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YMMV / John Ford

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  • Alternate Character Interpretation: Quentin Tarantino raised the issue of Ford's role as an extra in The Birth of a Nation, where he played one of the Klansmen. Ford scholars have always seen it as a throwaway gig (he had not started his career as a director and was working odd jobs at the time) but Tarantino sees it as indicative of Ford's racism. Ford's portrayals of minority characters did indeed become more nuanced and Fair for Its Day as time went on (compare Stagecoach to Cheyenne Autumn for example, as well as Sergeant Rutledge—one of the first films at the time with an African-American male lead). Still, Ford himself was typically the one to bring up his role in Griffith's film—and not in the context of apologizing or providing context for it. So was Ford honestly unaware of the racism of Birth of a Nation (unlikely); did he simply feel that Money, Dear Boy, or just a chance gig to appear in a film by the most respected director of his age, was an acceptable reason for appearing in it; or did he actually agree with the film's support of "separate but equal" as Quentin contends? note 
  • Fair for Its Day:
    • His portrayal of Native American characters is usually much better than most other Westerns from his time, which often treat them as barbarous, murderous savages. And despite some unfortunate instances of Modern Minstrelsy (such as the "squaw" in The Searchers), Ford at least treated them with a level of respect many other Western directors lacked, and Native American characters were often given more character traits than just "the Indian" or "the bad guy". While a lot of younger viewers and modern directors like Quentin Tarantino consider his films racist and dated, careful viewing and attention to history reveals that the picture is much more complicated.
      • Ford's westerns always used the Navajo tribe of Monument Valley, Utah as extras and he paid them minimum wage on same rates as white actors (rare for any director of that time) and his film productions generated much business and attention and helped their economy. For these actions, the Navajo made him a honorary member of the tribe gave him the honorific Natani Nez (which means Tall Leader). Ford also spoke the Navajo language.
      • Jim Jarmusch, after making Dead Man (a revisionist, Deconstruction of Westerns) made a fair point that his films frequently cast the Navajo as stand-ins for other tribes, perpetuating stereotypes. This is generally true with one exception. The western Wagon Master, obscure, but cited by Ford as one of his favorite films, the only film where the Navajo play Navajo. In any case, while Ford does generally use Navajo to stand-in for other tribes, this is on balance because of limitations than anything else, since he uses the very tiny Monument Valley to stand in for other regions, most egregiously Texas in The Searchers.
      • One of Ford's biographers, Joseph McBride, visited several Navajo reservations where Ford had worked after his death, and noted their ambivalence towards him. They respected Ford as a generous man who helped their community, but were dismayed to see how his films portrayed Native Americans. Novelist Tony Hillerman depicts this ambivalence in his detective novel Sacred Clowns, showing an audience of modern Navajos heckling a screening of Cheyenne Autumn.
      • His films avert Politically Correct History by constantly highlighting the presence of the Native Americans in the Western landscape (which wasn't as common for Westerns back then) and pointing out the fact that America was built on the violence and destruction of their land and culture. Fort Apache clearly depicts the Apaches in the right and the cavalry in the wrong, with their vainglorious Colonel starting a war purely for self-aggrandizement. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon features its hero, Colonel Brittles, working with peaceful Sioux to avoid a conflict from erupting, with even the villainous Natives depicted as well-intentioned extremists infuriated by broken government promises and corrupt Indian agents. The Searchers was radical for describing the Deliberate Values Dissonance of Missing White Woman Syndrome on the frontier showing that crusading White hero Ethan Edwards is Not So Different from his villain Scar, creating an anti-hero conflict that inspired later directors.
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    • Several of Ford's films additionally dealt with anti-black racism. Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright highlight the lynch mob mentality that African-Americans routinely feared. In his later years he sought out to make actor Woody Strode into a movie star, with Sergeant Rutledge, and used that film and (more subtly) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to demonstrate both black contributions to the winning of the West, and how racism against blacks likewise extended to the frontier.
    • Likewise despite the generally macho premise of his films, women play a stronger and more important role in his films than other Westerns. Among other examples, Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk, Ava Gardner in Mogambo and Maureen O'Hara in her pairings with John Wayne are very much portrayed as the leading man's equal and often take part in the action themselves. Ford's final film, 7 Women is Exactly What It Says on the Tin and famously casts a pre-stardom Anne Bancroft in a role that Wayne would have played, anticipating action movie roles of the kind that Sigourney Weaver would get credit for.


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