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A Fine Ruin: John Ford’s Eulogy for the Future

A Fine Ruin: John Ford’s Eulogy for the Future

Jack Seibert

If you want to ride the cruise ship Costa Concordia, you’ll have to settle for Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010). The film was primarily shot onboard, less than two years before the ship crashed into an underwater rock, resulting in over 30 deaths. Godard couldn’t have known it would crash, but it was a suspiciously-apt capstone to the film’s investigation of the tolls of modern-day capitalism, which the ship partly represented. The Costa Concordia may as well have been picked for its inevitable collapse. It seems like a lot is collapsing this century: the Twin Towers, the polar ice caps, our cinemas. Film Socialisme is one of a strain of movies intended to record an entity or way of life mere moments before its destruction. Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006), for example, were filmed in areas set for demolition by local governments—the former’s for redevelopment and the latter’s as a flood region for the Three Gorges Dam—and concern themselves with fictionalized representatives of the communities being torn apart. Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) looks at the smaller scale of a movie theater’s last screening before permanently shutting its doors. Chantal Akerman assembles the last fragments of her mother’s life for No Home Movie (2015); her mother died soon after filming, and Akerman died a few months after its release. On the more fictional side, Peter Watkins recreated the Paris Commune in a sound stage for his La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000), ending with the massacre of its residents at the hands of the French Armed Forces. The predilection for pre-destruction extends even to pretension-free Paul W.S. Anderson, who uses digital effects to map out the titular city for Pompeii (2014), up through a pixelated lava wave rendering it the ashes we know today.

This historically-bent filmmaking has its roots in the cinema of John Ford, the most prominent, if not the only, filmmaker of the 20th century keyed into uncertainty in front of our seemingly permanent institutions. Ford’s work orbits around the flow of history, its ravages, and the stillness before eventual collapse. Parades offer a coda to many of his movies, individuals moving as one like a spirit of history, marching towards death even when wearing smiles. Positioned from the height of America’s cultural dominance in the first sixty-or-so years of the 20th century, aided in no small part by its Hollywood exports, he dared to imagine his country one day razed to the ground, observing the seeds of it in his own time. Never explicitly—the man earned his reputation as a good patriot and subtler artist—but his America was built on shifty ground: the intolerant democracy of The Sun Shines Bright (1953), or the physical-spiritual-terrestrial devastation of the imperialism of The Hurricane (1937). Just as Colonel Thursday’s adherence to military codes leads to his death in Fort Apache (1948)—his trampling framed in inevitable wide shot—the America built on such corrupt dogma will crash like the Costa Concordia, albeit with many more deaths. However, Ford prefers tender moments to nihilistic conclusions: in My Darling Clementine (1946) one remembers Wyatt Earp’s hesitant steps onto a dancefloor more than his failure to protect the town of Tombstone.

Ford’s films and their modern-day counterparts are eulogies for tragedies yet to take place, often with no hope for rebirth afterwards. Wyatt Earp will never go to another Tombstone dance, and Akerman’s mother will never come back to life. They don’t typically need action to carry their emotions; the knowledge that what is now will one day be no longer is enough. Pompeii and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), though both heavily commercial movies, contain languorous scenes for their characters to chart out their everyday rhythms—that 21st-century evocation of a “vibe,” embodied in the former’s prison conversations and the latter’s music video inserts. Goodbye, Dragon Inn and Still Life take similar approaches, using long takes to erode scenes of their expected drama. They focus on the stillness before the approaching flood—Tsai’s movie ends with a rainstorm, while Jia’s implies one when the Three Gorges Dam is complete. Digital technology has certainly played a role, both in the camera’s portability and penchant for recording duration, and also in non-linear editing software’s ability to sort through immense libraries of footage. Costa shot between 140 and 200 hours of footage for In Vanda’s Room, chronicling in static takes the neighborhood of Fontainhas, which required nine months of post-production,1 and surely would have been impossible on celluloid. However, the development of this cinema of the pre-eulogy lies outside just the technology. Akerman shot Sud (1999) with digital cameras, but the result was a shockingly traditional documentary on a racist murder that had taken place in a Southern town—traditional, in that the event happened prior to filming, and the film examines its lingering effects. Sensing her mother’s mortality by No Home Movie, however, she turns the digital camera towards documenting life before it passes.

