WELL, THERE’S HONESTY…..AND THEN THERE’S REAL HONESTY (Great Quotations)

For whatever reason, having never seen too much about it in previous years, I found myself flooded with notices of John Wayne’s birthday yesterday.

Not that I ever mind being reminded mind you (try saying that three times fast with a John Wayne drawl!), but by far the most entertaining thing I read related to the great man’s birthday was this, from the set of Hellfighters (not one of his greatest to put it mildly).

When asked to comment on the film during production, actress Katharine Ross replied, “It’s the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever done!” Then the reporter asked Vera Miles to respond to Ross’s comment. She thought for a moment and said, “Well, it’s not the biggest piece of crap I’VE ever done!”

Vera will be 89 in August. I might just decide to celebrate her birthday.

(And, for the record, she and Wayne have one great scene in Hellfighters…and it’s as great as any scene in any movie. She was like that….As John Wayne knew better than anyone.)

POST-GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS….A HANDY TEN

The “Golden Age” of the Hollywood western is generally conceded to have stretched from 1946 to 1962. It’s bounded by the respective releases of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the former year* and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in the latter.

Based on the films each man released in ’62, the hand-off from Ford to Peckinpah should have been a natural one. What happened instead was what we like to call The Sixties.

All that’s beyond the scope of what I’m after here, which is simply to suggest some films for viewing that, taken together, make up an impressive legacy of their own. Call them markers on a trail to what might have been…

The Shooting (1966)
D. Monte Hellman

Harrowing. This film is as unsettling as In a Lonely Place…perhaps more so, because it doesn’t have Humphrey Bogart’s, or even Gloria Grahame’s, level of star power to supply a set of foundational assumptions. With this and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman invented what came to be called Acid Westerns. That’s a ridiculous moniker (did anyone think to call Lonely Place Acid Noir? As though it’s destabilizing qualities were merely hallucinatory? Thought not.) When Warren Oates is the stable one, you’re in another land alright. But it’s one that could only be reached through the gateway of the western–not a pill. Next to this, the best spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch look silly and ham-handed. Not to mention light-hearted.

Hombre (1966)
D. Martin Ritt

Strong by any standard. One of Newman’s signature “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Harper) and perhaps the best. Not least because his character has no redeeming quality except that he’s right. This is Stagecoach turned into a nightmare. One where the characters never quite wake up. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Martin Ritt (who made an awful lot of good movies for a guy who doesn’t get talked about much) watched a lot of Boetticher-Scott westerns somewhere along the way. Or maybe Elmore Leonard (who wrote the source material for this and Boetticher’s The Tall T–as here, Richard Boone played the villain) just brought certain qualities out of people.

True Grit (1969)
D. Henry Hathaway

Don’t sleep on this one just because John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance is larger than life even by his standards or because there’s been a fine remake. Kim Darby is still the definitive Mattie Ross. George MacDonald Fraser’s assertion that the line readings throughout are the closest we’ll ever have to hearing Victorian western speech as it was actually spoken makes it plain this is a window into a lost world. Charles Portis’ source novel provided dozens of memorable lines…and Marguerite Roberts’ script added a few more, without missing a beat. I still wish they had kept Portis’ ending, but everything else is in place. For Wayne and Darby and a host of fine characterizations (Strother Martin and Robert Duval are especially memorable) it will always be worth revisiting.

Bad Company (1972)
D. Robert Benton

One of the best roles Jeff Bridges ever had while he quietly went about being the best actor of his generation. Here, he and an equally effective Barry Brown are green as grass Civil War draft-dodgers heading west….and finding out maybe marching off the war wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. Bridges’ brand of American innocence is even funnier–and warmer–in a western setting. It’s a shame he didn’t come along twenty years earlier, when he might have made a dozen of these.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
D. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster had been players in the Golden Age and even made a couple of fine westerns together (Apache and the wonderful Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper). This gave them an opportunity to raise their game and they were more than up to the task. Lancaster was never better than as a grizzled scout trying to help a green lieutenant (a superbly callow, but learning fast, Bruce Davison), track down a renegade Apache band and perhaps even live to tell the tale. This might be seen as re-revisionist western–a kind of answer film to Arthur Penn’s misguided Little Big Man, which had perverted Thomas Berger’s great novel from comedy into parody, and presented the warrior cultures of the Plains Indians (in that case the Cheyenne, who held the U.S. Cavalry at bay for forty years) as peace loving flower children. No one, at least, will emerge from watching Ulzana’s Raid for the first or twentieth time under any misapprehension that Apaches would have been at home in the Age of Aquarius….or welcomed hippies into their own age.

The Shootist (1976)
D. Don Siegel

A setup to be sure. John Wayne, cancer victim and last of the Golden Age cowboys, playing John Bernard Books, cancer victim and last of the Old West gunfighters. But, with the great Don Siegel (like Martin Ritt, an underappreciated pro’s pro) at the helm, an impeccable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone–one could go on) and a lean, well-measured script, it defies expectations and transcends its own nostalgia. It self-consciously echoes a hundred westerns, none more than Shane. Except this time, the gunfighter does not ride out of the valley. And it isn’t clear what he has done for Civilization–except represent the best of what it inevitably washes away.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)
D. Robert Day

In the eighties, the western was represented most ably on television, with adaptations of Louis L’Amour (usually starring either Sam Eiliott or Tom Selleck) leading the way. This and the Selleck vehicle, Crossfire Trail, are my own favorites and can stand for the lot–fine westerns that might not have stood out in the Golden Age, but certainly would have held their own. Elliott and Selleck, both excellent, are a wash and Crossfire Trail gave Wilfred Brimley the role of a lifetime. Still, I’m giving this one the edge because it has a slightly more expansive story and a fine performance by the always under-utilized Kate Capshaw, as an eastern woman adapting to the mindset of the frontier more rapidly  than her husband (an equally good Tom Conti), in part because she grasps how vulnerable any woman (let alone one as fetching as Kate Capshaw) is in a land where the law is what you make it.

