Directed by John Ford
The United States of America
Who was John Ford? The legendary Hollywood director was a mess of seemingly impossible contradictions. The man who would become so closely identified with the Western genre was born in Maine as the son of Irish immigrants. While he helped redefine the depiction of Native Americans in such films as Cheyenne Autumn (1964), he rode as a Klansman in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). The same man who directed such ground-breaking progressive masterpieces as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was instrumental in the casting of Stepin Fetchit, a very close friend, in many of his films. While he valued the institution of the family more than almost anything else in his films, in real life he was an absentee father and husband. At times staunchly conservative and at others unapologetically liberal, his political and social outlooks on life could change on a whim. He was a kind, sensitive man who perpetuated the image of an angry perfectionist authoritarian out of fear that others would take advantage of him. While he claimed to not give a damn about what other people thought about him and his work, his fear of being rejected would lead him to heartbreaking alcoholic breakdowns in between film productions. So I ask again, who was John Ford?
For a man who tried so hard to make an enigma of himself, the clearest picture of who Ford truly was can be partially glimpsed in his beloved films. But which film best represents Ford? I would answer a little known film from 1953 entitled The Sun Shines Bright. Ford described later in his life that it was “really my favorite, the only one I like to see over and over again.” Made following the tide of studio goodwill borne from the unexpected success of The Quiet Man (1952), the film is essentially a morality play about an elderly judge in a tiny Kentucky town in the twilight years of the 19th century. Based on three short stories by Irvin S. Cobb, the film revisits the character of Judge Priest, previously portrayed by Will Rogers in Ford’s film of the same name from 1934. Though Ford re-adapted some of the same material from his earlier film in The Sun Shines Bright, he was given a much wider berth of creative freedom. The result was perhaps Ford’s most emotional and personal film.
It begins with a series of vignettes that form a picture of the town of Fairfield, Kentucky. We watch Judge Priest and his servant Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit) preside over a trial involving U.S. Grant Woodford, a black teenager who won’t work to support his relatives, that ends with a grimace-inducing impromptu performance of “Dixie.” A meeting of Confederate veterans is held where they give a solemn and heart-felt eulogy to a Rebel Jack after dutifully saluting the Union flag. When a nearby gathering of Union veterans asks them to return the Union flag that they borrowed for their ceremony, Priest serves as an honorary color guard. Of course, once in the presence of the Union veterans he wastes no time to remind them that he is coming up for re-election. Soon certain class and racial divisions are established: the well-to-do white folk, the Temperance League and their 200 votes (i.e. husbands), the subservient blacks, and the Tornado Boys, a large informal gang of backwoods hunters and trappers. But everything is pleasantly idealized. This is the South as envisioned by wistful romantics.
But the film’s early comedic tones soon take a turn for the worse. An
old prostitute shows up, collapses, and dies in a local bordello. She is
soon revealed to be the disgraced and disowned daughter of General
Fairfield, the much revered and beloved local Confederate leader.
Meanwhile, Woodford has been arrested and wrongfully accused of raping a
local girl. The enraged Tornado Boys begin to gather near the prison in
order to lynch him. And finally, Priest’s chances to win the election
become severely challenged by Horace K. Maydew, the “son of a
carpet-bagger from Boston,” who seeks to destroy Fairfield’s idyllic
community by forcing it into the future.
With the town of Fairfield ready to rip itself asunder, the ailing Judge Priest must step in one last time to try and maintain the peace. Priest represents one of Ford’s favorite character archetypes: the reluctant patriarch. Just like in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright revolves around an aging male authority figure who finds himself drawn one last time into a terrible conflict to preserve peace. These men are presented as relics of a bygone age who nevertheless must serve as a moral compass for younger generations. And, indeed, Judge Priest is considerably worse for wear. Despite Stepin Fetchit’s painfully hokum performance as Jeff, it is clear that Priest relies on him, and not the other way around. Priest is a rampant alcoholic who regularly uses the excuse “Jeff, I gotta take my medicine - I gotta get my heart started” to sneak off and take a massive drink from a hidden cask. He projects an aura of strength and vitality while courting voters...but it’s a sham. Priest is a tired, tired old man.
And yet Priest will not stand idly by and watch his beloved Fairfield destroy itself. He grabs a gun and single-handedly prevents the Tornado Boys from lynching Woodford (Ford had previously tried to incorporate this scene in Judge Priest, but it was cut by the studio). Afterwards, he shames the entire town by marching behind the white hearse holding General Fairfield’s daughter. This scene is easily one of the most powerful in Ford’s entire career. The town of Fairfield had tried to ignore the poor woman’s fate due to her lowly social status. But Priest marches right behind her fellow prostitutes in her funeral procession. Then, slowly, the rest of the town follows suit until over a hundred march with Priest. The procession leads to a black church where Priest delivers an earth-shaking sermon. And then, finally, in the middle of the service, General Fairfield enters the church to see his daughter one last time.
To say that Priest’s actions were controversial would be to criminally understate it. His prevention of the lynching may have further endeared him to the black community, but it potentially lost him hundreds of vital votes from the Tornado Boys. Respecting General Fairfield’s daughter may have been the righteous thing to do, but it disgraced him in the eyes of the community’s more unforgiving sectors. As Jeff mournfully notes, “Me ‘n’ the judge sho’ ain’t gonna get elected now.”
But then a miracle occurs.
On the day of the election, when Maydew seems guaranteed to win, the Tornado boys rally en masse and vote for Priest, securing his victory. Later that night, the entire town passes Priest’s front porch in review. Every social group is represented: Confederate veterans, Union veterans, Temperance League, Tornado Boys (holding a banner reading “He Saved Us from Ourselves”), and finally the blacks who are given a position of honor by marching at the very end in the opposite direction. The film’s final shot has Jeff playing “My Old Kentucky Home” on the harmonica on Priest’s front porch. The 20th century and progress may soon arrive, but for tonight peace and balance has been restored to the town of Fairfield.
Of course, as any modern viewer will tell you, everything is not alright in Fairfield. Segregation remains the unwritten rule. The few blacks who have any screen-time are of the “yessuh” and “nossuh” variety. The Confederacy is romanticized and fiercely defended by primary characters. Fairfield is quite obviously a white-washed charade. But look a little deeper. Ford isn’t romanticizing segregation or social inequality. He is obsessed with the idea of an ordered society founded on principles of justice and honor led by men who aren’t afraid of shattering taboos. Quite simply, Ford is Judge Priest and the cinema is Fairfield. By the time he shot The Sun Shines Bright, Ford was already tiring of the Hollywood establishment. As he stated in a 1953 interview, “I don't want to make the kind of junk the screen is offering today, because we made those pictures better thirty-five years ago.” The cinema that Ford loved was disintegrating right before his eyes. And so Ford endeavored to make intensely personal films like The Sun Shines Bright to help restore Hollywood to its former glory. One can almost imagine John Ford standing in Judge Priest’s shoes in the final scene with a legion of producers, screenwriters, actors, and directors holding a banner reading “He Saved Us from Ourselves.” And that is why The Sun Shines Bright is one of the best explorations into Ford’s mind. For just a moment we see the man that Ford truly wanted to be: venerated, respected, and loved by everyone. What he was too scared to achieve in real life he replicated on screen.