You arrive on the West Coast to discover that Big Brother has made something of a name and reputation for himself. He's smart enough to see that baby bro doesn't know what to do with himself, so as a humiliating form of pity, he takes you under his wing. You help him out on minor stuff, mainly lighting and handling the film cameras. One day you run across Mr. Carl Laemmle. For what ever reason, this man you've hardly met before thinks he "sees something" in you. The guy's delusional, there's no doubt about that, but he's the boss, so you humor him and go along with whatever he wants. Mr. Laemmle does the irresponsible thing by placing you in a director's chair, and gives you a film to make.
The job is okay, at first. You spend most of your time trying to get a ship of fools to follow orders. The funny thing is you discover a knack for always finding where you want the camera to be. You also have a way of making the actors hit whatever mark the script says they should. One day you wake up to discover you've made name for yourself. This is both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, with the latter tending to dominate. For one thing while it's great to have a secure future, you find that perhaps you don't really fit in any better in Hollywood than you did in your old hometown in Maine. You grow famous by telling stories of heroes and the history of the American West. You even have the knack for discovering talent in the form of a big lug with the ridiculous name of Marion Morrison. After some deliberation, the kid (who prefers the nickname of "Duke") settles on John Wayne as a title.
This at least is what happened with the life of John "Jack" Feeney. In a career that lasted from the Silent Era to the birth of New Wave Cinema, he managed a creative arc that is both iconic and, sadly, almost forgotten in a post-millennial age. Ford cemented his identity with Stagecoach, released in 1939. It was also John Wayne's breakout role, and it helped cement the both of them as artists who specialized in the Western genre. Their subject matter would be a gritty merciless examination of the history of the frontier. That's the popular legacy of Ford, and while it is true to an extent, it is still just one facet of much wider story. The irony is what do you do when even the truth sells you a bit short?
In addition to the films that made his reputation, there was also an intermediate period where Ford tried his hand at a number projects in different genres. Most of these were were best described as social realist dramas, although he did branch a bit further on occasions. When that happened, you could get an adaptation of Steinbeck or Eugene O'Neil. He made a jungle adventure story with Clarke Gable if you can believe it. He even did a slice of life crime drama at one point. In Hollywood anything can happen. I mean anything.
Scholars and critics tend to view 1939 to perhaps 1946 as the director's peak years. Those were the years Ford directed Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green was my Valley, and My Darling Clementine. All of these films are of value. Each of them deserves a post of their own. To start with, however, I'd like to take a look at the one film that in many ways is the last one anyone could expect of John Ford. The irony is that while the film can be described as "out of character" for its director, it also contains a lot of the themes that reappear in his other films. In order to make sense of all this however, we have to get to know the star of the picture.
Everyone loves Shirley.
Ford's career was on the make in 1936. While his major works were still on the horizon, at that time the only work he was known for was his recent Oscar win with The Informer. Ford was busy creating his own cinematic identity at the time, and when it came to casting about for ideas of a follow up, the president of 20 Century Fox, Daryl F. Zanuck, pretty much dropped a bomb on the director. "I'm going to give you something to scream about. I'm going to put you together with Shirley Temple." Scott Eyman reports in his biography of Ford that the director's face "fell atop the floor (164)". It wasn't an assignment Ford was interested in, and the last one he would have asked for. Shirley Temple was at a definite 180 degree odds from Ford in every way.
The career of Shirley Temple is the product of natural born talent, timing, and the propensity for showbiz to turn the natural human sentiments into parodies of their normal expression. That's a polite way of saying the greatest vice of the studios was writing scripts for the young actress that would give the audience cavities. After being discovered by talent scouts as a part of a local dancing class, 4 year old Shirley took a participatory role in a series of short films known as Baby Burlesks. The series proves little, except perhaps that the struggle to talk up to, instead of down to children is as old as the hills. Temple herself gave these films their epitaph when she called them: "a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence (web)".
