Tag Archives: John Ford

The Informer (1935)

“Isn’t there a man here who can tell me why I did it?”

Set in Dublin in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, John Ford’s early masterpiece tells the story of the last night of an insignificant little traitor. Gypo Nolan, played by the ex-boxer Victor McLaglen, is down on his luck. Thrown out of the IRA for refusing to execute a captured member of the Black and Tans, yet not trusted by the British authorities, he’s unemployable, hungry, desperate, unable even to afford a bottle of whiskey to help him drown his sorrows. Gypo, and the Irish people, have been reduced by poverty, and by the British occupation, to the status of barely articulate brutes.

John Ford’s Dublin is beautifully lit, shrouded in fog, darkly atmospheric, lyrical. Frankie McPhillip, an IRA militant, “comes in with the fog” to visit his mother and sister, planning to “leave with the fog” the next morning. He never makes it out alive. That evening, Gypo Nolan, wandering aimlessly through the streets of the city, has spotted a poster. “Wanted for Murder,” it says. “Frankie McPhillip, 20 Pounds Reward.” He runs into Lizzie, his girlfriend, a prostitute who dreams of getting out of Ireland and going to the United States. The fare, ominously, is 10 pounds per person.

Later, Frankie McPhillip, having just evaded a British patrol, briefly ducks into a cheap restaurant called “Dunboy House.” There he meets Gypo. McPhillip, like any wanted man on the run, is happy to meet an old friend. He has no idea that Gypo has spent most of the day consumed with desire for the reward money. They part. Frankie goes to see his mother and sister. Gypo goes to the British police. Frankie McPhillip is wanted for “murder,” but the portrait that John Ford paints of the McPhillips family his very brief visit home makes it clear that he’s no criminal. He’s an Irish patriot who has killed British soldiers during the fight for his country’s independence. After learning of his location, the Black and Tans storm Frankie McPhillip’s house and shoot him dead. Like the narrator in The Clash song Guns of Brixton, he decides to go down fighting.

When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun

The Clash — Guns of Brixton

Gypo Nolan’s fate is almost a foregone conclusion. He has exiled himself from his people for 20 pieces of silver. What he does with those 20 pieces of silver pushes The Informer into the company of great existential works of art like Albert Camus’ The Stranger. For one evening, Gypo Nolan gets to be as big a man socially as he is physically. Victor McLaglen is a hulking 6’4” strongman who once fought Jack Johnson in an exhibition boxing match. He goes to a pub and buys a whole bottle of whiskey. He gives a pound note to a homeless man. He treats the neighborhood to fish and chips. He goes to a whorehouse and gives an English girl 5 pounds so she can get back to London. By the time he finds Katie, he doesn’t even have the 20 pounds to buy two tickets to New York. He has left a trail of evidence for the IRA that all but guarantees his execution.

“Isn’t there a man here who can tell me why I did it?”

Like Camus’ Meursault, however, Gypo Nolan has no idea why he turned traitor, or tries to add one sin to another by accusing an innocent, churchgoing man named Mulligan of being the informer. John Ford has masterfully sketched out a city full of people so mired in poverty that a mere 20 pounds can tempt a man to turn his best friend over to a colonial occupier. To be able to buy a bottle of whiskey, to be able to order a round of fish and chips, to be able to give a homeless man a one pound note, these are usually unimaginable luxuries for a poor soul like Gypo Nolan.

The bottle of whiskey, as welcome as it is, is not the reason he turned Frankie McPhillip over to the Black and Tans. For the past year, Gypo has been living in a state of limbo. Neither British, or an Irish patriot, he has been more alone than any man should be, an exile, not only among his own people, but also among the colonial occupier. The contemptuous manner with which the British police captain pushes the 20 pounds across the table, the payment for Frankie McPhillip’s betrayal, is a masterpiece of narrative economy. John Ford understands the contempt the ruling class feels for their opportunistic stooges. Gypo Nolan isn’t a man. He’s a worm.

By betraying Frankie McPhillip, however, by taking his place in the history of his little corner of Ireland as the local Judas, Gypo Nolan becomes human, a sinner eligible for God’s grace. The IRA court sentences him to death. They draw straws to determine who will carry out the execution, with the man who draws the short straw, ironically, putting himself in the same place Nolan had been the year before. Nolan escapes, battering through the wooden roof of his jail cell, a cornered animal running on pure adrenaline. But Gypo Nolan isn’t trying to get out of Dublin. That would be hopeless. He’s only trying to get to the local church to ask forgiveness. He makes it. He finds Frankie McPhillip’s mother, praying. Mrs. McPhillip, played by the great character actor Una O’Connor gives him her absolution. Forgive him Lord, he didn’t know what he was doing. The IRA, hot on Nolan’s trail, shoots him dead, but not before he can get off his last words.

“Frankie,” he shouts. “Did you hear that? She forgave me.”

