I must say first of all that I am woefully lacking in having seen any John Ford films (besides clips or not really remembering them from a young age), who is probably one of the most celebrated American directors of all time. Luckily for this blog, he made a lot of Westerns, so I'm sure they'll get their due. After watching these three films, it's easy to see why his brand of cinema is wholly embraced by Hollywood today, and yet completely misinterpreted. A true successor to him nowadays might be found in someone like Martin Scorcese, but then again, not really.
Dir: John Ford
The film that made John Wayne famous is not as dated as some make it out to be, but can be a bit rough at some points. Ford, still in black and white, can be seen visually at this point in his career as very much an acolyte to someone like Murnau, who deeply impressed him when he came to Hollywood in the late 20s. Watching this you can make out the subtle poetry of craftsmanship that Ford's fans have championed, but the subtle character growths only happen in about half the characters while the others are basically cartoons (the stagecoach driver and, after some really interestingly vague close-up shots at the beginning, the banker). There had been Westerns that succeeded as both art and entertainment before Stagecoach, but none had been so seamless in their melding of art and western thrills. The stunts during the Indian chase were state of the art, and if you were bored of the film until then, the mood and tension that Ford builds at the end is amazingly intense.
My Darling Clementine, 1946
Dir: John Ford
A true Western masterpiece, My Darling Clementine is more subtle and complex than most films ever hope to be. I'm not sure what everyone's thoughts are on Henry Fonda (mine being very neutral from the little that I've seen), but he is another actor whose lack of movement and verbosity make him a fantastic Western male lead. The Wyatt Earp tale has been told a millions times, but I've never seen one quite like this (so chill out Tombstone), focused on building up the myth while internally tearing it down. Honda as Earp can do no wrong (obviously), but his true desires and intensity are hard to figure out, especially after the murder of his brothers and the arrival of Clementine. Victor Mature is equally enigmatic as Doc Holliday, the arrival of his ex-flame Clementine ruining his plans of cutting a swath across the West before Consumption kills him. The biggest surprise for me has to Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton, whose nastiness and general lack of ethics (thieving, rustling, shooting people in the back) can be down right shocking. It's his first performance that I've actually enjoyed. The final showdown at the OK Corral is pretty much perfect, and the influences seen in Ford's greatest foreign champion, Kurosawa, are pretty evident. Did Old Man Clanton actually reach for his gun at the end? Gray. And then the ending, with the great civilizing force of the Earps moving on, Clem staying to be a schoolmarm and Doc fulfilling his self-destructive destiny, what is that kiss/handshake at the end? I say it's more than meets the eye. I haven't seen that many Henry Fonda performances, but this must be his finest.
The Searchers, 1956
Dir: John Ford
More deep and ruggedly restless than any other Western I've ever seen, The Searchers is a much copied and rarely equaled film in it's epic landscape vistas and poetic heartache. John Wayne is never comically over the top (never great though), and his Ethan Edwards is broiled with inner turmoil. When he comes back home after years of being gone, the signs of his loner status are all over the place, and yet his passionate and longing brotherly forehead kisses make you wonder whether he is in love with his brother's wife (or if there was ever any history there). Ethan also harbors a bitter hatred of Indians (though he knows their lore and language well) and trusts no one but himself. This film is in many ways one of the sharpest American films on racism and its mechanism. Obviously the attack of the US Army against a native Comanche village is shown as genocide. Other characters never really get as fleshed out as Ethan (Martin, an eighth Cherokee who travel with Ethan in their search, being the closest), and there is that awful stock comic character that really stinks (nowhere to be found in My Darling Clementine). Scar may seem terrible at first, what with an Indian having blue eyes and all, but that's not really the point. Henry Brandon actually gives a subdued and subtle performance as an Indian chief trying to keep his people safe while preserving their way of life, which just happens to involve murder raids on homesteaders. The panoramic vista looking out from the frontier cabin onto the open west is really what the film is all about, though. The longing, lost restlessness of the "old West", something that was there but only really ever existed in peoples' minds. Ethan is the embodiment of all of that. Real, and yet nothing that can be a part of real life. Something perfectly captured by the alt-reality of cinema. The iconic last shot is proof of that. It is no accident that The Searchers was made by the master who re-established the Western, and then here created the first end-time Western.