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Fort Apache


Buckeye Jones
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Fort Apache, (Ford, 1948), closes with the fort's cavalry troop riding out, their wives and children watching and cheering them on. At the head of the column rides Colonel York (John Wayne), wearing the same hat as the late Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda), but as a completely different officer and gentleman.

The first film in Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy", the others being 1949's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", and 1950's "Rio Grande", takes a familiar western topic (the Indian Wars) and quietly subverts the traditional view of the heroic calvary protecting the fronteir against the savage Indian. At the same time, the warmth and humanity with which Ford treats his characters, and the personalities invested in them by the fine actors, give this movie a healthy lack of cynicism that overran the anti-establisment westerns from the later 60s and 70s (see "Soldier Blue", or any of Eastwood's work from that period).

As Ft. Apache receives its new commander, Col. Thursday, things are forced to change. A man whose rigid by-the-book mentality ultimately cannot overcome his desire for personal glory, Thursday implements harsh discipline, browbeats his subordinate officers and waxes poetical about class and authority. He betrays his incompetence with the situation on the frontier time and again, but duty compels his officers to obey his orders.

See for example his constant micromanaging of the telegraph repair party. Captain York, he says, prepare a detail. When York orders Lt. O'Rourke to mount a squad and head out, Thurday immediately chastises him. "I said a detail, which is an officer and three men, not a squad, Captain!"

"Yes, sir. Lt. O'Rourke, take a detail of three men to the telegraph. Carbines, with sixty rounds--"

"Thirty rounds, Captain, will be sufficient," interrupts Thursday.

"Thirty rounds, yes sir".

Wayne gives a wonderful performance as Captain Kirby--he displays a natural affection for his command and a true sense of honor in his relationship with a difficult enemy and an even more difficult commander. At the end, when he sees all hope is lost in Thursday actually concerning himself with the safety of the regiment instead of visions of Bonaparte and Genghis Khan, he throws down his gauntlet--literally, challenging his commander's authority and his sanity. But he is dismissed, and the Colonel moves the regiment without its most able commander into harm's way on a suicide mission.

York's final interaction with Thursday, as the superior officer lay wounded at the edges of the conflict, gave the true display of each's character. Urged by York to return to safety, Thursday instead takes the stunned captain's sabre, and charges off to glory and death, aware at last that his martinetancy was all-compelling and all-mistaken. York is left to scramble back to the supply train on foot, where his honesty and respect for the Indian (echoed nicely by Ford's use of actual native american actors in stoic yet human performance) save the remnant of Thursday's regiment.

In the end, Fort Apache is a great display of true leadership, and of the manipulation of the press and public's need for "gallant" heroes. The film does a fine, fine job of telling the story of what is lost to corruption in our society, both the overt (seen in Meachem, the vile Indian Affairs agent) and the covert, false sense of racial and blood superiority. Yet the film never drags, its serious nature spiced with Ford's gentle humour seen most effectively in the relationship of the regiment's sergeants. All this and I haven't even touched on the excellent exploration of personal dynamics between the O'Rourkes and the Thursdays!

Edited by Buckeye Jones
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Excellent post, Buckeye!

As I read over your summary of the Fordian themes in Fort Apache, I can't help but notice how many of them are re-capitulated in Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers -- and particularly the haunting line of Mrs. Collingwood's: "I can't see him. All I can see is the flags."

Flags also ends with a similar re-writing of what we have seen in the course of the film -- but in Flags, it is memory itself that is re-writing history.

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Great post, Buckeye. I'm quite a fan of the Calvalry Trilogy (especially "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"), and this review hit so many of the great aspects spot-on. Thanks for posting this!

Oh, and yes--the camradre between the Sergeants is some of the best material in the film.

"Sergeant, you a judge of whiskey?"

"Uh, well, sir, some people say I am and some say I'm not, sir"

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Thanks! GG, while I liked Mrs. Collingswood's line, I think that the scene itself veered a little too close to the maudlin, to connect with Wayne's comments in Bogdanovich's Ford documentary. Of course we knew as soon as Collingwood mentioned that he hadn't heard from the West Point folks on his appointment that he would not survive this film. Ford having the appointment arrive just as Collingwood marched out with the regiment, and have his wife not send for him because she feared making him seem a coward, was just too much. I would have rather had Collingwood receive the appointment notice himself, but still march out, or better have it arrive after the fact, either a brief shot of it laying opened on a table after the battle, or have Col. York mention it to the reporters at the epilogue.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go pour myself a drink of scripture.

