…Print the Legend.

For Marshall

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is quite an outlier from the rest of the John Ford films I have seen in an impossible to miss way: it’s the one most reliant on its screenplay to talk to us than its visuals. And that’s maybe what makes me rank it at the lowest when it comes to John Ford’s masterpieces, the fact that the writing has to be most front and center to the imagery that makes Ford one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. But it’s just as well forgivable when it comes to what a perfect piece of writing it is.

The screenplay in question by James Warner Belluh (his second script for Ford after having most of his short stories adapted into earlier movies, as we saw prior in this review series) and producer Willis Goldbeck, adapted from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, begins with a US Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie née Ericson (Vera Miles) arriving in a small frontier town by the name of Shinbone. He is ostensibly of such repute that everybody around takes curiosity to his arrival, most of all the local newspaper the Shinbone Star, who go so far as to impose in the middle of Ranse’s paying respects to a recently departed old friend to demand the story of who this man is to Ranse.

That man is by the name of Tom Doniphon and Ranse is miraculously patient enough to acquiesce to The Shinbone Star’s request, beginning from his very first arrival to Shinbone 25 years ago. An arrival that ends up extremely unwelcoming as his stagecoach is intercepted and robbed by the villainous Liberty Valance (a particularly smarmy and vengeful Lee Marvin) and his gang*. When Ranse dares to stand between Valance’s men and an old woman’s pendant, he gets himself beaten down for his bravery and then when Ranse’s response is specifically to tout the law – for you see Ranse at this point was fresh out of law school and eager to practice it within Shinbone itself – that beating becomes more severe and ends with Stoddard being left out on the road. Enter Doniphon (John Wayne), who carries him into the town and to the care of the Ericsons where Ranse is able to heal up and earn his shelter by working for the Ericson’s restaurant while also endearing himself to the town with his knowledge and planning his practice soon enough.

And for the next hour or so, the movie becomes less plot-driven and more about ideas. Explicit ideas, I’d dare to say close to didactic except that Ford, Belluh, and Goldbeck don’t necessarily provide an answer to the questions it brings up but nevertheless waste no words without shading out the tug-o-war particularly between Doniphon and Stoddard. A future confrontation between Stoddard and Valance is pretty much inevitable, given both Stoddard’s dogged devotion to having Valance dealt with by the law and Valance’s hatred of Stoddard at first sight (as well as Valance being such a notorious presence plaguing Shinbone outright to the point that the Marshal is looking for any reason to avoid crossing him). Doniphon is pretty much the only person in the world that Valance shows anything near fear towards and it’s clearly because Doniphon is a much bigger fella who has no problem flashing a big stick and puffing his chest out against Valance when necessary. And so we have at the center of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a conflict of ideals: Stoddard’s intelligent navigating around the legal system as he tries to invoke it in whatever way that might stick against Valance and Doniphon’s pragmatism towards force being used against force.

Which one can’t possibly think of two better actors to embody these two separate forms of masculinity than Stewart and Wayne, even while they both are notably a lot older than we’re meant to assume the characters are. Nevertheless, it’s a no-brainer: you take Jimmy Stewart, the very image of the moral arbiter that American cinema had in the wake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, which somehow did not fade yet in 1962 even after his Hitchcock pictures and Anatomy of a Murder showed more of an edge. Which is of course better for his performance as Ransom Stoddard, which might be his career best, carrying just enough of that edge to his non-violent strategic rationalism to react to moments such as Woody Strode forgetting the “All Men Are Created Equal” in the Declaration of Independence and comforting him with “a lot of people forget that part” as well as the jagged way in which he confronts Doniphon’s alpha male approach to things (to the point of throwing a punch at him in one scene). Stewart imbues just enough doubt to Stoddard and his lack of familiarity with Shinbone to suggest a complication towards his convictions but yet let’s those convictions have enough presence against Wayne…

… who is basically doing a lot of the same things he’s always done with Ford: embodying the broad-shouldered, street smart, physical-minded Western hero archetype he fits on like a glove and even the melancholy he brings to the role is nothing new, given She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers. He’s less doubtful on his actions – and given the way that story develops, it’s safe to say he’s mostly validated – but he’s also got less chemistry with any of his co-stars, including Miles and Strode (Hallie is at the time of the flashback Tom’s girlfriend and that actually plays as a second contest for Tom and Ranse while Strode plays Tom’s right-hand man Pompey). And a bit of this may be based on how miserable Wayne made most of the people on set as a reaction to the way Ford made him miserable, but it gives an excellent little separation of Tom from the rest of the community as his own quiet island. And when you mix that in with Wayne’s effortless soulfulness, that just makes his lack of belonging sting a tiny bit more. In fact, the only real chemistry spark Wayne has on-screen is with Marvin as somebody for him to center all of his anger at when they stare daggers at each other waiting for a draw.

And so with those two embodying the incompatible ideals of how a man deals with the problems a man has to deal with, the story and Otho Lovering’s unexpectedly back-loaded pacing eventually uses its second half to boil all of that theory into something that requires guns be fired at the last second and the revelations regarding that explosive climax are too good to spoil, but suffice it to say… there are ways in which we learn how right and how wrong both were and in turn the way the world is starting to favor one after spending most of its development necessitating the other’s skills. It’s a movie particularly aware of politicking and image as an important element (by the beginning of the second hour, the discussion of imminent statehood and representation in the government becomes an active stake and given purple rhetorical delivery by Edmond O’Brien at his most Shakespearean and a surprise cameo by John Carradine matching O’Brien’s theatricality tenfold. It’s also the moment where Ford and Lovering see to adding close-ups that betray where the performance begin and ends when it comes to oratory politics) and the manner in which Belluh and Goldbeck’s screenplay ties all that up is certainly famous enough in its own right, but frankly I don’t want to take the chance that someone will read this and be spoiled on what is quite a poetic conclusion.

In any case, that’s a lot of time spent on the story itself and while I did say The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has that story take precedence over the image… it is still extremely strong imagery. For one thing, it is a return to black-and-white for Ford and his cinematographer William H. Clothier, a style which honestly I think found Ford at his most comfortable and strongest as he takes interest at giving as much unglamorized realism to the Western sets, like the walls of the Ericsons’ restaurant or the cluster of machinery in the original Shinbone Star office. And then there’s still the ability for Ford to marshal the usage of shadows when necessary, particularly the heart-pounding gun duel that everybody knows is coming the moment Valance and Ranse lock eyes to render the characters in a nihilistic blackness (which only expands further when considering that, in true visual villain form, Valance is dressed specifically in black compared to all the other central players). And of course, there’s Ford’s awareness of what character blocking means in regards to those character’s relations and attitude towards each other and there has never been a movie where that was more important given what Tom and Ranse represent. It appears that Ford is just as nimble with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio as he was in Academy, whether it’s a crowd scene at a bar discussing politics or one man tearing down a building in anguish, able to have the action fit into that frame in notable ways. He even gives the framing of one moving shot between two doors late in the film a sense of gravity that adds to what is happening. Ford’s framing and usage of shadows particularly mix the best together with a shot round the middle of a character entering a frame of pitch blackness before the lighting gradually reveals the presence of company with urgent disturbance.

Ford is not sleepwalking at all in this movie. He’s deferring certainly to the writing moreso, but he feels no less inspired than anything else he’s worked on and I imagine that’s done for a reason. This is absolutely the sort of movie that is tapping into a man aware that his career is ending and what sort of legacy gets left behind once you close that door. It’s why the frame narrative essentially involves the off-screen death of his biggest star and it’s why it’s a story aware of how the culture changes within barely anytime at all. Ford still had a few more movies left in him before finally packing up but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was certain that the end had begun and imbues a lot of gravity in its musings and themes from that awareness. And if a lot of its final conclusions appear to be borrowed from Ford’s previous film Fort Apache, Ford’s revisit of them come with a punchier and blunter manner of delivering them and when the legend becomes fact…

*One unexpected benefit of this movie’s existence: Sergio Leone saw Lee Van Cleef playing one of Valance’s henchmen and liked the way he looked so much that he cast him for For a Few Dollars More and then The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

That’ll Be the Day.

For Marshall

“Which movie is the hardest to discuss in this week-long John Ford series?” is a question with a lot of answers, but I think his 1956 picture The Searchers might edge through for the individual reason that – as the film widely considered Ford’s best – it seems like every single thing worth saying has already been said by far more intelligent and articulate film people than myself. It doesn’t help that – as I’m sure you’ve guessed with this being a series exclusively dedicated to what I consider Ford’s masterpieces – I’m not really set to go against conventional wisdom. It’s also the case that The Searchers has been getting the mildest drop in reputation over the past few decades, some of which is understandable if also ungenerous.

Understandable on a thematic sense that is, but we’ll get back to that. On an aesthetic sense, however, I don’t get how anybody couldn’t find it overwhelming. It is Ford’s EPIC in a way that no other picture by him could be, with cinematographer Winton Hoch given the expanse of the VistaVision widescreen film to capture the most out of the Western horizon and then make it feel tired on the part of the washed-out coloring without losing one detail of that rocky and sandy expanse. And this matters all the more so when Jack Murray cuts the sequences with every bit of slack to stress that we are feeling the years pass the characters by on a journey that feels… OK, maybe this is something lost once you have seen the movie but it’s a journey that doesn’t promise any particular satisfaction at the end of it.

