The Cavalry Trilogy: John Ford, John Wayne, and the Making of Three Classic Westerns Review

the calgary trilogy

By Michael F. Blake. Lanham, MD: TwoDot Books, 2024
ISBN 978-1-49307-706-9
Photographs. Bibliography. Index. Pp. v, 269. $27.95

Growing up in the 1950 and 1960s, this reviewer enjoyed reserving Sunday afternoon for the movies that were offered. Many were Westerns, and many of them were John Ford movies, including reruns of these three wonderful examples. All three embraced history (not strictly applied—movie standards), geography (Monument Valley and other locations), and what Edward M. Coffman called the “Old Army.”

Michael F. Blake, the author of The Cavalry Trilogy, is incredibly well-versed in the movie industry. His father was a longtime character actor, and Blake himself spent forty years as a renowned makeup artist in film and television. He is an honored author who knows his subject and brings his years of experience as well as his industry connections to produce a wonderfully readable story of the film industry, John Ford, his “stock company,” and the cavalry trilogy of classic films. Blake is a highly talented narrator of the subject, using a conversational but fully engaging tone.

Blake begins with a background of the films, then addresses Ford specifically. The even-handed short biography serves to showcase Ford’s work and his life, warts and all. He references his family, career-related information, and interaction with studio professionals. This includes the many intertwined contracts with studios and production companies. For readers with little to no exposure to the creative process of film nor the financial side of production, Blake provides a valuable education on the way movies were made back in era of the “studio system,” as well as the enormous costs involved.

Blake proceeds to examine each film, from early development, to casting, to the filming itself, to the costs associated with each film. He discusses the details of business dealings, from contracts to the minute costs of production that gives readers the intimate knowledge of how the studio system worked. Blake also describes in great detail the costs in making movies, from contract payments, rentals of costumes and horses (in various values as to their abilities), through actors, rentals of land, use of Navajo land, and other background players. Also given, where applicable, are the current values of the profits and costs shown.

Readers are also treated to the results of interviews with many members of the John Ford film company, from John Wayne and Harry Carey, Jr., to other actors (some from the Abbey Theater company), stuntmen, and crew members.  Anecdotes fill out and enrich the story of each movie, including living conditions, weather, accidentally classic film shots (the lightning shot in Rio Grande was not planned), pranks, and other memorable events. Ford even treated the residents of Moab, Utah, to a public and well-developed stage show, for the benefit of the town with world-class actors and actresses.  Ford also used his cast to stage a benefit for the Military Order of the Purple Heart during the filming of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Michael F. Blake’s The Cavalry Trilogy is a very detailed and readable study of John Ford films, and surely a book most film aficionados, as well as a casual viewer of Western cinema, would gladly own. 

Master Sergeant Jack M Crossman, USA-Ret.
Huachuca City, Arizona