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Doctober II #3 – Hearts and Minds (1974)

heartsandmindsdvdHearts and Minds (1974)
Directed by: Peter Davis
Written by: n/a
Starring: n/a

The Vietnam War has been said to be one of the United States’ most fatal mistakes in modern history, and no matter what your politics are, it’s likely that you agree with this notion.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds takes a good hard look at how America got into this mess of a war, how it affected their soldiers and the people of Vietnam, and points fingers at the people responsible.  We travel to Vietnam to view the destruction of villages, to speak to wounded and mourning Vietnamese, and get up close and person with US soldiers still on the ground. Back home in the United States, Davis manages to capture revealing interviews with high-ranking officials who either supported or opposed the war, with soldiers whose lives have been drastically altered from their time in the jungle, and anti-war protesters who knew it was a mistake from the word go.

Hearts and Minds undoubtedly has a bias, but it’s hard not to when dealing with one of the darkest, most pointless wastes of human life in modern history.  Peter Davis captures a great deal of anger, confusion, and disenfranchisement, felt by everybody from politicians to civilians.  It’s tragic to see such a large number of people lose faith and patriotism due to something that could have been so easily avoided.  It’s a feeling that has persisted in American people ever since the Vietnam War, and one that was exacerbated by later wars in the Middle East. Many of those interviewed attempt to frame the war in different ways that fit their personal narrative, and yet none of them manage to justify the horrific actions and decisions that took place over a period of nearly two decades.  This is the brilliance of Hearts and Minds, nobody makes it out looking saintly or evil – everybody realizes that mistakes were made and corrective measures should have been taken.

Peter Davis captures many intimate and heartbreaking moments throughout Hearts and Minds that it’s difficult to pick out highlights.  Some of the moments that touched me the most were an interview with a Vietnamese man building coffins for young children killed in bombing runs, a scene in an American classroom where an army official explains to young students that they will most likely have to go to war someday, and an interview with an American soldier who was accidentally hit by a US napalm run, burning his pants clean off.  He remarks about how hard it is to fight a battle when you’re not wearing drawers, almost making the viewer forget about the horrific loss of human life going around all around him.  Memorable moments like these would lead to Hearts and Minds winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975.  My only substantive complaint about the film is that it can at times be very heavy-handed, trading subtlety and honesty for something that comes off as less genuine, but included in the film only to get a point across.  These heavy-handed moments just aren’t necessary, as anybody viewing the film is intelligent enough to put two and two together themselves.
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What I Liked:

  • Interviews with Vietnamese and American soldiers are very well-balanced, both of whom are given a great deal of respect.
  • People from all walks of life are featured: Vietnamese farmers, soldiers, prostitutes, US soldiers and protesters, high-ranking politicians and military officials.  
  • The film is edited to be told in a completely non-linear way, which works very well for what is effectively a look back at a period of nearly two decades.  We’re not burdened with dull stories of the politics that led to the war, we just dive in head-first.  
  • Some of the footage captured is horrifying, including US soldiers burning down Vietnamese villages, children and civilians retreating from napalm and bombing runs, soldiers in the middle of firefights defending their positions, etc.  We’re thrown right into numerous battle scenes and left wondering how the footage was obtained.
  • Both Democratic and Republican politicians are heavily criticised, with nobody escaping from the line of fire.  Even the US President’s involved in the two decades are heavily implicated.
  • Peter Davis goes a great length to human the Vietnamese people after two decades of blatant hatred and racism against them.  When soldiers refer to them using racial slurs or about how inhuman they are, Davis makes you feel guilty because you know that things aren’t black and white, and that these soldiers have essentially been brainwashed to hate something they don’t understand.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film becomes unironically heavy-handed and sentimental in its last act, the most notorious example being: overlapping the words of General William Westmoreland talking about how life is not important to the Vietnamese, coming immediately after a scene in a Vietnamese cemetery, featuring grieving children and parents.  Instead of being touching and genuine, it feels like too much, and that Davis is going too far to push his viewpoint – which is already shared by the majority of viewers.
  • I would have appreciated the use of subtitles for the Vietnamese instead of narrated translation, as certain things can be lost in translation or skipped over in this manner.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is an incredibly effective anti-war documentary, and perhaps one of the most all-encompassing and important views of how so many Americans became disenfranchised with their own society and government.  It’s a difficult look at one of the most regretful periods in modern American history, and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing fingers and showing the audience why it was such a tragic period.  It’s expertly crafted and edited, capturing many memorable and heartbreaking moments that never would have been witnessed otherwise.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is recommended, but may not be for the faint of heart.