Lonesome Dove (Miniseries) (1989)
D. Simon Wincer

Speaking of television….This epic mini-series blew the doors open when it first aired. There was serious talk of the western being revived in a way that hasn’t really occurred since. And it’s all that. None of the fine cast were ever better, and, though the story is an old one (it’s about a cattle drive after all), the mini-series length gave Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, among others, a scope rarely afforded elsewhere. They took full advantage. The effect on Duval’s career was unfortunate. He’s satisfied himself with playing old coots ever since, with markedly diminishing returns. Jones didn’t get his mojo back until he learned to laugh at himself in the Men in Black series. But that doesn’t diminish what they did here, in the company of the strongest female cast to appear in any western (again, the length matters)–Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Glenne Headly, all superb. The other volumes in the Lonesome Dove series are good, especially Streets of Laredo, with James Garner and Sissy Spacek taking over the Jones and Lane roles (and being everything you would expect from those two). I also recommend Larry McMurtry’s source books. But the space opened up here has never been filled by anything else, making it, in its own way, as epic as anything done by the old masters.

Appaloosa (2008)
D. Ed Harris

An entertaining, if troubling, update on the town-taming ethos. The set up is similar to Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s entertaining, if troubling, take on the town-taming ethos from 1959. I like Appaloosa better. The story is tighter, the grim psychology more relentless and logical. And there’s a rare good middle-age role for Renee Zellweger. Those who worry about the western (or any action) genre bleeding into fascism will not be comforted, but not being comforted is a symptom of the concerned citizen and you could spend your life worrying about subjects a lot less worthy of your time and attention. And I’m normally not big on actors directing, but Ed Harris does a lovely, understated job here. No fancy camera tricks, just straight, non-nonsense storytelling that lets the good actors (including himself) do their thing.

True Grit (2010)
D. Joel and Ethan Coen

It feels a little odd to include both versions of True Grit on such a small list. Thee are other worthy candidates even if I did leave off spaghetti westerns (God help me, I do like Sergio Leone), Peckinpah (I like several of his later westerns, including, until the end, The Wild Bunch–that’s the part that excites a lot of people but seems to me senseless bluster), or spoofs (highly recommend the Kennedy/Garner Support duo and Waterhole #3).

But I can’t choose between them and I certainly can’t leave them both off. This has the advantage of great atmosphere and sticks reasonably close to Portis’ story and language. Jeff Bridges proves again that a lot was lost when he didn’t get to make more westerns. Matt Damon acquits himself well. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a compelling contrast to Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross and gives the role her own stamp–maybe proving that, like Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s just a great character, open to a wide array of interpretations. And the Coens more or less restored the book’s ending, pulling the punch only slightly by not having the older Mattie recite the entire last paragraph of the novel, which gets my vote for the finest ending of any American novel. It was a hit and, once more, there was talk of reviving the western. There always will be such talk–the western is in our DNA. But if we have to live with what we have, it’s still a lifetime investment getting to know the best of it. If you want to take that journey, everything here is worth adding to your list.

**NOTE: Howard Hawks’ Red River was shot in 1946 but not released until 1948. According to one of the film’s stars, Joanne Dru, the main reason was trouble in the editing room, resolved when Hawks sought Ford’s advice (Ford did not, so far as I know, do any actual editing but made some key suggestions). Hawks later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich that Ford was always in his head anyway. I mention it only to illustrate that Ford was always in everybody’s head. Regarding anyone who’s up to any good, he still is, even if they’ve never heard of him.

 

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.]

 

MY FAVORITE BOOK OF FILM CRITICISM (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (1988)
George MacDonald Fraser
Okay, the competition is not exactly fierce. I respect their work ethic and even their skill with language, but, for ideas and insights, I’ve never been moved much one way or the other by Farber, Agee, Kael, Sarris. I counted Roger Ebert a genial dolt and Richard Schickel something less than that. Stanley Kaufman seemed like a nice man who was so cautious and judicious in his judgments that I could never remember what he thought of a movie ten seconds after I finished his review.

David Thomson? Don’t get me started on the clodhoppers.

Graham Greene was clearly slumming.

I like Molly Haskell a lot and I need to read more of her stuff.

Even so, I doubt anything she’s done would replace this. It’s the only book of film criticism I really like–and I like it a lot.

It probably helps that film criticism was the least thing Fraser did. Before and after that he was a novelist, essayist, memoirist, historian, screenwriter and all around exemplar (one of the last) of that old-fashioned breed: The Man of Letters.

It helps, too, that among Men of Letters, he was one of the best–not least because he took himself and the world less seriously than almost anyone else who ever earned his way into that club where no legitimate membership can ever be given.

And he was uniquely qualified to write his one book of criticism. The list of first rate novelists (he’s justifiably famous for his incomparable Flashman series, but don’t sleep on Black Ajax, a superb historical novel which recounts the rise and fall of Tom Molineaux, the ex-slave who, in the early nineteenth century, was the first great African-American boxing champion), who are also professional grade historians and accomplished screenwriters (he did Richard Lester’s Musketeer films and a personal favorite, Crossed Swords, among others) is not long.

Like a lot of his other writing, The Hollywood History of the World occupies a space all its own–in this case, defending Hollywood’s take on history. That’s not something I’m sure anyone else has ever even attempted, but I have a reasonable confidence that it has never been carried off so well.

For starters, Fraser knew that History itself is contested, often hotly so. For closers, he knew how to write it–so it’s not surprising that he knew how to write about it. The Hollywood History of the World then, works on three levels: as straight film criticism, as a back way into a historical worldview (the author’s own) and as a front way into the manner in which Hollywood, from the silent era to the 1980s, presented history as both History and Mythos.

That’s a lot to take on, but Fraser did it elegantly and forcefully, without coming off as being too full of himself. The book’s a great read–and it did for me something no other book of film criticism has done. Similar to the way Lester Bangs, alone among music critics, made me hear with new ears, Fraser made me see with new eyes.

Fraser wisely sequenced his book as a history of film itself, proceeding chronologically from the prehistoric era to Viet Nam, pairing up films from different eras by their subject matter, not their production chronology.

Along the way, he showed his grasp of the large scope of history without short-shrifting his own tastes and biases, both cultural and cinematic. Of course, not being a Leftist made him stand out. (Fraser once described his politics as whatever was dead opposite of the most recent attempt to convert him–a true kindred spirit.) But that never helped John Simon, or anyone else who was no better or worse than the competition.

Fraser stands out because he said things no one else said, and said them with the authority of someone who knew of whence he spoke. Perhaps most significantly, he spoke in the voice of one who was not concerned that others might have got it wrong and needed correcting.

In that respect, he really stands out from the crowd.

