Ford was always the admiral. He was the admiral on the set ... and everybody else was just sort of an enlisted seaman.—Scott Eyman, John Ford: The Complete Films
The greatest admiral in the history of American popular art was John Ford, and he famously worked with one of its two great dukes—John Wayne (the other, of course, being Edward Kennedy Ellington). Recognizing the greatness of Wayne or Ford is particularly difficult today because there have been so many chastening disappointments since the McCarthy era, Watergate, and Vietnam. The abuses of power, these corruptions and debacles, have resulted in love of America being too often defined as a dangerous form of superstition. From that perspective, Ford is looked upon with impatient contempt while Wayne is dismissed as no more than a steel-balled red baiter.
Ford was surely patriotic but not in a simple way; his best work always contains a celebration of the nation and of its mythologies as well as a rough-and-tumble listing of its inherent troubles. Ford understood that America's essential anti-aristocratic attitude was good as long as it brought forth a vitality that was heroic and possessed of a sacrificial sense of duty. But he also knew that the common man was not above submitting to the delicious fever of anarchy or becoming a happy member of a lynch mob. Perhaps worst of all, as Ford tells us, is that the sheer weight of a man's pain and loss can transform him in despicable ways.
In The Searchers (1956), the admiral used the Duke to tell his most harrowing tragedy in the Homeric world of the Old West. The Searchers is about the wages of heartbreak and what they do to Ethan Edwards, the film's conflicted and difficult hero. Edwards is the ultimate loser: Everything—from a woman to a family to a cause—has evaded his grasp, been destroyed or defeated. At the beginning of the movie, he returns to Texas to see his only remaining relatives, and we discover that he has lost his true and secret love, Martha, to his brother, Aaron. He was also on the losing side of the Civil War. Then Martha and Aaron, and two of their three children are massacred during a Comanche raid.
When Wayne, as Ethan, comes upon the black smoke and the orange flame of the burning house left by the Comanches, his face is one of absolute terror, panic, and rage. At the top of a hill, Wayne flings out his right arm to free his rifle from the long, colorful buckskin sleeve in which it has been sheathed. The force of that flung arm is one of the most explosive gestures in all of cinema, and also among the most impotent: No one down there is alive, and Ethan knows it. He is, at that moment, like the man in Bruegel's The Triumph of Death who so impressed Hemingway because his choice was to draw a sword when faced with the irreversible horror of encroaching doom.
The wonder of the film and Wayne's performance is how well it details the way in which his character's suffering completely transforms him. Ethan devolves from a resourceful cynic who is quite knowledgeable of Indian ways of fighting, hunting, fleeing, and worshiping into an indomitable redneck. Though culturally part Comanche himself, Ethan is willing to murder his own kidnapped niece in order to avenge the slaughtered members of her family. That willingness arrives through the racist bile chilling his soul at the very thought of his niece having slept with an Indian chief as but one of his wives.
Masterfully, Ford lets us realize that this is merely a darker version of the resentment Ethan felt toward the sexual relationship between Martha and Aaron. It is also an example of the exceeding achievement of the film: a matchless pictorial sense of narrative in which every action or situation has an apparent and an alternate meaning. The Searchers questions a raw bigotry so pervasive that, to our surprise, the salt-of-the-earth blond woman in a white silk dress on her wedding day furiously spits out a murderous sense of self-righteous xenophobia.
In the 1939 Stagecoach and the 1946 My Darling Clementine, Ford elevated the genre from a child's throwaway 90 minutes in front of a theater screen to a fully adult entertainment. * By Fort Apache in 1948, Ford turned the conventions of the Western around by refusing to condescend to the humanity of the Indian. Henry Fonda's Col. Owen Thursday is deeply concerned with the welfare of his daughter (a somewhat monstrous and adolescent Shirley Temple); he feels thrown aside to a meaningless command in the Southwest and is obsessed with personal glory to the point of leading his troop to doom. The commander and his men are massacred primarily because he will not accept the Apaches as shrewd equals at warfare. Caught in class and race prejudice, Thursday is a melancholy and misplaced man made tragically naive by his bigotry.
No director has ever dealt more insightfully with the offhanded, snide, and potentially suicidal aspects of bigotry than Ford. This sets him above almost all other directors because he could understand and make art of the tragedies that attended bigotry, one of the most pernicious forms of superstition. Beyond that, Ford recognizes how community acts as a protection against the inevitable meaninglessness of human life, which is no more than anarchic energy unless put in a story of some sort.
But, as Ford tells us in Wings of Eagles (1957), no amount of horseplay, drinking, flying, commendations, and skill make a man amount to much more than a frail toy buffeted by chance. Superbly inhabited by Wayne, Spig Wead, the seemingly invincible but suddenly crippled airman, has lost his family through neglect and is alone with all of his successes and failures at the end of the film. Wead is another of Ford's impotent heroes who, like Ethan Edwards, has no home other than the memories of what his dreams might have meant if any of them had ever come true.
The films discussed in this essay are available in The John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection and The John Ford Film Collection. The first collection also contains excellent documentaries about the actor and the director.