It is no secret that John Ford was in a very bad mood. He used to be cruel to actors, demanding that they stick to their roles until they broke down. Fond of outbursts and practical jokes, he was not an exemplary man in his private life. Unfaithful, not very affectionate with his children and with an inordinate passion for whiskey, he nevertheless proved to be brave and true to his convictions. During the Battle of Midway, he held the guy while a Japanese fighter fired in his direction, sustaining a wound to his arm. Standing next to the camera operator filming the scene, he did not leave his position even when a splinter dug into his flesh. During his years as a rugby player, he was nicknamed ‘Bull’ and ‘The Human Steamroller’. In his first game, he broke his nose in three different places, but refused to retire to the locker room. As tough as John Wayne in his most epic performances, ‘Jack’ – that’s what his friends called him – became very conservative over the years, abandoning his liberal positions, but never compromised with fascism. When Senator McCarthy’s infamous Un-American Activities Committee asked him to expose his fellow communist ideologists, he responded angrily, sending this gang of inquisitors to hell. Ford believed in freedom and democracy, and, like a good Irishman, he detested snitches. He was always a rebel and an individualist who had no problem getting into fists to defend his ideas or to redress a grievance.
Proud, stoic and with a lot of self-esteem, John Ford was a sincere Catholic and, for that very reason, a critical spirit, because he could not bear hypocrisy, intransigence or puritanism. We can trace his Catholic beliefs in all his movies. They are the backdrop for a vision of life based on the cult of friendship, attachment to roots, compassion for the weak and the exaltation of the family. ‘The quiet man’ is one of his most iconic films. Some have made accusations of machismo and misogyny, but the truth is that Mary Kate Danaher, played by that storm of life and passion that was Maureen O’Hara, is a strong and independent woman who does not allow herself to be subdued by anyone. She does not shrink from her brother Will, an unforgettable, primitive and hideous Victor McLaglen, and demands that her husband Sean Thornton (John Wayne) respect their traditions and customs. “She’s a redhead with all the consequences,” as matchmaker Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) puts it. In other words, a woman who knows very well what she wants and who never gives her arm to twist. For once, we see Wayne in the role of a romantic heartthrob. Retired boxer, he lives in torment for having unintentionally killed a rival in the ring. John Ford embodies his idea of love in the relationship between Mary Kate and Sean: a stormy encounter between two people with irreducible singularities but with the determination to share life, with all its peaks and falls, fullness and failures. Mary Kate and Sean start a family in little Innisfree, almost a village where man, earth and sky have not yet been divided. In that corner of old, green and endearing Ireland, the process of depersonalization and anomie that has turned human beings into hollow men and women has yet to take place. Faced with the uprooting of the contemporary world, Ford is committed to rescuing that link between life and tradition that – far from promoting immobility – lays the foundations for a renewal based on the lessons learned through experience.
In Innisfree, the Catholic majority coexists with an Anglican minority represented by the Reverend Playfair (Arthur Shields) and his wife Elizabeth (Eileen Crowe). Father Lonergan (Ward Bond) has a deep appreciation for Playfair and when the bishop considers transferring him due to the lack of parishioners, he convinces his parishioners to pretend to be Anglicans. He covers his collar himself and cheers at the bishop when his car passes, without experiencing a trace of a bad conscience. At Innisfree, it is not possible to live with your back to the community. Faced with the individualism of large cities, the feeling of belonging permeates all acts of daily life. Neighbors meet at church, tavern, parties. Any activity is covered by a ritual meaning. You pray, drink, dance, seeking communion with others. Even fights are a form of encounter, because after exchanging punches, the rivals shake hands and get drunk together. A pint of stout seals the wounds and celebrates the beginning of a new friendship. Father Lonergan is indulgent to the weaknesses of others. We never see him condemn or censor. It does not speak of hell or sin. He is more concerned with fishing and horse racing. Reverend Playfair maintains a similar attitude. He is not an apocalyptic preacher, but a kind man who boxed as a young man and now fights boredom with such harmless entertainment as the frog game. Innisfree Catholicism is not grim and gloomy, but festive and ironic. Confronted with Anglicanism, he does not seek discrepancy, but rather the encounter. In that tiny village, there is no fear of schisms or rigid dogmas that overshadow coexistence. The joy of living prevails. Even death is met with humor. A dying grandfather (Francis Ford, the director’s older brother) gets out of bed to witness the fight between Sean Thornton and the red-haired Danaher. The anointing of the sick can wait when two colossi star in the fight of the century.
