Directed by John Ford, 1939

Written by Dudley Nichols, from a story by Ernest Haycox


This movie epitomizes classical Hollywood filmmaking at its height. It did much to shape (or reshape) the whole Western genre; it was also the film that propelled John Wayne to superstardom. We need to consider how the film establishes action, character, and plot.

How does the film articulate action in space and time? Remember the rules of continuity editing, and note how Ford's editing is guided by these rules. Think of how the shots in a sequence are related to one another, and how we are positioned in relation to the events that we see (for we are always quite clear about where we are located in space at every point in the film). But of course the film's success is not just a matter of passively obeying rules; its power arises from the positive ways in which dramatic sequences are constructed. Note how Ford moves between establishing shots and medium or closer shots; how he sets up and changes the axis of action; how he uses close-ups for expressive detail; how he shoots all his scenes as economically as possible, packing the greatest amount of information into the smallest space; and how what he omits or elides is often as telling as what he shows us directly.

How does the film establish its characters through the use of small, but telling, details? Consider the range of acting styles in the film; the ways in which the various characters' dress, demeanor, or behavioral quirks become the basis for their characterization; and the use of character actors in many roles.

What is the overall narrative structure of the film? How is the story organized? How does the film make use of archetypes or stereotypes, referring to, and perhaps helping to construct, a kind of mythology of the Old West? What ideology or ideologies are expressed through this mythology? How consistent or contradictory is Ford's depiction of gender, and of ethnicity?