would mean to this woman–as well.

Edna May Oliver as “Mrs. McKlennar”
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Supporting role or not (I wrote about Claudette Colbert’s lovely performance as the lead, here–it shouldn’t be overlooked that Ford often had two or more strong female performances in an era when one was nearly always enough for his competition), this is one of the towering performances of pre-war cinema.

Oliver captures for all time a type that was invaluable on the frontier and still recognizable in the neighborhoods where I grew up in the sixties and seventies. Bawdy, prickly, judgmental, generous to those worthy of her respect, ready with a tongue-lashing for those who weren’t, level-headed, good-humored, nobody’s fool and a rock in any crisis.

Except for here, she never got full representation in our movies. I haven’t seen her around lately and I hope she’s not really gone. Because if she is, we are too.

(Oliver lost the Oscar to Gone With the Wind‘s Hattie McDaniel, who had her breakout role in Ford’s Judge Priest five years earlier. I don’t want to call that one. It’s one of those years I wish there had been a tie.)

Jane Darwell as “Ma Joad”
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Iconic. The only actress to win an Oscar in a Ford film (there should have been others–starting with Crossman–but that’s a topic for another time).

As Darwell portrays her, Ma Joad is broad, sentimental, prone to bouts of emotion (except when there’s a real crisis). Again, the wrong kind of woman to appeal to our “modern” ideas. And, again, a type familiar from my childhood (Ford’s films are virtually the only place the people I grew up around have ever found sympathetic representation).

Florence King had the best line about the women Darwell’s “Ma” embodied: “They got their name in the paper three times. When they were born, when they married and when they died.”

Growing up, I took the permanent presence of such women for granted.

More fool me.

More fool us.

Donna Reed as “Sandy Davyss”
They Were Expendable (1945)

Reed’s breakout role, as a WAC caught in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor.

This is one of those characters who might seem rote at first, like all any good actress needed to do was hit her marks.

Until you realize how much Reed has to convey–the full weight of a first record of how American women bore up under the existential crisis of the twentieth century–and how easily and naturally she does every last bit of it. Then you start thinking of who else could have done it as well….and the mind blanks. Then the mind laughs.

How did Ford know, in 1945, that the mousy little contract player taking bit parts on the lot would be Donna Reed? (And I’m not saying he knew it in casting, because I don’t even know if he was responsible for casting her–but you can bet he knew it by the time the camera rolled.)

Well, that’s just the sort of thing Ford always seemed to know.

(FYI: Based largely on this role–a model, witting or unwitting, for Dana Delaney in China Beach, one of the three or four best characters in the history of television–Reed received hundreds of letters from servicemen. She read every one, answered every one, kept every one, told no one. Her daughter discovered the letters only after her mother died.)

Joanne Dru as “Denver”
Wagon Master (1950)

A hooker who doesn’t come close to having a heart of gold…but she might be persuaded to settle down.

Ford’s dreamlike ending leaves the question of whether she does less settled than you might think and Dru’s performance (her best for my money, though she was also excellent in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Hawks’ Red River, on which she claimed Ford gave extensive editing assistance) is filled with glances and expressions and lost looks that don’t give away so much that you can ever feel like you know her all the way through.

Just well enough that you’re rooting for her. Again, the right choice for a woman in her position. Given the 1849 setting she might be the mother who was massacred and left Stagecoach‘s Dallas an orphan who was forced into the same trade.

If she settled down, that is….

Maureen O’Hara as “Mary Kate Danaher”
The Quiet Man (1952)

O’Hara starred for Ford five times (more than any other leading lady in the sound era), including her breakout role in How Green Was My Valley and her defining role here.

My own favorite is her Cavalry wife in Rio Grande, but there’s no gainsaying this. It’s the most iconic role any woman had in a Ford film (edging Darwell in Grapes of Wrath as it’s a lead). And O’Hara is brilliant. She and John Wayne made every other screen romance look contrived and Ford was able to hang anything he wanted on the combustible chemistry they created.

