(This post was first published in 2017 before I began a long project aimed at re-assessing the output of John Ford by re-watching and writing about as many of Ford’s films as I could find, numbering the posts as I go.)
Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.
This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it places Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.
The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter, one of the leading actors in Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers) and the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony, we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely railway halt. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.
Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.
The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.
Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers, the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).
Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).
This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).
As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be a future task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.
At first glance this feels like one of the strangest John Ford titles. There is no recognisable Ford stock company (apart from a brief appearance of Jack Pennick) and you have to dig quite deep to find any crew or creative inputs obviously linked to Ford. It’s a comedy and it includes some musical moments, two familiar Ford traits, and it is set in what seem at first familiar Fordian communities – a small town and then the US military (the Army Air Force). From that basis it is possible to move forward and make sense of the film. Why did Ford make the picture? The late 1940s and early 1950s were very stressful and difficult for John Ford. In industrial terms he was trying to stabilise the position of his production company with Merian C. Cooper, Argosy Pictures. A deal with RKO saw some success with the first two pictures of the Cavalry trilogy. But with Howard Hughes taking over the studio, Ford looked forward to a deal with Republic Pictures, the independent formed by takeovers of several ‘poverty row’ outfits by Herbert J. Yates in 1935. Republic’s most high profile pictures were low budget Westerns (including those of a young John Wayne). Ford’s time working with Yates would have its ups and downs but it did allow him to make The Quiet Man in Ireland in 1952.
In his personal life and his position as a leading member of the Screen Directors’ Guild, Ford was also struggling with how to react to the anti-communist witch hunt led by HUAC. Ward Bond and John Wayne were ‘commie hunters’ whereas Ford most of the time presented himself as a Democrat – at least before the 1960s. How Ford behaved in the late 1940s does not make much sense according to Joseph McBride’s 2001 book, but appears to have been largely self-serving and designed to keep himself free of any restrictions. McBride suggests that Ford was disturbed by a rumour that he was under investigation by the US Army and since he valued his military connections, he sought to distance himself from suggestions that he was anything but ‘patriotic’. When it became difficult to make the pictures he wanted to make Ford tended to look towards 20th Century Fox and Daryl F. Zanuck, even if he and Zanuck didn’t always get along. Perhaps this explains why Ford made a ‘military’ picture at Fox in 1950 and followed it with a documentary in Korea in 1951 and another odd wartime picture What Price Glory in 1952. He made two Westerns for Argosy and his biggest success The Quiet Man at Republic – all six films were released between 1950 and 1952, he was never a slacker!
When Willie Comes Marching Home has a central character William ‘Bill’ Kluggs (Dan Dailey), a young man with some musical talent from a respectable lower middle-class family in the small town of Punxatawney, West Virginia. We meet him on a night in December 1941 playing with his band in a local drug store. He can scarcely believe it when his next door neighbour comes rushing in to tell him war with Japan has started. Bill is determined to be the first to enlist. He succeeds and is soon off for basic training. But several months later he is posted back to Punxatawney where a new airfield and base has been constructed. He’s embarrassed when the town throws a party to celebrate his return and to honour him as the first to sign up to fight. But it looks like Bill will never get to fight as a series of events conspire to keep him at the base. The townspeople don’t know why he hasn’t gone to the Pacific or to Europe and his local reputation takes a nosedive. Eventually, in June 1944, another chance event sees him sent to England in a new B17 bomber. This then turns into a crazy adventure in France which elevates him to an absurd heroic status, which the townspeople don’t really believe. What will they make of him when he gets home?
The film’s script was based on a real incident in the Pacific War involving Sy Gomberg, who started a Hollywood writing career on the basis of this original story (which gained an Oscar nomination). The film won the main prize at Locarno and it proved a modest box office winner with a $1.7 million gross (Ford’s Rio Grande, the third part of his cavalry trilogy, was released in the same year and made $2.25 million). Fox was the second most prolific studio in 1950 and the second biggest box office earner behind MGM in what was a declining market. When Willie Comes Marching Home was a satisfactory production for Fox, so why does it seem a strange Ford picture? First, it is short at just 85 minutes. It seems that a US DVD release includes outtakes that suggest that Fox cut out some of the musical numbers. It has been suggested that the film could have been a rare Ford musical. As it is, the film is mainly a broad comedy with Ford’s familiar comic vignettes extended across the film. Dan Dailey is the only ‘star’ in the film with character actor William Demarest (best known for his work with Preston Sturges) as Bill’s father. The two young female starlets Corinne Calvet (who was French and played a maquisard) and Colleen Townsend (as the ‘girl next door’) are both lively and effective in their roles. The film was photographed by Leo Tover who was an experienced DoP who had worked for Jean Renoir and William Wyler and the music was by Alfred Newman the eldest of the three Newman brothers and the most distinguished. The editor James B. Clark had edited Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) – for which he was nominated. So Ford had talent at his disposal.
