In Fiction of the Modern Grotesque, Bernard McElroy writes that the “source of the grotesque in art […] is man’s capacity for finding a unique and powerful fascination in the monstrous” (1). The grotesque is not a genre. It is a stylistic tradition with recognizable tendencies and traits: extreme distortion and fragmentation; the integration of man, beast and other incompatible elements; and an often-unsettling fusion of different genres and tones. The inherent flexibility of the grotesque is vital to an understanding of its role in Ford. The director’s ‘grotesques’ span diverse generic terrain: the animalistic anti-hero of the political thriller, The Informer (1935); the demonic prison-guard in the historical drama, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936); the monstrous banker in Ford’s immortal Western, Stagecoach (1939); and many more. The grotesque æsthetic is a window into many of the unresolved contradictions in Ford’s work – especially, the uneasy juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic and mankind’s perpetual battle with an unruly inner beast. The grotesque and the monstrous in Ford – which are often accompanied by jarring, expressive formal devices (i.e., lingering close-ups without clear narrative identification) – elucidate Ford’s ‘impressionism’, the director’s articulation of his role in shaping the story world.

“What’s so funny about an Apache Raid?” – A Note on Grotesque Structure

Potential death constantly surrounds the passengers of Ford’s Stagecoach.

At Apache Wells, the second stop of the film’s treacherous journey, the threat of violence is palpable. The news of an impending Apache raid forces the stage passengers to reconsider their route: head back to Tonto or forge on to Lordsburg and face the vengeful Apaches? While the male passengers deliberate, Lucy (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife of a Cavalry soldier, wrestles with the dangers of childbirth. Chris (Chris Pin-Martin), a Mexican rancher, bemoans the loss of his favourite horse, which was stolen by outlaws the night before. This lamentation compels the perpetually drunk Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) to improvise a burlesque ballad: “My horse is gone, she has gone astray.” Buck (Andy Devine), the stage driver, is offended by Doc’s nonchalance: “Quiet Doc. This is a serious matter, ain’t it?” There is an appropriate time for parodic songs and, apparently, this isn’t it.

This sequence illuminates Ford’s peculiar, grotesque approach to comedy. For both Doc Boone, a self-proclaimed fatalist, and Ford, tragedy and comedy are not opposed. Despite characters’ objections to Doc’s ‘inappropriate’ humour, it is clear that the danger in the above scene does not quell the potential for comedy. In fact, Doc’s jocular demeanour is directly linked to his perilous environment. “My dear Buck, if I only have an hour to live, I’m going to enjoy myself”, Doc professes. Though seemingly out of place, Doc’s perverse ballad is still funny. The sequence exemplifies what Bernard Mc Elroy calls the “grim joke” in grotesque art, the seemingly inappropriate insertion of comedy into a morbid situation. (2) Philip Thomson argues that the grotesque is dictated by the “co-presence of the laughable and something which is incompatible with the laughable [like Apache raids]” (3). James Naremore elaborates on the contradictory nature of the grotesque. He claims that the grotesque remains a powerful and enticing tradition because of its formal incongruities and “discordant effects” (4).

Although other narrative traditions involve ‘discordant elements’ (tragi-comedy) and the inversion of generic expectations (irony), the grotesque remains unique. Unlike classical tragi-comedy – where comedy is distinct from its tragic surroundings and makes the work as a whole more palatable – Ford lets the comic and the tragic mingle. Jean Mitry has observed how Ford consistently “discovers humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic. Sometimes tragedy is ridiculous” (5). In other words, tragi-comedy is bipolar, with a particular mood dominating a certain moment. Ford’s comedy is schizophrenic.

The unexpected integration of the comic into the tragic does not mitigate the dread surrounding a bleak situation, but amplifies the tragic weight of the drama. (6) Consider an innocent man marching towards the electric chair. This sombre scene goes uninterrupted until the inmate slips and performs a pratfall on the prison floor. Though humorous, this slapstick incident ultimately emphasizes the innocent man’s rotten luck. Nevertheless, one’s initial reaction (laughter) does not negate the tragedy of the moment. Instead, comedy and tragedy awkwardly co-exist. This is a truly grotesque scene because the “horrible becomes more vivid because we are not being called upon for a conventional response” (7). It awakens both “laughing and screaming impulses, leaving the viewer […] balanced between conflicted feelings” (8).

