In the late 1590s, William Shakespeare wrote a series of plays that portray England at the turn of the 15th Century. Richard II, Henry IV parts one & two and Henry V present a world of astonishing scope and detail. The intrigues that end up with the deposition of Richard II and the ascension of Henry IV are portrayed in Richard II, the only dramatic work of Shakespeare entirely in poetry. This play functions as a kind of prelude for the huge tapestry of the two Henry IV plays. In these two works, Shakespeare portrays the entire range of English life. The court life of Henry IV, who is constantly besieged by rebellion from all over the country by ambitious rivals questioning his claim to the throne, is presented in contrast to the bawdy denizens of the Boar’s Head Inn, Cheapside, where the Prince of Wales is slumming while the country is convulsed in civil wars. Here Sir John Falstaff, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, presides over a vivid group of the lowest of English society.
It is in the remarkable depiction of both high and low characters that the plays achieve their epic feel. It seems counter-intuitive, but the more Shakespeare details his individual portraits, the wider his canvas becomes. By the time we reach the coronation of Henry V with its devastating repudiation of his earlier, wilder days as embodied by Falstaff, we feel we have been presented with an entire world.
When thinking of film, the one director whose achievement can be termed Shakespearean would be John Ford. There is so much that these supreme artists have in common. Both understand the importance of contrasting comedy and tragedy and both can work in either or both genres. This comic and possibly offensive ‘Look’ sequence in The Searchers relieves the high tragic propulsiveness of the plot. It is not essential, but it relieves the tension and fleshes out a lighter side of Ethan Edwards, the character in Ford’s oeuvre that most achieves a Lear-like titanic stature
The world of John Ford is filled with the kind of character detail that we see nowhere else but in Shakespeare. Great care will be lavished on a scene that won’t necessarily further the plot, but will be essential to creating the world being depicted. Wyatt Earp will get a haircut, the young cadets will go picnicking in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Philadelphia Thursday will try to make her father’s new home in Fort Apache as home-like as possible with objects donated by the other ladies at the fort. This last scene is inconsequential as far as the big picture is concerned, but it affords Ford the chance to show a nascent, decent society developing at what was then thought of as the outer limit of society (although I am sure there are a lot of Native American nations which would balk at this description).
I would posit that the three Cavalry films of John Ford occupy the same place in his output as the Henriad does in Shakespeare’s. In both cases the artists were at the height of their powers. Shakespeare was soon to write his four great tragedies, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. Ford was soon to direct his masterpiece The Searchers.
Ford’s Cavalry trilogy is made up of three very loosely connected films. They do not share a continuous plot. They do not have the same locale. They do not share the same characters although certain names like Tyree and Quincannon appear over and over, sometime played by the same actor, sometimes not. What links these three films is that they tell the stories of various cavalry units at the edges of what was deemed ‘civilization’. Fort Apache (1947) takes place shortly after Custer’s Last Stand and is a meditation on the foolishness and actual danger of the reckless pursuit of glory. I have written before about She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) in an article comparing it to Malick’s Tree of Life. In the guise of depicting the last few days prior to the retirement of Nathan Brittles, Yellow Ribbon movingly shows the passage of time and how a new generation inevitably replaces the older. Rio Grande is the working out of a pretty complicated domestic situation involving Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne and their son. The boy has just graduated from West Point and has been assigned to the outpost under the command of his estranged father, estranged because he burned down his Southern mother’s plantation as part of Sherman’s March To The Sea. The domestic difficulties become a metaphor for a nation trying to figure out how to be a nation again after the trauma of the Civil War.
When watched together you get as wide a panorama of post-Civil War America as the Shakespeare plays give you of England. In both works high tragedy is mixed with bawdy low comedy (in both cases usually involving drink).
At the end of the Shakespeare cycle, we know that the world we have just lived in will come to an abrupt end because the warrior savior King Henry V will die young, leaving the kingdom to fall into chaos, giving rise to the devastation of The War Of The Roses. At the end of each of the films in the Cavalry Trilogy, we have a sense that we are witnessing the end of an era, the end of the exhilarating days of the pioneer. Now it is time for dull civilization to take root and erase the memories of the larger than life characters we have been spending time with.
Do yourself a favor and watch these three films. Do yourself another favor and read as much Shakespeare as you can.