'My name is John Ford and I make Westerns.'
In the late 1940s John Ford directed three movies about the US Cavalry of the 1860s and ‘70s, all of them starring John Wayne. Ford created a world of dedication and discipline; of camaraderie and quiet courage on meagre rations and poor pay. There is hard drinking, sweet singing, flawed heroism and quite extraordinary horsemanship. We see tight teams built from diverse talents, tough veterans passing on hard-earned wisdom, raw recruits gaining their yellow stripes, and varying degrees of sympathy for the Native Americans.
‘A good picture is long on action and short on dialogue.’
The ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ was filmed in the majestic setting of Monument Valley and featured regular actors from the John Ford Stock Company. Ford liked to shoot in familiar places with familiar people, away from the interference of studio executives.
‘I cut in the camera. Otherwise, if you give them a lot of film ‘the committee’ takes over.’
In the 1949 trilogy centre-piece, the gloriously Technicolor ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’, Wayne plays seasoned Cavalryman, Captain Nathan Brittles. On the eve of retirement he takes out a last patrol to stop an impending attack from Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors.
Brittles’ chief scout is Sergeant Tyree (played by Ben Johnson), formerly a Captain in the Confederate cavalry. Tyree is a no-nonsense professional whom Brittles trusts to carry out dangerous duties and give sound advice.
Brittles: ‘Were you ever scared, Tyree?’
Tyree: ‘Yes, sir. Up to and includin' now.’
But Tyree knows the limits of his expertise. He is not given to hopeful speculation or empty conjecture.
'My mother didn't raise any sons to be makin' guesses in front of Yankee captains.'
So when asked by Brittles his opinion on broader strategic matters, Tyree consistently replies:
'That ain't my department, sir.’
I have some sympathy with Tyree. In my twenty-five years as a Planner in an Advertising Agency I never once attended a shoot - neither a big commercial production on a warm Trinidadian beach, nor a humble print affair in a cold studio in West Acton. I didn’t feel it was my department.
'Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness.’
Now I’m well aware that I may have been missing out – on the glamour, the travel, the esprit de corps and the generous catering. I’m conscious that I should probably have witnessed a shoot in the spirit of understanding the process and sharing responsibility for the outcome.
And yet I have no regrets. You see the thing is, as a strategist I wanted to concentrate on what I knew best. I could attend research groups, read reports, write briefs, create decks, present arguments, measure success. And more besides. But I had little to add to the production process. And I had too much respect for my colleagues in the Creative, Management and Production functions to bore them with my half-baked opinions on wardrobe, casting and camera angles. 'That ain't my department, sir.’
Of course, we live in an age of team-working, generalism and multidisciplinary consensus. And yet for the most part, there seem to be too many people, in too many meetings, offering too many points of view, on areas where they have little or no expertise. This way of working slows things down, muddies the argument and adds to cost. It’s inefficient and indecisive. We should respect specialism and knowhow; recognize roles and responsibilities. We should be comfortable missing out when we have little to offer; learn to stay silent when we have nothing to say.
Inevitably, my observation may seem less relevant now that I am semi-detached from the Agency world. But veterans still have their uses. In ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ Captain Brittles meets the aged Chief Pony That Walks and urges him to persuade his younger tribesmen to put down their arms.
'Yes, we are too old for war. But old men should stop wars.’
This piece first appeared on Jim Carroll's Blog here