This is precisely where irony and the grotesque differ. Irony requires an understanding of the codes and traditions that are being inverted in a work. It is an inherently intellectual tradition. As Thomson observes, “[m]uch of one’s pleasure in irony comes […] from detecting it.” (9) Grotesque, on the other hand, is fundamentally emotional. Although irony might be at play, a grotesque work will not achieve its greatest effect by tinkering with genre conventions. The grotesque relies more on the audience’s gut-instincts and the strange, invigorating appeal of the monstrous and the vulgar, what Mikhail Bakhtin sees as the liberating effect of grotesque art, a perverse reaction to something traditionally deemed obscene. (10)

Early on in The Searchers (1956), Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and the volunteers for the Texas Rangers search the desert for Comanche. Their patrol is interrupted by the sight of a butchered steer left to rot in the sun. Ethan, a seasoned man of the wilderness, recognizes the symbolism of the act: “Ain’t but one tribe that uses a lance like that […] This is a [Comanche] murder raid. Shapes up to scald either [Jorgenson’s] place, or my brothers.” Mr Jorgenson (John Qualen) and the other Rangers ride out. A suspenseful string score escalates. Ethan stays put. Without grain and water, the horses will surely fatigue before making it to Jorgenson’s. Ethan’s prudence is read as callousness and the others disappear into the horizon. The camera follows Ethan as he unsaddles the horses while Mose (Hank Worden), the maundering fool of the group, improvises a mock Indian dance. The soundtrack partakes in Mose’s performance as tribal drums replace the string music. Mose’s dance abruptly ends when Ethan kicks him in the rear: “Break out the grain!” A sharp percussion note matches the contact of Ethan’s boot and brings an end to the playful, tribal music. The sequence then takes another emotional turn. A poignant violin track accompanies a close-up of Ethan as he gazes helplessly into space and imagines the horror his family could be experiencing.

The Searchers: Mose’s Dance … The Searchers: … brought to an end.

This brief sequence exemplifies the contradictory effect of the grotesque, the “unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response” (11). We fear for the lives of the vulnerable families. But, at the same time, we are amused by the strange comedic insertion to this otherwise grim moment. When Lindsay Anderson antagonistically writes about the “[uneven] moods of the [The Searchers]” and denounces it for its “unnecessary coarseness”, he reveals an adverse reaction to the grotesque. (12) Yet, Ford is not simply being coarse or distasteful. With the help of Max Steiner’s commentative score, Ford provides his audience with a disorienting impression of the scene’s multiple subjective layers: the well-intended yet naïve heroism of Jorgenson and the Rangers (= the suspenseful strings); the absurdity of Mose (= the Indian drums); and the fragile stoicism of Ethan Edwards (= the tender violins). The melancholic closing shot returns us to the gravity and danger of the surrounding events. The viewer (perhaps ashamed for laughing at the crude slapstick display?) is thrown back into the emotional severity of The Searchers.

“So Human an Animal” – Ford’s Monsters (13)

Arthur Jones (Edward G. Robinson), the protagonist of Ford’s depression-era comedy, The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), realizes he looks just like a ruthless murderer on-the-loose named Mannion (also Edward G. Robinson). The front-page news of Mannion’s prison-break circulates around Jones’ office. Jones’ co-workers tease him about the striking resemblance: “Hello killer, who you thinking about rubbing-out today!?!” Jones brushes-off their taunts. The article finally catches his eye. Jones, in disbelief, closely examines the photo of Mannion and then scrutinizes his own face in a mirror. In the frame, Jones’ reflection is heavily distorted, with the edge of the mirror elongating his scalp to monstrous proportions. This distorted mirror-shot (a common trope in doppelganger narratives) in an expressionistic device which suggests that Jones’ self-image has been shattered.

