“It’s no use asking me to talk about art” – John Ford. “Oh, yes. He was a great bullshitter” – Henry Fonda.
Clearly John Ford would not have been at home doing two days of group interviews about his latest film at Cannes. Nor was he much at home doing interviews of any sort, especially with critics. He once accorded me a session at Venice, bawling out from the lavatory by way of introduction: “Come on in. I can deal with two shits at once”. As Lindsay Anderson once wrote: “I more or less reconciled myself that admiration was better from afar”. But, whatever he said, artist he was, and a great cinematic poet too, working at a time when his fond investigation of the American past had to connect with both the considerable constraints of Hollywood and the immediate hopes and fears of American society.
It would be completely wrong to think that he was working in isolation from his times. Almost all his films were edited by others, which is why he always tried to shoot a minimum of footage to give his cutter as little opportunity as possible.
A number of his films would easily qualify for inclusion among the 100 best – three from 1939 alone – in Stagecoach, the first film he shot with John Wayne in Monument Valley (which afterwards came to be known as Ford country), The Young Mr Lincoln, his first with Henry Fonda, and Drums Along the Mohawk.
Fonda, like Wayne, was central to Ford’s art, but whereas Wayne was the perfect expression of Ford’s love of tradition and an often nostalgic and idealised past, Fonda lent his films the idea that there could be an optimistic future too.
Young Mr Lincoln was about the early life of Abraham Lincoln, his love for Ann Rutledge, which ended tragically, his decision to become a lawyer and his first trial, in which he successfully defended two brothers on a murder charge. The film is based upon the fact that everyone who watched it knew who Lincoln was and was designed to show that, even as a young man, there was greatness in him. It was rather literally called Towards His Destiny in France.
A simple plan, perhaps, and not without a measure of sentimental piety. But this is still a deeply moving film, with certain sequences which express all, or at least most, of Ford’s essential, and often contradictory, philosophy. One of them is when Lincoln first visits Ann’s grave in late winter as the ice breaks up on the river. Talking to her about his future, he decides to hold up a stick and let it drop. If it falls towards him, he will stay where he is in the country. If it falls away from him towards Ann’s body, he’ll go to town and practise law. It falls towards her but we guess he helped it along anyway.
The scene, gentle and done with great economy, so that it doesn’t seem hopelessly simplistic, expresses a lot about Ford: it was his way of saying that to honour the dead properly you have to fulfil the aspiratons they had for you. Time and again the film is organised around such crucial Fordian values. But it very seldom seems self-conscious. The wider resonances are effectively underlined by film-making that never takes its eyes off the story it is telling.
Fonda’s performance was once considered the sole reason for the film’s success, and it is extraordinarily subtle even as it looks direct and simple. But Young Mr Lincoln’s craftsmanship is what looks classic now, as does the potent quality of its myth-making, mixing with flawless skill the comedy of the Pie Judging and Tug of War contests in small-town America with the tension of Lincoln’s speech from the prison steps to the Springfield lynch mob.
“I may not know much about the law,” says Lincoln at the murder trial, “but I know what is right!” Thus the former store-keeper and hick lawyer becomes a man of destiny, another Fordian concept encapsulating the idea that there is a higher law that civilisation neglects to its peril and that has to do with family and community, and a shared struggle for survival