Friday, August 09, 2013
This week, we tackle a pair of sci-fi classics with discussions of Michael Anderson's 1976 film Logan's Run and Andrew Stanton's acclaimed Pixar film WALL-E. We also discuss Stanton and Pixar in general, the Essential Animated Films of the 21st Century and the latest news in Harvey Weinstein's scissors and Dr. Who's casting.
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Tuesday, August 06, 2013
The military as a vehicle for the assimilation of a despised minority is an oft-recurring subject for John Ford, hanging around the margins of the cavalry trilogy (Ward Bond in Fort Apache, for example, whose medal of honor isn't enough to raise him in class high enough from his Irish immigrant statue for Henry Fonda's snobbish Col. Thursday). Ford explores this in greater detail here, but through the lens of the 9th Cavalry, the 'Buffalo Soldiers', many of them ex-slaves who spent the latter half of the 19th Century fighting America's Indian Wars. The theme song lays out the impossible standard Sergeant Rutledge, who carries with him always the paper that made him a free man 20 years earlier, must hold himself to: he must be better than the best to survive, let alone hope to thrive.
Have you heard about a soldier in the U.S. Cavalry
Who is built like Lookout Mountain taller than a redwood tree?
With his iron fist he'll drop an ox with just one mighty blow
John Henry was a weakling next to Captain Buffalo.
He'll march all night and he'll march all day
And he'll wear out a twenty mule team along the way.
With a hoot and holler and a ring-a-dang-do.
Hup-two-three-fo' – Captain Buffalo! Captain Buffalo!
Said the Private to the Sergeant 'Tell me sergeant if you can
Did you ever see a mountain Come a-walking like a man?'
Said the sergeant to the private, 'You're a rookie ain't you though
Or else you'd be a-recognizing Captain Buffalo.'
And the thing is, Rutledge, as we see him and as Ford frames Woody Strode, towering over everyone else in the frame, stiffly formal in both posture and diction, the very model of a soldier, actually meets that Bill Braskian standard.
And yet he very nearly gets lynched anyway.
Rutledge is accused of the rape and murder of a white girl, and the killing of her father, his commanding officer. The story is told in a series of flashbacks during the court martial, with each new witness moving the story forward in time. All the circumstantial evidence points toward Rutledge, but Jeffrey Hunter, as a cavalry lieutenant and Rutledge's attorney, saves him, by dramatically uncovering the real killer. But this isn't an example of the helpless black man being rescued by the benevolent white person. Hunter never pities Rutledge and he's not his friend. Their relationship is one of mutual respect, not sentimentality. Hunter does his duty as an officer and recognizes and admires that same sense of honor in Rutledge. But they are never peers, there is no vision of universal racial harmony. Such a thing is inconceivable.
Not only does Ford avoid the patronizing stance of so many liberal do-gooder movies, from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Blind Side, he exposes that paternalism in both its condescension (the court martial judges congratulating themselves for not mentioning Rutledge's race, a twin of the bourgeois hypocrisy seen in Billie Burke, Mae Marsh and their old white lady friends giddy over the prospect of hearing the lurid details of the crime) and more nefarious manifestations (at the conclusion of the trial, spoilers).
Beyond that, Ford gives not just a proud dignity and pathos to Rutledge, but allows for complex characterizations of his fellow 9th Cavalry troopers. I cannot recall a single film I've seen from studio-era Hollywood that featured a scene like the extended one Ford gives us of black men talking and reasoning among themselves, with nary a white person in sight, as they wrestle with the moral complexity of what their proper course of action should be with respect to Rutledge: to protect him and help him escape white (in)justice or do their duty as soldiers and follow the letter of the law. In fact, I have trouble thinking of any Hollywood directors today who would film such a scene.
But Ford played a Klansman in Birth of a Nation.
Sunday, August 04, 2013
Not a perfect film, but there are a lot of perfect things in it. As such it's a perfect example of Ford's tendency to let the small, plot-unrelated moments take over his films. And thus a simple, largely fact-free story about a legendary event becomes a film about bringing civilization to the barbaric west, about building a church and brushing up your Shakespeare.
It's not really about the Earp boys as a family: while Wyatt gets most of the screen time, Morgan and Virgil fade to the background and the less said about James the better. It's certainly not about the Clantons, whose motivations are unclear (why don't they just let the Earps pass through?) and who seem to exist merely as an embodiment of the brutal crudity of the lawless West.
It's almost about Doc Holliday, the Eastern doctor who moved West out of despair and finds himself caught between two women who love him: the pure white lady from Boston and the mixed race saloon girl. Doc isn't so much a character as he is a collection of self-destructive urges. He's is the East in the process of immolating itself in the desert. But as a protagonist he remains slippery.
That leaves us with Wyatt Earp, a man Ford knew personally when he was young and Earp was old and both were in Hollywood. Fonda plays him as a superheroic figure: always one step of ahead of everyone else, patiently gathering evidence before enacting legal revenge against the men who killed his brother and stole his cattle. As this heroic figure, Wyatt is ostensibly meant to be viewed as admirable, and in most respects he is. But he also embodies all the racist sentiment in the film. It's Wyatt who enforces the explicitly racial contrast between the two women who love Doc (he threatens to send Linda Darnell's Chihuahua "back to the Apache Reservation, where you belong" while he fawns over Cathy Downs's purity as Clementine), and in an early sequence he establishes his lawman competence by chasing a drunk Indian out of town ("What kind of a town is this, giving liquor to Indians?" he asks, exasperated). For this reason, the film could easily be read as a racist expression by Ford.
But John Ford is a complicated man. Just because Ford depicts Wyatt as racist does not mean Ford himself is racist. Come to think of it, Ford's characterization of Wyatt's racial views is likely the most historically accurate thing about the film. That doesn't mean he endorses them, but in all other respects Wyatt is depicted as virtuous and heroic, the ideal individualist Western hero. Ford would better complicate these men in later films. As it is, Ford's Wyatt is an unsteady blend of noble and repugnant. His best quality is Fonda's awkwardness.
But also, there's this:
"Mac, you ever been in love?" "No, I've been a bartender all me life."
"I can almost smell the honeysuckle." "No that's me. . . . Barber."
The shadows. This is probably Ford's most Expressionist Western, with darkness dominant and the characters, even the supposed hero Earps, often finding themselves in silhouette, or simply blacked out the by the absence of light. Ford could tend to let his Expressionist side run wild, as in The Informer or The Long Voyage Home, but this is a good middle ground between those experiments and the more restrained visions of Stagecoach and Fort Apache, and a far cry from the flat interiors of Liberty Valance.
Henry Fonda's two dances: the balancing act on the chair, and his goofy church dance with Clementine, his mouth wide in a grin of pure happiness. Contrast with the regimental formality of the dance in Fort Apache, where Fonda's Col. Thursday daren't crack a smile.