Eureka Entertainment‘s Masters of Cinema range turns its attention to two early entries in the career of John Ford. Probably best known for John Wayne westerns, such as The Searchers and Rio Grande, Ford – born in 1894 – had a lengthy career, which began long before the end of the silent era. In this two-feature set we have his first feature length entry, Straight Shooting, from 1917, and, although only a year later, Hell Bent, our second feature, is a full nine films later in his career. In fact, Ford – then credited as Jack Ford, worked on 15 projects in 1919 alone.
To be considered a feature film, the magic figure – according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (that body that gives out Oscars) – is 40 minutes. Both works here are short, with the first coming in at around 62 minutes, and the second around 53. They are simple works, shot largely on the Universal Backlot of the day. Both films are ‘Cheyenne Harry’ features. Harry (played by Harry Carey, whose son, Harry Carey Jr. went on to appear in several of Ford’s celebrated later movies) is what film critic Kim Newman describes as a ‘good-bad man’. A rogue, a heavy drinker and a murderer, both films feature this character undergo some kind of change of heart, and act as a force for good. Carey played the character in many films over a number of years, none of which with any real continuity from one film to the next. Just as Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name is credited with different character names in each Sergio Leone entry, Harry could be a different character each time, but it is hardly of importance.
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The films themselves are simple affairs. In Straight Shooting, settlers in the Old West come up against the Cattlemen of the era, who resent their land being used for such controversial things as a place to live. When Thunder Flint (Duke Lee) restrict settlers’ access to the local water supply in order to discourage them from remaining in the area, a local farmer (George Berrell as ‘Sweet Water’ Sims) and his son Ted (Ted Brooks) and daughter Joan (Molly Malone) are terrorised, as Ted is shot dead at the local river. When Harry is brought in by Flint to clear the settlers, he sees the grieving farmer, and considers this is a step too far, even for a rogue such as himself. Changing sides, he fights with the family, and his old contacts to fight off the cattlemen, whilst developing a closeness to Joan.
Hell Bent is a much more playful affair, and features many of the same actors. Led by Carey, Lee and Berrell also return, though the female lead this time is Neva Gerber, rather than Malone. Using the framing device of an author considering a fan request by letter, we segue (in an effect years ahead of its time) into a painting on the wall of a post-fight scene in an old western saloon. Once again, Cheyenne has been in town, and caused chaos. Moving into the main story, Bess (Gerber) is a young woman forced to seek work in a dance hall, given her brother Jack has been released from his job at the town’s bank and is unable to support her. Seeing her in the dance hall, a drunken Harry is upset, as he has begun to fall in love with her (we did say the story was simple). Rescuing her from villain of the piece Beau Ross (Joe Harris), they bond again. When her brother then assists Ross with a robbery of the bank, Beau takes Bess as a hostage into the desert. Harry follows to attempt to save his new love.
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Bonus features for the films include commentaries on both from film historian Joseph McBride. McBride is the author of two works on Ford, and is a knowledgeable presence. We learn that most of the films of this era are now considered lost. When first he began to study Ford, only twelve of these early works existed. Over years, several have turned up – usually in Europe: Straight Shooting was discovered in the Czech Republic, and restored by Universal – meaning we now have around 25. Given Ford was known for creating up to 15 a year, the scale of the loss becomes clear. He is an engaging speaker: cine-literate enough to draw theme and shot-making parallels to Ford’s later works; versed enough in Ford’s life to be able to tell stories of the man; well-read enough to be able to discuss Cheyenne Harry and the actors of the age, and confident enough to hold the listener’s interest.
Also from McBride is a 1970 interview with John Ford (audio only). At around three-quarters of an hour, this is great as an historical artifact, butit is a painful listen: Ford is irascible and virtually deaf, to the point that almost everything needs repeating for him. It was difficult to finish, but the effort taken by Eureka to curate such things remains deeply appreciated. There is an interview with film critic and writer Kim Newman, very much in the same format as his contributions to earlier sets; and he is always excellent value. There is also a fragment from a lost Ford film – Hitchin’ Posts – from 1920. At around three minutes, this is an unrestored curiosity, but must be taken as part of the wider effort to find that which had been thought lost. Every frame that is found is a victory. Finally, there are two short video essays – one on each film – from Tag Gallagher. Apart from an interesting observation about the direction of the women in Hell Bent, these are both pretentious nonsense.
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Finally, there is the usual high standard of booklet from this range. In this case, an attractive 28-page piece, with essays from Richard Combs, Tag Gallagher and Phil Hoad. All essays are well-written, and it is a genuinely enjoyable read. This complements a set that is far more valuable for what it represents than the quality of the features. Every time a previously lost film is found and restored a part of film history lives again. The features here are truly nothing special, and the quality of the set is largely in line with previous Masters of Cinema entries. What pushes this higher, in quality, is the fact that these films were thought not to be in existence a few years ago, and Eureka have taken the time to find speakers and writers that bring an era, largely now unknown, back to life.
Straight Shooting & Hell Bent: Two Films By John Ford is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.