Hence…

From the introduction (a concise explanation of what film really does do better than any other art form):

It is worth remembering that the often-despised film moguls were the greatest patrons of the arts since time began; Hollywood employed more scholars and experts and diverse talents than any philanathropic or learned institution—and, incidentally, paid them better. They gave, and got, their money’s worth, and in the process they built us old Baghdad, new and shiny, and the Pyramids, and the Colosseum; they refought Trafalgar and Thermopylae for our benefit, and sent Columbus to the sands of Watling Island, Marco Polo to the courts of Cathay, Major Rogers to St. Francis, Rowan to Garcia, Drake around the world, and Stanley in search of Livingstone (to the tune of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, which hadn’t been written then, but sounded wonderful); they brought Clive and Zola, Lincoln and Saladin, Buffalo Bill and Catherine the Great, Wellington and Dick Turpin, Florence Nightingale and Calamity Jane, to life again; they showed us Argonauts and Mountain Men, Vikings and Jane Austen’s ladies, gladiators and Roundheads, Chinese warlords and Pilgrim Fathers, Regency bucks and Zulu impis. Really, it was the greatest show on earth.

Some of it was historical nonsense; most of it was not. If some of the images were blemished, they were better than no images at all. Samuel Pepys has given the most brilliant and finely detailed memorial of Restoration London that could be imagined–but imagined in the word; we must form our mental pictures from what he tells us, and from artists like Lely and Kneller; is it sacrilege to suggest that Forever Amber, Frenchman’s Creek, and Hudson’s Bay add something worthwhile, if it is only a visual impression? All the world knows that when the Light Brigade charged in the San Fernando Valley, it was as the climax to a film that had no more to do with Raglan, Cardigan, and Balaclava than with “Little Women”–but even Lord Tennyson might have had his imagination enlarged by the most spectacular recreation ever seen of cavalry going neck or nothing into cannon fire. Bette Davis or Flora Robson could play only an imaginative personation of the Elizabeth, but they gave us something that the historian cannot. Personally, I always doubted that an army could be stopped by flashing polished shields until I watched it on the screen; I envisaged the Gordian knot as a vague tangle of rope until Richard Burton was confronted with something that looked like a spherical doormat. What the beginning of the Exodus was like, no one will ever know–Demille brought it to life. The sight of old Vladimir Sokolov perishing in the snow while Charles Boyer made sympathetic noises, conveyed some sense of what the Retreat from Moscow was like; the scene in which Jack Palance pulls on his glove while Elisha Cook stands wary and angry in the mud is art of a high order; it is also as true an impression of a Western gunfight as we are ever likely to get.

There is something else that the costume picture has done. I have lived long enough in the world of historical fiction to know how strongly it can work at turning readers to historical fact; Hollywood, by providing splendid entertainment, has sent people to the history shelves in their millions.

And, on specific movies:

True Grit

Having seen True Grit my one regret is that John Wayne never had a shot at Falstaff; Rooster Cogburn, the boozy, disreputable old rascal of a marshal hired by an adolescent girl to track down her father’s murderer, is his best performance, possibly because the script is quite the most authentic ever written for a Western picture. Whether the principal credit should go to the screenwriter, Marguerite Roberts, or the original novelist, Charles Portis, (NOTE: For the Record, Portis, though Roberts also got off several wonderful lines that weren’t in the book). I don’t know, but for once the voice of the Old West is heard strong and clear; its splendid imagery cries out for quotation, but I will cite only Rooster’s final raging challenge to Ned Pepper (Robert Duval)–not “Reach!” or “Draw!” or “Go for your gun!”, but: “Fill yore hands, you son-of-a-bitch!’ Never mind the plot, listen to the characters–not only Rooster and Pepper, but the game little bantam of a girl (Kim Darby), the Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell), the renegade Chaney (Jeff Corey), and the superbly articulate outlaws encountered along the way; actors seldom get the chance to speak so well, and they rise to the occasion.

The Wild Bunch

..a foul film which for some reason received enthusiastic reviews. One critic wrote of it: ‘The bloody deaths are voluptuous, frightening, beautiful’, and described it as an ‘imagistic epic’. I don’t know if that critic has ever seen bloody death, but it is not beautiful at all, and there is nothing clever or artistic or worthy about its portrayal ad nauseum. (NOTE: The critic was Pauline Kael…and, no, she hadn’t.)

Platoon

Platoon is terrifying. Not because of its horror and violence, but because I suspect it is a true picture, and that makes me tremble for the safety (to say nothing of the good name) of Western civilisation. I would prefer to believe it is a grotesque fiction, but good authorities have claimed it an honest portrayal of the Vietnam war, and if it is, then there is no doubt why America lost. On this showing, they didn’t have an army….like all the blood, carnage, and pretentious talk with which the film abounds, the danger is that audiences may regard it as typical of all warfare, and the conduct of the principals as acceptable, even excusable. They may even tell themselves that Barnes, with all his beastly faults, is a darned good soldier; he isn’t. He is a rotten soldier, and I wouldn’t bet on his platoon to beat the Band of Hope..

…I am reluctant to believe Platoon, because the Americans of 1942-45 (NOTE: with whom Fraser, a Brit, had served in the Pacific theater) were not like this; they were good soldiers.

Even within this small sampling, I don’t agree with all of Fraser’s assessments. I would not, for instance, fault the soldiers in a badly led army and leave any criticism of their leadership implicit. There is much else in the book I would dispute more strongly.

But every assessment made me think–and not just about movies.

They still do.

As a historian, Fraser understood that, at a certain point, events consist not merely of the facts (whether agreed upon or disputed) but of the stories we make from those facts. As a first-rate novelist and screen writer, he understood film has become, for better or worse, the principal means of conveying those stories.

His best quality, though, was that he kept his head, and stuck to what his extraordinary life had taught him.

As a result, his criticism had the sting of moral authority, astringently applied.

And, in an age when the theater at the strip mall is filled every weekend with “imagistic” violence that makes The Wild Bunch look like Renoir’s Impressionistic Paris, his warnings about allowing our worst instincts to run free were prescient.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2017)

December 12-Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges, 4th Viewing)

To find out if Sturges can take off from noir the way the rest of his career took off from John Ford’s movies with Will Rogers. With each viewing,  I feel him inching closer, the way Rex Harrison keeps getting closer to having off his wife’s head–or his own–just because she’s so lovely in every way.

December 12-Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath, 3rd Viewing)

Because I’ve been wondering if Gwyneth Paltrow’s star-making performance–distributed by Harvey Weinstein’s company either just before or just after he tried to molest her (I haven’t been able to get the timeline straight even in the context of assuming everybody who is now on the record remembers everything just the way it was)–holds up.

