By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Film critic Andrew Sarris once called John Ford “the American cinema’s Field Marshal in charge . . . of last stands,” but Ford was also the grand master of last shots. From very early on in his 50-year (1917–1966) career as a director, Ford was concluding his films with evocative shots of the loner, renouncing his own happiness to somehow promote the general welfare, riding over the horizon. By midcentury, Ford was fusing this goodbye ride with a kind of curtain call of the movie’s main characters; the final shot of The Searchers, in which John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards walks away from the family he’s spent the past five years trying to reassemble, is certainly one of the most enduring images in all cinema.
But the most distinctively Fordian final shots, I think, come from two later films: Donovan’s Reef and The Last Hurrah. The first shows a parade of the film’s leading characters back to the main character’s home, in a comic tableau of racial and cultural reconciliation; the second shows a parade of political bosses, ward heelers and gofers trudging up a staircase to pay their last respects to their leader, the mayor, who has just succumbed after one of the great deathbed scenes in American pictures. The mood here is utterly elegiac; the pols are eclipsed by their own shadows as they march off into political irrelevance.
What’s most remarkable about these two shots, though, is that the characters pass by, so to speak, in order. The serious characters in the storyline, and in the protagonist’s estimation, go first; then the characters who matter in a more purely instrumental way; and bringing up the rear, the character who’s the buffoon, whom the protagonist, and Ford, have kept around solely for their own amusement. And part of the pleasure in seeing these shots as they unfold is in realizing that the order of these characters is dramatically and socially right; that Ford has created an articulated social order that he can encapsulate, and memorialize, in a single parting shot.
Articulated social orders aren’t really a staple of American narrative art, whether in film, theater or novels; America has always been too fluid and individualistic. Ford’s affinity for a military setting — I count 24 Ford talkies that are set entirely or substantially in military or paramilitary (the Irish Republican Army) orders — stems partly from his ambition to be national epic poet, partly from his veneration of tradition, partly from his aversion to boy-gets-girl storylines. But it is surely also a function of his comfort level with a social order in which everyone has a rank — a clear, demarcated place. This same vision structures his films — including The Last Hurrah and Donovan’s Reef — with civilian settings, too.
For that matter, it structured his life. Ford developed a stock company of players he used repeatedly. The same supporting actors appeared in the same supporting parts in picture after picture; the same stuntmen and grips worked on one Ford set after another, as if they’d enlisted in Ford’s army with a specific, unchanging rank. And to a mind-boggling degree, he re-created the fixed social order of his movies off the set, in his private life between pictures. The shooting done, he’d repair to his yacht, The Araner, with drinking buddies from the sets of his pictures. Ford may have turned John Wayne into a national icon, and Ward Bond may have played a succession of avuncular authority figures in Ford’s films, but to Ford, they were oversize buffoons he kept around for his own private amusement. No one in his regular entourage was remotely his peer; his friendships with his fellow leading directors, or his most talented screenwriters, or the military leaders he came to know during World War II, were all at arm’s length. He’d relax, on the set and off, with his stooges.
The position Ford created for himself, atop this hierarchy, was exceptional even for a major director. In his foreword to Frank Capra’s autobiography, Ford called a movie set “a democratic little monarchy,” under the rule of the director, but there was nothing remotely democratic about Ford’s own sets, and precious little that was benevolent about its reigning despot. In a Ford film, what matters is the greater good of the community, the nation — causes to which individuals may have to be sacrificed. On a Ford set, what mattered was the film, and the tales of abuse that Ford heaped on his actors to get what he wanted on film are legion. “God, he was an evil bastard,” one member of Ford’s stock company recalls. “[But] when you’re working with a genius, you put up with a lot.” By all accounts, Ford meted out the harshest treatment to producers who came onto the set to tell him he was behind schedule or that there was something in the rushes they didn’t understand. No one who affronted Ford’s authority — and few among those who’d never dream of affronting his authority — escaped unharmed.