He got carried away here and there, but every time the camera swung back to Mary Kate Danaher–which was often–the film was back on track. In some ways, it was the director’s chance to prove he could do the things so many claimed he couldn’t–mainly sex and romance.

Those people were already wrong. Here, with the Irish redhead’s fiery assistance, he made them look silly.

Ava Gardner as “Honey Bear Kelly”
Mogambo (1953)

And if that hadn’t done it, this would have.

This is a fairly straight remake of Red Dust, a pre-code sizzler from Ford’s buddy Victor Fleming. Gardner has the Jean Harlow part as a show girl stranded in the wild (here, Africa), hoping to hang her hat on the local big cheese (here, as in Red Dust, Clark Gable, only now graying at the temples).

Somewhere along the way, it turns from lust to love. For her at least. Again a pretty standard part…but Gardner does wonders with it. I love Harlow and Red Dust might be her very best. But Gardner’s Kelly feels like she has miles on her and knows there’s one chance to shed them before they add up to a weight she can’t throw off….and an empty life.

You never felt Harlow’s character was on the verge of breaking, that she was walking all the way up to a line that couldn’t be re-crossed.

You can feel Honey Bear Kelly doing just that.

Watch this on a triple bill with Stagecoach and Wagon Master some time for a master class in how to pick up the same stone and draw blood from it three completely different ways.

Vera Miles as “Hallie Stoddard”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

There are actually people who profess not the get either Miles or her character in this movie.

I wonder if it’s just possible they get her all too well.

This would be one of the great performances if only for her reading of the greatest passage in American fiction: “Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?” (You have to run some to beat “You don’t own me!” which, two years before it showed up in Lesley Gore’s demo pile, is also here, also hers–and perfect.)

But it’s not comforting. It doesn’t permit the space modernity demands for cuddling up.

Miles wasn’t so much the aging Ford’s perfect muse as his perfect match. Every other western he made after The Searchers–all of which featured fine actresseswas diminished by her absence.

All she had to do here was hold her own in the middle of a triangle formed by John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin, all at their best. She made it look easy, which is probably why, like a lot of Ford’s women, she’s never gotten credit for it. Either that, or it’s the character people are afraid of–a woman who chose the only way she could and lived to realize that she will never be granted the comfort of knowing whether she chose wrongly.

One of the ten best performances given by an American actress–and I’m not sure you need the gender distinction.

Had it not been given by a woman in a John Ford western this would be nowise controversial.

Anne Bancroft as “Dr. D.R. Cartwright”
7 Women (1966)

Ford’s final completed film.

The frontier has moved to a Chinese mission post, where Bancroft’s D.R. Cartwright–doctor and skeptic–arrives as the emergency medical assistance.

There’s probably more debate about the quality of this film than any of his others. I lean toward the positive, though I’d like to see a quality print before I die (with Ford, the visuals comment on everything else, so being forced to watch a washed-out bootleg is even more of a handicap than usual).

But most people agree on the quality of Bancroft’s performance, which is on a par with her iconic work in The Miracle Worker and The Graduate. Ford was a devout Catholic but his films are filled with bristling critiques of both religious fanaticism and false piety–never more than here. A mission post isn’t as far from his usual concerns as you might think and Cartwright is as representative of his world view as any character could be.

That Ford didn’t like Bancroft’s performance (she was cast after Patricia Neal had a stroke a few days into the shoot) was probably indicative of his capacity for self-loathing. This is one of those times when it’s best not to take him seriously.

There’s never a time when we shouldn’t take his great films seriously.

Certainly not now.

I won’t give away the ending, but D.R. Cartwright’s final scene still has a lot to teach us.

[NOTES:

*One of my favorite Ford anecdotes, which I really hope is true, regards Grace Kelly, not considered “box office” enough at the time for the role Ford wanted her to play in Mogambo (where she would have to hold her own against the established star power of Ava Gardner and Clark Gable).