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Black Directors Feature #4 – Xala (1975)

XalaDVDXala (1975)
Directed by: Ousmane Sembene
Written by: Ousmane Sembene
Starring: Thierno Leye, Seune Samb, Douta Seck, Younousse Seye, Fatim Diagne, Myriam Niang

There’s a reason why Senegal-born director Ousmane Sembene is often considered to be the father of all African cinema.  With a career spanning five decades, the great Senegalese director paved the way for entire generations of African filmmakers all over the continent.  His influence on the African film scene can be likened to that of John Ford and D.W. Griffith in America, Satyajit Ray in India, and F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang in Germany.  With his breakout hit Black Girl (or La Noire de…) in 1966, Sembene captured the attention of an international audience, something that no African film before it had ever done.  Xala was his fifth major motion picture, coming hot off the heels of hits like Black Girl, Mandabi, and Emitai, his film was a stinging satire about the political and economic climate of his home country.  Filmed in French and Wolof, Xala was unlike any work Sembene had produced to that point.  It had a dry wit to it, and its themes were undeniably biting and had a profound affect on audiences.  The film was entered into an early incarnation of the Moscow International Film Festival, but sadly lost out to films by more established and widely recognized directors (Akira Kurosawa’s incredible Dersu Uzala, Andrzej Wajda’s Oscar-nominated The Promised Land, and Ettore Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much).  It would go on to receive a great deal of acclaim in America, receiving positive reviews from the great Roger Ebert and the prestigious New York Times.  After the success of his 1975 hit, Sembene would go on to direct five more films throughout the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s, and the 2000’s. In 2004, his film Moolaade would become arguably his biggest success with a win at the Cannes film festival and critical acclaim across the world.  This film would prove to be his final film as Ousmane Sembene would pass away in 2007 at the age of 84.  Despite widespread acclaim, Xala and the other films of Ousmane Sembene have been all but forgotten by critics and audiences throughout North America, with the majority of his films being frustratingly difficult to obtain and even then only available in less than stellar quality.

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‘El Hadji’ Aboucader Beye in 1975’s Xala.

Xala takes place in modern day Senegal, and mostly follows a group of wealthy businessmen involved in the chamber of commerce.  Our lead character, “El Hadji” Aboucader Beye (Thierno Leye), is an aging businessman looking to show off his success in an extravagant way.  What better way to impress people than to take his third wife?  By marrying a young woman, Beye looks to show off his vast economic and social successes.  Unfortunately for Aboucader Beye, things aren’t so simple.  While attempting to consummate his new marriage, the aging businessman finds that something isn’t quite right, and that things aren’t working in the ways that they usually do.  Beye comes to find that he has been cursed with xala, which is a crippling case of temporary erectile dysfunction.  He proclaims that his manhood has been taken away from him, and suspects one of his jealous and spiteful older wives of putting the inconvenient curse on him.  El Hadji, as he is known to his colleagues, secretly seeks assistance from the powerful men he surrounds himself with.  He and his colleagues go to great lengths to end the man’s xala once and for all, but their attempts are mostly met with no results.  Frustrated and desperate, he consults a marabout in the city to heal him of his affliction so he can get back to his daily business duties, but soon finds everything about his comfortable life unexpectedly crumbling beneath him.  Beye’s life is changed forever after he exposed for his corruption within the chamber of commerce, and worst of all is still cursed with the dreaded xala.  Will El Hadji be able to turn things around in his once cushy life, or will the negative forces working against him prove too powerful?  Find out in Ousmane Sembene’s classic satirical drama Xala!

I was a little nervous going into Ousmane Sembene’s much heralded Xala, especially since my only previous experience with the director was his excellent final film, Moolaade.  Xala is a much more subtle and politically-motivated film than his final effort was, and I was sure that I was going to struggle to find any enjoyment in the film’s nuanced nature.  I’m happy to report that this absolutely wasn’t the case, and I was able to enjoy much of Xala even without much of an idea of Senegal’s (and Africa as a whole) political and economic climate of the time.  While there’s no doubting the very obvious subtext being told throughout the film, the story itself does stand on its own well enough to be enjoyed by any viewer who is up to the challenge.  The entire idea of a wealthy businessman who seemingly has everything deciding to take a third wife in the form of a beautiful young woman is humorous, and becomes absolutely hilarious when the erectile dysfunction problem comes into play.  Everything he knows is flipped on its head and for the first time in his rather privileged life, Aboucader Beye has been stripped of what makes him feel most powerful, and instead shamed into near submission.  His first and second wives and his daughter being completely opposed to the idea of the third wife adds to Beye’s problems, and ensures that no matter what he tries he isn’t able to get ahead in any sense.  Xala’s main character isn’t likeable even for a second, and it really helps nail home the central ideas of the film, which is the complete and utter incompetence and ineffectiveness of many African governments of the time.  El Hadji benefits greatly from being a corrupt business, taking from those around him and trying to show it off to others in the form of a younger woman, far out of his league.  The satire used throughout is absolutely biting, and does an excellent job at letting the audience know exactly how Ousmane Sembene feels about the people running his country and continent.  The ending of the film is where the film absolutely shines, at once being both hilarious and scathing.  Though it may be a little tough to watch for some, it’s always satisfying to see the wrongdoers getting what they truly deserve, and that is especially true for Sembene’s masterpiece.

