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“The Last of the World's Afflicted Race of Humans Who Believe in Freedom”: Race, Colonial Whiteness and Imperialism in John Ford and Dudley Nichols's The Hurricane (1937)


This essay examines the political meanings of John Ford and Dudley Nichols's film The Hurricane (1937). The Hurricane appears at a pivotal moment in American history, a moment when Ford and Nichols set out to make films for a “new kind of public.” This new audience was forged by new political forces, including the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Popular Front, and Roosevelt's New Deal. Building on previous work that documents Nichols's affiliation with Popular Front organizations, and Ford's own political cinema (including The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941)), I argue that The Hurricane offers a fundamental critique of European imperialism, and imperial “whiteness.” At the same time, the energies for that critique come from a paradoxically “progressive” orientalism that represents South Seas “natives” as inherently wild and independent. It is this projected hunger for independence that allows Ford and Nichols to argue against colonial “whiteness,” while, almost simultaneously, they portray African Americans as servile and dependent, thus justifying white supremacy and racial oppression in the United States. Finally, by way of conclusion, I suggest that this dyadic representation – natives as independent, blacks as dependent – continues to structure the politics of Ford's post-World War II cinema, allowing him to normalize white supremacy at home, while at the same time justifying American military adventures abroad in the name of freedom for “the world's afflicted races.”

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1 Emanuel Eisenberg, “John Ford: Fighting Irish,” in Galyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein, eds., John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 255–60, 258.

2 See Stricker, Frank, “Repressing the Working Class: Individualism and the Masses in Frank Capra's Films,” Labor History, 31, 4 (Fall 1990), 454–67; Cassano, Graham, “Radical Critique and Progressive Traditionalism in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath,” Critical Sociology, 34, 1 (Jan. 2008) 99116.

3 There is an extremely extensive literature on “orientalism.” For the classic statement, see Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), esp. 1–110. For the application of Said's arguments to classical Hollywood cinema (and beyond) see Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994).

4 At least part of the reason The Hurricane deserves attention is the fact that it was so successful at the box office. While it is, admittedly, an uncertain measure of popular sentiment, it matters in this context that The Hurricane was one of the top ten most financially successful pictures of 1938. See Tino Balio, “Appendix 1: Variety's Top Grossing Films,” in idem, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930–1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 405.

5 Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford: A Life (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2001), 264–65.

6 “Working with Nichols seems to have been much more of a marriage between equals than working with Frank Nugent or Laurence Stallings.” Scott Eyman, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 320.

7 Eisenberg, 258.

8 The most useful and interesting examination of the close collaboration between Nichols and Ford can be found in Charles Maland, “‘Powered by a Ford’? Dudley Nichols, Authorship, and Cultural Ethos in Stagecoach,” in Barry Keith Grand, ed., John Ford's Stagecoach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 48–81. Maland documents Nichols's political activity in Popular Front and union organizations. Through its social and political networks, the influence of the Popular Front reached beyond those directly involved in its organizations. In fact, recently James R. Barrett has also argued that the influence of the Popular Front went far beyond those directly involved in the Communist Party or Popular Front organizations. See James R. Barrett, “Rethinking the Popular Front,” Rethinking Marxism (forthcoming 2010).

9 Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 410.

10 Cited in McBride, 482.

11 Ibid., 308.

12 Eyman, 188.

13 Maland, 57.

14 Kersaint, as both a “cur” and a “saint,” stands upon the boundary between French colonial honor and the native desire for liberation.

15 In his classic and still important foray into the semiotics of cinema, Roman Jakobson argues that, like all language, film language oscillates between two poles: the metaphoric and the metonymic. Metaphor establishes meaning through substitutions; metonymy establishes meaning through contiguity. Using D. W. Griffith as an example, Jakobson suggests that stylistic “realism” demonstrates the “predominance of metonymy.” Roman Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” in Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1954), 92. John Ford, who studied and worked under Griffith, utilizes this metonymic style in most of his productions.

16 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967; first published 1952), 38.

17 Ibid., 114. Emphasis added.

18 Ibid., 38.

19 Ibid., 110.

20 Ibid., 111, 34.

21 Ibid., 112.

22 Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, 143. See also Koritz, Amy, “Dancing the Orient for England: Maud Allan's ‘The Vision of Salome,’Theatre Journal, 46, 1, (March 1994), 6378; Locke, Ralph P., “Cutthroats and Casbah Dancers, Muezzins and Timeless Sands: Musical Images of the Middle East,” 19th-Century Music, 22, 1 (Summer 1998), 2053.

23 Just as Ford uses metonymy to stage his “realism,” he continually returns to metonymic political representations of “peoplehood.” Terangi, Tom Joad, and Colonel Thursday all become symbolic embodiments of the communities with which they are associated.

24 Ford told Eisenberg, “I remember … with a Judge Priest picture, putting in an anti-lynching scene that was one of the most scorching things you ever heard. They … cut it.” Eisenberg, “John Ford: Fighting Irish,” 259. Later, in 1953, and without Nichols as collaborator, Ford remade Judge Priest as The Sun Shines Bright. The same racial characterizations dominate that picture, and, with complete creative control, Ford finally inserts his “anti-lynching” scene. The audience sees eye-rolling “negros” screaming and running for cover. On May's discussion of the Ford–Nichols–Will Rogers collaborations and their racial meanings, see Lary May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 30–38.

25 David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1999), 22–23.

26 Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation; Cassano, “The Corporate Imaginary in John Ford's New Deal Cinema,” Rethinking Marxism (forthcoming 2010).

27 Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 254.

28 Shohat and Stam, 143.

29 One of the ironies of this utterance by Ford – the self-consciously Irish filmmaker – lies in the fact that it echoes the typical nineteenth-century racist description of the Irish “race,” as Ford, perhaps, knew. “Nativist folk wisdom held that an Irishman was a ‘nigger’, inside out.” Roediger, 133.

30 McBride, Searching for John Ford, 489. See also Eyman, Print the Legend, 361.

31 Various scholars have explored the contours of this ambivalent and, therefore, remarkable film. See Robin Wood, “Shall We Gather at the River? The Late Films of John Ford,” in Studlar and Bernstein, John Ford Made Westerns, 23–41; Slotkin, 332–49; Cassano, “The Corporate Imaginary.”

32 During the late 1960s, Ford produced for the United States Information Agency the propaganda picture Vietnam! Vietnam!. Although not directed by Ford himself, that film still shares characteristics first developed in The Hurricane. According to McBride, Ford romanticizes “the pastoral life of the Vietnamese before the coming of the war.” McBride, 694; Eyman, 534.

I would like to thank Mark P. Worrell, Dave Roediger, and Troy Rondinone, and the anonymous reviewer at the Journal of American Studies for commenting upon early drafts of this paper.

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Journal of American Studies
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