doc films

Thursday 1: Jack Ford/Duke Wayne

Print the legend. Show the truth.

Recurring collaborations and artistic partnerships are commonplace throughout cinematic history, but are rarely as fruitful as the relationship between director John Ford and actor John Wayne — the chroniclers of American folklore.

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Born John Feeny to Irish Catholic immigrant-parents, John Ford possessed an indefatigable interest in the role of the immigrant in shaping the American identity. An unsuccessful attempt to enlist in the Naval Academy sent a young Ford west to work with his brother in Hollywood. While Ford was still crafting his trade in the late ‘20s, he met a young John Wayne, who was then known as Marion “Duke” Morrison, working in Fox’s prop department. Although it took years for the two to work on a serious project together, a father-son relationship was forged. Affectionately and respectfully, Wayne came to refer to his mentor as “Pappy.”

Ford was an enigmatic man — a supposed alcoholic whose increased bouts of melancholy led to intimacy problems. He notoriously denigrated Wayne on the set. But through it all, the ever-appreciative pupil withstood his mentor’s insults. Whatever resentment Wayne felt was thickly veiled, and they remained dear and loyal friends. Ironically, by the end of his career Ford relied on Wayne’s name to get his projects financed.

Any number of conflicting adjectives could describe Ford’s character, but it was Henry Fonda who said it best: “John Ford will talk about anything but himself. That makes him an easy man to like and a hard man to explain.” Wayne, on the other hand, possessed a charismatic, affectionate and sexualized physical grace that was undeniably masculine. His commanding, engrossing presence lent Ford a handsome veneer that enabled him to profess his conflicted feelings on war and expose the cracks in American modernity.

As the Cold War heated up, the two men found themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Wayne, attempting to live up to his conservative persona, spearheaded initiatives to oust communists from the entertainment industry. Ford, on the other hand, a staunch New Deal-era Democrat, refused to compromise his principles and defended fellow director Joseph Mankiewicz when the Screen Directors Guild threatened to blacklist him for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. However, Ford had a political change of heart when he turned on his television set in the late ‘60s and saw protestors burning American flags. Ford spent an entire career portraying the failure of his nation to live up to its ideals, but this, he felt, was too much.

As long as there have been moving pictures there have been Western films. Yet few have emulated, with precision, the grandiosity of the genre as well as these two men. Favoring the visual poetry of the outdoors, Ford consistently framed and contrasted his actors from a great distance, crossing scenic yet dangerous terrain. In doing so, he sought to remind the audience of man’s size and constant struggle, and of the reverence contemporary society owes its forebears. “When Pappy found Monument Valley,” Wayne once suggested, “he found a subject equal to his talents.” Moreover, the Westerns in this series are a testament to the evolution of a genre. The thematic and aesthetic leap from Stagecoach to The Searchers is striking. Ford won a total of six Oscars, but remarkably not one for a Western.

The “characteristic great man of our times,” writes Paul Weiss, is one who “points a people towards civilization. He defines the tone of culture as that which is to be superseded by a civilized whole of which the culture is an anticipatory fragmentary case.” This is the role Ford often envisioned for his actors. If today his characters seem cliché, Jimmy Stewart once reckoned, “that’s because there’s been so many bad imitations of the original.”

John Ford’s thesis, which exposed the mechanisms that mythologize men, is often misinterpreted. By showing his audience that the real heroes of history often escape the textbooks or that those included are often misrepresented, Ford suggests that many American myths are not true. Yet if myths have a purpose, it is in the shaping and mobilizing of new civilizations out of the wild. In this regard, Ford was not a true iconoclast. His intention was to probe the complexities of history and human nature.

The function of any great picture is to allow the audience to envisage what otherwise could not be seen. Together, Pappy and his stalwart, Duke, accomplished just that, producing some of the medium’s most enduring films. By presenting us with what would otherwise be removed by time, Ford and Wayne assure us that we’re not rootless and that we have a past, even if it’s been mythologized, for better or worse. JM

