John Ford and the Politics of the Western


“John Ford was one of those artists who never used the word “art” and was one of those poets who never used the word “poetry… With a royal ease, John Ford knew how to make the audience laugh and knew how to make it cry. The only thing that he did not know how to do was bore it! And, since John Ford believed in God, “God Bless John Ford.” –

— Francois Truffaut, Action magazine, November 1973

“I prefer the old masters; by which I mean: John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”

-Orson Welles on his favorite directors

I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [Native Americans], if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

— John Wayne, Playboy magazine interview, 1971

“In the history of American films, no name shines more brightly than that of John Ford. A consummate master of his craft, he was one of the pioneers in transforming an infant industry into an art form that developed in America and swept the world. He was also a man who deeply loved his country, and who helped at least three generations of Americans to a fuller understanding of their Nation and its heritage. He represented the best in American films, and the best in America.”

— Richard Nixon, August 1973

The recent fiasco of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation by the Bundy gang and the release of THE RENEVANT has triggered a bit of interesting dialogue about where the ideology of colonization and violence comes from, including the Western film. Some have been naming John Ford and John Wayne in the same breath and citing their film work as a major contributor. As someone who studied Ford and Wayne’s collaborations in a class called “John Ford Westerns” during undergrad with the great Ford music scholar Dr. Kaye Kalinak, I think perhaps some words to clarify are due.

One must be mature when talking about Ford. There are few who will argue that John Wayne was not a reactionary, but there are many who will say Ford was not. That is quite striking when one considers the work of Prof. Ward Churchill and others who loathe films like STAGECOACH for their portrayals of Native Americans, an opinion I do not begrudge them for. How does one manage this? It requires a bit of biographical insight.

The first point to consider about Ford, above all else, is that he was a life-long alcoholic. Joseph McBride explains in his magisterial biography Searching for John Ford that the man was tortured by the demon of drink all his life. He would retreat to his desert sanctuary of Monument Valley every year to run his sets like a military base, complete with morning color parades, a drillmaster’s discipline, and a strict ban of any alcohol on the set. He would direct his pictures in a manic spurt where the actors were terrified to require more than two takes, delivering performances that, in the era before the mainstreaming of so-called “method acting”, remain dynamic and impressive. After delivering a picture made exactly how he wanted (he often sat below the camera lens and would jam his fist into frame upon yelling cut, preventing the creation of extra usable footage that a meddling studio boss would force into the final version), he would retire into his basement lounge or aboard his boat Araner, wrap himself in a sleeping bag, and drink himself into a stupor so deep he required hospitalization. This was something he did year after year. To understand Ford’s mercurial behavior (he infamously would humiliate Ward Bond and John Wayne on the set to show who was boss) is to delve into the near-psychosis of being a dry drunk, something I have come to understand in my own journey.

This bipolarity helps us better understand his politics. At the start of his career, he was funneling money to the Irish Republican Army. During the Depression, his films embraced a type of Popular Front anti-capitalism that is to also be found in Capra and Trumbo. In the Red Scare, he famously called Cecil B. De Mille out during an October 1950 Directors Guild of America meeting wherein the director of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was trying to oust their president, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, over accusations of being a Communist. He thought Ward Bond and John Wayne, who did not serve during the war, were retreating into reactionary McCarthyism in order to cover their own tails for a lack of service and he would constantly call them on that. It was only during the 1960’s, when the New Left began to confuse and confound his notions of decency, that he became what he called a “Maine Republican”, endorsing Tricky Dick and producing the pro-war VIETNAM, VIETNAM, a propaganda piece akin to the John Wayne-directed GREEN BERETS film that Ford lent a hand with.