I think Dan Dailey is impressive in the film and I was surprised simply because I hadn’t seen his musical roles for MGM earlier in the 1940s. He is arguably too old: he was 34 when the film was released but is convincing as a younger man. He must have got on with Ford as he was cast in two further Ford army pictures in the 1950s. This does make me wonder, however, if audiences would have expected more musical numbers in this 1950 film and why Fox cut them out? The film looks good and sounds good, although there is a distinct difference between the musical numbers, the comedy sequences and the realist long shot compositions of some of the military sequences. Though the narrative takes Bill to Europe, action in France is represented by sequences shot in California.
But what does it all mean? Ford was well known for his wartime work with the Field Photo Unit and with his documentary films about Pearl Harbour and The Battle of Midway (both of which won Oscars) among others. He was not averse to going straight to the top to get what he wanted for these films (he was after all the leading American film director and a senior officer in the Naval Reserve). But he was more interested in supporting the enlisted men, who he later helped through his foundation of what was popularly called the ‘Field Photo Farm’ which provided a refuge for the men he had worked with in the Unit. When Willie Comes Marching Home can be seen as remembering the men who didn’t necessarily fight overseas but who were serving soldiers, flyers and ship’s crew based in North America. The film can also be seen as a satire on the armed forces’ regulations and procedures. Much of the comedy is very broad but some of it works in different ways. As Tag Gallagher points out in his book on Ford, various comic routines are presented in a series of elements. One sees Kluggs approaching a succession of officers in an attempt to get a transfer onto active service overseas. The officer ranks he approaches increase in seniority each time but the result is always the same – a refusal but a promise to recommend Kluggs for a Good Conduct award. He is then promoted each time until he reaches Master Sergeant. Tallagher also usefully observes that the film resembles Ford’s silent and pre-war films with a large cast and often gags that could work without dialogue. Finally we can see the film as a commentary on the bland conservative nature of this small town Middle America (when its West Virginia location made me think of the Judge Priest films or The Prisoner of Shark Island). A Fordian sense of community rests on respect and honour and genuine communal feeling, not the ‘War Fever’ whipped up by propaganda..
I have actually seen the next military picture that Ford made in which Dailey stars alongside James Cagney in a remake of the Raoul Walsh 1926 picture What Price Glory set in France in 1918. Corinne Calvet is the French girl again and William Demarest also returns. I need to watch it again in light of When Willie Comes Marching Home.
Gideon’s Day is now available in a 4 disc Blu-ray box set entitled ‘Ford at Columbia’. The other three titles are The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), The Long Gray Line (1955) and The Last Hurrah (1958). It’s an odd collection but each of the films is of interest and I like Gideon’s Day very much. It was very badly handled by Columbia back in Hollywood but the British arm of the studio made a very good job of the production in the UK, co-producing the film with Ford himself and using the MGM-British studio facilities. The film was beautifully photographed in Technicolor by Freddie Young. Gideon’s Day is a police procedural adapted from the first of a series of crime novels written by the prolific John Creasey under the pseudonym J.J. Maric. Creasey used 28 pseudonyms and wrote over 600 novels according to Wikipedia’s account. The film was initially released in the US under the title Gideon of Scotland Yard on black & white prints. Ford had a percentage of the potential profits so his treatment in the US was insulting. On the other hand, I’m not so surprised that the studio thought it wouldn’t do very well in the US since it is very ‘British’. Written by T.E.B. (‘Tibby’) Clarke, the writer of many Ealing films including The Lavender Hill Mob (1955), Gideon’s Day is delightful in many ways – even though it includes investigation of some very unpleasant crimes. It’s often described as a ‘comedy melodrama’. The Gideon novels (1955-76) also prompted a UK TV series known as Gideon’s Way (26 episodes of 50 minutes in 1965-6, tx on ITV and made by ITC on 35mm film). Ford appears to have been a fan of these kinds of stories and possibly of Creasey’s procedurals.
