August 14-23 at Anthology Film Archives
The ten films screening as part of Anthology Film Archives’ upcoming One-Eyed Auteurs series (with the possible exception of André de Toth’s Pitfall and Ramrod, neither of which I was able to see) offer only two examples of characters with missing or damaged peepers, both of them blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief. Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James finds a group of post-1865 Northerners lynching a one-eyed fellow who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders during the War, while in Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet, Stewart Granger dispenses with an attacker by throwing a blunt object at his ocular organ, severely bloodying the socket and causing the man to fall off a cliff.
But if the films in question — two each by five different mid-century eye-patch wearing auteurs — go relatively easy on the eye, they offer a veritable trauma ward of other bodily damage: severed limbs, horrible scarring, a seemingly endless array of arms in bandages and slings. More importantly, the directors represented — in addition to de Toth, Ray and Lang, the one-eyed cabal includes John Ford and Raoul Walsh — seem preoccupied with a general sense of inadequacy shared by their lead characters, a default that often has outraged male pride as its source. In this light, it’s easy to see the films’ catalogue of bodily depletion — as well as their preponderance of other phallic imagery — as symbolic of a greater sense of lack. And while it won’t do to draw any definite parallels between the sightlessness of the directors and the felt shortcomings of their characters, the conversations that crop up between the different films prove fascinatingly instructive.
In Raoul Walsh’s 1955 wide-screen western The Tall Men, flirty Jane Russell belts out the title song, a running commentary on the desirability of the film’s male characters: “I want a tall man/don’t want a short man/Long as he is all man/that’s good enough for me.” Since Ben Allison (Clark Gable) clearly doesn’t qualify — his dream of a small ranch in Texas is far too small an ambition to satisfy this gutsy gal — Russell’s Nella Turner gravitates toward Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan), an ex-criminal who plans on owning “the whole of Montana”, while the three, along with Allison’s brother Clint (Cameron Mitchell), wend their way north on an uneasy cattle drive.
Although Ben never loses his masculine cool as he quietly pines away for Nella — he is played by Gable, after all — his fears of being undone by wounded pride are projected onto his brother, a weak-willed double who serves as Ben’s verbal protector. Throughout the drive, Clint and Nathan skirt around a barely constrained animosity which manifests itself in jibes at each other’s manhood, as when the former makes fun of the latter for doing such “feminine” tasks as laundry. When they finally have it out, Nathan outdraws his nemesis and “unmans” him, shooting the pistol out of his hand and leaving that appendage bloody. Still, Ben makes up for it in the end, winning the love of Nella, who realizes that smaller ambitions doesn’t necessarily mean a smaller man, especially when that man saves your life from the injuns. Amending her song, Nella brings the film to a close, identifying Ben at last with that much desired titular designation, a “tall man”.
John Ford’s pet project, 1945’s They Were Expendable, traces the development of PT (“patrol torpedo”) boat units during World War II. Since the efficacy of such a program was initially scoffed at by the higher-ups, the Navy lieutenants played by John Wayne and Robert Montgomery are frequently reduced to leading their units in degrading non-combat tasks such as delivering mail. Throughout much of the film, the men not only have trouble obtaining sufficient ammunition, but are denied the chance to fire these torpedoes even when they’re able to get them — a clear enough expression of phallic distress.