I’m getting ahead of myself. What is this journey that the scope in structure and image is in service of? Frank Nugent’s screenplay – adapting the 1954 novel by Alan Le May – begins with Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into the Texas homestead of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy). This arrival is certainly to the pleasure of the children Lucy (Pippa Scott), Debbie (Lana Wood – played later in the film by her sister Natalie), and Ben (Robert Lyden) but less so in the case of Aaron and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) for some unspoken reason. It might be because Ethan did not reach out in three years since the Mexican Revolutionary War he was fighting in ended, it might be the romantic tension between Ethan and Martha, it might be the quiet hostility Ethan shows to their adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) specifically because he resembles his Cherokee descent*. In any case, the elders are not jumping for joy to see Ethan back and when the Law shows up in the form of the Reverend Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) and his posse, there’s even further a friction between Ethan and authorities that are mostly there to recruit help for investigating a cattle theft.

That theft – which Martin accompanies them on as well as Ethan after making a point to NOT swear in – turns out to be a trap, not for the men but for one of their unsuspecting homes. And unfortunately that turns out to be the Edwards’ home, desolated in the wake of a raid and leaving the bodies of Aaron, Martha, and Ben with Debbie and Lucy missing. Something which enrages the already hardened Ethan to go on a search for the two girls with Martin in tow, but it takes very little to scratch the surface and see he’s mostly looking for blood and not for the girls.

In any case, this is a journey that spans over a decade for the two searchers and that timespan takes its toll on both of them, Ethan much more severely as he grows bitter and nastier to Martin in denying him his relationship to the Edwards’ and holding him at a distance compared to the rest of their companions that hop on and then drop off throughout the film (some of whom drop off violently). Which is where Murray’s editing does the most work to slow the flow of momentum. The Searchers doesn’t stop completely but it’s more of a grind under Nugent’s structure and the story’s shape. Certainly one can already call to mind how the iconic opening and closing shots of the movie involving the long empty desert behind a moving door, but there’s also how much of the middle is taken up by a fragmented frame narrative involving the one letter Martin sends to his beau Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) as well as how cyclical the movie’s treatment of hot yellow summers crossfading into soft white winters at least twice before it feels like the few clues Ethan and Martin have (a Comanche Chief named Scar has been seen with Debbie) are finally leading them somewhere. The Searchers is not a very long movie – just a minute shy of 2 hours – but it makes it all felt and then some.

And then there’s still the fact that we are spending it in the company of Ethan, a role embodied by Wayne’s single most caustic performance, not above smiling or having a laugh when he’s under the roof of someone (there is a lot to be said about the dichotomy between Ethan’s domestication and savagery) but whose default manner appears to be a firm scowl under the bright desert sun or the shadow of his brim (this particular rewatch having a close-up round the middle of the film truly catch my eye as a moment where Ethan looks so very vicious, not to mention being a great example of what the VistaVision 35mm does to close-ups as it brings out all the stubble and lines on an old face like Wayne’s). His antagonism towards all the many people he will encounter in that long journey within Hoch’s vista (and particularly being dwarfed by those vistas in pointed ways, just as Ford loves to do to his drama visually) is a big part of what makes The Searchers feel so dark as a story without having to try so hard.

Ethan as a character is only one such way that the movie introduces a cynical attitude about what the Western as a genre yields. Conventionally speaking, The Wild Bunch is considered the first revisionist Western and being that The Searchers was still made in the later end of the 1950s, there was only so much violence that the movie could portray. But the implication of the brutality feels so much stronger than any bloodbath could provide: just look at the wide shot revealing what’s left of the Edwards home, the blackened smokey fire in the middle of nothing. It’s not gruesome but it gives us a chill down our spine just the same in its dark fatalism. Violence is what sobers The Searchers most, whether from the things the characters refuse to say or let others see or how three instances an off-screen death that brings further exhaustion to the mission. And particularly in the manner it frames Ethan’s meting of his own violence. One of his earliest moments on this search is to desecrate a found Comanche corpses as a low-angle shot, deliberately in a manner most offensive to the Comanche beliefs. Later, we have a middle shot witnessing Ethan about to commit a heinous act of desecration mirroring an taunt displayed to him just before by Scar himself (Henry Brandon).

Which brings us to the matter of racism and The Searchers. It seems to be a continuing question brought up by both apologists and critics of the film alike: Is The Searchers commenting on racism or is it just plain racist? Not to be too flippant, but I feel the movie makes itself explicitly clear on this matter: Ethan Edwards is a bad person who does not belong in any sort of society (a hell of a reversal on the first big Ford and Wayne collaboration Stagecoach condemning society). But even the Comanche is given the sense of civilization from their organization once we see them and the part-Cherokee Martin plays as a voice of reason and understanding against Ethan’s brutal tactics and philosophies, most often when the possibility of Lucy and Debbie’s miscegenation among the Comanches is brought up and Ethan determines death is a preferable fate for the girls. When they finally meet Scar face-to-face, Scar turns out to be very eloquent and has no trouble communicating his anger towards Ethan and his people with an attitude that feels rather of a kin to Ethan’s rancor (this is maybe the only area where casting a white man as Scar feels like it pays off, otherwise one of my only two issues with the movie besides the intolerable wise fool character giving undeserved comic relief). In nearly every aspect of Ethan’s characterization, he is wrong and the manner with which the film makes the shape of shadow (from the cowboy hat) on Ethan’s face more solid than any other movie Wayne made with Ford is impossible to ignore.

But Ethan is still not just some two-dimensional surprise villain and I think it’s the ending of The Searchers that most appears to complicate its tone as well as Ethan’s character logic in a major final decision, where Max Steiner’s previously weighty score (another area of projected exhaustion from The Searchers) makes a 180 over to this soft idyllic cue that transforms to melancholy in the final moments. And it just all fits, even despite giving us no indication to expect The Searchers to go that route and if anything preparing us for the opposite by having it play as the aftermath of one of Ethan’s most vicious actions. But it still effortlessly swings into those tones of relief and sadness in the last few minutes in an emotionally consistent way before we watch that famous shot of Ethan looking through the doorway but turning around and walking away from us as it closes. Maybe it’s that humane complexity about Ethan that causes everyone to feel like it undercuts its pessimism up to that point. I don’t agree though…

… Because it still marches towards the same final observations The Searchers about the Western and its place in the world anymore. That it idealizes a lone hero who is in fact just a violent bully, that it romanticizes a landscape that has no blatant feeling of the drama within it (Hoch’s cinematography being more realist in its mythic iconography than anything Ford made before or since), that it vilifies a race and enemy that has its own pain and its own establishment and agency. Not too long ago, I was faced with someone dismissing The Searchers with the claim that “I’m sure it was subversive for its time” but I absolutely don’t subscribe to liking movies for being “subversive for their time”. The Searchers is still subversive now in 2021 deconstructing and critiquing elements of storytelling mythology that is used to this day (plus I mean… I love The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but it’s not like we stopped having movies portray Native Americans as “savages”) and it’s a wonder that even if you’re not willing to accept how insightful it is as an amalgamation and examination of everything Ford accomplished in his career to that point, you can’t help surrendering into the shadow of a never harsher vision of that long surviving horizon in the American Southwest.

*Which like… Jeffrey Hunter, even with his tan here, resembles a Cherokee about as much as I resemble Bruce Lee. But if I’m going to meet this movie halfway…

Only an American Would Have Thought of Emerald Green

When I began this writing project on John Ford’s 7 masterpieces in Marshall’s memory, I knew that I wanted to revisit his 1952 film The Quiet Man despite having already given a review a couple of years ago that I still stand pretty well by. For the continuous momentum, for the blunt fact that 6 reviews over a week does not look as good as 7 reviews, for the fact that it WAS a movie Marshall loved, and most of all just to give myself an excuse to rewatch it the way I am always looking for an excuse to rewatch my old favorites. But of course, that comes with wanting to talk about The Quiet Man without really knowing what to talk ABOUT. And then a few hours before I was freed up to pop my blu-ray in and revisit that beautiful green land of Innisfree… I found myself scrolling through a few of our old facebook messages together and found this…

An angle of The Quiet Man that I didn’t even feint towards in my past review and so – with thanks to Marshall directly for guiding me here – my rewatch occurred looking at the ways in which The Quiet Man is very much about this. Which should be obvious in its authorship – John Ford being an American with Irish ancestry born John Feeney or, to his claim, Sean Aloysius O’Fearna – as well as in its premise. You could just read the back of your DVD or blu-ray case to identify this in its plot summary. Sean Thornton (John Wayne, also of Irish descent and did you know his real name is Marion?) returns to his birthplace of Innisfree, Ireland after a hard life in Pittsburgh trying to bury his past in America with this idealized version of his homeland. But let’s go a bit deeper into how A Quiet Man is about this…

Everything we learn about Sean’s life in America is of hardship and most of that established from the beginning. His grandfather died in an Austalian Penal Colony, both of his parents dead before he was 12 years old, grew up in destitution next to a “slag heaps” (a piece of dialogue that calls back specifically to the imminent coal rundown future of How Green Was My Valley). It’s important to note that two of the figures that raised him ended up dying outside outside of their homeland – Sean’s mother and grandfather – and his father of a “bad accident” before America, implying Sean’s barely has memory of him. And so he is brought to feel like what little memories and stories his mother told him of Innisfree and his childhood home White O’Mourn, he recognizes Innisfree as “another word for Heaven”, something instantly shot down by the local Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) as “Innisfree is far from being Heaven, Mr. Thornton” as well as her immediate assumption not that Sean wishes to live once more there but that he seeks to create a monument or memorial of the shack.

