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Way Down South

china gate hs small

From Olive Films this week, two extraordinary movies about race and politics in the 1950s, as filtered through the American south of the early twentieth century by John Ford in “The Sun Shines Bright” (1953) and Samuel Fuller through the lens of what was then the French Indochinese war and would soon become our very own Vietnam in “China Gate” (1957). My New York Times review is here.

These are the usual no-frills discs from Olive, though the company has taken the care to obtain a hi-def transfer of Ford’s original 100 minute cut of “Sun Shines,” which turned up unexpectedly some years ago. The old, 90-minute version is still floating around YouTube, and the differences are apparent from the first shot. The film now begins with Stepin Fetchit falling asleep as he fishes from the end of a pier, establishing a slow, dreamy rhythm that Ford sustains quite beautifully as the plot begins to unfold on three different levels. The film concludes with three ceremonial processions that resolve the plot strands while dissolving them into myth — a wonderful example of Ford’s growing indifference, in his postwar work, to classical narrative structure and the perceived need for closure.

And “China Gate,” long the most elusive of Fuller’s films of the 1950s, now comes to us in the beauty of black-and-white CinemaScope, for the first time since, I believe, the 16-millimeter days. There is much more to say about this brave, confounding, breathlessly urgent film than I had room for in my column, and I know of at least two regulars on this site who are able to say it much better than I can.

232 comments to Way Down South

  • Thanks Joe, that was a brilliant article!

  • richmond

    “Ford’s film has had a vast and long-lasting effect on American cinema, while the impact of Tarantino’s film has, I suspect, already come and gone. But then, Ford only had the constraints of the studio system to cope with, his own inner conflicts aside, while Tarantino must contend with something far more insidious and difficult to pin down: the hyper-branded and anxiously self-defining world of popular culture, within which he is trying to be artist, grand entertainer, genius, connoisseur, critic, provocateur, and now repairman of history, all at once. It makes your head spin. And one day in the future, I suppose he might find himself wondering just what he had in mind when he so recklessly demeaned one of the greatest artists who ever stood behind a camera.”

    I also want to thank Joe, Kent and Tony for their making Tarantino’s foolishness available on our thread. All that needs to be known about Tarantino is how many times he used the first person pronoun in accepting this year’s Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. In that sense, Kent’s last sentence (quoted above) is a bit too hopeful for me. Tarantino and self-reflection, to say nothing of self-correction, is not a combination that will ever come to fruition.

  • It seems I posted on the wrong thread. Sorry about that.

    As someone who’s been a fan of Tarantino’s work for many years, this is bitter medicine. I know he says little that isn’t foolish. I concede that his films all have major or minor problems (except JACKIE BROWN, which is his most perfect work). But they all, also, have extraordinary qualities that I don’t get from any other filmmaker – not even Ford, Welles, Lang, Hawks, or Joseph H. Lewis, or De Toth. (I hasten to add that QT is a minor artist compared to each of these men.)

    It would be, to borrow one of Kent’s phrases, a fool’s game to experience his article as “revenge” against Tarantino’s stupidity. Interestingly enough, I think he says just that, in so many words.

  • Tarantino has his blind spots and his bright spots when it comes to appreciating other film makers. He’s always had a fine appreciation of Sam Fuller for example. His failure to appreciate Ford is his loss, a grievous one in my view.

    As for his films, “Jackie Brown” is indeed the best he’s made so far as per Jaime’s citation above.

  • David Cohen

    Joe, thanks for posting that marvelously written article.

    Does anyone know if Tarantino has expanded / revised his comments on John Ford since that interview. I am guessing that the topic might have come up again (though the number of people who have a deep interest in a brutal misreading of John Ford can’t actually be that large).

  • Another vote for Jackie Brown as QT’s best here. Certainly (as Sergio Leone described The King of Comedy) the director’s most mature work. Its ongoing omission from’s Top 1000 poll is very disappointing.

