Donkeys in Cinema (1): 3 Fordian Donkeys

Christoph Huber

As one of the first secretaries (department: ministry of fun) of the Ferroni Brigade, I’ve made no secret of my affection for donkeys. Per Ferronian rule, every film instantly gets better once a donkey appears (although that does not necessary make it good). So there will be little surprise about this inaugurating post for a series of (mostly) screengrabs dedicated to donkeys in cinema which this blog will present at irregular intervals–starting, of course, with John Ford. Having the pleasure to see one of his best westerns–though I would insist it transcends the genre–, 3 Godfathers again in a magnificent print, I was once more deeply moved by one of the finest donkey manifestations in all of cinema, when the last outlaw (played by John Wayne), seemingly trudging to his death, is absolved by this biblical vision.

So while I applaud Ford’s inclusion of 3 Godfathers in his own Top 10, for the sake of truth I still have to point out that among the many notable donkey appearances in his work the most spectacular must be in the late, fascinating Irish anthology The Rising of the Moon , which moves from the near-plotless Fordian bootlegging bliss of the first episode, The Majesty of the Law towards a comic variation of his arty Oscar winner The Informer, canted angles abounding and all. This short piece, simply titled 1921, features a donkey accompanying the disguised hero through a police road block, suffering considerable duress.

However, in a second confrontation with a more sympathetic and somewhat distraught police officer, our donkey is duly rewarded, nibbling from a basket, before getting away effortlessly, just like its owner.

The donkey in 1921 achieves almost Balthazarian prominence in these passages, which is why I’ve accorded it an unusually long series of images. For all the distracting donkey glory, however, it is astonishing how the human faces next to it, as always with Ford, already say almost everything without words. Still, I’ve saved my most prized Ford donkey shot for last. It’s from one of the Wold War II documentaries made by his Navy Field Photographic Division, At the Front in North Africa with the U.S. Army (1943), available in lesser quality (but still) at the indispensable Internet Archive, like many of the war docs made by Ford’s Field Photo. In one scene clearly intended as a breather and played for laughs, we see Army troops buying (and later beheading) chickens for barbecue, when an unexpected reverse shot reveals non other than Ford himself, balancing on a little black donkey. It’s hard not to appreciate the legwork!