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  • 3 years later...

I think I posted this after catching this film on TCM, but not before I'd put it in my Netflix queue. Well, three years and change later, and the Netflix disc shipped. I think that this does play into "The Hurt Locker" discussion a little bit, in the sense that the same dynamic appears between the three hurt locker leads and Thursday, Kirby, and Collingswood. All in all, though, I think that "Fort Apache" ends up as a superior film to "The Hurt Locker", which I liked.

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Thanks, Jason. The key is, can you convince your fiancee to sit down with it? wink.gif

I knew my marriage was going to last forever when my wife got me "The Searchers" for an anniversary present early in our wedded life.

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Thanks, Jason. The key is, can you convince your fiancee to sit down with it? wink.gif

I knew my marriage was going to last forever when my wife got me "The Searchers" for an anniversary present early in our wedded life.

Haha, that's a good question. I'm still working on her. She grew with a western-loving father, and grew very bored with them early on. I'm still working on it, though, especially since her vision of what is considered a good western is much, much different than mine. :)

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I think that this does play into "The Hurt Locker" discussion a little bit, in the sense that the same dynamic appears between the three hurt locker leads and Thursday, Kirby, and Collingswood.

This is a great observation, drunken brawl in Hurt Locker notwithstanding. Now I want to see Ft. Apache with the Hurt Locker soundtrack and see how that goes.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

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I knew my marriage was going to last forever when my wife got me "The Searchers" for an anniversary present early in our wedded life.

Yup. The Babe got me A Boetticher collection last year. She doesn't like westerns all that much (except Silverado, of which she is tired and, ughhh, McClintock!). But she indulges me.

Nice review from way back. I must see this film as I am a fan of Fort Apache, The Bronx (the Paul Newman) and refer to my parish as "Fort Apache, The Episcopal Church". I should

become intimate with my reference point. Not a fan of John Wayne thoguh, hence my dallying. Will post thoughts on Boetticher soon as well.

Edited by Rich Kennedy

"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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Rich, I haven't seen (that I know of at least) any Boetticher film--in fact, had to look him up. Fort Apache's a winner, as is She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (very different in story if not in tone), and I can't remember Rio Grande.

Any reco's on a Boetticher western to start with?

My wife really enjoyed both Fort Apache and Liberty Valance, so I think it would almost be impossible to go wrong with any of Ford's famous Westerns. He was so prolific, though, you could probably find a dud or two.

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Rich, I haven't seen (that I know of at least) any Boetticher film--in fact, had to look him up. Fort Apache's a winner, as is She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (very different in story if not in tone), and I can't remember Rio Grande.

Any reco's on a Boetticher western to start with?

My wife really enjoyed both Fort Apache and Liberty Valance, so I think it would almost be impossible to go wrong with any of Ford's famous Westerns. He was so prolific, though, you could probably find a dud or two.

Rio Grande is a bit fuzzy in my mind, since I haven't seen it in a while, but I do remember liking it enough to own it. My favorite of the bunch is still She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which is just a stand-out film. I think Wayne does an excellent job with that, Rich, if you're looking for a performance to win you over.

A Ford movie that I really liked, especially since it was pretty atypical for the time period, was Sergeant Rutledge. Woody Strode plays the titular character, a black non-commissioned cavalry officer. (The movie is from the '50s, mind you.) I really liked it, since while it was a western, it had elements of court-room dramas and Rashamon's multiple viewpoint storytelling scheme.

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When the massive, jaw-dropping Ford at Fox DVD box set was released two years ago, I decided to try to watch every Ford film I could find, preferably in chronological order. I've seen 30 or 40 since then, and it's been a perception-shifting experience for me. Not only has Ford jumped to the top spot on my list of Greatest Filmmakers Ever, but, even more surprising, I've come to not only respect but admire John Wayne. He's so good in so many Ford films. The Long Voyage Home and The Quiet Man are Masterpieces with a capital M, not to mention The Searchers and 3 Godfathers and Liberty Valance and Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache and on and on.