  • Robert Garrick

    I wrote about the Tarantino / John Ford / “Jackie Brown” matter a while back and I don’t want to say it all again, but some of you might want to go back and take a look at my earlier remarks:

    I do think that “Jackie Brown” (1997) occupies a special place in the Tarantino canon. One could almost say that it’s the only Tarantino film that feels like a living, breathing whole, and not like an “brilliant” exercise. The feeling that Tarantino generates between Robert Forster and Pam Grier is deep and yet quite restrained by modern standards; in particular, the final scene between the two of them is unforgettable.

    Forster is white and Grier is black, but their connection in the film is natural and unforced, and the interracial aspect of their romance goes unremarked upon by the film’s other characters. It doesn’t feel like it’s a big deal, and that’s a racial breakthrough at least on the order of Nat King Cole’s role in “China Gate.”

    Tarantino is not naive; he knows the barriers that are there for Grier. When she is introduced in the opening credits, gliding along in an airport corridor in her stewardess uniform, the song “Across 110th Street” plays in the background.

    Tarantino deserves full credit for this aspect of the film. In the Elmore Leonard book “Rum Punch,” which was the basis for “Jackie Brown,” both of the leads were white. Tarantino uses a couple of lush Delfonics records to bridge the cultural gap between Grier and Forster, and to show their deepening affection. It’s handled with skill and subtlety. Do any two characters in any other Tarantino film have a relationship as complex and moving as this one? Not that I can think of.

    Elmore Leonard apparently thought that “Jackie Brown” was the best screen treatment of any of his works. That’s high praise, given that about two dozen of his stories or novels have made their way to the screen, including ones that led to the films “The Tall T” (Boetticher, 1957), “3:10 to Yuma” (Daves, 1957), “52 Pick-Up” (Frankenheimer, 1986), and “Out of Sight” (1998, Soderbergh). The last film, in particular, is excellent. Andrew Sarris loved it and put it in his top ten for the year, and watching it, it’s impossible to believe that Jennifer Lopez did not become a big film star. She settled for being a celebrity.

  • Thanks for the wonderful links to the essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Kent Jones!

    Tarantino could be a character (like Martin Pawley) in a John Ford movie.

    A connection between Tarantino and Will Rogers: Cherokee ancestry.

  • Jones suggests (with his “five films in a row” remark) that Tarantino’s thesis is this: bloody, gleeful, unsparing vengeance is (a) the ideal answer to suffering and (b) the ideal product of moral rectitude. Ford sees all of that; his art devours it, indulges it, dismantles it, finds its merits & weaknesses, condemns it, etc etc, all without apparent strain. And after all that, it occupies but a single page in his playbook. It’s as a flick of the wrist for Ford; an entire body of work for Tarantino.

  • I want to cite a favorite scene from JACKIE BROWN. It is absolutely a SPOILER, but I guess, if you haven’t seen the film yet, you probably don’t want to.

    It’s the climax. When I first saw the film in 1997, it was quite disappointing. With each revisit, I’ve grown to appreciate it. A few observations:

    1) Previously, Max had not once put himself in harm’s way. Here, he plants himself, knowingly, in Ordell’s figurative and literal crosshairs. Ordell, a stupid, low criminal who has shown on two occasions that he can and will commit murder simply (a) for a profit or (b) as an answer to an insult. For Max, who is not dumb, this is a suicide mission.

    2) What I failed to grasp on first viewing is that Ordell is not a towering villain, set up for righteous defeat. Rather, he spends much of the film facing an escalating series of humiliating defeats. His killing is the last, largest one, making it the film’s comic peak in structural terms.

    3) In the minutes leading up to the climax, Ordell explains to Max that there had better not be this person or that person at Max’s office, or he (Max) is a dead man. NOT A SINGLE CONDITION of Ordell’s threat is met. Everyone who ought not be there, is there. Comically-cosmically, Ordell’s defeat doubles as his ultimate emasculation. Perfetto.

  • Tony Williams

    Maybe, the Ken Curtis role of Charlie rather than Martin Pawley would be better casting for QT?

  • Barry Lane

    Quentin is an apparently unattractive and insensitive guy. Lack of sensitivity is what has claimed the attention of this board in recent posts. Tony, is of course correct. Not Martin Pawley. A male beauty for Tarantino, no, a fool, yes, of course. But, who wants to replace or remount anything in The Searchers.