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

If young Mr. Lincoln has been forgotten in favor of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was also released in 1939, it might have something to do with the complex, understated quality of its screenplay. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a crowd pleasing film about an idealistic young populist going up against a corrupt federal government. Nobody ever went broke in the United States bashing politicians. Young Mr. Lincoln, on the other hand, suggests that the problem isn’t so much the American government as it is the American people.  John Ford is conflicted. It’s 1939. He’s clearly worried about fascism and the rise of a demagogue. But he also seems to think that a heroic leader like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt can make up for the people when the people fall short. The result is a subtle film full of contradiction and ambiguity that requires a lot more effort to fully understand than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

It’s easy to see why Young Mr. Lincoln was Sergei Eisenstein’s favorite American movie. As many times as I’ve seen Young Mr. Lincoln, its cinematography still takes my breath away. The film opens in 1832, in a small frontier town called New Salem Illinois. We know that it’s Henry Fonda and not Lincoln campaigning to go to the state legislature as a Whig, but do we? The effect of Ford’s camerawork and Fonda’s acting is so hypnotic, that I’m half ready to believe that I’m watching “found footage” from the mid-19th Century, or that John Ford has a time machine, or that God has momentarily opened up a window to the past and I’m looking at the 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln in real time. If that weren’t enough, a little bit later in the film, we get to see Lincoln doing exactly what we’re doing.  He attends a parade in Springfield. There’s a float with “Veterans of the War of 1812.” There’s another float with three ancient “Veterans of the American Revolution.”  As we watch the young Lincoln watch the parade, we are, in effect, remembering the past remembering the past, looking across the entire timeline of American history at 24 frames per second. To quote Woodrow Wilson about a very different film, “it’s like history being written in light.”

If Young Mr. Lincoln doesn’t speak directly to Franklin Roosevelt’s cowardly record on Civil Rights, it’s still centered around an attempted lynching. Two young men — uneducated country bumpkins — are framed for a murder they didn’t commit. They’re taken to the Springfield city jail, which is immediately surrounded by a mob. Lincoln, now 27 and attempting to set himself up in town as a lawyer, intervenes. He stands in front of the door, and offers to “lick any man here,” freezes the mob in place. He points out various men in the crowd. “You read the Bible every night,” he says to one of them. “Is this what a Christian does?” He turns to another man and tells a joke. The man laughs, then hangs his head in shame. It’s difficult to help string a man up after you start laughing. One by one Lincoln ticks off each member of the lynch mob, finding some little hook by which he can give him back his reason. Ford’s young Mr. Lincoln, in effect, pushes back history as he pushes back the mob, transforms an undifferentiated mass, the raw material for a fascist dictator, back into a democratic community of individual citizens.

The ultimate problem with Young Mr. Lincoln, however,  is that Ford doesn’t carry this insight through to its logical conclusion. The two young men will get a fair trial. There’s a hilarious and revealing sequence where Lincoln evaluates potential jurors, trying to separate honest men capable of independent thought out of the crowd of easily manipulated fools and conformists. He visits with the mother of the two young men, an honest, self-sacrificing woman he sees almost as the reincarnation of his own mother, as the true representative of the kind of people he grew up with. But we forget about the jury almost as soon as they’re chosen. Instead of letting the trial go through to its conclusion and allowing the jury to vote “not guilty,” Ford has Lincoln bully the real murderer into confessing on the witness stand. It’s a classic “Hollywood” happy ending. But the radical insight into how a democracy is only as good as its people gets lost in his apparent belief that a dictatorship is only as bad as its dictator.

Ford’s potentially complex and insightful script, therefore, becomes a lot like Mr. Smith goes to Washington. There’s good. There’s evil. There’s right. There’s wrong. There are urban sophisticates, like the politicians hardened to the entrenched corruption of Washington, or like the real murderer in Young Mr. Lincoln. There’s the self-sacrificing, salt of the earth frontier mother. There’s the young, naive, but idealistic Jefferson Smith. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the film that plays to the galleries, that wears its crowd pleasing simplicity on its sleeve, has become the iconic film about American politics. In turn it’s probably not surprising that a film that promises a sophisticated analysis of American democracy only, in the end, to pull back and give us a sentimental populism little different from Capra’s,  is beloved by the French New Wave, but has not entered into the American popular consciousness in the same way that Jimmy Stewart’s iconic filibuster has.  Nevertheless, the two films complete each other. Since everybody has seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at least once, everybody should also see Young Mr. Lincoln at least once. If Jimmy Stewart went out to see a movie after taking in the Capitol dome and the Lincoln Memorial, it was probably this one.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

That Sergeant Rutledge somehow manages to be both anti-racist and pro-genocide testifies not only to John Ford’s myopia about the Plains Indians, but to his genius. Even in his old age, he still had his finger on the pulse of the American people. There was no American Indian Movement in 1960. The occupation of Alcatraz and the siege at Wounded Knee, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Leonard Peltier would not hit the papers until over a decade later. But the Civil Rights Movement was already a burning issue. Martin Luther King had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott five years before in 1955. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been founded in 1957. Eisenhower had already sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to desegregate Central High School. Sergeant Rutledge was John Ford’s declaration that he was on the side of racial equality. What he missed, and why he missed it, tells us as much about American imperialism as it does John Ford.

Woody Strode, who plays Braxton Rutledge, was a UCLA basketball player, football player, track star, professional wrestler, and an actor who could be a domineering presence even in bit parts. It’s hard to forget his three minute star turn in Spartacus as the gladiator who strikes the first blow of the rebellion. At 6’4″ he looked every inch the black superman, the “Captain Buffalo” of the song that opens the film.

“Have you heard about a soldier in the U.S. Cavalry
Who is built like Lookout Mountain taller than a redwood tree?
With his iron fist he’ll drop an ox with just one mighty blow
John Henry was a weakling next to Captain Buffalo.”

