I had an education in Westerns growing up thanks to my granddad, who was a big fan of them. Thanks to him, I saw the original Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to name but a few. His favourite Western was Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, but John Ford’s movies ran a close second.
I’m embarrassed to say that apart from joining most Irish people in laughing at The Quiet Man, I didn’t think anymore of Ford until a symposium last week in Dublin, hosted by John Ford Ireland. Because the events – particularly a wonderful screening of The Iron Horse - reminded me why his movies were so memorable and why the characters stayed with me long after I’d forgotten the plot details.
It kicked off with the silent classic The Iron Horse on Thursday night at the National Concert Hall, with the concert orchestra playing the score. 20th Century Fox commissioned a score from U.S. composer Christopher Caliendo in 2007 and the man himself was there to conduct (I assume the original score, if there was one, has been lost).
This film is nothing like any other silent movie I’ve seen. Most of the ones I’ve watched in the past have been horrors (The Cabinet Case of Dr. Caligari) or comedies (Chaplin, Lloyd). But this one is an epic Western which too 3 years and 5,000 extras to complete. It’s mind-blowing thinking of the work that went into it, the fact that Ford constructed and tore down two towns during the shoot and managed to wrangle an enormous cast despite there being no official script (they actually started shooting with only a synopsis and Ford wrote the script along the way).
What’s even more of an eye-opener is that this is the movie which used a lot of Western movie tropes – things that would soon become clichés - for the first time. Or at very least, made them famous. From saloon girls to the hanging judge, marauding Indians, scalpings, Pony Express riders, the hero’s jump from horse to train, cattle runs, using Buffalo Bill as a character, the villain who’s really an Apache and last but not least, the tense bar-room scene where everyone waits for a man to arrive so the shooting can start. They’re all here. It’s a brilliant Western adventure that only John Ford can have made and I’m so glad I got to see it on the big screen, where it belongs.
Friday began with a screening of Directed by John Ford, the documentary made by Peter Bogdanovich, and it was introduced by the man himself. I’m a huge fan of Bogdanovich because of the movie What’s Up, Doc but also because he’s a link to a Hollywood that’s gone, a world inhabited by Orson Welles, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and John Wayne (all of whom he interviewed for the documentary). He’s a great interview himself, full of stories of trying to get Ford to cooperate and talk about his work on camera (he wouldn’t) and how the first word Ford spoke to him was the Serbian word for shit (Bogdanovich is Serbian-American).
Then it was off to a Directors’ Panel on Ford, with directors Jim Sheridan, John Boorman, Thaddeus O’Sullivan and Brian Kirk. They talked about Ford’s genius, then each picked a favourite Ford film and screened scenes from them. It was interesting, but I would have liked them to have had a chance to screen some of their own work or at least to have a chance to show Ford’s influence on their own movies. The panel was moderated by Kim Newman from Empire Magazine, who I can confirm looks exactly like his (fairly eccentric) photo in real life! I wish I’d had a chance to plague him about B-movie horrors, but it was far too high-class an event for that…
With over three hours to kill before the public interview with Peter Bogdanovich, I went down to The Factory with fellow writer Caroline Farrell and director and actress Denise Pattinson. The Factory is a new creative space located in an old factory on Barrow Street, set up by (among others) directors John Carney, Lance Daly, Kirsten Sheridan and Shimmy Marcus. The event on Friday was an information session on their new Screen Acting Programme, which costs €50 to even apply for and fees of nearly €5,000 if you’re accepted. I’m glad I’m not an actor – whatever the talent involved, that is a serious financial commitment!
They are also accepting commissions from writers (although from what I can make out, this is mainly to see your work rehearsed by actors) and offering a six-day writing workshop. This initiative offers an amazing creative space and there is so much potential there. I hope it can become something that gives people a chance to experiment, develop their talents and create some great new movies.
Afterwards, there was time for chat and therefore time for me to put my foot in it. I have a bad track record with Lance Daly – the last time I met him I made the mistake of congratulating him on his movie The Halo Effect, which did not go down well. This time I told him I liked The Good Doctor, which also went down like a lead balloon. Lance, if you don’t like your movies no one else will! Either way, I’m saying nothing from here on…
Lastly, there was the main event – a public interview with Bogdanovich. My only complaint was that this was way too short at barely an hour and fifteen minutes, as with the stories he has it could have gone on for three hours. He talked about making The Last Picture Show, trying to get former Ford actor Ben Johnson to do it and having to get John Ford involved to persuade him. Johnson went on to win an Oscar for his role, so Ford did him a favour! They showed the scene from the film which arguably won Johnson that award, the bit down by the river where Sam the Lion tells Sonny about the lost love of his youth.
Other things covered were his relationship with Cybill Shepherd and the subsequent flop film they made together, Daisy Miller, working on Mask (in my opinion, one of his best films), his role in The Sopranos (they showed a great clip from this) and his new movie Squirrel to the Nuts, which he describes as “a screwball comedy”.
I would have liked to have heard more about working in Hollywood in the 70’s, a time when directors were kings and anything seemed possible. Bogdanovich is a man who’s often been criticised for having a monster ego, but he was an inspiring and informative interview subject. One of the greats and I look forward to seeing another of his films in the cinema some day soon.
This Ford symposium is apparently going to be an annual event, which is great news. Ford made over 120 films and there’s so much more to be said about his work, especially here in Ireland where people have yet to show him as much recognition as he deserves. I’m looking forward to the 2013 lineup already…