John Ford’s Heirs
A THEORY OF FILM AND EMPIRE
John Ford’s Heirs: Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and the Cycle of Empire
Asked which American directors most appeal to him, Orson Welles answered ‘… the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.’
— From Peter Bogdanovich’s book John Ford (University of California Press)
In [a] broad sense it can be said that all recent American cinema derives from John Ford’s The Searchers.
— Stuart Byron,“The Searchers: Cult Movie of the New Hollywood” (New York Magazine, March 5, 1979)
John Ford is one of the most powerful and influential directors of cinema’s first fifty years. Taken collectively, his body of work is overwhelming in its quality and scope. He directed 140 films; in one year, 1939, he made Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk. Considered individually, movies like The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath remain among the freshest and authentically original examples of good cinematic storytelling.
Why is Ford’s work so powerful? Why do his films endure? Does he have legitimate heirs among today’s directors?
George Orwell once posed a similar question about Rudyard Kipling. Why, he asked, is Kipling’s work so enduring while his better-reviewed contemporaries collect dust, unread and unloved in the decades after their deaths? The answer, Orwell suggested, was “a literary vitamin.” In his essay “Good Bad Books,” he writes:
Enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured into Wyndham Lewis’s so-called novels, such as Tarr or Snooty Baronet. Yet it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through. Some indefinable quality, a sort of literary vitamin, which exists even in a book like If Winter Comes, is absent from them.
And yet, writes Orwell, Rudyard Kipling’s work does have this vitamin:
During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.
(Orwell’s 1942 essay “Rudyard Kipling”)
Do John Ford’s films have a “literary vitamin”? Why are Ford’s films “still there” and still so effective? In this article, I suggest something similar (although I have conflated it) to Orwell’s vitamin. John Ford’s work is so enduring, I contend, because of his Ford’s willingness to directly examine the dominant development of our times – man’s place in modern empire. Like Herman Melville and Orwell himself, Ford is drawn to the specific machineries of empire’s rise and fall (in Orwell’s case, the British Empire; for Melville and Ford, the American). While it is a small element in a large set of works, it is Ford’s willingness to depict us all as players in the processes and cycle of empire which provides that thrum of vigor to his work.
Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford — these four contemporary directors, so different from Ford and from one another in style and subject matter, can be seen to be united in their consistent return to the dynamics of nation and empire. Are they Ford’s legitimate heirs? Together, their films represent a sort of colossal and unwieldy timeline, points on the arc of empire’s rise and fall.
John Ford’s Heirs
Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and the Cycle of Empire
By Tom Durwood
Edward Said, the father of empire studies, states that all literature is political. Whether it is an anecdote you are telling at the family table, an epic poem, an adventure novel, or a romantic comedy – there is a political subtext to the story. The storyteller wants his or her audience to accept certain truisms, and usually to influence a reader’s values by story’s end. Jane Austen, for example, includes no scenes of colonial war, no overtly imperial or counter-imperial speeches in her novel Sense and Sensibility, yet the story is rich with imperial imagery — Sense and Sensibility not only accepts the tenets of empire among the tea-drinking landed gentry but blithely builds its story on empire’s foundations. A novel like Poldark does not, instead choosing to examine and question those foundations. In a third example, we might look at a comedy like It’s a Mad, Mad World and see beneath its zany surface a clear pattern of class representation and the dynamics of empire.
Films and the Depiction of Empire
The empire theory of film that I will use to break down these directors’ works is simple. It has three parts:
a) Each work of literature (novel, short story, film) falls into one of the four categories of empire: seeds, rising, high, and mature or falling.
b) a work’s enduring value derives from it willingness to honestly depict the everyday life and inner workings of empire.
c) works cluster around two perspectives within the quadrants: folk and imperial. I.M. Pei is an imperial architect; Sam Mockbee is a folk architect. F. Scott Fitzgerald leans toward imperial narratives, while Sherman Alexie tends toward a folk or counter-imperial narrative.
By “empire” I simply mean a nation with influence beyond its own borders – a nation which exerts some measure of control over others.
