Opening the Vaults: John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929)

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In the era of declining DVD sales, Hollywood studios are still experimenting with how to exploit their extensive libraries, if they choose to do so at all. With their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, and Warner Archive Instant streaming service, Warner Brothers has been the most aggressive in remastering, distributing and marketing their holdings. Universal, MGM, Sony and Fox have all started their own DVD-MOD labels, but with little-to-no publicity and questionable commitment to quality (Fox was notorious for releasing old cropped and pan and scan transfers to their MOD-DVDs). Some license titles to boutique labels like Twilight Time, Kino Lorber (my employer), and Shout! Factory, while Paramount has made the surprising step of launching a free YouTube channel with hundreds of titles, which they are calling “The Paramount Vault.” For now it is a branding exercise that doesn’t delve very deeply into their catalog, but Paramount starts dropping restored Republic Pictures films on there, I will take notice. Since Netflix has shown little interest in films made before Millennials were born, the one place that might turn a buck is iTunes and other transactional VOD providers (where you pay-per-movie), which have shown an insatiable desire for content regardless of the production year. And for their centenary, 20th Century Fox is releasing one hundred of their films to iTunes in HD, many of which have never been available on home video (you can see the full list at Will McKinley’s blog).  Announced in October, some of the rarer titles have recently appeared in the iTunes store, including John Ford’s first all-talkie feature The Black Watch (1929). Not included in the massive Ford At Fox box set and impossible to see otherwise except on fuzzy bootlegs, this is a promising development for the future accessibility of 20th Century Fox’s film library.

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In Variety the president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Mike Dunn, spoke about the opportunity digital streaming is presenting: “You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet. It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be a completist.” With lower overhead costs than DVD and Blu-ray, and less immediate sales pressure, it’s an attractive spot to place those HD transfers the studio archives have been stocking for a decade plus. While the quality will never match Blu-ray (my HD iTunes download of The Black Watch was 2.86GB, while a single-layered Blu-ray can hold 25GB), it is an acceptable substitute for those niche titles Fox would never release in a physical format. The first reel of The Black Watch is heavily scratched and worn, but the remainder shows clarity and depth, doing justice to Joseph August’s cinematography. It’s certainly worth a $4 rental.

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John Ford’s first sound film was a short, now lost, entitled  Napoleon’s Barber (1928), about an “anarchistic French barber who gives a shave to Napoleon on his way to Waterloo” (description courtesy of Joseph McBride’s John Ford: A Life). He would make two more silents (Riley the Cop and Strong Boy), before entering production on The Black Watch, which was something of a debacle. The film was based on the novel King of the Khyber Rifles (1916) by Talbot Mundy. The scenario by John Stone and dialogue by John K. McGuinness tell the story of Donald King (Victor McLaglen), a captain in England’s Black Watch regiment of Scotsmen. Just before the Black Watch is sent to fight in France at the start of WWI, King is selected to undertake a secret mission in India. His men think he is a coward for taking a cushy post, but his mission is to break up a group of Indian insurrectionists led by Yasmani (Myrna Loy), the so-called Joan of Arc of India, set to start a holy war against the British colonizers. King infiltrates Yasmani’s clan and attempts to break it up from within, which their growing attraction makes more difficult.

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Ford filmed The Black Watch as a part-talkie, but Fox general manager Winifred Sheehan hired British cast member Lumsden Hare to direct additional dialogue sequences. Ford recalled that

Sheehan was in charge of production then, and he said there weren’t enough love scenes in it. He thought Lumsden Hare was a great British actor — he wasn’t, but he impressed Sheehan  — so he got Hare to direct some love scenes between McLaglen and Myrna Loy. And they were really horrible — long, talky things, had nothing to do with the story — and completely screwed it up. I wanted to vomit when I saw them.

Though they didn’t make me nauseous, there are some extended dialogue sequences of ponderous deliberation. It is as if Hare believed dialogue couldn’t be registered unless McLaglen and Loy have rests in between each line. These are jarringly static sequences, because Ford and August shot the rest of the film with group dynamics in mind.

The film begins with a classic Fordian dinner, soldiers arranged symmetrically around the table singing mournful melodies in between busting each other’s chops. There is a general clamor nonexistent in the added dialogue sequences. This clamor increases when the troops go off to war at the train station, in which lines of men wind through the concourse and the soundtrack crackles with drums, bagpipes, and the cries of parting families. In the New York Times Mordaunt Hall praised it’s realism: “Those who witnessed the trains carrying soldiers to the front during the black nights of London town, will be affected by these sequences, for they are without a doubt the most realistic thing of their kind that has come to the screen, and the fact that these scenes are presented with a variety of sounds such as singing, the tramping of fighters’ feet, the officers’ commands, the chug-chug of the locomotives, render them particularly vivid.”

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Things get even more elaborate once Captain King goes to India, and August has a field day shooting through latticework, curtains and lace. Yasmani is introduced in extreme close-up under a veil, Myrna Loy’s face just a suggestion. The representation of India doesn’t get beyond Indiana Jones levels of colonialist fantasy. Though in her early career she was positioned as an exotic object of desire (Across the Pacific, Desert Song), the Montana-born Loy is never quite convincing as a warrior who could command the loyalties of Indian subversives (who are depicted as a thoughtless mob that get gunned down in a gruesome Wild Bunch ending).

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The Black Watch remains strongest in its depiction of the war, and a short sequence showing the Black Watch battling through Flanders Fields is haunting. As the camera slowly tracks backward through a foggy landscape, the men pour forth with ill-fated enthusiasm, as their lives are cut down in the trenches. Peter Bogdanovich praised the back-lighting in this sequence to Ford, who responded with, “Well, we never had many people so I tried that way to make it look as though I had more.” Ford ascribes poetic results to practical problems, describing filmmaking as an issue of mechanics. The Black Watch is a transitional work that provided Ford and his crew an opportunity to work out the kinks in the sound film, poor Lumsden Hare aside. And with Ford’s Men Without Women (1930) also scheduled for release to iTunes in HD  from Fox, we will soon get a fuller picture of Ford and DP Joseph August’s development into the audible age.

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3 Responses Opening the Vaults: John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929)
Posted By swac44 : November 17, 2015 2:58 pm

I love Loy’s pre-Thin Man work, as sketchy as it can sometimes be (Thirteen Women, anyone?), so this release is big news for me. Hopefully it’s not limited to iTunes in the U.S. Now I just have to find some way to play iTunes movies on my big screen without having to buy some fancy new box. Laptop HDMI is probably my best bet.

Sadly, the Paramount YouTube titles are restricted to the US, and I can’t be bothered to come up with a way to mask my IP. Hopefully that changes sometime soon.

Posted By Randy : November 28, 2015 6:12 pm

Fox’s move to put some of their older, more obscure titles on streaming/download is welcome news for old movie fans. I just wished they’d offer them on Vudu as well as iTunes – I use that service because it’s compatible with my smart tv. Not everyone has an iPhone and uses iTunes.

Posted By Suzanne : December 9, 2015 1:42 pm

I’m thrilled to see wider accessibility for these films but I am still a big fan of physical media. I’d love to see them all take on the MOD field with the aggressiveness that Warner’s has.

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