The honchos were not impressed by either the films she had done (including High Noon) or her existing screen tests, all of which were in black and white.

“Shoot her in color,” Ford said. “She’ll knock you on your ass.”

They shot her in color. Mogambo–unjustly neglected these days–became the biggest hit of Ford’s career and made Kelly a star. Alfred Hitchcock and the Prince of Monaco were among those suitably impressed.

**Mary Tyler Moore’s performance on television is, to my mind, the definitive Mary Todd Lincoln. But it’s a shame Weaver never got a shot at a full-length portrait. In Young Mr. Lincoln she has to convey a Mary Todd who was rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere in history or fiction–the one who Abe Lincoln either fell in love with or simply regarded as his likeliest portal into the good graces of the polite society which would be required for the fulfillment of his political ambitions. Weaver–who has perhaps ten minutes on screen–does not neglect either possibility, or the perils lying within.]

 

JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE…LOOK

Played by: Beulah Archuletta

Film: The Searchers (1956)

[NOTE: This is the second in a series of essays on characters in John Ford’s films beginning with The Searchers. All entries can be found in the category “John Ford’s People” at the right]

“One of the most deeply moving scenes in the film remains, at least for me, the discovery of Look’s death at the hands of the cavalry. Even Ethan is touched. And yet this is the same character at whom we are expected to laugh when Marty kicks her.”

(Source: Kathryn Kalinak, How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford, 2007)

“This is also the section [the flashback sequence where Laurie Jorgenson reads Martin Pauley’s letter] that seems to contain contradictory ideological messages: the revelation of the savagery of the cavalry versus the racism of the ‘comic’ portrayal of Look, the Indian ‘wife’ Marty acquired in trade.”

(Source: Joan Dagle, “Linear Patterns and Ethnic Encounters,” John Ford Made Westerns, Gavlyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein, eds., 2001)

“From the first misunderstanding (when Martin finds he has bought a wife instead of a blanket) through Ethan’s ribbing, to her leaving Martin when he kicks her out of bed, Look provides comedy, not the seriousness of theme that Debbie’s and Scar’s mixing does. But Look is justified in the end; after her departure, she may have gone back to another tribe to find information for Martin–we do not know, and it does not really matter.” [Italics mine]

(Source: J.A. Place, The Western Films of John Ford, 1973)

“Interesting here how Ford sets up the character of the Indian Maiden who’s a bit overweight and not that attractive and it becomes a questionable running gag in the picture. Some people have said Ford was insensitive in how he did it, but Ford doesn’t really endorse the behavior of the actors or the characters in this, but he does not flinch from showing their racism and their insenstivity to her. But then it also becomes touching, so it’s like the whole movie. The way they deal with this Indian woman is ambiguous….

“This of course is a sequence of questionable taste. Got a big laugh in the theater but I don’t know if it really makes you comfortable today. And I don’t know that Ford didn’t feel very conflicted about it himself.”

(Source: Peter Bodgonavich, DVD commentary track for the 50th Anniversary edition of The Searchers, 2006)

Read a little Ford scholarship and very soon you run across his habit of supplying each of his actors–even those playing minor characters–with ‘biographies’ of the character they were to play.

Who exactly wrote these biographies–whether Ford, his scriptwriters (at his behest) or some combination–I’ve never quite gotten clear on. Nor have I quite gotten clear on whether the biographies were a page or several, when the habit began, or how much Ford really insisted on his actors knowing what he (or his scriptwriters) knew about the person they were hired to embody.

What I do know is that if these biographies existed in the number that has been continually hinted at, and if, by some unlikely miracle, they could be assembled into a book, it’s a book I would pay almost any price to own.

And certainly one of the first characters I would want to read about in that book would be the “Indian Maiden” Look.

Absent all that, I’ll have to be content with throwing myself back on first things–having to settle for what’s in the film itself.

