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From the Wire: Defending John Ford

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by Matt Singer
May 3, 2013 4:52 PM
8 Comments
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"The Searchers."
"The Searchers."

Quentin Tarantino is a great filmmaker, but he's arguably an even better self-promoter. Few directors are more skilled at stirring up controversy (and attention) with a few simple sentences. On the interview circuit for "Django Unchained," Tarantino garnered headlines by announcing a possible retirement, calling "Death Proof" his worst film, and arguing with a journalist about violence in movies. He also raised quite a few eyebrows with a very provocative quote about the films of director John Ford. Speaking with The Root's Henry Louis Gates Jr., Tarantino said: 

"One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else's humanity -- and the idea that that's hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the '30s and '40s -- it's still there. And even in the '50s."

Now several month's later, Film Comment's Kent Jones has written a belated but very effective response entitled "Intolerance: On Westerns in General, and John Ford in Particular, the Non-Malleable Nature of the Past, and Why Quentin Tarantino Shouldn't Teach Film History." Jones doesn't have a beef with Tarantino the artist (he calls parts of "Django" and "Inglourious Basterds" "brilliant") but as his subtitle suggests, he's not a huge fan of Tarantino the art historian. Examining the role of Native Americans in Ford's filmography he questions QT's generalization that the legendary director of "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers" treated minorities like "zombies" without humanity, and questions whether it's appropriate for modern audiences to look back at old movies with such a haughty air of moral superiority:

"Ford wasn’t a great artist in spite of the contradictory imperatives of his films but because of them. His films don’t live apart from the shifts in American culture and the demands of the film industry, but in dialogue with them. Do those films provide the models of racial enlightenment that we expect today? Of course they don’t. On the other hand, they are far more nuanced and sophisticated in this regard than the streamlined commentaries that one reads about them, behaviorally, historically, and cinematically speaking, and the seeds of Ulzana’s 'Raid' and 'Dead Man' are already growing in 'Fort Apache' and 'The Searchers.' Is Ford’s vision 'paternalistic?' I suppose it is (and that includes 'The Sun Shines Bright' and 'Sergeant Rutledge'), but the culture was paternalistic, and holding an artist working in a popular form to the standards of an activist or a statesman and condemning him for failing to escape the boundaries of his own moment is a fool’s game. Maybe it’s time to stop searching for moral perfection in artists."

If you read just one article before you head home for the weekend, it should be this one (assuming you've already read everything else I've published today, which I think goes without saying).

Read more of "Intolerance."

8 Comments

  • Steve | June 30, 2013 8:14 AMReply

    "Anglo Saxon humanity" keeping in mind that John Ford having come from an Irish Catholic family.... What about that brilliant scene in Ford's "Fort Apache" where Cochise (who is portrayed as a highly honorable and cultured man) and his Apaches out-maneuver the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Colonel Thursday and wipe out his command as they try to charge and attack the Apache women and children? Or that famous scene in "The Searchers" in which Scar the Comanche states that all his sons were killed by white men. The degenerate cowboys that kill and scalp the Cheyenne men in "Cheyenne Autumn" when they came to buy a I don't think there was a film made before "The Searchers" where we saw Indian women and children running for their lives in the face of a troop of mounted white men charging and firing pistols.
    In Django Unchained there's a scene where Django emerges from a cloud of smoke and dust after a dynamite explosion. It's a clear reference to Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars where Clint Eastwood sets off some dynamite and emerges from the resulting dust and smoke for the final gunfight. Leone scholars have pointed out that this is a clear reference to JOHN FORD's My Darling Clementine when Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp emerges from a cloud of dust raised by a passing stagecoach to begin the Gunfight at the OK Corral. So yeah, the roots of Tarantino's stylistic choice can be traced back to a Ford film made in 1946. Quentin please do your homework more thoroughly.

  • Donella | May 6, 2013 9:08 PMReply

    "Is Ford’s vision 'paternalistic?' I suppose it is (and that includes 'The Sun Shines Bright' and 'Sergeant Rutledge'), but the culture was paternalistic..." This is not a defense of John Ford. It's a weak, mealy-mouthed, apologetic agreement of what Quentin Tarantino stated very clearly--that John Ford was an asshole who promoted the racist, denigrating imagery of Native Americans and other ethnic groups who lacked equality to Ford's access to exclusive film machinery and racist propaganda.

  • pol | May 4, 2013 11:28 PMReply

    That's the meat of his response? Tarantino is right but who are we to judge? They were all like that anyway, so we can't talk about it? Fuck John Ford... and I'm not reading the rest of the article.

    http://politicalfilm.wordpress.com/

  • alex | May 5, 2013 6:50 PM

    Who said any of that?

  • Braden | May 4, 2013 8:09 PMReply

    While I don't agree with Tarantino, it is always difficult to separate your own personal and political views when watching movie and judge a movie purely on how effective you think it is. At some point in my life I will watch "Birth of a Nation" and "Triumph of the Will." Will I acknowledge that these films have serious ethical and moral issues, yes, but I will do my best to judge the films on their own terms. I think Tarantino needs to keep that in mind the next time he watches a John Ford movie.

  • LeonRaymond | May 4, 2013 12:47 AMReply

    Sorry QT is on the money and it's easy for you to continue to uphold the white view of a very racist director but sorry he had hundreds and hundreds of Native America and Americans killed in his films. it's easy to say "Oh yeah he really didn't have a view different from the view of 90% of early white Americans at that time. But he had many of opportunity to change the texture of what was truly wrong in cinematic terms. I can't make a film and have Millions of a cultured Nation killed but then come forward and say well I really don't feel that way about them, Yeah his films speak a much different tone one after another after another!

  • d | May 4, 2013 1:04 AM

    Is this English? Did you read the article at all?

  • Chris L. | May 3, 2013 11:36 PMReply

    Jones is indeed a titan among modern film writers. Wasn't he preparing to make a movie of his own recently? Wish we had more info on how that's progressing and what it's about.

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