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by the Grace of Ford

The Iron Horse

If you've ever doubted the greatness of John Ford - and such heresy is actually conceivable, if you only know his spottier and more sentimental films - then you must see the American Cinematheque's "Ford at Fox" series (timed to coincide with the release of the same-named 21-disc DVD box set), for here is the work of the master in his prime. The films Ford directed for Darryl Zanuck, then head of 20th Century Fox, constitute some of the greatest in American film history. Perhaps this is because both men were passionate about history itself. In collaboration with several superb writers, particularly Lamar Trotti and Nunnally Johnson, they created a string of films which, taken together, constitute a mythic portrait of an America haunted by the Civil War in its push west. The Iron Horse (1924), the silent epic that raises the curtain on this series, starts while the war is merely imminent - Abraham Lincoln (Judge Charles Edward Bull) enters the picture as a long-faced local lawyer whose political ambitions center on helping the cause of a transcontinental railroad. Lincoln, his presidency, the war and his assassination are treated as "background," while fictional characters head west amid land rushes and other adventures, yet his constant presence in the story adds a welcome layer of perspective. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), seen side by side on a double bill with Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), gives us both Lincoln the man and Lincoln the ghost. In the first, as played by Henry Fonda, he's an attorney fighting to save two men from the gallows. It's a fictional case but an accurate rendering of what we know Lincoln to have been, by all accounts, in his late 20s - a gentle, self-mocking stoic blessed with an iron integrity and suffering a large sense of destiny he can only dimly apprehend, much less articulate. The strange atmosphere of clairvoyance surrounding this Lincoln is essential to the film's power: Sergei Eisenstein once spoke of the character's "walk into lightning" at the climax as a minute of cinema he would trade his whole body of work to have made. It is certainly of a piece with the poetry at the start of Shark Island, in which the image of Lincoln slumped in his chair after he has been killed by John Wilkes Booth is movingly balanced by a rhyming shot of the gentle, honorable physician Samuel Mudd, asleep in his chair when a hobbled Booth bangs at his door well after midnight. John Carradine plays the sadistic sergeant who makes Mudd's life hell after he is unjustly given a life sentence for his "crime" of tending Booth's wound. Carradine later appears as the eye-patched rogue stirring up trouble in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939, a disciplined, painterly specimen of early Technicolor), and still later as the Christlike holy man stirring up liberty and union in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), a rare instance of a contemporary period piece which commemorates its time as purely as any "historic" drama. Carradine's axelike face and theatrical genius, so adept at both villainy and virtue, offer a one-man spectacle of continuity and versatility comparable to Ford's own as a visual storyteller. Seeing these films in a group - on the big screen, as the gods of cinema intended - one doesn't just encounter a body of work, one enters a spiritual territory. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre; Thurs.-Sun., Feb. 7-10. www.americancinematheque.com)-F.X. Feeney


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