First I would like to point out–starting from the select, but representative, commentary above–that this is a limit scholars have not tended to put on themselves.

Almost always with Look, it is about how “we” feel. We, of course, being all us representatives of modern enlightenment.

Tag Gallagher has written (eloquently as usual) that we do not actually “see” this character called Look. “We” being the viewer and/or our surrogate white characters in the film: Ethan Edwards, Martin Pauley, Charlie McCorry and the Jorgensen family.

I think he’s right up to a point. That point stops when we get to the camera actually showing us this Look. You know, us “looking” at her.

At that point it gets tricky.

Is she really supposed to provide comedy “from the first misunderstanding…to her leaving Martin when he kicks her out of bed?” And is all this really not supposed to “matter?”

Is the point of her existence–in life, in film, anywhere–mostly to provide some combination of crude belly laughs and grist for scholarly misunderstandings and gentle chidings about somebody or other’s racism (yours, mine, Ford’s, white folks in the 1870s…or the 1950s…or…somebody)?

I wonder.

* * * *

One interesting aspect of looking at Look is that just about everybody agrees we shouldn’t be laughing at her and just about everybody also insists that there sure are a lot of other people who do–or at least who have.

We have the word of Bogdonavich and others that lots of people laughed in the fifties. I don’t doubt it.

Okay, actually, I do doubt it at least a little, but it’s certainly a valid possibility and I’ll buy it for the sake of argument.

Having said that, I don’t imagine many people laugh now.

Oh, sure, maybe when they/we see this…

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Or this…

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But, even taking into account that she’s only in the movie a little under twelve minutes from first appearance to last (and that includes her time as a corpse and as a reason for Laurie Jorgensen to throw Martin Pauley’s letter in the fire), this is but a small sample of her presence.

What about the rest of the time?

Would much of anyone–I mean anyone other than the people who will laugh at anything–be laughing here? In 1872 or 1956 or any other time?

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Or here?

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Or here, here and here?

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Let alone here…

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I mean even in the fifties, when the great American liberal conscience was still yearning to breathe free, did laughter ring from the rafters of movie palaces across the land whenever poor Look came on the screen?

I’m not so sure. How are/were we really supposed to feel when Martin Pauley kicks her down that hill? That is, how are we supposed to feel when we get to the crux here…

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…without which, incidentally, virtually nobody would be likely to think Look had been treated so badly that we needed to talk about it decade after decade and continually reassure ourselves that we certainly aren’t laughing at her (even if we allow ourselves to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, which is a somewhat different matter).

And without which, we also might be inclined to think of Martin Pauley–Indian blood and all–as Puritan True Heart.

I’ll have more to say about what Look’s presence (and their reactions to her) might signify for Martin and Ethan when it’s their turn.

Staying with Look for now–and that “sequence of questionable taste”–I’m put in mind of a movie-going experience that offers a strange but somewhat apt comparison.

*  *  *  *

Back in the early and mid-eighties–before the full weight of the video age had settled in–my local college theater was still running a regular series of arthouse fare. So one semester they had a weekly program of Bunuel and ran some of the then-hard-to-see usuals, including Los Olvidados. It played to a packed theater, as almost everything did in those pre- and early home video days, with film majors and like minded citizens of what I would have deemed a more than usually sensitive collective mindset. And, of course, not too far into the movie there is a famous scene (famous at least among cinephiles, though I doubt more than a handful of the several hundred people in that particular auditorium were prepared for it by either word of mouth or a previous viewing), where a gang of street kids take a legless beggar off his rolling cart and push the cart down a hill, laughing all the while.

With us being unprepared to say the least, the audience split just about equally into those who gasped and those who laughed out loud–much the way somebody would laugh at the Marx Brothers or better yet a good Saturday Night Live skit.

It was unsettling to say the least. Not just the scene itself, but even more so the very audibly split reaction.