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Thierno Leye as Aboucader Beye in Ousmane Sembene’s terrific Xala.

It’s too bad that his films are so tough to track down in our day and age, especially with the advent of the internet.  I sincerely hope that a distributor like the Criterion Collection or Twilight Time will get ahold of his filmography and do it justice in the form of an incredible home video release.  Films like Xala are ripe for rediscovery, and deserve to truly be appreciated in their utmost glory.  Xala is funny and sincere in its over-the-top satirical nature, and even without knowledge of the country’s political climate you can feel the frustration in every moment on screen.  Xala is a film that deserves all the acclaim it’s received over the years, and I hope that my review causes even just one person to discover the films of Ousmane Sembene and others from Africa.  Xala is highly recommended to anybody who can appreciate international films, or enjoys biting and intellectual satire.  

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John Ford Feature #10 – The Wings of Eagles (1957)

Wings_of_Eagles_1957The Wings of Eagles (1957)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank Fenton, William Wister Haines (based on the life & writings of Frank W. Wead)
Starring: John Wayne, Dan Dailey, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond, Ken Curtis, Edmund Lowe

It’s hard to believe that the same man who directed a tried and true masterpiece just one year earlier had anything to do with a picture like The Wings of Eagles.  Ford’s 1957 follow-up to The Searchers is unlike anything the great director ever put to film.  Instead of being reminiscent of his romanticized westerns, wartime films, or his period dramas, The Wings of Eagles more closely mirrors the so-called “Oscar-baity” biopics of today.  The film features many members of the John Ford Stock Company, and yet manages to feel nothing like any of his films I’ve seen to date.  It bears no resemblance in its style, music, cinematography, or even performances to the previous decade or so of his output, and just feels like an oddity in a career of never pandering to the masses.  The Wings of Eagles barely managed to make its budget back at the box office, and from everything I can tell received a very mixed reaction from critics and audiences alike.  Released the same year as massive hits (and later historically appreciated films) like Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai, Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Frank Sinatra vehicle Pal Joey and more, The Wings of Eagle was completely ignored by the awards circuit and has been more or less lost to time.  Ford’s film stars John Wayne as Frank Wead, known better as “Spig” to those close to him.  Sharing the screen with Wayne are Maureen O’Hara as his wife Min, Dan Dailey as Jughead Carson, Ward Bond as John Dodge, and Ken Curtis as John Dale Price.

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The Wings of Eagles takes place in the aftermath of the first Great War.  We meet Frank “Spig” Wead (John Wayne), who seems to be a relatively carefree Navy man.  After a reckless stunt to prove the worth of aviation combat to Navy officials, his opinions on the matter are heard.  He urges the Navy to hone their skills through the use of races and endurance competitions, which will help develop pilots and create an aerial force to be reckoned with.  After spending the majority of his time and energy on the Navy’s aerial program and on general mischief, Spig and his wife Min (Maureen O’Hara) find tensions growing between them. Eventually Spig is promoted to the position of Commander for his contributions to the effort.  While attempting to celebrate with his wife and two daughters, Spig falls down a flight of stairs in his home and breaks his neck.  The accident has left Commander Wead’s lower body completely paralyzed, leaving him in long-term hospital care.  After rejecting his wife’s affections in the hospital, the only person Spig will see are his colleagues, “Jughead” Carson (Dan Dailey) and John Dale Price (Ken Curtis).  Jughead is more dedicated than most anybody and visits the hospital on an almost daily basis in order to help with Spig’s morale.  Carson tries to get Frank to regain the use of his legs through repeated use of the motivational sentence “I’m gonna move that toe!”.  Carson also helps Spig battle his depression and recommends the use of writing in order to cope.  After finally finding success in all three areas, Spig goes on to accomplish great things in the rising empire of Hollywood.  With new found success, he returns to the Navy during World War II in order to help develop escort and transportation vessels and vehicles.  After an ill-timed heart attack, Spig is sent back home before he can see out the end of the war.  Will Frank Wead be able to mend relations with his family during the last years of wartime, or will he die without them knowing just how much they meant to him?  Find out in John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles.