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I think I posted this after catching this film on TCM, but not before I'd put it in my Netflix queue. Well, three years and change later, and the Netflix disc shipped. I think that this does play into "The Hurt Locker" discussion a little bit, in the sense that the same dynamic appears between the three hurt locker leads and Thursday, Kirby, and Collingswood. All in all, though, I think that "Fort Apache" ends up as a superior film to "The Hurt Locker", which I liked.

Excellent initial review of this, Buckeye, and having now seen The Hurt Locker, I am in complete agreement with your preferencing the Ford film to it. One of the things I loved most about Apache (and the thing that makes it my favorite of the cavalry trilogy) is the eye-popping photography. Not only do the clouds burst onto the screen, but Ford is at his best here in allowing his men to be dwarfed by the landscape. This is certainly a practice he engaged in throughout his work, but I love how it works in this story. As Thursday leads his men on their suicide mission, Ford sprinkles in a few of those extremely wide shots--the majesty of the surrounding landscape creating tension with the foolhardy mission taking place before our eyes; the thunderclouds billowing up above clouds of dust rising above columns of cavalry officers.

And since it's come up, Rio Grande has some wonderful moments--the photography and especially the scenes between Wayne's character Yorke and his son Jeff--though to my mind, it's more uneven than the other two films in the trilogy. This despite the presence of the always wonderful Maureen O'Hara. Unfortunately, she just hasn't much to do here.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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When the massive, jaw-dropping Ford at Fox DVD box set was released two years ago, I decided to try to watch every Ford film I could find, preferably in chronological order. I've seen 30 or 40 since then, and it's been a perception-shifting experience for me. Not only has Ford jumped to the top spot on my list of Greatest Filmmakers Ever, but, even more surprising, I've come to not only respect but admire John Wayne. He's so good in so many Ford films. The Long Voyage Home and The Quiet Man are Masterpieces with a capital M, not to mention The Searchers and 3 Godfathers and Liberty Valance and Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache and on and on.

Agreed with this completely. I'm not sure there's another filmmaker that benefits more from increased familiarity than Ford (perhaps Godard). Every new film of his one sees helps contextualize the others, and his vision of the world becomes more fascinating and more beautiful with every new experience. He's just a towering filmmaker.

And while this may not be the correct thread for it, it's worth pointing out that Criterion has just announced they are releasing Stagecoach on DVD and Blu Ray. Among the extra features is Bucking Broadway, a Western he made in 1917 that Jonathan Rosenbaum included in his list of Ford's 10 most underrated pictures.

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Darren, that's a great answer. I admit to biting my tongue, so to speak, when I saw this thread. I appreciate the grappling with The Hurt Locker, Buckeye. It just never occurred to me to compare Bigelow's decent film to Ford's films, especially to his best films. I don't mean to idolize the past. It just never would've occurred to me to pit The Hurt Locker against a Ford classic.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I'm not sure there's another filmmaker that benefits more from increased familiarity than Ford (perhaps Godard)

No doubt, on both counts. For me, the breakthrough moment was watching Four Sons (1928), which Ford made for Fox at the same time Murnau and Borzage were there. Ford's silent films at that time are every bit as expressionistic as theirs. I've gotten in the habit of saying Ford never stopped making silent pictures. Watch The Quiet Man (1952) with the sound off and it's easy to draw a direct line through those 24 years and through all the changes in technology, budgets, and studio operations. At this point, I only have two minor gripes with Ford: his attempts at comic relief often fall flat with me, and I wish he'd tone down the non-diegetic music (although I can excuse the music as being another holdover from his silent days). Watching Mogambo (1953) this weekend confirmed that I'd probably like many of his late films even more if there were less music in them. It also confirmed that Clark Gable makes every film a little worse than it should be and Ava Gardner makes every film a whole lot better.

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I've gotten in the habit of saying Ford never stopped making silent pictures. Watch The Quiet Man (1952) with the sound off and it's easy to draw a direct line through those 24 years and through all the changes in technology, budgets, and studio operations.

