Films fit definition of a master class

Director: If you think John Ford's best movies were his westerns, think again. Better yet, tune into AMC this weekend to catch his classics.

August 05, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

To say John Ford directed Westerns is seriously to underplay the point.

Yes, he was probably responsible for more classic Westerns than any director, everything from 1924's "The Iron Horse," the story of the first transcontinental railroad, to 1962's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence," a nod to the idea that Western myth was often more important than Western fact.

Yes, he directed both 1939's "Stagecoach" and 1956's "The Searchers," films that define the Western genre. And yes, he discovered John Wayne.

But his greatest film, 1940's "The Grapes of Wrath," was set squarely in the 20th century, didn't contain a single scene shot in Monument Valley and, in its depiction of an Okie family's flight to California, eschewed Western mythology for Dust Bowl reality.

Ford won four Best Director Oscars, not one for a film with a cowboy at its center. Two of his most popular films aren't even set in America: 1941's "How Green Was My Valley," about life and struggle in a South Wales mining village, and 1952's "The Quiet Man," a tale of Ireland that's become a staple of St. Patrick's Day celebrations everywhere (and the film that proves he never forgot he was born Sean O'Feeney).

He may have been most proud of the documentaries he made for the Navy during World War II, propaganda films for which he won two more Oscars and served as commander of his own naval reserve unit.

In other words, John Ford was a great filmmaker, period, with a range that should become clear to anyone who spends time watching this weekend's seventh annual Film Preservation Festival on AMC. Although the three-day festival's centerpiece is a restored version of "How Green Was My Valley," the only Ford-directed film to win a Best Picture Oscar, more than 20 other films are being shown as well. Together they make a strong case for Ford's reputation as one of the giants.

"If I could divide his work into three easy categories," says Ford's grandson, Dan, whose 1979 book, "Pappy: The Life of John Ford," was re-released last year, "there are the Westerns, there are the Navy-Pacific island pictures, like `Donovan's Reef,' `They Were Expendable' and `Hurricane,' and there are the hands-across-the-sea pictures, films set in England and Ireland."

Each of those three branches has its partisans. Ford's most beloved film may be "The Quiet Man," the story of a retired boxer who returns to his native Ireland in search of a peaceful life and finds he picked the wrong place. "The Searchers," with its magnificent Monument Valley settings and strong sense of the Western as myth, is routinely rated among the greatest, most influential American films.

Dan Ford's favorite is 1945's "They Were Expendable," starring Robert Montgomery as a PT boat commander whose vessel provides hope during America's defeat in the Philippines. "I think it captured a sense of loss, of unrequited love," says Dan Ford. "The real story isn't about the value of PT boats. It's the story of a group of men who were confronted with great odds."

If nothing else, such variety puts the lie to Ford's own self-assessment, "I make Westerns." More to the point was Orson Welles, who once admitted he was most influenced by "the old masters by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."

AMC's lineup this weekend spans nearly half a century, from 1917 to 1964. And it offers the rare chance to watch not only the development of a significant film director but the development of film itself.

The festival kicks off at 6 tomorrow morning with 1917's "Straight Shooting," the earliest of Ford's films known to exist (most of Ford's silent films have been lost, a fact that bears out the need for film preservation efforts like those being highlighted this weekend). Starring Harry Carey as the hand-picked arbiter of a dispute between cattlemen and nearby settlers, the film -- like most of Ford's early silents -- suggests some of the themes he would return to time and again: the difference that one good man can make and the clash between frontier passion and encroaching civilization. It also evinces some of the cinematic techniques Ford would continue to develop over his career.

"You see patterns in them, you see shots you'll see in other pictures, you see a career evolving," says Dan Ford, 54, who followed his grandfather into filmmaking and specializes in chronicling live events. "You can trace the development from `Straight Shooting' to `Three Bad Men' to `The Searchers.' "

Ford's silent films dominate the early-morning programming each day. Some will appeal to film historians only, but that's not true of his three best silents. "The Iron Horse," a big-budget epic ($450,000, real money in 1924) envisioned as Fox studio's answer to the box-office success of Paramount's "The Covered Wagon," made Ford's reputation; it's still an exciting look at the men who labored under the harshest of conditions to build a shore-to-shore railroad.

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