05 July 2016

John Ford

Henry Parke, a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California, blogs about Western movies, television, radio, and print news at HenrysWesternRoundup.Blogspot.com has a True West article about the famous director:

The Buffalo Soldier and his crucial role in the post-Civil War West went unacknowledged for so long in history annals that his story was rarely told on film.  Just shy of a century, from the 1866 formation of the black cavalry units, John Ford made the first and finest film on the subject, 1960’s Sergeant Rutledge.
A courtroom drama as well as a Western, the movie was a complex and incendiary story: the court-martial of black Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (played by Woody Strode, photo, top) for the brutal rape and murder of a child, and the murder of her father, all of which were portrayed with flashbacks of the Ninth Cavalry’s fight against the Apaches. Ford’s film dealt bravely with subjects few movies of the time dared. When another soldier asked Rutledge why he ran if he was innocent, he replied: “Because I walked into something none of us can fight: white woman business.”
The leading lady of the film, Constance Towers, tells True West that “it was a project that John Ford wanted to make for a long time.  He was a great champion of the men who became the most heroic unit in the Cavalry.”
Legendary Olympic gold medal decathlon athlete Rafer Johnson made his film debut, as a corporal. He remembers that “it was an honor to work with John Ford in his very special part of the world, Monument Valley, one of the most picturesque parts of the United States.”
In some unexpected ways, the 1860s and the 1960s were not all that different. Towers recalls that, while filming in the Four Corners area, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, “We had an unusual adventure. We were on the Utah side, but the black men, Rafer Johnson and the others, couldn’t stay where we stayed. They had to stay in a neighboring town; they were taken in a private plane to a motel someplace that would accept black men.  It’s hard to believe that, in 1960, it was still that difficult to blend the races.” Nevertheless, Johnson’s memories of making the film are positive. “It was a very pleasant experience. I was not very aware of the Buffalo Soldiers beforehand, but when we did the movie, I learned of the wonderful job they did,” he says. “They were segregated, but they were Americans, and they continued to do their job, to protect the people.”
A decade passed before the premiere of the next movie about the Buffalo Soldiers. in 1970’s Soul Soldier, Johnson was promoted to the lead, even though his rank was demoted to private. An earnest attempt to show the day-to-day life of the individual soldiers while fighting the Apaches, the movie featured a cast that included Cesar Romero, Barbara Hale, and Isabel Sanford, and it was shot at Fort Davis in Texas, the actual headquarters for all four regiments. While the film showcases effective moments and some good performances, it is an unfocused story with a threadbare production. Johnson explains, “Soul Soldier was a university film.  They had to do a lot of fundraising to make it a feature.”
Between those films, the Buffalo Soldier made an occasional appearance on television. In The High Chaparral’s 1968 episode The Buffalo Soldiers, Sergeant Major Creason (played by Yaphet Kotto, photo, bottom) leads the Tenth Cavalry as they bring law to unruly Tucson, Arizona, and, with the help of the Cannons, contend with racism. On The Big Valley episode in 1967 called The Buffalo Man, the Barkleys hire convict labor to pick their peach crop and discover that Damien (again played by Yaphet Kotto) was a member of an all-black platoon that Jarrod Barkley (played by Richard Long) commanded during the war. Although identified as a Buffalo Soldier in the show, that designation did not come about until after the Civil War.
In 1979, a one-hour Western pilot, Buffalo Soldiers, featured troops protecting settlers from Apaches and Comanches. Written and directed, respectively, by prolific Gunsmoke collaborators Jim Byrnes and Vincent McEveety, the episode was high quality, but it was never seen again.
The best film on the subject since Sergeant Rutledge appeared in 1997, a TNT movie called Buffalo Soldiers. Starring and produced by Danny Glover, whose credits include Lonesome Dove, it tells a substantially true story of the pursuit of Apache leader Victorio. Dynamically directed by Charles Haid, the movie shows an army trapped between two enemies: the Apaches and white officers who would welcome failure by the black troops to confirm their prejudices. Filmed in Cochise Stronghold in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, William Wages’ stunning camera work earned the American Society of Cinematographers’ Outstanding Achievement Award. Although the ending feels contrived, an otherwise powerful script and supporting performances make this an exciting and thought-provoking movie.
Finally, bookended by the dedication of the Buffalo Soldier Monument in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Bill Armstrong’s modest but informative 1992 documentary The Buffalo Soldiers succinctly tells the soldiers’ story in just 47 minutes.  It closes with a moving speech by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, the highest-ranking black officer in the Army.
Nothing on these legendary soldiers, though, has yet come close to topping Sergeant Rutledge. Ford certainly made movie magic, no matter the means necessary. Towers recalls one rather deplorable trick the director played: “He had Strode’s wife Luana tell him that their marriage was over; she was going back to Hawai'i.  And poor Woody was beside himself; he stayed up all night, and Ford got him to drink a little more than Woody would normally consume. So the next morning, when he went in to do his breakdown scene in the courtroom, which was fantastic, he was well prepared to break down. But that was a typical John Ford trick, which I thought was terrible, but he did get a great performance out of him.”
Rico says that Woody Strode and Yaphet Kotto are two of his favorite actors, of any color...

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