I can’t help but feel that I made a poor decision when scheduling The Wings of Eagles to be the final film of my John Ford marathon.  Not only does it feel incredibly anti-climatic, but also feels like I robbed myself of seeing a truly great Ford film.  I hope to continue the marathon next year and cover all the underrated movies I chose not to cover this time around (and maybe some of the ones I feel might require a rewatch), so I won’t beat myself up too much.  The Wings of Eagles isn’t the worst film I’ve any seen by any means, but it’s so incredibly mediocre in every way that it just isn’t memorable.  The moment the end credits started rolling on screen, I could feel the film already fading from my memory.  Ford’s 1957 film is so tonally confused that I was never quite sure whether to laugh or feel bad for the characters, especially Spig.  At times dramatic, and at other times almost veering into slapstick comedy, I was never quite able to understand how Ford felt about his subject.  There’s no doubt in my mind that he certainly admired Spig as a character and as a man, but it’s hard to tell his motivations for making an entire feature about it at any given moment.  His direction throughout just feels so uninspired, which is kind of heartbreaking coming off making literally one of the greatest American films ever made.  John Wayne’s performance as Spig isn’t exactly on the level of previous performances seen during the marathon, but the role isn’t exactly demanding either.  His performance is completely one-note, and especially doesn’t work during the hospital scenes where Spig is supposed to be depressed and at his absolute lowest point.  Maureen O’Hara’s performances as Mrs. Wead is an even bigger shame, as her single point in being in the film is essentially to serve as Spig’s estranged wife.  I never felt the on-screen chemistry between the two that I did in something like The Quiet Man, and instead just felt bad for the two legendary actors.  The cinematography is another aspect of the film that just couldn’t possibly live up to previous ones, this time featuring that ugly and washed out early colour look.  The film would probably be better suited to a black and white film, which probably would’ve detracted nearly as much as the harsh colouring did.  The one positive about the film is that the hospital scenes with Spig and Jughead are quite fun, and the “I’m gonna move that toe!” sequence is actually quite inspiring despite everything I’ve said about the film.  Some of the comedic moments work well towards the film, while some of the more elaborate gags just make The Wings of Eagles feel like a joke.  On a film note, Ford casting Ward Bond as “John Dodge” is tremendous, and I’m glad that even the curmudgeonly old director could poke fun at himself at times.   

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I’m not upet that I saw The Wings of Eagles, but I can’t help but feel that John Ford was capable of so much more.  It would be another five years until he would direct The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another tremendous effort by the legendary director.  I wish that Ford had at least made the story of Frank “Spig” Wead compelling to see on screen, because I kind of feel that the way it was depicted was a pretty big missed opportunity for all parties.  While not all bad, it’s certainly tough to pick out the very good moments of the film, which come all too sparingly.  John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles is not recommended.

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John Ford Feature #8 – The Quiet Man (1952)

Poster_-_Quiet_Man,_The_01The Quiet Man (1952)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on The Quiet Man by Maurice Walsh)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond

As you may have read in my brief summary post about why I chose to cover the films of John Ford for an entire month, the man still holds the record for most Academy Awards won for Best Director.  He won the award The Informer in 1935, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, How Green Was My Valley in 1941, and finally for 1952’s romantic drama The Quiet Man.  The John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara starring film would be released to tremendous critical acclaim and box office success, and is still widely recognized as one of Ford’s greatest films.  It’s perhaps most notable for being such a departure compared to the violent westerns that filled most of his career, and might just shock you by how light and playful it initially comes off.  Instead of focusing on common Ford settings like the desolate western plains or the Pacific, the film takes place entirely in a small Irish community and features a cast full of Irish descendants.  It brings with it John Ford’s subtle sense of humour (perhaps more overt here), impeccable eye for photography, and a cast full of lovable and recognizable faces.  The Quiet Man once against featured the incredible cinematography of the great Winton Hoch, who would once again bring home the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1952.  On top of bringing home awards for Directing and Cinematography, Ford’s drama was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The inspiration for the film – much like those in the cavalry trilogy – once again came from a story in The Saturday Evening Post, this time written by Maurice Walsh.  On top of starring the team of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, The Quiet Man also features John Ford company regulars Victor McLaglen (The Informer), Barry Fitzgerald (The Long Voyage Home), Ward Bond (They Were Expendable), and Francis Ford (The Informer).  Unfortunately for Ford, the film would prove to be his final movie to be nominated for Academy Awards, despite his career continuing on for nearly fifteen years.

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Sean Thornton (John Wayne) is an Irish-American former boxer who has just moved back to his native land in order to reclaim his family’s farm in this tiny community of Inisfree.  Upon his arrival he is met with warm greetings from a townful of odd and interesting characters.  He meets and very quickly falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), who has a reputation around town as a fiery young independent woman.  Mary Kate also happens to be the unfortunate sister of the loudmouth bully Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who had his sights set on Thornton’s family farm.  After the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) sells the farm to Thornton, an angered and jealous Will Danaher refuses to allow him to marry his younger sister.  After some trickery by the townspeople, Will is led to believe that the Widow Tillane wants to marry Will, but only on the grounds that Mary Kate be out of the house.  After a whirlwind romance, Sean and Mary Kate are quickly married and Will finds out the truth about the Widow.  Enraged, he refuses to allow Mary Kate to take her dowry, which has been passed on to her by her late mother.  Sean, being American and not understanding Irish traditions, refuses to speak with Will on the matter and is branded a coward by his new wife.  The marriage quickly falls apart, and the locals conspire to have Will return Mary Kate’s rightful inheritance to her.  With a coward husband and no dowry, Mary Kate boards a train to leave for greener pastures, but is quite literally dragged away by her husband.  Will the foreign Thornton confront the traditional Will Danaher and get his wife what rightfully belongs to her, or will he stand by and watch his marriage crumble before it could ever even gain steam?  Find out in John Ford’s Academy Award-winning The Quiet Man.

