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.]

 

INGRID’S JOAN (And Then There Was Hollywood: Eleventh Rumination)

Joan of Arc (1948)
D. Victor Fleming

Consider this a companion piece to my post about The Passion of Joan of Arc here…

Joan of Arc starts off like a trainwreck headed for nowhere and ends up going…somewhere.

The first half hour has everything possible going against it: The star, Ingrid Bergman, who had won a Tony playing the title role on Broadway (albeit there, as Joan of Larraine, it was a dual part, with a modern framing that was ditched for the film), is too old for the teenage Joan and too worldly for a French peasant village girl, even if she weren’t also an iconic, world class Hollywood beauty. The stodgy voice-over that was a plague of Hollywood’s Golden Age historical epics is dull as ever. Worse, the dialogue is devoid of wit or snap and the action scenes, including the assault on Orleans that made Joan’s legend, are staged with little context and less imagination.

A disaster waiting to happen then, or at least an excuse for a long nap…

Until it is rescued by Joan herself.

Joan of Arc is a sufficiently tricky character–or legend–to have defied definitive interpretation, whether on stage, page or film. To get the full measure of her, a narrative would have to capture the village maid inspired by voices, the improbable military genius and the clever illiterate, unable to sign her name, but fencing ably with her learned tormentors as she stands trial for both her life and her immortal soul, then wrap such disparate, often contradictory traits as all that implies, around a central, unifying persona.

This Joan does not come close to accomplishing all that.

It does not repeat the mistake of Dreyer’s silent masterpiece in selling the Maid’s faith short. But, for its first two stages–Joan’s village life and her rise to military glory–it goes too far in the other direction. Religious transcendence is never well understood by those who haven’t experienced at least some small version of it. If its paradox of liberation and awesome responsibility–suddenly you are called to save the world–has ever been fully caught on film, I’ve missed it. Certainly that does not happen here. Bergman was one of the screen’s greatest actresses as well as a luminous star–but through these early scenes she simply seems overwhelmed. Yes, Joan would have been frightened by visions that ordered her to do no less than save France. But she would have been exhilarated too. I’ve known God was on my side for perhaps five minutes in my life and those five minutes–bereft of grandeur though they may have been–left me sick to my stomach and ready to take on the world. I can only imagine what Joan felt, but I doubt it was either the benumbed humility that Bergman conveys in her village scenes or the flush-with-common-valor gung-ho of the battle sequences. There would have been a quiet, but abiding confidence in there somewhere, not mention a rush of exhilaration now and again. In this part of the film and the performance those crucial elements go missing.

But there’s always that third phase of the Joan narrative-the trial–and its interconnection with fifteenth-century realpolitik. Here, every writer has access, for once, to Joan’s actual words. And it’s here, as in Passion (where it’s the whole story), that the story, and the remarkable figure at its center, come alive.

I wouldn’t claim Bergman disappears into Joan. She’s far too strong a screen presence and far too obviously miscast as a physical type for that.

But you can, at least, feel Joan at her back, perhaps even whispering in her ear. Yes, this is how I would have played it….How I did play it!

And in these scenes, Bergman’s natural star power works in her favor. We don’t know much about what Joan looked like. But it’s safe to say it’s been rare for a woman to inspire as she did without having something or other that men, in particular, responded to, either with awe or fear or both. Bergman could hold her star charisma in check, but the inner light still shines. It might be more Sex than Faith, but here–in well written scenes that incorporate, but are not limited to, Joan’s actual testimony–you can see how close the two might have ridden together. That the script allows–almost insists upon–the idea that the Maid was tortured by rape or threats of rape in order to get her to recant her visions (the main purpose of her trial), does more to condemn her English judges (the acting rises a notch in these scenes, too–villain or hero, Hollywood always did do well by the Brits) than a thousand oily sneers or tortuous professions of profound belief.

In other words, the last half of the film works beautifully. Once the story is all Joan’s, rather than a screenwriter or playwright’s speculation, all the professional Hollywood spit and polish that made the first half a drag comes to its rescue. Joan herself couldn’t have asked for a better setting to deliver the careful, cutting phrases that have rung through the centuries.

All to the same tragic end of course and director Victor Fleming died shortly after thinking the film a failure.

That’s too bad. He and Bergman did not produce a masterpiece. But they did add something to a bottomless narrative that is one of the central stories of Christendom, one which, if it can never quite be caught entirely, still throws off flashes of lightning, be it in the starkest black and white….

…or the most glorious Technicolor.

