THE LAST TEN WESTERNS I WATCHED…(I Watch Westerns: Take Three)

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Machree comes to me, and I start watching westerns. The last few weeks were kind of odd in that none of the westerns I watched were by Ford, Hawks, Mann or Boetticher, so I thought it might make a fun post reinforcing my occasional off-hand suggestion that the genre is bottomless. Here’s a look:

April 27–Rimfire (1949, B. Reeves Eason, First Viewing)

rimfire2The essence: An innocent man is wrongly convicted of card-sharping in a “trial by acclamation” and subsequently hanged. (For card-sharping? Yep!) His ghost–or someone channeling it–wanders about, gunning for those who convicted him, offing them with solid gold bullets and dropping deuces and fours on the corpses. A Secret Service man, tracking the gold while he works under cover as a local deputy, tries to catch him between attempts at wooing the local blonde. That’s for starters. Is that enough to overcome indifferent acting by minor period stars, jittery direction and a choppy story-line with more subplots than War and Peace? I would never presume to judge. Each of us must find our own level in these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Ian Fleming had this floating around in his subconscious. And I’d bet money Sergio Leone did.

April 26–Little Big Horn (1951, Charles Marquis Warren, First Viewing)

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This actually came in a cheapie double with Rimfire and the contrast couldn’t be starker. The basic story is based on a historical incident and involves a scout patrol which comes across signs that the Sioux are lying in wait for an unsuspecting General Custer. The movie consists of the patrol’s attempt to reach Custer in time. Of course you know they won’t, but it doesn’t matter because the real story is a truly complex study of male honor. Additionally, as a representation of the ethos of the U.S. Cavalry, it stands with John Ford’s famous trilogy and Ernest Haycox’s fine novel Bugles in the Afternoon. John Ireland and Lloyd Bridges, two actors who rarely got enough screen time, get plenty here and make the most of it. Neither man was ever better. The great Marie Windsor is sadly underused, but even that is a small quibble. A real find.

April 25–Rawhide (1951, Henry Hathaway, Umpteenth Viewing)

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Perfect. Along with Key Largo, one of my two favorite films using a common plot: innocents trapped by violent men waiting for an “event.” The setting here is a lonely stage stop. The event is an impending stage robbery. The cast is perfect, the plot unbreakable, the direction, by old pro Hathaway, taut as a piano wire. The denouement features a tension-filled “child in danger” sequence that’s on a level with Battleship Potemkin or Small Change and more fully integrated than either. (Note: I watched this in preparation for an upcoming blogathon where I’ll take a closer look at Jack Elam’s villain. The role was his career maker so watch for further thoughts here.)

April 24–The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann, Third Viewing)

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Fenimore Cooper seems a natural for the movies. But this, likely the best adaptation of his work, is far more of a chore than it needs to be (though admittedly less of a chore than the thirties’ version with Randolph Scott). Mann shrouded the Fort William Henry battle scenes in an impenetrable darkness, only occasionally caught either the beauty or the mystery of the Appalachians and evidently convinced his female stars they were playing the Bronte sisters without the comedy. Past that, you have a depressingly inappropriate modernist score, Natty Bumppo transformed into “Nathaniel Poe,” perhaps so Daniel Day-Lewis can play him as a natural vessel for the Method and various English-actor types who deliver their lines as if they are simultaneously passing kidney stones.  Moderately worthwhile for Wes Studi’s definitive turn as Magua, a good surrender scene between the commanding French and English officers, and some occasionally haunting scenery that proves you can’t really turn off Appalachia’s beauty and mystery no matter how hard you try. (Note: I go back and forth on whether Drums Along the Mohawk, the Walter Edmonds novel, which shares its time and place with Cooper’s most famous novels and was filmed by John Ford in the late thirties, is really a western. But Cooper invented the form and nailed most of its elements in place. For whatever reason I have no such qualms about the Leatherstocking tales.)

April 23–The Last Hunt (1956, Richard Brooks, First Viewing)

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A brooding tale of the last days of the buffalo hunters. Robert Taylor takes a rare turn as a villain and he’s fine, though I couldn’t help feeling the movie might have been even better if he and Stewart Granger (who carried a tinge of self-contempt in his bones that came out of his eyes when he put on a cowboy hat) had switched places. The best performance in a solid cast is from Lloyd Nolan as an aging buffalo skinner. The plot is unusually existential. Civilization is not at stake. It’s barely felt. In that respect, it’s more noir than western. In one other respect it’s pure western: Death is real, right down to the last, genuinely chilling scene.

