How the West Was Won (John Ford's 'The Civil War')

Stayed up to see How the West Was Won. Waded through the Ohio River and Oregon Trail segments to finally see John Ford's Civil War segment, and right off you can see the difference in quality: the storytelling slows down, the characters start acting and talking like they actually live in the countryside all their life (James Stewart's drawling mountain man really threw me), and the movie starts focusing on simple things: a mother seeing her son off to war, a young man striking out for travel and adventure, a woman talking to her parents' tombstones.

Ford uses the Cinerama screen confidently, as if he'd been doing it all his life, and there's one scene in particular that strikes me, of Carroll Baker in aged makeup and George Peppard as her son sitting on a porch, talking. She has her legs wide open, which in Cinerama means she must have measured a hundred feet from knee to knee; she speaks words of concern to her son, and her son responds with exasperation and affection--exasperation in that she should still want him protected, affection in that he knows she can't help it, that she's doing it out of love (at the same time, you realize there's more to her fears than that: that Baker has a better idea than Peppard does of what's waiting out there).

Gradually, naturally, Baker takes on the aspect of elemental matriarch, from whose wide-open loins have sprung a generation--a symbol for all mothers who bid goodbye to their children, off to war, to adventure, to life; Peppard comes to represent any callow youth, wanting to break free and sup full of that life. And Ford achieves all this with a simple shot showing two people on a porch, one of them with her thighs spread apart.

The second significant sequence is an encounter between Peppard's character and two legends of the war: Sherman (John Wayne) and Grant (Harry Morgan). The way Ford shoots and stages it (on a set, far as I can tell, with the deep red sky of a coming dawn) suggests it's like one of those magical moments you read of in fairy tales, where mere mortals come upon living legends and witness momentous events taking place. Yet when Ford allows us to overhear the two men, Sherman and Grant come off as doubting, despairing human beings, every bit as tired flawed and uncertain as Peppard's eavesdropper is.

It's a wonderful short, easily one of the best things Ford ever did, and one of the most wonderful treatments of the Civil War (better than Ford's The Horse Soldier, I think), or of any war, ever.

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