It does.

And everything good around it, which is just about everything, is still good.

I watched it the first time as a rental. That was right after I saw Paltrow interviewed on Charlie Rose. Surrounded by snakes she was. Jane Austen must have seemed like a godsend. Any Jane Austen. But especially Emma, who is loved and valued to exactly the extent she keeps her mean streak cloaked under velvet manners. I think this might become a favorite.

December 13-Blast of Silence (1961, Allen Baron, 2nd Viewing)

To see if I missed anything the first time around. I don’t think so. This is a good, solid little noir which has gained enough of a reputation to merit a Criterion release. I’ll probably watch it again–it might make a great early sixties New York double bill with The Apartment.  But my old problem will always arise: outside Patricia Highsmith, I’m just not that interested in psychopaths. Not even the ones who are trying to convince me they want to go straight.

December 14-Alexander the Great (1956, Robert Rossen, 1st Viewing)

I’m treating this as a first viewing even though it might be a second…and the first may not have been that long ago. I’m too tired to look it up, but if this is a second viewing, I might have revisited it to see if Richard Burton can get past that blonde wig.

There’s something a bit off about the whole exercise and that no-doubt-period-accurate wig (I can’t conceive another reason to make Richard Burton, of all people, look like Little Lord Fauntleroy) exemplifies the picture’s stagnant, occasionally ornery nature. The history’s not bad. The sets are often magnificent and there are individual scenes that work well.

Still, it’s missing something.

It’s too bad Land of the Pharaohs, released the previous year, wasn’t a hit. Joan Collins might have spiced this right up.

December 14-Body Double (1984, Brian DePalma, 1st Viewing)

Because I saw it for a buck in a local thrift shop and I was in the mood for some DePalma I hadn’t seen.

I won’t be in the mood for this again anytime soon. I’d rather have my chest drilled, like one of DePalma’s victims. That shot above is the best thing in the movie. One could be fooled by it into thinking this might be worth two hours of your time.

Don’t be fooled.

December 17-Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow, 3rd Viewing)

For the action scenes, which just keep coming. They’re among the best in modern cinema and have proved to be Kathryn Bigelow’s real calling card even as she’s moved on to Oscar bait high concept stuff.

And for Patrick Swayze’s performance as a sociopath with enough real charisma to make you understand why a fellow danger jockey like Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah might fall for him even after the mask has come all the way off.

Plus a bunch of real life surfers who give you a tantalizing look into a culture that’s a long way from Dick Dale or Endless Summer.

Besides, there’s not really a higher concept than surfing bank robbers.

December 18-Cheyenne Autumn (1964, John Ford, Not Quite Umpteenth Viewing)

I guess I’ve seen this about half-a-dozen times now. For me and a Ford film, that’s just getting started.

It’s an odd, late entry in the Ford canon. Like a lot of his less-than-great films it divides people, sometimes bitterly.

I’m not in the “hidden masterpiece” camp, but I keep coming back to it.

Every time, I think it won’t work: That Richard Widmark not being John Wayne and Carroll Baker not being Vera Miles and Mike Mazurki not being Victor McLaglen and baby-faced Sal Mineo not making much of an Indian is just too much working against it even before the flat ending.

But, every time, I see so many good things in it–the long opening sequence, as fine as anything Ford ever did, the haunting shot of Karl Malden’s decent-but-blustering fort commander contemplating the carnage wrought by his own incompetence before he wanders into the snow, Mazurki’s “Cossack” scene, where he turns out to be pretty damn close to Victor McLaglen after all–I know I’ll always come back.

Late Ford, old Ford, sick Ford, conflicted Ford. It’s still Ford.

December 20-Black Rain (1984, Ridley Scott, 4th Viewing)

Because there aren’t enough Kate Capshaw movies, not even ones where she’s underutilized. And because, come to think of it, there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play a good guy, even if he’s a good guy with some more than rough edges…meaning there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play scenes no other actor of his generation could play so well and which happen over and over here.

And because only Ridley Scott could make modern Tokyo look and feel like an underworld.

If not the Underworld.

December 20-Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson, 1st Viewing)

Because it’s showing at the mall and it’s that time again. (More, perhaps, in next month’s At the Multiplex. For the record, after a close run during the first hour, I enjoyed it.)

December 21-The Man Who Never Was (1956, Ronald Neame, 3rd Viewing)

Because better a just-going-to-seed Gloria Grahame (already…by 1956!) playing an almost good girl with a broken heart than no Gloria Grahame at all.

And for a lovely ending, of which the modern world, where we can dream anything we like, did not turn out to be worthy.

Great poster, though.

Til next time….

FINALLY, THE CIA GETS THE MOVIE IT SO RICHLY DESERVES (At the Multiplex: October, 2017)

American Made (2017)
D. Doug Liman

Based on a true lie

Well damn. It’s about time.

I don’t see them all, but, as far as I know, the last great movie about the CIA was The In-Laws, all the way back in 1979.And it was all made up.

This one’s about half made up, which is about as close to the facts as any good CIA movie should ever be. Any closer, and it’s just a documentary, ready to be turned over to Ken Burns and produced on the public dime, like all the rest of the CIA’s activities, Viet Nam war included.

American Made was bound to be advertised as a Tom Cruise vehicle once Cruise was cast as Barry Seal, the Agency’s smuggler of choice for drugs, guns and Freedom Fighters back in the post-Vietnam, pre-Iran-Contra Go-Go phase of the Cold War. I grinned when I first heard about Cruise being cast. No matter the advertising, it’s very rare that I see a new movie coming and say “Well, I’m not missing that one.” And, despite our boy making no particular attempt to physically resemble Seal (who often checked in around 300 pounds), it’s every bit the inspired casting I hoped for.

The same people who complain about this or that historical detail being completely misrepresented in your favorite movie about Wyatt Earp or Jesse James are complaining about the same kind of things here.

My best advice is to ignore them.

Most of what we know about Barry Seal is what the CIA tells us anyway. Anybody who ever saw the In-Laws knows what that’s worth.

Suffice it to say he was a shady character and Cruise gets at the important thing, which is his motivation.

Yeah, American Made‘s Barry Seal has got some patriotic leanings and God knows he’s greedy.

But that’s not what makes him tick.

