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Use of the Landscape in Creating Such Western Films by Film Director John Fords

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Once this too was the wild west

The red sky blazes over the mountains, the wide river reflecting its fire amid broken islands of ice. The train hurtles through the wilderness. But the mountains are the Catskills, more famous now for Jewish comedy than hunting, the river is the Hudson, and the train is a suburban service heading into New York City.

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In the last shot of "The Searchers," the camera, from deep inside the cozy recesses of a frontier homestead, peers out through an open doorway into the bright sunshine. The contrast between the dim interior and the daylight outside creates a second frame within the wide expanse of the screen. Inside that smaller space, the desert glare highlights the shape and darkens the features of the man who lingers just beyond the threshold

Everyone else has come inside: the other surviving characters, who have endured grief, violence, the loss of kin and the agony of waiting, and also, implicitly, the audience, which has anxiously anticipated this homecoming. But the hero, whose ruthlessness and obstinacy have made it possible, is excluded, and our last glimpse of him emphasizes his solitude, his separateness, his alienation - from his friends and family, and also from us.

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Director John Milius describes John Ford’s style in terms of the Japanese idea of “conservation of line”, saying Ford can do with a couple of “brush strokes” what it takes others six or eight to do. Early in his career, Ford talked about what he called “invisible technique”, to make an audience forget they were watching a movie. But later he refused to dissect his work, saying things had to be dead before dissection, and telling young directors like myself only to “make sure you can see their eyes”. The impact of an astonishing scene like Tom’s farewell to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath is achieved with virtually television coverage. Yet only in Ford would the characters’ eyelines intersect at a point somewhere in the middle distance, as if they both see something spiritual

It is for me in the spiritual that Ford expresses the greatest we can hope our art to be. It is his capacity to mythologise; to ennoble that which might otherwise go unnoticed.

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After all, in Stagecoach in 1939 the open landscape depicted in black and white “visualizes the idea of America’s limitless possibilities and individual opportunities” (Bernstein 332). It was an incredible visual experience for the audience at the time. However, in The Searchers the beautiful scenery is in colour, but has a different effect – it is more unsettling because of its vastness. John Ford was an amazingly intuitive film director and has created two iconic western films

Stagecoach and The Searchers have many parallels and similarities, but they also contain a strong contrast – the contrast between the “old” 1939 west of Stagecoach and the “new morality” 1956 west of The Searchers.

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Anderson, Lindsay. About John Ford, London: Plexus Publishing, 1981.

Ford, Dan. Pappy – The Life of John Ford, Prentice Hall, 1979.Prats, A. J. (1995).

Back from the sunset: The western, the Eastwood hero, and The Unforgiven. Journal of Film and Video, 47, 106-123.

Rushing, J. H. (1983). The rhetoric of the American western myth. Communication Monographs, 50, 14- 32.

Schatz, T. (1981). Hollywood genres. New York: Random House.

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