It is possible that her entire career was a form of struggle, in on way or another, against this kind of exploitative straitjacketing. An alternate interpretation is to see her as a necessary unifying force who came along as the right artist at the right time. Temple's big break came along with the onset of the Great Depression, and her role in films like Bright Eyes and Our Little Girl offered a form of both escape and reassurance for audiences who had very little of either in their lives. The best approach seems to be to take each of her films as they come. The criteria is the simple question of whether the viewer comes away entertained or not. Any film that can leave a person able to say yes is probably the kind that deserves a rediscovery. Her collaboration with Ford is a perfect example. It is easy for a superficial viewer to regard it as light fluff. Even the title of their film, Wee Willie Winkie is, at best, not the kind of thing that's easy to take in a serious light. The good news is is that Ford and Temple were able to overcome the limitations of the American Sweetheart formula. The proof of this can be found in the film's story, and the themes contained within it.
Lonely Men and a Stranger in a Strange Land.
The film, based off an old Rudyard Kipling poem, tells the story of Priscilla Williams (Temple), an American ex-pat relocated to British controlled India in 1897. The young girl finds herself in what was known as the Raj for two interrelated reasons. Her father has died, and her mother is broke. The only thing Priscilla and her mother have to fall back on is the invitation to come and live with her grandfather, Col. Williams (C. Aubrey Smith). The catch is that the Colonel is a typical Fordian character. In this case, it makes him (1) a military man in charge of an entire British army outpost in the middle of nowhere. That means (2) if he ever used to be a family man he's been long enough out of practice as to no longer have any idea what domestic life is even like.
When Priscilla arrives she meets also the other two individuals who will play an important part of her journey. The first is Sgt. Macduff (Victor Mclaglen) , a soldier ("of Her Majesty's 7th Highlanders") under Williams's command. The other is an Afghan rebel leader, Koda Khan (Caesar Romero).
In many ways, the Colonel is the most typical character in the film. Ford was always interested in exploring a certain type of character in his movies. This archetype is on display in the long list of loners and outsiders that populate the director's cinematic landscape. The best example is still Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, though other candidates exist in the form of another military figure, Owen Thursby from Fort Apache, along with Doc Holliday from My Darling Clementine, and even Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. These are all men who have consigned themselves to the fringes of society for one reason or another. The civilized world is either too much for them, or else they're just too wild and crazy for normal life. The central conflict of the movie will revolve around the clash that ensues once Temple's protagonist comes into contact with Ford's prototypical character and situation.
A Novel Idea for it's Time.
The truly remarkable part of the film is how it handles this clash of differing temperaments and worldviews. When Priscilla and her grandfather meet for the first time, he does his best to be polite, yet it's obvious he's more out of his element than she is in the middle of the India/Afghan border. Priscilla would like nothing more than to get grandfather to acknowledge her, or at the very least see if it's possible to put a smile on the old man's face. The problem is that Ford's Lonely Men don't have much in the way of normal, healthy relationships. If a character like this ever has a relationship then it's either one time, or else there's always the possibility of it being highly abusive. Priscilla's response is to be just as stubborn and headstrong as any leading character in Ford's stock company, albeit in a different direction.
In her ongoing quest to win her way into grandfather's good graces, she "officially" enlists the help Sgt. Macduff. Macduff is interesting in that while there are characters like him in Ford's pictures, they offer a more balanced contrast to the Outsider leads. Like Uncle Ethan, Macduff is a tough guy with a wicked right hook to back it up. Unlike the Edwards, Macduff is a fully integrated character. He is just as much at home in a formal social gathering as he is leading a full platoon of troops. Col. Williams, has never managed to get to that level, always tending to hang back from this human contact, except to berate and shout orders.
By contrast, while Macduff is at first chagrined at the idea of being assigned to teach a little girl Basic Training, he sort of winds up enjoying himself. A lot of this has to do with the way Priscilla manages to rise the occasion. It is in these sequences where you can really see the cast enjoying themselves, and it could be an open question of whether or not Temple and Mclaglen might have improvised several bits of business on the spot. We watch the main character as she tries to put herself through all the regular paces of a new recruit. The image of Temple trying to march in time behind a platoon of professional soldiers does make for a sight that can be endearing as much as it is somewhat comical, with Temple finding herself having to keep up with the march by taking little jump steps every other second.
