Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Tribute to John Ford

He was born more than 120 years ago. Directing wasn't really his forte: he just took to it. That was a time when film-making was looked at as another job to earn bread with. A time when you worked at it like you would at any other job, when you'd do your share for the day and leave at night. Which is what he did.

He did win some awards and accolades, true, but in the end that was all peripheral. Indeed, his knowledge of film-making was limited to its technical side. Everything else he knew about his job amounted to one classic rule: photograph the actor's eyes. That was it.

And yet, we remember him today. Not because he did something he happened to take to. We remember him because of what he filmed and how he filmed them all.

But I'm digressing a little here.

Talk about filmmakers and there are names that come up: Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Nolan. Trace them back and you will find two names that crop up: David Lean and William Wyler. Trace them back and you will find yet another name. John Ford.

Who was he? I don't know. All I know is that when the history of cinema is collected in one volume, there will be one icon who'll come up in every chapter. Him.

What was so special about this man? Was it the fact that everyone admired him? If so, it wouldn't be surprising. Directors, critics, those who rate themselves as film conoisseurs all praised him. They saw in him someone who guided them in whatever they did and wrote. Very few filmmakers won praise this way. He did have his detractors, but the truth is that even those who criticised him found enough reason to absolve his lesser works. That's rare.

We remember him for those brilliant films he made, in particular the Westerns. Like the ballad, the cowboy film is probably the most indigenised art-form in America. Generations of schoolkids and would-be directors grew with them. Everyone who fell in love (there is no better way to put it) with them grew up emulating them. They couldn't equal Ford, of course, but they came very close at it. After all, what was Lawrence of Arabia other than a Western in the desert? What was Star Wars other than a Western in outer space?

There's more.

The Western has become larger-than-life today. Inevitably. It has become the most clichéd film genre out there. And the reason isn't too hard to find. Take the usual elements of a Western film: uncivilised town, a stranger riding in, wine spouting out of barrel holes, and (perhaps the most iconic of them all) sage-brush rolling along lonely stretches of land. All these we remember, so much so that you cannot improve on them.

But masters know how to tweak cliché. That's what Ford did. Take his battle scenes, for instance. He shot them all in such a way that they were unique not only to his vision but to the films they were in. Witness the Indian attack in Stagecoach, for instance, to see just how different it is from the attack in The Searchers. Witness how Wyatt Earp fights Newman Clanton and his sons in My Darling Clementine - restrained, yet tense - and how Ethan Edwards massacres the Indians in The Searchers

Yes, there is a difference, tied together by one thing: the way Ford saw the West.

The Western has been associated, reasonably I should think, with bigotry. In its universe, the Indians were the villains and the White Man the hero. Always. The cowboy enforcing "civilisation" in a chaos-ridden land, trying to convert the "savages" to his faith: this was the thread that binds every Western in common. What made Ford stand apart from the rest, defiantly almost, was the way he portrayed this conflict between White Man and Indian, between order and chaos.

Unlike the gangster film, which it resembles, the Western film was shunned as the years went by. Commentators from both sides of the political divide critiqued it, not least because of how racially biased it was. There is no doubt, after all, that the characters in some of Ford's films were bigoted. Like Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, who remarks that his nephew is a "half-breed" because he's one-eighth Indian.

Directors change. All the time. Ford didn't. But as the years went by and his strength left him, he tried to. In Cheyenne Autumn, his most atypical and in my opinion most moving story, he tried to redeem himself. For the first time, a prominent director of Westerns portrayed the underside to the American frontier. He took the Indian's side. He tried to show that as much as they rebelled against the notion of civilisation introduced by the White Man, the natives were unjustly treated. Ford went as far as to call it an elegy, an apology for what the American government did to them.

But it failed. That was the last time he made a Western. Ever.

He didn't just direct Westerns, of course. He occupied other worlds. His fascination with American history (he was an Irishman) came out forcefully in Young Mr Lincoln. His commitment to social problems brought out The Grapes of Wrath. His Irish roots took him to his most "folksy" film, The Quiet Man.

Even his lesser works - They Were Expendable, The Informer, The Long Voyage Home - he managed to go beyond his limited vision and still fascinate us. He was a sentimentalist and a romantic, and knew well enough not to apologise for it. But he was justified. At the end. There's a reason for this, obviously. The man wasn't just a director. He was a poet. The first poet of the screen.

There are no real heroes in Ford's films. He didn't need them. As much as he painted his films in black-and-white, it's also true that he didn't stoop to the larger-than-life. Those who reside in his universe all have secrets, a dark past to escape from. The plots of his stories (he was a master storyteller) culminate on whether his characters come to terms with their pasts.

Sometimes, as with Young Mr Lincoln, they do. Sometimes they don't. It is perhaps this that compelled him to delve into a past he himself had refused to see: a past that had vilified the same people he had depicted as villains. The attempt backfired. We know why.

He could also be very self-assured, to the point where he appeared to be smug and arrogant. I remember an incident that illustrates this well. An interviewer asked him whether he had been interested in films as a child. Ford is reported to have said, "Not at all. Not interested in them even now. It's just a way of making a living."

Those who think that he was arrogant and insufferable, no doubt, would note these words down. But he wasn't. The truth is that he was a professional filmmaker. And as someone once told me, he was probably the most indifferent filmmaker out there. Only indifference would have moved the giant he was to say what he did to that interviewer, after all. Not arrogance.

I must end here.

There are those who measure giants. There are giants who live on no matter how they're measured. John Ford lives on. He lives in every film that pays homage to him. He lives every time we see Lawrence riding into battle in the Nefud, Darth Vader fighting Luke Skywalker, and Indiana Jones cracking his bullwhip.

Yes, he lives. More than a hundred years after he was born, we remember him. And we are grateful.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, February 15 2015