Potential Horizons: Friedrich and Ford


It looks like the next month is shaping up to be a John Ford month as I will be working on a project that compares the paintings of the German Romanticist Caspar David Friedrich to the films of John Ford. The similarities between Friedrich’s landscapes and Ford’s settings, along with Friedrich’s influence on other Hollywood artists, is even stronger given Ford’s fascination with German filmmaker F. W. Murnau who was undoubtedly influenced by his German predecessor. I have yet to flesh out exactly what this connection means and just how complex the similarities and differences really are. I just finished reading John Ford by Brian Spittles. In this short book, Spittles analyzes Ford’s life and work, recognizing, from the beginning, Ford’s dependence, like all directors, on his film family ranging from cinematographers to actors. After discussing the juxtaposition of Ford’s seemingly singular vision and film’s inherently collaborative nature, Spittles enters intoa thematic analysis of a selection of Ford’s more influential films. This is not an exhaustive analysis but rather hits Ford’s high notes. Spittles considers several questions: Ford as generically challenged, Ford as the greatest storyteller, Ford as conservative or subversive, Ford as an entertainer or ideologue, Ford as an unconscious racist, and Ford as patriarchal or matriarchal. Far from coming down on either side of the debate, Spittles simply fleshes out at argument for each position. His critiques reveal the complexity of both the films and the director, both of which lend themselves to numerous interpretations. Though Spittles only briefly considers each of these themes (around 10 pages each), they do serve as a good introduction to the work of one of cinema’s greatest directors.

Perhaps more entertaining is the 2007 documentary Becoming John Ford, directed by Nick Redman. This documentary is comprised of interviews with historians, critics, screenwriters, and filmmakers, all interspersed with dramatizations of the more notable disagreements between Ford and his long-time producer Darryl F. Zanuck. The film is not so much an analysis of Ford’s films but rather warm-hearted praise for a great direcgtor. As such, the film is full of throw away lines and, given Ford’s complexity (as Spittles shows in his book), stories that must consistently be held in question. I was, however, interested to see just how politically prophetic Ford could be. I knew that Ford’s films focused on themes of gender, race, and other social issues before they were “popular;” however, I did not know that a film like The Prisoner of Shark Island examined the loss of civil liberties in the name of American patriotism.

While I certainly do not know what conclusions I will draw from the comparison of Ford and Friedrich (and am even more aware that both artists would be highly skeptical of someone going on and on about their work), I do know that I will certainly enjoy the journey back through Ford’s films. I think I will start with The Searchers.