Riding to the Rescue

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Before you ask, yes, I have been as amused and entertained by Quentin Tarantino’s interview meltdown, and his branding of John Ford as a racist, as you have. Maybe even more so.

I don’t necessarily expect logic or coherence from Tarantino, though it strikes me that he has done a better job of explaining his work in the past — it’s kind of disappointing to see him sink to this level of petulance rather than actually engage in a discussion of interesting issues. The question of screen violence, I guess, maybe does get old if you’ve been asked about it over and over again for a couple of decades, and you can see how someone like Kathryn Bigelow will impatiently jump forward three questions when it’s raised, doing that politician’s trick of answering the question you wish had been asked, and politely shutting down the debate,  but the topic still seems to me kind of evergreen and inexhaustible.

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When I wrote my essay for Criterion’s edition of STAGECOACH, I seized on the idea of the film’s climax borrowing from BIRTH OF A NATION, mainly because not many commentators had remarked on the resemblance: specifically we have tension created by John Carradine being about to kill Louise Platt to save her from falling into the rapacious hands of the marauding Indians, which directly echoes a similar moment at the climax of BOAN. My ace editor, Liz Helfgott, reminded me to mention the fact that Ford’s use of this gimmick is somewhat different from, and more nuanced, than Griffith’s.

Which is true: specifically because Carradine’s character is not an out-and-out sympathetic guy like Dr. Cameron (Spottiswood Aitken) in BOAN, whose proposed murder of his own daughter is thus depicted in salutary terms. Carradine is ambiguous and flawed, and also a Southerner in a film containing more viewpoints than his own, so we aren’t invited to approve wholeheartedly of his action. And in fact Platt is saved by two things (spoiler alert), an Indian arrow which takes Carradine off before he can save her from a Fate Worse than Death, and then the cavalry, who drive off the Indians. Had it just been the cavalry who saved her, as the klan do in BOAN, Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols would have probably been guilty of endorsing Carradine’s thinking.

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(By the time of the 70s, writer Alan Sharp could have a cavalry soldier actually shooting a white woman in the punchy Robert Aldrich oater ULZANA’S RAID, to save her from abduction and rape and maybe worse, and the meaning is different again, because it IS the 1970s and there’s a shared understanding that a shocking act can be show because it’s arguably truthful, without implying a judgement from the filmmakers about whether the act is justifiable or unjustifiable.)

The fact that Ford clearly saw nothing wrong in borrowing from BOAN, that he saw it as a cinematic mainspring that wasn’t so irrevocably tainted that you mustn’t go anywhere near it, speaks to the same impulse that made him if not proud at least quite happy to talk about having appeared in it as a klansman. In other words, he didn’t share our modern sensibility and didn’t judge the film as rigorously as we do, as a virulently racist piece of hate speech. I would find it hard to call Ford “a racist son-of-a-bitch” on that basis. I would call him racist only in the sense that everybody’s racist because nobody’e perfect, and everybody is  influenced by the discourse about race which surrounds us, despite the fact that, scientifically speaking, race is an illusion. But, as Einstein observed of time, it may be an illusion but it’s an extremely persistent one.

The subconscious effects of this illusion can perhaps be seen in the way QT segues from “I’m not your slave” to “I’m not your monkey” in that notorious interview.

Griffith, of course, is something else. I’m prepared to accept Lillian Gish at her word that he didn’t hate black people per se — I guess he quite liked them, in their place. As we all know from everyday life, our response to anything can be very different depending on where we find it: to take an example we’ve all probably encountered recently, a delicious juicy steak will provoke a different reaction on a dinner plate than it will draped over the pillow we lay our head on in bed. Griffith’s reaction to see black people anywhere outside of the zones to which he had been raised to think of them belonging, was one of violent instinctive revulsion, and he wasn’t in the least bit inclined to question this knee-jerk response. He was, as a result, a particularly violent and dangerous racist, and he allowed himself to put his feelings on film in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. The result is hateful, neurotic, and fortunately unique in all of cinema in its virulence, wrongheadedness and savagery. I do regard it as a valuable insight into the psychological processes of race hatred and of pathological hatred generally, whereby criminal acts everybody knows to have been perpetrated by white against blacks — rape, lynching, intimidation — are attributed to blacks in order to justify repression.

