Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

youngmr1Hailing from a year laden with numerous American classics, Young Mr. Lincoln is undoubtedly overlooked in deference to other titles like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Even John Ford’s own Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, overshadowed this autobiographical work headed by Henry Fonda. Then the next year they came out with The Grapes of Wrath and that title garnered praise for both men. But again, it seems like most have forgotten about Young Mr. Lincoln.

It really is a shame, because this is a quintessential Ford film, and Henry Fonda gives an iconic turn as one of the great historical giants of all time. Except instead of focusing on his major accomplishments, trials, or fatal death, this story contents itself with a simpler story. The focus is the fledgling law career of Abraham Lincoln, who back in 1857 is only a lanky country boy with a hankering for learning. He sees tragedy at a young age when people pass away around him and yet out of those formative years rises a man who is wise beyond his years, because he understands his fellow man and cares deeply about justice.

Lincoln is hardly a lawyer of any repute, and he seems hardly a political figure compared to the likes of the great Stephen Douglas. But the people respect him because he wins them over with his common sense and homespun witticisms. Aside from his ubiquitous top hat, he willingly judges pie eating contests, and play the Jew’s harp with feet reclined at his desk.  One of his dear admirers is the young socialite Mary Todd who takes an immense liking to him. He’s the kind of figure that the elite and common folk alike can truly respect.

So when two brothers are accused of murdering another man after a fight one night, it is Mr. Lincoln who avoids a lynching and appeals to the morals of the locals. He, in turn, promises the mother of the boys that he will do his very best to win their freedom and he does all he can to gain her trust.

When the trial begins he carefully picks the jury and faces off against a venerable prosecutor with much greater experience than himself. The mother of the accused saw the squabble, but she cannot bear to implicate her sons. Lincoln pleads on her behalf.  It also looks like the key witness and friend of the deceased man will put a seal on the case, but young Mr. Lincoln is not done yet.

Thus, the film ends and Lincoln is most certainly on the rise, but we get to imagine his future knowingly, on our own, because none of that length of the story is told. In that way, it’s rather interesting to juxtapose Ford’s film with Spielberg’s more recent biography Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. They represent different generations of filmmaking, because the latter film takes a monumental moment in history, the passing of the 13th amendment, and places a magnifying glass to it. Focusing on all the individuals involved, and it is certainly going for an amount of period realism, starting with the impressive performance by Day-Lewis as our 16th president.

Young Mr. Lincoln is a lot simpler because it does not need to focus on the highlights. It takes as great of an interest in Abe’s origin story so to speak. On his part, Henry Fonda plays the role wonderfully using his mannerisms and plain speaking delivery to give a homey quality to Lincoln. He’s believable, but in a different way than Day-Lewis. It’s not better or worse necessarily, just different. That being said, Young Mr. Lincoln deserves a place among the exulted classics of that legendary year of 1939. Hopefully, it will continue to receive the respect that it deserves, because it is a moving and surprisingly very witty film. Probably in the way Abraham Lincoln was.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Star Wars (1977)

ccbff-starwars1Star Wars has such a giant mythology and full-blown culture surrounding it that it becomes nearly impossible to separate the entire galaxy from the film franchise. It is so much more than just a movie with a plot and some characters going on an adventure. Sure, George Lucas let his boyhood imagination run wild taking pages out of numerous playbooks from John Ford’s westerns, Kurosawa’s samurai, and the serialized sci-fi adventures of Buck Rogers.

However, when I look at this classic that I grew up with for so many years now, it is nearly impossible to shed the role of a pure fan and take on the role of a film critic. One prime example would be Sir Alec Guinness. All my knowledge of film history tells me he is one of the greatest English actors of all time and for good reason. However, there is also this innate conflict that says he’s Obi Wan Kenobi since that’s what I knew him for originally. That’s what I identify him with, and I probably always will. Because, as I said before, Star Wars: A New Hope (As it was later titled) means so much to so many people like me on a personal level.

But let me hold off on that for a moment and focus on Star Wars the film. First and foremost, you would be hard-pressed to find a more colorful array of characters. C3PO and R2D2 are the films jesters and the story is told from point of view, to begin with. You have the hapless farmboy, the wise old man, a spunky princess, a dashing tough guy, and his ever faithful fuzzy sidekick. Not to mention the greatest, most imposing villain every developed for the silver screen. It took some developing with three different actors, a mask, a cape, and SCUBA sounds all joined to create his persona.

That aside, the world Lucas created is so astounding and inventive that it has become second nature to true Star War fans. Jawas on Tatooine, the Cantina in Mos Eisley, and Storm Troopers on the Death Star are simply a no brainer. They are part of our lexicon just as many of these quotes easily roll off our tongue. “May the force be with you,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” You get the idea.

Then, it goes without saying that John Williams propelled this film from being good to great. Because without his iconic scoring, Star Wars is just not the same. It lacks the same energy and epic vibrancy that pulses through every scene. One prime example is the final scene in the Throne Room on Yavin IV. That could have been the longest most awkward award ceremony in history.  When you think about it, no one is talking, they just stare at each other as the medals get bestowed. But with Williams score, it develops a grand crescendo that caps the film on the highest notes as the credits role.

