The BAMcinématek celebrates Thanksgiving with a four-course helping of a filmmaker as American as pumpkin pie and the Pawnee tribe—or at least its annihilation. Running from November 22 through 29,
Give Thanks for John Ford puts the emphasis on westerns, the quintessential Ford genre, with special focus on the most monumental film ever shot in Monument Valley.
The 50th anniversary of The Searchers (November 22 through 24) may have been honored this year with a deluxe DVD release, but anyone who keeps it in their Netflix queue instead of heading to BAM deserves to have an eye removed. Right up front, with the famous opening composition of landscape framed through doorway, Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch signal their immense ambition. By the time the motif is recapitulated at the finale, the saga of an embittered Confederate soldier (John Wayne) on a quest to find his kidnapped niece has voyaged far through the American West and deep into the American psyche. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” the poet Charles Olson wrote of Melville, in words as applicable to The Searchers as Moby Dick. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”
If The Searchers is Ford’s great space odyssey, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (November 26) is his magnificent memory trip. Narrated in flashback and artificial in the extreme, the story pits an idealistic lawyer (James Stewart) and jaded gunslinger (John Wayne) against Lee Marvin’s outlaw, Liberty Valance. The identity of his killer, per fact and per legend, sends rippling repercussions through both men’s futures, and makes for one of the richest ironies in the movies. “When the legend becomes fact,” says a reporter told the truth, “print the legend.”
While the premise of Two Rode Together (November 25) is a knockout, the tough core goes hazy in the telling. An upstanding cavalry officer (Richard Widmark) recruits a mercenary sheriff (Stewart) to barter with the Comanches for the white folks they’ve kidnapped. When he returns with a boy gone violently native, the aggrieved settlers give up the cause, preferring to take their loved ones for dead than have them tainted by “savages.” Meanwhile, a liberated woman (Linda Cristal as Elena) struggles to reassimilate in a society obsessed with the question of whether or not Stone Calf touched her naughty bits.
That life with the Comanches might be preferable to the hypocrisies of civilization gives this late Ford western a mildly progressive slant, at least in the terms of 1961 Hollywood. But despite a scattering of gorgeous panoramas, some excellent nastiness from Stewart, and a razor-sharp Annelle Hayes as a badass barkeep, this is decidedly minor Ford.
There is one unforgettable moment. Recently sprung from camp Comanche, Elena watches on horseback as the boys bicker. Stewart barks her an order to fetch some firewood, and the camera ravishes the smoldering beauty as she shrugs off her heavy woven shawl as if turning on the catwalk, revealing a fabulous red blouse cinched with a belt of gold disks. She glares at the camera, the soundtrack goes silent, and all I can hear is, “I’m Fendi Pocahontas, bitches! Respect!” Needless to say, she dismounts to make the fire and runs off to California with the asshole, but for one bright moment she’s a sublime goddess of the cinema, blazing her complex spell into the rapt eye of the audience.
For that level of impact, Ford is equally revered by the masses and the most rarefied of cinephilic sensibilities. No one makes stronger images, supercharging a single look or gesture with the maximum voltage celluloid can withstand. The sweetest and gentlest film in the series,
The Sun Shines Bright (November 29), nearly sustains that energy level from beginning to end.
The one non-western on the program, this 1953 political melodrama was Ford’s own personal favorite, and you can feel his love of the material in every quietly ecstatic texture and rhythm. Charles Winninger is warm, restrained, and effortlessly at ease in the role of Judge Priest, a kindly official up for election in turn-of-the-century Kentucky. He will twice do the right thing—throwing moral support behind a dead prostitute and a falsely accused black man—despite the potential effect on his campaign.
Still, contemporary audiences will recoil from its toxic racism. Co-starring Stepin Fetchit—’nuff said—as the judge’s gibbering porch monkey, the film’s other black characters are restricted to grinning banjo players, Aunt Jemimas, and soulful crooners who show up whenever massa needs a little background gravitas. We can make all sorts of excuses for the era, dig up whatever proof of the great auteur’s humanism, deconstruct till the cows come home, but why not keep it simple and acknowledge that the uglier conventions in Ford are inextricable from the sublime? What could be more American?