It certainly seems absurd to compare it to anything in Ford in terms of its attitude. Is there a bit of that going on with Ford’s depiction of the American Indian? Maybe, a bit, but not consistently, wholeheartedly, or viciously — and Ford is part of a whole problematic tradition here which predates cinema itself. It need hardly be argued that Ford’s portrayal of Indians is more nuanced and sympathetic than Griffith’s portrayal of black people — if one finds oneself arguing that, one might as well stop and say instead, “Just look at the films.”

Inspired somewhat by Glenn Kenny’s post on this subject, and David Ehrenstein’s.

The Birth of a Nation – Special Edition [Blu-ray]

Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

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18 Responses to “Riding to the Rescue”

  1. One of the most nauseating memories of my life was a UK TV screening of BIRTH OF A NATION – where they drafted in a number of prominent black academics to insist that it wasn’t a racist film!!

    I mean, had any of these people even watched it? It’s a blatantly obscene piece of racist hate propaganda, which just happens to be one of the defining works in film history. Possibly the most morally problematic film masterpiece this side of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL?

    Personally, I’ve watched it several times but have never been able to enjoy it. It’s just too creepy and jingoistic for words! But I would never question its importance to film history.

  2. Well, there’s a less auteurist vision of film history which looks at a slow evolution of film form rather than centering on explosive event films like BOAN, and that does reduce the film’s historic significance a bit. But it retains a place as the strongest possible example of a film causing actual human harm, politically and physically.

    It’s actually much more ideologically explicit than the showbiz of Riefenstahl’s concert movie, and all the more creepy for it.

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    And Ethan Edwards gets pretty close to being a psycho because he obsesses about Debbie getting “soiled” as a “squaw.” Worse, the guy’s a muscly stud named Scar. EE is driven, for most of the film, to exterminate both of them.

    Better dead than red. The 50s right-wing motto applied both to race and politics.

  4. It seems pretty clear to me that Ethan Edwards’ racism is portrayed as a psychological problem by that film, though the film does seem to share his view that women can lose their civilized, white status by contact with the red man. But it’s ambiguous…

    Ironic that QT holds up William Witney as the alternative to Ford’s racism — the director of Drums of Fu Manchu can’t be said to be entirely untainted by the attitudes of his day.

  5. Well nobody raises issues of Carl Dreyer putting Birth of a Nation in his top Ten list. Birth of a Nation is racist and it was looked at as a textbook at the time, with the ideology not questioned too much, which is damning in itself.

    As for John Ford being racist, well given the times he was in, which white man wasn’t, and Tag Gallagher noted that Ford instead of avoiding the issue altogether dealt with it regularly in all his movies, though in different keys at different times. Something which few other film-makers tackled with as regularly. Samuel Fuller is another.

    The main issue about violence is identification. Like in Apocalypse Now, Coppola keeps us with American soldiers and doesn’t flinch when Martin Sheen, our “hero”, coldly massacres a sampan of innocent Vietnamese people. Whereas Tarantino always takes the side of the “righteously” violent and gun-crazed heroes never questioning or casting ambiguity on their actions. That’s why he’s dangerous.

  6. I’ve heard it argued that Inglourious Basterds seeks to complicate our attitude to revenge, and Tarantino has seemed at times to support this reading… but I don’t really buy it. Any undercutting of the audience’s bloodlust seems like window dressing.

    Since Tarantino has started combining movie violence with real historical violence, the question of what he actually thinks about the subject has become more urgent, which is why Guru-Murthy was quite right to raise the subject again — Tarantino’s portrayal of to violence and race has changed since he started, and it’s worth revisiting, or it would be if there were a coherent ideology behind it.