What happened to cinema as the medium of the future, capable of inventing the best of our world to come? When the Lumière brothers recorded the demolition of a wall in 1896, it ends with a note of rebirth: the film strip flipped, we watch the wall stand back up, presumably to thunderous applause from the audience. Cinema converts the past into a more digestible future. Classical Hollywood loved its doomed romances, but the model typically followed tragic theater in centering human agency. History Is Made at Night (1937) climaxes in a Titanic-style cruise ship disaster, but it’s a scorned lover’s hubris which sets the course—the consequence of a transparent, human sin. The bulldozers we see dismantling the neighborhood of Fontainhas in In Vanda’s Room, meanwhile, are as impenetrable and inevitable as the bureaucracy that’s surely giving them their orders. Precarity determines the course of our lives today, not the other way around. Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), and Costa’s earlier Ossos (1997) all show the world plunging towards desolation, but the focus is on the descent rather than the specifics of the world being lost. The ruined Berlin in Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), while filmed with great specificity and care for the past, only arrives after the fact of the war. A destructive historical event determined the film, rather than the film prefiguring that destruction as the unavoidable endpoint. In the final shot, a woman finds the martyred protagonist as the camera pans towards the sky—tracing both his soul’s rise and the rise of the skyscrapers that will be built from the ruins. Total destruction, but Berlin will progress forward from this “year zero.” In Costa’s mid-ruination Fontainhas, on the other hand, progress means only further destruction.

Ford’s The Long Gray Line (1955) stands out as one of his most developed eulogies. The movie dramatizes fifty years at the never-changing West Point military academy, while we watch Marty Maher (Tyrone Power) recall his transformation from fresh-faced Irish immigrant to Master Sergeant to devoted husband and mentor. The “long gray line” of the title refers to the faultless succession of graduates from the academy, destined to furnish military regiments and high political office. Marty dedicates his life to maintaining the line’s sanctity. He’s repaid by getting shown the door when West Point is all he has left, his wife and friends having passed on. The movie opens on Marty pleading with President Eisenhower, West Point graduate, to let him stay on working past retirement age. The bulk of the remaining 137 minutes is told through nostalgic flashback; the greens are a bit greener, the songs a bit more in tune. We never see Marty eat, perhaps he’s more keen on having served than being served. Wide pans highlight the distortion at the edges of the then-new anamorphic lens, further highlighting the irreality of Marty’s perspective. In some ways the movie is a straightforward eulogy for Marty’s life. His loving bonds with his students persist through his old age, and his wide-eyed smile is as evocative as any other Fordian character tic. But his life’s turbulence contrasts with West Point’s institutional stability to such a strong degree that moments peek through where Marty feels a little more permanent and West Point a little more fallible—it is as much a eulogy for the day that West Point, and the American dominance it supports, collapses. “What a fine ruin it would make!” declares Marty after taking his first steps onto West Point’s fortress-like grounds. The movie plays it off as a joke—Corporal Heinz (Peter Graves) looks to him as if to say, “West Point? Ruin? Never!”—but the threat of impermanence lingers.

West Point persists as an ideal adhered to and perpetuated by its inhabitants. In fact, the traditions of the academy paired with the movie’s flashback structure threatens to turn all of its characters into icons. During Marty’s first conversation with his future wife, Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara), she seems to squash and stretch, more animation than human. The scene continues with both actors posed squarely into the camera, neither gazing at the other. Mary sits stone-still, as if Marty’s memories are unable to fill in an appropriate expression. When he finally turns to her, she regains motion, but it is the animatronic motion of great big gestures, as if she were moving according to verbal descriptions rather than from emotion. One can imagine Marty’s words to Eisenhower, “I sat down next to her. She didn’t say anything. I looked to her and she moved to kiss me.” In moments like these, the world exists only as an extension of Marty’s thoughts.

Mary “squashes and stretches” when Marty sits down next to her.

But The Long Gray Line is not a Marnie-style play on the subjectivity of memory. Ford is no Hitchcock: the performances on the whole reek more of boundless life than constrained retrospection. Ford’s careful positioning between fact and storytelling is the work of a historian, laboring on a Hollywood soundstage rather than in an archive. And crucially, like the modern-day historian-filmmakers, his historical subject—the U.S. and its military—has not yet passed on. The conversation scene is paralleled about an hour later in the movie, when Marty learns that their newborn son has died and that Mary can bear no more children. Whereas their first, flirtatious conversation signaled an opportunity for a legacy, this conversation confronts Marty with the oncoming collapse of his own “long line”—he shares a name with his father, and plans to pass it onto his son. He bends down to kiss the point where Mary’s hand meets his, eyes closed, and she places her hand on his head to fix the two in tableau. But unlike the earlier scene where his gaze animates her, here Mary cranes her neck and raises her eyes to the sky. Her movements, formerly so prescribed, now arise out of a personal yearning that Marty is—in terms of blocking—blind to. When the marching band strikes up a song outside, she turns to face the window and asks Marty to push her closer. The cut that follows is nominally Mary’s eyeline match, but instead serves to disorient with further historical details outside the purview of Marty’s telling: the shot is much too low, catching the march almost head-on, instead of from their upstairs window. The effect is to disconnect West Point—here visualized as the long gray march of uniforms—from Marty and Mary’s story. It emerges as an object of study distinct from and at the same level as our now-mortal humans. When we cut back to the couple, there’s a look of murder on Marty’s face. If his line can end, so can yours, West Point.