What makes him tick is a quality almost no movie ever gets right, even when it’s the very subject (as it is here, if only subterraneously). Before and after he was everything else–in life or film–Barry Seal was a primo example of a good, old American Type: the Danger Jockey.

No man who did what he did–in life or film–has ever been really high on anything but Risk.

And no man who did what he did has ever been cured of his peculiar addiction by anything but his Fate.

In Barry Seal’s case, that meant being cut down by Medillin Cartel assassins while reporting to a court-ordered work furlough at a handy Salvation Army depot in his home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a moment when, by rights, he should have been in either a Federal Prison or the Witness Protection Program.

American Made stays in touch with the facts just enough to lay out a prima facie case–fictional but convincing–of just why and how all that was made inevitable. The biggest laugh in the theater came on the line “Governor Clinton is on the phone,” which comes just after Cruise’s Seal has assured the representatives of the umpteen law enforcement agencies who are gathered round a D.A.’s desk to determine which one of them is going to bury him under an Arkansas jail that he’s going to walk out of there.

Second biggest laugh?

When he walks out of there.

The film is skillful enough to have let us know by then what he already knows, which is that he is jumping from a frying pan to a fire–and the all-consuming flames will forever await him, no matter how fast he dances.

It’s also playful enough to get those laughs, all along the way.

Liman’s a plenty good director (Go, the first Bourne film, Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game), but that last is a trick only Tom Cruise could do so well. He has made it look so easy so many times that he’s also made it easy to fool yourself into thinking he’s not acting, the same way Cary Grant and John Wayne weren’t supposed to be acting. But he’s made up his own iconography, without  the help they had from either Hollywood or the Culture (neither of which was any longer offering assistance in this regard by the time Cruise played his first iconic role in Risky Business). That’s not a small thing and he’s never put it to better use than here, where he’s all there is and all there needs to be. (The film’s one big mistake is sticking him with a devoted wife for whom he would do just about anything except give up being a Danger Jockey–it would be a mistake even if it were factual, which it ain’t. If there ever was such a Danger Jockey, it sure as hell wasn’t Barry Seal, and having the devoted wife be a confused, foul-mouthed, hypocritical Hollywood Southern sugarcake, who we’re supposed to love and admire anyway, doesn’t lessen the mistake).

In a world where the detritus of America’s classic transformation from Nation to Empire rolls daily by (just today, we decided that desertion would no longer be treated as a crime worthy of punishment by the American Military, a level of disdain for reason and tradition even Barry Seal might have blanched at if he could have stopped laughing long enough) American Made is just another two hours of entertainment. But when the court chroniclers of our long-promised future Golden Age come to write the last great score against our name, and ask themselves how and why it all went south so far, so fast, they could do worse than take a close, hard look at this great Tom Cruise vehicle, which already says to anyone paying attention:

Ah hah!

 

CITIZEN KANE ON CAMPUS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Tenth Rumination)

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Notes on attending Kane on campus last night….

1)   Watching it for the first time in a while–first time in decades with an audience–I was struck by how little its prescience has been noted by the crit-illuminati and/or their journo-politico fellow travelers re our recent political upheavals. I’ve seen Donald Trump compared to Adolf Hitler, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln (by himself), P.T. Barnum, Huey Long, Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, etc. Never once have I seen him compared to Charles Foster Kane. I’m sure it must have happened. But, as closely as I’ve been following along, I have to believe such comparisons have been few and far between. Now why would that? Hold on, I think I may have an answer way, way further down…

2) The main reason I go to watch classic movies on college campuses whenever I can is to participate in–and gauge–audience reactions. This was one of the rare times FSU’s Student Life Center was running a film in 35mm, so it was extra treat. (The Center, incidentally, is named for Reubin Askew, former Florida governor who was the only Democrat my mother ever considered voting for. In the end, she didn’t, citing her contempt for his running mate, though I always suspected she just couldn’t make the leap to the idea that the “New” Democrats were anything more than the Jim Crow scoundrels who had ruled her Southern childhood dressed up in sheep’s clothing. She was wrong about the thoroughly decent Askew–but had she lived just a little longer she would have spotted Bill Clinton for the smooth, duplicitous son of Pitchfork Ben Tillman he was right off, and taken some gently sardonic satisfaction in noting which one rose to the White House.) Re Kane, though:The reactions this time were….interesting.

3) The film was introduced by a couple of genial, slightly goofy student-age dudes, one of whom was evidently in charge of the theater’s programming, the other the projectionist (this being a rare modern occasion when one was required). They gave us an entertaining five minutes, during which I kept thinking “If this was Moore Auditorium in 1983, these guys would be chum for the sharks.” We won’t win any more wars, but the world was meaner then.

3) The main new thing that struck me in the movie–it’s one of those movies which will always reveal new things–was that when Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland returns his copy of Kane’s “Ten Principles” (along with a $25,000 check torn to pieces), it’s not a comment on Kane’s journalistic or political honor (Leland was the first to know he didn’t have any), and therefore must be meant to strike at his betrayal of his marital honor–the only kind he’s really broken faith with. I don’t think the college kids around me quite got this (though they knew it was a big deal of some sort–it elicited the only gasps and “o-o-o-h-h-h-s” of the night). There’s no reason they should have, of course, marital honor no longer being a thing. But I was ashamed of myself for not noticing years back, when it still was a thing.

4) When it was over,  a girl in front of me turned to her friends and said “It was good.” They all nodded along. The relief was palpable.

5) There was a moment during the film, when the kid behind me said “This is going on right now.” I honestly can’t remember which scene he reacted to, because I was pretty much thinking that about every scene.

6) It became obvious to me for the first time during this viewing that Welles didn’t screen Stagecoach forty times while he was making Kane so he could understand more about deep focus cinematography or how to film ceilings (those being two of many theories, some endorsed by Welles himself, of what he was after). He screened Stagecoach forty times so he could learn how people move and talk on screen and to understand film-rhythm.

7) For all that–and all its technical perfection (one understands why it knocks ’em over in Film School)–it still doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Gone With the Wind or The Searchers, the reasonable competition for Hollywood’s greatest film. It might be a greater film from a purely technical standpoint and it’s certainly formidable as a Narrative. But if Narrative is the prime value of story-telling–and it should be–it still comes a little short. I should add that this says more about the other films than it does about Kane, which is still a moving experience on every level. And more so, I find, with age.