The Quiet Man was a very difficult film for me to review coming off the heels of the thrilling cavalry trilogy that preceded it.  Luckily, what I found was incredibly charming (if old-fashioned), funny, and beautiful film with a great deal to love about it.  Maureen O’Hara once again steals the show, this time as the incredibly strong and independent Mary Kate Danaher, who is an incredibly progressive character for the era the film was made in.  John Wayne’s performance as Sean Thornton is equally impressive, showing off more of his newly recognized acting abilities and proving that he has more range than just playing cranky, cynical men of the old west.  Thornton isn’t exactly a romantic or strong-willed character, but he’s always interesting to watch on screen because the character is quite a mystery for most of The Quiet Man’s runtime.  The former boxer turned Irish immigrant character works well for Wayne, and his brooding, yet charismatic screen presence never fails to compel.  The true standouts of the film are the once again incredible technicolour cinematography from Winton Hoch, coupled with some very restrained direction from John Ford.  His tried and true method of not distracting the audience with overly-complicated camera maneuvers works wonders, and instead the film focuses purely on storytelling and getting the best performances possible out of its cast.  Hoch’s bright and colorful cinematography is perfectly suited to the Irish countryside, and there’s something to marvel at in nearly every frame of the movie.  The film is also very well-written, especially comedically.  It opens with a hilarious example of slapstick humour that still works today, and continues by giving its entire cast of oddball characters their own unique personalities and eccentricities.  I can honestly say that I laughed out loud more than once during my two viewings of The Quiet Man, something that has rarely happened during my Ford marathon.  It’s clear throughout that John Ford is proud of his heritage and very passionate about Ireland, and that passion and interest in the setting and traditions add a great deal of genuine atmosphere to the film.  Unfortunately, there are a few moments that just didn’t work for me throughout.  One scene in particular involves Wayne’s Thornton giving off some awfully rape-y and abusive vibes towards O’Hara’s Mary Kate.  Not only does Sean Thornton corner his new wife in her dark room, but he throws her onto her bed hard enough to break it, staring a hole through her the entire time.  Maybe I’m crazy, but the entire sequence added nothing to the supposed romance between the two leads, and instead felt out of place and old-fashioned in the worst way possible.  Luckily, these moments are few and far between and aren’t enough to derail what is largely a terrific and charming film.  

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The Quiet Man is a restrained deviation from John Ford’s usual work, and is surprising in how successful it is.  The comedy, terrific lead performances, beautiful Irish setting, and subtle direction make for a truly remarkable and memorable film, and one that has absolutely earned its reputation as being one of Ford’s best.  The Quiet Man was a tremendous surprise, and a film I can easily say comes highly recommended.

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John Ford Feature #7 – Rio Grande (1950)

Rio GranRio_Grande_posterde (1950)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Kevin McGuinness (based on Mission With No Record by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Claude Jarman Jr.

Finally, the final film in John Ford’s epic cavalry trilogy is upon us. After returning to the western genre after a brief wartime hiatus, Ford would deliver a great many more terrific western films, all of which brought something new to the table.  Rio Grande is the final film in his trilogy, but far from the last good western that Ford would direct.  The film comes after both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and features the only bit of continuity found in the entire thematic trilogy: John Wayne returns as Captain Kirby York, the progressive and forward-thinking main character in Fort Apache. The film was based on a short story found in the Saturday Evening Post entitled Mission With No Record, and written by James Warner Bellah.  Bellah’s short stories inspired the entirety of the cavalry trilogy, and he would even go on to co-write Ford’s terrific revisionist western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Rio Grande would be released the same year as Ford’s now celebrated Wagon Master, and would be his final western until the release of the highly acclaimed The Searchers in 1956.  The final film in the cavalry trilogy stars the aforementioned John Wayne as the grizzled Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (spelled differently in this film), and Maureen O’Hara as Kathleen Yorke, the estranged wife of the veteran.  O’Hara was often called “the finest actress in Hollywood” by Ford, but after a number of films together the working relationship between the two fell apart, and Ford came to resent O’Hara for reasons pretty much unknown. On top of the pairing of Wayne and O’Hara, the film stars Ford company regulars like Ben Johnson as Trooper Tyree, Harry Carey, Jr. as Trooper Daniel Boone, and Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Maj. Quincannon.  Rio Grande was a tremendous success financially, but as with many of Ford’s mid-career westerns, would be largely ignored by the awards circuit of the time.

