On John Ford: The Cavalry Trilogy

Fort Apache (1948)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Rio Grande (1950)

Directed by John Ford

I am frequently reminded that I may know quite a bit about movies, but I know very little about cinema. Which is to say, when it comes to film, it’s easy to enjoy, harder to appreciate.

That’s what brings me to John Ford. Years ago, when I fancied myself an aspiring cineaste, it was easy to bypass someone as old-school and mainstream as Ford, a director who mainly made westerns and war movies and who was most closely associated with John Wayne. Give me, I thought then, La Dolce Vita— or in a more modern context, Run Lola Run.

John Ford, were he around today, would find the sort of pretension I espoused in the above paragraph to be a great pile of horseshit.* I gave up on the cineaste idea, but I still treasure movies. And I still find myself a student of them.

If you’re a singer, or a songwriter, you can learn a great deal from standards, even as you may discount them. Inevitably, what’s you’ll find is that if you begin to study them closely, their simplicity vanishes. The pure economy of the form has obscured the complexity of the work.

And so it has always been with Ford. Sure, I probably bought a copy of The Searchers on DVD more than 10 years ago, but largely because I had read that it was iconic, that it was an integral part of American film and pop culture.

But there is a mountain’s worth of difference between obtaining a pop collectible for the sake of it and comprehending its sheer power. Again, this is as true in music as it is in film. You may have heard one particular song for 20 years and one night it may strike you as, in its own way, something perfect. You’ll unearth a depth you’ve never found before. And you’ll notice something in yourself that’s new.

This, I am sure, is also a product of aging. Experience forces you to confront assumptions about the utility of the past that before you’ve stored away as simply accepted wisdom. Again, that brings us to Ford. For while I have owned that copy of The Searchers for years–and even made my own pilgrimage to Monument Valley, I had largely dismissed Ford (and Wayne, but that’s another post) as a relic, someone who held no currency in my more modern, sophisticated life, someone a cut below other American directors of his time such as Hawks, Sturges or Wilder who seemed to have something cuttingly relevant to offer.

Ford’s films, however, have their own confident, steady rhythm, one that suggests that the viewer, almost any viewer, will eventually come around to his point of view. He doesn’t rush, doesn’t pander, doesn’t go for the throat out of the gate. Like his beloved Monument Valley, his films almost seems to simply exist, slowly overcoming you with a silent authority.

I spent much of the first half of Fort Apache waiting for almost anything to happen. For a 21st century moviegoer, the film almost stands still. We are painstakingly introduced to the inflexible Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda), his headstrong daughter (Shirley Temple) and the cavalry officer (John Wayne) with whom Thursday will inevitably butt heads. Danger and tragedy lurk.

But first there’s a romance, and domesticity, and scenes of troops being trained, of drunken camaraderie, of broad humor. There are dances and serenades. Ford has dropped us, mid-stream, in a world that, while it never really existed, has an inescapable definition, a weight. It is more than marked by ritual; the ritual, in fact, sustains it. If it is not real, it is at least consistent.

This won’t come as news to anyone who has seen a Ford Western, from Stagecoach (1939) to My Darling Clementine (1947). Or movies beyond that genre, such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or The Quiet Man (1952). I have since seen She Wore a Yellow Ribbon described as a sort of day-in-the-life-of-the-cavalry picture and it’s true. Great attention is paid to how horses are cared for. How proper reports are given. How the job is done.

These three films aren’t true Westerns. The cavalry film was itself a hybrid: A marriage of the war and Western–and for Ford it seemed to create the opportunity to inject some measure of institutional order into the chaos of the open West, as well as examine the nature of war in a hostile land. (He had served in the Navy, in the Pacific Theater, during World War II.) All three films are set in the forts, which were literally erected with walls to keep the dangers of the frontier at bay.

They were contained communities. While some have more cynically interpreted this is as Ford’s unswerving belief in the triumph of Western (the other kind) civilization over the wilderness (and, of course, Native Americans), it also can be considered as clinging to the familiar in the midst of an overpower and encompassing storm.

Ford eschewed closeups, often preferring to shoot his subject against the massive backdrop of the horizon, emphasizing the smallness of man in contrast to nature. Community served as the only defense to the degrading effect of the outside. Hence, barn dances, sing-alongs, gatherings. Ignore those external forces, however, at your peril. Titual isn’t all. The land teaches and the observant one adapt. That was the lesson of Fort Apache–with its Custer-like overtones. (And, ultimately, your close-knit shelter is useless when true chaos reigns. That is the lesson of The Searchers.)

When examined in that light, all three cavalry pictures end in a strikingly similar way. The continuity of community is celebrated, more than any individual. Even Fonda’s character at the end of Ford Apache is, in a sense, returned to the community by a generous act of myth-making on Wayne’s part. For Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, there is no life, no home, outside the fort. The rituals of the army are his only comfort. Retirement means explusion and ostracism.  Finally, in Rio Grande, a unity of family is celebrated at the close of the picture–but it is the unity of family within the larger family, the cavalry.

Here, Ford’s preference to utilize many of the same supporting actors again and again–but in different roles–serves that motif well. Victor McLaghlen plays an irascible Irish sergeant named Mulcahy in one movie and Quincannon the next. John Wayne is a character named Kirby York in one film and Kirby Yorke in another. Different names, but the same kind of men. But this was no comment on the slippery nature of identity. For someone such as Ford, who was concerned with larger themes of duty, honor and ritual in the face of the uncontrollable wild, identities were secondary. His characters were representations, if not quite archetypes. It reminds me of writers such as Lee K. Abbott who switch around the names of characters in short stories, mixing and matching them over and again. The familiarity creates the illusion of intimacy, of a shared past.

Accusing Ford of rank Irish sentimentality is a fair criticism–and yet it is likely a reason why I find his films more affecting now than I did 10 years ago. As the forces of entropy (spurred largely by technology and mobility) continue to erode our own sense of community, his films evoke a pang of wistfulness for a time that was never truly real but once existed in our collective sense of what it meant to be an American. For better or worse–and each side has its points–that sense is fading, consumed by larger, uncontrollable forces.  To me, it makes Ford’s work less relevant and more poignant than ever.

* Check out Peter Bogdanovich’s interview of Ford in his documentary Directed by John Ford (1971) to discover how little Ford enjoyed analyzing his own work.


1 thought on “On John Ford: The Cavalry Trilogy

  1. I stumbled onto this page while searching for a good DVD set of the trilogy. I read your post and appreciated it. I think it’s important to note that what Ford presented were not largely his constructs, but the way life was (and in many cases still is) within the Army. The “family within a family” still holds true, most especially within the elite units.

    Anyway, I also stumbled across a Masters thesis to the Army War College that discusses the trilogy, and thought you might be interested.


    Best regards.

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