Nevertheless, Sean tries to build his own heaven and it’s a little bit more of the fantasy version where he reconstructs White O’Mourn with rusticity that is greeted not necessarily with condescension but with some amount of surprise. His choice to paint his home door green at one point is treated as a charming perculiarity – “Only an American would have thought of Emerald Green”, as this review’s title quotes – and there is a later scoffing at his choice of things to plant once he makes to create a garden on the lands. Which is to say that Sean is trying very hard to fit with an image of Ireland that might be more in his head than in the land before we even reach the major conflict of the film, where Squire “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen, for this is obviously Ford’s most Irish film since The Informer and that of course means McLaglen will be front and center)’s deep grudge at Sean for claiming his birthright of White O’Mourn just before Danaher was aiming to purchase the home and the complications that ensue when Sean and Will’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara, returning among other actual Irish Ford regulars like a never-better Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields) court and marry.

But this is talking more explicit narrative evidence and if there’s one thing I hope I’ve indicated John Ford does, it’s how he says things a whole lot better through aesthetics. The primary one being that Sean – despite our noting that he very much born in Ireland – does not have an Irish accent. And it can be safe to say the reason is practical, as Ford and Wayne’s earlier collaboration The Long Voyage Home indicated that accents are probably not Wayne’s strongest suit. Regardless, the result is strong: when even Ward Bond is able to put on an Irish brogue in his delivery, Wayne is going to look plenty out of place amongst this otherwise friendly company (let alone when it’s actually antagonistic to him like Red and Mary Kate).

Beyond that, The Quiet Man still feels somewhat an autocritique of Sean’s mindset returning home as it appears to be Ford’s mindset making the movie, being born in Maine and to my knowledge this being the first time he was in Ireland, creating his own image of how the land should look. I’ve never been to Ireland (though Odin help me, I will try to make that not the case* before I die) and it is sad to say I know very few Irish people, but I think it’s safe to say that the manner in which Ford presents the land and its people is… shall we say animated? It indulges in a multitude of stereotypes about drinking and impishness and throwing fisticuffs (which of course we will get back to) and fiery redheads of the sort, but it doesn’t lack one bit of sincerity and it seems as better a home for that loving jabbing at Ford’s ethnic background. Besides which, I can’t imagine that mindset also didn’t inform Ford and returning cinematographer Winston Hoch to make green by far the most saturated of the colors in The Quiet Man, though plenty more are prevalent with one we will particularly note.

Back to the complications of Sean and the Danahers. Those complications are the basis of when Sean starts to recognize that Irish customs of domesticity don’t exactly match up to his expectations and to deal with that. Red particularly is spending most of his appearance trying to goad Sean into a physical fight but this is something Sean is adamant on preventing, but it’s more Mary Kate whom he has to look out for. In a movie full of greens, Mary Kate is almost exclusively set in blues and reds, normally the former when she’s at her most agreeable and red when she’s at her most confrontational with Sean and a balance of both the scenes that require the most complexity out of O’Hara’s performance. Either way, her visual color palette cuts particularly through the greenery (including and especially her introductory wide shot) in a manner that interrupts the exact sort of Irish landscape that Sean was looking for when he arrived. Eventually, this becomes more or less a visual struggle between green and blue – when Sean tries to adapt to Irish customs of courtship is where we see him most in blue and outside of the third act, it is an outright fish out of water look. Just consider this hilarious two-shot of them in marriage…

Later on a mixup causes Red to be so infuriated that he refuses to provide Mary Kate’s dowry and that’s the real kicker in Sean and Mary Kate’s marriage. To Sean, he’s abandoning materialism and possessions in the US – particularly after a life of having none – but Mary Kate’s possessions of her own earning from her own hard life and Sean does not seem to truly understand that, causing the biggest hurdle for them two as a couple. Particularly Mary Kate’s frustration that Sean doesn’t care to integrate her way of life with his and will not fight for her, something Sean really needs to be convinced of and where his status as an outsider truly brings him at a divide.

The moment that indicates Sean’s reason for not wanting to fight and for leaving America in the first place is a flashback distinct in both being the only sequence we see set in America and the only one that’s abstract: the backdrop is darkened beyond a backlight for Sean’s stunned posture and when we see him taking a seat and being covered in something comforting… what is important to note is that his name is embroidered in green of all things in that one flashback sequence. A visual anchor right back to where we meet Sean and a moment of personal contention before making his decision to finally accept and engage the fight for his identity and his new home, a moment where he cuts along through the field of green marching and dragging along with Mary Kate in a blue shirt. And his blue shirt matches up well against Red’s own blue when they finally have their phenomenal and unforgettable fisticuffs match (on top of being the moment where Victor Young’s score, the best ever made for a Ford film, get most indulgent in traditional instrumentation after previously just sprinkling Irish airs whenever Sean seems to get closest to getting it) which ends specifically with a dissolve to the two of them side by side, blue sleeved arm over the other’s back, embraced like brothers now… no decisive result of the fight, just that it ended with Sean’s acceptance. And blue-shirted he remains in his final shot as well when we literally say farewell to every character with their own direct address close-ups and two-shots.

So there you have it: John Ford took the opportunity with The Quiet Man to imbue his own sense of what Ireland would look like to the mind of someone whose heart belongs there but does not come from there. And in turn that informs The Quiet Man‘s tale of an Irish-American trying to have Ireland fit into his foreign idea of the land before taking solace in being a part of the culture itself and reclaiming his heritage. And like all of Ford’s best masterpieces, he lets this psychology fit just as well into the strong and striking visuals even in a movie as easy-going and easy-on-the-eyes as The Quiet Man.

*in this asterisk, I shall hide my shame that I was at one point in consideration of an internship at Cartoon Saloon before pulling out.

She Wore It in the Winter and the Merry Month of May

For Marshall

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – the second entry in John Ford’s informal Cavalry trilogy – is not Ford’s first rodeo with color filmmaking or even his first rodeo with the famous early three-strip Technicolor process. That privilege belongs to Drums Along the Mohawk ten years prior to Yellow Ribbon‘s 1949 release. But that movie doesn’t yield nearly the amount of ambition with this development in cinema as our current subject, so we shall forgive She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for doing it first as it does it best. Because whoa nelly does it do it best, well enough to win the year’s Oscar for Best Color Cinematography at the very least but that’s hardly a worthy award for the sort of formidable imagery we are granted as our window to the mythic West.

One such reason is because of what it is capturing in brilliant color: John Ford’s favorite shooting location Monument Valley, the very image of the West now transformed to more immediate presence and making a great leap from Fort Apache‘s cracked texturing of that landscape into bringing more awareness to the brush and the shadow in relation to the warm colors of that mountainous desert environment. And another is the fact that as the second film of that Cavalry trilogy, now we truly get to watch the proud bright blue and yellow of their uniforms in those lovely landscapes.

But it’s not just the colors and shapes of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but what they are representing: it perhaps moves past How Green Was My Valley as Ford’s most sentimental film but if it is not as surprisingly fatalist as that movie or Yellow Ribbon‘s earliest predecessor Fort Apache, Ford, returning co-writer Frank Nugent, and co-writer Laurence Stallings – adapting TWO Saturday Evening Post stories by James Warner Bellah – bring an awareness of the end of things to come and the place of the cavalry and their duties in the scope of the world. Nugent and Stallings’ screenplay follows the last days of Fort Starke’s Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne), which happen to overlap with the days after Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn (making this a spiritual sequel to Fort Apache is a more direct way) and so the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes are emboldened by their victory to combine forces against the US and move for war. Brittles’ order from Major Allshard (George O’Brien) for his remaining five days is to quell the Native Americans’ desire for war and in the meantime accompany Allshard’s wife Abbey (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) to an eastbound stagecoach.

And so for most of the movie’s runtime, we are instead brought to watch the Fort Starke Cavalry prepare for the journey and then just move on the road alongside them as a passenger and Ford’s aim appears to be just enjoying the company and miniature dramas of each of these men, whether the rivalry for Olivia’s romantic affections between 1st Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) or Victor McLaglen’s boistourous default Irish drunkard now taking the form of 1st Sergeant Quincannon or Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson)’s reconnaissance mission or just Brittles dealing with the fact that he is going to have to walk away from this life very soon and his adventure is over.

Which seems as good an avenue as any to say that while Fort Apache is Wayne’s best performance… Brittles is a very able to challenge to that being the case. Part of that is how well the makeup – with its lines on his face and the broad white streaks in his hair – does to transform him into an aged man (Wayne was only 41 years old at the time) and the manner in which, without particularly changing his regular performance method in a big way, Wayne is able to modulate a sense of regret and looking back that anchors this movie’s fondness for the characters he finds his sense of belonging with (and I think that most of these actors had already worked with Ford amplifies that familiarity for a regular viewer of Ford’s). And particularly the level of emotion he would display according to who was his screen partner crafts together the image of Brittles of a man who is a big softie but cannot stand to let anyone see it, something performed in subtle places where Wayne can fit in honest reactions to loneliness or disappointment or tenderness… all things that will turn out to be necessarily present in Brittles’ character arc as his final steps towards retirement do not appear to go in the direction that he hopes. And in turn She Wore a Yellow Ribbon turns out to be an analysis of where warmth and gentleness belong in masculinity – the idea that it is ok to apologize, even in spite of the famous line “never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness” and to feel for a man – something that isn’t acknowledged nearly as much in this world of toxic masculinity and in which Ford was known to live by in his life despite trying very hard not to betray how easily emotional he could become.

And yet then there is all of these magnificent nature-based wideshots in all the wonder the camera was capable of providing for the painterly scenery that is the American Southwest. For even in the immortalizing of the cavalry’s soul as men, it is small in the face of this magnificent untouched desert land and Ford with cinematographer Winston Hoch never run out of ways to transform these panoramas into magnificently romantic variables of light and surface, particularly in a famous central scene set in a thunderstorm where ever hue is captured with the sort of straightforward darkness that a overcast sky could blanket upon the day but allowing each crack to make the colors burst ever so aggressively each second. The awareness of how light responds to the vistas differently in color than in black and white is something Ford and Hoch were expected to get hold of if She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was going to work, but their ambition with changing the lighting of not just each sequence but within the shots themselves is extraordinary. To say nothing of the gorgeous red-mixing sunset silhouettes that come at She Wore a Yellow Ribbon‘s most sentimental.