The pitfall here is that while the charm of these scenes might win us over, it is also at that exact moment when an audience can forget the inherent thematic nature of what's happening onscreen. I suppose it's hard to spot because it's become the sort of thing we no longer expect to find somewhere in films of the past. These days the popular, expected tendency seems to be to look down our noses at the past and its citizens as either a long vanished, barbaric culture, or else fragments that have lost their sense of relevance. It is at least possible to hold such views as a form of honest belief. To someone who really thinks this way, trying to engage with the past might seem like a form of self-betrayal. It doesn't change the fact that Shirley Temple has to be the one example I know of where we see an actress make a statement (however quiet and unobtrusive) about the possibility of a woman having a place in what was at that time still considered a man's world.
The more thought is given to this thematic plot point, the more surprising it is that a film like this can even exist. It must be some kind of testament to the level of cultural clout Shirley possessed during those years. While it is a mistake to think that a child can ever be a soldier, it is a bit short-sighted to think that women have never fought on the battlefield before. Temple's spot within the ranks, while metaphorical rather than literal, still manages to underscore a submerged theme of gender equality that is startling for the year in which it's artistic expression was made. I think the only reason Temple and Ford were able to get away with this is because she was still America's sweetheart. However, another important aspect may be the fact that audiences of the day never could entertain the idea of women serving in the military for even a single second. This was pre-WWII, remember. The advent of that conflict had yet to blur social boundaries, and even that camaraderie was all too fleeting once hostilities were over. In any case, I'm afraid most audiences treated the sight of Shirley in uniform as a mere lark instead of an actual social statement pointing to future realities. In that regard, there's not much difference from the reception the actress received in the aisles from the one her character is greeted with in the form of derisive laughter from a group of senior officers.
Ford and the Problem of Colonialism.
When we turn our attention to the figure of Koda Khan the critic tends to run into problems. I'd like to hope these problems have nothing to do with the character on his own terms. As brought to life by Romero, Khan provides and interesting contrast to Williams. The implication seems to be that Khan is the sort of man William's should, or could be. Both men are in a position of leadership with the lives of others in their hands. Both are born fighters in their own right. The difference is that Williams uses his position as a leader to wall himself off from any kind of social contact. Khan, on the other hand, seems to share no such hang-ups. While he represents a style of living that Williams would no doubt regard as "primitive" at best, the truth is Khan seems more socially well-adjusted in his interactions with both his men, and the original population of India in general.
This is how the character is presented on screen. It is another aspect of the film that has the potential to surprise the reader. When we first meet the figure of Khan, our initial impression is that he might be the film's villain. This probably would have been the expected route to go in a more standard movie of that era. It would have been easy to portray Khan as not just a mustache twirling bad guy, but also one embodying some of the worst racial stereotypes that could sometimes be applied to to Muslims, Hindus, or Asians. Instead, as the film goes on, the Afghan leader is revealed to have a point, and Ford reveals the film's anti-colonialist slant tucked away in the guise of a film that looks all set to prop up the themes of exploitation.
The trouble is that while these are the film's strengths, there may be some who will beg to differ. It doesn't help that there is one character that actually made me cringe when he entered the frame. This character is named Muhammad Din, and his role is that of a spy in William's outpost. This might explain the narrative strategy behind the character's portrayal, as he's the closest the film gets to an actual villain. This is something that Romero's character seems to be aware of as he has the spy summarily executed during the final act. If it was the filmmaker's intent to find a way of signaling that Din is meant to be seen as a bad guy, then I just wish like hell they'd found some other way of bringing the point home without drawing on racial stereotypes.
It is this character more than any other narrative element that detractors could use as evidence that Ford is less than deserving of any recognition. They may have another bit of ammo when it's remembered that Ford is adapting the work of Rudyard Kipling. One of the major criticisms leveled at Kipling is that his writings tend to have an unfortunate Colonial streak in them. This has lead to the concomitant charge of the author being a racist. The prime exhibit in this indictment is the piece of nonsense drivel known as White Man's Burden. Kipling provides one of those difficult challenges for both critics and popular audiences where the reader is left having to figure out how to deal with a mind in which crippling social ideas can exist alongside a genuine artistic talent. H.P. Lovecraft is another example. The curious bit is how the very existence of an artistic streak produces a strange schism in Kipling's mind. He will expound an outmoded form of political belief in one breath. The next moment he's writing novels like Kim or The Jungle Book where these same ideas almost seem to be cast aside in favor of a more egalitarian ethos.
