by Ruairí McCann
Produced and released by Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema line, this new Blu-ray boxset of two early silent John Ford westerns is most welcome. Not only because it makes readily available two very fine movies; it also offers a chance to pull at a thread that is too often ignored.
The received critical approach to the western genre is to fasten its iterations and makers to dichotomies that have become all too mouldy and easy. One movie’s or filmmaker’s west must fit somewhere on the sliding scale between mythical or realist, rose-tinted or critical, with the latter conclusions the most correct and enlightening. It becomes a question of either/or and so, too often a false pretence for a mode that is home to many wrong-footing, category-busting masterpieces.
John Ford’s west is judged no differently, or maybe even more so. In many eyes, he was first and foremost a ‘director of westerns’, with 56, out of the 146 of his movies, extant and extinct, characterizable as such. Sometimes he took on this mantle with pride, pointed or ambiently. Occasionally he would gripe that the association between him with the genre was overblown. Regardless of what came out of his mouth to whoever’s ear—financiers, friends, critics, interviewers that caught him in a bad or mischievous mood — they varied and so did he, as he was well aware of the risks that came with being an artist held at your word in the public eye. Nevertheless, scarce few have poured as much time and effort into a single medium as he did.
Given that his career was not only voluminous but long, he made his mark on several major eras of the screen’s Old American West. From its heyday in the mid-to-late 1910s and into the 20s, before he broke away from the genre in the 30s. He returned to it with Stagecoach (1939), one of the great ‘template’ westerns whose critical and commercial success carved John Wayne’s face into the genre’s Mt. Rushmore and gave a shot in the arm to a form that many had deemed moribund except as a Saturday matinee fixture. Following a stint serving in the Second World War, he re-devoted himself to the genre. It is not as though he exclusively made westerns for those final two decades of his career, but they made up the bulk and covered some of the very highest points of his artistry, as well as the late classical period’s trend towards revisionism.
Though he worked frequently in the genre in his final working years, it still does not beat for consistency the beginning of his career, which is the era that has been least seen and studied. Starting in 1917, when he transitioned from being his director-actor-brother Francis Ford’s dogsbody to being his own filmmaker, and until his grand history lesson and super-western The Iron Horse (1924) fully established him as a name director, the then monikered, ‘Jack Ford’, made 50 films. They ranged from two-reelers to bona fide feature films. 25 of these films, from 1917’s two-reel The Soul Herder to 1921’s feature-length Desperate Trails, starred one of his first close-collaborators and mentors, Harry Carey, one of the screen-west’s key foundational personas.
The vagaries of critical approach and normativity aside, a lack of availability greatly informs the little attention paid to these early films. The vast majority are lost, and what remains is mostly fragments.* What few, fully intact titles include two feature-length Ford/Carey collaborations; Straight Shooting (1917), Ford’s first feature, and Hell Bent (1918). Both films are 5-reelers, coming in at under an hour, and star Carey as his primary screen-persona Cheyenne Harry, a ‘saddle tramp’ gun-for-hire who in both films finds his mercenary ways profitable and then, sorely tested— both physically and spiritually. In Straight Shooting, he is hired by a nefarious group of ‘cattlemen’ who are out to rout and expel a newly arrived wave of settler-farmers. These new people of a producerist bent, want to plant roots in the ‘old west’. While the cattlemen, whose governing ideology is ‘might is right’, want to milk it for all its worth, and spill just as much in blood if need be. Harry is tasked with ousting the particularly stubborn Sims family, but on encountering papa Sweet Water and his daughter, Joan (Molly Malone), he finds himself in a crisis of conscience.
In Hell Bent, Harry doesn’t land in the middle of a war. Instead, he stumbles into a dance hall, where he finds whiskey, beer, a job as a bouncer and Bess (Neva Gerber), for whom he falls. Gerber here gives a more autonomous, gutsy performance than Malone’s straight-lace maiden in the other film. Their romance is complicated however when Bess’s no-good, spineless brother Jack (Vester Pegg) takes up with outlaw Beau Ross (Joe Harris), who has designs on both the dance hall safe and Bess.