THE CIVIL WAR ON FILM…A HANDY TEN

What with all the chatter about a coming second Civil War and all those statues coming down, I thought it might be useful to provide a list of good movies about the first Civil War. There haven’t been all that many, considering the significance of the occasion (I settled on ten, though even ten is way more good ones than we have about the Revolution, which some people regard as being an event in its own right).

As often happens, the losers had the stories. Four of these are from a Southern perspective. Three are either balanced or apolitical. The other three are about Lincoln.

My experience with Birth of a Nation is too long ago, and left too limited an impression (VHS on a 25″ television was perhaps not the best way to experience it) for me to have much of an opinion about it. From what I do remember it wouldn’t have made the cut anyway.

The General (1926)
D. Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman

And we begin here, with the Silent Era’s real Civil War masterpiece. It’s such a great and lauded comedy (it competes with Some Like it Hot for the highest ranking comedy on all those Best Of lists compiled by the crit-illuminati, and that it’s even a competition would be proof God doesn’t exist if it weren’t greater proof that the Devil does), that it’s easy to forget it’s also an action masterpiece, a Great Romance, a better train movie than Hitchcock ever made, and, as such things go, pretty sound history (the event depicted was real and, underneath all the zaniness, the story doesn’t stray much from the facts). You can have extra fun running around the internet looking up all the breathless reviews and trying to catch anyone emphasizing that the movie is as pro-Confederate as Gone With the Wind, or, if memory serves, Birth of a Nation. Buster makes us laugh. He’s protected. For now.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
D. John Ford

The variety of approaches John Ford took to the Civil War–without ever quite making a straightforward Civil War Movie (even The Horse Soldiers, comes in at an odd angle)–would make for an interesting book. Ford was one of two major American film-makers whose movies had politics (see below for the other) and those politics were cranky, unpredictable, leaning toward the pragmatic but with a touch of poetry thrown in at key moments to tip the moral balance.

He was made for Abraham Lincoln, then, and Lincoln for him. Ford famously “shamed” a reluctant Henry Fonda into playing the lead. Fonda was overwhelmed by the idea. Forget the Great Emancipator, Ford said. He’s a jack-leg lawyer from Springfield.

And that’s what Fonda does. He forgets himself right into the jack-leg lawyer’s skin.

But Ford never lets you forget this jack-leg lawyer’s eye for the main chance. Every move he makes–whether defending innocents from a lynch-mob, judging a pie contest, or, in the movie’s most telling scene, moving, with seeming reluctance, from the easy company of the backwoods farmers who know he’s a card, to the lap of Springfield Society, where only a certain Mary Todd laughs at his jokes–is rooted in ambition. Any idealism would be–must be–forever tempered. The visage of the stone monument that emerged from the rain in the film’s final frames as World War II loomed counts the cost.

Gone With The Wind (1939)
D. Victor Fleming (among others)

The Great White Whale.

Or is it Elephant? I get confused.

Anyway, it’s not the History that bothers the termite-lauding gate-keepers. As a matter of abiding by facts (which is what the illuminati always mean by History, except when the facts are inconvenient), Gone With the Wind is better than almost any of the historical fictions that never seem to bother anybody.

It’s the perspective that grates.

You know….But it’s racist!

No kidding. It’s told from the point of view of a daughter of the Plantation South–a class not generally known for their enlightened views on the subject–and engaged entirely with what she sees, feels, deems important. And if you think she and hers have got a sense of privilege when it comes to black people, you should take a look at how they–and Mammy–feel about “white trash” hillbillies some time.

It’s dangerous to forget what people have believed or why they believed it. I’m sure I read somewhere or other that it’s the forgetting that will let them learn to believe again.

Unless, of course, we really have transcended mere human nature.

Watch it now, while it’s still legal.

The Tall Target (1951)
D. Anthony Mann

Mann watched John Ford’s movies even more obsessively than Orson Welles or David Lean. He studied them so hard, his movies ended up having politics, too, never more than here.

The story involves Dick Powell’s detective, John Kennedy–who has isolated himself by resigning his post–trying to stop the Baltimore Plot assassination attempt on Lincoln as he journeys to Washington D.C. by train for his inauguration.  It’s a fine thriller, a great train movie and an excellent historical drama, not to mention one of the great unsung films noir.

But it’s also sharp about the complexities involved in secession and slavery as seen by the people of 1861. There are fine performances all around–Powell was really good at this sort of thing and the unflappable Adolphe Menjou has one of his very best roles.

But don’t sleep on Ruby Dee’s “servant,” as loyal as Mammy or Pork, and under no illusions about where her real interests lie. The subject of freedom does come up, after all. And her I know what it is (in response to her mistress suggesting she couldn’t possibly) says more than any hundred books about why the seductive appeal that slavery held for the slavers could only be eradicated by the massive bloodshed that, by 1861, was inevitable whether the Baltimore Plot succeeded or not.