April 21–Drum Beat (1954, Delmer Daves, First Viewing)

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Alan Ladd as an Indian fighter trying to make peace among his enemies, in this case the Modocs of the Pacific Northwest, on orders from General Grant (played, not badly, but rather improbably by Hayden Rorke, who would make his last mark a decade later as the forever flummoxed base psychiatrist in I Dream of Jeannie). A bit staid, but, as one might expect with Delmer Daves at the helm,  it certainly has its moments, not a few of them provided by a very young Charles Bronson as the never-surrender Modoc war chief. Ladd is his usual fine, laconic self, but, a mere three years after Shane, he looks twenty years older in a part that might have been better served by his younger, more energetic self. Worthwhile for fans of Daves, Ladd or Bronson.

April17–Fury at Showdown (1957, Gerd Oswald, First Viewing)

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This one gets where it’s going. There is no especially striking aspect, but the story is a good one (good brother/bad brother, with bad brother trying to straighten up for his brother’s sake) and it’s well executed. Best performance is by Nick Adams, a James Dean/Elvis associate who has never impressed me anywhere else. John Derek is good enough as the lead. I can see why somebody thought he might be a star and I can see why he didn’t make it, though I’m sure I never would have guessed he would eventually be mostly famous for marrying exceptionally beautiful women.

April 17–Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler, Second Viewing)

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Gary Cooper spoofing himself. I hadn’t revisited this one in years and, upon doing so, I was reminded why there was no particular urgency. Cooper’s fine, but he’s saddled with an out-of-her-element Loretta Young and a script that frequently ambles when it should gallop. Still good for a few laughs, especially when Cooper’s hayseed is sparring with the ever reliable William Demarest. But, with Nunnally Johnson scripting, there was a chance for much more. A bit of a missed opportunity.

April 12–Roughshod (1949, Mark Robson, First Viewing)

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Nifty. I acquired it strictly for the purpose of investigating whether Gloria Grahame’s essence would translate to a western. It does. She’s superb and, more to the point, she’s Gloria Grahame. Oh, there’s a good story, too: Hookers…er, “showgirls,” with and without hearts of gold, try to survive any way they can while traveling from the town they’ve been kicked out of to the town where their dreams will come true (in California, of course). It’s well directed and, excepting Robert Sterling’s stolid but uninspiring presence in the lead, superbly played. Claude Jarman, Jr., one of the period’s finest child actors, is especially good in a part that could have gone wrong a hundred ways. And, after all that? Gloria Grahame is in it. She’s superb and she’s Gloria Grahame. So it’s like every other movie she was in where she was herself: A Gloria Grahame movie. There’s a reason they put her up front on the poster even if they billed her second on screen and fourth in the advertising. I might watch it again tonight.

April 11–Garden of Evil (1954, Henry Hathaway, Fourth Viewing)

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This one has grown on me. I liked it well enough when I first encountered it a few years ago. Watching it about once a year since, it’s gotten better every time. At this point, I’m almost ready to move it to the very first rank. Susan Hayward juggles a dying husband and the four hard men she’s hired to save both him and the fortune he’s excavated from a gold mine deep in Apache country. There’s a powerhouse cast, all in top form: Hayward, Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Hugh Marlowe, Cameron Mitchell, Mexican star Victor Manuel Mendoza and a red hot, if too-briefly seen, Rita Moreno. It winds and winds, rather like the mountain trails the plot traverses. That might be what deceived me into thinking it was a little slow the first time around. The more i watch, though, the deeper it gets. The climactic action sequences are of a high order. The final line is classic. And did I mention that, in a western, death actually hurts? That might be because, in the westerns Hollywood used to make, life was never merely existential or programmatic. Not even when they tried.

JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE….LANA MARTIN (Drums Along the Mohawk)

Film: Drums Along the Mohawk
Character: Lana Borst Martin
Played by: Claudette Colbert

[NOTE: This is the latest installment in a series on major and minor characters in the films of John Ford. I’m breaking the routine this time in order to write about Drums Along the Mohawk for the blog-a-thon at Krell Laboratories. (to whom, much thanks for allowing me to participate) Please be sure to follow the link and check out the other participants! For newcomers here, the first three installments in this slow-l-y-y-y developing series concern minor characters from The Searchers, and can be found by accessing John Ford’s People under the category listing at the right.]