Seeds of Empire (two cultures meet on equal terms)
Quest for Fire
The New World
ET: The Extraterrestial
The Sleeping Dictionary
The Gods Must Be Crazy
Dances With Wolves
Rising Empire (the building blocks of empire; one culture begins to dominate)
Mutiny on the Bounty
Last of the Mohicans
High Empire (the Dominant Culture Earns, Manages, Defends and Retains Empire and Celebrates Its Spoils)
Father of the Bride, Parts I and II
Busby Berkley musicals
Saving Private Ryan and all WWII movies
Bringing Up Baby and many early romantic comedies
Mature or Falling Empire (Moral and internal decay threaten a complacent empire)
Chinatown and all film noir
Alien and most horror movies
Blade Runner and most science fiction
Apocalypse Now and almost all Vietnam movies
Pretty Woman and many contemporary romantic comedies
Films like David Lean’s magnificent Lawrence of Arabia (1964) and Richard Attenborough’s grand Gandhi (1982) clearly score sky-high on the empire meter. Yet so does a film like Gurinder Chadha’s deceptively powerful comedy Bend it Like Beckham (2002). Where Attenborough delivers what is more or less an official or imperial version of how the martyr Gandhi broke Britain’s chokehold in India, Chadha’s story is told from very much a folk perspective – a modern fallen empire seen through the eyes of a working-class, ethnic-minority (that is, the defeated culture looking to assimilate) teenaged girl looking to advance herself within the imperial ranks.
John Ford was drawn to stories on the rising arc of America’s national narrative. He was fascinated by different American generations and themes of sacrifice for the common good. So detailed is his interest in the building of America, Ford made films like The Iron Horse and Drums Along the Mohawk that are close to fictionalized history lessons. Back to back, his films cover almost every decade of American history, and the attendant imperial themes. He has no interest whatsoever in Quadrant Four, Mature or Falling Empire.
Immigration and migration, class conflict, commerce, building the railroads, shooting wars and ethnic wars, the social costs of America’s westward expansion — looking back at how we got here, John Ford wants to show us what the true dynamics were, and remind us of the true costs. Ford sometimes prefers the overlooked stories in empire’s rise. Compared to Spielberg’s Lincoln film, Ford’s Young Lincoln is almost a trick play – ignoring Lincoln’s later accomplishments, Ford sets his focus on the early years and the busted romance with Ann Rutledge. As in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Ford looks beneath the national narrative’s surface to pluck out the lesser-known stories. It is almost as if Spielberg is telling the imperial version, the oft-told version, of the full Abraham Lincoln narrative, while Ford prefers the lesser-known folk version.
Ford would feel right at home in the mythmaking machinery of Flags of Our Fathers.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote recently that “nothing is more corrosive … than the suspicion that the author doesn’t grasp the full picture.” John Ford grasps the full picture. The details of how things work in the world — these are, I suggest, very powerful influencers in winning over a cynical modern audience. An otherwise admirable film like The Dark Knight (to take a random example) can be rendered silly by the absence of a logical framework. Does the director really think that city government works that way? Conversely, a comedy like Ford’s Mister Roberts derives part of its narrative strength from how well the filmmaker understands and depicts life aboard a supply ship. Details matter. Details really matter.
Redford knows how things work; Eastwood and Scott also do, more times than not; Spielberg somewhat less so. He can seem naive in comparison to Ford, more concerned with the show of it all than in how the machinery beneath the surface moves. His more mature films like Munich and Saving Private Ryan and certainly Bridge of Spies contradict this generalization.
Old World / New World is a robust recurring theme in empire literature. The Godfather, El Norte, The Jazz Singer, Scarface, The Emigrants, Hester Street, Gangs of New York, The Joy Luck Club, early horror films like The Werewolf and The Mummy, Shanghai Noon, Eastwood’s solid Gran Torino, even The Great Gatsby —all deal with basic themes of ethnic assimilation, and the losses and gains of Americanization (the cost of joining the empire). Cartoons like Kung Fu Panda and monster movies like King Kong derive some of their narrative effect from the juxtaposition between Old World and New World. In The Quiet Man, Ford gives us a reverse twist, as the American hero returns to the old country to reset his moral compass.