There's no denying that Kipling will forever prove a puzzle that's worth a discussion in his own right. That's a topic that will have to wait for another day. Right now, my focus is on Ford's faux pas in his handling of a minor character in a work of fiction, and what it says about him as both an artist and a man. The solution to this problem is to be as accurate as possible about Ford's relation to the problem of racism. The trouble is that just when you think you can dismiss Ford as another outmoded dinosaur, he makes film's like Sgt. Rutledge which contain a very open Civil Rights theme. The problem films like this pose is that they make it a bit more difficult to just dismiss Ford as a racist when he goes out of his way to make a very anti-discrimination sentiment. The worst part is, there seems to be little proof of any form of pandering or lying through his teeth. When Ford makes a statement about social injustice in his work, you can tell he's dead serious. Perhaps it's this genuine sincerity on the director's part that makes someone like the figure of Muhammad Din all the more notable for the lapse in taste and form.
The answer seems to be a combination of good intentions mixed with a glaring lack of foresight. I understand that the logic of the story calls for there to be a spy in the camp who can convey info back and forth between Khan and his militia. It is also not out of bounds if this character is meant to be seen as a traitor to both parties. Such a plot development gives us an ethical frame of reference when it comes to Khan and Williams, as both stand revealed as men of honor who happen to find themselves forced into playing arbitrary roles in a needless conflict where a commonsense solution of both withdrawal and recognition of native sovereignty should be obvious.
To be even more fair, it is possible for a form of literary caricature to have its place in the grand scheme of aesthetics. Charles Dickens is perhaps the prime example of this old trope. Dickens populates his novels with some of the most lively, and inventive forms of character exaggeration ever to put appear in both print and illustration. The best example might be The Pickwick Papers, where just about every character looks and acts like an escapee from Alice's Wonderland. When this type of narrative approach is handled with the mature level of skill that Dickens brought to his writing, the results can be worth preserving as an illustration of the best of both popular and literate artistic expressions inhabiting the same package.
This is a narrative strategy that Ford himself has utilized in his films. The difference is he might be a bit less skilled in the handling of this technique than his Victorian predecessor. When Ford's attempt at caricature succeed, we get moments of brilliance like John Qualen's portrayal of Muley in The Grapes of Wrath. When he doesn't appear to know quite what he's doing, the result appears to be characters like the spy, Din, in Wee Willie Winkie. Such narrative lapses seem less a decision of calculated racism with the intent to insult or damage anyone, and more an instance where Ford's inherent creative talents failed him, causing the director to fallback on a lazy creative short-hand. He saw that a minor character needed to be a villain as both foil and contrast to the film's secondary leads, and couldn't figure out how to make this figure work. The trouble is this choice involved the use of of some of the worst vices the artistic caricature can fall into, especially if some forms of caricature were outmoded even in Ford's day.
In short, my thoughts of the one discordant element in the film go as follows. Do I believe Ford is a racist? No, I do not. Do I think he had any malicious intent with the spy character? No again. Was he a victim of his own shortsightedness? Sweet cripes, yes! Now comes the real thorn in the side. I still think these don't hold movie back. In other words, yes, I still think it's good despite that one awful as hell misstep. The reasons for this have to do with the overall message Ford is trying to get across.
The most common criticism leveled against the director is that he is obsessed with a form of blind militarism and and the sort of jingoism that places him more or less in sympathy with the kind of Imperialism espoused by Kipling. The trouble is the direction of the Temple film's plot is in the exact opposite direction. As Priscilla goes along in her interactions between her Grandfather, the Sgt., Khan, and the other soldiers of the garrison, she begins to get a rough outline of the situation she finds herself in. While she might not have the words for what she sees, she knows that something is out of kilter. Col. Williams tries to explain to his young niece that Her Majesty wants only what's best for her "subjects" in India. This makes Pris beg the obvious question. If the Queen cares so much about the people of India, why doesn't she either listen to them, or else do something that will help out with their actual problems? To this, Williams waves away as being impossible. Later on, when Pris relays this news to Khan, the chieftain's laughter and incredulity echo the sentiments of the audience.