TO BEGIN…

Let’s pause a little for the expression of some common sentiments (however passing strange), concerning Ford and the fairer sex:

“What he (John Ford) brought to the screen that made me admire him more than any other filmmaker was a kind of poetry, specific to the screen and specific to men. Granted his women were not his best creations….” (Elia Kazan)

“For a long time, I criticized his view of women–which I found too 19th century.” (Francois Truffaut, who, to be fair, had softened his view somewhat–though only somewhat–by the time he said this)

AND THEN…SINCE WE’RE GRANTING THINGS:

Grant this first: Hollywood being what it was, not even John Ford could make every film his.

Grant this second: He made more of Hollywood’s inevitable product “his” than virtually anyone else.

So…

Every Ford film is familiar. Every great Ford film, no matter how familiar, is unique, a world unto itself and, irrespective of its particular adherence to, or departure from, “realism” (which, with a certain kind of critic, and most often with the kind who strives to be influential, always means whichever version of the “facts” they themselves find most convenient), amounts to a steadfast refusal to allow human history and behavior to be turned into hard sciences after the manner of physics or engineering.

Drums Along the Mohawk, which has a certain amount of realism and a great feel of authenticity (which, accounting as it does for irrationality, mythology, imagination, isn’t really the same thing) seemed ultra-familiar when I first saw it roughly a quarter-century ago. As generally happens with Ford’s best films, it has grown more singular–more authentic–with each repeated viewing in the long years since.

And, by now, that’s a lot of viewings.

One reason it seemed so familiar in the beginning was because I recognized the people–not from other Hollywood product, where (except for John Ford’s other films) such folks are virtually absent except when they are being caricatured–but from the communities I grew up in during the sixties and seventies.

Maybe that was the last time such people will be familiar. I don’t get out enough anymore to speak with much authority on the matter. Suffice it to say that Ford’s signature gift for portraying ordinary lives (unique in the history of Hollywood, sure, but also, lest we forget, highly unusual in the history of anything) was never more fully on display than here.

One of the clearest markers of delving into the ordinary–lives as they might actually have been lived–is the cycle of destruction and renewal that sufficiently authentic lives tend to accumulate. Ford caught these cycles to a degree no other American filmmaker has approached. As I hope to demonstrate below, he never caught them more fully than here.

I suspect the intensity with which such rare qualities are presented in Drums, and its place as probably the least written about of Ford’s major films, are not unrelated phenomena. Hollywood has gone through a lot of changes in a century-plus. Its addiction to fantasy (to the studied and persistent absence of authenticity)–fully enabled by the audiences of successive generations (meaning, of course, us)–has, however, remained fundamentally unchanged.

To all of that, add this–Drums defies genre even more readily than the usual Ford masterwork. Nobody was quite so adept at confusing such issues–at reminding us that a film might be a Homeric epic despite modest length, that it might be a comedy of manners despite ultra-serious subject matter, that it might be about the future even though it is set firmly in the past, that it might be a “woman’s picture” despite the presence of forts (a recurring Ford theme) and muskets and Red Coats and Redder Indians.

Cue the music!

Ford was the best at a lot of things and the thing he was very best at–besides narrative depth–was overturning expectations.

The first thing worth noting about Drums Along the Mohawk, then, is the billing, which, despite a title and subject matter that seems to speak pretty directly to the misguided notions quoted above, places Claudette Colbert first.

That might have happened anyway. Henry Fonda was the male lead. His star was still on the rise, and, despite his eventual iconic status, he would arguably never be quite the glittering box office star that Colbert was in the thirties. In 1939, if she was in a picture, she was pretty much guaranteed top billing.

That didn’t necessitate it being her character’s story to anything like the extent Drums Along the Mohawk is–or that the character would be anywhere near as challenging or fulfilling.

For all that to happen, on a picture like this one, Ford had to trust he was working with a first-rate actress (as he certainly was), and he had to do his usual bang-up job of blurring conventional genre lines (as he certainly did).