Closely related to Old World / New World theme is the imperial motif in which past sin or past voodoo threatens modern empire. This usually comes in the form of an old-world artifact (the Maltese Falcon, a treasure map, the Ring of Mordor, the Ark of the Covenant, the Navaho burial insignia) by which the old world threatens the modern order. This motif is rife in Spielberg’s work (Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and absent from the other three filmmakers.
In Ford’s universe, the questions posed by empire often come with very tough answers. The Searchers is, of course, exhibit number one. Ethan Edwards of The Searchers is a typical Ford hero: he has defended the empire, only to return home to find its true cost, namely the lives of his family, and the honor (and “honor” is not a strong enough word) of his young niece, played by Natalie Wood. He is wholly willing to sacrifice himself in order correct the imbalance – to keep society’s equilibrium while advancing empire. Ford’s essential question might be seen as this: “How did we get here?” In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for example, he wants us to all be clear that today’s civilized society is a product of the rough back-shooter (almost) Tom Doniphon as much as it the high-minded attorney Ranse Stoddard. In the micro-society of Stagecoach, the hero again defends society on the borderlands from outward barbarians (this time the Apache), inner lawlessness (the bandit Plummer brothers), injustice (Ringo’s own false arrest) and moral decay (the greed of the no-conscience banker Gatewood), and finally class conflict (restoring dignity to the working girl, Dallas). John Ford wants to redraw those lines, to re-tell the story of what made America great in the first place. Few films score higher in empire content than these three westerns.
“Nothing is more corrosive … than the suspicion that the author doesn’t grasp the full picture.” John Ford grasps the full picture.
A closely-related Ford theme, I think, is “What was the true cost of the progress? Who sacrificed?” In Liberty Valance, the true-hearted Doniphon is history’s forgotten man, the individual who sacrificed for the empire to take shape. Similar sacrifice scenarios occur in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (not Alien, however), Eastwood’s Gran Torino, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and Redford himself in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Redford’s heroes, like Eastwood’s, more often than not survive the final battle.
Spielberg’s natural instincts lie in Quadrants Three and Four – High and Mature empire. His masterpieces, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, are bulls-eye stories in the center of clash of cultures (High Empire). His protagonists share a cluster of common elements: Sheriff Brody in Jaws, Lou Jean Sparrow in Sugerland Express, Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind — these are all flawed protagonists on the edge of empire, facing a threat to the imperial structure (a family, the law-abiding town of Amity, Planet Earth). None of them helped originate or build an empire – they protect it.
The teenager lurking within Spielberg takes genuine glee in Twilight-Zone themed films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Minority Report, AI, all Fourth Quadrant scenarios, where we are squandering empire and will soon lose it; moral decay is destroying the empire and another empire (dinosaurs, aliens) will rise in our place. Poltergeist is a variation on this same theme.
His trio of Quadrant Two movies (Lincoln, Amistad, The Color Purple) are handsome and well-intended but seem a little like homework assignments when compared to his best work. These align well with Ford but may count for less, somehow.
The spectacular Jurassic Park is yet another cautionary Quadrant Four tale – the human race has blown it, and the planet’s original inahbitants will now take it back, thank you. John O’Neill, in his excellent Monster Theory article, points out that Jurassic Park has deep questions about the American family unit (as do so many of Spielberg’s stories – ET: The Extra-Terrestial, the Raiders of the Lost Ark films, Minority Report – in which one parent is absent).
In style, early Spielberg is far from Ford, with lots of camera motion, complex compositions exploding with colors, and fast-paced spectacular scenarios. Saving Private Ryan and later films like Munich and Catch Me If You Can show more of a Ford-like simplicity, slower pace, and restraint in style, I think.