Even more so in the manner that while the colors of those cavalry outfits proudly call out in the vastness, the movie visual gives the encroaching Cheyenne and Arapaho confederacy the same distinguished space within this vast framing of this land as the Cavalry… maybe a manner in which John Ford did not want to roll back on all the progress of Fort Apache interrogating the United States’ history of relations with Indigenous people. I’ll confess even the most progressive Western picture – which Fort Apache may very well be among – still gets a bit dubious for me on its treatment of Native Americans, but I’d forgotten how clearly Ford seems to be willing to favor and even understand the objections of the Native Americans in this picture (giving them a blunt voice in the form of Chief John Big Tree’s performance as Pony-That-Walks). The major thesis of this movie is not that the Cheyenne or Arapaho are wrong (and while it is easy to make the mistake of Custer’s death and defeat being something that provides foreboding in this picture, the context of Fort Apache instantly disabuses that), but that war is not something favorable for anyone. Even when Major Allshard moves for war and the early third act of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon embodies a sort of resentful regret on what could not be done and what may very well be on the horizon, Brittles is looking for a way to circumvent that by any means necessary (there is other things that Nugent & Stallings’ script tries to circumvent at the last second and it leads to the ending being the single biggest mark against the movie, but it takes up so little runtime and the movie is over before I know it that the movie still remains a masterpiece in my eye).

There’s a humanity throughout She Wore a Yellow Ribbon welcome to any presence within it, no matter how big or small the part (I honestly am surprised that Johnson makes the biggest impression on me as a performance outside of Wayne), and it’s through there that Ford is able to fill this ostensibly simple color western with awe of the land, sobering reconsiderations, musings on how to be a man, and camaraderie with others. The movie that most betrays the soul of John Ford is a very tough bet to make (especially considering how much of his 100+ movies I haven’t seen and ESPECIALLY with the knowledge that Fort Apache and The Quiet Man exist) but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems most characteristic of Ford as a person to give the impression of a big tough guy and still break down before the picture or grave of a loved one and try to find the words to express personal failure. And it is through that personality that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon becomes more than just one of the most gorgeous films ever made… it becomes an extremely dense character study on top of it.

Here Come the Cavalry

For Marshall – Whose Unprompted Discussion on this Film Played a Huge Part in Considering the Complexity Behind John Ford, The Man.

Between How Green Was My Valley in 1941 and My Darling Clementine in 1946, America entered World War II and subsequently John Ford served in the Navy Reserve during that time as well as in the OSS, photographically capturing The Battle of Midway (the film he made out of the footage being among the 4 winners of the very first Best Documentary Oscar*), D-Day on Omaha Beach, and the conditions of the Nazi concentration camps. And based on his account of how these men he came to personally know and photograph began to die before him, Ford was shaken by the experience and the memory of his fallen comrades for the rest of his days.

I can’t help thinking that his famous Cavalry trilogy was something of an attempt to tribute the memory of these fallen men while also grappling with what his personal objections with both the history of the United States and its fascination with valorizing itself for even the most craven or dishonorable military actions on the part of men who decide the fate of people beneath them solely on the justification of rank. Maybe I’m just playing dimestore psychologist a bit too much and Ford’s longstanding memories of documenting the battlefield is seldom connected with his later reevaluated outlook on life and subsequent probing of the Western genre’s attempt at mythologizing US history are completely unrelated. But one thing that is undeniable is that Ford’s 1948 film that opened the Cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, is the most morally complex film that I have seen out of his films yet. Even moreso than The Searchers, which is a whole lot more pure in its cynicism, and even moreso than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which walks where Fort Apache ran.

The script – the first written by film critic-turned-screenwriter Frank S. Nugent as well as the beginning of his long working relationship with Ford – adapts James Warner Bellah’s Saturday Evening Post short story “Massacre” which in turn takes inspiration from Lieutenant Colonel George S. Custer’s infamous Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn. And if there’s one punch Ford and Nugent pull, it’s that their Custer stand-in is not nearly as repulsive a human being as Custer appeared to be, though Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is never anything less than an antagonistic figure among his peers with an undisguised resentment at his sending off to the Fort Apache cavalry post. This is no less disappointing to the men already stationed at Fort Apache as everyone was expecting command to be taken by Captain Kirby York (John Wayne) who is significantly more relaxed in his handling of the troops than Thursday’s obsession with image and dignity.

A good amount of the film watches York and Thursday quietly joust on what genteelness matters when it comes to treating others, where Fonda projects an elitism that is satisfied more with its façade of properness and in the meanwhile we see the ease with which York may handle responsibility with men he understands whilst making room for something like a hang out picture within the cavalry (embodied particularly by John Agar’s square-jawed Lieutenant Mickey O’Rourke and Mickey’s father Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, played by Ward Bond but given even more ease by the presence of Ford favorites Victor McLaglen and Hank Worden as well as Pedro Armendáriz and particularly George O’Brien as the one true bridge between Thursday’s decorum and York’s principles), where Ford and cinematographer Archie Stout keep a clear awareness of which between the two major cinematic icons Fonda and Wayne are favored in their shared coverage and the men of cavalry are covered from chaotic early sequences of indiscipline to later developments of visual pageantry with their organization within the frame.

And yet the biggest clash between York and Thursday comes about halfway through the film when they are to investigate the remnants of a ravaged supply wagon and uncover corruption on the part of government agent Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). Meacham was responsible for the supply of the Apache people on the reservation but York is pretty quickly able to illustrate to Thursday how Meacham was, knowingly and possible even with the US government’s approval, neglecting and betraying their trust. This is a betrayal and mistreatment severe enough to facilitate the wide-scale death of the Apache people and necessitate their defiance of the United States government by fleeing to Mexico. At which point, Thursday shows his true colors by addressing Meacham with his gentleman manner despite showing almost as much contempt for him as York while York speaks freely of the way the United States government betrayed and displaced the Indigenous people for its entire history. And I mean FREELY, York’s monologuing leaves no room for misunderstanding when makes clear that the United States is responsible for the near-eradication of Native Americans and continues to maintain this violence in passive-aggressive ways.

Thursday’s demeanor and posture to Meacham will particularly have its foil when the cavalry inevitably comes face to face with Cochise (Miguel Inclan) as Thursday refuses to favor even the slightest compromise with the Apache people or consider them on equal footing, calling them “savages” as the favored term of many anti-indigenous racists. A treatment of the indigenous that York outright declares to find dishonorable and potentially lethal. And those who know what happened to Custer can probably guess where Fort Apache is going with this, yet nevertheless I think I will give the courtesy of SPOILER WARNING as it’s impossible to discuss the power of Fort Apache without discussing its landing blows. But suffice it to say that the ending moments are where Fonda’s rigid arrogance and combativeness with anyone beneath him gets at its most tragic and what was already an excellent usage of Wayne’s screen soulfulness to depict a man who will find ways to bend his duty serving everyone as they should be served becomes richer and his career best performance, even beyond the obvious need to be convincing as someone who believes the Apache people were wronged and should be treated with honor**.

For one thing, the finale portrays much of Thursday’s strategically inept commands in the final battle with some detached ambiguity. We are aware that Thursday is leading men to their deaths for the “glory” of it and the refusal to accept the Apache as people but that’s specifically because York gives lip service to it. And yet Ford shoots the cavalry’s preparations and marches with no less the sort of painterly iconography as any other piece of art that rhapsodizes history, particularly taking advantage with Stout of the horizontal axis with the frame. It is the tinge of fatalism, only explicitly delivered at the very last moments of the fight in a pair of shots that is outright chilling in its desolation, that determines the dark disenchantment with how the Cavalry builds these men up only to have them die very avoidable deaths. And even in that fatalism, Thurday’s arc as a character gives just the slightest tone of nobility to his final decision when an opportunity is offered to him to return back alive to his daughter Philadelphia (former child actor legend Shirley Temple, Agar’s wife at the time, who is a perfect screen partner for Fonda’s few times where he reveals Thursday’s heart***).

And before I move on from this sequence, it is the moment where the extra textures in the infrared film with which Fort Apache was shot pay off magnificently, showing off the crags and lines of Monument Valley with more intimacy than Ford’s previous films shot there and particularly with a heart-stopping final wide shot to the scene where York marches into a miniature sandstorm kicked up by Cochise’s horse with a pregnant tension for us to watch all that grain swallow the entire frame before settling into an image that is shattering in its firm punctuation.

And then there is the true final scene – the one that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would later absolutely remake in its own context – and Wayne’s muted responses to the reporters’ questions regarding and the neutral tired face of his when he confirms the most romanticized stories of a fight we saw Thursday lose hard with a stony two-shot close-up that just leaves me numb when I see it, insisting that there’s nothing that can be done to salvage the truth about what Thursday did. And then he moves on to take his command in a similar fashion as Thursday but not before delivering one last accolade regarding the bravery of the less-decorated men in the cavalry and a hope that York will use his power to bring the Apache back as the government orders under terms of decency and regained trust of his own accord, with a final sequence returning to that pageantry in a more optimistic tone that manages not to undercut all we just watched 20 minutes ago.

