Wyatt Earp fidgets with his chair, pirouetting on the porch. He does it while I write these lines. Cinema always takes place in the present. So the filmmaker films these stunts with aplomb, knowing that he has mastered his craft since the time of the pioneers, that of the filmmakers of the silent period.
We are in the cinema. That filmmaker who was filming those pirouettes, already old, sick, with a patch over his eye, has to withdraw from a meeting, feeling unwell. It is a meeting at the end of the year, shortly before Christmas, a few months before disappearing. The filmmaker, Ford, is invited by Cukor along with other colleagues in the trade, such as Buñuel, Wyler, Wilder, Wise, Hitchcock,… It is a meal that the writer Manuel Hidalgo has described as “the banquet of geniuses” in his book of that title.
What would those filmmakers talk about? It is to be imagined that John Ford perhaps drank some of the last drinks of it. Buñuel, seeing him, described him as a wavering specter. Yes, a ghost, sick with cancer. But let’s not think about bad drinks, let’s think, let’s talk about toasts when disappearance approaches. And we go back to Earp and his chair, we go back to Earp meeting Dr. Holliday at a bar in the Tombstone saloon. There, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) toasts with champagne with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature).
The movie is “Passion of the Strong” (“My darling Clementine”). There, Ford’s cinema is (it couldn’t be otherwise) pure myth. That’s why the friendship between Earp and Holliday was so unpredictable, so unexpected. It arises naturally.
Friendship. What interests us An actor is humiliated by the Clantons, the villains. The actor is drunk, reciting Shakespeare. Earp comes to rescue him. Bidding farewell to Tombstone, the drunkard is serene and quotes the poet Joseph Addison: “Great souls in adversity are bound by ties of firm friendship.”
Sheriff Earp had already asked himself the following when he arrived in Tombstone: “What kind of city is this?” Soon Doc Holliday jokes and is serious at the same time: “Hasn’t he gotten it into his head to free us from all evil?”
Tombstone is the monster town, where the beauty of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) lives but also the barbarism of the Clantons, the absurd, misfortune, death. That will interest us in our John Ford, filmmaker of humor but at the same time of tragedy. Barbarism, barbarism always in his cinema. How to face her? How to face the absurd, the nonsense? There is no humor here in the relationship that the sick Holliday has with whiskey. Wyatt Earp will have to face the disease of his friend, the monster.
Ford films all of this in Monument Valley. I keep thinking about the movie, about the friendship between Earp and Holliday and I get distracted, I think about my old friends who are far away or who have disappeared forever.
I quickly forget the bad mood, forget the bad whiskey Holliday suffers from, and focus on the legend of John Ford. The last drinks are not such, they are not real. They are imaginary, and in imagining them we think of them as toasts. Toast to take advantage of the time we have, for the opportunity to drink and chat with colleagues and friends who are nearby.
If the drink is joy, let’s drink that Irish whiskey. Let’s have a drink with Dr. Boone from “Stagecoach”, a drinker who suddenly becomes lucid when his intervention is decisive in assisting the pregnant traveler. For the scholar Joseph McBride: “Doc Boone is the poet of the group, only he is capable of seeing the situation from the outside and articulating its meaning.” Boone is like the hard-drinking leprechaun Michaleen Flint from “The Quiet Man.” In the words of Rafael Narbona: “Michaleen is not a playboy or a scoundrel, but a man with a conscience, loyal to his convictions.”
I learn from John Ford. I look for light, I look for what friendship represents for him, what the moral dilemmas we face represent. How to live? What can we learn from the old Irish-American filmmaker? Learn that whiskey is terrible, he says, poison to Doc Holliday, but that it may be Michaleen Flynn’s good humor, whiskey as “the water of life” as the Irish think. Life can be terrible, the nightmare of “Passion of the Strong”, but it can also be the story, the dream of “The Quiet Man”. A Ford for every moment and every place.
In adversity, the bonds of firm friendship, the Irish fantasy of “The Quiet Man.”
Now John Ford is a movie dream. Now his existence takes place purely in the cinema. Legend or reality? Always the legend, it is said in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. The legend is printed. We stay with the legend.
Young John Ford comes from silent movies. By 1931 he had made more than sixty films, of which only a few have survived. Ford’s experience is vast. All this will be reflected in his sound films: “I don’t really like to move the camera because it distances the viewer. It is said “it is a movie, it is not real”. I like the audience to think it’s real. I don’t like having the public pending the camera. (…)”
I know what this post is about. I know what “The Last Drinks of John Ford” is about. We have already written it. I repeat it. I repeat it to myself. It deals with barbarism, the absurdity of life. How to face it? In “The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance” we are moved by the beating of the drunken journalist from the town, who has faced the wolves: “Good people of Shinbone! I am your conscience that resonates in the night, I am your watchdog that howls in front of the wolves, I am your confessor! I… I am… what else am I?” In the face of the absurd, also the humor of Doniphon (John Wayne): “the drunkard of the town?”