Any laughter that took place after that was careful, guarded. I think those who laughed got the idea that others might be watching and, as I say, the place was filled with us sensitive types–a thoughtful group who were quite sure we were the last people on earth who could be divided into those who laugh at the casual consequences of human cruelty (that is, at anything) and those who don’t.

Very daring that Luis Bunuel was.

And he was daring. As daring in that short sequence as he ever was–far more daring I’d say than when he was having razors slit eyeballs.

But it wasn’t the last word in daring. I mean, the legless beggar in Los Olvidados is every bit as obnoxious as his tormenters. And while he is certain to be gravely inconvenienced, there’s no indication that the loss of his cart is permanent. “Look,” Bunuel seemed to be saying. “Look at the war of the rats, how terrible it is.” Or how funny it is.

I have no idea if Ford (or his screenwriter, Frank Nugent) ever saw Bunuel’s movie or that scene. I’d be surprised if anyone knows one way or the other.

So I’ll just note that–whatever gave him or Nugent the idea–Marty kicking Look down a hill is far more disorienting.

Here we have the very likable hero committing a truly unseemly, violent and frankly inexusable act against someone who has done him nor anyone else any wrong, has even earned a degree of sympathy. For Ford–or anyone–the act is, on its surface, supremely unbalanced.

This is not John Wayne dragging Maureen O’Hara through a field full of sheep dip in The Quiet Man (to take a Fordian example) or Cary Grant pushing Katherine Hepburn in the face in The Philadelphia Story (to take an example from George Cukor who was really supposed to be above that sort of thing). We know O’Hara and Hepburn’s characters have plenty of ammunition at their disposal to fight back with (sex appeal, familial and communal protection, firebrand spirits and, in O’Hara’s case, what looks like a killer roundhouse right if she could only connect with it). We might tut-tut, but I don’t think anyone is really under any illusion that they will fail to get theirs back, one way or another.

Look enjoys no such privileges, protections or expectations.

She is not being played by Katherine Hepburn or Maureen O’Hara–or, if it comes to it, Vera Miles or Natalie Wood.

She’s being played by an actress who, according to the usual online sources (IMDB, Wikipedia, etc.), worked for many years and received exactly one other on-screen credit (in a television episode of Wagon Train). The actress is, as Peter Bogdonavich describes her, “overweight, not particularly attractive.” She was also forty-three years old at the time of shooting–playing a much younger woman, presumably because Ford had one of his whims which, as usual, probably wasn’t really a whim at all, but a gentle chiding of his own.

Of our expectations perhaps.

After all, we know what we are supposed to think and feel about the stooge who is, however briefly, holding up the third side in a romantic triangle where the other two sides are being played by the supremely attractive leads.

We know what to think because the movies have taught us–or at very least reinforced our base prejudices.

Ralph Bellamy ain’t gonna get the girl!

And a female version of Ralph Bellamy–or Ralph Bellamy cubed (by age and social position and ethnicity)–ain’t gonna get her man!

So Ford invites us to laugh, if we will, at a modestly unattractive Native American woman who is twice the age of her character and is sold by her father (in the movie, evidently a Native American of his own time, who is thus unaware of his future status as a proto-feminist flower child in the raised consciousness of the modern liberal-who-does-not-liberate; on the set of the movie itself, a Southern Plains Comanche being played by a Monument Valley Navajo who was probably old enough to remember how much Navajos hated Comanches) for the price of a tall hat.

Then he has us stop laughing, if we will, when she is kicked down a hill, subjected to rough interrogation that borders on physical abuse:

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disappeared from sight, if not consciousness:

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then massacred by the U.S. Cavalry.

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Meanwhile, without us presumably noticing (certainly I haven’t seen her discussed much in this light, even though she’s probably been discussed more than any other thirteenth-billed character ever played by an actress who would work for years and pass away with a single official film credit to her name), he also gets almost impossible narrative mileage out of her.

Like most great narratives, The Searchers runs on triangles. Unlike most great narratives–even most great Ford narratives–it runs not on one or two triangles but on many.