(The print broadcast on Talking Pictures TV in the UK uses the American title Gideon of Scotland Yard, but is in Technicolor and not cut.)
A typical Tibby Clarke script begins in the household of DCI Gideon (Jack Hawkins) during a frenetic family breakfast-time and proceeds to follow him through a day in which three different crimes are solved/averted with one involving police corruption, robbery, murder and attempted murder. The working day ends late at night with a repetition of a joke from the morning. Throughout the film Gideon’s bluff, authoritarian stance with an underlying warmth and humanity (a perfect role for Hawkins) is often undermined by comic moments. Tag Gallagher tells us that Ford remarked that Hawkins was the “best dramatic actor I worked with”.
This is a deft directing job by Ford. He moves swiftly through the interrogations and chases and keeps his own predilection for sentimental songs and bar-room brawls in check. Even so there is a genuinely funny pub saloon sequence and an almost slapstick fight. This was a period in British cinema when certain kinds of crime films and dramas were moving towards the greater realism that location shooting (usually in black and white) brought and at the same time films were starting to become ‘grittier’ in their representation of social issues. Gideon’s Day is poised between the Technicolor comedies which were so successful for Rank and the black and white crime dramas and procedurals which constituted the major dramatic genre. Jack Hawkins had already appeared as a Scotland Yard Superintendent in the Ealing film The Long Arm (1956) and as a reluctant would-be migrant to Australia in the Technicolor Ealing comedy Touch and Go (1955). In all three films mentioned here Jack Hawkins has a family and the family melodrama becomes part of the narrative. In Gideon’s Day the DCI’s long suffering wife is played by Anna Lee, one of Ford’s stock company and ‘family’. She had significant roles in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Fort Apache (1948) as well as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and two small parts in later Ford films. In the late 1940s she was mysteriously blacklisted during the anti-Communist witch hunts in Hollywood and Ford was keen to see her re-instated. Gideon’s daughter is played by Anna Massey, daughter of the Canadian actor Raymond Massey who had appeared for Ford in Hurricane (1937). Ms Massey was certainly lucky with her father’s friends. She must have known Michael Powell through her father and her next role would be in Peeping Tom (1959). The family melodrama is neatly tied into the police work of the day through a young PC played by Andrew Ray who had been a child actor and here adds comic touches to a series of incidents involving father and daughter.
Hawkins’ co-star on the film posters is Dianne Foster, a Canadian in US film and TV who also in 1958 appeared in Ford’s The Last Hurrah. I confess the name meant nothing to me before I looked her up and I assume that Columbia simply wanted a name alongside Hawkins that North American audiences would know. The UK cast is full of well-known supporting players and overall the cast list is extensive since Gideon deals with so many cases during the day as well as struggling with his interactions at home and imposing his authority in his office at the Yard. There are fifty speaking parts.
For me Gideon’s Day was a welcome surprise. I’d seen it many years ago but not fully appreciated Ford’s skill. He handles the shifts between humour and drama skilfully – the poster at the head of this blog entry represents the comedy tone very well. The London locations are used well without being too ‘touristy’. The narrative is exaggerated with Gideon ‘solving’ the three major crimes on the same day, though there is significant ‘collateral damage’ in each case. It’s almost as if several episodes of the later TV series had been compressed into a single narrative of 90 minutes. Perhaps not surprisingly there are some similarities to another Hollywood film made (partly) in London around the same time with Hitchcock’s re-working of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) for Paramount. I think Ford actually makes a better job of representing London by remaining faithful to the script and trusting his British cast. Dianne Foster is on screen only briefly (though it is a significant role) and the film is carried by the British leads.
The only significant error in the film from my point of view was the use of a copy of the Manchester Guardian as a ‘giveaway’ clue that leads to an arrest. The Manchester Guardian was indeed based in Manchester before it became the present day London-based Guardian in the 1960s, but it was also available in London as a leading ‘quality’ national newspaper. It could be used in the film to suggest the suspect was an intellectual criminal but as a clue a local Manchester paper was more likely to signify that the suspect had travelled down from Manchester. I suspect that the London-based crew didn’t read the Guardian and didn’t explain to Ford what the paper signified.