I am also convinced that Ben Burtt is a genius because he breathed still more life into the Star Wars world through his sound design. He gave us blaster noises, RD-D2’s “voice,” Chewie’s distinctive growls, and of course the hum of lightsabers and Darth Vader’s iconic breathing. A personal favorite of mine is the ever present Wilhelm Scream, but I digress.

Thus, what we witnessed the first time we saw Star Wars (followed by countless more times) was not just a film, but a revolution, and I’m not just talking about the rebel alliance blowing up the Death Star.

As I suggested before, Star Wars is so affecting because it is not simply a movie we watch. In many respects, it brings up flashbulb memories in our lives. I remember birthday parties, childhood afternoons playing Legos, or being a Jedi with my very own lightsaber. Star Wars infected my entire adolescence and so when I watch this film it causes all the many great memories to flood back.

It is a joy to watch it again because I almost feel like a kid once more, experiencing the same excitement all over again as if it’s the first time around. My taste in films may continue to mature and evolve, but I dearly hope I never lose my affinity for Star Wars. In many, it would be like losing some of my memories and even a little bit of my humanity.

Not to worry, though, because based on this most recent viewing I will not be dismissing Star Wars any time soon. As some wise man once  said, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I forgot how much I missed “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” It was great seeing an old friend.

5/5 Stars

The Best Films of John Ford

1. The Searchers
2. Stagecoach
3. The Grapes of Wrath
4. The Quiet Man
5. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
6. How Green was My Valley
7. My Darling Clementine
8. Young Mr. Lincoln
9. The Long Voyage Home
10. The Informer
11. Fort Apache
12. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
13. They Were Expendable
14. Wagon Master
15. Mister Roberts
16. 3 Bad Men
17. The Whole Town’s Talking
18. Sergeant Rutledge
19. Rio Grande
20. 3 Godfathers
21. The Horse Soldiers
22. Steamboat ‘Round the Bend
23. The Long Gray Line
24. How The West Was Won

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948)

6a177-sheworeayellowribbonpost“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.”

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon can probably be considered lighter fare than the Searchers or Liberty Valance, but it is still worth a watch for Ford or Wayne fans.The 2nd installment of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, this film was shot in Monument Valley in color and features a 41 year old John Wayne playing a 60 year old captain on the verge of retirement. However, before he is done he must diffuse the aggression of the Native Americans due to the aftermath of the Little Big Horn. At base and on the the trail he must deal with two young bucks (James Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) and the stuck up girl (Joanne Dru) they are fighting over. However, he also has some very capable men in his company, two of which are played by Victor McClaigen and Ben Johnson. With his retirement imminent he salvages his last mission before riding off as a civilian towards California. Except they are not quite done with him yet.

Here Wayne takes on a more fatherly role and does a good job dispelling his knowledge and know how as the experienced Nathan Cuttings Brittles. As usual John Ford does not disappoint and there is some brilliant scenery whether it is Monument Valley in the rain or the shine. Next are Fort Apache (1948) and then Rio Grande (1950)!

4/5 Stars

Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

a44af-themanwhoshotNothing’s too good for the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance!!! But who is he exactly? How did it happen? Where is he now?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps one of the moodiest and most atmospheric westerns of all time. In a sense, it is almost like a Noir Western with its often stark cinematography (especially during the climatic moments), and it is told through a long flashback that encapsulates nearly the entire narrative. Both qualities are typical film-noir.

John Ford had numerous classic westerns, but this one is possibly one of the darkest in tone. The film has a typically great John Ford cast (like My Darling Clementine or The Searchers). Of course, it would not be one of his westerns without John Wayne, then add James Stewart, Vera Miles, and of course Lee Marvin. Then the secondary cast is rounded out by such great character actors as Edmund O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine, and Denver Pyle among others.

This film is also steeped in politics. It becomes more obvious the more you watch that there is this underlining conflict between democracy and a different system of representation. Could this be a critique of Communism also packed into a western? Probably.

One of the moments that really stood out this time around was the flashback within the flashback when Doniphan (Wayne)  reveals his point of view to Ransom Stoddard (Stewart). He was, in fact, the man who shot Liberty Valance. We knew it at heart but finally we have the proof and all of sudden his behavior seems justified and he becomes the tragic hero of the film.

It is an unjust ending and yet it plays out the way it was meant to — maybe not the way it should have. The lawyer got the girl, the fame, and the spot in Congress, because he is a hero for something he did not actually accomplish. Tom instead is the one who fades into the past. It struck me that this is one of the few films I can remember where Wayne actually dies, the other would be the Shootist. Except here he is dead before the story has even began. The legend of John Wayne himself lends nicely to this legendary man in the film who we only know through the recollections of others. As the newsman noted, when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.