8) I’ve never bought that it was one of the great Hollywood blunders for John Ford and How Green Was My Valley to have won Best Director and Best Picture for 1941. All in all, I might pick Welles and Kane, but it’s a close run. He was robbed of the acting Oscar, though. Gary Cooper–almost inevitably with war clouds looming, then breaking, during awards season–won for a fine performance in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (Ford’s own stated choice for best picture and director). But Welles gave one of the half-dozen signature performances in film. The only greater injustice in the history of the acting category was John Wayne being denied so much as a nomination for The Searchers. Welles was at least nominated.

9) Did I mention kids are so much nicer now? In the bathroom afterwards, three guys were talking about how “It wasn’t bad for 1941.” And another said, “I mean, it’s not something I’m gonna tell my friends they have to see.”

10) I was otherwise occupied, and thus robbed of my chance to share my Citizen Kane story with the younger generation. Had I been able to leave the stall a little sooner, I was planning to say something like this:

So I was sitting with my Dad about fifteen years ago, a few years before he died, and he puts down his newspaper and says ‘John, what is the significance of “Rosebud?”‘ I then proceeded to explain to him that it was a reference to the movie Citizen Kane (of which he had vaguely heard–my dad saw a movie about once a decade). I told him some of the plot and the presumed symbolism of it turning out to be the name of Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled, the one he was playing with when he was taken from his parents.

My dad listened patiently to all of that, and, when I was finished, he looked off into the distance for a minute and finally nodded and said “Oh yeah. Old Hearst’s mistress.” Then he went back to reading his paper.

Mind you I hadn’t said a thing about Kane being based, in whole or in part, on William Randolph Hearst, let alone anything about Rosebud being his pet name for Marion Davies’ private parts and that being the more or less real reason Welles got more or less run out of Hollywood.

The only thing I could ever figure was that in Dad’s Carny days, perhaps through his friend and business partner “Cy,” who was an intimate of Red Skelton’s (they having grown up together in the mob-owned night clubs of the Midwest–there were certain towns in Illinois from which it was necessary for Cy to absent himself from the show for a week or two), he had picked up some piece of stray gossip that stayed with him all those years and flashed to the top of his mind as the shortest, straightest way to sort out all the nonsense I had been babbling on about.

I’m not sure how much of that I would have had a chance to share with my fellow bladder-emptiers last night. But if, by chance, they hadn’t fled, I was going to finish with a flourish and say:

“Now you should probably go watch it again and see what you missed.”

Ah well. Their loss.

And I still can’t blame them because, for all its purported “modernity,” Kane’s fall is straight out of the oldest trope in Western Civilization: Pride goeth before a fall.

Today’s twenty-somethings could be forgiven for thinking that’s all a lot of hogwash.

[Addenda: To answer the earlier question….The crit-illuminati and journo-politicos will catch on to the similarities between Donald Trump and their “fictional” Welles-ian hero when the Security State arranges for The Donald to be found in Mar-a-Lago, with a snow-globe falling from his dying hand as he lies on his big brass bed and Melania is discovered by a maid, locked up in the bathroom, murmuring, “I never wanted it. He wanted it for me!” The reports of the event won’t suffice to awaken them, but the note from the boss will do the trick. You know, the one that begins “Our friends at CIA have requested…”

FORD AND HAWKS, HAWKS AND FORD…AT WAR (And Then There Was Hollywood: Eighth Rumination)

Air Force (1943)
D. Howard Hawks

and…

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Ford and Hawks. Hawks and Ford.

No two directors have ever been paired so frequently. Hence, they’re stuck with each other–not that either man would mind.

They might be bemused, though, given all that separated them.

As for what united them, at least in the critical narrative….

Part of it was timing. They were close in age (Ford was born in 1894, Hawks in 1896), and subsequently comparable in experience and stature, not to mention close friends, especially later in life.

Part of it was taste. They both used John Wayne a lot (Ford could rightly take credit for making Wayne a star, Hawks for his maturation, Ford again for making the most of that maturation). They both liked stories about men in groups (though Hawks generally preferred ad hoc associations, Ford more formal and permanent ones).

Part of it was longevity. Once you sort out the wunderkinds (Welles, Ray, Coppola), they stand apart as the great American (and most American) filmmakers of the Golden Age or any other.

But mostly it’s the old yin and yang.

Give them the same subject matter, and they’d find approaches that both complemented and repelled each other–like two planets orbiting in opposite directions around the same sun.

That essential paradox was never more clearly displayed than in their approaches to their respective (somewhat obligatory) films about fighting men in WWII.

By obligatory, I don’t mean they took them less than seriously–these are two of the best war films ever made and likely the very best about men in small combat units. But it’s likely each man (both notoriously hard to read and completely unreliable as authors of their own narratives) approached his project more compelled by duty than enthusiasm. “A job of work” as Ford was fond of saying.

The dates on the films are a bit deceptive. Hawks filmed in the summer of 1942 and Air Force was released in February, 1943. Ford filmed in the summer of 1945 and They Were Expendable was released in December, 1945. The three years that separated the respective film-shoots were a lifetime.

In 1942, the outcome of the early war in the Pacific (the setting for both films) was still very much in doubt. It no longer seemed likely the Japanese would be overrunning the Pacific coast. But that they would hold onto, perhaps expand, their empire, seemed as likely as not.

In the tense, skittish atmosphere of ’42, Hawks, the man who loved flying and the sky, made a film about the crew of a single plane responding to Pearl Harbor and the impending loss of the Philippines by island hopping until they are able to lead a squadron that takes out an entire Japanese fleet and basically win the war by Christmas.

In the triumphant atmosphere of ’45, Ford, the man who loved sailing and the sea, made a film about a PT boat squadron being driven relentlessly toward defeat.

Air Force is notable among Hawks’ films in that death has a real presence and even a sting–a deep one on-screen and a deeper one off. In that sense, it’s the most Fordian film made by a director who, when asked by Peter Bogdonavich if he thought about Ford when he made westerns, said: “Well, it’s hard not to think about Jack Ford when you’re making a western…or any film really.”

Still, the tell-tale differences are there: there’s a “lucky” animal in both pictures, each played for laughs–a feisty little dog in Air Force gets some big scenes and plenty of attention, even an arc; a black cat in Expendable has no arc but simply skitters from boat to boat, reinforcing the random nature of “luck” in war time.