Tag Gallagher suggests that the lack of any Irish issues in the script meant that Ford could reign back his usual anti-Britishness and instead just enjoy presenting the wide range of characters with care. (However, the film was produced by Ford’s Irish pal Michael Killanin and there are several Irish actors in small parts.) It is possible to see Jack Hawkins as Gideon presenting a familiar Fordian hero with a loving family who are perhaps neglected because of the importance of his job, but just like the cavalry families that support John Wayne in Ford’s military pictures, the family still loves the heroic father figure. Ford completed the film efficiently and under budget (there is at least one continuity error which Ford didn’t re-shoot, following his usual practice). Both Gallagher and Joseph McBride recognise the merits of Gideon’s Day, but Lindsay Anderson gets in a bit of a tangle in About John Ford, his collection of interviews and critical pieces about Ford. At one point Anderson seems to be dismissing the film as old-fashioned and with no real artistry, writing at the moment in 1957 when he interviewed Ford during the shoot and took him to the NFT. Yet later in the collection he suggests that though 1957 was a critical low point for Ford, Gideon’s Day is actually “an engaging entertainment, an almost absurdist pastiche of its middle-class English genre”. He doesn’t seem to realise he had been down on the film earlier in the collection. Still, he redeems himself a little whereas Andrew Sarris is all at sea in The John Ford Movie Mystery. Sarris sees the film as “one of Ford’s most peculiar projects” and sees the film as a comedy about the bumbling English and their “tepid tea and beastly buns”. I don’t mind being insulted in a good cause but I think Sarris just misunderstands the film completely. On the other hand the inclusion of snatches of ‘London Bridge is falling down’ in the score by Douglas Gamley does underline the comic tone of many scenes. I heartily recommend the film as good entertainment and an example of what a great film artist can produce handling a simple genre film for a Hollywood studio.
Without its production context this might appear as a fairly conventional war combat picture except for two factors: its celebration of survival masking a defeat is unusual for an American film and its length at 135 minutes is remarkable (and probably not necessary). Digging into that context, however, it becomes something else. John Ford spent the Second World War as head of the US Navy Field Photography Unit and director of several important documentaries for the US Military, two of which won Academy Awards. This film was his final action as a serving military officer in the Naval Reserve and he felt manipulated into making it at the behest of senior figures in the US Navy. The film was produced by MGM, the major studio with which Ford had most problems it seems. As part of the deal to make it, Ford insisted on an enormous fee, not for himself but as something he could use to set up a home for the veterans of his Field Photography Unit. He duly shot the film between February and June 1945 and it premiered at the end of December 1945. I’ve read the accounts in both the Tag Gallagher and Joseph McBride books on Ford and I still don’t understand what the US Navy’s purpose was. There seems to have been a push to get the film made some two years earlier but even that seems odd to me (and impossible for Ford).
They Were Expendable is an adaptation of a book by William L White, a biographical account of a ‘real’ US Navy officer John Bulkeley who commanded a squadron of Motor Torpedo Boats in the Philippines in 1941 (known in the US as PT boats, though the official designation was MTB). The central character, ‘John Brinkley’ in the film, is played by Robert Montgomery, who had himself been an MTB Captain in the ‘Pacific War’, as it is known in the US and had served under Bulkeley. The film script had several contributors but appears to have been mostly the work of the retired Navy flyer Frank Wead, who would become the subject of John Ford’s 1957 film The Wings of Eagles. The film narrative deals with a squadron of MTBs, a relatively under-rated form of naval power in 1941. In December 1941, Brinkley and his men, particularly his second in command, Lt. ‘Rusty’ Ryan (John Wayne) are disappointed that the Naval Commander in the Philippines doesn’t appear to rate the MTBs as an effective weapon, using them for ‘messaging’ and carrying important personnel. But when the Japanese attack cripples the US Navy in Pearl Harbour, the MTBs are thrust into the defence of the Philippines. Although distinguishing themselves in various conflicts the MTBs and their crews are finally forced to retreat to the last US stronghold in Bataan and Brinkley and Ryan are finally forced to abandon their men under orders, thus the ‘Expendable’ tag for the crews. The whole narrative reminds me of several British films from early in the war which were released as propaganda pictures with the message: “We have survived and we will return”. The turning point of the Second World War is usually taken to be the defence of Stalingrad in the East and the victory of the Second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa in late 1942. At the same time the Americans were leading a North African landing and conducting an offensive in Guadalcanal. If They Were Expendable had been in cinemas around the end of 1942 it would have made sense. When it finally appeared, the American public was thinking about the aftermath of war and the film must have had a different reading. Ford himself is reported to have disowned the film, outraged by interference by MGM executives who recut parts of the film and added music Ford wouldn’t have chosen.
