A brand new release of two early films directed by John Ford comes to Blu-ray for the first time in the UK. Two silent westerns starring Harry Carey, Straight Shooting and Hell Bent, are now available in 4K transfer as part of the Masters of Cinema series from Eureka Entertainment.
Straight Shooting (1917)
Straight Shooting is John Ford’s very first full feature film as a Director. Until this point, Ford had directed short films, while Straight Shooting runs at 62 minutes.
From the first moments of the film, we are treated to those telltale epic scenery shots that would become part of John Ford’s trademark. Despite its age, this film looks spectacular. There is noticeable grain, but otherwise the picture is crystal clear. The detail visible is astounding for a film of this era.
We watched with the Michael Gatt score rather than the commentary which is also available on the disc, which is fitting in mood if pleasingly unconventional in places.
Straight Shooting does, naturally, feel like what it is: a foundation and a beginning for the masterpieces that would come from Ford later in his career. Some of the signs of his fledgeling status include pacing. At times, some of the scenes feel a little indulgent: they run for longer than necessary to establish their point.
During the climax which would go on to be so familiar in style and content, one expects the story to be coming to a close. Indeed it is basically concluded around ten minutes before the end of the film. Then we spend another few minutes wrapping up something that could have been – and in later movies would be – dealt with in thirty seconds.
It is fascinating to witness the dawn of many of Ford’s enduring techniques and his approach to film making. An example of this include the treatment of the leading lady: she is allowed a tiny amount of glamour by way of the era-popular lip makeup style, but her costume consists of one ragged and unflattering dress and an unkempt hairstyle. Later Ford would be well known for putting his leading ladies through their paces and being uncompromising when it came to story over image.
Another example is his focus on character and story progression. The idea of establishing all the character types and functions in the early part of the film so that what happens later in the story needs no explanation: it just plays out. Tension and suspense is built through being invested in the characters and their roles early on. While this could and would be refined in later years, its infancy here shows that Ford’s instinct was always there.
The framing of indoor scenes is interesting, with many shots of the settler characters’ home consisting of a fairly wide shot of the living space within, through the front door open in the background to a view of the scenery without.
Hell Bent (1918)
In comparison to Straight Shooting, this film does not contain so many Ford-specific tropes. Rather it seems to concentrate ideas long associated with the western genre in general.
The opening scene feels a little superfluous, almost setting up something which doesn’t fully materialize. But the disjointed feeling which ensues may be due to some scenes being cut by censors, so we cannot lay all the blame on the original storytelling intention.
There are, however, some quite experimental moments, beginning with said initial setup scene. The character of an author, while considering the story he has been commissioned to write, views a painting of a scene depicting the aftermath of a bar fight. As has since become a well-heeled technique, the painting then comes alive, morphing into a moving image. Thus, we are brought into the story.
The majority of the remainder of the film is much more conventional. Ford has not been allowed a free hand here. After the liberties he took from the norm with Straight Shooting, Hell Bent feels like he was trapped inside a box. For example, the use of vignette-style framing on actors’ faces to highlight particular emotions feels typical of the era. Most of the hallmarks in Straight Shooting which seem to signpost his future style feel notably absent here. Hell Bent could almost be directed by anybody: it doesn’t have a particularly John Ford flavour.
The narrative follows a flawed hero. He is pitted against the villain of the piece when the gal he likes accidentally becomes tangled up in the nefarious business. The pacing of this film–again possibly sped up by the scissors of censorship boards–is much easier to stay with than Straight Shooting. Although portions of the story progression feel confusing, there is less lag and less scenes feel indulgent here.
The faster pacing sacrifices some of the splendour: Straight Shooting is more visually pleasing. However, some clever framing and seemingly economical use of film give their own pleasing effect in Hell Bent. Ford’s later style owes something to each of these two features. Films such as The Quiet Man make use of opulent scenery and emotive portraiture to lie somewhere in between the indulgent extravagance and the efficient storytelling found in Straight Shooting and Hell Bent respectively.
Visually, Hell Bent looks a bit more tired and bears light damage in places. It does not, however, detract from the viewing experience in any way. Universal Pictures‘ 4K digital restoration brings out the subtlety of performances as well as the beauty of the landscapes.
A Little Something Extra…
Included on the Blu-ray two-disc set are:
- A 1080p 4K restoration of both films
- Audio commentaries by film historian Joseph McBride
- Interview with film critic and author Kim Newman
- Video essays by Tag Gallagher
- Audio interview with John Ford from 1970
- A fragment of the lost film Hitchin’ Posts directed by John Ford in 1920
- A collector’s booklet
Overall, Straight Shooting is a fascinating watch. A launch of a long and distinguished career that would produce many treasured and critically acclaimed masterpieces. Many of the building blocks are here. Fans of John Ford’s later work will doubtless enjoy Straight Shooting, as it bears all the hallmarks for which he became famous and so beloved as a creator.
Hell Bent is like another–albeit lesser–piece of the John Ford puzzle. It is much more economical and straightforward, however it still bears many hallmarks which will make it an attractive and manageable watch for western fans. Even people who usually find silent film difficult to follow may find Hell Bent a good entry point. It does not drag and Zachary Marsh’s slightly unconventional score gives it a more modern vibe than anyone might expect from a film which is over 100 years old.
As a package, this duo of movies represents John Ford at the formative part of his directing career. Together, Hell Bent and Straight Shooting provide a window into his future movies which would be so acclaimed and loved.