  7. See the thing with him was that he started out making genre mash-up comedies more or less, and now he’s become a big-budget serious film-maker while remaining a genre mash-up comedy director. There’s no maturity in viewpoint or vision or developing vision, just style which shows some amount of skill and talent. I mean you can say he was smarter with his more modest early films than with his newer ones.

    And unlike Peckinpah, however controversial he was, Tarantino is a violent film-maker who has nothing to say about violence. While Peckinpah always had something to say about that.

  8. Yeah, there’s a lack of curiosity, or a lack of interest in the real world which makes it all the more problematic. When movie reality meets historical reality, in Tarantino’s films the movies always win, and that seems like a failing to me.

    A friend said he didn’t think Inglourious Basterds was exploitative because it was so unreal — “How many Jewish dairy farmers WERE there in France anyway?” But that disinclination to touch on the reality, while pretending to at least have something to say about it, is what offended me most, I think.

    I’ll see Django Unchained on Saturday, I think. QT is usually rewarding on some formal level, or for his sheer brazenness, but the pleasure is not undiluted these days. Plus he’s in it, isn’t he? Oh God…

  9. woolworthdiamond Says:

    He’s in it with a cod-Australian accent, actually, and as bad as his acting is, his accent work is worse.

  10. Daniel Reifferscheid Says:

    A lot has been written about Ford’s relationship with native Americans, and it’s certainly a bigger theme than his relationship with African Americans, but…those Woody Strode moments in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance”, though they obviously do not come from a position of vicious hatred (well-intentioned paternalism hits closer to the mark) do make me squeamish every time I watch it, in how they so obviously infantilize the character. In 1962! Not that Hollywood was a bastion of progressive thought on race by then, but even the martyrdom model that had become popular post-Poitier still afforded black characters a lot more dignity than Ford seemed willing to.

  11. There was a James Stewart interview where he talked about being a little uncomfortable with the Uncle Tom characterisations Strode was given. Ford just didn’t move with the times on that.

    I can appreciate Tarantino wanting to act, but he’s now in a position to cast the top film actors in the world. If he thinks he’s in their league, he must be egotistic to the point of delusion.

  12. Actually Stewart was self-serving there, Ford used his own discomfort among African-Americans to chart out his relationship with Strode.

    The point of Liberty Valance is that Stewart’s character in the prologue and end has become a condescending politician, who is very paternalistic and in the end when he gives Strode’s characters some money that comes out very powerfullly.

    Ford did make SERGEANT RUTLEDGE and gave Strode a star role.

  13. jiminholland Says:

    The interview with Stewart you mention, David, may be one he gave to Peter Bogdanovich in his pre-director days.

    If I recall the interview correctly — and i may not be — Stewart talks about suggesting to Ford that his costume for Strode’s Pompey isn’t really appropriate. Ford asks what the problem with it is and Stewart replies, ‘It’s kind of Uncle Remusy.’ Ford snaps back, ‘That’s the point!’

    On the one hand, you can connect this to Straub’s claim that Ford was the most Brechtian of Hollywood directors — a claim that seems particularly applicable to MWSLV — so that Pompey is then less a character than a racist caricature visible as such.

    On the other hand, in interviews during the 1960s, Ford was given to blaming ‘racial unrest’ in the US on ‘outside agitators’ stirring up the African-American population (can’t check right now, but I think the Criterion Young Mr Lincoln disc has an extra with Ford asserting this on British TV). This truly vile position — which simultaneously obscures the horrific effects of racism, ignores the structures that have produced and maintained it, and denies agency to its victims in their organized struggle against it — was widely held among the Republican far right in the ’50s and ’60s. In this respect, Ford’s highly public support for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon seems of morre than peripheral interest.

    David, you wrote above that ‘When movie reality meets historical reality, in Tarantino’s films the movies always win, and that seems like a failing to me.’

    Not to stray too far off topic, but I have frequently found myself thinking something quite similar in relation to the work of Raoul Walsh, who frequently seems to displace historical reality with movie reality in ways that go beyond the s.o.p. of classical Hollywood.

