Quentin Tarantino
It's that time of year again.  The Academy Awards will be held this Sunday.  All the pretty people in show business will get together and congratulate each other, patting themselves on the back -- even though half of them actually want to stab each other in the back.

But it’s all in good fun, and many of the movies are quite good.  (Though not Silver Linings Playbook.  Saw it this week. Completely overrated.)

It must be added that showbiz folk are not the brightest people in the world. 

Yes, I know, this is a little like pointing out that the sun is kind of hot and that snow is usually white.  Nevertheless, there is dumb, and then there is what Academy Award-nominated director Quentin Tarantino said recently about an Irish American legend.

What makes this particularly odd is that Tarantino is typically depicted as one of the smartest movie guys on the planet.  Without question his movies -- from Reservoir Dogs to Inglorious Basterds -- range from interesting to unquestionably brilliant. 

This year, Tarantino’s slave revenge fantasy flick Django Unchained is up for Best Picture and Best Screenplay.  Like all of his films, Django is filled with references to the history of cinema. 
Tarantino’s love and knowledge of cinematic history are vast.

Or so I thought.

Back when Django Unchained was first released Tarantino gave an interview, and the topic turned to the great director John Ford.  Ford was born into an Irish immigrant family and often played up his roots by declaring that his birth name was actually Sean Aloysious O’Feeney.  He also made many films about the Irish, including, of course, The Quiet Man.

But Ford also directed dozens of Westerns including classics such as The Searchers, also starring John Wayne.  In the film, Wayne plays an Indian-hating Civil War veteran out for revenge. 

Ford’s mix of shootouts and ethnic tension, and Wayne’s simmering rage, made The Searchers one of the best American movies of all time.  (In fact, there is a new book about the film out entitled The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel.)

Tarantino, however, seems to believe Ford is a fraud.

“One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him,” Tarantino said.

“Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else's humanity -- and the idea that that's hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the '30s
and '40s — it's still there. And even in the '50s.”

Where does one begin with Tarantino’s own hogwash?

First of all, let’s begin with Wayne’s character in The Searchers. Yes, he’s a bigot. That’s the point Ford is trying to make!

The Wayne character is so blinded by his rage that he nearly kills his own niece and, in the end, must separate himself from his own family.

Of course, by today’s standards, the Native American characters in 1950s Westerns look a tad insensitive.  But in The Searchers and other Ford flicks, at least the Indian characters speak and are depicted generally as individuals.

Tarantino was also angered by the fact that Ford, in his early Hollywood days, played a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan in the infamously racist film Birth of a Nation. 

Which is a little like calling Daniel Day-Lewis a racist because his character despised Irish Catholics in Gangs of New York.

But here’s where Tarantino is really wrong.

Ford’s films in general expose the corrupt nature of the powerful and demand justice for the weak.

As movie critic Stephen Whitty notes, “John Ford never forgot his parents had arrived here when help-wanted notices still read No Irish Need Apply...Ford knew injustice, and he hated it.”

That’s why some even see echoes of the Irish Famine in Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath.
Ford changed American cinema for the better in countless ways.

So, Quentin Tarantino, next time, just say “Thank you.”

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com or tomdeignan@earthlink.net)