This is a movie with a lot of unexpected relevance up to the year 2020: Thursday’s actions reflecting the manner in which the oppressors are treated as opposed to the oppressed so that the cries are never heart and the status quo remains the same. The final sequence reminding us of how even to this day, the United States will pat itself on the back for accomplishing nothing except so many graves (and I almost forgot to mention how this one of the few John Ford movies where the comic relief works, specifically because of how the amicability of the characters contextualizes the horrors of watching some of them die). The maintained ego of the nation in expecting that their most disenfranchised will take their meager supplies and like it as well as how it will twist any fact to make itself took good.

One last note for what is turning out to be a much longer review than I anticipated. You have seen above myself refer to Wayne’s personal disagreements with what Fort Apache posits regarding the Native Americans and the unnecessary nature of war (which is ironic given that unlike Ford, Wayne was a draft dodger). Ford is probably a bit more complicated to claim: he has long held good relations with several Indigenous Nations (indeed, that’s how he was able to shoot in the Navajo country of Monument Valley for most of his career), used his military connections specifically to supply food and resources to Native Americans, while also fighting and enforcing equal pay among his Native American and Black actors during his career, but I also just can’t help being dubious of anyone who was even cursorily involved in The Birth of a Nation (in which an uncredited Ford was an extra as a klansman!).

Nevertheless, this feels more than anything like his reckoning with the mythologizing that the Western brings to some of this country’s darkest historical acts with an evidently immortal positive light, ostensibly for the founding of the nation but realistically at the cost of summarily killing the Indigenous people. And it’s not a straightforward reckoning – Fort Apache is pro-cavalryman but somehow anti-cavalry and certainly indulges in some classical cowboy on the horizon imagery for the heroic – but it is nevertheless a reckoning most aware of the casualties and enraged by the institutionalized and historical dishonor on the part of the United States with Ford’s willingness to indict himself. Because I don’t think it’s for nothing that the very same people Ford portrayed as stereotypical barbarity in Stagecoach are the ones that are given a much clearer light as civilized men fighting back against blatant injustice and persecution with this film. Ford did not choose the Apache people to be in this movie by accident anymore than he chose to craft a massive tragedy to reflect in scope off of what may be his sharpest auto-critique against the Western genre he had a hand in building to the esteem it was in 1948.

*Which would later be joined by a Best Short Subject, Documentary Oscar for an agitprop doc about Pearl Harbor’s attack.
**John Wayne was a fucking racist, among other things. That is an undeniable truth about the actor that may very well have been apparent before his infamous 1971 interview with Playboy magazine, but as someone who was not born until well after John Wayne was laid to rest, that was the smoking gun for me. There is no context in which the words “I believe in white supremacy” is an ok thing.
***And honestly, I can’t think of a more knowingly iconic casting of parent and child than having Henry Fonda be the father of Shirley Temple.

“You wouldn’t understand, cowboy. You’ve never seen an angel…”

Stagecoach is, to my mind, one of the best shot films in all of cinema (it’s also one of the best written films in all of cinema) and I resent that 3 screencaps and 1 gif used in my review of the film is not enough to illustrate that. So, if it would please y’all as much as it pleases me, I would like to dedicate this post as a brief gallery of some of my favorite shots I did not use in that review (though if you have not seen Stagecoach, I suggest you just experience them in motion and context… which comes with the bonus of seeing Stagecoach).

NOTE: Some of these screencaps come from Some Came Running, some from Hamlette’s Soliloquy, some from Row Three, and the rest come from me screencapping off a copy available off of YouTube. I regret that I could not screencap from the gorgeous 2013 Criterion blu-ray I have, but I insist it is the best way to watch the thing short of seeing it in a movie theater.

…And The Valley of Them That Have Gone

For Marshall – who was one of the first people I’d met who’d push back on this movie’s ill-deserved legacy

We all know the infamous results of the 14th Academy Awards in 1942, where How Green Was My Valley won 5 Oscars including the third Best Director win for John Ford and Best Picture. And that happened at the cost of Citizen Kane, thereby leading to nearly 70 years of backlash that insisted because How Green Was My Valley was not worthy of that award because the win was stolen from “The Best Movie Ever”. What this post pre-supposes is… maybe this win was deserved.

It really was. Certainly, How Green Was My Valley is not better than Citizen Kane (likewise, Orson Welles is my favorite director where as John Ford is only my favorite American director) but not being as good as Citizen Kane still leaves room for being one of the best movies ever made.

And I get how it may feel like the sentiment inherent in How Green Was My Valley‘s storytelling from a script by Phillip Dunne adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn was being awarded as a reaction to Kane‘s cold cynicism but if you may permit me the chance, I’d like to propose that How Green Was My Valley accomplishes that sentiment of a child’s memory but from the eyes of an adult that clearly came to recognize the beginnings of what is a darker and immediate present. After all, that present is the first thing we are faced with: an unseen narrator voiced by an uncredited Irving Pichel observes with us a blackened and smoke-filled hillside Welsh village as he prepares to leave that place for good. The shot hovers past his hands mid-packing and exiting out the window of his home where blackened ground and smog from the nearby colliery greets us by filling the sky’s place in the frame with gray toxicity.

After Pichel delivers his defiant monologue for remembering the valley the way it was over the way it now is, we fade into a view of the major road where young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell) and his father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) are able to view mountains as far as seen filled with trees and brightness in Arthur Miller’s glowing black-and-white cinematography. But even within that opening introduction to our narrator’s – who is identifiable as the adult Huw – childhood reminiscences, the beginnings of that “black slag, the waste of the colliery” is visible (including a shot where it takes up a third of the frame at the top of the village’s adjacent hill. That slag is introduced to us in the frame narrative with practically half of the village’s homes buried beneath it, thereby even from the start of Huw’s waxing we are grimly reminded that the destruction of this village has already begun.

And before I go on, if I may note something I really love about the way these first three minutes (for indeed, I’ve only JUST described the first three minutes!) invite us to watch Huw’s memories with him: the introductory montage in the present brings us to face the remnants of the village with James B. Clark’s straightforward cuts to each reveal but then once we fade into the past, a single moment – Huw and his father walking to the coal slag before Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) calls out to them through song and Huw calls her back with the same tune – features crossfades between the shots, giving it a more associative experience rather than continuous. Which is an outstanding usage of editing a single event to tell us how this is a movie will communicate moments popping into the mind of a man rather than an active history. It will not return for most of the film, but as mental place-setting, it did all it needed to in those 3 minutes.

Something else that won’t necessarily return until later is the sense of things becoming for the worse, since this is in the end a movie about adult Huw’s attempts to maintain nostalgia as Pichel’s narration never ceases to be warm and wistful no matter what the scene be. Even while the central colliery remains hovering over the village with its smoke and its waste taking up one isolated quarter of the landscape shots involving that lovely and cozy village main village road (a studio set* designed by Richard Day and Nathan Juran in a manner that greatly favors Miller’s full frame and Ford’s attempts to resemble 19th Century British landscape paintings), Huw plays softball selecting early memories like his eldest brother Ivor (Patric Knowles)’s marriage (and Huw’s immediate infatuation with his sister-in-law, Bronwyn (Anna Lee)), the men working that colliery that make up that village’s entire economy singing proudly in Welsh at the end of the working day as they prepare to wash up the soot covering their bodies, and the pleasant domesticity of dinner together with the family.

And yet before very long, we are faced with the first major conflict: the wages of the coal mine workers has been cut and the remaining four of Huw’s brothers that were living in the Morgan home clash with their father on the matter of creating a Union to protect their rights as workers. And then further on, more quiet conflicts occur at the margins of Huw’s happy memories until they start taking over the narrative structure. That’s the most impressive thing about Dunne’s writing here: the way it lets the events play episodically until they catch together in momentum to the inevitable around halfway through. It is also one of the ways this movie allows Ford to slip in as much of his socialist politics as possible: the union business, the lingering presence of capitalism and the awareness of its coming effects, and he even fits in environmentalism in the quietest (though not subtle) ways.

In any case, just as much as Pichel attempts to provide resilience to the early signs of his village and his family’s future, there is still one more formal element to provide reinforcement to that swell and it’s Ford and Miller’s favor of wide shots and wide angle lenses. Which certainly makes sense for exterior sequences that add to the sense of community when we witness all the workers filling the streets and the screen, singing together or marching together or even just need a reminder of what is at stake with the shots of the entire village and what is coming with the colliery standing in the back. But the interior sequences – those particularly in the Gwilym home, though the chapel in which Pastor Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) preaches between acting Huw’s secondary father figure has a significant presence and there is also an incredible usage of a schoolhouse hallway that stresses the out-of-placement of certain characters – give up the game by abiding by the same angles and lenses where we see just how tightly fit together the Morgans are in their own home, particularly when they get to pull Ford’s favorite trick of capturing the ceilings (introduced earlier in Stagecoach). Yet even within those homey walls, there are battles to be lost: the forces of the colliery ruining the livelihood and home of these people move back as the interpersonal conflicts take center stage, some of which are the acts of good people not knowing right (such as the afore-mentioned tension between Gwilym and his sons on unionizing), some are complex (as in the romance between Gruffydd and Angharad), and some are just the cruel acts of the vindictive (the deacon Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields) is the closest this movie has to an antagonist).