Braxton Rutledge, the “top soldier” of the 9th Cavalry, the “Buffalo Soldiers,” is on trial for the murder of a teenage white girl, and her father, his commanding officer. John Ford’s narrative genius, even in this very late film, is fully on display. He knows all about how to set up a problem, how to introduce a character in two or three frames, how to misdirect the audience then clear things up when he wants to, how to use comic relief to slip his assumptions past criticism even before we know he’s made them. We know from the very beginning of the film that Rutledge is innocent, that he’s incapable of the horrible crime he’s accused of. What we don’t know is why he deserted his post, and why he seems in no great hurry to clear his name. Braxton Rutledge seems ready to hang for a crime he didn’t commit. We want to know why? Is he covering for another Buffalo Soldier? Is he covering for a white officer? Is he ready to take the fall because the victims have a secret he’d rather die than see exposed?

John Ford is the master at dangling something right in front of our eyes and making us look away. He knows how Americans see race. When Mary Beecher, the tall, blonde Constance Towers, returns to Arizona from the East only to get caught in an Apache raid on the local railway depot, she discovers the dead telegraph operator slumped down over his desk. She’s about to scream. Sergeant Rutledge, who was hiding out in the railway depot after leaving his post, comes up behind her and covers her mouth. We know he’s only doing what he has to do to keep her from alerting the Indians to their presence. But in 1960,  a 6’4″ black man coming up behind a white woman and covering her mouth was a stick of dynamite thrown onto a pile of gunpowder, guaranteed to make any racist’s head explode.  Ford flatters us, lets us feel superior to the racists who would be as titillated as they’d be outraged. But, above all, he puts us inside Braxton’s head. Why did he desert after he discovers the body of his commanding officer’s daughter? Now we know. He doesn’t think any white man (or women) will ever believe he’s innocent. As a black man, even on an army base where he’s well-known and respected, simply being accused of raping a white girl means he’s already been tried, sentenced and hanged.

But John Ford, no conservative but certainly a nationalist, now demonstrates that Rutledge’s paranoia about white Americans is misplaced. Constance Towers is as determined an anti-racist in Sergeant Rutledge as she was a Confederate patriot in The Horse Soldiers. Rutledge gets an equally determined lawyer, Jeffrey Hunter, who also starred in The Searchers with John Wayne. Above all, he gets a fair trial. It’s easy to get distracted by Ford’s gift for comic relief, by the hilarious squabbling between Lt. Col. Otis Fosgate, the president of the court martial, and his wife Cordelia. Otis and Cordelia Fosgate? Even the names can make you smile. But look more closely. Cordelia and Otis are Colonel Marlowe and Hannah Hunter from The Horse Soldiers in their golden years, a Yankee Radical Republican and a southern belle. In the midst of their squabbling we learn that Fosgate served with Sherman in Georgia, that he looted a plantation house in Atlanta, and marched to the sea in the Fall of 1864. Black men, Ford is telling us, should remember how white men fought slavery. Justice not only will be served. One of Sherman’s bummers as the judge? Justice already has been served. All Rutledge has to do is get over his guarded, secretive, black man’s mistrust of the United States of America, and he will inevitably be able to clear his name. He can resume his distinguished military career as “top soldier” of the 9th Cavalry.

Let’s just say that John Ford learned something from the way Jackie Robinson had been offered up to the American public as the conservative alternative to Paul Robeson. Martin Luther King is already a national figure in 1960. The Civil Rights movement would crest three years later with the March on Washington, but let’s not forget that Eisenhower had already committed American troops to protect the remnants of the French Empire in Vietnam. The United States Army in Vietnam would not fight for a noble cause, but it’s easy to forget that it was the first genuinely multiracial army in American history. Blacks wouldn’t serve in segregated, Jim Crow units like the 9th Cavalry — which, let’s face it, was what the Buffalo Soldiers were — but as the equals of whites in every division of the army. It wasn’t, of course, all that easy. There was racism, and racial conflict, all over the United States military. Black soldiers fought with white soldiers, fragged their officers, joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But, in the army, in 1960, Jim Crow was already a thing of the past.

Sergeant Rutledge, like black American soldiers in Vietnam, fights for an bad cause. The Apache, Ford tells us, have already been defeated and herded into reservations. The raid that kills the telegraph operator and Mary Beecher’s father, and threatens to overwhelm the detachment of the 9th Cavalry Jeffrey Hunter’s Tom Cantrell leads to bring Rutledge back for trial is a “large group that broke out of the reservation.” They’re refugees from a concentration camp. Rutledge and his Buffalo Soldiers are fighting for an equal place in American society, but the herds of buffalo they were named after are mostly gone. Let’s be blunt. Rutledge and the 9th Cavalry are imperial auxiliaries, Gurkhas, Sepoys, black men hired by white men to kill red men. Braxton Rutledge is 6’4″ and a “top soldier,” but, in essence, he’s Gunga Din. He maybe be a better man than Tom Cantrell or Otis Fosgate, but he’s also helping to prosecute a genocide against people of color in the interests of the white man. Black nationalism wouldn’t really explode into the public consciousness until the mid and late 1960s. But Malcolm X was already a prominent figure in the African American community. John Ford, as an old school Eisenhower Republican, wants Braxton Rutledge as a loyal, patriotic American, but not as an anti-imperialist. He’s willing to accept him as an equal so he doesn’t become a revolutionary.

Ford’s masterful screenwriting deftly raises, then dismisses the obvious question. What if Braxton Rutledge had simply given up on white America altogether? What if he had joined Crazy Horse and the Apaches? “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” Muhammad Ali would later say. “No Apache ever falsely accused me of rape and murder,” we can imagine a more cynical, more radical, less stereotypical “heroic” Rutledge saying. But he gives up on his chance to escape when the Apaches attack Tom Cantrall and the 9th Cavalry. Rutledge, as loyal as ever, never even thinks of joining the Indians in the attack. It’s certainly what I would have done. Rutledge is Jackie Robinson, not Paul Robeson or Malcolm X. He doesn’t care about joining the Indians or rejecting white America. He cares about the honor of the regiment, about proving that the black man is as loyal to the United States as any white man.

