There are few things in this world more warm and cozy than digging into a humanistic John Ford picture. Few things more downright entertaining. I’m inclined to call Ford my favorite filmmaker of all time, if I felt it necessary to make such distinctions. Steamboat Round the Bend was to be, for all intents and purposes, a minor Ford experience for me; a film one watches when they’ve run out of the “better” Ford and wanna see what else he made in between and around Stagecoach and The Searchers. Steamboat Round the Bend came four years prior to Stagecoach – the film inevitably referred to as more or less the starting point of Ford’s lucrative Western stint and, more egregious and wrongheadedly, when he started to get “good”. Not only had he made good films before Stagecoach, he’d made better films THAN Stagecoach before Stagecoach. He’d been the John Ford we know and love since at least the early 30s, perhaps earlier, but I’ll have to see some of his silent work before I decide just how early this Ford showed signs of life. But I can’t claim to be above critical influence, so my expectations were tempered for early Ford, and in some cases rightfully so. I’ve yet to see a Ford film I outright dislike, but Four Men and a Prayer comes close. Arrowsmith and The Prisoner of Shark Island were passable, but they certainly lacked the trademark Ford flair. Still, this phenomenon of less than ideal Ford films (which is not even remotely surprising given the sheer volume of work he completed) is hardly strictly relegated to his early work. Rio Grande, The Long Gray Line and Two Rode Together are no better. Granted, all of these films are worth watching (save Four Men and a Prayer), but there’s likely a good reason they’re never mentioned along with Ford’s best.
I can’t say the same, however, for Steamboat Round the Bend. A Will Rogers vehicle, and supposedly a comedic turn for Ford, this is dark stuff; more in line with another of Ford’s Will Rogers collaborations — Judge Priest. Sure, there’s humor, and plenty of good-hearted southern charm, but it’s made evident as soon as we meet the ever-present “town drunk”-type Ford character that audiences might not be able to shrug this one off too easily. During the middle of a sermon delivered to a crowded boat of desperate southerners by a traveling preacher referring to himself as “The New Moses”, the preacher singles out a man in the crowd chugging a bottle of whiskey and insists he casts the demonic substance away and become sober. Simple enough, but immediately following this, a self-proclaimed “river man” (as opposed to “swamp”; the film’s central cultural and ethnic dichotomy) sells an alcoholic concoction with the name Pocahontas as a cure for the working man’s fatigue. He tells of how John Smith had to marry Pocahontas in order to get the recipe, jokingly playing off the xenophobia rampant in his crowd. Given Ford’s reputation as treating the natives poorly, this comes in stark relief to what most dismiss as uniformly negative portrayals in his work. I could point to Drums Along the Mohawk in which this same xenophobia is brought into harsh relief in Claudette Colbert’s character’s horror at the sight of Fonda’s character’s native friend as another example of Ford’s sympathy thereof. Or Sergeant Rutledge in which his black eponymous hero character is the subject of incredible racism and isn’t portrayed by a silly character actor like Stepin Fetchit.
Not long after this, the long-absent nephew boards Rogers’ character’s new steamboat with a strange “swamp” woman and confesses to killing a man in her defense. This is where Ford more blatantly levels the playing field, and Rogers’ smooth-talking protagonist succumbs to the very xenophobia he’d crassly used as a marketing ploy not long prior and becomes the (pragmatic) antagonist. Their young love flies in the face of the rigid divide between the two peoples, but this isn’t just another tale of young love transcending all manner of boundaries. It’s not that narrow in its focus. Two scenes in particular stand out for the kind of tone they set in the film. The first being the establishment of the traveling museum Rogers picks up as a way to make money to help hire a lawyer for his detained nephew. He inherits a series of wax mannequins cut to look like historical figures like Ulysses S. Grant, Napoleon, Daniel Boone and two biblical prophets. He walks by each one of them and discusses how they can be made more relevant to the people of the places he’d be making stops in. He wants to transform a King of England into George Washington. He wants to make Grant into Robert E. Lee. He wants the prophets to be Moses, because, and I’m paraphrasing, “nobody cares about the prophets”. The second scene comes after he pulls his boat into a town he was advised against going to due to the zealot population but insisted on going because he didn’t believe there would be trouble. The townsfolk gather into mob formation — pitchforks, torches and all — and board the boat, tearing into it with axes. One of the crewmen on the boat is told and pushes the newly reformed Jesse James character, bearing a placard declaring him a Kansas outlaw, onto the upper deck of the ship and shoots the gun in his hand. Though played as a gag, the townspeople believe the wax figures to be real people wielding firearms, and this new bargaining position allows Rogers to negotiate a deal in which the denizens can see the show for free and tear down the boat if it isn’t “educational”. After explaining the anatomy of the biblical whale the museum features, and informing the townspeople that the whale is a mammal, and not a fish, the historical theater continues with a live performance by Robert E. Lee, accompanied by a wax figure band of blacks in absurd blackface with none other than Stepin Fetchit himself turning the crank to make the band play. So brilliantly does Ford weave the moral gray areas of his films that I’m inclined to dissect them each and every time. The zealous “swamp people” are closed-off, ignorant and proud, but there exists a slightly better, if equally flawed opposition in Rogers, his nephew and his wife. When The New Moses — who represents the blooming religious zealotry of the region — is summoned to testify on behalf of the wrongly convicted nephew, he says, despite knowing full well the man’s innocent, he doesn’t have time since he has souls to save. Rogers’ more moderate Christian undermines him, telling him he can more practically save a man’s life right away. During the trip to stop the hanging, The New Moses, Rogers, the nephew’s wife and the black crew all work feverishly to push the boat along with fuel, eventually turning to tearing up the boat itself for firewood. Rogers is confronted with another fuel shortage and tells them to burn the museum figures, a rather powerful gesture of galvanized community. But those don’t last either, and finally, after The New Moses discovers it was whiskey he drank from the bottle held by the initial desperate man on the boat now working as chief engineer for Rogers (another sign of Rogers’ more open and forgiving mind, or a scheme to take advantage of an alcoholic?), he tosses it into the fire only for it to explode in the furnace, fueling the steamboat with a powerful thrust. Commence the ceremonial, and further cathartic burning of past demons. The finale is terse and doesn’t challenge the expected conclusion, but it’s the journey that counts, right?
– Chris Clark