4.5/5 Stars

Rio Grande (1950)

f5e4d-riograndeThe last installment of John Ford’s Calvary Trilogy. Not the best of him or Wayne for that matter, but it is still a worthwhile film. First, there is the tension in the paring between Wayne and Maureen O’Harra as they quarrel about what to do about their young son who is a member of Wayne’s unit. There is a supporting cast including the likes of Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, Harey Carey Jr., and Calude Jarman Jr.

While watching it I was just thinking how Ford has so many great looking films in both color and black and white. This one uses the latter as well as a Monument Valley backdrop to perfection. It just looks so beautiful in every shot and Maureen O’Hara does not hurt the eyes either for that matter.

Soon after Ford would pair again with a few of his stars to make another little film. Anyone for The Quiet Man?

3.5/5 Stars

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Starring both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, with Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and direction by John Ford, this is certainly a moody western. Stewart, now a successful politician returns to a small town with his wife to pay his respects to an old friend. In the ensuing flashback he retells his story beginning as a young lawyer who had a run in with Liberty Valance (Marvin). After he got well he strove to bring justice and education to the land. Despite their differences, Stewart finds a friend in Wayne who has his eye on Miles. However, everything eventually goes awry when Stewart agrees to face Valance out in the street. He appears to be a goner because he is wounded, but miraculously a shot hits Valance and he falls dead. Stewart now a hero gets the girl and agrees to represent the town. Wayne fades into the background also a hero. The supporting cast includes Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, and John Carradine. With two great icons and a great director, this western is certainly a classic. Although it did not end up making it into the film, Gene Pitney’s western ballad deserves to be acknowledged nonetheless.

4.5/5 Stars

The Quiet Man (1952)

Starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara with director John Ford, the film follows an ex-American boxer as he returns to his roots in Ireland. Soon he is befriended by the proper yet kindly folk in the quaint town. Also, a beautiful red-haired girl catches his eye one day. Fireworks start between the American and the proud brother, so he will not condone the courtship or marriage of his sister. Finally, Wayne does gain his wife but she is unhappy without her dowry and she believes her husband is a coward since he will not fight for it. Little does she know the past he tried to escape, but once he gets it off his chest, he does fight. Through the exciting event both men grow fond of each other and the town gets a kick out of the entertainment. O’Hara and the rest of the cast including Barry Fitzgerlad are wonderful as the Irish folk, all playing off the Quiet Man.

5/5 Stars

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Starring a cast including Roddy McDowell, Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, and Donald Crisp, with director John Ford, the film is told from the eyes of a young boy (McDowell) from a Welsh mining family. Huw has five older brothers, an older sister, and two strong but goodhearted parents. As times get tougher, he sees one brother get married and two others leave for America. Huw faces his own struggles recuperating from an injury and surviving his schooling. Along the way he is aided by the kindly preacher (Pidgeon). However, soon he sees his family torn apart even more when his sister is unhappily married off, a brother is killed, and two others lose their jobs. Then, finally when his sister returns, the town folk start a scandal, and Mr. Morgan becomes trapped in the mine. It does end on a good not and the family stays resilient. This film is full of adversity but more importantly it has warmth and good people. The camera work is excellent and the Welsh singing is memorable.

4.5/5 Stars

The Searchers (1956)

d4eb3-the_searchersOne of John Wayne and John Ford’s best westerns respectively, The Searchers follows an ex-Confederate soldier (Wayne) as he looks for his niece Debbie, who was taken by Indians when they killed her parents. Now Wayne and a young man played by Jefferey Hunter must look for her and bring Debbie home. With an almost obsessive desire, Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards vows to find her. Along the way, the old vet and young man have conflicting personalities that get in the way. Even when they finally find her, she has become more Indian than white, and Edwards seems bent on killing her much to Hunter’s horror. In the end, the gruff but courageous searcher shows his true colors.

A great western, and simply a wonderful film, The Searchers has a lot to offer with great action, Monument Valley scenery, and of course John Wayne. The supporting cast is good as well, including Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond, John Qualen, Hank Worden, and Ken Curtis.

There are some pivotal scenes in this film that I think really get to the core of what it is about, and Ford constructs a multitude of scenes which are simply a joy to observe as they unfold. One turning point has to be when the two Searchers look over a few white girls that the cavalry recovered from the Comanche. One of the girls gives off a childish screech, which causes Ethan to turn around, and Ford’s camera closes in on his scowling face half covered by shadow. Here is a proud man who would not surrender during the end of the Civil War. Here is a man full of prejudice and vengeance. Here is a man who shows glimpses of kindness, and here is a man who knows pain. It is complicated because he heads out after Debbie seemingly in an act of love. But soon it seems that it has become his vendetta, and Ethan has simply become bent on revenge. It takes his final confrontation with Debbie to reveal the true depth of his character.

Undoubtedly this is one of the preeminent American westerns, but I think you could also call it a social commentary on racial prejudice. Furthermore, The Searchers influence ranges from the plight of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars to the music of Buddy Holly (“That’ll be the Day”). I think fittingly enough the film ends with Wayne framed in the doorway, walking off into the distance. After all, he is a searcher, and you cannot expect a man like that to stay put.

5/5 Stars