By the time we get back to the courtroom, the film feels anti-climatic. The mystery of who killed Major Davy and his daughter is very deftly resolved. It was a middle-aged white pervert, the father of one of the girl’s suitors, a sexually obsessed man who “just had to have her.” It’s a little bit of To Kill a Mockingbird in a John Ford western, with Tom Cantrell as Atticus Finch, Braxton Rutledge as Tom Robinson, and Bob Ewell getting his just deserts, not at the hands of a Boo Radley, but in a duly constituted military court of justice.  “It was all right for Mr. Lincoln to say we were free but that ain’t so,” Rutledge says before he’s vindicated, “but not yet. Maybe some day, but not yet.” For John Ford, an Irish American, 1960 is that “some day” Rutledge dreams of. John F. Kennedy’s in the White House, and all is right with the world. Jim Crow is a stain on the American landscape, but it won’t be around for long. In the film’s last scene,  Tom Cantrell and Mary Beecher walk off arm in arm, engaged, their coming marriage the capstone to their successful effort to save the life of an innocent black soldier. Sergeant Rutledge and the Buffalo soldiers look on and salute. It’s a happy ending for everybody but the Apache. They’ve been marked for destruction, something that John Ford, for all his liberalism, refuses to confront, even approves of.

The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) The Wizard of Oz (1939) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The Dust Bowl is a well-known, man-made environmental catastrophe.

In the 1930s a severe drought struck the Great Plains. Topsoil, which had become more vulnerable to wind erosion by the failure to apply dry land farming methods, was lifted into the air, and scattered for hundreds of miles. The “Black Sunday” dust storm that took place on April 14th, 1935, for example, displaced over 300,000 tons of dirt, and was seen as far off as New York City and Washington DC. Between 1930 and 1940, over 3 million people left the Great Plains, perhaps the biggest refugee crisis in American history. The Roosevelt Administration did address the problem. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene, Texas to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place. But the economic effects of the Dust Bowl persisted right through the 1950s.

In 1935, the United States Resettlement Administration, a New Deal era federal agency, commissioned a writer and film critic from Clarksburg, West Virginia to make a documentary about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.  His name was Pare Lorentz. They gave him $6,000. They got their money’s worth. The Plow That Broke The Plains is one of the most extraordinary documentaries ever made. In only 25 minutes, narrative compression that’s rarely been equaled, Lorentz sums up the history of the agricultural holocaust that took place during the height of the Great Depression.

In the 1880s, as Lorentz demonstrates, cattle ranching gave way to wheat farming. The Homestead Act, and the illusion that “rain follows the plow,” transformed the Plains into an over-exploited resource headed for a disaster that was put off only by the uncharacteristically wet years of the early 1900s. World War I and the Russian Revolution increased the demand for wheat. The real estate interests who marketed farmland to returning soldiers made things worse. By the end of the 1920s, what had formerly been known as “The Great American Desert” was a pile of gunpowder waiting only for the match that came in the form of the extended drought.

Everything about The Plow That Broke the Plains comes together in a harmonious combination of images, music, and words. From the powerful score by Virgil Thomson, to the dramatic baritone of the narrator Thomas Hardie Chambers, to the parallel images of tanks on the Western Front in 1917 and tractors on the Great Plains, Lorentz hammers his message home. The Dust Bowl was man made. It could have been prevented. It was part of the destructive, runaway, capitalist exploitation that came to it’s shattering climax in 1914. It was the moral equivalent of war. The late film critic Dennis Grunes, who put it on his 100 Greatest Films in English list, also sees it as a metaphor for the Great Depression as a whole. “It is a piece of poetry,” he said, “finding in the topic of land erosion an implicit metaphor for America’s torn, beaten, eroded spirit.”

That’s quite a bit to accomplish in only 25 minutes. The Plow That Broke The Plains is on Youtube in full. I recommend watching it, now. Follow it up with John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. If The Plow That Broke The Plains is the greatest American documentary — and it just might be — then surely The Grapes Of Wrath is the greatest leftist film ever to come out of Hollywood. That might seem odd. John Ford was either a conservative or a liberal nationalist, but he was certainly no Marxist. It makes more sense when you realize that, whatever his politics, Ford was above all a master craftsman, not a propagandist. When American nationalism briefly came together with the left during the New Deal, and he decided to make a film from the socialist point of view, he made a great one.

Give The Plow that Broke the Plains a second viewing after The Grapes of Wrath. Notice the contrast. Lorentz shows us the aftermath of the Dust Bowl in all its brutal reality. How can people live in such a place. Is it the surface of Mars? John Ford, on the other hand, is a natural poet. Anything he touches turns lyrical. In the first half hour of The Grapes Of Wrath, he’s nostalgic then gothic then apocalyptic all in turn, humanizing the landscape that Lorentz visualizes as man made hellscape. The Plow that Broke the Plains is reality. The Grapes of Wrath is reality re imagined as poetry.