It is perhaps through the characters (and the ensemble’s lively way of playing them even at their most significant hardships) that Huw most finds his memories faced with a lack of pure sweetness. The perspective of which we are particularly watching Gwilym beckons the sort of uncontested admiration a son would have of his father, aided by the firm human patience with which Crisp (in an Oscar winning performance) fills Gwilym. But yet there are moments where Gwilym is fundamentally wrong and while it is admiring to recognize the manner in which Gwilym holds tightly to patience and manners, the course of events eventually locks on what his second oldest son Ianto (John Loder) declares “If manners are what keeps us from speaking the truth, then we shall be without manners”. Gwilym’s demeanor and role in the family are idealized tenfold especially from the eyes of a child, but it is not the answer in all cases and it unfortunately leads to the inevitable dissolution of the household by the end of it all (and maybe the best function of Sara Allgood as Gwilym’s wife Beth, the matron of the family, is how she gives by far the most emotive performance and the sadder moments in her performance give way to a better knowingness of where we are being led to than anybody else on-screen). Meanwhile, Gruffydd himself is a more grounded figure in Huw’s life who – even in his capacity as spiritual leader – leads the people to more down-to-earth perspectives and matters. And yet in the first of essentially two climaxes in this film, he finally betrays himself to an emotional outburst that promises all bridges burnt against the hypocrisies of the church he works in, something the film finds extremely unmanned even in the truthfulness of it all.

And so here I declare that How Green Was My Valley, even as blessedly affectionate and romantic about the past as it may be, is doing so in a defiant struggle against the clarity of what the real implications and consequence of the times Huw lived in as a boy. And the result is something as effectively bittersweet as anything else could be when introducing a boy’s dearest recollections the sort of gravity only a mature mind can recognize, something more complex than I feel the detractors give How Green Was My Valley credit for. Can it truly be blamed for wanting to indulge as much as possible in its maudlin sympathies? Can a man truly be condemned for wanting to remember simpler times, especially as he recognizes they were not so simple at the same time as the viewer does? That the very final moments of How Green Was My Valley fights the grimmest tragedy with the comforting fact of the affable homeliness at the very beginnings of this memory’s journey (including recalling the sing song calling in a new context) and refuses to return to that initial frame narrative before the credits gives me the sense that even if the past is distant and the present is impossible to escape, perhaps Huw’s battle was not in vain. And that is impossible for me to disparage in any capacity, especially in how it stands as memorable to me as any of Ford’s Westerns.

*An outlier amongst Ford’s pictures, which are usually shot on location. Unfortunately, the ongoing Second World War – which Ford would later famously be involved in documenting just after this movie was released – made shooting in Wales out of the question.

The Journey Is The Destination

For Marshall

It is the most tempting thing to approach Stagecoach in terms of where it lands with John Ford’s career and John Wayne’s career, both of which are slightly overstated by history considering that Wayne was already trying very hard to break as a star and Ford had already been so well-established as a Hollywood filmmaker that he even had a Best Director Oscar under his belt. This IS a pair of men who collaborated on a movie that ends with the message “print the legend”, but in any case the legend has some amount of truth to it: this is, more than any other shot at stardom that Wayne took, the one that made him the face of American cinema for the next 20 years at least. And while it wouldn’t be too accurate to call this the movie where Ford came together with his own style, I am tempted to say that as John Ford’s most perfect film… it was a necessary launchpad of his legacy into further masterpieces. Indeed, why – in a chronological series where I am talking about the 7 films of Ford’s that I give five stars ratings to – this is the first movie I’m talking about.

Indeed, it would be tempting to talk about Stagecoach as a John Wayne movie but that would slightly neglect the excellent manner in which Stagecoach functions as an ensemble piece, even while it definitely favors Wayne as a screen persona (who is solely billed under Claire Trevor). In a genre like the Western that is more often than not seen as a metaphor for society and adjacent topics, Dudley Nichols’ screenplay – adapted from the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox – functions efficiently in that utilisation. The characters in Stagecoach are archetypes before they are flesh-and-blood, but lived in archetypes that feel real in the confines of the story from the collected performances: There’s Dallas (Trevor), an ousted prostitute from the Arizona town of Tonto, accompanied on the coach proudly by fellow disgrace Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell). As Boone is an alcoholic, he very easily takes a liking to the fretful whiskey salesman Peacock (Donald Meek), and as a Union veteran, he takes conflict with the ex-Confederate gambler Hatfield (John Carradine). Hatfield himself joins the stage at the last second-to-last second as a gentleman to accompany the Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) as she journeys to reunite with her cavalry hero husband and secretly carries a child in her womb. That actual last-second passenger before the stage departs from Tonto ends up being the windbag banker Gatewood (Benton Churchill), attempting to embezzle money. Driving the carriage to Lordsburg, New Mexico is the unceasingly talkative Buck (Andy Devine) while riding shotgun is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) in the hope that he’ll have a chance to catch the recently escaped prisoner The Ringo Kid, who seeks revenge in that same destination. Very early on the road, Curley gets his wish and catches up with Ringo as his prisoner and one final additional occupant to the coach…

This is probably the only time here where I’ll talk about Stagecoach like the John Wayne show, but Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon (who worked together the same year on Young Mr. Lincoln) truly knew how to make the camera fall in love with Wayne’s face. And the introductory sequence of The Ringo Kid – which, as you can guess, was Wayne’s role – is the best example of this: we get an off-screen sound cue of a rifle blast (meant to get the wagon’s attention) and cut to a medium shot of Wayne before the frontier mountains, saddle in one hand and performing the dynamic action of spinning his Winchester to reload with the other as the camera zooms so fast into a close-up that it loses focus for a noticeable split second. It is a movie throughout excited to present Wayne among other things where Ringo ends up superseding Dallas as the movie’s ostensible protagonist by Ford’s fiat and an excellent example of how Ford is able to use the form to favor certain characters over others.

And yet though Wayne is the STAR, I maintain that this is a movie whose strengths come from the collective adoption of the ensemble storytelling. Nichols’ script has thrown several distinct personalities into a stagecoach and just let them interact with each other as the actors throw in their own personal non-verbal reactions to their interacting: the manner in which Hatfield favors Mallory but ignores Dallas when it comes to his principles on how to act before a lady, Doc’s continuous pestering of Peacock for whiskey samples to Peacock’s discontent, Buck’s endless yammering while Curley tries to maintain vigilance as the coach enters Apache country without the cavalry’s escort, Gatewood’s constant blustering to the annoyance of everyone, and so much more. This is a movie about forcing characters in spatial relation to one another and responding towards the others’ presence and seeing if the length of the ride is enough to see a change in any of them. Ford, Glennon, and editors Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer are excellent at keeping us aware of the spatial relation when using the frame to box the characters within the coach (mostly in sets of twos) and relying on eyelines to make it clear who is speaking to whom and TOWARDS them too, but a dinner table scene around the 1/3 mark takes full advantage of that wide open space to explore just how far of a length these characters wish to maintain between each other depending on their disrepute. It is in the moments of the stage’s stops where we are most beholden to the blocking as much as Ford and Glennon’s containment of that blocking in the frame.

It’s also the case that Ford and Glennon have no problem applying that same visual favor to the rest of the characters as they do to Wayne, given that this is also a story about the hypocrisies and gatekeeping of society. Dallas is the most sympathetically presented character – even ahead of Ringo – as we watch her being practically chased out by a hovering cluster of old women with judging eyes. Doc Boone is given no less a framing of dignity than his sober fellows. In fact, the most evidently unfavored of the Stagecoach inhabitants is Gatewood, playing as an example of the manner in which Stagecoach has a disinterest in proper society and the way it treats its outcasts. Gatewood is ostensibly the most distinguished figure there and also the most blatantly crooked and bullying. Meanwhile, Mallory and Hatfield – being the second and third most distinguished (distantly third for the gambler) – have their moments where the film looks down on their attitudes towards Dallas and Boone but also allows nuance that lends itself to the most interesting arcs for the characters.

Within the two towns where this movie starts and ends, there is nothing but dismissal for Ringo, Dallas, and Boone and the film’s shots are no less dynamic – as Ford had an eye for composition like no one else in the game – but feel less eye-catching than the actual journey that takes wide fascination with the landscape and the image of a lone coach traveling through these lands (particularly Monument Valley*, Ford’s favorite location and it is so easy to see why) and the place where Ringo and Dallas can dream of a better life together beyond the border of “civilization”. Particularly the moonlit night sequences where they stand with a fence between them as the celestial glow lands on them talking romantically, obvious in its symbolism but nevertheless striking. Personally, I find it fascinating that a director who takes care to establish Native Americans as a presence beyond white society is so eager to condemn white society as lacking any place for these characters that Stagecoach gives its heart to and if there is one wish I had, it was that Stagecoach extended that grace to its exclusively hostile depiction of the Apache people.

The only time this balance doesn’t work out is something Stagecoach gets away with because it is also the most exciting and conventionally entertaining scene: a climactic action-packed chase from the Apache warriors packed with tracking shots of fierce stampeding and several of the most mind-blowing stunts from the legendary Yakima Canutt. I imagine only someone clinically dead could not have their heart-stopped watching Canutt climb under the coach harnesses or running with the camera across this terrain trying to dodge or even feel helpless in a late beat between Mallory and Hatfield, but maybe I’m just too taken by Ford’s sense of action and adventure and character drama complimenting each other.

For Stagecoach is not Ford’s best movie in my eyes, but it gives a good argument for being my favorite Ford movie and thereby one of my favorite movies of all time. It is a good amount of so many things, all of them constructed so efficiently that you can hardly notice the time passing by you or how conventional it is at the end of it all, while many of these things are communicated with the most memorable broad strokes possible on the level of imagery, performance, and storytelling that it stands as a quintessential work of Hollywood’s most noteworthy year of filmmaking.

*Come to think of it: That’s the one “FIRST” of Stagecoach, the First Western to use Monument Valley’s iconic imagery. Look up Harry Goulding when you get a chance, as that man is responsible for the way we see the Wild West in a manner that is not appreciated enough.