Absolutely. I've heard stories of him going through scripts and simply crossing out huge chunks of dialogue because he could express the same things visually. My favorite example of this type of storytelling is probably the end of Young Mr. Lincoln -- after spending the first 99% of the movie trying to humanize Lincoln (showing him as "Not the Great Emancipator, just a jack-legged lawyer from Springfield, Illinois," as he told Henry Fonda), he then expresses the entire mythology of the man in a matter of seconds, as he scales the hill with a storm materializing on the horizon, and then steps off-screen to confront it.

At this point, I only have two minor gripes with Ford: his attempts at comic relief often fall flat with me, and I wish he'd tone down the non-diegetic music (although I can excuse the music as being another holdover from his silent days). Watching Mogambo (1953) this weekend confirmed that I'd probably like many of his late films even more if there were less music in them. It also confirmed that Clark Gable makes every film a little worse than it should be and Ava Gardner makes every film a whole lot better.

I've made peace with Ford's comical digressions. They're rarely funny, but they seem important in terms of his worldview. He said in an interview that he liked "to discover humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic". The film scholar and Ford biographer Joseph McBride has also made some strong arguments in favor of Ford's use of comedy (his book, Searching for John Ford, is where I got the Ford quote from, as a matter of fact).

I do agree with you about the obtrusiveness of the soundtracks to much of his work, but I'm not sure that Ford himself was responsible for this. I recall that he complained several times about how over-the-top the music was in some of his films (notably with The Searchers). And the preview cut of My Darling Clementine is much more low key musically than the finished cut (which he more or less disowned). And his lower budger pictures outside of the major studios generally seem to be more scaled back in this area as well (I'm thinking of films like The Sun Shines Bright and even Stagecoach). This leads me to believe that he may not have had a lot to do with the scoring of his pictures at the bigger studios.

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He said in an interview that he liked "to discover humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic".

That makes sense, but it's still the one area of his filmmaking where I constantly question his taste. (I wonder if he had a good sense of humor, personally?) I mean, why would anyone cut so abruptly from one of the greatest, most iconic shots in all of film history -- "Let's go home, Debbie" in The Searchers -- to a Ward Bond ass joke?

My favorite typical Ford comedic moment is Victor McLaglen beating the crap out of a bar-full of soldiers in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which could be cut directly into a Three Stooges movie. My favorite atypical Ford comedic scenes involve the rare foppish or effete men -- David Niven in Four Men and a Prayer (1938) and Alan Mowbray in My Darling Clementine (1946) and Wagon Master (1950), for example. There's a world-weariness in the fops that seems more at home in Ford's vision. Or, maybe they're more at home in mine. ;)

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I've made peace with Ford's comical digressions. They're rarely funny, but they seem important in terms of his worldview. He said in an interview that he liked "to discover humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic". The film scholar and Ford biographer Joseph McBride has also made some strong arguments in favor of Ford's use of comedy (his book, Searching for John Ford, is where I got the Ford quote from, as a matter of fact).

Agreed. But while it often falls flat, there's something charming about the comic patter that would often pop up between the Ford Stock Company. While some of the ham-handed jokes in The Quiet Man might make me groan, for instance, watching Ward Bond wink slyly or Victor McLaglen shuffle about makes me grin uncontrollably.

And I do agree with Ford's take on tragedy. Tragedy is real, but I've always found surreal moments of joy and humor in even the most tragic circumstances. Ford's always done a good job at making me realize this, unfunny jokes or not.

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Wow, I'm stunned. I've always been ambivalent about Ford and less than enthusiastic about Wayne unless he's getting beat up by a director he likes. Darren puts his finger on some of the distaste in the humor. I take humore extremely seriously and wish those not gifted would be shy about it. Nevertheless, what folks have been saying all day today gives me pause. I would like to reconsider. Clementine, The Searchers, and Cheyenne Autumn are really the ones I like almost exclusively.

Buckeye, I'm starting a Budd Boetticher thread right now. No comment on various films yet, just random thoughts at this point.