The men in both pictures go to extraordinary lengths to protect and preserve their “ships”–ships that are, in each case, considered of little use by high command until their crews prove them otherwise in the heat of conflict. Hawks’ plane–the Mary-Ann, rides out the film in glory. Ford’s boats–known by their numbers–go down in flames, one by one, until the last one is hauled off to run messages for the battered rump Army unit that remains on Corregidor. The men of Hawks’ Mary-Ann gather in the last scene, all smiles, on their way to bomb Tokyo. The men of Ford’s PT boats are scattered to the winds: some dead or lost at sea; others reassigned to the army, where (like the nurses exemplified by Donna Reed’s WAC) they’ll be killed or taken prisoner in the oncoming attack; a tiny few evacuated (in one of Ford’s most effective and moving final scenes, which is saying something) to be reassigned to teach the men who will “come back.”

Speaking of women–there’s no room for Hawks’ ideal One-of-the-Boys Dames in Air Force, so they don’t function as anything but someone for the heroes to say goodbye to (albeit they don’t yet know they’ll be heroes because they leave San Francisco on Dec. 6, 1941). The closest thing to a significant female character is a young woman, seriously injured in the Pearl attack, who is the sister of the Mary-Ann‘s co-pilot and the fiancee of its bombardier. She has a bedside scene that’s actually echoed in Expendable, only there, the patient is a wounded soldier pretending he doesn’t know he’s going to be left to die when his crew comes for a last visit.

In Ford, death always stings, never more so than here, where it is a constant presence, weighing more and more heavily as the film progresses–every visit registering in their commander’s face (Robert Montgomery, in a performance that transcends any notion of awarding it, though I doubt that’s why it was ignored).

Expendable, on the other hand, does have one significant female part–Reed’s Sandy Davyys. It’s a small but telling (and career-making) part. She’s no dame, but any man with sense would marry her a hundred times over any other man’s glorious fantasy. (Evidently a lot of men who actually fought in WWII felt the same. After Reed’s death, her daughter spoke of her mother receiving hundreds of letters from servicemen, which she mentioned to no one, and kept to the end of her life, a life that included fierce and public opposition to the American war in Viet Nam.)

Which leads us to the issue of verisimilitude.

To be fair to Hawks, Air Force comes from an era when war films were all but required to be infused with propaganda. Ford, directing at the end of the war, and having seen much of that war up close and personal–including Midway, where, in the initial fighting, men every bit as devoted to their planes as the crew of Air Force, were destroyed en masse by more technologically advanced Japanese fighters*–had a freer hand, not to mention a set of experiences that jaundiced a world view already prone to melancholy. In addition, Ford had the advantage of working with a number of cast and crew who, like him, had seen action. It’s possible that They Were Expendable is as close as any group of men have ever come to portraying war as they had just witnessed it so close to the fact.

And, oddly, it’s Expendable‘s downbeat tone–reflected in a title that, perhaps unconsciously, doubles as homage to its heroes and a dire prediction of the subsequent costs of empire which are with us still–that lends gravity to Hawks’ irrepressible can-do optimism. It’s a spirit that’s fundamental to all of Hawks’ best work, just as the spirit of elegy and remembrance is fundamental to Ford’s, but here is gains by the presence of a counterweight, brought to his own film by Ford’s original great silent-era collaborator, Harry Carey, Sr. and the hindsight we can enjoy from a distance where both films are secure in their reputations, as necessary to their own times as they are unfathomable to these.

I didn’t have a chance to see either film until after I was forty. The distance between them–the way they both reinforce and parry each other, until Expendable finally rises above–was more evident then because I’d undergone my own transformation. At twenty-nine I was a Hawks man all the way–the same way I preferred the Beatles to the Stones, Audrey Hepburn to Vivien Leigh, Raymond Chandler to Ross MacDonald.

Time reversed all those judgments.

Not because I lost any affection for the former–not even one degree.

Just because older, for me as for most people, has meant sadder and wiser.

Defeat may not be permanent. But it’s the greater part of life’s arc. As someone said at the end of another great war film: All glory is fleeting.**

For nations, as well as men.

Hawks may have suspected.

Ford knew.

*Ford, having taken film of the men with their planes the day before, later arranged the films to be sent to each man’s family at his own expense.

**Patton, for those wondering. Pretty safe bet that Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote the screenplay, knew his Ford as well as Patton knew his Latin.

HAUNTING THE PRESENT…THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE AT FIFTY-FIVE (I Watch Westerns: Take Six)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, D. John Ford)

Some day I’ll get back to John Ford’s people, which is the only way to get at the  unique narrative depth of his films. For now, the present calls.

And you know the drill: “This is the west sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

As our benighted populace works itself into its latest Twitter-fueled tizzy, busily convincing itself that it really is different this time, that “fake news” is something more than the latest euphemism for “news,” the only news fit to print is that John Ford, the “mythmaker” who couldn’t have made myths as rapidly as he deconstructed them if he had spent his life on a gerbil wheel, remains both the most misunderstood American artist and the most contemporary. What he asked, we spend our lives–and what’s left of our national narrative–answering, even if more and more of us never heard of him.

What he asks in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not whether we should allow comfortable legends to displace disorienting facts (an issue he does address, here and elsewhere, often in profound and troubling ways) but something which is itself both simpler and more difficult.

“Aren’t you proud?”

The question is posed near the end of the film. It’s directed at James Stewart’s Senator Ransom Stoddard by his “good wife” Hallie, whose maiden name we have never learned. They are riding a train–especially commandeered for their use–away from the western town of Shinbone, which exists in a territory-become-state that seems closest to Colorado. As it is asked by Hallie Stoddard–and by the actress who played her–the question has no answer.

Yes, of course, we are proud–Ransom Stoddard and our pioneer ancestors and us.

Yes, of course, we are the furthest thing from proud. Ransom Stoddard. Our pioneer ancestors. Us.

After all: Look….Look what we’ve done!

And:

God help us, look what we’ve done….

“Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden….Aren’t you proud?”

Vera Miles spoke those lines on a movie set, sometime in the early sixties. She was playing a character sitting on a train as it rolled through a “garden” at the turn of the previous century, a character who has spent the previous half-day being brought face-to-face with the memories of her life in the “wilderness” of the 1860s or 70s.

We’ve seen who she was: an illiterate firebrand who has never seen a “real rose” and yearns–one might even say burns–for betterment, learning, civilization.

We’ve seen who she has become: cultured, worldly, frozen.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is her story because it’s the entire American story, maybe the entire story of Western Civilization, boiled down to a single scene.

