Arrowsmith (Ford, 1931)

John Ford’s Arrowsmith transplants his famous western mythology into the form of a modern day American doctor (Ronald Coleman) trying to cure the bubonic plague in the British West Indies. Dr. Martin Arrowsmith comes from frontier stock. Ford’s opening montage shows his family lineage beginning with his stubborn great grandmother leading a wagon train across the plains. He then cuts to a young Arrowsmith studying Gray’s Anatomy, lectured by his father to become a worthy successor to his trail blazing relatives. These opening moments resonate throughout Arrowsmith’s long and tumultuous journey, which include meeting and marrying his wife Leora (Helen Hayes), his time spent at famous research institutes, and experiences abroad attempting to thwart the spread of plague. Ford shows Arrowsmith’s sometimes reckless abandon as both a desired need to follow in the footsteps of one’s ancestors and a ego driven quest to help those in need. The consequences are sharp, Ford supplanting Indians and outlaws for unseen, fateful brushes with disease. For this reason, Arrowsmith is a fascinating look at the flip-side of the Ford cannon, a film obsessed with the thought of failure over any gung-ho attempts at salvation. Also, the film has the best performance by a female actor in any of the John Ford films I’ve seen. Hayes’ Leora is both the rock and the fragile center of Arrowsmith’s life, a lasting impression of true love which gets lost in the shuffle of Arrowsmith’s obsessions. This is a great tragedy and Ford treats it as such. Expressionistic lighting haunts the scenes abroad and low angles show the horror of mass plague. Arrowsmith does a lot of good for many people, but he forgets the importance of commitment and loyalty in the process. In turn, he pays the ultimate price.

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