Eastwood is a natural heir to John Ford in two ways: his love of Western subjects and settings; and his easy, unobtrusive directorial style. Ford would feel right at home in the mythmaking machinery of Flags of Our Fathers, as well as the Other-as-Human Letters From Iwo Jima (we might compare this to Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn in terms of depicting the alternate side of history). Thematically, however, Eastwood does not seem to share in Ford’s almost deliberate, decade-by decade scrutiny of how American was built.
I am not smart enough to detect a pattern among really superb films like A Perfect World, Billy Bronco, Million Dollar Baby, and American Sniper. They are mostly Quadrant Two and Three scenarios, but that does not say much. Eastwood certainly shares Ford’s theme of sacrifice in Gran Torino, yet all of Eastwood’s earlier heroes survive and ride away to fight again. There is no real sacrifice. Like Liberty Valance, Eastwood’s Bronco Billy examines the making of a story a nation likes to tell, whether it is true or not. Eastwood is perhaps closest to Ford in both his don’t-notice-me cinematic style and his relaxed, one-take directorial method. Like Ford, Eastwood does not often feature women as full characters or protagonists (Bridges of Madison County being an exception).
Americans have an ambivalent attitude towards the notion of an American empire, as historian Niall Ferguson has so famously pointed out. We don’t talk about empire, much less study it. Britons, on the other hand, are very conscious of their lost empire, which may (or may not) explain Ridley Scott’s place at the top of the empire meter in this grouping. This is a filmmaker who is repeatedly attracted to imperial scenarios and to examining the component of empire’s rise and fall; films like Exodus, Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Robin Hood and 1492: Conquest of Paradise try to tell an expansive and inclusive story of empire at a turning point.
Scott’s love of empire’s inner workings is in some portion responsible for Gladiator’s exceptional staying power (in my opinion). Like most of Ford’s heroes, Maximus single-handedly defends Rome from external threat (Germanic barbarians) and now must cure it of the inner rot (personified in Joaquin Pheoenix as Commodus) in order to prevent its fall. Not surprisingly, it costs him his family. As in many Ridley Scott films, we get a clear and detailed look at the lives of the imperial workers – soldiers, gladiators, space miners, mutant bounty hunters — while the politicians (in Alien it is the corporate officer) embody weakness and corruption. Robin Hood is a somewhat clumsier version of this same theme. In each, a trinket from one world serves to call the hero onward, stuck as he is in the world of shadows.
Scott’s essential question, to me, is “Isn’t this wicked?” He takes authentic delight in the details of imperial processes, from the class warfare and design particulars of the future in Blade Runner to the Senate’s control of the military in G.I. Jane to the breakdown in logistics that caused the combat failure of Black Hawk Down. Would Alien have been half as scary had all the specifics of deep-space mining not been so meticulously presented? Black Hawk Down is no run-of-the-mill war film – its high-definition attention to the detail of military procedures lends the story weight. None of this amassing of detail is casual – in Alien, Scott and his collaborators have clearly given a good deal of thought as to how working deep-space miners sleep and wake up, what they eat, and a sort of sensual pleasure in the architecture, textures and patterns of their surroundings. Both Scott’s slow pacing and his aversion to excess dialogue are Ford-like.
Ridley Scott … is a filmmaker who is repeatedly attracted to imperial scenarios.
Spielberg and Scott are assembling cinematic machines, where the acting goes here and the green screen goes here and the digital bird flock goes here – a very different kind of directing, it seems to me, than Ford’s. Ford had a much simpler set of cinematic pieces to assemble. I have never directed a movie, so I could be way off.
Redford is a filmmaker who, if he had done more directing, would certainly qualify for an Honorable Mention in Empire. He gravitates over and over to several of Ford’s imperial themes – one being mythmaking (in this case, the difference between public image and private reality) in films like Electric Cowboy, The Candidate and Downhill Racer, and a second being the central role geography plays in empire (the visionary Jeremiah Johnson, again Electric Cowboy, certainly A River Runs Through It).