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Rio Grande sees Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) now on the Texas frontier, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  Yorke and his cavalry have been posted in Texas to defend against the threat of Apaches, but has recently seen Apaches taking sanctuary in Mexico, away from the threat of the U.S. cavalry. Yorke’s diminishing forces are threatened further by the lack of troops sent by his superiors.  Kirby’s son, Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he hasn’t seen for years, has recently been added to the troop.  The addition of his son puts further stress on Yorke, as does the arrival of his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), who has come to pull her underage son out of the cavalry.  The Lt. Col. Yorke, not wanting to seem to favour his son, ends up treating the young man more harshly than the other troopers.  Jeff is taken in by two older cavalry members, Troopers Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.), who help him acclimate to the harsh conditions of the forces.  As both of young Jeff’s parents want something different for his future, they slowly begin to settle their differences and rekindle the love they once held for each other.  After a visit by the general of his department, Yorke and his motley crew are ordered to pursue the Apaches into Mexico and stop them from fleeing.  By crossing the United States border and chasing after the Apaches, Col. Yorke risks the careers and lives of himself and his young troopers.  The proud Kirby Yorke of course chooses to accept his new mission, despite the enormous odds working against his cavalry.  Will Yorke be successful by risking it all in order to save his marriage, get closer to his son, and protect his fellow countrymen?  Find out in John Ford’s installment in the cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande.

Trilogies are a funny thing, with even the best of them having a weak or flawed chapter or installment.  Unfortunately, Ford’s cavalry trilogy is no different, and Rio Grande ends up being closer in comparison to Return of the Jedi than Fort Apache’s Empire Strikes Back.  That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means, just a disappointment after the tremendous highs of the previous two films.  Where Fort Apache felt progressive and modern and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon featured stunning cinematography and an amazing performance by John Wayne, Rio Grande features very few standout elements.  John Wayne’s performance is solid as usual by this point in his career, but absolutely nothing to write home about.  Everything I came to love about Kirby York(e) in Fort Apache seemed to disappear almost entirely in this film.  York(e) feels like a completely separate, and far more bitter and cynical man than he did just two years prior.  Luckily, we have a very good performance by Maureen O’Hara to give us what Wayne’s York(e) fails to do.  There’s clearly a reason Ford was so fond of O’Hara for so many years; her screen presence and natural charm are undeniable.  The chemistry between O’Hara and Wayne is obvious, and it’s no wonder the two were featured in so many films together after this effort.  Unlike the previous year’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande is once again shot in black and white, which I found to be an odd touch.  The cinematography features Ford’s trademark use of shadows against the bleakness of the western plains, but lacks the flourishes that Yellow Ribbon featured prominently (and picked up an Oscar for, too).  The soundtrack isn’t nearly as memorable as those found in previous films either, and I sorely missed whistling sixty year old tunes in the days following my viewing of the film.  On the very good side, the set-piece at the film’s climax is remarkable and intense, and I longed for more of the siege-style warfare featured here.  When it suddenly ended on a high note, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that it hadn’t gone further.  All of these jumbled thoughts sums up exactly how I feel about Rio Grande: It’s a frustrating and largely mediocre experience in a package that has so much potential for greatness.

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Rio Grande isn’t a bad film by any means, it’s just not particularly memorable when compared directly to its predecessors.  It features good performances by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as well as a tremendous action set piece to close out the film, but lacks the punch of the previous two films.  The story is unique when compared to the others in the cavalry trilogy, but it just doesn’t go far enough with the story for the audience to care much.  John Ford’s mostly great cavalry trilogy doesn’t end with a whimper, but more of a tremendous sigh.  If you’re interested, view Rio Grande at your own discretion.

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John Ford Feature #6 – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

SheworeayellowribbonpostShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank Nugent, Laurence Stallings (based on The Big Hunt & War Party by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen

The second part of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy is a beautiful and sweeping technicolor dream, marking it one of the director’s very first full-color films.  The middle chapter in this spiritual series takes place immediately after the death of Commander George Armstrong Custer, who in real life died during the Battle of Little Bighorn, commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon had the honor of being one of the most expensive western films ever produced up to 1949, and went on to be a smash hit for both John Ford and RKO Pictures.  The name of the film is listed from the classic and triumphant cavalry marching song of the same name, which makes an appearance or two in the movie.  The film was shot in beautiful color by cinematographer Winton Hoch, one of the originators of the technicolor format.  He won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his photography on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a prize he had won the previous year for Joan of Arc, and would win again in 1952 for John Ford’s The Quiet Man.  John Ford would take on Hoch as a cinematographer for four other pictures, many of which are acclaimed for their cinematography.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon once again stars John Wayne, this time as Captain Nathan Brittles, as well as Joanne Dru as Olivia Dandridge, John Agar as Lieutenant Flint Cohill, and Ben Johnson as Sergeant Tyree.  The film also stars Ford regulars Harry Carey Jr., and Victor McLaglen.  Apparently, the casting of John Wayne in the lead role was up in the air initially.  The character of Brittles was two decades older than Wayne was at the time, and Ford wasn’t certain of his long-time partner’s acting abilities.  After seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks’ classic Red River, Ford realized that John Wayne could act, and promptly changed his mind and finally decided on his lead star.