An additional article – a psychological study entitled, “The Face of an Arch Criminal” – intensifies Jones’ unease. A point-of-view shot holds on the contents of the article. The study reveals that Mannion’s cold-blooded nature cannot be explained by his childhood, the war, or any other external factor, but only by “the features of [his] face”. The article’s horrifying description of Mannion – a “cruel and animal-like mouth, exposing fang-like teeth”, the “square jaw [of a] Neanderthal” and “menacing snake-like” eyes – forces Jones to re-evaluate his humanity. The article becomes a source of immense anxiety for Jones: if Mannion’s animalistic face explains his murderous impulses, than do these same impulses exist within me as well?

A striking resemblance. Production still from The Whole Town’s Talking. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library, Core Collection.

Ford’s characters constantly struggle with internal beasts. This bestial side of man is one of Ford’s strongest affinities with the grotesque tradition. Wolfgang Kayser, in his landmark study, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, writes that the “monstrous fusion of human and nonhuman elements” has been the most common attribute of the grotesque style since its inception. (14) This “fusion”, which is explicit in the monstrous description of Mannion, resurfaces again and again in Ford’s work.

Consider the opening of Stagecoach. In Tonto, the film’s expository setting, characters are repeatedly described in animalistic or subhuman ways. The stage-driver, Buck, recalls how the vicious outlaw Luke Plumber (Tom Tyler) took the butt of his gun and split a rancher’s head “wide open like a butchered steer”. Discussion of “Geronimo, that Apache butcher” only adds to the viewer’s sense of carnage. Hatfield (John Carradine), an eerie Southern gambler adrift in the West, muses on the innocence and beauty of easterner, Lucy Mallory: “[She’s] like an angel in a Jungle, a very wild jungle.” The self-righteous Ladies of the Law and Order League beg Lucy not to ride in the same coach as “that creature” Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute driven out of town.

This last example illuminates the dual narrative levels at work in Stagecoach and other Ford pictures. The sanctimonious members of the League doggedly attempt to distinguish themselves from their “uncivilized” surroundings. To bolster their civility, they relegate others to the realm of the subhuman. This projected monstrosity is a recurring theme in Ford. Such instances force the viewer to re-evaluate the surface content of the story world and locate the source of a character’s perceived monstrosity. One must then consider Ford’s role in debunking or acquiescing to the attribution of monstrosity.

Ford’s sympathy is clearly marked in Stagecoach. The verbal savaging of Dallas is matched by a grotesque angle of the sneering faces of the Law and Order League.


This angle – Ford’s perspective – reverses the League’s paradigm for monstrosity. Here, the viewer sees an expression of the dreadfulness the League projects onto outcasts like Dallas and Doc Boone. Ford’s commentary is more emphatic in the following scene. As the stage is about to depart, the passengers are warned that they might face Geronimo’s vicious tribe on their journey. Dallas, unshaken by the warning, states how “There’s worse things than Apaches.” Cut to a medium close-up of the spiteful stares Law and Order League.

Stagecoach: “There are worse things than Apaches.” Stagecoach: “There are worse things than Apaches.”

The shot is striking because it is not attributed to Dallas’ point-of-view, who is looking straight ahead (not out the window towards the League) when she delivers her line. The shot is, therefore, without narrative identification. It is Ford’s visualization of Dallas’ thought, a directorial comment on the story world. (15)

In other films, Ford’s relationship with the monstrous is more nuanced. In The Lost Patrol (1934), for example, the monsters are invisible. During World War I, a British patrol roams a fiery desert in Mesopotamia while Arab snipers pick them off one by one. The enemy, hovering somewhere in off-screen space, exists (visually) in the characters’ (and the audience’s) imagination. They are pure projection. Until the film’s closing minutes, the audience only ‘sees’ the enemy through the jaundiced perspective of the patrol. While the soldiers wander, goals become illusive; duty turns to spite. “The thing that gets me most”, asserts the Sergeant (Victor McLaglen), “is being done in by them stinking Arabs. We’ll get them, too. That’s all I want now. That’s the only idea I’ve got in here! [He pounds his skull].” The soldiers’ hate speech becomes more and more vitriolic as the bodies pile-up. After the first soldier falls, the enemy is simply those “blasted Arabs [who] hide like flies”. Flies then turns to “swine”. Swine eventually becomes “dirty filthy swine!” And so on.

