Wednesday 3 January 2007

The American West of John Ford (1971)

While this isn't as comprehensive or serious as Peter Bogdanovich's Directed By John Ford, made the same year, it's less dry and much higher on the reminiscence quota. It's a TV documentary but you wouldn't guess that from the people running the show. There are three distinct thirds to the film, each presented and narrated by a major name indeed: John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda. They each look back at John Ford and his work and reminisce with him about the westerns they made together, and that's what this is all about: it's almost an hour of tripping off down memory lane.

There is substance in here but not a huge amount, certainly compared to Directed By John Ford, from which many scenes and comments have stayed with me about the artistry and meaning of his achievements: the placing of the horizon, the persistence of ritual, the sweep of history throughout his body of work. In the absence of that insight it's the sentiment here that matters, a glimpse inside a more open Ford that was notably absent in Bogdanovich's more ambitious documentary.

As if to point out just how hard his job was, Bogdanovich opened his film with a sequence of intelligent and searching questions to which Ford either provided one word answers or shrugged off entirely. He may well be the journalist Ford laughs off here with the line, 'I didn't tell him anything'. Yet each of these three stars get him to open up a little and even manage to bring out a few jokes and asides to back up their assertions that Ford was as much an actor as a director, projecting his crotchety old bastard persona onto anyone around but who was at heart just an old sentimentalist. That's priceless.

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