Ford Motors

John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 129 minutes.

A DILEMMA IS AT THE HEART of John Ford’s cinema: You are going on a long journey. You must decide what to take with you and what you will leave behind; if you will travel alone, or in company. Sometimes this journey crosses physical space—the plains and deserts and mountains of the American West, say—though even standing in a single spot, one passes through time, the length of a life and the lives of generations.

In Ford’s film of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) there is an extraordinarily moving scene in which, as the Joad family load up their jerry-rigged moving truck for the long, hard trip to California, Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad remains behind to cast a last lingering look at a few unnecessary geegaws: A postcard from New York, a cheap souvenir from the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis. These things must stay, while one of the lightest ways to carry the past is through the vessel of song, and Ford’s films ring out with folk music: Eddie Quillan’s strummed “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” in Grapes, elsewhere African American spirituals and Welsh chorales and “Isle of Innisfree.”

Beyond sorting physical possessions, the voyager must decide how they will prioritize their freight of memories. Here is how this is described in the opening narration of Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), delivered by an unseen adult narrator as he prepares to leave the South Wales mining town where he has spent all of his days, remembering his boyhood there at the turn of the last century:

Strange that the mind will forget so much of what only this moment has passed and yet hold clear and bright the memory of what happened years ago, of men and women long since dead. Who shall say what is real and what is not? Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are still a glory in my ears? [. . .] There is no fence not hedge ’round time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it if you can remember.

The words may come from the author Richard Llewellyn, whom Ford was adapting, though the sentiment is one he well understood. In part at least, what is being described here is the sentimental and physical preparation of the migrant or immigrant, a mind-set that was more than an abstract for him. John Ford was born near Portland, Maine, in 1894 and christened John Martin Feeney; both of his parents had come from Ireland some twenty years earlier, at a time before easy transatlantic communication was available to men of modest means, when to say goodbye to one’s homeland and everything that one had known was a more or less permanent proposition, and one kept of that birthright only what one could retain in one’s head. When he was about twenty, John followed his older brother Francis west to find work in the motion picture industry which had recently taken hold in Southern California. He produced his first two-reeler in 1917 and, save for an off year in 1944—when, as head of the Office of Strategic Services’ photographic unit, he filmed the immediate aftermath of the D-Day landing—wouldn’t go a year without at least one movie until his 1966 swan song 7 Women.

The Museum of the Moving Image’s twenty-film Ford retrospective includes relatively canonical titles like Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and The Quiet Man (1952), one of several works in which the director reckoned with his Celtic roots, and a film that climaxes with something like an explosion of joyous goodwill. The earliest work screened (and the only silent) is Upstream (1927), a backstage comedy thought lost forever until it was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2009, while the earliest great work is Pilgrimage (1933), in which Henrietta Crosman, an Arkansas battle-ax who sacrificed her son in World War I rather than have him marry the white trash down the road, has something like a spiritual awakening while on a memorial trip to the American cemetery in Argonne. MoMI is calling its retro “The Essential John Ford,” though it might have played twice as many titles without resorting to filler, and these numbers alone speak something to Ford’s stature. (It’s an all-celluloid retro, and it’s a shame I have to specify this point—here I’m as inclined to nostalgia as Ford.)

John Ford, The Sun Shines Bright, 1953, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes.

Ford is one of the mightiest figures in international cinema, and one of the greatest American artists in any medium, full stop. I don’t say this to settle the musty dead air that comes with the word “masterpiece” over his work—I cannot overstate how alive with feeling Ford’s best films are, or their sheer pictorial beauty—but by way of noting the curious fact that, while his reputation has suffered no comparable reversal abroad, he hasn’t had a major retro on New York City’s rep calendars through most of the young millennium. This absence may or may not be connected to the fact that Ford has been filed under “problematic.” His brand of Americana, and his at once sentimental and uncommonly clear-eyed engagement with history, probes uncomfortably into a complicated heritage—better not to celebrate it too vocally. This is, I fear, because of rather than in spite of the fact that so many of his films actually acknowledge, to a degree unusual for their time our ours, the motley character of the American peoples: black and white and red, ex-Union and ex-Rebel, a pied quiltwork of wastrels and bandits and bluestockings, of Swedes and Cheyenne and always, always the stock-comic Irishman. For anyone who has seen only Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) and thinks they understand the full measure of what Ford is about, MoMI’s screenings of Judge Priest (1934), The Sun Shines Bright (1953), and Sergeant Rutledge (1960)—all films which deal more or less explicitly with provincialism and prejudice—will do a great deal to flesh out the portrait.

A process of ongoing self-critique marks Ford’s filmography, as the man who did a great deal to invent the modern film western with Stagecoach peeled back the layers of mythology surrounding the genre, arriving eventually at The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), whose much-quoted coda, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” is not so far from How Green Was My Valley’s “Memory . . . you can go back and have what you like of it . . . ,” though here referring to the selective amnesia which we call by the name of history. Then, to apply a narrative of “progress” to Ford’s career is to ignore its continuities, the fact that he had long been playing with the writing and rewriting of history in such films as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), an exoneration of the doctor who aided a fugitive John Wilkes Booth. I am myself eager to exonerate Ford, because I hate to see an artist who, in the course of his career, exhibited creative, physical, and moral bravery—he used his clout to prevent Cecil B. DeMille’s attempt to impress a loyalty oath on the Directors Guild of America during the height of McCarthyism—impugned by those whose only claim to righteousness is repeating the correct stances that they were drilled with at university. It’s only fitting, though, that the reputation of the American film artist who understood better than almost any other how we retrofit history to suit the demands of the present would feel the effects of the practice he so well described.

Individually, the Ford films at MoMI are, many of them, marvels. He is unmatched as a stylist, a Colossus with one foot in Griffith and the other in Murnau, with a penchant for powerful figural groupings which one suspects is the legacy of a Catholic boyhood steeped in altarpieces and stained glass. What Ford undertook in his body of work is unmatched in ambition, a kind of American Comédie humaine, attempting to accommodate an incredible breadth and depth of historical and emotional experience. For such a project, it’s necessary that Ford should—to stay closer to home in literary references—contain multitudes. A great many of his facets will be on display at MoMI. Nowhere are the rewards and humiliations of duty so eloquently expressed as in Fort Apache (1948), while throughout these films the comfort offered by community is counterpoised with the terrible compromises that come with membership. (Rewatching Ford, one is astonished by the abundance of Puritanical prigs in his films.) For some Ford’s penchant for leavening tragedy with vaudevillian passages is a fatal weakness, though I can’t imagine his films without their knockabout digressions. Finally, there is the conundrum of memory, and the deceit of homesick yearning, found in works that rhapsodize over the sweetness of life before the railroad came through or the colliery blackened the valley or the war came—while the evidence presented to our eyes betrays the claim that there ever was such thing as a simpler time.

“The Essential John Ford” runs July 3–August 2 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.