Ford's Culture Clash
The gradual creeping up of age and physical infirmities were starting to take their toll on John Ford by 1960. But age can trigger accumulated wisdom and ailments can produce indomitable resolve to work one’s way through them. When Will Cook’s 1960 novel Comanche Captives, with its story of the effort to rescue white captives from a tribe led by one of the last Comanche chiefs, Quanah Parker, came to his attention, it sparked interest. Working with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the director of The Searchers (1956) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) envisioned another examination of the underlying bigotry and opportunism that fueled the “civilizing” of the west and the resulting film, Two Rode Together (1961), opened 55 years ago today. His marquee stars, James Stewart as a self-satisfied, cynical frontier marshal, and Richard Widmark as the cavalryman drafted to accompany the lawman on the expedition, play full-spectrum characters, including their morally gray areas. Others bear psychological scars as well, as the rigors of frontier life and shattered families take their toll. As Tag Gallagher related in his 1986 John Ford: The Man and His Movies: “The redman’s myth-ridden paranoia is matched by the whiteman’s obsessive fantasies. Families dwell in guilty pasts, outside present reality, their lives and relationships suspended, their search for missing members…also a search for personal redemption. Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones) blames herself for her brother’s capture, though she was a little girl at the time; she is a tomboy, doesn’t go to dances, confesses, ‘I used to pray to be changed into a boy. I still do’ – to compensate her father. The motherless Clegg boys [Harry Carey Jr. and Ken Curtis] have grown into uncouth effeminate roughnecks.” Once located, the Comanche and their captives are shown to be no better off. Gallagher continues: “In The Searchers, Debbie came back safe and sane, but in the more realistic Two Rode Together Hannah Clegg [Mae Marsh] refuses to go back; Running Wolf [Sergeant Rutledge’s Woody Strode] is savage and hates whites (due to difficulties growing up Indian) and has to be locked up; Elena (Linda Cristal), having accepted slavery proudly as Stone Calf’s [Henry Brandon] woman, allows herself to be taken back as though changing masters, but is greeted as a degraded freak.” A climactic party sequence (which would have been validating and unifying in previous Ford works) – in which pent-up rage reaches a crescendo of cruel inhumanity resulting in death and retribution – nonetheless shows Ford in momentary top form. Gallagher reports: “On his way to be hanged, in one of Ford’s finest sequences, [Running Wolf (David Kent)] hears Marty’s music box (already established as a fantasy object from the past), rushes to it shouting ‘Mine,’ and is dragged away just as Marty realizes he is her brother.” This tangle of righteous condemnation and raw emotions made for a finished product that critics and audiences of the time found disquieting, and Ford would later repudiate the picture as a fast-buck project owed the studio. More recognizable and amenable to viewers is the sequence which resident Twilight Time historian Julie Kirgo cites as “the remarkable two-shot of Stewart and Widmark sitting on a riverbank, washing, smoking, spitting, and above all, talking. For nearly five minutes, these two ill-assorted characters sit and jaw – about women and matrimony, money and corruption, and the god-awful situation in which they find themselves. There are no cuts, no reverse shots – just a good long look at a pair of undeniable stars practicing their craft with sheer gusto.” Also featuring Andy Devine, John McIntire, Anna Lee, John Qualen, Olive Carey and Jeanette Nolan, Two Rode Together may be regarded as a lesser, more transitional effort in the Ford canon, but 55 years of hindsight and culture-clashing conundrums can lead one to look at its darker, more hardened vision of our country with fresh eyes on Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray, available here: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/27063/TWO-RODE-TOGETHER-1961/.