It is in these scenes that Ford presents a very subtle critique and response to the entire viewpoint of his source material, and proceeds to turn Kipling's original world view on it's head. It could almost be argued that the whole film serves as a satire on Victorian Colonialism. The irony is that in choosing to go with this narrative route, he might have placed himself in greater sympathy with a particular aspect of the Victorian milieu in which his film is set. In his book-length study, Victorian Fantasy, Prof. Stephen Prickett lists satire as one of the literary elements that made up the nature of the genre:
"Behind the great writers of fantasy were two very different cultural traditions: an English one of vigorous popular journalism in satire and cartoon which had never been tied to naturalistic conventions; and, as we shall see, from Germany a quite different, but equally non-naturalistic one (41)". This German aesthetic influence is best understood as an idealistic form of Romanticism. Prickett continues, "From such figures as Cruikshank or Hood down to a host of minor entertainers, often anonymous, an older English tradition of symbolic names and stylization lived on and flourished. Dickens was able to use such expressive names as Mr. Jingle, the Cheerible brothers, or Sir Leicester Deadlock, because he found a ready made comic as old as the medieval humors. Yet there is a difference in the Victorian forms. What strikes us immediately about a Dickens episode, a Cruikshank or a Phiz illustration, is the endless busy detail. It is overflowing with life. So far from being a simplification or limitation of experience, they seem rather to suffer from a superabundant richness that can only be captured and contained by the conventions of the cartoon...Here, if anywhere, in this exuberant overspill of reality, lie the real roots of Victorian fantasy.
"Thus we encounter the paradox that in what is often taken to be the great age of realism, humor and satire commonly achieved literary expression within conventions that were essentially unrealistic (41-2)".
It is just this exact same strain of Victorian fantastical satire that is contained in Ford's film. It is also this satirical theme which helps the film become a kind of allegory for the folly of English colonialism in the 19th century. The key figure of this satire is Priscilla herself. In terms of both characterization and narrative, she is a figure straight out of the Brother's Grimm. There is a double irony to her situation. The first is that a fairy tale character is being used to highlight the the misguided politics of the British in India. The second is that it retroactively turns Kipling's narrative techniques against their creator. Priscilla is always flitting about back and forth between her Grandfather and the other characters like a mythological messenger. Much like the Greek figure of Hermes, she also serves as an agent of change.
A major plot point revolves around the figure of Khan, and the attempts of his men to release him from William's garrison, where he is being held as a prisoner of the Crown. It is Pris who winds up as a sort of unwitting accomplice between Khan and the outside world (the strange thing is that she is never found out or punished for this). The scheme culminates in an nighttime attack on the fort, during which Khan makes his escape. The chain reaction of this event causes the death of Macduff and a Precinct 13 style scenario in which the fort is encircled and cutoff from the outside world. With Khan justifiably suspicious of the intentions of the British Raj, and Williams's own fears and isolation making him refuse to back down, Priscilla discovers the concept of adult responsibility, and realizes that the logical solution is to try and defuse the situation. To this end, she puts on the uniform, and sets out to find "Mr." Khan in order to try and see if there's any way of preventing a massacre. It is moments likes these in the film that should give Ford's critics a moment of pause.
Perhaps the biggest complaint is summed up in a now famous line: Print the legend. That phrase has gone on to be interpreted as a sign that Ford is willing to rest a bit easy in national myths that are really just lies that don't hold up all that well under scrutiny. He has also been accused of being a blind follower of both country and military right or wrong. The trouble is this idea of Ford is a caricature that doesn't hold up if one simply has a look at his work for themselves.