Worth remembering–and revisiting–as the Alt-Right seizes the Post-Millennial Narrative.

The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
D. John Huston

I wrote extensively about this one here. I would only add that its mutilation is not entirely without relevance to the question of why Empires fall. And that what is left is still essential viewing for anyone who hopes to learn from the mistakes we were beginning to make even as this still essential film was being chopped to pieces by its studio.

Escape From Fort Bravo (1953)
D. John Sturges

“How’d a decrepit old man like you ever get in the war?”
“Because all the smart young men like you was losing it.”

A rare western actually set in both the West and the Civil War. Its most stirring scenes involve Indian fighting. But it’s a first rate Civil War film, too, presaging the kind of cooperation between bitter enemies that was required to hold the West during the conflict, and conquer what remained of it afterwards.

Anyone who thinks that was easy or inevitable will be disabused of the notion by this one. The final clash with the Mescalero Apaches is among the most heart-stopping action sequences in cinema, nonpareil even for the man who made The Great Escape.

Meanwhile, William Holden and Eleanor Parker are at their considerable best–he never more bitter or world-weary (not even in The Wild Bunch, the movie Sam Peckinpah made after Major Dundee, which shares its main themes with Bravo, turned out less than half as good), she never more noble or fetching.

But the heart of the film belongs to William Demarest’s aging Confederate. He’s there for a reason.

You know because all the smart young men like you was losing it.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
D. Clint Eastwood

Of the Eastwood-directed films I’ve seen (eleven by my count, most of them entertaining), this is the only one with a touch of poetry. One wonders if the early involvement of Phil Kaufman–who’s known for such touches–had something to do with that. But, as it’s brutal poetry, it might have been Forrest Carter’s source material. Carter wrote two novels about the Josey Wales character, a renegade who, motivated by vengeance after his family is murdered by Kansas Redlegs, rides with Bill Anderson in the Civil War and refuses to surrender afterwards. Before that, as Asa Carter, he had been a speechwriter for George Wallace, credited with, among other things, Wallace’s “segregation forever” speech. Brutal poetry was his specialty.

Any chance Josey Wales would be rated as highly as it deserves (Orson Welles thought it a masterwork and, with Eastwood shedding most of the Sergio Leone influence and accessing his inner John Ford, I’m in no position to argue), was shot to hell once that got around. Perhaps Kaufman’s status as a sterling liberal would have helped ease the illuminati‘s collective conscience. There was no way for that to happen with Eastwood’s name under the directing credit.

Be that as it may, it’s an essential film. certainly the best made about a border raider. Unlike the Jesse James’ narratives it shadows, it doesn’t need a distortion of history to make the fictional Wales a protagonist who, if not exactly easy to root for, is still worth feeling for. The character suits Eastwood’s laconic style to a T (it might be his best acting job), and there’s good work all around, especially from Chief Dan George, who, in a just world, would have picked up the Oscar he already deserved for Little Big Man.

With time and patience I’ve even forgiven Sondra Locke for not being Shirley MacLaine (Eastwood’s partner in Two Mules for Sister Sara, who would have been perfect for this if she’d been ten years younger).

And, lo and behold, gleaming through at the end, is that old shibboleth, The American Dream.

The one where all men are brothers, forgiven their sins and living in harmony–a strange vision indeed, emanating from the Segregation Forever man and, perhaps for the last time, granted the power of myth.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988)
D. Lamont Johnson

Television and, to my mind, a superior take to Steven Spielberg’s (still quite good) made-for-theaters Lincoln.

Gore Vidal’s source novel had enough authority to excise the inevitable sentimentality that’s built into Lincoln’s basic arc (so primal that little myth-making gild has ever been required) from any adaptation. And Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore, the best Abe and Mary since Young Mister Lincoln, look, act, move and speak as though they’ve absorbed everything John Ford implied forty years earlier–or that the real Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd left behind of themselves just shy of four score years before that. There is no better way–on film, television, stage or page–to experience the weight of Lincoln’s burden or the lasting tragedy of his being taken from the scene so soon after the guns grew silent.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

The best battle film ever made. There are sequences in other films that match the combat scenes here, but no entire film that mounts with the same tension from peak to peak.

