Wednesday, 24 December 2008

An Underrated Classic Movie and Merry Christmas

I have been watching - for the umpteenth time - John Ford's "Rio Grande". I never tire of it. In my opinion it is one of Ford's greatest films, and probably one of the greatest films ever made. You can guess from this that I am a John Ford fan.

Many Catholics know and like Ford's "The Quiet Man" which is basically a comedy based in the West of Ireland. Some would say that it is "about" Ireland, and Ford, an Irish American would have agreed. However, the film has scenes that are now controversial (and may have been then). One in particular suggests that occassional wife-beating is not a bad thing. It is also taken for granted that it is not only acceptable but recommended for Oirish men to knock seven bells out of each other. Still, it is regarded as a classic and has its place in a list of "Catholic" films!

Ford wanted to make a film about Ireland and submitted a script to the Republic studio. The head of Republic, Herbert Yates, didn't like it very much and insisted that Ford make a western first, using the same lead actors he wanted to cast in his irish film - John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Yates thought that the money made from the western would help to pay for Ford's pet project which, Yates thought, would fail at the box office.

It might have been expected that Ford would have turned out a routine effort because his heart was elsewhere. In fact he produced what is, in my opinion at least, one of his greatest films. In my humble opinion it is a masterpiece. The two lead actors were never better, and they are much better in this than in "The Quiet Man". Wayne actually looks different, and older. There is little sign of any make up, but some was obviously used. He looks gaunt and tired in the film and that is all in character. The dialogue is excellent and probably more accurate than the dialogue in most westerns (the screenplay was by James K McGuinness). When Maureen O'Hara describes Wayne's character (Colonel Yorke) as "a lonely man; a very lonely man" you believe her.

This film is about duty, honour, the effects of war, reconciliation and family. It is also about the individual and the isolation of a man who finds himself trapped by both the events that happen around him and his sense of duty in the midst of conflict. It is more than a western. The campaigns against the renegade Apaches are loosely based on real events, and in depicting the life of the frontier cavalryman it is probably the most accurate film of its kind. There are so many suprises and pleasures in the movie it is hard to list them all.

John Ford was a practising Catholic. He didn't like Irish priests very much (it is necessary to know this to understand some of the scenes in "The Quiet Man"), but he was a Mass-going Catholic and took his religion seriously. Most Ford experts can easily pick out Catholic themes and symbols in his films. It is clear that Ford had an optimistic view of humanity. With all its faults and foibles - with all the darkness that human beings sometimes find in themselves - there is also the stuff of greatness. In Ford's films, one can somehow sense the presence of God in the lives of his characters. Don't ask me how this works; it's just there. I believe it has something to do with Ford's own love of people and his respect for the individual as well as for family and community. Ultimately it is this quality of "humanity" which marks John Ford as one of the greatest of all film makers and movie directors.

Watching a great film like "Rio Grande" can help us think of how difficult -and yet how wonderful - it is to be human. Watching it the other night actually made me think of Christmas and the Christ-child. "God so loved the world..." etc. We are wonderfully made, and God will not let us go. The greatness that shines in human beings is a reflection of the Creator. That light shines most of all in adversity when we turn from our sin and seek reconciliation and the strength to begin again. Love is at the heart of all this, and when love appears to fail, there is grace and faith. It is in faith and with the help of God's grace that we find our feet again - and find each other again. This is the ultimate triumph on earth, and acknowledging the grace that makes this possible encourages understanding and compassion. It is the Catholic vision of humanity that we see and hear in Ford's films. In this sense they are a presentation of the Gospel. In Ford's films there is always hope because there is always faith.

Happy Christmas.

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