He isn't a blind follower for the sake of it. He respects the soldier's life, and because of that, he realizes they are not expendable. It isn't the soldier himself who is a problem. Troubles come about only when the lives of the troops are committed to a course of action that serves no purpose at best, or is in service to the wrong cause. It is precisely the cause of Imperialism that Priscilla comes both to recognize, question, and ultimately change for the better. Granted, if there is any element of the script that comes off as on that belongs to the realm of fairy tale and not reality, then it has to be the film's ending. The resolution Pris is able to bring about through her indomitable drive for peace is satisfying on the level of pure story. The real life history of the Raj was more like the slow unwinding of a mistake. The irony is that it is the very purpose of the movie to point out this mistake. The trick is that Ford will often print the legend in his films in order to challenge it. In doing so, Ford is often able to find a better sense of nobility than whatever the official story can offer.
I'll admit I didn't know what to expect on my first watch of the film. I'd heard about it scattered in passing on various documentaries about Ford. I noted it without being able to comment either way. I think my response must have been the same as Ford's, just in a much lower key. I was incredulous and found it hard to believe the man who made a film as brutal and unflinching as The Searchers would have anything to do with the cinema of Shirley Temple.
I think what finally got me interested in the film was the realization that it was a Kipling adaptation. Rudyard Kipling is an author I've been trying to wrap my head around for a while. He always seems to be pulled in two diametrically opposed directions in all his writings. One of them is negative and Imperialistic. So it comes as a complete shock when he pens a work like The Man who would be King which serves as a slap in the face of pretty much all his pro-Empire propaganda. There are times when he almost sounds schizoid, with neither hand ever quite aware of what the other is doing. It's a contradiction I've been puzzled by, and have been trying to figure out ever since. Suffice it to say, this will probably not be the last time Kipling and his works come up as a topic of conversation on this blog.
In the end, I can say I made a good call in choosing to watch this film. Despite one obvious flaw, the rest was a pleasant call back to a time and type of story that I'm not sure anyone knows how to make anymore. It was a pleasant combination of the Shakespearean stage combined with a child's storybook. I think it is this nursery tale quality that stands out the most in my memory. However, the film's real importance is in the way it stands as a reply and challenge to Kipling's own literary vices. This is an actual recurring pattern with Ford's cinema.
It turns out that a great deal of Ford's best film's are adaptations from novels or short stories. Some of these are classics, like the work of John Steinbeck. While others are forgotten or minor offerings that have slipped through the cracks. Sometimes, as in the case of James Warner Bellah, it's probably for the best. Ford adapted one of Bellah's short stories into Fort Apache. The original story was a blatant piece of racism. This was something Ford was very aware of. His response to this was to metaphorically tear out all the pages, leaving just the spine of the story as something to build his own imaginings off of. Like with Kipling, the final product was Ford issuing a direct challenge to the failings of the original story and it's author. The neat thing is that we already see this strategy in operation during his partnership with Temple.
The final result is something you might not expect. Yet it has the advantage of being something you've seen before. It is the ideas and concepts of a John Ford film. The difference is that the setting and references are all geared toward the British Raj in 19th century India, rather than the American West. The good news is how seamlessly Ford's major thematic concerns are able to make the transition from one cultural milieu to another. In doing so, the director seems to have highlighted how similar the concerns of human beings are pretty much the same everywhere, regardless of the surface differences of nation and dress.
Despite it's title, Wee Willie Winkie is a film worth hunting down. It's value can be somewhat increased by its growing scarcity on the market. Another critic described it well enough as "A John Ford film that happens to star Shirley Temple". It is just a bit more than that, however. It is a chance for the legendary filmmaker to show his versatility. At the same time, it reveals him to be a man of more layers than his popular reputation makes him out to be. In his book, Searching for John Ford, Joseph McBride quotes from Temple's autobiography. I think the quote is important, because it helps convey the underlying tone not just of the director, but also they film she helped to create with him: "Temple finally understood the secret John Ford tried to hide from those who knew him: "Outwardly, he is a rugged person, but inside he's kindly and even sentimental (259-60)". At the end, though, what matter most is that the film is just plain fun. It's a classic, old time adventure yarn with a moral that is perhaps just as important now more than ever.