The battle itself was made for a three act drama, though no one seems to have realized it until Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels in 1974. It’s all captured here. Sam Elliot’s John Buford turning a skirmish into a battle on the First Day that established the respective positions of the armies (and the Union’s tactical advantage). Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain desperately clinging to Little Round Top and preventing the turn of the Union flank (in scenes of brutal close order fighting that have not been surpassed) on the Second Day. Stephen Lang’s George Pickett leading the fatal charge against the Union center on the Third Day.

Maxwell spent years trying to bring it all to the screen and the commitment shows. The weight of the matter is left in no doubt. The men on either side understood the battle’s–and the war’s–significance, to them and the nation. An impressive array of fine actors do their best work bringing them to life–not just Elliot, Daniels and Lang, but Tom Berenger (James Longstreet), Richard Jordan (Lewis Armisted), Brian Mallon (Winfield Hancock), C. Thomas Howell (Tom Chamberlain) and Kevin Conway (as a fictional Union Everyman)  are all indelible. Even the small parts are exquisitely cast and played–for me the strongest impression is made by Andrew Prine’s Dick Garnett, on screen for perhaps five minutes, and doing more than any man here to demonstrate the fatalistic sickness that descends on men who have seen too much slaughter.

And beyond all that is the movie’s most disorienting feature–Martin Sheen taking Robert E. Lee down from his pedestal and putting a human being in his place with a penetrating psychological portrait that does not shirk the idea that Lee was undone by the cult of personality his virtually unbroken string of successes before the Third Day at Gettysburg was bound to engender.

Ride With the Devil (1999)
D. Ang Lee

A box office disaster with the kind of mixed reviews that always result when a movie doesn’t come with the underlining in crayon that tells critics what they are supposed to think.

Don’t let that put you off. It’s a great sequel to The Outlaw Josey Wales, but it’s also it’s own thing–something that cannot be said of many films made post 1980, in the Frozen Silence of modern American “culture.”

Tobey Maguire reminds you of why he was such a big deal for a while there and Jewel caps a lovely performance by being the only white person in the history of film to keep the word “nigger” free of modern associations.

It’s the absence of all modern associations, especially those tied to moral or physical comfort, that make the film difficult to fit into any approved Narrative.

We’re back to the border wars again–the one part of the country where the War raged on for years after Appomattox, not as a test of political will, but as a killing field fought over by “irregulars.”

A German immigrant and a black man ride with the Southerners (this made many heads spin on C-Span), who are losing their identity anyway. The Southerners fight each other verbally as much as they fight the Enemy physically.

No one is ever right. Or safe.

You can see how the thirty-eight million dollar budget turned into six hundred thousand at the box office.

But the lessons for the future are there, if you choose to look and learn.

The main difference is that, next time, it will be down your street, and the bickering will be between men with Uzis and AKs, instead of six-shooters.

Else rocket launchers.

Watch ’em while you can ya’ll!

 

 

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (August, 2016 Edition)

…Not including Grease, which I wrote about here.

I’m not sure if I’m going to make this a regular feature or not, but some people liked the last one a while back so I thought I would look at my last ten every now and then and see if they made anything worth writing about.

Seemed to be the case this time. It wasn’t depressing at least. That must be worth something these days!

Anyway, here goes, again in reverse order (30 days, 10 movies):

(NOTE: “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)

August 29–Escape From Fort Bravo (1953, John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For the strongest evocation of cavalry life in the west outside of John Ford…and for going places Ford didn’t.

For William Holden, at his hard-bitten best, becoming humanized by love and death. For Eleanor Parker being lovely and unique, yet again. For the role of William Demarest’s  lifetime, a lifetime in which he was never less than formidable and rarely less than perfect.

Also for John Sturges’ first foray as an action master. As iconography, that aspect of his career climaxed a decade later with Steve McQueen jumping a fence in The Great Escape. But, for pure mounting tension, he never bettered this. No one did. A good movie all around, especially for its rare look at Yankee/Confederate relations during (as opposed to after) the Civil War. In that, and most other respects, it’s about a thousand times better than Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee. But it’s most valuable, I think, for having what may be the best scenes ever filmed regarding the intricacies, terrors and pure hardships of actual Indian fighting.

So, at last: For its very Fordian reminder that the West was not won–or lost–easily. And that it was won–and lost–by people, not demography.

August 28–The Peacemaker (1997, Mimi Leder, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For its clear-eyed look at the pulp future we are now living in. Forget the absence of chemistry between George Clooney and his leading lady (in this case a snappy Nicole Kidman). Except for Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (filmed in that serendipitous eye-blink when she could set a match on fire by looking at it), that’s been a given and here, for once, it doesn’t really matter. Just wait for the great action sequences (there are four of them–trains, cars, helicopters, a ticking bomb) and the burning climax, where this man…

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…says “It is now.”

