❉ Jon Dear reviews Eureka’s release of two surviving silent-era Ford films.
“Eureka’s release of two surviving silent-era Ford films, including his first ever feature, is the origin story we didn’t know we needed. And if you’re familiar with John Ford, with his use of composition, dwarfing characters in a vast landscape, extraordinary depth of field, static camera and false perspectives, you’ll find them all here. Before Orson Welles, before David Watkin, before Roger Deakins, you have John Ford and the very beginning of his directorial journey. “
When one thinks of Manifest Destiny now it tends to be seen as privileged power using racist assumption to justify annihilation. Of course in the case of American frontier history, this is inexorably bound with the formation of the American psyche. Of equality of opportunity, an optimistic attitude, of individualism and self-defence. Now both the history and the psyche are based on myth but nevertheless this is the time when the American people step out of the shadow of religious extremists fleeing persecution and create something unique. It’s a tale of survival, creation, defence, community and conflict. In short, it’s universal while at the same time uniquely American.
The end of frontier history overlapped with the rise of commercial cinema and no other media has done more for spreading and developing the image of ‘the West’, and no one has done more for the West in commercial cinema than John Ford.
Eureka’s release of two surviving silent-era Ford films, including his first ever feature, is the origin story we didn’t know we needed. And if you’re familiar with John Ford, with his use of composition, dwarfing characters in a vast landscape, extraordinary depth of field, static camera and false perspectives, you’ll find them all here. Before Orson Welles, before David Watkin, before Roger Deakins, you have John Ford and the very beginning of his directorial journey. Ford was born John Feeney in Maine; the son of Irish immigrants escaping the famine and felt a second class citizen growing up in Portland. He followed his older brother Francis out to Hollywood in 1914, where he was making a name for himself as a director. Working as a factotum, doing everything from ditch digging to acting (including playing a Klansman in Birth of a Nation) gave Ford a complete insight into all aspects of film production. He copied Francis in using the surname Ford and initially called himself Jack Ford, which is how he’s credited in these two pictures. He reverted to John in 1923.
Ford made 65 silent films (turnaround being somewhat quicker than it is today), and 23 survive in full or in part. The quick turnover enabled him to hone his craft quickly and Straight Shooting is a masterclass in cinematography. The shot of Hoot Gibson riding up to an open door, dismounting and walking though, all the time approaching the camera is utterly disarming (I was left thinking “Are you allowed to do that?”) and the transition from untamed wilderness to civilised interior is a constant theme of the film. A true frontier that Ford would take with him into many subsequent productions. But for all the visual delights, and the opening shot of the cowboys at work really are gorgeous, these films are character pieces. Not the most obvious choice for silent film but in the character of Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey), they have a very human heart.
Like Ford, Carey was from back east, in this case the Bronx, and these days is probably best known for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Kapra, 1939) for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He and Ford would make 26 silents (and one talkie) together, with Carey usually playing Cheyenne. The character was not your typical glamorised itinerant hero. According to Joseph McBride in the commentary, Ford referred to the character as a “saddle bum”, a cowpoke or gun for hire. And one that didn’t even have a holster, witness Harry awkwardly stuffing a revolver into his shirt because he has no where else to put it. He’s portrayed as someone ill at ease with people and restlessly glancing off camera as if searching for an escape. Straight Shooting introduces the character playfully, emerging from inside a tree to admire his wanted poster, illustrating how he doesn’t conventionally fit and is more at home in the wilds of the Great Outdoors. Watching Carey now, it’s clear that he was the main inspiration for John Wayne.
The desire to have a morally ambiguous central character is brought to the fore in the strikingly meta opening to Hell Bent (1918). A novelist called Fred Worth opens a letter from his publisher asking for “a more ordinary man, as bad as he is good” for the writer’s next hero claiming the public a tired of overly virtuous characters (presumably they haven’t seen any John Ford film’s recently). Worth moves to consider a painting on the wall, A Misdeal by Fredrick Remington, depicting the aftermath or a Western Saloon fight. As he gazes at it the painting turns to tableau and our story begins.
The plots themselves are by necessity, somewhat straightforward. Straight Shooting sees Harry recruited by some cowboys to terrorise homesteaders into leaving but Harry decides to help defend them instead, while Hell Bent involves a rescuing a dance hall girl from the clutches of a local gang leader. But they’re packed full of character and emotion, from the grieving father lying on the makeshift grave of his son to unemployed, emasculated brother turning to crime as his sister becomes the breadwinner. Comedy is also deployed in scenes such as Harry and Cimarron Bill (another Ford regular Duke Lee) tussling over who gets to sleep in the bed.
It’s worth remembering that these films were made a time when frontier history was well within living memory, many ex-cowboys would appear in such films and Ford has stated that Wyatt Earp visited the sets to advise on accuracy. Yet it’s clear from the decisions that Ford was making that myths were already developing strongly about the Wild West. The duel between Harry and Placer Fremont (Vester Pegg) is no quick draw with pistols but a more prolonged affairs with rifles and subterfuge. Apparently all the more accurate.
As would be expected Ford pays particular attention to the landscape, and not just in ways you might expect. His use of heavy rain outside a saloon to cloak identity isn’t something you might expect in Western, but the billowing cloud of dust following a gang on horse back or the silhouetting of riders against the sky are now staple fayre, and here we see them in their infancy. For sheer power though, the sandstorm sequence in Hell Bent takes some beating.
The extras are a mine of information, particularly Joseph McBride’s commentaries. There’s an archive interview with Ford himself from 1970 and a chat with Kim Newman about Harry Carey.
In viewing these films now you’re watching the birth of greatness, near enough everything that represents the best of Old Westerns begins here and it’s a privilege to discover living (well, moving at least) history.
❉ Masters of Cinema: ‘Straight Shooting & Hell Bent: Two Films By John Ford’ (Blu-ray Cat. No. EKA70419) released 19 April 2021. Certificate U (TBC). Available to order from Eureka Store, RRP £27.99.
❉ Jon Dear is a freelance writer on television and film. You can find more of his writing at www.viewsfromahill.com. He also hosts BERGCAST, a podcast on Nigel Kneale which can be found at bergcast.room207press.com.