The importance of community is a recurring idea in John Ford’s filmography. In ‘The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance’, the individualism of Lee Marvin and John Wayne, antagonistic but with a disturbing symmetry in their tendency to violence, civilization does not prosper until antisocial behaviors are eradicated. Like Walt Whitman, Ford is a fervent admirer of American democracy. Think that freedom is the foundation of an ethical coexistence capable of welcoming and celebrating diversity. In ‘Passion of the strong’, democracy is associated with the rise of a church. It is the first institution to emerge in a town where respect for the law has not yet been implemented. Citizens who only yearn for peace and work congregate there. Although the building has hardly been sketched, it already has strong symbolic power. Ford does not advocate a theocracy, but a society governed by Christian values. He is not unaware that religion can be a source of intolerance and oppression, as in ‘How green was my valley!’, Where a fanatical and uncompassionate pastor publicly shames an adulterous woman, but vindicates her ability to bind and weave ties of solidarity.
Ford again shits against religious intransigence in ‘Seven Women’, his latest film. Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), director of a lay mission in China, is horrified by any allusion to sex, being cold and hard with supposedly sinful behaviors, but is strongly attracted to Emma Clark (Sue Lyon), whom she pretends protect and educate. When Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) appears, an independent woman who smokes, drinks alcohol and does not believe in God, tries to expel her from the mission, but the incursion of some Mughal bandits will expose what each one hides. Agatha Andrews hates sex and freedom because she is attracted to women and that causes her terrible discomfort. Dr. Cartwright seems cynical and skeptical, but she has very strong values: keeping her medical oath to save lives, even if it means sacrificing her own. Ford exalts the dignity of women, capable of facing danger and hardship with greater integrity than most men. Despite his conservatism, the filmmaker never lost the liberal convictions of his youth. In ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, he starkly showed the consequences of a heartless capitalism that reduces the human being to mere merchandise. The Joad family’s long journey to California is a true Stations of the Cross. Disguised as an exodus to the promised land, it will include all kinds of cruelty and indignities. Ford highlights the nobility of the working class, with incredible endurance to withstand adversity. “They will not be able to destroy us,” exclaims Ma Joad. We are the people ”. In ‘Two Ride Together’, ‘Desert Centaurs’, ‘Fort Apache’ and ‘The Black Sergeant’, Ford raises his voice against racism, pointing out that it is the capital sin of the United States, a country of immigrants that nevertheless dreams with racial purity and cultural homogeneity. Ford dared in 1948 to denounce in ‘Fort Apache’ the abuses suffered by native peoples, something that until then no one had done on screen.
The idea of redemption also circulates in the filmmaker’s filmography. In ‘The Informer’, Ford addresses the topic of betrayal, leaving a door open to the possibility of atonement. The bad conscience, far from being a drag, reminds us that we are responsible for our actions and we must answer for them. In ‘Three Godfathers’, a story with a color version and a black and white version, three outlaws redeem themselves by caring for a child to the point of sacrificing their own lives. Even in the most abject evil, a moral heartbeat always survives, because not in vain are we the image of God and that guarantees our dignity. In ‘Río Grande’, Ford develops another of his great themes: love. He never talks about lovers who defy society, but about marriages that suffer crises but that always overcome them thanks to affection and mutual respect. The Civil War separated Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) and his wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), but the son they fathered will reunite them, sealing the wounds of the past. Ford is not interested in forbidden passions, but traditional loves. In ‘The Invincible Legion’, Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne again) honors the memory of the dead wife, bringing flowers to her grave and talking to her. The famous scene in which he waters the flowers with a pumpkin evokes the communion of saints, where the living and the dead coexist beyond death, definitely defeated by hope.
John Ford adapted Graham Greene’s ‘The Power and the Glory’, using ‘The Fugitive’ as an alternative title. Despite having Henry Fonda, the result was catastrophic. Something similar can be said of ‘María Estuardo’, starring Katharine Hepburn. Both are Ford’s two most distinctly Catholic films, but their artistic merit is slim. Perhaps because the director used a solemn tone, overwhelmed by such an explicit commitment. If I had to choose a character who represented Ford’s Catholicism, I would choose Father Cluzeot (Marcel Dalio), a friendly and tolerant little man who in ‘The Irishman’s Tavern’ gives the role of his parish to children and the wayward as Gilhooley (Lee Marvin), a rowdy and scoundrel drunk but with a big heart. John Ford was ugly, Catholic, and sentimental. His cinema will always be a reason for hope, as it is born of humor, tolerance and brotherhood.. When death approached his bed, announcing that the session was over, he exclaimed: “Cut!” It was not a final farewell, but the goodbye who knows that God, far from being an abstract and distant being, is that good friend who always awaits us with a good glass of Scotch whiskey, inviting us to contemplate once again the landscape of Monument Valley, with its violently blue sky drunk with clarity.