Carey, the son of a high-powered New York judge, who was 39 and 40 when he made these films, had already established his persona on the stage before hitting the screen. Often his presence was described as being far and away from the cartoonishly bright personalities, with their intrepid sense of adventure and justice, that defined contemporary Tom Mix and his cowboys**. He is pegged as being closer to the persona established by William S. Hart, who unlike both Carey and Mix was from a working class background, and whose aspiration for realism led to a tougher embodiment of the Western hero.
In action, Carey seems to partake in both tendencies. There’s more than a tincture of romanticism and self-parody, which comes or alternates with a more sober approach and mien. He’s not ugly but not particularly handsome either and key dramatic points are often underplayed rather than maximised. In moments of calm and transformation, his performance expertly boils down to the level of atomised gestures. A certain glance, a way of idling or a crooked smile, which Ford emphasizes and iconises with the occasional use of close-up iris shots.
His comedic side gets its best airing in Hell Bent, which is not only the smaller-scaled and most light-hearted of the two, but while functioning as a straight western, it is also more of a soft piss-take. As heralded by a frame narrative where a western novelist, stirred by some criticism that his heroes are too perfect with not enough of the everyman in them, dreams up the film. Inspired by a long stare at a painting by Frederic Remington, an important specialist in western subjects and a noted Ford influence.
And so, Harry arrives like fate. A heroic blow-in from the desert, or so it seems at first. The momentousness of the occasion is soon undercut, when it becomes clear he’s a stumbling drunk, who then rides straight into the dance hall, not for a bout of gunplay or fisticuffs but driven by desire for some shuteye which translates into a homoerotic and Melvillian bedroom farce. He is told that the only free spot is in a bed whose occupant, Cimarron Bill (Duke Lee) is not liable to share. Ford’s very Irish sense of humour, broad, sentimental, and antagonistic, sometimes to the point of being cruel, is an acquired taste but here it works wonderfully. He effortlessly turns this open-spaced ‘plains western’ into fast-moving, door-slamming comedy for a spell. Carey plays a careening drunk enthusiastically and well. Acting big for the broadest bits, such as a moment where he mistakes a pair of twins for a beer-goggled illusion, while also squeezing in some effective localized action, like how twice, in lightning-quick succession, he fails to blindly holster his gun as he staggers in a ‘manly’ fashion across the dance floor for another attempt at getting under the covers with Bill. The outcome this time is not an eruption of violence, that will come later and unsparingly. Instead, he helter-skelters into an accidental and brief slice of paradise among men. All the aggression between Harry and Bill melts under the powerfully redemptive force and equal playing field of a drunken sing-along.
In Straight Shooting, the tone is more serious and the stakes are much higher, with Harry operating explicitly as an ambivalent and ambiguous wild card in a battle between two forces and ways of life. A tumbleweed roustabout with one foot in, one foot out relationship to society, who inhabits and shapes the role of course corrector, not in a grand-standing, Herculean fashion, but as a hesitant figure with polarizing qualities. Interacting with characters who are more broadly defined to fit certain types and functions. This tension is the film’s beating heart, which Ford plays like a fiddle, even in these apprenticeship years.
The cattlemen and the Sims family are historical forces rendered magical. Their clash and characterization are a society’s historical origins as delivered in the form of fable, not unlike the legendary-dialectics of ‘Romans vs. barbarians’, ‘Greeks vs. Persians’, ‘Ming loyalists vs. the Qing Dynasty’ or, to use another Western combination, ‘Cowboys vs. Indians’. In setting this up as the backdrop and thrust of the narrative, Ford is not naïve. He is well aware of this storybook quality, and both uses it whole hog and makes it murky, by flitting between overt stylized and naturalistic formal choices to tell this broad but powerful national tale.
You can see it in how, for instance, he shoots death. When the Sims’ son Ted is killed by the cattlemen, there is no obscuring or heightening it. His loss is a matter of fact. A painfully and plainly depicted event, with Ford capturing in a single long shot Ted’s body teetering and landing, like a sack of spuds, face down in a stream. His funeral, on the other hand, is a heavily stylized affair, staged as a tableau with the mourners engaged in mannered prostrations of grief, such as father and sister caressing the stone cover as if it were the dead boy’s body. Ford intercuts this scene with close-ups of Harry, who is watching off to the side. Through witnessing this heightened demonstration of a singular, strong emotion, he undergoes a change in his heart which surfaces as a quiet storm of emotions; of shock, sadness and embarrassment, which Carey plays as a beautifully naturalistic series of nearly imperceptible shifts. In the span of two scenes, one man’s death sprouts a larger, communal death and another man’s moral regeneration, and that loss is captured and felt materially, on an immediate and emotional level and as a symbolic event.
