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John Ford poses with one of his Oscars. Wiki­media Commons | Courtesy

American film his­torian and writer Joseph McBride believes film­maker and Oscar-winning director John Ford can be summed up in a line from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”: “Do I con­tradict myself? Very well, then I con­tradict myself, I am large, I contain mul­ti­tudes.”

“That’s John Ford,” McBride posits.

Ford and his westerns are the subject of the fourth CCA for the 2019 – 2020 school year at Hillsdale College. A film CCA, attendees watch one of Ford’s films before each lecture. Classic westerns such as “Stage­coach,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Searchers,” and “My Darling Clementine,” were shown on the big screen in Plaster Audi­torium Sunday through Wednesday. 

McBride, who also wrote a biog­raphy on Ford titled “Searching for John Ford,” talked about Ford as a man of con­tra­dic­tions. 

“You can’t rec­oncile his con­tra­dic­tions, they just exist,” McBride said. As an example of this, McBride brought up Ford’s political con­tra­dic­tions. At one point he described himself as a socialist democrat, at other times, a Maine Repub­lican. 

American director and film his­torian Peter Bog­danovich, in his lecture on Ford Monday night said “Ford did not give political state­ments. He used to say, ‘I’m apo­litical,” thereby proving Ford’s com­plexity.

Ford came from an Irish family in Maine who spoke Gaelic. This expe­rience as an immi­grant minority influ­enced much of his work, as Ford treated minorities sym­pa­thet­i­cally in his films. 

Paul Cantor, an English pro­fessor at the Uni­versity of Vir­ginia who char­ac­terized Ford as “America’s Shake­speare” in a lecture on Tuesday, brought attention to how Ford showed both sides of a story in his films.

In “The Searchers,” for example, Ford’s heroes are the white set­tlers of Texas post-Civil War. Ford shows a settler family mas­sacred by a roaming Comanche tribe. But later on in the film, the U.S. calvary murder and pillage a peaceful Indian village.

This showing of both sides, Cantor asserted, is why Ford is like Shake­speare, for this was a tech­nique Shake­speare uti­lized in his plays. 

Ford’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions as an artist were family, land, com­munity, and patri­otism, themes pre­dom­inant in his westerns, according to McBride. 

“Ford was an ide­alist who dwelt on the destruction of his ideals,” McBride said. “The history of the Western is the history of the loss of faith in America. Ford always looked back to an imag­inary past and its glory.”  

Ford’s com­plexity as a person and his outlook on life bled through to his char­acters, who were also con­tra­dictory, “the noble outlaw,” many times played by John Wayne, being one of them. 

Assistant Pro­fessor of Spanish Todd Mack who attended the lec­tures and will appear in a faculty round table for the CCA on Thursday said that stu­dents should take advantage of watching Ford’s films on the big screen.

“Every great film­maker after John Ford is influ­enced by John Ford, in the United States and abroad,” Mack said. “Even people who think that they’re not influ­enced by John Ford, are influ­enced by John Ford. So you’ll have lots of modern people in Hol­lywood, they’ll say, like Kurosawa, who’s a great Japanese director: ‘Oh, Kurosawa’s films are amazing. He’s the father of the modern action film.’ But you know who Kurosawa’s favorite director was? John Ford. There’s no getting around him. And every great thing that you could say about Spielberg or Orson Welles or Kurosawa, or any of these other — George Lucas was hugely influ­enced by him. There’s no getting around him. He is a giant.”

Sophomore Alaura Gage said Ford’s westerns are much more sophis­ti­cated than she thought they would be. 

“It’s taught me a lot more about what it means to be an American, like how Amer­icans have been rep­re­sented in film,” Gage said. “I’ve always seen car­i­ca­tures of the West in popular culture, but I’ve never seen it up close and per­sonal. I’ve never seen it firsthand. The char­acters in the films are trying to rec­oncile all these ideas of, ‘How does one tame the West and what’s at stake?’ And I think these problems that they’re facing in these films are still problems that we face today, like rela­tions with Native Amer­icans and other minorities and how we treat them­­ — even gender rela­tions are still very com­pli­cated in these films, but they’re also com­pli­cated today as well. So I think Ford’s westerns can still con­tribute to an ongoing con­ver­sation about what America stands for.”