- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The first two installments of “John Ford,” a retrospective tribute programmed for November on Turner Classic Movies, are formulated as a John Ford-John Wayne matchup. The director and actor worked together on 14 features, beginning with “Stagecoach” in 1939 and concluding with “Donovan’s Reef” in 1963. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to add a 15th: Mr. Wayne’s production of “The Alamo,” which recruited Mr. Ford as resident mentor and occasional director.

Clearly, the collaboration proved frequent and mutually flattering after World War II, so any Ford series that neglects Mr. Wayne would be freakish, and vice versa. Although 10 of their pictures are being revived by TCM here, the omissions may strike admirers as bit odd. “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” regarded by most contemporary critics as definitive reunions, circa 1956 and 1962, respectively, are being skipped. I’m inclined to miss “Three Godfathers” more keenly, but it’s likely to reappear on the TCM holiday calendar, since there are few classic Westerns that also qualify as dandy Nativity allegories.

Seeing the second Ford-Wayne movie, “The Long Voyage Home,” exiled to a wake-up hour on Nov. 15 — the series resumes every Tuesday at 8 p.m. but tests the endurance of night owls by continuing into the wee hours of the following day — accentuates my nostalgia for “Godfathers.” Though separated by a decade and very different thematically and stylistically, the movies linked Mr. Wayne with Mildred Natwick in surprisingly compelling ways.

In “Voyage” she played the apprehensive tart who hates herself for luring the naive merchant sailor, Ole, into a potential abduction. In “Godfathers” she was the dying pioneer mother who entrusts her infant to Mr. Wayne and his fellow outlaws, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr., destined to redeem their lives by protecting the helpless orphan. One thinks of Maureen O’Hara as the pre-eminent leading lady for John Wayne, but Miss Natwick made some underrated contributions to his development.

Speaking of Maureen O’Hara, “The Quiet Man” is also one of the missing Ford-Wayne titles on this go-around. In fact, three of the movies that won Mr. Ford the Academy Award for best direction have been omitted: “The Grapes of Wrath,” “How Green Was My Valley” and “The Quiet Man.” That leaves only “The Informer,” his first Oscar-winner, in 1935, as an example of what his Hollywood peers esteemed the most. A little peculiar, especially when such mind-bogglers as “Donovan’s Reef” and “Seven Women” are being revived.

It’s not as if John Ford (1895-1973) lacked legitimate credits. An assistant to his older brother Francis starting in 1914, the younger Mr. Ford directed at least 60 movies that are still on the historical record between 1915 and his major breakthrough with “The Iron Horse,” a Western epic of 1925. Its success allowed him to escape from Westerns as a professional staple, and he seldom returned to the genre before “Stagecoach,” which also revived Westerns as prestigious, major studio projects.

By that time he had exchanged the name Jack Ford for John Ford and evolved into a distinctive specialist with Americana and the depiction of tight-knit but vulnerable social settings. He also had a flair for lingering pictorially over scenic prospects and hardy pioneers. Part of the enduring appeal of “Stagecoach” derives from the sensation that Monument Valley really is being discovered as a stunning movie landscape for the first time.

John Ford made this site his most familiar backdrop, of course, but even from the beginning he was so fond of it that cameras keep circling the principal landmarks throughout the movie. You have the impression that you might be traveling through two or three Monument Valleys before reaching the story’s terminus, Lordsburg, Ariz.

Mr. Ford also vamped up the frontier. “Stagecoach” is anything but an exercise in deadpan, earnest historical authenticity. It remains satisfying in large measure because the occupants of the title vehicle are so vividly contrasted and embodied. A Dickensian ensemble in some respects, they seem irresistibly picturesque and melodramatic.

They’re also paired off wittily: Mr. Wayne and Claire Trevor as the gallant outlaw Ringo and the tender-hearted prostitute Dallas; Thomas Mitchell as the boozing Doc Boone and Donald Meek as the whisky drummer whose sample case he covets; Louise Platt as the apprehensive, pregnant young military wife and John Carradine as the Southern gambler who volunteers as her protector; George O’Brien as the steadfast marshal and Andy Devine as the blabby stagecoach driver.

Only Berton Churchill as the thieving, arrogant bank president lacks a sidekick, but he’s bombastic enough for a multitude. Even the gunslinger who awaits Ringo in Lordsburg has a devoted consort rooting for his worthless hide.

A DVD edition of “The Long Voyage Home” recently appeared, and I recommend it highly. It’s one of the most beautifully composed and crafted Hollywood movies of the period. Mr. Ford’s decision to share credit with cinematographer Gregg Toland no doubt prompted Orson Welles to echo the gesture a year later in “Citizen Kane.”

In addition to its mastery of black-and-white lighting schemes, “Voyage Home” achieves an evocative combination of passages from Eugene O’Neill’s seafaring one-act plays and an updated frame of reference. The cargo ship Glencairn is transporting ammunition from the United States to wartime England in 1940. The pathos once associated with rootless merchant mariners acquires a haunting topical aspect although the movie seems to have fallen out of favor in recent decades, for no discernible reason. It’s one of the near-perfect cinematic fables of exile and camaraderie, two subjects that repeatedly brought out the best in John Ford.

SERIES: “John Ford”

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies channel

WHEN: Tuesdays in November, starting at 8 p.m.

SCHEDULE: Nov. 7: “Directed by John Ford,” “Stagecoach,” “They Were Expendable,” “The Wings of Eagles,” “How the West Was Won.” Nov. 14: “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Rio Grande,” “The Horse Soldiers,” “Donovan’s Reef,” “The Long Voyage Home.” Nov. 21: “The Hurricane,” “Directed by John Ford,” “Mogambo,” “The Lost Patrol,” “Wagon Master,” “Mary of Scotland,” “Seven Women,” “The Adventures of Marco Polo.” Nov. 28: “The Last Hurrah,” “Arrowsmith,” “The Informer,” “Flesh,” “Judge Priest.”

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