Our very own Rosie Rowan Taylor reviews the newest silent film release from Eureka's Entertainment The Masters of Cinema series and this time, it's not just one film, but two! Plus, you have a chance to win a brand new copy thanks to our friends and Eureka!
Considered the foremost director of Westerns in the history of cinema, John Ford is perhaps best remembered for classics such as Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). However, his prolific film career started way back in 1917, where he established himself as a talented director of silent Westerns. If you haven’t had a chance to see a John Ford (or Jack Ford as he was known then) silent film, now is your chance to see some of his earliest and best work in the best possible way.
As an avid John Ford fan my only opportunity to see any of his pre-1920 surviving work until now (not having been able to attend any archival retrospectives), has been via dupey VHS or DVD’s, often with a bit of random piano music added. As is the case with so many early and forgotten films, even where they do survive, they are often largely inaccessible, due mostly to the lack of resources Archives have to make them available, alongside often complex copyright issues. Most of Ford’s films made before 1930 do not survive. Of the twenty-five he made starring Harry Carey, between 1917 and 1921, only six survive in full, part, or fragments, in Archives around the world. So when I heard that Eureka were going to be releasing the Universal 4K restorations of Ford’s Straight Shooting (1917), and Hell Bent (1918), I was naturally very excited. This was a chance to not only see these films, but see them in the best quality possible.
Image quality is so crucial to the enjoyment and understanding of a film, especially with silent film, as everything is communicated visually, and so much is conveyed through the physical gesture and facial expressions of characters. These restorations were made using an original 35mm nitrate print of Hell Bent, and a 35mm fine grain and 35mm print of Straight Shooting. These are some of the best elements of a film that can survive, and with careful restoration, it really pays off here. As Ford biographer Joseph McBride discusses in his commentaries accompanying the films (talked about in more detail further down this article), the image quality of these surviving film elements and their restoration, excel in showing off Fords eye for composition and his exceptional use of lighting, that can be seen throughout his career. This sharpness and detail not only makes them visually stunning, but gives the opportunity to really notice the detail of character facial expressions that Ford paid strong attention to in his work (another aspect discussed by McBride), giving a more in-depth understanding of the stories and characters.
Like all good restorations, the images still retain the ‘film’ look, and some of the defects that will have come with their survival over the years. However, this is hardly a distraction, but more a nostalgic reminder that this is film, and it has survived for over one hundred years!
Both films come with scores that, whilst not the traditional silent film scores, add a fresh spring in the step of these early Ford works. Michael Gatt’s score for Straight Shooting sensitively carries the poignant and tragic moments of the film, whilst simultaneously playing up the action sequences, particularly in the final shoot-out, as well as really bringing out the detailed aspects of character and narrative throughout. Zachary Marsh accentuates the humour in Hell Bent, that is a central theme running throughout the film. His score balances this brilliantly with the few more serious aspects of the narrative, and plays up the fun and action, reminding us that this is not really too serious a film.
The booklet accompanying the Blu-ray release is an excellent introduction to Ford’s early filmmaking career, and these two films specifically. If you’re not familiar with Ford’s filmmaking, especially this early period, this is a must read, and acts as a firm introduction to the two restored films and the extras that accompany them. And there are a rich array of extras which build on the information in the booklet. As mentioned before, both films have the option to screen them with a detailed, fascinating, and aware commentary by Ford biographer, Joseph McBride. McBride talks about many aspects of Ford’s filmmaking; the actors in the films, the early Western, filmmaking at this time, many other important aspects relating to the films and Ford himself, as well as quotes from many people close to Ford that McBride has interviewed over the years. The commentaries are a fascinating gateway to understanding John Ford the man, and John Ford the filmmaker, for those new to him, but equally provide further and more detailed information for those of us who are familiar with the man and his work. If you are a complete Ford nerd like me, you’ll want to watch commentaries for both the films. However, they cover a lot of the same information, so if you have to pick one, I would go with the Straight Shooting commentary. It was Ford’s first feature, and as such, McBride sets the tone of Ford’s early life and career very well, relating it to his later films that many of us know and love.
McBride also gives access to the full-unedited archival audio interview he did with Ford in 1970. Ford was famous for being difficult to interview, and he is no exception here. However, McBride provides an introduction which thoughtfully gives the interview context to help the listener better understand the why’s and wherefores of Ford’s behaviour. It is an explicit interview in places, uncomfortable at times, but also simultaneously hilarious if you appreciate Ford’s style of humour. It is a fascinating insight into the man and an essential listen for any Ford enthusiast!
If you want a brief overview of Ford’s early life and career, there are also two short video essays by Tag Gallagher (one for each film), which cover some of the more basic key information about Ford, highlighting many of the connections between his early and later films, as well as an interesting study of his visual style, comparing it to that of his older brother Francis Ford, who was a successful Hollywood filmmaker before him. Historian and author Kim Newman gives an enthusiastic and thorough interview on Harry Carey (the star of these two films), that covers Carey’s early life and career, his relationship with John Ford, as well as the wider Western genre.
Perhaps my favourite extra is a surviving fragment of Ford’s film Hitchin’ Posts (1920), preserved by the Library of Congress. Running at around a minute long, even this little fragment shows Ford’s visual style and sentimentality that were to become staple elements of his filmmaking throughout the rest of his career.
My only criticism is that there is repetition of facts, stories, and details between the extras at times. However, each extra does provide enough unique information to be able to overlook this for the most part. And repetition of facts often helps us remember them better anyway.
Lastly, if you haven’t already, alongside this Eureka's Blu-ray release, I would recommend reading Joseph McBride's book Searching for John Ford. It is an extremely well written, engaging, detailed biography of the filmmaker. It’s one of the best books I have ever read, and if you don’t know anything about John Ford now, between the Eureka Blu-ray and McBride's book, you’ll be on your way to being an expert.
Thanks to The Masters of Cinema's team we have a brand new copy of the release up for grabs; just send us your answer to the question below via our contact page by mid-night on Monday 7th June 2021 to be in with a chance. Good Luck!
Question: George O'Brien starred in which key John Ford silent film in 1924?