The march and the hospital window, disconnected
Marty’s murderous look

When Marty looks out at the march, is he seeing individuals or a collective? Individuals move freely; collectives move by verbal command, as Mary does in their first conversation. Is he looking at reality, or an idea? Such questions are at the heart of The Long Gray Line and the nature of its eulogy. Individuals live in the present; collectives live in history books. Again, comparing scenes from the beginning and end of the movie is fruitful, only this time it works in reverse—West Point turns its inhabitants from individuals into communal abstraction. The movie’s opening scenes follow Marty serving students as waiter, dance chaperone, swimming coach—any odd job, and failing spectacularly at all of them. The action is slapstick, and the camera pans in small jerks—unusual for Ford—to follow the bodies’ movements. In one instructive scene, Marty lists off the written rules of swimming—“confidence, timing, relaxation, and,” with full-body exhale, “breathing”—before tripping into the pool and showing he could use a bit of instruction himself. As he flails around in the pool, theory crashes into hard reality, under the harmless guise of comedy. By the later parts of the movie, this tension recurs with his students, though the onset of the World Wars has stripped away any laughs. War is theoretical from the home front—an ideological opponent rather than a concrete one on a battlefield—especially for Marty, who never leaves West Point. He marks each casualty with a strip of black ribbon that he cuts and slips into old yearbooks. When his friend and former swim class pupil, Red Sundstrom (William Leslie), dies in World War I, his widow (Betsy Palmer) is sent a medal of honor and flowers from names she doesn’t recognize. “Payment in full for Red’s life, Marty,” she dryly remarks, as she presents him with the medal and an accompanying letter. Marty reads it aloud, a premature acceptance to West Point for their newborn son, Red Jr.. The father’s life is exchanged for the family’s spot in the long gray line, and the line continues, one Red Sundstrom for another. As Marty reads the acceptance, he turns away from the camera, to obscure his complex mix of fear for and pride in the new child, but also to lead us on as if we are marching with him. “I wanted little Martin to go to the Point,” says Mary; Red Jr. is their chance to continue their lineage. Marty was nothing when his life was slapstick, but joining West Point has given him a chance at being remembered in history, even after its buildings have become that “fine ruin.”

Marty describes the value of Red Jr.’s West Point acceptance, beckoning us to march behind him.

The drumbeats of The Long Gray Line, the sound of heterogeneity being smoothed over, are reflected on the soundtrack of In Vanda’s Room, with the recurring noise of the demolition crews leveling Fontainhas. Both signal a procession through history, and with it the negotiations of who will be remembered in it. The movie opens on Vanda Duarte smoking with her sister Zita in her titular room, in a composition that Costa returns to many times. Their bodies are more or less angled towards the camera, not unlike Marty and Mary during their first conversation, but the Duartes’ pose is more practical—to keep from blowing smoke in each other’s faces. However, the pose performs much the same self-mythologizing as in The Long Gray Line. Instead of seeing their lives’ action play out representationally, the Duartes recite to us the scenes of their lives: comparing night clubs, going into and out of rehab, updates on their friends. We never see these scenes because Costa’s camera never leaves Fontainhas, just as Ford’s never leaves West Point. Their conversations reinforce the women’s communal bond, and they inscribe local talking points as history. Meanwhile, the bulldozers mark the approaching end to these moments of sisterly ritual. Such recitation comes directly from Ford, most notably in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), where he leaves a harrowing battle to be described to the camera by a ragged Henry Fonda rather than represent it directly. We understand Fontainhas’s place in the broader world through its inhabitants’ words, in the same way we understand West Point’s through medals and flowers. Where Marty looks out from the hospital with hatred, Vanda coughs in defiance of the bulldozers outside her window. Her cough is a reminder of her body breaking down, but a breakdown imposed on herself rather than by her country’s bureaucracy. It’s the kind of human sound that sticks in the memory—a remnant of life that this century’s cinema intends to preserve.

