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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

John Ford Goes to War...and I went to sleep

John Ford Goes to War: 4 out of 10: This is almost a textbook example on how to take a fascinating subject and make a boring documentary out of it.

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John Ford Goes to War highlights Ford’s extraordinary service during World War 2 when he and his various crews filmed the war from Midway to India to Burma to Normandy, and even the war trials afterwards. It’s like a real life Winds of War. Ford himself carried the hand held camera on Midway as bombs landed just feet away from Japanese planes. He had a telephone in one hand calling in enemy positions to headquarters while he filmed with the other.

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A fascinating story like this should make for a fascinating documentary... it doesn’t.


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For one thing the movie seems to be under the mistaken impression that World War 2 took place in the 1840’s not the 1940’s. Now I know Ford was best known for his westerns but this film isn’t about his westerns it is about his work during WW2. In addition Ford’s personal life at this time was more Jimmy Buffet than Eddie Dean. So who do they get narrating the film? Kris Kristofferson.


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Kristofferson’s slow around the campfire drawl hits the viewer like a fistful of barbiturates and the along the trail Civil War era musical score doesn’t help either. And then we have the talking heads. The endless talking heads.



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You would think that a film that can use dramatic footage from “The Battle of Midway" or “December 7th” or moving footage such as the smiling faces of the doomed crew of “Torpedo Squadron” wouldn’t cut away every minute, from the hours of available footage, to show some guy talking... and you would be wrong.

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Peter Bogdanovich and Leonard Maltin come across the best (though would it have killed Maltin to shave? I have I High Definition Television I really appreciate some personal hygiene before you get on camera.) Most of the others are people who wrote books and honestly should continue to write books.

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They do interview an actual cameraman who shot footage for Ford during the war. His experience is insightful, touching and moving so of course he is only on once for less than a minute.

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Anytime the documentary does show footage of Ford’s work, it seems to realize you may be getting interested and quickly swerves into another talking head. This teasing us into a complacency of enjoyment and engagement before another talking head breaks the mood is a strange form of narrative waterboarding. It’s as if the movie has a puritan streak that wishes you not to actually enjoy yourself.

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Speaking of a strange puritan streak... I have left the best for last. Apparently John Ford ran over Oliver Stone’s kitten while backing out of his driveway in 1971. There is almost no other explication for Stone’s bizarre vitriol against the man. Apparently if Stone was a filmmaker in 1940 he would have been doing documentaries on how the Japanese are victims of American Expansionism and how the D-Day invasion at Normandy was yet another example of American Colonialism.

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I would normally say hearing Stone rail against Ford for being historically inaccurate would be worth the price for admission. But alas no. The viewer is better off... much better off finding Ford’s original documentaries uncut. (And if you want to see Stones version of historical accuracy I believe Alexander has a new 240 minute cut available on DVD)

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