Lindsay Anderson, who met Ford on location in Ireland for the Quiet Man in 1950 and then at Elstree a couple of years later for Mogambo, was astonished by Ford’s view of They Were Expendable. Ford claimed to be ‘horrified’ by the experience of making the film and claimed to have not even watched the final version. Later he sent Anderson a telegram saying that having been persuaded to watch it, he agreed it might have merit, but several years later had reverted to arguing that it was no good. The mystery in this story is that Ford claimed some of his important scenes were cut but also that his intention was to produce a 100 minute film, which suggests that 40 minutes or more of the final film wasn’t intended to make it into the final cut. This is baffling, but Ford often made contradictory remarks, especially to interviewers. In Ford’s eyes, Anderson hadn’t yet made any significant films so he was just a critic/writer (but Ford still seems to have respected Anderson’s view that Expendable was a fine picture).
What is finally evident in the Warner Bros. restored print on the Blu-ray? There is a standout performance by Robert Montgomery. The black and white photography by Joseph H. August is excellent. August was a Lt Commander in Ford’s Photography Unit and had shot a couple of Ford’s pictures in the 1930s. Wayne is relatively subdued but rather petulant as Rusty Ryan, but he has the film’s only romance, with a nurse (an officer of similar rank) played by Donna Reed, also very good. Two other familiar Ford faces are Ward Bond and Jack Pennick and there is an important cameo by Russel Simpson (Pa Joad and other Ford characters) as a boat repairer. It is a recognisable Ford film in many ways. As a war combat film it is effective with exciting action (but probably unlikely action since US Navy torpedoes were not very reliable in 1941) but also a focus on the relationships between Montgomery and Wayne, Wayne and Reed and most importantly, Montgomery and all his crews. There is a reference to General MacArthur in the sequence in which the MTBs carry departing top brass and MacArthur’s famous phrase “We Shall Return” introduces the closing credits. The film was shot mainly in Florida, which is ironic since Ford himself loved the South Pacific. Several commentators refer to it as having a ‘documentary-style’. I think that is pushing it but there is certainly time spent on procedural issues and it is important that ‘verisimilitude’ is a key issue. Ford had spent so much time in different theatres of war and he knew how service personnel behaved, so the film had a sense of truth about many scenes.
Powerhouse/Indicator’s 4 film box-set of ‘Ford at Columbia’ includes this fascinating and rather good title alongside three more from the 1950s, The Long Gray Line (1955), The Last Hurrah (1956) and Gideon’s Day (1957). This post is based on a viewing of a rented Blu-ray from the box-set. Because I haven’t got the whole box-set I haven’t seen the printed booklets that accompany each film, but the Blu-ray carries several useful extras.
The general consensus is that this film is somehow outside John Ford’s usual territory. Sheldon Hall’s presentation on the film entitled ‘A Trip Outside Ford Country’ is included on the disc. It’s true that if we consider Ford’s peak period to be between 1935 and the early 1960s, then this film is certainly ‘outside’. Most of Ford’s films in this peak period are rural, historical, set in small and often military communities. The most common genre is the Western. The Whole Town’s Talking is, by contrast, urban and contemporary and generically it refers to crime/gangster films and comedy, specifically screwball comedy. There are very few of Ford’s familiar actors or crew from the later period and the two stars are Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur. Edward G. Robinson hadn’t appeared for Ford before and wouldn’t do so again until close to the end of Ford’s career in 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn. However, Jean Arthur had worked with Ford on two films in the early 1920s, Cameo Kirby in 1923 and The Iron Horse in 1924, in minor roles at the start of her career. By 1935 she had finally established herself as a lead at Columbia. Ford was in 1935 coming off a long period of working mainly for just two studios, Universal in the 1910s and early 1920s and Fox in the later 1920s and early 1930s. Although he had already made dozens of films over a period of 20 years, he didn’t yet have the kind of prestige he would later gain (he won his first Oscar for his next picture, The Informer) and so this one-off at Columbia was likely to see him treated as an honoured guest director, but still one who would have to work within the studio’s usual structures. The point about the earlier work is, however, that Ford had made most kinds of films by this stage and there was no reason to suppose he wouldn’t make a good job of this one. Also during the early 1930s, Ford had worked with the cinematographer Joseph August, so he knew one part of the production was locked down (August and Ford worked together four more times after this film.) The story had been written by W. R. Burnett, famous as the writer of Little Caesar (1931), often quoted as the first ‘gangster’ picture and an early starring role for Edward G. Robinson. Later Burnett would write High Sierra (1941), the film that finally clinched Humphrey Bogart’s leading man status. Columbia must have been confident that Burnett’s story (with a screenplay by the staff writers Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling) would make a profitable picture and therefore brought in not only Ford but also Edward G. who was a contracted player at Warner Bros. Jean Arthur was by now a contract lead player at Columbia and there is some suggestion that her performance in this film encouraged Frank Capra to use her in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936.