For that, I’ll watch it until “now” is no more…which I know won’t be in my lifetime.

August 24–Kaleidoscope (1966, Jack Smight, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Warren Beatty in a heist flick that’s almost as good as 1970’s Dollars (about which I’m sure I’ll have more to say some other time).  For an impossibly daft and gorgeous Susannah York, saying, “Oh no. You came out of nowhere in a little red sports car and no mummy and no daddy. I’d hate to find out that you were real.” For Susannah York saying  a lot of other things.

What else do you need? An ingenious and original plot? Scotland Yard mixing in? Jane Birkin trying on clothes? A crime lord who bonds with York over their shared Napoleon obsession?

Don’t worry. It’s got all that, too.

August 20–Gone With the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming (and others), Umpteenth Viewing)

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For the story of Scarlett O’Hara, which, believe it or not, is what the movie is about (I mention it because, the way the pearl-clutchers go on about all the “baggage,” you’d never know her story was worth telling). And for too many other reasons to count, the whole kit-and-caboodle deserving its own post some day.

For now, I’d just like to point out that Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett launches more assaults than Indiana Jones. I always start out promising myself I’ll keep count of how many times she punches or whips or dirt-clods or hair-pulls somebody. I always come up with some number between ten and fifteen. But, like the movie, and Leigh’s unmatchable performance, it never feels quite stable or exact.

August 13–Strangers on a Train (1951 Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For the two truly great scenes that open the movie, the first played between Farley Granger’s chump and Robert Walker’s psychopath, the second between Granger and Laura Elliot, playing the chump’s hard-bitten, soon-to-be ex-wife.

After that I always slog on, hoping it won’t all fall apart again. But the psycho always ends up killing the wife and that jars because, as played by Elliot, she’s the kind of girl who, in real life, would eat him for lunch and have the chump for a side. You get plenty of Hitchcockian dream-scapes after that, but these haven’t stood up as well as his best. I’ll lay aside the “logic” of trying to win a life-or-death tennis match in a certain amount of time (which can never be guaranteed) instead of losing it in a certain amount of time (which can). But I keep hoping The Master at least won’t have a policeman shoot at a carousel full of children this time around and kill the operator by mistake, with no discernible consequence except putting all the kiddies in mortal danger.

Alas, it seems to happen every single time.

I’ve usually enjoyed this, and I’m sure it’s some sort of formal “masterpiece.” But I have to confess that, each time around, it’s putting me to sleep a little earlier.

August 7–White House Down, 2013, Roland Emmerich, First Viewing)

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Caught it on TV and stuck with it to remind myself how worthless this world we made can be. I’m willing to bet Hollywood didn’t make a single major studio movie between 1930 and 1960 that was this bad. Today, I take its crappiness for granted and give it six out of ten stars or whatever. I mean, it didn’t make me kill myself. That’s something, right?

August 6–The Naked Prey (1965, Cornel Wilde, Third Viewing)

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For the glorious African landscapes, never bettered, even in documentary footage. For its stark reminder that civilization is a very thin veneer. For its refusal to accept that barbarism is civilization’s antidote and its simultaneous admission (in its slave-raiding scenes) that “civilization” is not always easy to define.

For Ken Gampu’s watchful, burning eyes.

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For the uninitiated, the story involves Director/Star Wilde transferring John Colter’s famous run from the Blackfeet to a white hunter’s escape from the Zulus. Not recommended for anyone sensitive to realistic scenes of animal slaughter, human torture or Man’s grasping nature.

August 6–Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest, Fifth Viewing)

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For its reminder that I like De Niro better as a comic actor than a dramatic one (and I’ll grant that he’s a fine dramatic actor even if I don’t think he’s quite what others make of him…and I’ll also grant that I’m not one who thinks comedy is harder…but he’s still a truly great comedian). For making me laugh harder than any other movie made in the eighties….or anything else that happened in the eighties. For Dennis Farina’s best role. And for its one scene of heartbreak, played with De Niro’s estranged daughter, where the weight of all those Scorcese pictures lands gently, gently, without smothering the scene or letting anyone off the hook.

August 3–The Major and the Minor (1942, Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Ginger…at all ages. I especially like the way she swallows a cigarette.

Oh, and for Billy Wilder’s first Hollywood directorial effort. She got it for him. He thanked her the usual way. He didn’t.

August 2–5th Avenue Girl (193, Gregory La Cava, Third Viewing)

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This one wobbles a bit.

Still: For Ginger. For the Straight-From-the-Depression lessons in the ethics and ethos of New Deal capitalism.

And for: “Oh why don’t you mind your own business!”