To read the soldiers’ language as an emblem of Ford’s or screenwriter Dudley Nichols’ racism is overly simplistic. The film never gives the impression that Ford is championing the British military agenda. In fact, the narrative is completely absent of any goal whatsoever. The patrol simply walks in circles while death and hatred mount. The film’s racist taunts are not a sign of cultural superiority, but of impotence. One quickly realizes that this is neither a valorisation of racism nor war as the patrol fires at mirages and shouts invectives into a void.

Interestingly, the one visible monster is a British patrolman. The soldiers’ growing insanity is embodied by a wiry, Bible-toting soldier named Sanders (Boris Karloff).

The Lost Patrol

Sanders’ body grows increasingly distorted and monstrous as the patrol’s sanity thins and its paranoia escalates. He is introduced as a pious man who spreads the gospel to his comrades. He ends up a stark-mad Christ-figure. Wrapped in the threads of his uniform (a symbol of his decayed sanity) and holding a makeshift crucifix, Sanders marches into a sniper’s bullet.

The Lost Patrol The Lost Patrol

The Lost Patrol

Ford’s mannered portrait of Sanders illuminates the director’s penchant for the grotesque. The estrangement of reality and extreme distortion of the human body – two key aspects of the grotesque – are emphatically present in the monstrous Sanders. (16) A second extra-diegetic element – Max Steiner’s score – enriches the film’s grotesque atmosphere. Steiner’s (misunderstood) (17) score, deceptively blares hopeful and exultant music throughout the film. These ironically-placed heroic tunes mirror the soldiers’ delusions of hope and grandeur. Steiner’s music is specious. It raises spirits; then accompanies more death.

The tragedy and aimlessness of Lost Patrol is echoed by Ford’s last film, the monster-ridden 7 Women (1965). Now the monsters are visible. But monstrosity is, once again, implicated within a dual narrative schema. On the surface, there are the hideous beasts. Beneath the surface rests the implied perspective through which the beasts are being relayed to the viewer. In 7 Women, the beasts are a murderous clan of Mongols. They are re-presented through the lenses of sexually repressed, white female missionaries.

From the moment the Mongols seize the mission, they are shed in a subhuman light: “You Mongolian ape!” The Mongol leader’s attraction to Cartright (Anne Bancroft) is premised upon his animalistic urges: “He only wants her because she’s white and he’s yellow … Animals!” Like the Ladies of the Law and Order League, the missionaries’ projection of animalism on their surroundings (the atheistic Cartright, though not a Mongol, is also sequestered from the group and called an animal) comes from denial. The missionaries suppress the bestial impulses they have masked by decorum and piety by placing the Mongols on a subhuman plane. Michael Steig has elaborated on the role of denial in grotesque fiction:

On one level, [one] will respond to the distorted, inhuman qualities of the character with anxiety, because they are strange and alien and yet seem to resemble human qualities; but at the same time, the fact that these qualities are recognizably a denial of humanity to the character allows us to treat him as though he were separate from our own reality[.] (18)

The Mongols’ exaggerated, grotesque demeanour – which distinguishes them from the missionaries’ concept of reality – helps diffuse their disturbing effect (“At least they’re not like us …”). Yet their inhumane, violent behaviour is also a source of great anxiety. This is not simplistic framing of the racial ‘other’, but a complex and disturbing exercise in filmic subjectivity. The Mongols are both a fantasy and a nightmare. They are a hyperbolized expression of the missionaries’ repressed desires (unbridled sexuality) and a horrifying vision of their deepest fear (sexual violation).

A salacious marketing angle for the 7 Women one-sheet. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library, Core Collection.