This scene:

Only Ford would make a complex narrative film where the central conflict is played out between two people who share only this one scene and never exchange a word of dialogue.

Do they need to?

It’s all right there. Her fear. His arrogance. A room full of men in which only one (John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon, glimpsed at the far rear of the second frame above, where only Ford would resist cutting to an instant reaction shot of him**) can protect her.

Doniphon’s presence is felt. The scene even plays out with him challenging Valance, not over whether he’s Hallie’s protector–that’s a given and, like so much else, unspoken–but whether (by proxy of a dust-up over a steak spilled on the floor by James Stewart’s “new waitress”) he will extend his protection to a Civilization which, by the careful none-of-my-business postures of every other man in the room, we know will not assert, let alone defend, itself.

And, of course, in the end, he will do just that…and make the garden where the existential question “Aren’t you proud?” can finally be asked, some thirty years hence, over the memory of his own coffin.

By which time every answer the question can yield is a tragedy because the “garden” has come at the expense of the only happiness he cared about.

Not his own.

Hers.

Aren’t you proud?

(**Peter Bogdanovich, a Ford confidante in the years after Valance was made, is fond of telling about a similar sort of decision from the set of 1941’s How Green Was My Valley. The outline of Walter Pidgeon’s Doniphon-like priest is seen in the far background while Maureen O’Hara’s Hallie Stoddard-like bride rides off to a loveless marriage in a rich man’s motor car. A cameraman asked Ford if he didn’t want a reaction shot of Pidgeon up on the hill. “Aw no,” the Narrativist groaned. “They’ll just use it.”)

MY FAVORITE “ANYTIME” MOVIES….BY DECADE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Some time in the distant past when I used to listen to sports talk radio (and boy is that time getting to be distant), I heard a segment where a bunch of junior noncoms in the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade opined about movies they could literally sit down and watch anytime.

The DBCCB being what it is, Die Hard came up a lot.

Nothing against Die Hard, which I like, but I always thought I could do better ….so, being, as they say, snobby but not runny snobby:

The Thirties:

Carefree (1939, D. Mark Sandrich)

As many have noted, more a screwball comedy than a musical. As not enough have noted, a first class screwball comedy. And while it may not be a musical, strictly speaking, it does have Ginger doing “The Yam,” my favorite five minutes of film. My second favorite five minutes is Ginger, hypnotized, running loose with a shotgun, muttering “Shoot him down like a dirty dog!” while Luella Gear explains to Jack Carson that  “It’s probably one of the silly rules.”

The Forties:

Colorado Territory (1949, D. Raoul Walsh)

Walsh’s superior remake of his own High Sierra, the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star. It’s easier to have sympathy for a western outlaw than a modern sociopath (even if the sociopath has had the rough edges smoothed away for the box office). Joel McCrea’s at his very best as a man looking for a second chance in the same wrong place he lost the first one, and VIrginia Mayo makes for one fetching half-breed. Plus it’s a heist flick, always a plus in my book.

The Fifties:

Rear Window (1954, D. Alfred Hitchcock)

Top drawer Hitchcock of course. It’s not so much remembered now, but this sat in the vaults for decades before being restored and re-released to theaters in the eighties. I took my mom to see it and, every time Grace Kelly came on the screen she would murmur, “Isn’t she so-o-o-o-o-o beautiful!” I could hardly disagree, but I thought I would go back a week or two later and watch it by myself, just to see what it was like without the sound effects. Met a girl from work in the lobby and, since we were both there by ourselves, it would have been rude not to sit together. First time Grace Kelly came on the screen: “Isn’t she so-o-o–o-o beautiful!” Interestingly enough, we spent the time before the movie mostly talking about a girl in our office who actually was the only woman I’ve ever known who was as beautiful as Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and had just quit to move back to Orlando. I found out a year or so later that she had wanted to date me, in part because I was the kind of guy who took his mother to the movies….Oh, wait. You thought I was gonna talk about the movie? Come on. You know about the movie. Hitchcock’s serious side and his comic side, perfectly married. That’s the movie.

The Sixties:

El Dorado (1967, D. Howard Hawks)

This is probably my all-time “anytime” movie. It’s a not-that-loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which everybody, including me, knows is “superior.” But there’s nothing in Rio Bravo I’d trade for the hour in the middle when John Wayne and Robert Mitchum are just a couple of roughnecks trying to keep law and order in a cowtown while Wayne keeps seizing up from the effects of a bullet in his back and Mitchum–with so little polish on him you can smell the whiskey, if not the vomit–is trying to dry out in time to dodge the next bullet. And if that’s not entertaining enough, I can always sit and ponder the mysteries of a universe where Michele Carey could smoke that many holes in the screen and fail to become a star.

The Seventies:

The Rockford Files: Season Four, Episode 8, “Irving the Explainer” (1977, D. James Coburn)

Not a movie. Okay, but there’s enough plot for three movies and it never gets resolved or leaves you wishing it would. People ask me what my favorite television series is and I say The Rockford Files. People ask me what my second favorite television series is and I say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”  Pick to click:  “Let me get this straight: You have a client who has the same name as Herman Goering’s house?”

The Eighties:

Midnight Run (1988, D. Martin Brest)

Way funnier than Die Hard, and the action sequences are no sillier. I’m not sold on Robert De Niro’s serious mode. (The whole Brando school leaves me…bemused.) But there’s never been a better comic actor. Not even Cary Grant. Matched here by the entire cast, including Charles Grodin, who I can usually take only in the smallest doses.

The Nineties:

Wag the Dog (1997, D. Barry Levinson)

Preston Sturges for the Age of the Security State and a road movie to boot. We forget. That’s the only explanation for a world where this movie exists and you still have people running around crediting the CIA–or, better yet, “the intelligence community”–as a reliable source. Comic genius from Dustin Hoffman, the aforementioned Mr. De Niro and Anne Heche, as the Girl Friday from both Heaven (oh, the efficiency) and Hell (she doesn’t care the job or the master, she just wants to serve someone and, buddy, you better be it).

The Current Millenia:

I know we are in the second decade of the new millennia, but it hasn’t been the sort of millennia that produces a lot of things worth revisiting. Forget two, I’m surprised there’s one.

Knight and Day (2010 D. James Mangold)

That’s the whole movie right there. Two people who are amazed by each other. One’s a superspy and the other likes to work on cars. Guess which is which? This is almost enough to make me forgive James Mangold for his wretched remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Almost.