"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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Rich, do you have access to Netflix or a good rental service? If so, I'll share a strange recommendation I recently made to someone else: watch Four Sons, The Long Voyage Home, and The Quiet Man in that order. The last two feature John Wayne in very atypical roles, and the three of them illustrate beautifully what I think of as the "expressionist" streak through Ford's work. The Long Voyage Home was shot by Gregg Toland and is as stunning as anything he ever shot -- Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives, etc.

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That makes sense, but it's still the one area of his filmmaking where I constantly question his taste. (I wonder if he had a good sense of humor, personally?) I mean, why would anyone cut so abruptly from one of the greatest, most iconic shots in all of film history -- "Let's go home, Debbie" in The Searchers -- to a Ward Bond ass joke?

He often comes across as being hilarious in interviews, albeit in an old curmudgeon sort of way.

The moment from The Searchers you mention is one I almost referred to, since it's such an archetypal example of his kind of humor. As this is a thread about Fort Apache, here's an excerpt from McBride's book that is apropos to the discussion and is, I think, a strong defense of Ford's comedic indulgences:

"The ethnic humor in Ford's cavalry films serves a function much like that of the "low comedy" supplied by Falstaff and other foils to the heroes in Shakespeare's history plays. Ford uses broad physical and verbal comedy to parody the dramatic plot and puncture the pomposities of the leading characters, giving equal importance to the common man and the king. The Irish sergeants in FORT APACHE, particularly Victor McLaglen's Falstaffian Sergeant Mulcahy, mock the form of military rituals while giving Ford's military its true core of humanity, expressed with oblique wisdom and heartfelt emotion. As the malapropian Mulcahy puts it, they serve as 'the morals of decorum.'"

I've struggled with Ford's comic touches in the past, but I've warmed to them considerably. Part of this is an appreciation for the way he uses humor and how it fits into his vision, but I think some of it may also be my fondness for Ford's creative personality and his characters. The way he uses the same actors again and again creates a kind of familial environment in his pictures, and there's something warm and comfortable about his sense of humor once you're well-acquainted with that family. The sword-in-the-ass joke was disconcerting and distracting the first time I saw The Searchers, but now I can't picture the scene without that gag, silly as it may be. It's pure Ford.

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Rich, do you have access to Netflix or a good rental service? If so, I'll share a strange recommendation I recently made to someone else: watch Four Sons, The Long Voyage Home, and The Quiet Man in that order. The last two feature John Wayne in very atypical roles, and the three of them illustrate beautifully what I think of as the "expressionist" streak through Ford's work. The Long Voyage Home was shot by Gregg Toland and is as stunning as anything he ever shot -- Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives, etc.

I said I'd give him a try. You see, I really don't like The Quiet Man at all. I will try to do that though.

Edited by Rich Kennedy

"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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I've made peace with Ford's comical digressions. They're rarely funny, but they seem important in terms of his worldview. He said in an interview that he liked "to discover humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic". The film scholar and Ford biographer Joseph McBride has also made some strong arguments in favor of Ford's use of comedy (his book, Searching for John Ford, is where I got the Ford quote from, as a matter of fact).

Great conversation here guys.

I am still wrestling with Ford's comic taste, and while I haven't come to really revel in those moments, I have, as Titus articulates later in the thread, experienced a kind of comfort in those moments akin to being part of a family. I look forward to McLaglen coming into the picture, even if I'm not shaking with laughter. It's like I've come to an intellectual acceptance that the comedy is necessary to highlight the more dramatic or tragic elements, but I don't really feel the comedy yet.

I think too that many of those comic moments resemble what I imagine the beer brawling Ford to have been like in his personal life. I know it's a stereotype, but Ford lived it to a certain degree: the drunken Irishman who'd drop everything and go to fisticuffs at the slightest provocation; physically challenging the former football players Wayne and Ward Bond on set or over a game of cards. I also know that after films were completed, Ford would struggle with long periods of melancholy, and I wonder if some of those comic choices come as a kind of antidote to those feelings: one extreme in favor of another.

We've mentioned the McLaglen style comedy, as well as the fops, but one that has yet gone unmentioned is Will Rogers. I realize the guy was basically playing himself, but there's a kind of folksy humor to Rogers that seems to have grappled with the drudgery of the world and can still smile in spite of it. I dig that.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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