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As mentioned previously, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon begins immediately after the fall of Commander Custer and his cavalry troops in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is a man on the verge of retirement, but has been given one last major mission to carry out.  The mission is to lead his troops from their post in Fort Starke to ease tensions with Cheyenne and Arapaho forces following Custer’s Land Stand.  Things are further complicated when Brittles has to escort the Major’s wife and niece, Abbey Allshard (Mildred Natwick), and Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) along with them.  The women are accompanying the cavalry to a nearby post in order to avoid the incoming Indian War.  Two of Brittles’ soldiers, Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), become romantically interested in miss Dandridge along the way, further complicating matters.  After the apparent failure of both such missions, Brittles decides to retire and head back for his Fort.  After some deep thinking by the Captain as well as unnecessary bloodshed, Brittles rejoins his men and arranges for a face-to-face meeting with the important Chief Pony-That-Walks (Chief John Big Tree).  When things once again don’t go so well with the Chief, the cavalry must regroup and devise a plan to lead the Native American forces back to their reservations and ultimately avoid another senseless war.  Will Captain Brittles finally overcome the odds and make peace with the Native people, or will he be forced to see more violence and bloodshed before his retirement?  Find out in the second chapter in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is quite possibly the most beautiful film in the marathon so far.  I might be biased though, because I’ve always had a soft spot for technicolor.  I love how the format looks both a little too bright and a little washed out at the same time, it never fails to create incredible imagery that I’ll remember for a long time to come.  Not only is the photography by Winton Hoch spectacular, but the lead performance by John Wayne is absolutely something to behold.  Even though he’s playing a man much older than he was in real life, you believe that Captain Brittles is a tired old cavalry captain on the verge of retirement.  It’s easily one of the best performances I’ve seen Wayne give thus far, and I can’t wait to see more of his more celebrated performances as the marathon goes on.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is famous for being the moment that John Ford realized the acting potential in John Wayne after a twenty year partnership, and I can certainly imagine the “eureka” moment he must have had.  A scene where Brittles breaks the news about no longer leading the cavalry to their mission and receiving a medal from his troops is truly touching, and allows Wayne to display a rare instance of humanity in one of his characters.  Captain Brittles may not be as loveable as Wayne’s Kirby York in Fort Apache and Rio Grande, but the performance given more than makes up for that.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon tells a realistic story where not every plan goes the way that they’re supposed to, and watching Captain Brittles battle his frustrations and doubt himself is heartbreaking in moments.  The “overcoming the odds” story is often riddled with cliches and general cheesiness, but somehow this film manages to subvert the tired trope and become something unique.  When things finally start to go the way they’re supposed to, you can’t help but feel triumph along with the rest of the cavalry.  On top of the triumphant moments felt when Brittles does have things go his way, the film’s titular theme song helps move the action along and makes the adventure feel much more grand.  IT plays over and over and roars over the film’s greatest moments, and I can guarantee it’ll be stuck in your head for a week afterward.  I haven’t stopped whistling the tune since the credits rolled the first time around.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon doesn’t have the same level of comedy, redemption, or incredible action set pieces as seen in Fort Apache, but it’s still a more than worthy follow-up to a terrific trilogy opener.  

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The first two parts of John Ford’s famous cavalry trilogy have been terrific pieces of good old fashioned western films, bringing with them a grand sense of adventure, thrills, progressive attitudes towards the Native American peoples, and two terrific performances.  I can only hope that the closing film, Rio Grande, is half as good as these two are.  With its terrific John Wayne performance, beautiful technicolour photography, roaring score and theme song, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is everything you could ever want from the western genre.  There’s a great deal of fun to be had here, no matter how you feel about westerns or the films of John Ford.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is highly recommended.

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John Ford Feature #5 – Fort Apache (1948)

MV5BMjExMzk5MDI4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjAwODc0MQ@@._V1._CR43,88,254,363_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_Fort Apache (1948)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on Massacre by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Shirley Temple, John Agar

Just two years after the release of his widely successful western My Darling Clementine, John Ford decided to embark on the production of a loose trilogy of films.  Fort Apache is the first film in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”, which includes She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), all three of which star frequent collaborator John Wayne.  The three films form a trilogy in name and in spirit only, not having any recurring characters or situations (except for John Wayne’s Captain Kirby York in Fort Apache and Rio Grande), with the exception of all films dealing with the United States cavalry battling Native American armies on some level.  Fort Apache, much like its successor My Darling Clementine, did not fare well on the awards circuit, but was still widely critically acclaimed upon its release.  Looking at the list of winners and nominees at that year’s major awards shows, it seems as if there was something of a stigma against traditional western films, with critics and audiences instead gravitating towards literary adaptations like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, which won Best Picture in 1948, groundbreaking visual dramas like The Red Shoes, and film noirs like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo.  Luckily for Ford’s legacy, the film was a hit with audiences and the cavalry trilogy as a whole is now considered one of the many high points of his prolific career.  Fort Apache stars longtime Ford collaborator John Wayne in his first of two appearances as Kirby York, My Darling Clementine star and future Oscar winner Henry Fonda, as well as child star Shirley Temple in one of her final film roles before retirement.  Other frequent John Ford supporting players Ward Bond and star of The Informer Victor McLaglen also make notable appearances.

