THE FUGITIVE (John Ford, Emilio Fernández, 1947)

Widely regarded as one of John Ford’s failures, The Fugitive is based on Graham Greene’s story “The Labyrinthine Ways.” It’s a splendid film, if not quite a match for its predecessor in the Ford œuvre, My Darling Clementine (1946), which is widely considered a masterpiece. Both films profit from a fine lead performance by Henry Fonda—although Fonda’s most brilliant work for Ford lay either behind (Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939; The Grapes of Wrath, 1940) or ahead (Fort Apache, 1948). Ford himself regarded The Fugitive as one of his personal favorites, although even Fonda’s participation hasn’t saved it from remarkable obscurity.

The film, graceful and noble, depicts the stumbling odyssey of a padre torn between duty and a desire to escape being killed now that the revolutionary government has outlawed the profession and practice of religious faith. Compounding the priest’s dilemma is the fact that his sense of duty wavers between selfless mission and pride in martyrdom. The last cleric in a (mythical) totalitarian state, he is one whose eventual death by firing squad cannot extinguish the hope for liberty that he has come to represent to the villagers who sheltered him. Ford opts for an off-screen execution precisely to deny the event symbolical or other gestures of suffering and redemption—a reversal of expectation that discloses the viewpoint of one of cinema’s legendary atheists. Earlier, when the priest opens wide the doors of his church, his shadow shows that his arms are held outstretched as in a crucifixion—a reminder of how cunning and analytical a visual artist Ford can be. By delivering us the man’s shadow, not substance, and by having this shadow hold the crucifixion pose a beat or two too long, Ford undercuts the man’s idealized, posturing self-image. At this point in his journey, then, the priest is a fugitive as much from his own humanity as from the authorities. The remainder of the film charts his progress from would-be martyr to true servant of God, which, for Ford, means true servant of his fellow humans.

Ford doesn’t portray the regime in power in terms of its ideology or for political nuance; rather, he shows it to be a force that contests freedom, generates fear and creates outcasts. Its impact is omnipresent; accenting the military regimentation, for instance, are the symmetrical design of numerous compositions, and on the soundtrack the horses’ hoofs bursting through silence signal arrivals of police-soldiers. Fear has overtaken people’s lives, transforming the church into a sanctuary, and the streets into a desperate playground for hunters and the hunted. Here the film recalls Ford’s great The Informer (1935), also written by Dudley Nichols. But it may be that author Greene’s target, Communism, has been replaced by another; for the villagers’ fear in the film possibly reflects the fear that had begun to overtake the Hollywood community since, earlier the same year as The Fugitive, the start of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Washington, D.C.

As artist, Ford would be responding to any threat to individual liberty or creative freedom.

Less powerful than The Informer, the more elegant and stark The Fugitive boasts one remarkable sequence that specifically recalls the one in the earlier film where, guilt-ridden, Gypo Nolan, during a long night of bingeing, foolishly spends, in dribbles, money meant to book passage to America for his girlfriend and himself. At night the fugitive priest, disguised, searches out two men from whom he buys a bottle of wine—the government has banned its consumption—that he needs for the performance of Mass, only to see its sacramental use subverted by the black marketeers themselves who coerce him into drinking it with them. Throughout, the priest, unlike Gypo, remains focused on the purpose of his mission; but he cannot disclose it without also disclosing his criminal status. Thus, like Gypo, he drinks and drinks, ending up sickened in body and soul. Nor is there any reward or reprieve for the priest’s suffering incognito; immediately after he leaves the black marketeers, the police pick him up. The accumulation of such ironies makes The Fugitive, as distinct from The Informer, very nearly absurdist.

Ford borrowed cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa from Mexican filmmaker Emilio Fernández, who helped arrange for the film’s production in Mexico and co-directed. Employing ravishing, high-contrast black and white, Figueroa intensifies the supernal quality of Ford’s dignified, somewhat stylized imagery. Spare and essential, the images resonate with a heightened naturalism. For instance, inside the dark church whose one high, small window admits shafts of light, the priest pours consecrated water, for baptism, into a vessel; the water’s sunlit brilliance appears to emanate from the water itself. Along with a number of compositions that are angled by the camera for the purpose of distancing (Richard Hageman’s superb stylized score has a similar distancing effect), such effects contribute to the parabolic nature of the film.

Although certainly not as incisive as Luis Buñuel’s remarkably similar Nazarín (a Mexican film also lensed, incidentally, by Figueroa) a decade later, The Fugitive justifies Ford’s own faith in it. Critics, however, have objected to its “extreme” formalistic qualities—qualities that doubtless contributed to its financial failure. But the film’s rigorous method precisely enabled Ford to achieve the level of abstraction that a universal parable requires. This achievement is so complete that the film’s final image—a Cross of light—transcends particular religious meaning to convey something more general, more urgent: a persistent light of hope in the dark night of political oppression.

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