Result? A picture that–once viewed a sufficient number of times–sneaks up on us slow-learner types and resists easy exegesis.

So, in a tale that includes a multitude of Ford’s usual arc-within-an-arc narratives, a story where even minor characters and by-the-way settings, take remarkable journeys, one journey stands out.

It isn’t this one, which goes from here:

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to here.

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Or this one, from here:

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to here.

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Or yet again, this one, from here

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to here…

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It’s not even the more general journeys, such as that from here…

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to here…

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or this one, from here…

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to here…

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Not any of those, or any of a dozen others….But this one…

From here…

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To here.

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…is where Ford chose to put the center.

No doubt he could have found other centers for a narrative as rich as Drums. Given a story set in the Revolution (America’s great un-examined subject) and also on the Frontier (America’s–and Ford’s–great familiar subject), he no doubt would have done just that, if he had been a man who truly misunderstood women.

But Lana’s story is the one he chose to build everything else around. If modernity doesn’t quite get her, (if Truffaut was unhappy with the women of the 19th century, one can only imagine how he felt about the 18th) then I suspect we’ve lost something. In America, at least, that amounts to something like where we came from.

What Kazan, Truffaut and, oh so many others, seemed to miss, is that Ford-the-director (I’ll leave speculation on Ford-the-curmudgeon, Ford-the-monster, Ford-the-terrible-person to others) was imminently interested in women.

He just wasn’t very interested in Hollywood’s ideas of women.

That being the case, Claudette Colbert, who had, by 1939, already personified, just about as perfectly as anyone could, nearly every type of wondrous woman Hollywood was interested in (the Dizzy Heiress, the Screwball Dame, the long-suffering Madame of Melodrama, the Queen of the Nile, all that just for starters), might have seemed the last possible choice for Lana Martin. Given the stories that have circulated regarding their conflict on the shoot, she might have been Ford’s last choice.

But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t the best choice.

However she got the job, she put everything she had into it. And everything she had was consummate skill and artistry–including the ability to diffuse her star power in order to fully represent a gentle, naturally subservient spirit that must have been as far from her own as it was possible to get. On the evidence of this single time they worked together, she certainly understood both big-picture arc and small-picture moments (the long and the short) as exquisitely well as any of Ford’s regulars. And, whatever his feelings about her insistence on glamour makeup, Ford was right to put the story in her hands.

Truth be told, I love just about every element of Drums: Edna May Oliver’s Mrs. McClennar (okay that’s an easy one); the wealth of period detail (especially the interiors); the genuine feel of Appalachia–the American Frontier’s first barrier–rendered glorious for once (and in Utah no less); the you-are-there aspect of the pioneer experience (especially the barn-raising scene that turns into an Indian raid). All that and so much more.

But the real reason I keep watching is to find out how Lana got through.

How the rich girl from Albany survived (and survives) not just the frontier, but The Frontier–the process of winning the hard ground the Mohawk valley represents, and the weight of Myth that winning created.

Drums Along the Mohawk keeps this balance perfectly, and it does so in large part because Lana is such a well-drawn character, an exemplar of the quiet, essential, forgotten women, generally ignored by both history and literature (fact and myth).

In order to understand such women, Ford had to be not only a poet of community (something that is generally acknowledged) but of community’s historical foundation stone: marriage. Which meant he also had to understand just how and where women stood in the very particular stories he was telling.

Women generally, yes, but also specific women–and not always the most familiar types.

Even when Ford was making his films, Americans already had a long-demonstrated preference for the firebrand–the kind of women played in their respective primes by Maureen O’Hara or Vera Miles, or Ava Gardner or Anne Bancroft (to stick to obvious examples from Ford’s own oeuvre).

I suspect the main reason  Lana Martin is infrequently–if ever–mentioned among Colbert’s finest performances, is that she does not fill this bill. Lana is genteel (a strike against her already), but she’s also genuinely eager to please. Give her almost any circumstance through the first parts of the film and she will look to someone else for approval.

Most often that someone is Gil–as definitive an example of the stolid husband as she is of the demure, even submissive wife.

Fragile as a flower you might say:

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With that vivid image established, we’re hardly surprised, then, to find her forever seeking approval, assurance, a new kind of self-worth. Be it in a tavern:..