    I was particularly reminded of this recently upon seeing Walsh’s Distant Drums for the first time. The film is a ‘Seminole Western,’ and is a loose remake of Objective Burma (a film whose take on the reality of the Pacific war caused its own problems, especially in the UK). What you find as a result of the remake relationship is that the Native Americans in Distant Drums structurally correspond to the Japanese in Objective Burma, indiginous defenders of territory equated with alien invaders of territory. For me, this is an imposition of a movie reality on history far more grotesque than what we find in Inglourious Basterds, as historically unsavory as that film is in its own right.

    For what it’s worth, Marilyn Ann Moss reports in her biography of Walsh (which is, incidentally, so wretchedly written as to test human endurance) that in the mid-1950s he seriously pursued the idea of re-making Birth of a Nation.

  14. By the 60s Ford had indeed moved to the right, and continued to do so in his latter years. The Ford of the early years is much more of a liberal. So we can’t speak of his views as a single, fixed or consistent stance.

    I believe Ford turned Stewart’s costume critique on him, saying “I believe Mr Stewart has a problem with Uncle Remus. In fact, I don’t think he likes black people at all!” Rather unfair.

    Walsh’s cinema seems often to be a rather charming portrayal of bad behaviour. Objective, Burma! is something else, quite disturbing at times, and what you say of Distant Drums makes it sound even more alarming. The earlier film does have a character calling for the genocide of the Japanese, a policy that was quite vigorously pursued against the American Indians.

    Hard to imagine what a 50s remake of BOAN would have been like… I guess they’d have hedged their bets with a few more liberal moments to mix it up. But I don’t think the thing could have been made, and I take some comfort in that…

  15. jiminholland Says:

    Yes, that’s the interview I had in mind — my memory of it was a bit fuzzy. As was my command of spelling — that would be ‘indigenous.’ (Recently celebrated my 50th birthday; not entirely pleased with the way the cognitive trajectory is working out.)

    Apparently the great stumbling block on getting the BOAN remake in production was Walsh’s insistence that he once again take the role of JW Booth.

    Kidding!

    In her bio, Moss is uninformative on exactly why the project came to nothing, suggesting it was an idea that everyone at the time — except, apparently, Walsh — immediately recognized as inappropriate.

    There are many Walsh films I deeply admire, and his take on bad behavior is often appealingly witty and nuanced (even when little charm per se is involved: see Cody Jarrett). His take on race, however, is frequently just demeaning and brutish (see Willie Best in High Sierra).

    Here’s a press statement Walsh made in promotional support of his western Saskatchewan, shot in Canada at around the time he was interested in the BOAN remake (quoted in Moss):

    ‘It was refreshing to join up with some enthusiastic redskins. The average American Indian, used to appearing in dozens of western thrillers a year has become lethargic about the whole thing. These Canadian newcomers to the trade wanted to do everything…. A lot of American Indians have learned to goof off on the job, hiding out in their teepees…. These Canadian bucks are new enough to the game that they out do themselves to be useful.’

  16. Crass… but probably fairly typical of the time. Ford was better than that, at least understanding that he was helping the Indians with work, and that this was a moral obligation — he doesn’t seem to have felt they should think themselves lucky to be working in a Hollywood picture.

  17. Raoul Walsh did make a film about slavery called BAND OF ANGELS (1957) that has a few scenes that reminded me of BOAN, particularly one where slave-owner Clark Gable is greeted by his cheerful, singing slaves. But the story is about a woman who was raised as a white until it’s learned that she actually has black blood in her heritage and thereafter is enslaved. Sidney Poitier is on hand to embody the more radical black nationalism that was coming to the fore in the Civil Rights movement of the time. My understanding is that the movie Hollywoodizes the ending of Robert Penn Warren’s novel, but it’s still worth checking out.

  18. In the case of a studio employee like Walsh, though he brought a very personal attitude to his work, the themes explored are sometimes going to come from the projects assigned, so it’s hard to judge just where he stood. The Bowery shows Chinese-Americans being incinerated as a joke, so I never look to him for a great deal of sensitivity on racial matters…

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