A Hobbesian image of mankind – scratch anyone’s skin hard enough and the beast will emerge – haunted Ford since the silent era. In Ford, beasts do not only linger beneath the uncivilized surface of the frontier. Ford revises the popular mythology of the frontier and projects its savage connotations onto the nation as a whole. For the adventure-seeking readers of the East, the frontier was a remote, monstrous world. Images of the frontier’s “mongrel races” and “desperados […] ejected from the bosom of society into the wilderness” were embedded into the cultural imaginary through dime novels and travelogues. (19) Yet in Ford the city is also a monstrous space. For example, in Bucking Broadway (1917) the East/West paradigm is inverted when the cultured citizens of New York instigate a riotous brawl with the rugged cowboys of the frontier. This is not to say that Ford has a sugar-coated vision of the West. Horrible things like rape and genocide happen in Ford’s West, too. Yet the impulses behind this violence cannot be explained geographically. Ford’s deeper implication is that this vicious animal lingers inside of us all, whether we recognize it or not.

The ubiquitous cage imagery in Ford’s urban films advances the theme of animalism. Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen), the eponymous anti-hero of The Informer (1935), exits the headquarters of the Black and Tan who are occupying his Dublin neighbourhood. Poverty, confusion and hunger have forced Gypo to inform on his best pal, the ex-IRA assassin-on-the-run, Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), for a small reward. Gypo stands hunched over, reward in-hand. The camera holds on Gypo’s shamed expression. Barbed-wire lines the foreground of the frame. Ford’s composition portends Gypo’s impending doom (this fenced-in animal is eventually trapped and gunned-down by the IRA). Yet the thematic significance of the image does not end here. The barbed-wire, which sprawls the film’s city streets, indicates a world under siege. This ‘monster’ is a synecdoche for an oppressed people.

The Informer

The Informer’s bleak urban environment is a fruitful source of grotesque imagery. Ford evokes the Dublin of O’Flaherty’s novel, a venal world “smelling of corruption and decay, full of mean passions, seedy houses, joyless bars, joyless brothels” (20). Ford, like many other twentieth-century artists, uses the grotesque to interrogate the corrupt underbelly of modernity. (21) The lower classes must scrape, hustle and whore to survive. Even the dim-witted Gypo recognizes his degrading circumstances: “The Irish think I’m with the British and the British think I’m with the Irish […] I’m walking around starving without a dog to kick me trousers.” The greatest tragedy of the story is that the Irish have been turned against each other. Gypo’s poverty seals the fate of his friend. Ideology – “An informer is a danger to us all!” – then guarantees Gypo’s demise. The world of The Informer is not only predatory; it’s cannibalistic. McPhillips and Gypo are both consumed by a bloodthirsty, man-made system.

Grotesque images of consumption mobilize this theme. At a boarding hall, Gypo shovels a bowl of slop into his mouth. Frankie (introduced as a silhouette behind the

The Informer

steel bars of boarding hall doors) unexpectedly appears at Gypo’s table. In a shot-reverse-shot sequence, Frankie explains his visit. In Frankie’s close-ups, Gypo’s knife rests in the lower-left corner of the frame. This is a prescient image. Gypo’s hunger (signified by the knife) facilitates Frankie’s death. Gypo then ingests the reward. The twenty pounds (= Frankie’s life) is exchanged for whiskey and fish and chips.

The Informer: Consuming Frankie. The Informer: Consuming Frankie.

Flesh (1932, Ford is uncredited), a wrestling picture, reveals how the effect of “animalism and corporeal degradation in grotesque art is to direct our attention to the undignified, perilous, even gross physicality of existence, and to emphasize it by exaggeration [and] distortion” (22). Such “corporeal degradation” and “gross physicality” is emphatic in the film’s wrestling sequences. Polokai (Wallace Beery), a kind-hearted yet instinctually violent German heavyweight, only wants to be a good father – and the wrestling champion of the world. The latter desire, equated with his bestial drives, is a rich source for grotesque imagery. In an early wrestling scene, Ford alternates between lingering full shots of Polokai’s monstrous physique and extreme aerial views of the ongoing brawl. The ropes of the ring, which evoke the cage imagery of The Informer, emphasize animalism of the match. Ford’s godlike perspective becomes directorial statement on the event below. Polokai and his opponent are stripped of their human attributes. They become blurry specks of skin.