Tom Joad, Henry Fonda, is hitchhiking back to his parents’ house after a 4 year sentence for manslaughter. He killed a man in a bar fight. The rich grey scales, the dreamy golden hour photography along the sparse, almost gentle highway picture Dust Bowl Oklahoma, not realistically, but as Joad’s subconscious longing for the security of his boyhood. Those longings are cruelly disappointed when he arrives “home,” and realizes it’s not home anymore, and, truth be told, has never been “home” at all. The Joads, and their neighbors, poor share croppers, have all been evicted to make way for industrial agriculture. The mood turns gothic. Muley Graves, a former neighbor and one of the few tenant farmers who would resist the order of eviction, is squatting in Joad’s childhood home. “I’m just a poor barnyard ghost,” he says as the wind blows up, the dust storms hover just over the horizon, and the almost idyllic scenes are revealed to be nothing more than images of a dead land, a once great agricultural region that has been depopulated and reduced to sterility.

The Joad family heads west, not as pioneers, but refugees. When Tom Joad’s grandfather dies — uprooting him kills him — Joad writes out a short, ungrammatical, but powerful note on a slip of paper, the old man’s only testimonial a brief explanation that he hadn’t been murdered but had died of a stroke. Sometimes the only thing standing between us and an anonymous burial in a mass grave are a few words. Tom’s simple, uneducated father knows in his bones what capitalism requires of proletarians who have lost their economic usefulness, that they die. His overwhelming drive to take on even the most demeaning job testifies to how well he understands what America demands of him in exchange for a few more years of life. Everything conspires to destroy the Joad family. A series of migrant labor camps progressively resemble concentration camps, a more subtle, but still insidious reflection of the Soviet Gulag or Nazi system of forced labor. Only by proving themselves “worthy” of exploitation do they prove themselves “worthy” to continue eating.

This is no melodramatic contrivance on my part. The Great Plains are, above all, a landscape of genocide. Indeed, the only fault I can find with Pare Lorentz and John Ford is that they fail to ground their narratives in the history of the extermination of the Plains Indians. Lorentz, to his credit, includes a brief mention of how the plains have been “cleared,” but makes no attempt to contrast the destructive agricultural techniques of white Americans with the sustainable hunter-gatherer societies of the Lakota and Apaches. Ford, to his credit, finds his great subject in the exploited “Okie” tenant farmers, but he, in turn, fails to point out how many were, in fact, at least part Native American. Indeed, a more historical Grapes of Wrath might have envisioned Tom Joad as Cherokee, not as the WASP Henry Fonda.

If The Grapes of Wrath is a socialist film, then it’s a socialist film imagined along the lines of John Ford’s own personal combination of Irish Catholic spirituality and Progressive Republican American patriotism. If Jim Casy, a “reformed preacher” played by John Carradine, is Ford’s Lenin, then the unnamed director of a Bureau of Agriculture migrant labor camp is his Franklin Roosevelt. Jim Casy, like Jesus, is the perfect mixture of homeless proletarian and aristocratic nonchalance. His blessing at the funeral of Grandpa Joad is beautiful in its halting simplicity. Casy, who claims to have lost his faith, finds it again briefly out of necessity. His explanation of why the Keene Ranch is using the Joad family as “scabs” just before he’s clubbed to his death shows us that his new faith, socialism, is Christianity by another name, yet more grounded in reality, in history. The government migrant camp is a practical utopia, its director, Grant Mitchell, a striking vision of benevolent and progressive authority. When the Joad children come upon the modest, yet clean, and well-maintained camp bathrooms, you can almost imagine what life would be like after the revolution, the ideal society made concrete in the most understated way possible.

The real life Joads would have a happy ending. The children of those impoverished Oakies who made it to California would get to listen to the Beach Boys on the drive to Big Sur, or to the then tuition free University of California. The whole American working class would also have a happy ending, enjoying the highest standard of living the world had ever seen in the coming decades. But it’s not quite accurate to say that “they endured.” A better way to phrase it might be “they got lucky.” The United States would belatedly enter World War II, and stick around to pick up the pieces after European civilization all but committed suicide. It would become the greatest empire the world had ever seen, and the American working class, at least until the 1970s, got to come along for the ride.

The Wizard of Oz,a far weaker re-imagining of the Dust Bowl than The Plow That Broke The Plain or The Grapes Of Wrath, therefore, just might be more true to life. Filmed a year before The Grapes of Wrath, the Wizard of Oz is also set in a dust bowl state, Kansas to Ford’s and Lorentz’s Oklahoma. It’s barely necessary to summarize the plot. Dorothy, Judy Garland, lives on a Kansas farm with her Aunty Em and little dog Toto. Like an American worker in the 1930s, she finds herself the victim of unjust authority. A local bigwig, Alvira Gulch, will use her clout to have her dog put to sleep, claiming that the little Scotch terrier bit her. The Sheriff issues the kill order. Dorothy runs away. A travelling fortune teller, the model for The Great Oz, talks her into going back home. Then her world breaks down. There’s a gigantic storm. She can’t get down into the shelter with the rest of her family. A tornado pulls her aunt’s house up out of the ground off the ground as if it were so much topsoil on Black Sunday. She gets a bump on the head, loses consciousness, and has a dream where her house gets lifted up and carried away to Oz, a magical land “over the rainbow.”

If John Ford’s utopia is a social democratic California, then for Victor Fleming — the director of The Wizard of Oz —the perfect society as an elaborate musical number in an Art Deco Manhattan, Busby Berkeley in Metropolis. Dorothy travels to Emerald City. New York? LA? She vanquishes the Wicked Witch of the West. She demonstrates that the Great Oz is a fraud. Glinda the Good Witch of the North, who she had met earlier, returns to tell her she’s been home all along and is free to go back to her happy family on the plains any time she wants. She does. It’s a miracle. Everything is back to normal. There was no Great Depression. Alvira Gulch no longer threatens Toto. The tornado didn’t destroy the family homestead. The Dust Bowl never happened. It’s all one big narrative cop out, but it’s true to life. The Plow That Broke the Plains is forgotten history. The labor struggles of the 1930s are long gone. But the Depression-era generation had their world turned upside down then landed on their feet in front of a TV set and a booming economy. The American working class got so lucky in the 1950s and 1960s that it almost seemed as if all they had to do was click their ruby slippers together and say “there’s no place like home.”

