“Get Ready for your close-up, Barbara” John Ford’s Use of Barbara Stanwyck in “the Plough and the Stars”




Facial expression is the most subjective manifestation of man, more subjective

even than speech, for vocabulary and grammar are subject to more or

less universally valid rules and conventions, while the play of features, as has

already been said, is a manifestation not governed by objective canons, even

though it is largely a matter of imitation. This most subjective and individual

of human manifestations is rendered objective in the close-up.  (Hungarian film theorist Béla



plough and the stars


John Ford’s 1936 film of  “The Plough and the Stars” discards most of Sean O’Casey’s play in favor of emphasizing the conflict between pacifist Nora and her soldier husband Jack. Much of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance as Nora is built on Ford’s use of close-ups. The close up is generally a reaction shot, which is perfect for Nora, as her experience of war and its threat to her domestic life is almost wholly reactive. Conversations with her husband are limited to brief exchanges on the order of :

Nora: Nothing matters but us.

Jack: There are things more important than us. I learned that by watching my comrades die.

Ford and Stanwyck succeed in making more profound statements than this without the impediments of dialogue.  In the opening scene, Nora takes a slow turn toward the camera after reading a handbill calling for volunteers to fight for the Irish Republics. Her eyes are filled with questions; her expression one of disbelief.  Returning to her apartment, she offers her husband a penny for his thoughts.  He does not comply, on the basis that his thoughts would not interest her. Her only concern is that their marriage be foremost in his thoughts, so she puts on a happy face to please him. But glancing out the window, she catches sight of a messenger on a bicycle.  Her reaction as she closes the curtains is one of extreme fear.

“What is the matter?” her husband asks.

“Nothing,” she lies.

Nora’s father had been killed in the war, and she cannot dislodge the fear that her husband will not return if he leaves her now.  He complains that her attitude makes him ashamed of her, and that it is man’s duty to fight.  “You’ll do the fighting,” she answers.  “The weeping will be for the women.”  Jack leaves, and Nora’s pleading looks go slack.  Ford captures the desolate emptiness in a close up that spells absolute defeat.

The chaos of war follows, with a distraught Nora tossed among children carrying rifles, citizens caught up in the frenzy of looting, and patriots inspired by speeches and the call to arms.   Everyone except Nora is inspired by a blood-thirsty optimism, and Ford steals a moment from the mob to capture her horror turning to tears as she looks away from the spectacle.

“The women of Ireland must learn to be brave,” she is told.

“They are all cowards,” she answers.  Ford goes in for a close up of unabated anger. “Do you think they all want to die?” Nora screams, but the scream is in her expression, not the volume of her voice. She cannot understand any of it.  Men dying, women in mourning. Even for those whose husbands are still alive are in mourning, for their deaths are imminent.

“Why not just walk away?”  she wonders.

Ingmar Bergman has said that cinema is a study of the human face. This wasn’t as true for John Ford as it was for Bergman, but in “The Plough and the Stars,” he and Barbara Stanwyck told us more about war through close-ups of the human face than Sean O ‘Casey said in his four acts of  staged dialogue.


23 thoughts on ““Get Ready for your close-up, Barbara” John Ford’s Use of Barbara Stanwyck in “the Plough and the Stars”

  1. Hi Bill, what I had said was something along the lines of how a strength of classical films (generally speaking) is the subtlety of facial dialogue. I LOVE what is not said. Body language and facial expressions say more than words. Barbara S. sure was good at conveying a lot without speaking. I think it has something to do with the time and culture. Ladies and Gentlemen were not allowed to speak their minds. Now in-your-face-brash-and-crassis the norm, but not in the first half of the 20th century. I see that reflected in film.


    1. Cindy, thanks for taking the time to repost your thoughts. I agree with you,and might add that that a decline in both directorial ideas and acting skills limits the possibilities of non-verbal expression in films. looking forward to your piece on sorry wrong number.


  2. Ugh. During the course of the move, work, and the holidays, I completely dropped the ball and forgot to watch it and write a review for the blogathon. I’m a creep.

    There are a lot of classic blogs out there–did you like the Criterion Blues blogathon? I see you happier with sites dealing with foreign and classic films.


    1. Cindy, I’m not really suited to the blogospheres. I fight the impulse to correct everyone’s papers. There were maybe three contributors to the Criterion event who had something original and substantial to say. One person just repeated what was said in the commentary from the dvd.


