Four-time Oscar-winning director John Ford is known primarily for his westerns, and is in fact pretty much synonymous with the genre and its many clichés. He made several westerns in the early, silent part of his career, but it wasn’t until 12 years after The Jazz Singer that Ford made his first in the era of sound, Stagecoach (1939).
Then came World War II and Ford – along with fellow accomplished directors John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler, and Frank Capra – enlisted in the Armed Services as a documentarian, in his specific case with the United States Navy. That’s right, these guys left lucrative, safe careers photographing pretty boys and starlets to willingly get shot at by Germans just because their country needed them. Over the course of his service Ford filmed combat footage at both Omaha Beach on D-Day and at the Battle of Midway; he was even wounded by shrapnel.
When he returned to Hollywood, Ford made his second western with sound, My Darling Clementine (1946). Both Clementine and Stagecoach are what we think of as prototypical westerns – a single, brave man leads a band of others against evil – both have a total running times within four minutes of each other, and both feature such genre staples as shootouts on horseback, damsels in distress, and coach chases. In regards to this final example, both films take as part of their climax a flight from pursuing danger, wheels cutting through the dusty prairie floor as bullets and arrows whip back and forth between the coach and the antagonists in its wake. However, in Stagecoach, the way Ford scores the chase scene is deafening and bombastic, played almost for comedic effect, while in Clementine it is a decidedly more serious, dire, and dramatic score the director employs, despite the scene being shot, framed, choreographed, and written basically the same as the former example.
So what caused the difference? It’s simple: when he made Stagecoach, Ford had never known actual peril; when he made Clementine, he’d born witness to the deadliest war in the history of mankind. And while he had managed to get the mechanics right in the first film, he realized in retrospect that his atmosphere had been off, he hadn’t been treating the subject as seriously as he couldn’t help to the second time around, having lived through similar circumstances.
This difference has been examined in detail by Will Ross in the below MUBI video essay for the purpose of revealing the contextual implications both scores have on an audience, as well as how such a seemingly background detail can be at the forefront of our emotional interpretation of a scene. And – bonus – it’s also a reminder that John Ford was not just a cinematic genius, but a total badass.
Related Topics: Filmmaking