Flesh Flesh

In another city film, The Whole Town’s Talking, the dehumanizing drudgery of the modern workforce is suggested by the cage-like shadows that line office walls. This cage imagery, echoed in a later scene in which Mannion breaks back into prison to off an old enemy, implies a greater imprisonment beyond the penitentiary.

All of these city films exemplify a distinguishing feature of the grotesque, a “lack of [total] resolution of the conflict” (23). In the closing seconds of The Informer, McGlaglen’s performance style renders Gypo’s salvation dubious. Throughout the narrative, performance (“I’m not Gypo, I’m King Gypo!”) reflected Gypo’s delusions and denial of his actions. The histrionic delivery of the closing line – “Frankie, your mother forgives me!!!” – evokes these earlier, performative moments and complicates the redemption.

The ‘happy ending’ of Flesh is conflicted in similar ways. Cage imagery, which has repeatedly symbolized objectifying and oppressive external forces, returns when Lora (Polokai’s wife) visits Polokai in prison. The moral of the story – to discover the human soul beneath the flesh (24) – is obscured by this lasting presence of cages.


The Whole Town’s Talking also reincorporates imagery with bleak connotations. Jones, who has killed Mannion and collected the reward money, is off to tour the world with the woman of his dreams, Wilhelmina Clark (Jean Arthur). The unlikely hero’s romantic departure from the airport becomes a media circus. The media, which has exploited Jones (“The Man who Looks Like Mannion!”) throughout the narrative, does more of the same here. Jones and Clark’s farewell kiss to the (film’s) audience is accompanied by the obnoxious requests of reporters: “Look right into the cameras […] Now give us a big kiss!” One must also remember that this departure is only a vacation, not an escape. Jones and Clark must return to the frantic bustle of the city once their world travels end.

Ford remains sympathetic to the protagonists of these city films. His directorial commentary concerns the greater societal and existential forces which oppress and torment his characters. Ford’s impressionistic eye is also placed on characters which embody malignant social forces. Here, the audience receives monstrous portraits of villainy relayed through Ford’s implied perspective.

Gatewood, the scheming banker of Stagecoach, has made the great scam of his career. Ford begins this sequence with an ordinary three-shot of a bank transaction. The camera holds while the men wrap-up their business.


After Gatewood bids farewell (“And don’t forget, what’s good for the bank is good for the country!”), the camera abruptly moves in to a jarring close-up of Gatewood’s cruel stare. This extreme shift in perspective violates Classical Hollywood style, which would place a three-quarter shot or medium close-up before the close-up. This would ensure a smooth, invisible transition; this jarring edit boldly calls attention to itself. The sequence moves from the objective world of the narrative to a subjective vision of the director.


At this point, the audience is unaware of Gatewood’s scheme. Yet this striking close-up – which highlights the impressionistic tendency of having a director enunciate his/her attitude towards a certain character – is a window into Gatewood’s true, ominous nature. This brief sequence reveals how an artist of the grotesque “distort[s] or exaggerate[s] reality […] in order to tell a [deeper] truth” about the story world (25). In Stagecoach, Ford’s early portrait of Gatewood is apt. This unsympathetic character only grows more detestable as the narrative evolves.

The impressionistic portrait of Gatewood is anticipated by the portrayal of villainy in The Prisoner of Shark Island. The film’s provincial, gothic setting of Dry Tortugas (a hellish region located south of Florida) motivates its grotesqueries.

The Prisoner of Shark Island

Shark Island offers a nightmarish and defamiliarized reality, “a world of familiar surfaces […] transformed into a world of grotesque possibilities” (26). The film’s monster – a demonic Yankee prison guard played by John Carradine – fuels its grim reality. Like Gatewood in Stagecoach, the prison guard is repeatedly relayed through Ford’s implied perspective. Dr. Mudd (Warner Baxter) is immediately abused by the guard when he arrives at Shark Island. In one sequence, the guard punches Mudd in the neck. Mudd, seen in a high angle, falls to the ground. The sequence then cuts to a close-up of the guard’s sadistic stare. The framing of the guard, which contains expressive lighting unseen in the previous shots, transcends narrative causality. Although the guard is looking towards Mudd, what’s really important here is how Ford sees the guard.