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Fort Apache takes place after the end of the American Civil War in or around the state of Arizona, circa the late 1800’s.  We meet Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), a decorated Civil War veteran who looks to replace the current commander at an isolated United States cavalry outpost, Fort Apache. Unfortunately for York, the position was unknowingly given to Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), who has traveled to the outpost with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple).  York and other cavalry soldiers are understandably upset when they learn the news, mostly due to Thursday’s lack of experience with the Native American population settled in the area near Fort Apache.  Not only does Thursday lack the experience with the Native population, but he is also quickly outed as a class-conscious bigot with no remorse at all for the Native American’s, who are led by the great Cochise (Miguel Inclan).  Thursday’s daughter, Philadelphia, quickly falls in love with the young and handsome Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke (John Agar).  The budding romance is quickly squashed by Philadelphia’s father, who forbids any man he doesn’t consider a gentleman from seeing his daughter.  After learning of Owen Thursday’s disapproval, O’Rourke’s father Sergeant Major O’Rourke (Ward Bond), also a veteran of the Civil War, comes to blows with the bigoted commander of Fort Apache.  After learning of unrest by the Apache Natives, Commander Thursday ignores the advice of Kirby York, and decides to battle the forces of Cochise in the hills.  York, aware and sympathetic of the skilled Apache warriors, stands aside to watch an almost certain disaster take place in the hills near Fort Apache.  Will the bigoted Owen Thursday and his cavalry forces defeat the far more experienced Apache warriors, or will Thursday’s prideful ignorance lead to his and hundreds of his soldier’s untimely demise?  Find out in John Ford’s classic Fort Apache.

Though it may come off as extremely old-fashioned in its politics and archaic views of race relations, Fort Apache was actually quite a progressive film at the time of its release.  John Wayne’s Captain York is very sympathetic towards the struggles of the Native American population in the area, and suggests to his commander that the cavalry treat Cochise and his men with the utmost respect and civility, but Fonda’s Lt. Colonel Thursday is having none of it.  Henry Fonda, one of the seemingly nicest men in Hollywood, is playing extremely out of type in Fort Apache as the prejudiced and incredibly strict Owen Thursday.  This makes Fonda’s performance all the more impressive, because I found myself outright hating Thursday in several moments of the film, especially when leading his men into a battle they know they will lose in the name of ignorance.  I’ve never actively rooted against a character played by Fonda, and to see him pull off such an impressive transformation made me fall in love with the film even more than I already had.  John Wayne’s Kirby York is the perfect counterbalance, bringing logic and a strong-willpower to the table.  It’s clear that York is the superior and more worthy leader of the titular Fort Apache, and for him to be as restrained as he is was both frustrating and admirable at the same time.  Although Wayne was mostly playing himself as York, the performance is still very good and offers a character to really get behind.  On top of two incredible lead performances, Ford’s filming of action and battle sequences is incredible, giving weight to every fallen cavalry soldier and Native American warrior, and making every shot fired worthwhile.  For a film shot thirty years before the era of action blockbusters even began, the action set pieces are incredibly well-paced and have a perfect mixture of wonder and gravity to them.  Fort Apache also brings with it a surprising amount of comedy, especially in its early cavalry training sequences.  John Ford has a knack for subtle humour in films that don’t appear to be comedic in any way at first glance, and it never fails to add a little something to his films for me.  Lastly, while not being something I usually praise or comment on in great detail, the sets and costume design in Fort Apache are absolutely something to behold.  The sets are furthered by the incredible black and white cinematography that captures the beauty and bleakness of the plains featured prominently in the film.  The uniforms worn by the cavalry look very accurate as far as I can tell, and it absolutely helps immerse you deeper into the film.

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As a whole, Fort Apache is easily one of my favorite films of the marathon thus far.  Its progressive attitude towards race relations between the Americans and Native Americans is something to be admired for the time period, the performances by both Henry Fonda and John Wayne are terrific and career-defining, and the direction of massive action set pieces by John Ford rivals some of the great action sequences in films made today.  It is clear that John Ford was most comfortable in the western genre, and I can’t wait to dive even further into his catalog of great westerns.  Fort Apache is highly recommended.

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