  • jbryant

    Speaking of Kent Jones, Film Comment and Quentin Tarantino, quite coincidentally I came across an old issue a few weeks ago and read Kent’s excellent consideration of the excellent JACKIE BROWN (in tandem with a more popular title of time, TITANIC).

    I’m glad to see a consideration of QT’s ill-informed remarks about Ford by someone who respects the work of both men. I sincerely hope QT will take a look at the new Blu of THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT and begin to second-guess his kneejerk rejection of Ford (which seems based more on misperceptions and assumptions than any serious engagement with the films).

  • jbryant

    I think maybe it’s the minority view, but I’ve always found Ken Curtis to be hilarious in THE SEARCHERS. Ford’s “comedy stylings” get no respect, but I chuckle every time I think of Curtis’ delivery of the line, “I’ll thank you to unhand my fie-AN-cy.”

  • Vivian

    jbryant, I agree about Ken Curtis. I don’t think his performance in THE SEARCHERS is grating at all. In fact underlying his surface buffooonishness is a kind of touching dignity that is one more of a multitude of beautiful, almost imperceptible grace notes in this momentous work. He’s like a “minor” but amazingly solid character in Dickens or Melville.

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Amen to that, Vivian. Anent Ken Curtis in The Searchers, there’s the disconcerting, and weirdly touching, moment at the end of the long Jorgensen ranch sequence when the pathetic suitor who has “brung some boiled sweets” and otherwise come across as a comic-grotesque rustic steps forward to strum his guitar and offer a tentative “Skip to My Lou.” Suddenly, we are vouchsafed almost literally another face of Charlie McCorry (K.C.), a more complicated guy than we had reason to assume. Neither the voice nor the fervor is the least bit comic, and even the opportunism of the moment–making a move on Laurie just when she has given up all hope of ever getting the signal she craves from the long-absent Martin Pawley (“Gone again…”)–is mitigated by, inseparable from, an unexpected tenderness. Laurie turns to look at him, and although surely her strongest feelings just then are resignation and desperation that this is the only option left her, she too seems surprised at (again literally) the new note Charlie has struck. That Charlie’s song never gets beyond the prelude, and that the sequence ends with a long hold on the two young people’s mutual gaze, is exquisitely right.

  • Vivian

    Yep. Said with much more eloquence and precision than I’m capable of, Richard.

  • Tony Williams

    We must remember that Ken was one of the SONS OF THE PIONEERS and I think he appears as such in RIO GRANDE. So it is only naturally that he reverts to his singing cowboy persona where his voice is more pleasing than the role he plays.

  • Barry Putterman

    And, prior to his days with The Sons of the Pioneers, Ken Curtis sang briefly with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, albeit not in LAS VEGAS NIGHTS.

    Charlie McCorry might be said to have inaugurated a television tradition joined by Crazy Guggenheim (Frank Fontaine) and Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors). Alas, I don’t recall Festus Haggen singing in “Gunsmoke.” But, then, while long, detailed chapters can be written about the role of song in Ford films, very little music appears in “Gunsmoke.”

  • alex

    How about a new auteur with a focus on family and community a la Ford–Jeff Nichols (SHOTGUN STORIES, TAKE SHELTER, MUD) ?

    All about Nichols ‘ Old Arkansan Home, where the sun may shine bright (between tornados).

  • Blake Lucas

    Is alex’s post of 5/4 at 7:24 pm really the end of all this?

    Well, OK, now it isn’t. I’ll confirm Tony Williams that Ken Curtis is in RIO GRANDE. In that film, the Sons of the Pioneers double as the Regimental Singers on screen and Curtis is plainly seen and heard as the lead singer on “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” in a key sequence of the movie. Of course, he sings beautifully. In THE QUIET MAN, Curtis is given an accordion (dubbed by Danny Borzage I assume, unless Curtis himself played one) and leads the singing of “The Wild Colonial Boy” in the pub when Sean comes in to introduce himself to the men of Innisfree, another key sequence, and like the RIO GRANDE one very affecting. It’s so true that Ford pays special attention to music in his movies–the way he does the songs (and dances too) put him ahead of most directors of actual musicals.