Thursday, January 7 at 7:00 • 96m
John Ford, 1939 • Nine disparate travelers partake in a journey across dangerous Apache territory in this adaptation of an Ernest Haycox story. Ford fought and won the privilege to star his young friend. Although a veteran of some 70 B-movies, serials and shorts, this is Wayne's introduction into mainstream film and immortality—establishing him as the 'good bad-man,' a role he would perfect over the ensuing decades. Likewise, this film abetted the rebirth of the Western, a genre which had become cookie-cutter in the early ‘30s. Keep an eye out for the star's legendary entrance. Archival 35mm, not on DVD.
Print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Thursday, January 14 at 7:00 • 105m
The Long Voyage Home
John Ford, 1940 • Aboard the SS Glencairn during World War II is Olsen (Wayne), Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell) and Smitty (Ian Hunter), a discordant cast of characters who each exemplify man's errant nature. As the merchant ship carries a cargo of high-explosives across the Atlantic, the crew wrestles with tumultuous weather, the threat of German warplanes and a potential spy among them. Here Ford offers his audience not the sexualized, masculine hero we have come to expect, but the vagabond, complete with all his pathetic shortcomings. Dudley Nichols adapted the story from four of Eugene O'Neill's one-act plays. 35mm
Thursday, January 21 at 7:00 • 125m
Fort Apache
John Ford, 1948 • With Europe still limping and the arms race looming, Fort Apache acknowledged the dangers inherent in America's might. To conceal his immediate feelings Ford chose, as he often did, the comfort of the past-a place where tradition, camaraderie and community were the highest virtues. As in the remainder of his so-called cavalry trilogy, Ford questions the mechanism that unites communities to fight despite knowing the horrific consequences. Ironically, Wayne plays the liberal-minded Capt. Kirby York, who contrasts sharply with Henry Fonda's Custard-like conservative, Col. Thursday. Archival 35mm
Thursday, January 28 at 7:00 • 103m
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
John Ford, 1949 • The only color film of the cavalry trilogy, Ford and cinematographer Winton Hoch (who won the Oscar) shaped much of the film's imagery around late-nineteenth century American West painter and sculptor, Frederic Remington. Wayne plays Capt. Nathan Brittles, an aging cavalryman who suffers from age and melancholy. Caught between virulent Indian tribes and fellow officers who revel in war, Brittles struggles to preach peace. Ford again meditates on America's imminent military power with the Western. Archival 35mm, not on DVD.
Print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservation funded by the Film Foundation.
Thursday, February 4 at 7:00 • 105m
Rio Grande
John Ford, 1950 • Thanks to Wayne's growing influence, Republic Pictures greenlighted The Quiet Man with the proviso that Ford shoot a Western with the same cast. Rio Grande concludes Ford's cavalry trilogy and picks up years after Fort Apache. By now a decorated Lieutenant Colonel, Yorke (the spelling on the production billing having changed!) is ordered to pursue a band of Apache across the Mexican border—a violation of sovereignty. The arrival of his estranged wife and son under his regiment command only complicates matters. Yorke struggles to reconcile family and duty as the world races towards the abyss. Archival 35mm
Thursday, February 11 at 7:00 • 129m
The Quiet Man
John Ford, 1952 • Considered his dream picture, The Quiet Man allowed Ford to return to his ancestral roots. Shot entirely in Ireland, the film's transparent style and simplicity reflect Ford's idealized longing for an Irish society void of class and religious divisions. Wayne is Sean Thornton, an American who returns to Ireland to reclaim his family's farm. Maureen O'Hara plays opposite him as Mary Danaher, a woman obsessed with earning independence from her bullying brother. The film's long-winded, climactic fracas is physical comedy unlike anything seen today. Archival 35mm
Print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Thursday, February 18 at 7:00 • 98m
The Searchers
John Ford, 1956 • Widely considered the duo's greatest achievement, The Searchers - colorful and dynamic, as grand as Monument Valley - portrays the endurance of family through tragedy. Undoubtedly John Wayne's most rich and complicated role, Ethan Edwards' obsession and malignant racism drive him towards homicidal rage. A man like Ethan is necessary to make nature habitable, but because he lives within his own vision of the law, he is ill-equipped to function therein. The film's genius lay, as Kenneth Bowser puts it, in exposing the great America paradox: its generosity and its racism. 35mm
Thursday, February 25 at 7:00 • 135m
The Horse Soldiers
John Ford, 1959 • Based on the true story of the Battle of Newton's Station in 1863, this is the only one of Ford's films that takes place during the American Civil War. Wayne plays John Marlowe, a Union Colonel who leads his men deep behind Confederate lines in an effort to destroy a vital railroad hub. But after a local plantation mistress overhears Marlowe's plans, he takes her to protect the mission. William Holden co-stars as Major Henry Kendall, a regimental surgeon torn between his personal safety and his morals, and disheartened by what he sees as Wayne's blatant political ambition. 35mm, not on DVD.
Thursday, March 4 at 7:00 • 123m
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
John Ford, 1962 • By '62, Ford's reputation in the industry had waned such that he shot this film in black and white on the Paramount backlot. Yet the depleted texture masks something special: an artistic testament to the thesis Ford began exploring in Fort Apache, asking whether myth or truth is more important for a culture, who the real heroes of history are, and who takes credit for their deeds. Jimmy Stewart stars alongside Wayne as a senator whose prestige was founded on the shooting of a notorious... outlaw. He reluctantly returns to town to bury Wayne's character and reveal what really happened all those years ago. 35mm, not on DVD.
Thursday, March 11 at 7:00 • 109m
Donovan's Reef
John Ford, 1963 • Ford and Wayne's last project takes place not on the Western frontier but on Haleakaloha, a fictionalized island in French Polynesia. Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) and Donovan (Wayne) are U.S. Navy veterans who spend their sultry days running a bar, fishing and, of course, fighting every year on the birthday they share. But when the daughter of their commanding officer arrives on the island to cheat her estranged father out of his large stock inheritance, life on this idyllic post-War island is disrupted. The film's slapstick comedy masks Ford's criticism of American ethnocentricity and corporate hypocrisy. Archival 35mm, not on DVD.

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