Ford’s ability to work varyingly and simultaneously at a direct, gut level and in a distant, epic fashion is not just evident in this scene. The leader of the cattlemen, Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), is introduced framed as if he were a detail pulled from a militaristic cyclorama. Mounted on a horse, on a hilltop, he engulfs the centre of the frame while flanked by his lieutenants and backed by a mass of his men and cattle, who are down on the plain below but through Ford’s poleaxing of the image, they are clustered around him, bolstering him, like an angry cloud of wasps.
Flint’s authority and its range is communicated metaphorically, in a single shot, yet when it comes to the action sequences, Ford arranges things differently. He emphasizes movement and clarity of space, speed, breadth and clangour as it spreads and zips across these scrublands. While for a later duel sequence, he shakes things up once again. Recalling Ted’s death, it is not your typical tete-a-tete, where one unmovable, unstoppable force meets another as they threaten to cancel each other out in a direct stand-off. Instead, it is a prolonged combat of tentative and skirting movements, as the two men snake around an outhouse until they meet for a definitive but purposely unsatisfying conclusion.
In fact, the entire final ten minutes is a subversion and mutation of genre conventions. Harry’s reward is an ultimatum. Either settle down in the society he has just defended and repaired or relent to his instinct towards independence and set off on the road again. For Ford, it becomes his own point of rumination, as scenes of Harry cogitating stretch out, taking up a sizable chunk of what is a relatively slim film whose narrative has already come to a conventionally effective climax.
Ford lingers because even as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, with a mere handful of films under his belt, he sensed that Harry’s conundrum, not the bloodshed or even the romance implicit in one possible outcome, was the sticking point. This spoking and spiralling question of, how do I live? How do I reconcile the often conflicting yet tied notions of the individual and life spent as part of a larger whole? It’s a tension which is fundamental not only to Ford’s cinema, the western genre or even the American identity, but the human experience on the whole.
Ford would later say, in relation to how he directs actors, that he likes to maintain a ‘spirit of uncertainty’. This extends not only to the actors and his working methods, but dowses and permeates his films in general. From later key moments and aspects in his filmography, the profound embrace of hidden conflicts as exemplified in the truly nostalgic narration of How Green Was My Valley (1941) or the disquieting lulls, moments of quasi-reflection, in The Long Gray Line (1955) find their roots in this cowboy facing down a decision that both includes and is beyond him, and with a young artist embarking on a brilliant career by way of a willingness to jump into the deep end.
- Limited Edition O-Card slipcase and reversible sleeve artwork [2000 copies]
- Both features presented in 1080p on Blu-ray from 4K restorations undertaken by Universal Pictures, available for the first time ever on home video in the UK
- Straight Shooting – Score by Michael Gatt
- Hell Bent – Score by Zachary Marsh
- Straight Shooting – Audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, author of Searching for John Ford: A Life
- Hell Bent – Audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride
- Brand new interview with film critic and author Kim Newman
- Bull Scores a Touchdown – Video essay by Tag Gallagher
- A Horse or a Mary? – Video essay by Tag Gallagher
- Archival audio interview from 1970 with John Ford by Joseph McBride
- A short fragment of the lost film Hitchin’ Posts (dir. John Ford, 1920) preserved by the Library of Congress
- A collector’s booklet featuring writing by Richard Combs, Phil Hoad, and Tag Gallagher
*Included in this set is approximately 3 minutes from Hitchin’ Posts (1920). All that remains of the originally 50-minute feature.
**Ford directed Mix in two features, both released in 1923. Three Jumps Ahead, which is lost, and North of Hudson Bay, a ‘northwestern’ or ‘mountie western’. Though the latter is missing the final 10 of its originally 50 minutes of runtime, I would recommend it for its door-shellacking and wolf-choking pugilism.