But if The Wizard of Oz fit the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, surely The Plow that Broke the Plains and the Grapes of Wrath are once again relevant. Global warming, the sub-prime crash, 9/11, the security/surveillance state, the return of massive, long-term unemployment, Dorothy and the Emerald City have had their day. Once again, we’re in the world of company goons, migrant labor camps, environmental catastrophe, Tom Joad, Jim Casy, a loss of national identity and a loss of faith. We probably won’t get lucky again. Will we, like Ma Joad’s “people,” endure? We will end up like Muley’s “old barnyard ghost,” a passive wraith blown whichever way the wind carries it? Or will we be like Tom Joad’s spectral every man, a collective spirit that, inspired by the Christlike sacrifice of his friend Casy, hovers over the downtrodden and dispossessed like a guardian angel?

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Grierson’s Raid, which ran from April 17 to May 2, 1863,  was the dry run for Sherman’s March to the Sea.

In April of 1863, the United States Civil War was at a stalemate. Back in December, the Union Army had received a bloody repulse at the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the west, Ulysses Grant had mounted one campaign after another, but had still not captured Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the Mississippi River. In May of 1863, he would make one more try. He would run his transports past the murderous fire of the great Confederate fortress, march his troops down the west bank of the Mississippi, cross over, then march back up and lay siege to the town that Jefferson Davis had referred to as “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”

It was a risky strategy. If either John C. Pemberton, the commander of the garrison at Vicksburg or the dreaded Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest got wind of Grant’s plans and hit the Union army hard at the river crossing, they could wreck the Vicksburg Campaign altogether. Grant had to find some way of distracting Pemberton until he could fully deploy his troops on the Mississippi side of the river, after which his superior numbers would make him all but invincible.

Enter Benjamin Grierson.

Benjamin Henry Grierson, who was 37 years old in 1863, deserves to be better known. An ex-music-teacher with a fear of horses — a horse kicked him in the head when he was a little boy — he would go on to become the best Union cavalry commander of the war, the only man who ever fought Nathan Bedford Forrest to a draw. He was also the progressive anti-racist most of us, incorrectly, imagine William Tecumseh Sherman to have been. Sherman was a racist. Grierson would go onto command black troops, “Buffalo Soldiers,” in the 1870s and 1880s. He also objected to the genocidal war against the Plains Indians and did his best to minimize the damage wherever he could. Liberals who want to look up to someone from the past would do well to forget about John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt and check out Benjamin Grierson. He’s the genuine article, a progressive, anti-racist war hero.

Grant’s diversionary plan was a two pronged reconnaissance in force. To the north he sent Colonel Abel D. Streight to attack the Western and Atlantic railroad, which was supplying the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Streight’s Raid was poorly planed and executed, but it did manage to draw off Nathan Bedford Forrest. To the south, he sent Grierson, and three regiments of his best cavalry, the 6th and 7th Illinois and the 2nd Iowa. Grierson’s Raid was executed flawlessly. Starting out in La Grange, Tennessee, Benjamin Grierson and his 1700 troops road all the way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 800 miles through the heart of Confederate territory, and sustained only nineteen casualties, three killed, seven wounded, and nine missing. They tore up railroads, hit the supply depot at Newton Station, and kept an entire division of Pemberton’s soldiers tied up defending the Vicksburg-Jackson railroad. It’s widely considered to be the greatest cavalry raid of the war, if not one of the greatest in history. If that weren’t enough, Grierson kept his troops perfectly disciplined. There were no massacres of civilians. There was no looting. They were as polite to the local women as they would have been in New England. That May, Grant made the crossing at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, the largest amphibious operation of the United States military until the invasion of Normandy. Vicksburg fell two months later.

John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers, which is loosely based on Grierson’s Raid, continues the long, dishonorable Hollywood tradition of obscuring the history of the United States Civil War.

Ford gets just about everything wrong. In place of the 37-year-old ex-music-teacher, he gives us the combination of the 50 year old John Wayne as Colonel Marlowe, the raid’s commanding officer,  and the 41-year-old William Holden as Major Henry Kendall, a regimental surgeon. Holden might have been believable as the real Grierson, had his part been written better. John Wayne is just a drag. Colonel Marlowe, like Grierson, is a clever soldier who knows how to use misdirection and solid intelligence to achieve his objectives without sustaining heavy casualties or shooting up civilians, but Wayne is woefully miscast. It’s 1959, not 1938. He’s beefy and middle-aged, not spare and intense like the real Grierson. He makes no attempt to work up his character as 19th-Century radical Republican. Instead he plays Grierson as yet another dreary “Greatest Generation” veteran of the Second World War. His character is a stereotype out of 100 other World War II films.  To make matters worse, Ford gives him an absurd back story as an ex-railway engineer who lost his wife to an incompetent doctor. That, naturally, sets up a conflict with Kendall. Throw in a love triangle between Holden and Wayne and a fiery southern belle named Hannah Hunter, Constance Towers, and you’re left with a corny Hollywood romance that’s just flat out embarrassing. Marlowe seems to have no place in his outfit for a regimental surgeon. War’s too serious a business for doctors. But he has time for romance? The real Ulysses Grant would have put a man like this in handcuffs before sending him back to his civilian job as a railway engineer.