    I’d also like to comment on Richard Jameson’s very eloquent post of 5/4 about Charlie and the way the letter sequence in THE SEARCHERS ends. One think I like so much about this kind of critical observation is that its insights begin and end with what is actually there in the movie, rather than laying in some generality that may support a simplistic view of an artist like Ford–something like “Ford likes crude comedy and broad, comic types and Charlie McCorry is a perfect example of that.”

    There’s always so much more there. Thanks for a timely reminder of that, Richard.

  • jbryant

    Ken Curtis was Ford’s son-in-law from 1952 to 1964. That’s one example of nepotism I have no problem with.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Count me in as another fan of Ken Curtis!

    ”It’s so true that Ford pays special attention to music in his movies–the way he does the songs (and dances too) put him ahead of most directors of actual musicals.”

    I very much agree with this, and to give Quentin Tarantino some credit, no matter what you think of his movies (I usually like them, but was bored stiff by DJANGO UNCHAINED), this is the one area where he is almost a match with Ford. The scenes from Tarantino movies that stick in my memory tend to be closely connected with the music an how he uses it to tell the story.

  • Tony Williams

    If Pappy brings innovations to the Western genre he does no less with one of its marginal elements – the singing cowboy in the personal of Ken Curtis. Had he made more Irish films in the 40s and 50s, Ken would have been not “the singing detective” but the singing IRA man!

  • richmond

    Given that Dr. Lake is a secondary, but important and necessary figure in THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (as well as many of Mr. Cobb’s stories), I think it’s important that some renewed or new examination be made of how Ford portrays the late and or turn of the century physician as a character in his films. I’m thinking not so much of full development per se, but rather how their portrayal in a film, sometimes revealed in only one line or, as in the case of Doc Willoughby in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE, one and one half lines, is placed within a larger historical context. For instance, not only Doc Willoughby and (all but surely) Dr. Lake, but Doc Boone in STAGECOACH also are all portrayed as alcoholics, but having served in earlier life as Civil War physicians. While Dr. Lake’s probable service in the Confederate medical corps lends itself to images of horror that could easily have brought about an escape into drink, both Doc Boone and, with blunt clarity, Doc Willoughby refer to their treatment of wounded men in the war. Those references, along with other physicians in Ford’s films, lead me to think that this area within his corpus has not been as explored as it might.

  • Tony Williams

    Good point, Richmond. There is also “The Colter Craven Story” that Ford directed for WAGON TRAIN starring Carleton Young in the title role with brief guest appearance by the Duke himself.

  • That WAGON TRAIN episode is tremendous. Glad I caught before Netflix deep-sixed all its western shows.

  • Tony Williams

    I’m so glad you caught this episode that I first saw in the UK and now have on VHS. This is very sad news about Netflix especially since students now believe that westerns are not “cool” and I dare not now run an entire class on the genre (as I once did with reduced numbers) but only within a director class as with Fuller. Once I had to explain very patiently to a graduate student why the genre could not be dismissed on the grounds that it exclusively promoted genocide. Examples were used to counter this belief from films you are all very familiar with.

  • Alex

    Ford has always seemed to me an effective humorist within the range he stresses — more guffaws and pratfalls than wit, more Bardolf and Pistol than Hamlet or Richard III.

    Still, although Sarris refers incisively to WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HONE as a sort of failed Sturgis project, Ford pulls off a great romantic comedy of vibrant ROMANTIC high spirits and good humor, if little wit, with THE QUIET MAN.

    Not that scant wit (and scant sharp irony) is two grave a flaw –Tolstoy hasn’t much.