The tendency by critics is to view Vanda and her community iconically, as a symbol of this changing, crumbling world. That’s why Costa’s movies are so often described as “haunted,” as if the dead past were more present than the action on the screen. Indeed, the Duartes’ recitations compel us to reach that conclusion (just as Fonda’s does for the battle in Drums Along the Mohawk), but Costa does not describe an already-iconic world; he dramatizes a community’s movement into one. The comparison with The Long Gray Line is demonstrative here. Marty and Mary move between being real and being symbols; the latter allows Marty’s storytelling to progress while the former exists only in the present, beyond the reach of his memory. The beauty of a eulogy before death is exactly this privileged view into the physical, the everyday as it’s occurring. Once a place is left in ruin, the stories passed on and the medals of honor bestowed are all that is left, replacing its former inhabitants’ spontaneity. Rossellini finds no life in the ruins of Berlin, only traces. Germany Year Zero is cinema for a world that has committed a grave sin, but one that can recover from it. The Long Gray Line and In Vanda’s Room are cinema for a world on the permanent decline, intent on capturing the stillness before the final collapse.

The last two shots of In Vanda’s Room reflect the end of Fontainhas: the first, Zita with her baby as we hear demolition outside; the second, the demolished corner of a house. Zita implores the child not to hurt himself on the rough piece of wood in his hands. She exudes the same care and responsibility that Marty and Mary feel towards their stillborn baby, which represents much the same hope as the destruction continues outside. The cut to the last shot could be an eyeline match—we see the opposite corner of a room—but if it is, it’s one across time, after the bulldozers have gotten through the Duarte house. One day it will, as all life is destined to pass. The cinema of the 20th century may have sought to defy this movement by flipping the filmstrip around or by providing a model with which to do better next time. Now such hopes seem fruitless when we are so plagued by deeply-rooted injustice—Ford saw this truth of the world before any of his contemporaries. Zita sees the end of Fontainhas from Vanda’s room, just as Marty sees the end of West Point from the hospital window. Costa frequently acknowledges his debt to Ford, but the influence runs deeper than stark lighting or a few low-angle shots. The connection is in enlisting cinema to eulogize a world before it is gone for good, to latch onto the bits of life—a cough, a glance to the heavens—before they’re erased.

The last two shots of In Vanda’s Room: the Duarte legacy and the end of Fontainhas.

The pairings of The Long Gray Line with 21st-century cinema I have presented paint a somewhat limited picture. Post-colonial cinemas have always grappled with the impending end of a world; Ousmane Sembène’s Camp de Thiaroye (1988) and Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (1989), for example, both bottle crystallized moments before disaster at the hands of French colonialism. My reference points consist mostly of classical Hollywood cinema through the 60s and broadly “arthouse” choices afterwards, lacking smaller titles in the former time period and bigger ones in the latter. Robin Wood discusses this phenomenon in the context of “oppositional cinema” in classical Hollywood, noting how the interval since the release of movies like Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) or Rio Bravo (1959) has given them a new political bent. These thoughtful works should not be valued, then, for the way they would have been seen sixty or more years ago, “but for their insights into the profound unease and dissatisfaction with the structures of Western capitalist civilization which they so clearly dramatize, our culture’s Collective Unconscious.”2 Discerning Ford’s exact feelings on West Point or the U.S. at large is murky business, but the audience’s feelings were no doubt in favor of those destructive forces—one poster for the movie brags, “A great place! A great guy! A great picture!” The audience today, however, seems more likely to find a place on their shelf for Ford’s Blu-ray next to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s anti-war diatribe Antigone (1992) than next to Rambo II (1985). After all, a North American viewer wishing to own that Blu-ray would have to order it overseas from the British specialty boutique video label Lime Wood Media, and have a compatible region-free player—a high ask for somebody just looking to celebrate West Point. The mainstream movies of the past gain new life in the margins of the present, as eulogies gain fresh potency the further we get from them. America feels more than ever in its twilight years, and the joyous moments of The Long Gray Line speak to a time forever gone. In the future, when America lies down for its final rest, Marty’s final image from West Point—the boys he loved singing in unison, Christmas tree in tow—will be all that remains.

“In the army, there’s sobriety / Promotion’s very slow /
We’ll sing a Merry Christmas / To Marty Maher, oh.”

Jack Seibert

Contributing Writer

Jack Seibert is a writer who lives and works in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Stanford University.

Nuno Barradas Jorge, ReFocus: The Films of Pedro Costa (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 66-67.

Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 2003), 334.

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