Mysterious F


2020 was a heavy year for virtually everybody in the world and I personally feel fortunate to have made it out of the year in the emotionally battered state that I am in, compared to what gut punches others must have stood from it. And yet it found room in its twilight hours to land one extra blow for a small circle of people whom I never met in person (and I expect few of that circle have) and most of whom I haven’t spoken to in years but were devastated all the same.

Marshall York Craig died on 18 December 2020. The manner of his death is so unexpected, tragic, and undeserved that I don’t have the energy to reiterate it. I first fell into Craig’s orbit around the beginning months of 2016 (a year where I definitely was going to need to make new movie friends if I wanted to stay interested) within a facebook film discussion group, a late inductee into a group that already mostly familiarized itself from a history talking to each on Rotten Tomatoes’ forums. He was a very outspoken man with a lot of energy to discuss movies and politics and his dog and I can only imagine the other passions he had that I was not privy to. We specifically got on via our mutual appreciation of Tim Brayton as a blogger and through there Marshall took his own personal interest round these parts in Movie Motorbreath while also messaging me practically every day for 2 years simply out of his own personal excitement and initiative.

In full transparency, our last full private conversation was not a very pleasant one – the context of which are the business of few people – and while I don’t regret the things that were said in it, I do deeply regret that it was essentially the last word between us… mostly of my own fault. Marshall, for his part, spent a whole year afterwards trying to spark further film discussion between us via messenger but I kept whatever answers I returned curt and short until he just stopped trying and even after he’d still forward Birthday messages that I expressed my appreciation for. The final notes in our interaction were chilly solely because I allowed them to be and it should not have taken Marshall’s unforeseen passing for me to have re-evaluated the manner in which I will disengage others.

And yet it is absolutely the case that Marshall was one of the earliest supporters of this silly project that is my blog Movie Motorbreath. At a pretty significant turning point for whether or not I wanted to keep writing here, Craig’s encouragement was something that kept me pretty productive at this while trying to divest myself into other areas of my life. He interacted, he engaged, he brought conversation to me on my thoughts about movies and constantly gave me constructive feedback on how I wrote. And the thing is I don’t think he’ll ever truly know the degree to which he gave me the energy to write here for 2 of my most productive years.

A few months before Marshall’s death, another distant friend of mine died in a similarly shocking and terrible manner. And while I was processing that, I fell right into a habit of watching myself chop herbs in a manner that friend had taught me to and recognized that we carry everybody who ever passed through our lives in quiet ways. I think the way I identified for Marshall was my appreciation for John Ford, which existed prior but only expanded tenfold from Marshall’s influence. Of all the film based subjects Marshall was eager to extol, John Ford was clearly the greatest: as a filmmaker, as an artist, and as a person, even in clarity of Ford’s faults. I don’t feel confident declaring his favorite filmmaker (he also had a love of Orson Welles that rivaled mine) but Ford is my best aimed guess and it’s by the unexpected manner that Marshall would pop into my private messages just to preach to me on the greatness of Ford without solicitation that Ford slowly became one of my favorite filmmakers over the past 5 years as Marshall’s lengthy diatribes paralleled my greater journey into Ford’s output.

The full filmography of Ford’s films is much too vast to tackle (with a good chunk of films totally lost or hard to find) and even if we limit a retrospective to all the movies by Ford that I full love, that would be too many for me to have such stamina for. However… a rewatch of what I consider Ford’s Greatest Hits was frankly a long time coming – I’ve had it in my mind for the past 4 years in fact, and given that they are among my favorite movies… it was definitely going to be a welcome personal comfort to perform in the wake of 2020 – but I guess if there’s any better opportunity to sit down with the highest points of possibly the Greatest American Filmmaker of All Time, it may as well be to honor an old patron of this site that had a higher appreciation of the man than I think I will ever have. For the 7 days of next week starting on Sunday, I will be posting a review of each of the 7 movies in Ford’s filmography that I consider five-star masterpieces, one of which I already reviewed but would like to revisit with a few more thoughts. These reviews will be in chronological order. And I will be doing each one in the honor and memory of Marshall and if you’ll join me… I hope that I help you see John Ford the way Marshall helped me see him.

The Times the Oscars Got It 100% Right in the 2010s

Awards season is upon us, even as slow as it is this year and as paltry and weak as the contenders look to be. So I find it tough to get as excited as I usually am with this time of the filmgoing year, but I am quite a fan of the season and the Academy Awards like a pleb. It is no less an opportunity to perform ones tastes, gamify the conversation, and make predictions and observations on how the filmgoing atmosphere has been (the latter probably adds to my lack of anticipation for the Oscars). I mean, just as much a perk to experiencing a work of art is the ability to have it rattle around in conversation with others and if the Oscars are not at all a conversation (which they aren’t), they are at least a launch-pad to that conversation whether in favor or disfavor of the results.

So, as something of an off-shoot to my massive 2010s lists project (and there may be a couple more in the future), I had it in my mind to pick the 22 times in the 2010s that I felt the Oscars and I truly aligned. And by “Got It Right” in the headline, I mean Got. It. Right. The Academy somehow picked the exact same choice as me for the best of the year, not that it was a win that I was very happy to see it (ie. Parasite) or even that they picked my favorite of the nominees. They picked my number one pick in the category for the whole year.

Aaron Sorkin winning Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network (83rd Academy Awards, 2011)

The past year’s Oscarbait The Trial of the Chicago 7 has illustrated to us many of the Sorkin’s worst flaws as a writer (as well as as a director) and a lot of those flaws were already visible long before that marked the bottom of the barrel. But The Social Network hasn’t lost one bit of its freshness, its rhythm, its sense of humor and Sorkin transmitting his sense of character language while still avoiding the Joss Whedon trap of giving everybody a one-size-fits-all voice is a miracle in itself that gave way into one of the decade’s best character studies. I’m too fond of certain seasons of The West Wing to call it his best work, but it does pop up as a possibility in my mind.

Gore Verbinski winning Best Animated Feature for Rango (84th Academy Awards, 2012)

It’s always a good time when Disney loses this category to an underdog (there’s going to be another Best Animated Feature win later in this post for an EVEN better movie!) but Rango‘s gung-ho revolving door of genre types, Roger Deakins-involved photorealistic landscapes, and idiosyncratic animated animal designs that refuse to be even a little bit cuddly makes it a more challenging animated film than anything else of that year (or that Disney has made since Lilo & Stitch) that this win had me leaping for joy.

Mark Coulier & J. Roy Helland winning Best Makeup for The Iron Lady (84th Academy Awards, 2012)

Y’all think Meryl Streep has girl power? Do you think she has girl power while playing the decrepit version of a woman who sent paramilitary death squads into Northern Ireland? Listen, there are so many areas in which I really fucking hate this movie. But the one place where they earned every bit of acclaim they deserved was that makeup, which I regret I could not find a decent clip of (perhaps the best examples of Coulier and Helland’s craft may have turned out to be spoilers, but who cares about biopic spoilers?). Suffice it to say that a phenomenal job is shown having Thatcher’s body grow more and more wrinkled and cracked as the years of the longest run as Prime Minister pass by. It’s probably responsible for more transformation within the performance than Streep herself, if I can be bold.

Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer, & Donald R. Elliott winning Best Visual Effects for Life of Pi (85th Academy Awards, 2013)

First of all, what a fucking disrespectful disaster of an Oscar moment (especially with that joke at the beginning about skipping past their deserved respect). How dare the Academy cut off the VFX artist’s speeches because they’re trying to appeal to an industry that needs them? The VFX industry is very famously among the most exploited by Hollywood where studios that put their passion into this labor of love end up closing down because of high demands and low pay (especially given that this studio in question Rhythm & Hues shut down shortly after). The fact that the Oscar win clip, like the telecast, infamously cuts to black in the middle of the speech still pisses me the fuck off.

Now if I can take a moment to get off my soapbox and admire the work before us: Richard Parker! What an absolutely amazing creation of a character simply out of the visuals and if Life of Pi didn’t represent the bleeding edge of effects work in 2012, it would still earn that trophy based on the weight and presence and personality of that tiger. But of course, it wouldn’t be an Ang Lee movie if it wasn’t playing with the new toys of the cinema.

Cate Blanchett winning Best Actress for Blue Jasmine (86th Academy Awards, 2014)

A performance for which I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said before: Blanchett stealing the entire movie from right under Woody Allen’s nose, which is not a tall order given how limp his directing has been over the past 9 years and how she’s been the best actor alive since I can remember. But he did give her a role that is like a glove for all the cold and brittle presence that Blanchett brings at her best and just stepped back for her to fire on all cylinders with this one.

John Ridley winning Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (86th Academy Awards, 2014)

Steve McQueen is evidently not happy that Ridley won that award, but that is neither here or there. The fact is that the script at the center of their fight was a masterpiece of containing an overwhelming real-life experience into something truly fractured and exhausting with the weight such a sum of time would bring with it, turning what could have just remained a straightforward message biopic into experiential misery. And that’s on top of how Ridley found a way to map within the episodic structure Solomon’s anti-character arc as we watch him get more and more set on survival no matter what he has to cut out of his soul to get it.

Skip Livesey, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, & Chris Munro winning Best Sound Mixing for Gravity (86th Academy Awards, 2014)

Speaking of a movie that is wholly experiential released in 2013, Gravity owes that accomplishment to so many of its elements. Among those elements is the way the sound – even in the vacuum of space – is arranged to give us that sense of transporting within the hollow abyss.

Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, & Neil Corbould winning Best Visual Effects for Gravity (86th Academy Awards, 2014)

I realized I already used “bleeding edge” when discussing Life of Pi‘s Visual Effects win up above, but we may as well face the fact that a lot of these wins are going to be about reaching the pinnacle that visual effects were capable of at the end of the year. And this team is responsible for translating all of Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki*’s cinematic vocabulary into a fully CGI 3D world. You need the world to be built before you can sit in it and these four names are the men who built the world of Gravity.