I’m not going to bother counting them all–at least not yet–though I will note that they interlock with a congruity that is remarkable even by Ford’s own frequently astonishing standards.

Suffice it to say that, by being what she is in the movie (as opposed to the source novel, where she is young, beautiful and immediately spirited away by a young warrior–an episode, no more), Look herself creates and joins at least three such “triangles” (with Martin and Ethan, with Martin and Laurie and, ultimately, with Martin and Debbie, who Look may or may not be trying to find so that she can win Martin’s favor when she is cut down). Plus she illuminates or heightens several more (between Martin, Laurie and Charlie, between Ethan, Martin and Scar, between Martin, Laurie and Debbie…and that’s before we get into symbolic representational triangles of the sort favored by psyche-oriented modernists like, say, White People/Native Americans/Frontier, Slavery/Abuse/Decency and so on and so forth).

I’ll leave the latter to others because my own focus is on Ford’s characters as they actually appear in the movies he made. But the immediate triangles are plenty interesting in themselves, not least because Ford splits the difference here between image and reality (exemplified in the old question, raised by several Ford apologists who think that this particular mini-narrative calls for one, of whether Look, as she appears to us, is really just a projection of Laurie’s spite-filled imagination–a question that the movie doubles down on when Martin’s letter says Look, played by the plain-faced forty-three-year old Ms. Archuletta is “not nearly as old” as Laurie, played by the twenty-six-year old Vera Miles, signed that year by Alfred Hitchcock to be the very specific replacement for Grace Kelly….Hello, John Ford. Hello, Mr. Perversity.)

On the one hand, Look really is a helpless bystander in the game that is already being played (between Martin, Laurie and Charlie McCorry) far beyond her possible consciousness, let alone the one that will be played (between Martin, Laurie and Debbie, about which much more later) long after she is dead.

On the other hand–and this is where Ford is jabbing, jabbing, going far beyond where the clear boundaries of even the best script or the most perverse sense of humor could possibly take us–she is everything a man might want….except young and beautiful.

Despite his harsh laughter…

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Ethan isn’t really kidding when he says she’ll make Martin–or anyone–“a fine, dutiful wife”–a higher value, incidentally, in Ford’s universe than sex appeal.

Besides which she is clearly intelligent, faithful, loyal, hard-working. And, at least in the single moment where she is not being terrorized and speaks her own language, possessed of one of the most beautiful speaking voices ever recorded on film.

She is not sexually aggressive. When she lays down next to Martin, she carefully puts her back to him, so we can count her dignified as well–hardly a threat to Martin’s puritanical decorum.

She is also–unlike her counterpart in the novel, and certainly unlike Laurie or Debbie–down to her last chance.

If we look back at the frames above where she truly is “comic”, we find that they are interspersed with equal-and-opposite scenes where she clearly is not. Where, long before she meets her tragic fate, she is anything but a joke.

She is someone who could have had her life saved–perhaps even her existence fulfilled–by the simplest kindness. And she is someone who never finds it, who is never granted even this smallest of rewards or slimmest of chances. Not from her own people or from the U.S. Cavalry or from Fate. Certainly not from the film’s “heroes” who cannot, in the only moment that matters to her, meet even this least standard of civilized behavior.

So laugh or don’t. Watch who else laughs….or don’t.

And before you get too terribly satisfied either way, put yourself in Martin Pauley’s place and ask if you would have done it any different.

I doubt I would have. Maybe I wouldn’t have kicked her. And what a standard that is.

I wouldn’t have kicked her, my modern liberal self!

But I would have been just as glad to see her gone–and likely lingered no longer over her corpse.

With Vera Miles and Natalie Wood to worry over–in film or in life–I’d have not given her much thought, once I knew she was past helping me find the one so I could get back to the other.

I’d not have given her much thought even if, in my heart, I knew I was wrong.

Unless maybe John Ford and Beulah Archuletta made me keep looking.

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