John Ford

The curatorial mission of the season, John Ford: Other Directions is, probably, one of old-fashioned Andrew Sarris-ite auteurism. Amongst Sarris’ famous A-list of American auteurs, Ford is the archetype that proves the rule: what it meant for a Hollywood director to give his name – or the adjective “Fordian” – to the poetics and affect of every job of filmmaking work he did (rendering it distinctly “Fordian”). Sarris himself stated it with the most elegance: “[Ford] cannot be considered apart from the oceanic cinema in which he ebbed and flowed….” (1) This is a quality that is distinct to the director as producer or film marketing brand. Alfred Hitchcock’s abundant filmography, for example, is an exemplary instance of a career in which the director’s every studio assignment seemed only to belong in the “genre” of his own film style. In the “Hitchcockian” universe no genre is imaginable apart from a “Thriller”. Eventually, the “Hitchcockian” might seem to even take control of the style of a whole studio (Universal into the early 1960s). By contrast, Ford touched Hollywood Classical cinema far more lightly. He brought his own poetics and milieu, his mastery rather than power, to a range of genres, cycles, production management regimes, and jobs of film work that needed to get done. Yet he rarely encroached on or questioned the industrial terms of the assignment even when he was an independent producer, as he was for his Argosy productions of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Ford was the model Sarris auteur. Of course, Ford was critical to Sarris’ conceptualisation of the Hollywood auteur; his Ford monograph is the writer’s key attempt to reason out paradoxes of artistry and function within the industrial conditions of the Classical Hollywood studio system.

The “Other Directions” season looks at Ford’s cinema away from his work in the generic forms of Classical Hollywood, the various Westerns and War movies and the mock-Irish projects in which the “Fordian” does approach the same gold standard status as the “Hichcockian” in relation to the Thriller. Through “anomalies” in Ford’s filmography, we might be able to delineate an intrinsically “Fordian” poetics from the supposedly intrinsic “Fordian” genres. Being Ford, American cinema’s poet laureate, we maybe need to also look for something more: the rarely discussed possibility of an intrinsic American national filmmaking, the distinctly American disentangled from Hollywoodian, if you like; of Ford as somehow comparable to a Guru Dutt, a Manoel de Oliveira, a Michael Powell, a Carl Dreyer or even a Charles Chauvel. In Bucking Broadway (1917), we can see if the “Fordian” is nascent in examples of his apprentice work in silent B-movies. In two key modes of mid-20th century documentary – the high-art Griersonianism of The Battle of Midway (1942) and the startling unpleasantly, almost neo-realist example of the public information, sponsored film (Sex Hygiene, 1941) – can be observed Ford’s handling of the actuality of his nation’s experience in a time of emergency. Meanwhile, in the British working holiday of Gideon’s Day (1958), we see him functioning in what would otherwise seem a spec studio genre piece of someone else’s national cinema. A now rare example of Ford’s Art films, Four Sons (1928) lets us observe the effect on Ford’s poetics of first contact with one of its critical influences, the expressionism of F.W Murnau. And we can even patrol the late Westerns, such as Sergeant Rutledge (1960), for their revisionist, self-aware variations of the genre for which Ford was the marquee, allowing us to move towards possibly isolating what was generic and “Fordian” about his classical, normative Westerns. And then there were also the TV variations …

Endnotes

  1. Andrew Sarris, The John Ford Movie Mystery, Secker and Warburg/BFI, London, 1976, p. 18.

About The Author

Quentin Turnour is Programmer with Australia's National Film and Sound Archive.