All the President’s Men is a powerful cautionary tale delving deep into the inner workings of a government and the press that keeps it honest — keeping the right balance in High Empire. In The Candidate he examines the machinery of electing leaders, a central theme in any empire and one that Ford touched on. The Milagro Beanfield War and Havana look squarely at the consequences of colonialism. In The Conspirators Redford joins the crowd with his own angle on Abraham Lincoln. As if we needed it, the masterful Quiz Show pushes Redford squarely into the empire Hall of Fame — this smart, cynical, ultra-specific look at the mechanics of our hero-making process will always look original.
Redford’s question might be this: “Do you actually understand this?” In Jeremiah Johnson, a rare Quadrant One film, he is not so much arguing for or against colonization of the wilderness, but telling the story of a man in the shrinking space between warring empires. He just wants us to know how difficult and rewarding that man’s life was; a film like A Man Called Horse is essentially different because it wants us to take sides.
Redford did not direct many of these films, so I am unsure he can be included. Does producing count? Does his real-life initiative in building the entire town of Sundance, Utah count? Does his considerable influence as the founder of the Sundance independent film festival count?
Depiction of The Other
One hallmark of empire literature is its depiction of The Other, that character which opposes the imperial protagonist – whether that is a woman, a pretty woman, a Comanche warrior, a Comanche woman, foreigners, bankers, businessmen, an alien race, or politicians.
A protagonist has a childhood, reasons, an inner life, parents, doubts and decisions, shades of gray – the Other has none of these. The cardboard cut-out Other only exists to oppose and then be defeated by the hero. In my cloistered empire-theory construct, an Otherized or two-dimensional villain automatically marks a film down to second-class status.
In this aspect of storytelling, Edward Said might well give each of these four filmmakers mixed reviews. While Ford might earn praise for showing full-rounded Native American tribes and individuals in Cheyenne Autumn and even The Searchers, he would get low marks for his depiction of women in, for example, The Quiet Man (Maureen O’Hara is a prize to be won, a powerless “spitfire” parody).
Quiz Show pushes Redford squarely into the empire Hall of Fame
Spielberg genuinely seems to enjoy his “otherizing” in the Indiana Jones movies, yet he is capable of a canny depiction of Nazi as Other in the remarkable Schindler’s List. Once again, his later films seem to take a deliberate turn into attitudes and depictions that he knows he should represent. Clint Eastwood’s treatment of the Japanese foe in his admirable Letters from Iwo Jima is the opposite of Otherizing – these characters are fully realized, as brave, as conflicted, and as flawed as any protagonist.
Working Class versus Ruling Class
Ford prefers telling stories through the eyes of the working class; perhaps that is why he was attracted to Abraham Lincoln as rising attorney, rather than Lincoln as ruler. Ford’s Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley are perhaps the purest statements of his class affiliation. Mary of Scotland either disproves me or serves as a joyless outlier which proves the rule. Ridley Scott, in Gladiator, prefers the ruling class, although his all-seeing third person narration shares time with the working-class gladiators as they complete their training and graduate to the Coliseum. In Alien and Blade Runner, the corporate class is portrayed as all-evil.
Eastwood has no taste for the ruling class. Higher officials in his films are almost always corrupt, and not worthy of their own perspective in the Eastwood morality play.
Redford sees things naturally through the eyes of the ruling class – the presidential candidate, the champion downhill racer, the moody millionaire in Indecent Proposal, misunderstood Jay Gatsby, the lonely-at-the-top singer in Electric Cowboy. The teen protagonist of Ordinary People is the disaffected outlier in a high-empire family, like the upper-class ex-patriot hunter in Out of Africa, and as Jeremiah Johnson might have been before turning wilderness loner.
In the end, this consideration of empire in film proves nothing; it is just a slightly new angle from which to appreciate these wonderful works. Yet by following the quadrants, we can begin to see how certain directors want to reach instinctively down into the gears and pistons that drive empire in order to tell their most meaningful stories.
Other directors of interest in this regard are David Lean, Sergei Eisenstein, and Frank Capra.
This flawed model of empire and film may bear further development than this initial sketch, specifically to include the work of international directors, about whom I know little. I will ask my students to help me expand this study of empire and film. I will return with the results.
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