As soon as the film begins we experience a glorious tracking shot along the rows of desks in an office. It isn’t on the scale of the famous shot from The Crowd (1928) but in its own way it is just as beautifully choreographed. One of the extras on the Blu-ray is a video essay by Tag Gallagher which analyses much of the camerawork. It’s necessary to set up the office and the first comedy situation as the little man who runs the office becomes faced with a dilemma because the one person who is missing is Arthur F. Jones, the mild-mannered accountant played by Edward G. Robinson. I won’t spoil the gag. Jones is the central character in the narrative, except that he has a doppelgänger, a murderous gangster, ‘Killer’ Manion, who has escaped from prison and is suspected of being somewhere in the city. Inevitably, Jones will get arrested as Manion and then inveigled into a scheme to try to catch the real Manion. It’s a classic comedy, and especially romantic comedy, idea for constructing a narrative. In her role as ‘Miss Clark’, Jean Arthur is the single woman in the office who ‘Jonesy’ (as she calls him) secretly admires. His role as Manion’s double will bring them together.
There is an enormous energy about the film in its crowd scenes, partly because Robinson and Arthur give lively performances and partly because of that strange convention that bedevils Hollywood crime films, causing police to arrive armed to the teeth in busloads and every photographer in the city jostling for space in the press briefing rooms. Ford and August handle all these scenes with aplomb and it’s interesting to see Ford working in this swift kind of screwball comedy. There is some remarkable optical work in doubling Edward G. without the use of digital FX. There are also some nice sight gags including the one above of Ettiene Girardot as Mr Seaver, Jonesy’s boss. I don’t think it’s making fun of a short man to enjoy the difference in height. There is an exciting finale but the weakness in the film for me is a failure to fully exploit the potential of Jean Arthur’s character, i.e. the screwball comedy elements get lost in the mix. (The Blu-ray disc includes an enthusiastic and enjoyable presentation on Jean Arthur’s career by Pam Hutchinson, but unfortunately there isn’t very much about her work on this particular film.) There is a suggestion that aspects of the original story don’t appear in the final cut as there were concerns that they would contravene the newly operational Production Code, so several plot developments take place off-screen (a kidnapping and Manion’s violence in prison). Having said that there is already a great deal squeezed into the film’s running time of 93 minutes. Two bits of IMDb ‘trivia’ are worth mentioning. First there is one of the worst ‘goofs’ I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood feature in which either continuity or the edit team missed the consequences of an action. It drove me mad for a while – Ford did have a reputation for sometimes not worrying about tying up loose ends. The second trivia point is that IMDb claims that this film prompted a Hindi cinema Shah Rukh Khan starrer Duplicate in 1998.
I’ll remember this film for Edward G. Robinson’s dynamic performance, Jean Arthur’s comic chops and Ford’s energetic direction. Oh, and there is another Fordian character with a running gag featuring Donald Meek as a claimant for the reward after he first spots Jonesy as Manion early in the film. Meek appeared in several Ford films, including as the mild-mannered booze salesman in Stagecoach. In retrospect it is a shame Ford didn’t continue with this kind of busy comedy.