In “Seven Women,” Ford’s extraordinary latest film, we find our heroines entrenched on a mission, a sort of fort haunted by Tunga Khan, a villain we don’t know will dare enter the mission – fort. Anne Bancroft (Dr. Cartwright) already advises Eddie Albert (Charles) that not only can a woman be worth as much as a man, but she is worth more. Cartwright is extraordinary. Willing Charles to go outside to see what happens, to see as far as he can have barbarism, Cartwright exclaims enthusiastically: “Good for the brave!”
Little by little Cartwright is taking on a mythical character, almost a dream, an ideal, in front of Tunga Khan. He looks at himself in the mirror, wearing a kimono, and points out “look how you are”. Joseph McBride describes Ford’s cinema as follows: “Reality and legend, real and ideal, memory and moment of decision, are interrelated in a tense and symbiotic correspondence. Herein lies the mysterious beauty of Ford’s work, rather than simply nostalgia or romanticism. His films are documentary visions of an ideal world. It is the poetic emotion to which Eduardo Torres Dulce has referred. He rises up suddenly, like a powerful voice.
And from the women to our sailors in what is perhaps my favorite John Ford film, the film about the John Ford – Gregg Toland tandem. It is “The long voyage home”, here titled “Intrepid Men”. The story of that long voyage home is introduced thus: “Men who live on the sea never change, for they live in a world lonely and far away drifting on one rusty steamer to another (…)”
Our sailors travel without permission to go ashore. They are chained to a kind of prison, and they try to smuggle some girls up some fruit baskets, under which the saving whiskey arrives, the water of life. John Wayne (Oli) and John Qualen (Axel) smile at the cargo, at the hubbub, at the Irish music it celebrates. Something extraordinary is presented to my eyes and I couldn’t agree more with the critic John Morley, from “New Yorker”: “One of the greatest films in the history of cinema”.
Pursue this movie. Let’s chase Ford. Let’s pursue those sailors, those actors who have already disappeared. Everything vanishes, except for a residue, that of those films, that of John Ford’s last drinks.
Those sailors have no home, except Oli. His companions will have to deal with the terrible waves (“there is only bad weather on this trip”), with a badly injured sailor, with another accused of being a traitor. They will have to deal with a shipment of weapons and explosives facing a sea where Nazi ships and submarines are harassing.
Smitty will seek to escape, to escape from that cursed ship, from that alcohol with which you can reach the monster or escape from it: “Have you felt the need to drink? Have you felt that every nerve in your body was asking for whiskey? The veteran Donkeyman replies: “A big drunk or more memories?
Let us think of those sailors, of the vampires on the mainland, of our prisons, of our fear of everyday life, of the illness of our loved ones, of friends who are far away or have left, as John Qualen says.
The few interviews that John Ford gave, always elusive, could make us think that he was, that he is a secret filmmaker. It’s not like that; He always thought that he was not an artist, but a movie worker, a trade with which to pay the bills. And interview him for what? It’s all in his movies. There’s all John Ford.
Let’s face life! Let’s face reality! Let’s do it when a girl is kidnapped, like in “Desert Centaurs.” Those who seek Those who seek: “The Indian, both when he attacks and when he flees, is inconstant. He doesn’t understand that he can pursue something relentlessly. And we will not rest. So in the end we will find her. I promise. We will find her. As sure as the earth spins.”
“Justice will be served regardless of race, creed or color,” says Judge Billy Priest in “The Sun Always Shines on Kentucky.” He does not run away from those who come to lynch an innocent who is in the cage. Judge Priest will be willing to risk his life for a man who has not had a fair trial. And if a revolver is needed in the line that separates injustice, barbarism, justice and civilization, it is used.
It’s John Ford on the shelves of time. When everything has happened, moved, the judge asks for medicine (whiskey) to start the heart, which had been on pause during the confrontation with the crowd.
Reality surpasses fiction. In a 1937 film, which awaits us, which seeks its viewers, “Hurricane on the island” (“The hurricane”) a man ends up in a terrible prison for a banal act, a mistake of an instant. One slip and we’re off to the hole. The natives know Terangi, they know it’s human kindness: “We don’t have to see it. He is a legend (…) He is the spirit and symbol of all these people”.
In the wonderful “The Three Godfathers”, three Wise Men find themselves in the desert, with hardly any water, persecuted. John Wayne lists, repeats that it is not the worst of all, that there is a dying pregnant woman, a newborn. In this technicolor film of yesteryear, Ford’s answer: dignity.
The cinema always takes place in the present. “You have to live no matter what happens,” says Dallas in “Stage.” We can continue watching movies without stopping. Wyatt Earp pirouetting in his chair on the porch, Michaleen Flynn in Innisfree’s, Dr. Cartwright smoking, thinking about the mousetrap he’s walked into.
We are to live, no matter what happens. But better with the cinema of John Ford. We moviegoers will continue looking for him, we will continue vibrating with his stories, toasting with him. The last drinks of John Ford are not such.