Bucking Broadway (1917)

*. Watching a movie like Bucking Broadway today makes you (or at least it made me) wonder how it was that film advanced so quickly — not just as a narrative medium but as an art.
*. In 1917 there wasn’t much to build on. We were just a few years removed from stationary cameras filming theatrical spectacles or the presentation of simple magic tricks. And yet in this early work by John Ford we have a remarkably polished piece of work that would be at home, visually, with much later films.
*. I think the fast pace of the evolution was driven mainly by individual talent. When discussing the woodcut prints of Albrecht Dürer in his book/television series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark remarks on how, “as usual the invention coincided with the man.” You can see the same thing happening in the case of John Ford.
*. Bucking Broadway was one of the first films Ford directed and I don’t think he had the opportunity to learn all of the skills he puts on display here. He always claimed to be a natural when it came to things like composition and I think he must have been. When we see that shot of the old farmer standing in the doorway I don’t think that’s something Ford was taught, it’s something he brought to the table because it was always in him. It’s also there in the play of shadow on Gladys’s face, and the placement of the candle when Harry has his heart-to-heart with Helen’s father.
*. The same goes for the editing. Note the subtle way that as we cut back to Helen and Thornton sitting on the fence we keep drawing in closer as the two of them get closer to each other, or the dissolve into the shot of Harry sitting meditatively on his horse in front of the herd. This is powerful editing that carries narrative and thematic weight but is also mostly invisible as editing. Again, a huge advance in the art is being driven by a talent that must have been almost entirely instinctual.

*. If the presentation is modern, we can’t say the same for the story. Bucking Broadway is a broad melodrama about outraged and rescued virtue, a beautiful damsel being saved by a man on horseback. It’s also a film that highlights how the Western mythically operates as a form of pastoral, with its explicit or implied contrast between the more natural lifeways of the cowboy and the decadence of the East.
*. One telling difference or adaptation of the pastoral vision is how cowboys always smash things up. I wonder when the battle royale or saloon brawl became a staple of the Western. I think it’s a particular innovation of film, as I don’t think it was a big part of Western literature before this time, though I don’t know since I’m no expert on the subject.
*. Bucking Broadway was a lost film until discovered in a French archive in 2002. I’m glad we found it not just because it’s a fun little film and in surprisingly good shape but because it illustrates so well that moment of the birth of film as a narrative art.

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