By Tony Williams.
These two magnificent Blu-ray restorations reproduce the way the films were originally seen and also contain audio-commentaries and video essays by two pioneering Ford scholars: Joseph McBride and Tag Gallagher.”
Following on the trail pioneered by the 2016 re-release of John Ford’s Three Bad Men (1926), the peak of his silent film work according to what has survived so far, these two magnificent Blu-ray restorations from Kino Lorber represent a strong commitment to classic cinema. Not only do they reproduce the way the films were originally seen, as opposed to previous VHS versions, but they also contain audio-commentaries and video essays by two pioneering Ford scholars: Joseph McBride and Tag Gallagher, each displaying the unique critical talents of both to their usual achievement of high standards. Both scholars have written indispensable articles and books on Ford and it is a pleasure to hear both together in a unique collaboration that others should follow.
Straight Shooting was Ford’s first feature as director. Known at the time as Jack Ford, he had undergone rigorous apprenticeship in a relatively brief period of time working under his brother Francis Ford (1883-1953) and other directors until he began his notable career that both lasted decades and marked him as one of the major talents of Hollywood, if not World Cinema. In Straight Shooting, he introduced the character of Cheyenne Harry played by Harry Carey (1888-1948) to the Western genre, an unglamorous “saddle tramp” character who would later influence those rougher portrayals of the Western hero by John Wayne and Brian Keith as Dave Blassingame (1921-1997) in Sam Peckinpah’s 1960 The Westerner series who would embody further variations of the dilemma of J. Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking torn between the demands of civilization and the wilderness who over time wouldn’t find any options open to him as Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance definitely revealed.
Throughout both audio-commentaries McBride displays his unique understanding of Ford’s style and themes by noting how Straight Shooting anticipates many of Ford’s later concerns in The Searchers (1956) and other films. Many later concerns already appear in early forms making their presence of extreme interest as well as questioning whether we should readily affirm the critical premises of both F.R. Leavis and Robin Wood that only works belonging to a “Great Tradition” should be considered. Tempted to settle down, Harry agonizes over his dilemma seeing the presence of Hoot Gibson’s younger other “good bad man” as a solution when he suggests he comfort the heroine (Molly Malone) who hopes that Harry will make the right choice. When he arrives at the door, the disappointment on her face is evident, since she will face a lifetime with Gibson’s version of Aaron Edwards and Charlie MCorry in The Searchers. Yet Harry may not be deviously manipulating the situation by “doing the right thing” as Tom Doniphan does in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when he sees his sweetheart Hallie cradling the equally inept but wounded Ranse Stoddard as Molly does to Hoot in a preceding scene. Despite the seeming simplicity of many Ford films, they also convey a complexity demanding the type of close attention most of his work demands. The current copy of Straight Shooting may convey a “happy ending” as opposed to dark dramatic closure it artistically deserves but its hesitant nature conveys that feeling of uncertainty that most key Hollywood directors utilized throughout their careers. Even early Ford conveys this.
Hell Bent initially appears as a “lesser film”, perhaps due to the fact that key portions may not have survived. The heroine’s deceitful brother played by Vester Pegg (1889-1951) disappears mid-way through the film and her posture at the end suggests morning. But, despite these elements, the film contains many valuable features. It opens with a writer receiving a note from his editor suggesting the public is capable of entertaining much darker aspects of the Western rather than noble heroes and heroic deeds. As he considers the message, the camera tracks in to a painting on the wall by Frederick Remington, an artist whose visual style Ford would later draw on extensively for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). The painting dissolves into a realistic representation with Carey’s Cheyenne Harry depicted both as the man responsible for the chaotic scene and a card sharp to boot similar to his wanted outlaw status at the beginning of Straight Shooting. This unique introduction parallels the introduction of Jack London at the beginning of Hobart Bosworth’s Martin Eden (1913) where the writer looks screen right as he appears to contemplate the following cinematic adaptation of his celebrated novel.
Hell Bent contains more comedic moments than Straight Shooting but also displays the male bonding aspect of the genre which Brokeback Mountain took to its logical conclusions with the spurned partner encouraging the awkward Harry attired like Tom when he courts Hallie with the cactus rose in an earlier scene in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance singing “Genevieve” like the naval chorus inspiring the romantic courtship of Wayne and Donna Reed in They were Expendable (1945). The film also contains one of Ford’s rare uses of special effects when Harry and his rival Beau Ross crawl across the desert and experience a mirage where a cactus plain turns into a river and back again. It also evokes a scene in surviving footage if Bosworth’s An Odyssey of the North where his Eskimo character, the wronged Nass experiences a vision of an event of the past. McBride believes that some scenes became lost due to disintegration but Gallagher may be more correct in his video essay when he suggests that this surviving print from the Czech Republic Archive was an edited version.
Gallagher’s two video essay contributions for these DVDs also subtly displays not only his undisputed scholarship in Ford studies but also his mastery of the video essay itself. Rather than engaging in pompous theoretical “pseud’s corner” postures, like one I watched a year ago, the critic presents his information in an accessible, coherent manner that combines scholarship and presentation in a very professional manner that others should learn from. His contribution to Straight Shooting deals with Ford’s astonishing use of foreground and background elements in a three dimensional perspective. Here is a critic who understands style and disseminates a special use of it in a non-condescending manner. Gallagher has also contributed an informative booklet to the Straight Shooting DVD. His Hell Bent visual essay concentrates on those often neglected actors who formed part of Ford’s stock company. Gallagher refers to their missing and thankfully extant films. These expert DVD features more than fulfill Christopher Sharrett’s expectations of high quality DVD features that are not often fulfilled as he points out in a “Parting Words’ editorial in a recent print edition of Film International.
These two DVDs represent another of Kino Lorber’s contributions to preserving cinema history in excellent editions. Perhaps another collaboration with Joseph McBride could occur in the future, this time involving a restoration of Ford’s misunderstood final achievement 7 Women (1966) with expert audio-commentary and footage specially shot for the television broadcast?
Tony Williams is an independent film critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.