The only real question is why Ford does it. Why does he shit all over the history of the Grierson raid? Ford, who’s one of the greatest filmmakers in history, could not make a bad movie if he tried. But he tries very hard with The Horse Soldiers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an entertaining two hours, but as light comedy, not history. Surely Ford would have recognized the potential of the real Benjamin Grierson. A man who grew up with a fear of horses becoming the Union Army’s best cavalry commander? How can you possibly pass up a story like that? What’s more, Ford’s no southerner or neo-confederate. He’s a Yankee, born and bred in Cape Elizabeth Maine, an old school progressive Republican and a great admirer of Lincoln. How could he have hacked up such a great story so badly?

David Blight, who’s the Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, tells us why. In his seminal book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Blight discusses how, in the late 19th Century, a consensus developed that the United States Civil War was not about the end of the slave power but about the valour and courage of the soldiers of both sides.  It was not about a great victory of democracy over the dark forces of reaction. It was about “supporting the troops.”

John Ford, who has a reputation as a “conservative,” was, of course, anything but. A liberal nationalist who made the definitive cinematic version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ford’s vision of the United States Civil War comes out of the New Deal, a center-left government, but one run by the Democrats, the party of  the Confederacy.  Franklin Roosevelt, as the leader of a Democratic Party with a progressive, northern wing, and a white supremacist southern wing, could not govern as a flat out Yankee progressive. He had to keep the south. That meant putting Civil Rights on the back burner, and relegating the struggle against Jim Crow to his wife Eleanor. The Second World War made it even more important to avoiding alienating Dixie. The Northeast and Midwest had large German American, Irish American and isolationist factions who would not necessarily side with the United Kingdom against Germany.  Ford did what every other progressive Democrat did. He made compromises.

So he soft-pedalled the immediate political context of the Grierson Raid for the sexual and domestic conflicts among his individual Yankees and Confederates, not all of whom, to his credit, were white. The ridiculous love triangle between Constance Towers, John Wayne, and William Holden becomes a lot more interesting when you realize that it’s actually a ridiculous love quadrangle. Althea Gibson, the African American tennis player, is Hannah Hunter’s loyal “slave” Lukey. Put “slave” in quotes because Hannah Hunter is not only a strongly feminist character. There’s more than a hint of a lesbian relationship between her and Lukey. When Hannah puts on an exaggerated Southern Belle act to fool Marlowe and Kendall, Lukey harshly dresses her down for “talking like a field hand.” The image of the southern woman as a flirt, Ford assures us, is just an act. Southern women, black and white, are strong, highly capable and independent, and just as patriotic and determined to fight the Yankees as southern men.The Civil War doesn’t stop when the soldiers stop shooting and it won’t end at Appomattox.

The South, John Ford is telling us, is feminine, and the North masculine. That’ s not a common way to look at the United States Civil War, but it does make sense, especially when you’ve got John Wayne as the prototypical Yankee. The South was agricultural and romantic, the north industrial and secular. Reconciliation, therefore, becomes as natural as heterosexuality. Conflict is as inevitable as it is in marriage. Whether Constance Towers ends up with John Wayne or William Holden is less important than that she ends up with one of them, and not Althea Gibson.

Not incidentally, the film’s most powerful scene is Lukey’s death at the climatic Battle of Newton Station.

So perhaps John Ford can be forgiven for not making a film that stayed closer to history. The real Grierson Raid would have been entirely too masculine, too much of a northern story, to have turned into a Hollywood film. It was 1959. John Ford had grown old. John Wayne had gotten fat and middle-aged, and the United States had recovered from the Depression. Ford wanted pleasant nostalgia, not history, romance, not war. My guess would be that  he choose the Grierson Raid for his most overt film about the Civil War because of the relatively low death toll. To make a film about the holocaust of the Battle of Gettysburg or Shiloh, to have that many Americans killing that many other Americans, would have been unthinkable only 14 years after the end of World War II. Ford wasn’t asking “why can’t we all get along?” He was pleasantly reveling in how we all did get along.

He was an old man who never saw the 60s coming.

Killer of Sheep (1977)

In John Ford’s great cinematic rendering of The Grapes of Wrath, the old truck that carries the Joad family from Oklahoma to Southern California becomes more more than a truck. Overloaded, off balance, constantly breaking down or running out of gas, the Joadmobile is one of the iconic characters in film history, the embodiment of the determination of the American working class to survive the Great Depression. In what is the film’s, and perhaps even John Ford’s climatic scene, the Joad family some how, some way makes it across the desert from Nevada to Southern California, a journey as perilous as the one their forebears made 75 years before, the old truck, part motor vehicle, part covered wagon, bridging the gap that separated New Deal America from the pioneers.

In Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” we have a very different kind of family, and a very different confrontation with poverty. Killer of Sheep may not be as well known as Grapes of Wrath. Filmed through the 1970s when Burnett was a film student at UCLA, its release was delayed for years because of copyright issues with the soundtrack. After its restoration in 2007, however, it was chosen by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 Essential Films. In 1990, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Stan, the film’s Tom Joad, is a young black man who lives with his wife and two kids in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles of the 1960s. Poverty for Stan and his family isn’t the life threatening poverty of the Joad family. There’s no danger they’re going to starve to death, break down in the middle of the night in the desert, or get beaten to death by strikebreakers. Everybody in Charles Burnett’s Watts has enough to eat and a roof over their heads. Poverty in Killer of Sheep pretty much comes down to “lacking pocket money,” but, if the Grapes of Wrath is about purgatory, Killer of Sheep is set in hell. Burnett’s Watts may be geographically located in Los Angeles, which was, last time I checked, a major American city, but it seems like a lost village of the damned. Time doesn’t exist. Place doesn’t exist. There is no government, no police, no postal service. There are no newspapers or magazines, and the only time we see a television set is when it’s being stolen. Stan has a job in a slaughterhouse, thus the title “Killer of Sheep,” but his neighbors all seem to be shiftless layabouts or petty thieves. There is quite literally no way out.