The Prisoner of Shark Island: Impressionistic sculpting of the monster of Shark Island.

There is something both awful and exhilarating about Ford’s hyperbolized portrayal of villainy. Like the guard’s buffoonish sidekick, who eagerly watches his acts of cruelty, we also take pleasure in Carradine’s performance. The audience experiences that “bewildered mingling of amusement fear and disgust” characteristic of a response to the grotesque. (27) Ford’s fascination with the guard is implied by the attention given to his movements and gestures. When the guard is investigating Mudd’s escape plan, Ford lets this pivotal narrative moment subside in order to watch his devilish character blow smoke rings. This shot, captured with the “energy of description” (28) of grotesque poetry, is purely expressive. Like much visual art of the grotesque tradition, it seeks emotional effect over intellectual stimulation. (29)

The Prisoner of Shark Island

Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly) stands on a patio with binoculars glued to her eyes, excitedly watching two hippos fight. This sequence from Mogambo (1953) underscores the simultaneous allure and repulsion that accompanies grotesque imagery. (30) During the sequence, Ford inserts subjective angles of the hippos’ combat.

Mogambo Mogambo

Linda removes her binoculars and naively asks her company, Victor Marswell (Clark Gable), a womanizing gorilla trapper to whom she is dangerously attracted, “Why are they fighting?” Vic responds, “Probably over a woman”, sardonically drawing an analogy between the hippos and the romantic triangle developing in the film’s narrative. Linda, offended by Vic’s comparison, storms off. She is more than willing to indulge in nature’s violent spectacle but takes offense when she is implicated within an animalistic system. Ford repeatedly identifies his characters with their natural surroundings, while characters like Linda deny their affinity with the surrounding animal life.

Early in the narrative, Honey Bear Kelly, an itinerant showgirl played by Ava Gardner, departs from the safari camp. While on-board the ferry, Kelly looks at her fellow passenger (a caged tiger) and quips, “Well here we go. Bronx Zoo next.” Though sarcastic, Kelly’s comment (which proposes a mutual destination for her and the tiger) broadens the film’s analogy between man and beast. Unlike the haughty Linda, this self-deprecating showgirl accepts her place in the animal kingdom. In the end, the other characters fail to demarcate themselves from their uncivilized surroundings. Even Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden), the decorous, British anthropologist, is said to have a “bite like a young crock” when he nips Victor’s finger while being fed medicine. In addition, Nordley’s description of his work – “[I] study man, man’s development” – is a progressive, human assumption of which Ford is highly sceptical.

Ford’s strategic placement of cages suggests that animalism is a relative concept. When Kelly first arrives at the safari camp, she’s lured by the exciting sight of a caged lion. Kelly kneels to the ground and the lion is seen through her point-of-view. Ford then exchanges Kelly’s subjective angle with the lion’s point-of-view. From this perspective, Kelly is the caged animal.

Mogambo Mogambo

Mogambo: The lion’s point-of-view.

Unlike The Informer or Shark Island, no one in Mogambo is clearly defined as a monster. Instead, the monsters are the characters’ dreaded visions of themselves as violent and sexually transgressive beasts. Linda becomes both of these – she sleeps with Victor then tries to murder him when he later rejects her. Mogambo proves that sometimes the scariest monster is one’s self.

Ford’s affinities with the grotesque tradition direct our attention to strange, subtle and shocking moments which might otherwise be overshadowed by grandiose sites and events. Ford’s monsters help us explore, to borrow a term from Noël Burch, the complete ‘parameters’ of his films – from east to west; beast to man; illusionary to self-reflexive; and beautiful to ugly. Ford’s monsters are fertile ground on (what is for many) the director’s over-tilled garden of work.