      1. Well, I guess you have to think about your overall objective for being here, as you said, you’ve retired from official critiquing. Here’s what I can share with you in the 3.5 years I’ve blogged: Some bloggers stand on their soapbox and sound off and that’s all the interaction they want. They don’t care how many followers they have or they are building a community. There is no reciprocation. .

        Some bloggers crave discussion even if their opinions are silly –building a community is an emotional connection you can’t get in the real world, so it becomes fun to share thoughts. But if bloggers sense the other is radical or the tone is too condemning or cross some invisible line (choosing not to belong to THAT community) they will turn elsewhere.
        Film snobs are intimidating.
        Finally, other bloggers use this platform almost like Facebook (which I despise) and their daily posts are a waste of time.

        I prefer the middle where the community shares interesting opinions or supports your posts even if you don’t agree or find faults. I supposed because I’m a teacher, I am trained to be tolerant.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Cindy, I always hope for the best, and am looking forward to combing the Stanwyck articles in search of some new ideas. For me, blogs are whatever i find in them. I like the community focus of your blog, although the emphasis on agreeability reduces the occasion of critical debate. I find that oppositional views not only sharpen one’s own arguments, but open up new ways of seeing, Critical discussion has been a staple of my friendships. This policy of agreement is pretty foreign to me. I am not interested in building a mammoth community around my posts, and consider myself lucky to have found some dozen or so people, which includes you and Pete as well as several who comment and discuss with me via facebook, with whom views on films can be openly and honestly shared. One thing my editor at the Seattle PI always said was that he didnt care what my opinion was as long as i got the facts straight. And the one thing I cant tolerate is the perpetuation of misinformation, and the internet is steaming with it.. And it is the people who dont know what they are talking about who are most offended at being corrected, and accuse those who correct them of being arrogant snobs.


  4. Bill, you remind me of a few favorite professors who were difficult and complicated and downright brilliant. I never cared for getting the highest GPA possible, I searched for the smartest professor who taught the class. With my blog, I have almost 800 followers; 30 consistently like and comment. I know all I have to do is stick a pair tits on the opening image and tomorrow I’d have a 1000 followers. I don’t take any stock to the number of followers other than I get a chance to check out other sites to see if we “click”. My goal is to encourage and invite above-average reviewers as well as those who aren’t movie buffs but have different interests I share (photography, history, writing) to share their thoughts.

    My colleague friends call me Switzerland because I avoid confrontation. I wonder why at times? Is it the scars from a painful childhood or am I simply a coward and willfully blind? I prefer to save my outrages for something meaningful. Trouble is, the older I get, nothing much matters enough to get outraged. My opinion is meaningless. Life is meaningless. Wow. When did I become an existential nihilist?

    Your last sentence made me laugh. You should have taken up fencing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. i admire your non-judgmental stance , and enjoy reading the varied comments on your blog. for my part, i have always been combative, from my 1980’s crusade against those academics who would destroy the western canon to the blustering idiots such as harry knowles who has hastened the devolution of film criticism. you say everything is meaningless. well, i dont think people like donald trump and hillary clinton would be serious presidential candidates were it not for the collapse of american popular culture that began in 1977 with “star wars”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a bold stance! I grew up with the canon (it’s funny, the British led the way , yet, I sense you aren’t an Anglophile) and hold it dear to my heart. I also understand the new wave where silent voices had a chance to tell their stories. Deconstruction (one of my favorite novels is Coetzee “Waiting for the Barbarians”) was a popular literary theory and historic camp where revisionists gave voice to the oppressed. Then came the internet. I truly feel like I’m a woman who has been sitting on the fence from the past and the present. Today it’s a homogeneous gray, politically correct world. I feel like a chameleon able to see both sides. I admire your passion and your stalwart opinions. Even if I disagree with you. I never mind listening to you. I don’t think Star Wars is the demise of pop culture, for instance.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t presume to understand what you have against “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Pop culture is a generational expression. I many not care for the pop culture of the 80s, for example, it’s a crass and tacky decade. There’s films and books I like from it in a slew of garbage. Can’t I just focus on what’s good and forget the crap? I think that could be said for every decade.


  5. Cindy, with both Butch Cassidy and Star Wars i am referring to a critical acceptance of work that was admittedly sub-standard. With the former, critics admitted it was pretty thin stuff but they had a good time with it…. and with Star Wars, they said it was bad but was supposed to be bad. When movies began to be referred to as rides, or things to have a good time with……they began to lose the possibility of evolving into an art form.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Bill. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I thought that I had replied but I’ve been so busy since and was away at the time. Once again my apologies and thanks for contributing a great post.

    I’m also hosting another blogathon, and would like to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.



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