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
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.