If the Joad family make it across the desert against all the odds, Stan and his neighbors fail at the simplest of tasks. In a particularly painful scene, for example, Stan and one of his friends buy a used engine from a neighbor to transplant into a non-working motor vehicle, a possible way out. They negotiate the price. They pick up the engine and carry down two flights of stairs.  After a long, harrowing struggle, they manage to get the it out to the street and their pickup truck, which is parked on a steep incline. They’ve made it, success, but no. Stan’s friend has injured his hand. They don’t have enough strength left to push the engine all the way up into the pickup truck’s bed. They leave the hard won engine hanging right on the edge. We wince because we know what’s coming. Stan gets behind the wheel of the car, and the engine crashes down onto the street as they lurch forward. They crack the block and waste what’s probably close to a week’s salary at the slaughterhouse. A later attempt at escape, a day trip to a local race track fails just as miserably. Just like the Joad family, Stan and his friends overload their car and blow out one of the tires, but, unlike the Joad family, they lack the ingenuity and the determination to continue on their way. Instead, they just turn around and ride the rim back to Watts. We can only imagine the shape the car was in when they got back home.

Whether or not you enjoy Killer of Sheep probably depends on whether or not you see Stan’s failure to escape, or even try to escape from the hell of his Watts neighborhood as a strength or a weakness. Film critics love Killer of Sheep. They see the Burnett’s refusal to plot out an overarching, central narrative as part of an honest attempt to recreate the conditions of urban poverty in the 1960s.

Killer of Sheep is certainly an effective expression of despair. The hangdog expressions of the men, the hostility of the women, the vicious aimless quality of the children testify to what life was like in one of those ghettos. But I’m not a film critic. Like John Ford’s audience in the 1930s, I don’t watch a film to recreate conditions I know in real life. I don’t want a film about poverty to be governed by a poverty of the imagination. The fact that Charles Burnett has managed, with great skill, to recreate a small corner of hell may testify to his skill as a film maker, but it doesn’t mean I want to spend 80 minutes of my time watching it. I know what poverty is like. I know what bedbugs are like. Does that mean I want to see a film that reminds me what it’s like to sleep on a mattress infested with bedbugs? In fact, far from bringing us closer to the reality of the poor, the lack of a plot brings us into the world of bourgeois indulgence, almost certainly not Burnett’s intention, but probably a hint about why it’s been so lavishly praised by the critics.

For the Joad family, survival is the overarching narrative. They don’t have the luxury of aimless meandering. That would be for the rich, the film critics who think Killer of Sheep is a “slice of life.” For the Joad family, it’s make it to California or die. They keep that truck working because they have to. Stan, by contrast, for all his failure at buying a spare engine or getting to the race track, somehow manages to get to work everyday. How does he do it? Does he take the bus? Does he car pool? Does he ride a bike? It’s Los Angeles, after all, not New York. There’s no subway and commutes in southern California often involve vast distances. But we’re never told. It’s an interesting story. It’s the story the film calls for, but Burnett never addresses it. He denies us the pleasure of any narrative arc, even if that narrative arc is about getting to work every day, something the poor, in real life, do with great skill and ingenuity.

Indeed, the weakest scenes in Killer of Sheep involve Stan’s job at the slaughterhouse. Unlike most of the film critics who have put Burnett’s film up on a pedestal, I actually know what the inside of a slaughterhouse looks like, having worked in fish canneries in the 1990s. In spite of one striking image of sheep after they’ve been slaughtered, these scenes fall flat. They capture none of the smell, the noise, the chaos, or the violence of a slaughterhouse. For that, go to Jennifer Lawrence’s squirrel skinning scene in Winter’s Bone,where she viscerally recoils from the blood and guts. The abattoir in Killer of sheep is arty and contrived, a clumsy attempt at symbolism. Yeah, we get it. Stan and his friends, the working class as a whole, are just like sheep, aimlessly milling about, waiting to be slaughtered. But if you’re going to film a scene in a slaughterhouse, it had better be messier. Slaughterhouses aren’t bloodless.

Perhaps it’s best to look at Killer of Sheep exactly as what it is, a brilliant student film made by a gifted cinematographer.  In a purely visual sense, Killer of Sheep is a triumph. Burnett may not know how to write a story. His actors, non actors, may seem wooden and clumsy, and the sound maybe incompetently mixed, but as a still photographer he has to rank with some of the greatest. The lighting is perfect, not just in one scene, but in every scene. The framing, while simple, is also deceptively simple. Every scene, every moment, has the palpable feel of reality. I suspect that if a professor of photography at Pratt Institute diagrammed Killer of Sheep scene by scene, he’d find that every frame is perfectly composed. Killer of Sheep looks as good as any black and white film by Jim Jarmusch. Frame by frame, the black and white photography in Killer of Sheep is as beautiful as the black and white photography in John Ford’s most beautiful film, “My Darling Clementine.” Killer of Sheep looks as good as the collected works of Henri Cartier Bresson.

It’s just too bad that whatever Burnett’s motivations, Killer of Sheep never quite rises above the level of poverty porn.