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On the road…

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In a cabin…

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In a field…

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In church…

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In a crisis:

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At a turning point:

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One could go on. One could even note that Lana’s persistent need for some sort of assurance isn’t limited to Gil (who you will note, is generally not indifferent, but rather oblivious, as though he can’t imagine anyone of Lana’s background needing such assurance from the likes of him)….Meanwhile, Mrs. McClennar, in particular, operates on a lot of levels, none more important than as a kind of anti-Lana, an assurance to all and sundry that the firebrand spirit is alive and well!

Where Lana fusses…

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Mrs. McClennar asserts:

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Where Lana, fearful of the future, pines…

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Mrs. McClennar (wife of the late Captain Barnabas “Blast his eyes lovin’ it” McClennar and mindful of the past), pontificates:

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Where Lana demures…

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Mrs. McClennar snorts with derision…

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To this point, even the most generous critique might have us wanting to leave Lana where we found her–to share what is evidently her low opinion of herself (and that’s without the screaming and fainting that were much more accepted as dramatic norms at the time than any right-thinking modernista is willing to put up with at this distance….heaven forbid any woman should act effeminate in the movies these days, when they would only be taking jobs from all the leading men so eager to shoulder the burden).

But, Ford being Ford, it’s a safe bet there’s a convergence coming–that we won’t leave Lana there. That there will be a moment when Lana starts to show that, while she’ll never be Mrs. McClennar (that sort of obviousness would do for most filmmakers, never for Ford), the differences between her and her de-facto mentor, don’t cut all the way to bone either.

Let the crisis rise to a sufficient level and likenesses–specific to them, general to woman’s accepted place in the times being portrayed–begin to emerge.

What Mrs. McClennar already knows about men returning from battle…

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Lana will know soon enough. If not here:

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Then certainly here (where the care she gave Gil’s immaculate clothes upon his departure, pictured above, is finally turned to something genuinely useful as she applies it, in heightened degree, to his torn body):

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[I’ll pause to note that the sequence referenced here–where Gil recounts his experience in battle (a battle, incidentally, which was genuinely significant in the foundation of the country and during which the colonials won despite suffering the horrific casualties Gil mentions, and which Ford shows us only through this scene), has been justifiably praised for its striking portrayal of a soldier suffering what is now called PTSD. Fonda has received plenty of well-earned praise for his harrowing performance. But Colbert had perhaps an even harder task–to both support Fonda’s performance and, simultaneously, to bring forth, for the first time, the full measure of Lana’s residual toughness. To focus on the nuances she deploys throughout this very long and compelling scene–to achieve the considerable accomplishment of tearing your eyes away from Fonda throughout–is to be awed.]

A simpler narrative, moving on straight lines, would mark this as Lana’s ascendance, perhaps even the moment when she swaps places with Mrs. McClennar. No such simplicity occurs. Lana gets tougher, Mrs. McClennar eventually goes a little dotty. But neither woman loses her essence. Being molded by time and circumstance is not the same as having your basic character overthrown.

Hard to imagine Mrs. McClennar, for instance, ever being afraid of Indians. Certainly not this afraid:

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Or even this afraid:

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Let alone still this afraid…

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Right after she has done this:

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No, However much bonding Lana and the older, saltier woman do, Mrs. McClennar will always be more apt to respond this way…

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Or this…(mounting the barricades, instead of cowering below):

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This separation of natures, does not preclude an essential sisterhood, of course…Mrs. McClennar does hate sewing:

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And, it being the 18th century, it will still be woman’s lot to watch and wait…

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And tend the wounded…

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And mourn the dead…

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Strong bonds indeed.

Still, for all that, we know that, if Lana, young and beautiful, were to find herself a widower, she would not be caught cavorting with handsome young men…

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Or leading cheers…

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No, her own lot will still be to quietly validate the passage of the seasons. The living…

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The dying…

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The high tide…

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And the low…

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And, most significantly of all…the worrying…

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And the hoping…

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Hoping, perhaps, that this…

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And this…

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And all of this…

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Will somehow, finally, be validated by all of this…

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The future that had not quite arrived in Ford’s time…and has not quite arrived in ours…That remains tantalizingly out of reach…NVE00724 NVE00725 NVE00726 NVE00727

A future that was once brought into view by those John Ford was forever reminding us we would forget only at our peril…

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