  • Peter Henne

    I re-watched THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT, and I have to say I have misgivings mixed in with admiration. It’s a beautifully shot film, but I’m not convinced by the portrait of racial division it draws. The problem I see is that the Tornado Boys and their lynch mob are picked out as the trouble-makers. But we can see by the example of scattered other characters that the white social strata is a lot more complex. What, then, is their hand? These other social components are hardly spoken for and seem to get off the hook. The Boys are too conveniently divided from the rest of the town, as though they were an aberration instead of what strikes me as a lot more likely, a symptom of the whole community’s attitudes. They’re just nervier to display it, because they have less social station to lose. There were several hundred men marching to the jail, a staggering size; so often, we see one or two dozen individuals for a mob in movies. From the vote count in the election later on, we can surmise the town has a population of about 10,000 people. For close to 10 per cent, then, of the adult, able-bodied males to get the nerve up to shuck the law and participate in such a horrific demonstration shows widespread hatred in the town, since for every man so emboldened, three, four or five more will cower at home while privately wishing the mob God speed. Ford tries to play down the mob size later at the voting poll: “the Tornado Boys” are announced, but they are now only 64 in number. But we saw for our own eyes earlier that they are far more numerous.

    It’s true that artists aren’t required to be realistic. All the same, the way that the Tornado Boys are so strictly compartmentalized—they’re said to come from a different “district,” as though racial attitudes among the town’s whites abruptly end at a surveyor’s line—is dramatically tame. Ford makes it much too easy to separate their racism from the general population’s, as though all of it were magically slumped into the Boys’ own backyard. It is only they who carry the banner, “He Saved Us From Ourselves.” The compelling and satisfying task would have been to present them as the unvarnished reflection of the white part of town’s general outlook on race, or at least to connect them to many of the other whites’ sympathies and fears held in common. Instead, the film de facto makes them the scapegoat for what must be a deep streak of distrust and contempt for blacks running throughout the white population.

    You can’t have things both ways: if the Tornado Boys are only a small minority of outcasts, as the voting day scene suggests, then there was no reason to incorporate them into the drama in the first place. (Nobody says at that moment at the poll that here are the Tornado Boys “or what’s left of them,” or words to that effect.)

    Maybe I have misread the film’s social composition, but it looks like the white middle classes tacitly get off scot-free. I don’t think Ford actively set up excusing the broad majority of whites. Instead, on this go-around, I wonder if he looked adequately into what would have to make this whole community, black and white, racially tick. Other films, like SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, do a lot better. I am adamantly opposed to the view that John Ford is a racist. He does want to bring people together, and the processions in SHINES, seeming to stream one after another, touchingly do this. Just because I hold doubts Ford got the picture right from beginning to end in the film does not mean I believe he held vicious attitudes toward minorities or was complicit in them. It looks to me he simply didn’t look hard enough this time out.

  • Alex

    Maybe Ford, like the (i.e., MY) post-1967 Godard, though full of visionary ambitions and expressive virtuosity, is a …jumble head –especially as he grew more interested in the “personal statements ” and start disavowing his genre work Westerns as Tag Gallagher writes of the post-WWII Ford.

    I suspect that Tag Gallagher, who is as empathetic, learned and energetic a commentator on Ford as is likely to appear, is close to Ford’s own truth when he sees SSB as a tale of the last stand of the noble sons of the Confederacy against Republican neo-carpetbaggers.

    My own view on the varieties of Ford’s work is that he’s like Sarris’ conception of Losey, best when he’s invigorating and beautifying genre work rather than addressing the World out of his personal vision unfettered by commecial conventions and restraints.

    I’ve not yet seen SSB, for which I’ve been waiting for a library to get its processing of the new DVD done, but as David Hume says “on miracles” we shouldn’t anticipate the reversal of what prior experience and thought (here Re 2 pervious version of SSB in poor, truncated versions such as most had long built their views on), I suspect my heart will still belong to the Westerns, Wayne and Maureen O’Hara once the new evidence is in for me.

    I doubt Ford was a racists; but I suspect Southern community spoke to his social immagination in ways that might have been better balanced by more reading of Foner, McPhersen and Woodward than seems could possibly have been the case.

  • Alex

    I should have written “more reading of the incive sort that Foner, McPhersen and Woodward would offer a decade or two after Ford worked on SSB! (If such historical analysis then existed!!)