This film is both like and unlike other John Ford Westerns. Many of the Ford stock company are present in the cast and crew and the film is dedicated to ‘The Memory of Harry Carey, Bright Star of the early western Sky’. Carey had starred in the first two adaptations of the story by Peter B. Kyne in 1916 and 1919. Ford directed the 1919 film. Carey became one of Ford’s closest friends and an important actor and mentor on Westerns. He died in 1947. Ford then invited his son, Harry Carey Jr. to appear in Three Godfathers and he would go on to become a regular member of the company. The same story was used also in 1921 (Ford again), 1929 (William Wyler) and 1936. Ford’s status in 1948 meant that Argosy Pictures was able to arrange distribution via MGM with a substantial budget including Technicolor. The photography was by Winston C Hoch, who would go on to win an Academy Award for his Technicolor cinematography on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the next year. I have to say that I think Three Godfathers is even more beautiful in its use of colour than the later film – though it might simply be a down to the better quality DVD from Warner Video. The title by the way was originally 3 Godfathers in North America but I’ve always known it by its UK title. In Quebec it was known as Les fils du désert – I wonder what the Laurel and Hardy film was known as in France?
If you don’t know the story, it must be quite something to be adapted six times you might think. It is actually very simple as a kind of Christian fable, a take on the Christmas story. John Wayne, Pedro Armendiráz and Harry Carey Jr. are a trio of, presumably not very proficient, bank-robbers. After a raid on the bank in Welcome, Arizona they are chased by a posse led by the local sheriff Perley Sweet (Ward Bond) and end up stranded in the desert without water. Here they find a woman in a covered wagon about to give birth. Her husband has disappeared and I won’t spoil any more of the story. You can work out the plot by simply referring to the film’s title. I first saw the film in the early 1970s and I couldn’t remember anything except the sand dunes, John Wayne and the baby.
This was one of Ford’s favourite films and there are a number of stories associated with it, several emanating from Harry Carey Jr. who was interviewed by Lindsay Anderson in 1978 and later wrote his own memoir. Carey’s father and Ford eventually fell out or perhaps simply couldn’t cope with each other on set, although Carey Sr. appeared for Ford again in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Each thought the other didn’t want to work with them. Ford arranged for a stunt rider to pose on Carey’s own horse for the dedication shot. He told Olive Carey that he would use Harry Carey Jr. on 3 Godfathers on the day that Harry Snr. died. Harry Jr. had already worked in small roles in a couple of films but Ford gave him an ‘Introducing Harry Carey Jr.’ credit. He also persuaded him to sing in the film. Harry Carey Jr. reveals that Ford actually treated him quite harshly on set, but taught him very well in terms of what was required. Harry Carey Jr.’s other story concerns Pedro Armendiráz. It appears that Ford always chose costume items for characters in Westerns. Armendiráz, who was a very popular and celebrated actor in Mexico, had already appeared for Ford in The Fugitive and Fort Apache and he turned up for the shoot in a tailored outfit fit for Mexico’s leading actor. Ford told him the outfit was completely unsuitable and chose one himself. Armendiráz had made a fatal error and after this film he never worked for Ford again. Ford was in charge and took all the decisions. You didn’t try to make your own. The stock company understood this and were rewarded with future parts. As well as Carey, Wayne and Bond, Ben Johnson was on this shoot in a minor role, Mildred Natwick was the woman having the baby and Mae Marsh was Ward Bond’s wife. Jane Darwell, Hank Worden and Jack Pennick also had small roles. This was definitely a stock company picture. Winton C. Hoch was new to the company and he quickly learned not to make too many suggestions to Ford.
The use of the stock company almost exclusively in this film, coupled with the absence of Ford’s usual interest in exploring myth and the history of the West in his films of this period, means that audiences only have two choices. One is to dive into the sentimentalism and religious celebration of the Christmas story and the other is to look for meanings in the relationships of the familiar Ford actors and characters. I can usually cope with Ford’s sentimentalism but on this film I did find it too much in the last section. I’m happy to simply enjoy the playing and the cinematography. The players are generally very good. Some like Mae Marsh and Mildred Natwick seemed to me to be eccentric or deliberately provocative casting decisions and Jane Darwell is definitely ‘excessive’ as a man-hungry woman looking after a remote railway halt. To add to the melodrama (a comedy melodrama of redemption?), Ford uses songs both diegetically and as part of the score. Richard Hageman’s score uses ‘The Streets of Laredo’ as a motif in the opening titles and Harry Carey Jr.’s rendition of ‘Gather at the River’ (one of Ford’s favourite hymns) is matched in the closing sequence with a choral version of ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ by the women of the town (a more joyous crowd than the women of the town driving out Claire Trevor in Stagecoach). The whole town then gives a second rendition of ‘Gather at the River’ to close the film. Three Godfathers was a hit with audiences even if some critics didn’t like it.