Adam Stockhausen & Anna Pinnock winning Best Production Design for The Grand Budapest Hotel (87th Academy Awards, 2015)

At the risk of giving away the spoilers, this and the next two entries are all going to be The Grand Budapest Hotel and that makes it possible that I will just repeat myself when describing the winning elements but I’ll try to avoid it. This is without a doubt the fussiest film out of the fussiest filmmaker alive and the artificial look of it all is a big part of what I love about it (and I expect what holds some viewers at a distance). Can you possibly blame me with the way that wide establishing shot of the eponymous structure has that funicular as a moving piece or the manner that the building has such a wonderfully cake-like look? And that’s without bringing in the element of decay as this ostensibly wacky place slowly dies before our eyes so that even as a hazy dream, it feels real in a very sad way.

Milena Canonero winning Best Costume Design for The Grand Budapest Hotel (87th Academy Awards, 2015)

And then there’s the way this world is inhabited by purple figures (or even pink and white in the prison sequences) matching Stockhausen and Pinnock’s own fussy indulgence, where the blackest black is applied to the villains as color coding and in the end they allow a link between these weirdly human characters to the cartoon world they’re sucked into.

Alexandre Desplat winning Best Score for The Grand Budapest Hotel (87th Academy Awards, 2015)

And then a cartoon movie absolutely needs a cartoon score and Desplat’s zany music box arrangement of tempos for the characters’ movements through this world is not just the perfect fit for what kind of experience The Grand Budapest Hotel is going for, it’s also my favorite work of his entire career thus far. Plus this win was actually the biggest surprise of the night for me, probably the biggest surprise of this entire list and goshdarn it when the Oscars pull the rug out from under me like that, it is exhilarating.

Margaret Sixel winning Best Film Editing for Mad Max: Fury Road (88th Academy Awards, 2016)

I think I’ve been clear round these parts that Sixel’s work on Mad Max: Fury Road is my single favorite piece of work in all the movies I’ve seen from the 2010s so y’all can’t possibly hold it against me for wanting to high five the Oscars for recognizing the highest piece of the form. One-of-a-kind action editing that is able to accomplish clarity and frenzy all the way and between this and Jennifer Lame’s work on Tenet and Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir’s work on Atomic Blonde bringing their own individual sense of momentum and impact… maybe women are just better action movie editors than men?

Mark Mangini & David White winning Best Sound Editing for Mad Max: Fury Road (88th Academy Awards, 2016)

Glad as I am to see all the Fury Road technical sweep of that year’s ceremony (as well as how most of the recipients looked like Fury Road characters including Jenny Beaven’s awesome fucking outfit when she won Costume Design), none of them were really my pick for THE best of the year outside of Sixel and this accomplishment in Fury Road putting that fucking fury in every gunshot, melee blow, crash, and engine roar. Even the crack of that tree falling in the clip I selected has that phenomenal violent edge that reminds us of the perils these characters are in for.

Casey Affleck winning Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea (89th Academy Awards, 2017)

In which we learn that “getting it right” does not necessarily mean “Getting It Right” for there is nothing right about a man who abused his power in an industry as Affleck did still making movies or being celebrated on a night with everybody applauding him and being handed an award by Brie Larson (and the Academy damn well knew it, hence why they had to arrange the following year for Affleck to not present an award to Frances McDormand of all fucking people). Luckily, I have zero pull as an influence unlike the Oscars (anybody who gives my opinion any value should reconsider where they are in life) and thereby can admit without fear of rewarding Affleck on such a scale that… yes, it was in fact the Best Lead Performance by a Male Actor that I had seen all year (and possibly even the year before and after).

It’s so heavy, the way that Affleck’s visible sorrow is lugged around and around the entire movie so that it’s clear that Lee’s own existence is a great pain to him and since he can’t even be bothered to look for the exit anymore, he may as well just move through life with the minimum effort possible. A portrayal of depression and guilt that speaks to me in ways that I did not expect to be spoken to and yet Affleck is not even the best performance of the film (he’s not even the best performance in the clip I used) let alone of the entire year…

Viola Davis winning Best Supporting Actress for Fences (89th Academy Awards, 2017)

The one performance I feinted towards being the best in the previous clip is Carey Mulligan in Manchester by the Sea, which together with Davis in Fences make for a pair of top ten performances of the 2010s. Davis, though, the game was already set in her favor with material she had spent long years being intimate with and thereby allowing her to revisit Rose’s continuous reserves of quiet frustration in her domesticity before letting it all explode in a climax you can’t even resent for being so showy in its acting. It’s deeply grounded, emotionally exhausting, and impressively modulated as film acting rather than theatrical acting. Between this and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it’s very evident that giving Davis August Wilson material means you have to step the fuck back because she owns the show.

Viola also happens to have my favorite Oscar speech and dress out of this whole list, for those who care about these sort of things as much as I do.

Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones, & Dan Lemmon winning Best Visual Effects for The Jungle Book (89th Academy Awards, 2017)

Hey, Disney money gets you that Disney resources. It is evident that The Lion King remake was able to enhance all the technical accomplishments that The Jungle Book remake pulled but The Jungle Book accomplishes not looking like the horror show the later movie was because it allows color to be an element of its photorealistic environments and because somehow it is less concerned with having its animals function as anything but animals. Talking animals, still, but less Lovecraftian in their mouth movements than The Lion King. Plus the full-constructed CGI world has at least one on-camera human presence as reference for the designers and feels more immersive as an experience than anything Disney made since TRON: Legacy (especially in 3D).

Mark Bridges winning Best Costume Design for Phantom Thread (90th Academy Awards, 2018)

I should not have to explain why Phantom Thread of all movies deserved Best Costume Design. If the movie works on any level for the viewer, it’s because of the wonderful arrangements of all that fabric and just how erotic it can be to watch, arrange, and create that fabric. If the costumes were on any level than less than the best ever, then I’d have to concede Phantom Thread‘s weakness but I love it so evidently…

Richard King & Alex Gibson winning Best Sound Editing for Dunkirk (90th Academy Awards, 2018)

If I may dare to shock y’all, I deeply believe the sound does more to sharpen the structure of this movie than Lee Smith’s film editing. It’s specifically because of the way the sounds are filtered in terms of how they echo in relation to the ocean water that I think we are able to effortlessly shift between the three perspectives with no trouble and I think that added dimension to the fact that war movies always demand great sound to work is how I end up loving Dunkirk as a movie probably more than I should.

Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Phil Lord, & Christopher Miller winning Best Animated Feature for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (91st Academy Awards, 2019)

It’s the best superhero and comic book movie ever made and I would have been very upset to have seen it walk away empty-handed. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the sort of creative storytelling and animation that we need more of if Hollywood’s gonna keep taking our money, the sort of movie that makes one feel truly like they can fly.

Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Cinematography for Roma (91st Academy Awards, 2019)

The center of a credit-based controversy back in Mexico that did not catch the slightest wind up in the States for some weird reason** and thereby giving me a bit of pause in congratulating Cuarón for winning this without Galo Olivares up on stage with his own trophy. Regardless of whoever is responsible for one of the most beautiful films of the 2010s, the fact is that Roma IS one of the most beautiful films of the 2010s and it is entirely worthwhile to appreciate its sense of care and awareness regarding the multiple shades of gray so that calling it a black and white movie seems like missing the real treat of it all, meanwhile taking all the right lessons from Cuarón’s career long collaboration with Emmanuel Lubezki on camera movements and long takes. The result is something that has the sense of a dreamy panorama and while I’m often tempted to break open my Criterion blu-ray of this movie eventually, nothing can beat actually seeing it in the big screen when it was first released (except maybe seeing it in 70mm, please help me see it in 70mm in the future).

Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, & J.D. Schwalm winning Best Visual Effects for First Man (91st Academy Awards, 2019)

Hey, I guess between this and Gravity, I just really love space movies. We’ve continuously watched movies throughout this decade craft a tangible world beyond Earth’s atmosphere (since we can include Interstellar, The Martian, and Ad Astra) and I wonder if the story of a man sinking himself more and more to his mission for the sake of burying his grief doesn’t feel the most appropriate area for that. Plus there’s only more scrutiny that the visuals could receive when shot in 70mm and First Man totally evades any bit of scrutiny of its effects work.

Matthew A. Cherry & Karen Rupert Tolivar winning Best Animated Short Film for Hair Love (92nd Academy Awards, 2020)

I am not generally someone who gets too into the short films categories largely because my sample of them is so small that I feel even less confident in my declarations than the other obviously subjective claims of me knowing the Best Editing of 2015 or the Best Performance of 2016 or what have you. More often, it’s because my pick in this category almost never wins and that I have chosen Hair Love‘s win amongst the rest of this list is specifically because it’s an instance where my favorite film not only in the animated category but out of all of the shorts nominated and that I have seen in 2019 got the gold. The makers of this film have put out a short of such effortless short-form storytelling and simple designs with a stress on the texture (all the better to communicate that central hair as a presence). Implies that Sony Pictures Animation may have learned every single right lesson from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

*While Lubezki was not my favorite of the three years he won (Gravity and Birdman are close though and he WAS my favorite of 2011 with The Tree of Life), it was still absolutely phenomenal to see him get three Oscars in a row after a whole decade in the 2000s of not getting his due.
**Especially weird given the history of credit-based controversies attached to the wins of Dalton Trumbo, Natalie Portman, and John Ridley and the nominations of Linda Blair.