Yet in between his monetary support for Michael Collins and his campaign donations to Richard Nixon, we find a series of impressive films. It would be a mistake to say that all their ethos are perfect, in present-day contexts his views of gender and race seem to the Right. But in textual comparison with similar films about the West during that period, he was quite progressive. For example, look to STAGECAOCH and compare it with a Western released in the same period by De Mille, UNION PACIFIC. Ford uses actual Native American actors and stunt players that he paid a Hollywood wage to. He went to Monument Valley and created an economic stimulus the resident Native Americans valued dearly. He is using real Native language and costuming. There is a seriousness and respect for the Native Americans he hired. By contrast, De Mille has extras in black face speaking gibberish and behaving as children. Ford casts the Natives as antagonists because they were on the losing side of the so-called Indian Wars, but there is also a touch of dark melancholy to the proceedings. This kind of textual criticism wherein one compares Ford to a Walt Disney provides us further insights and shows us a man who tried to be as far on the progressive end of the spectrum as he could in an extremely reactionary town like Hollywood during the studio system days, a place where vertical-integrated studios had to be broke up under monopoly laws and the majors had to sell off their holdings in the movie theater business.

For example, in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, Wayne ends the film as a disillusioned and disenchanted officer in the Calvary. He tells lies about a famous battle that featured a Custer-like military blowhard played by Henry Fonda but in his eyes you see how sickened he is by the lie. Indeed, Ford said in a British interview late in life that “my sympathies are all with the Indians”. Years before DANCES WITH WOLVES, he tried to produce a film centered on Native Americans, CHEYENNE AUTUMN. The film fails in part because it had as stars white actors pretending to be Natives. Yet one cannot blame Ford solely for that casting, this was a film produced in the final days of the studio system when the actor unions would not allow non-union players like the residents of Monument Valley to star. It is a shame Ford could not last another twenty years to see the “revisionist” Westerns of the later part of the century that broke these rules and created starring roles for Native American actors. Further insights on these matters can be gained from essays contained in the excellent anthology John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era, including an essay by Peter Lehman about the repression of capitalism titled “How the West Wasn’t Won” and another about gender by Gaylyn Studlar titled “Sacred Duties, Poetic Passions”.

Ford’s vision of the West, informed by the painting of Frederic Remington, was marvelous. To watch a Ford film on the small screen is a blasphemy. When I studied under Dr. Kalinak, we had the privilege of an auditorium screen where a majestic shot of grazing buffalo brings tears to the eyes. It is no jest to say that, before Kubrick made 2001, Ford made Westerns. His use of music, profiled in Dr. Kalinak’s work, was deeply-ingrained and provides a brilliant, sublime commentary on the filmic proceedings. Ford would sit in his office for days listening to records and create melodies that blended folk tunes, marching songs, and other bits taken from all over the sonic landscape to create an aural collage that tells the story. Music is the third actor in every Ford film, ever commenting on the events.

Of course, this brings us to the unarguable masterpiece of the Ford canon, THE SEARCHERS. To best understand the picture, I would encourage obtaining the Arthur Eckstein/Peter Lehman edited anthology The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Westerns. One key point made very clear in this volume is the time-space continuum the picture appeared in. It was produced in the midst of the Brown v. Board of Education case wherein schools were being integrated. John Wayne plays the mad Ethan Edwards, a man stuck in delusions about the Confederacy and its ethos on a sexually-obsessed quest to kill his niece, who has been abducted by and then married into a Commanche tribe. He wishes to kill his own family for inter-ethnic coupling. When Ethan speaks the wretched words he does, it is vital to remember that Wayne was saying on screen what a whole generation of fathers were saying in private about the idea of their precious white daughters going to school and perhaps one day dating African teens. The film’s literal Indian War is a deep analogue for the culture war that was going on at the time.

I have argued in both academic writing and in a short documentary titled TAXI SEARCHERS that one way to better grasp the film is by reading it through the perspective informed by insights about its modernized remake, Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER. Screenwriter Paul Schrader presents a very firm case for this when he says in interviews that his script was meant to adapt and improve upon the earlier film, including a scene between Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel that is meant to show what life between Chief Scar and Debbie was like. By understanding that Wayne’s Ethan is as psychotic and sexually-confused as De Niro’s Travis Bickle, it is possible to see the earlier film on a psycho-analytic level that otherwise escapes today’s viewers. The late Roger Ebert wrote of TAXI DRIVER in 1976:

The movie rarely strays very far from the personal, highly subjective way in which he sees the city and lets it wound him… He sees a beautiful blonde working in the storefront office of a presidential candidate. She goes out with him a couple of times, but the second time he takes her to a hard-core film and she walks out in disgust and won’t have any more to do with him. All the same, he calls her for another date, and it’s here that we get close to the heart of the movie. The director, Martin Scorsese, gives us a shot of Travis on a pay telephone — and then, as the girl is turning him down, the camera slowly dollies to the right and looks down a long, empty hallway. Pauline Kael’s review called this shot — which calls attention to itself — a lapse during which Scorsese was maybe borrowing from Antonioni. Scorsese calls this shot the most important one in the film. Why? Because, he says, it’s as if we can’t bear to watch Travis feel the pain of being rejected. This is interesting, because later, when Travis goes on a killing rampage, the camera goes so far as to adopt slow motion so we can see the horror in greater detail. That Scorsese finds the rejection more painful than the murders is fascinating, because it helps to explain Travis Bickle, and perhaps it goes some way toward explaining one kind of urban violence.

To use this logic on the Ford film creates a whole new analysis of the picture, one that turns a film mistaken as an objective Western into a subjective psychological thriller that is populated by cowboys. It also gives us a vision of Ethan Edwards that is much more haunting. Ford does much to also suggest this. At one point in the film, the camera makes a fast zoom in on Ethan’s face as he hears a woman “rescued” from Indians moaning in a coitus-like psychotic rambling. The look of disgust and horror on his face is disturbing. Ford scholars will also recognize the inter-textuality, this camera zoom is the same type of shot that was used to introduce Wayne to the world as the Ringo Kid in STAGECOACH. This echo shows us a type of circle where all things have come to pass and become stagnant.

In this view, the racism and lunacy of the supporting characters is not valued, it is subtly rebuked. When Laurie Jorgenson, played by Vera Miles, uses repugnant, disgusting language to describe Debbie as “the leavings of a buck”, there is a certain amount of textual alarm, but one is forced to look to her homely father Lars (John Qualen) and ask where exactly she learned this type of language from. It is worthwhile to note also that there are other Ford films that do the same, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, Ford’s 1960 film about the African American Buffalo soldiers, uses artistic lighting and the flashback devices of a courtroom drama to tell the story of a black officer framed for murder.

The twin of THE SEARCHERS is THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, a picture that is as stark in emotions as is its black and white cinematography. The entire story is about the celebration of a man whose career is built on a lie. At the end of the film, when this fraud has confessed the entire tale of woe to a newspaper editor, we get one of the greatest exchanges in American cinema:

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?

Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Those lines did not come from nowhere. Ford was at the close of a career spent trying to argue this point again and again in his Westerns and this line is a fitting capstone to it.

This is why the bravado and chauvinism of the Bundy clan in Oregon and the posturing of the Tea Party is so degenerate and hollow. They betray in their buffoonery that they were too stupid to understand these pictures were anti-colonialist in their portrayal of colonialism. That John Wayne could say such obnoxious drivel shows his own lack of maturity about the matter. Whether these terrorists in Oregon with their fake macho populism would ever bother to read some of the titles I have mentioned here would of course assume that these bozos know how to read.

The best way to understand what Ford really felt and hoped for Americans in the here and now is to be found in pictures like THE INFORMER or THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Both are visions of common, decent people, flawed people, who come up against the brutality of capitalism. Gypo Nolan informs on IRA comrade Frankie McPhillip and spends the rest of the film trying to repent in a film noir vision of Dublin that seems like Odysseus’s passage through the Land of the Dead. As for the Joad family, must much be said?

Ford was a flawed man. In many ways we can see how cinema has become much braver, more open to the Leftward message that Ford had to encode into his screenplays as a sort of hidden prize that only the knowing Fellow Traveler would happen upon. Yet it is my contention that one must assert domain over Ford, flaws and all. I refuse to allow his work, despite its warts, to become the stuff of the racist, sexist, homophobic reactionary Right. Get your own heroes and get the hell away from my Ford!

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.