Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

After John Feeney’s lower-class childhood in a large family born to Irish emigré parents, he moved to California and joined his brother Francis (who had adopted the surname “Ford”) in the movie business. Francis was a highly ambitious and versatile artist (a director, musician, painter, and actor) with his own production company and considerable public esteem. John found much to admire in his 12-years-older brother as an artist; in a 1966 interview with Peter Bogdanovich he described Francis as “A great cameraman... a good director, Johnny of all trades, and master of all.”

He added that Francis was “the only influence I ever had, working in pictures.” This mentorship was essential to his formation not only in formal ideas and sensibilities, but also through the inferiority complex it engendered in Ford, who became wildly ambitious himself. As he became a critical member of Francis’s company, he developed a reputation for his stridency, and when Universal head Carl Laemmle made a director of Jack, Francis was glad to be rid of him. Laemmle’s supposed hiring words hint that Ford had already cemented his image as a tough, no-nonsense picture-maker that persists to this day: “Give Jack the job — he yells good.”

Jack Ford soon entered into a substantial collaboration with western star Harry Carey (25 films in four years), and after a few two-reel projects together, they turned one into a five-reeler without permission, resulting in Jack’s first feature-length project, 1917’s Straight Shooting.

By this time Ford was already an accomplished cameraman, and even in his first year as a director, his visual sensibilities are instantly apparent. The first image in the Ford feature canon is an iris shot that opens over three ranchers stacked on horseback in the foreground against a background field of grazing cattle.
These ranchers have long held access to vast expanses of lands, but the arrival of settling farmers has shrunk their claims, disenfranchising rich barons like Thunder Flint. One farmer, Sweet Water Sims, is an object of particular ire for the ranchers; the old man, his daughter Joan, and his son Ted have resisted being driven out for years. Flint, who owns all sources of water near the Sims, warns them that anyone seen at a creek will be shot.

Thunder Flint has had enough, and hires outlaw Cheyenne Harry (Carey) to murder the old man. After Ted is shot at a creek by an anonymous gunman, Harry seeks the old man and finds his mark at his son’s grave, grieving with Joan and a sympathetic ranch man. Harry has a crisis of conscience, secedes from the ranching empire, and vows to protect the Sims.

This bad-to-good cowboy was a known trope of the time, and unlike the 1916 William S. Hart masterpiece Hell’s Hinges, Harry lacks the psychological depth to make his character truly compelling. But the film’s striking imagery, sure handed storytelling, and some exciting action sequences make it an auspicious start to Ford's extant career.

The fledgling genius's personal concerns are already clear in Straight Shooting. As always, he throws in his lot with the family, clearly supporting their values of unity, tolerance, and social progress. Those values are threatened by the older, more amoral America of outlaws and ruthless businessmen. This conflict would recur throughout Ford’s career, as would the outlaw-turned-hero’s struggle to redeem himself.

And though some scenes show a director leaning too heavily on his influences (the climactic siege on the family home is a contrived ripoff of the ride of the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation), others stake out a brilliance all their own. One scene wherein Joan, returning home from her brother’s burial, takes up his plate from the family table, holds it close, and solemnly places it in a drawer. This scene also takes clear cues from Griffith, but Ford adds another layer by intercutting it with Harry, who has just left Joan at the house, standing forlornly by his horse. When Joan closes the drawer, Harry mounts his horse and rides  away through a gentle natural image. It’s both a tragic expression of mourning and of regret.

That moment anticipates the original ending, which had Harry refusing the victorious Sims’ offer to stay with them and live as one of the family. “Me a farmer? No. I belong on the range.” When Joan tries to stop him, he bids her farewell with a tender kiss on the forehead and sends her home, whereupon he gazes at the sunset. That version is now lost; for its 1925 rerelease (from which surviving prints derive), the dénouement was rearranged to place the final kiss on the forehead at the very end of the picture. It’s a brutish, mangled ending, made even clumsier by intertitles that insist the happy-ending narrative on shots to which they barely apply.

But prior to this moment, Straight Shooting’s imagery has had a clear emotional flow, and if we account for the ending as Ford intended it, it stands as an immediately distinctive debut: certainly because it is a melancholic western that extols the family unit, but also because Ford’s first hero was one to which he would return many times over; a victim of a changing moral plane who realizes that he cannot reconcile his past with a changing world.

As to the intended closing image of the film, there is precious little evidence as to what it was. My best guess is a shot of a landscape silhouetted against a darkened sky, apparently at or near sunset. In the surviving cut it's merely used to establish dusk for the final scene of romantic union, but given that this scene takes place in broad daylight, it’s likely that Ford intended the foreboding, blackened shot to close the film. It functions well as the first Fordian close, dooming its reformed hero to wander an empty American landscape for his crimes.

You can watch Straight Shooting here.


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