  1. Bernard McElroy, Fiction of the Modern Grotesque (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), p. 1.
  2. Mc Elroy, p. 20.
  3. Philip Thomson, The Grotesque (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.), p. 3.
  4. James Naremore, “Stanley Kubrick and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque”, Film Quarterly 60, no. 1 (2006), p. 6.
  5. Jean Mitry, John Ford (Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1954), quoted in Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001), p. 455.
  6. See Thomson, p. 5. Thomson offers Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal as an emblematic grotesque work. He argues that it achieves its powerful effect through the mixture of revulsion and laughter the reader experiences when the speaker candidly proposes that eating children is the best way to solve Ireland’s starvation epidemic.
  7. McElroy, p. 20.
  8. Naremore, p. 6.
  9. Thomson, p. 47.
  10. Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by Helene Iswolsky, Rabelais and his World, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp. 302-67.
  11. Thomson, p. 29.
  12. Lindsay Anderson, “The Searchers”, in John Caughie (Ed.), Theories of Authorship (London: Routledge, 1981), p. 77.
  13. By “monstrous”, I refer to that which is abnormally large or powerful, disfigured or distorted, demonic, bestial or physically anomalous – in context with the logic of the story world – in any other ways. For more on monstrosity in film, see Chapter 2, “The Sleep of Reason: Monstrosity and Disavowal”, in Paul Coates, The Gorgon’s Gaze: German Cinema, Expressionism, and the Image of Horror (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  14. Wolfgang Kayser, translated by Ulrich Weisstein, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, (New York: Columbia University Press, second edition, 1981), p. 24. The term “grotesque” stems from the Italian noun “grotto” (cave). Initially, “grotesque” referred to the strange, ancient paintings fusing man, plants, and animals that were discovered throughout Italy during cave excavations of the fifteenth-century.
  15. I will use the word “impressionistic” to describe later examples of similar scenes. “Impressionism” refers to the director’s self-conscious articulation of his/her role in shaping the story world. Unlike “expressionism”, where the diegesis is shaped by the interior states of characters, “impressionism” (at least in this paper) concerns the formal influence of external factors (like the visualization of a director’s perspective on events in the narrative). For a concise overview of impressionism in film, see David Bordwell, French Impressionist Cinema: Film Culture, Film Theory, and Film Style (New York: Arno Press, 1980), pp. 135-95.
  16. Kayser, p. 161. Kayser lists other aspects of the grotesque: “reality destroyed, unlikely things invented, incompatible elements juxtaposed […]”
  17. See Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and his Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 97. Gallagher sees Steiner’s score as “turgid” and thematically empty.
  18. Michael Steig, “Defining the Grotesque: An Attempt at Synthesis”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 29, No. 2 (1970), p. 256.
  19. Washington Irving, Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountain, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1836), p. 232, quoted in Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, sixth ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 177. For western mythology in the twentieth century, see Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in the Twentieth-Century (New York: Harper Perennial), pp.125-56.
  20. Denis Donoghue, “Preface” to The Informer, Liam O’Flaherty (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1980), p. viii.
  21. Colin Trodd, Paul Barlow and David Amigoni, “Introduction: Uncovering the Grotesque in Victorian Culture”, in Colin Trodd, Paul Barlow and David Amigoni (Eds), Victorian Culture and the Idea of the Grotesque, (Brookfield: Ashgate, 1999), p. 9.
  22. McElroy, p. 11.
  23. Thomson, p. 21.
  24. Gallagher, p. 84.
  25. McElroy, p. 5.
  26. McElroy, p. 7.
  27. Naremore, p. 13.
  28. David Amigoni, “Borrowing Gargantua’s Mouth: Biography, Bakhtin and Grotesque Discourse – James Boswell, Thomas Carlyle and Leslie Stephen on Samuel Johnson”, Trodd, Barlow and Amigoni, p. 22.
  29. For more on the concept of “cinematic expressivity”, see Kristin Thompson, “The International Exploration of Cinematic Expressivity”, in Reel America and World War I: Film in the U.S, 1914-1920, p. 65.
  30. In his “Preface” to Cromwell (1827), Victor Hugo argued that the grotesque is not exclusive to painting and literature but surrounds us in the real world. For more on Hugo and the grotesque, see Thomson, 16-7.

About The Author

Phil Wagner is a graduate student in the department of Cinema and Media Studies at University of California, Los Angeles.

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