From the start of his career as a filmmaker King Vidor had remarkable ambitions and ideas about why he wanted to make films and what potential he saw in the art form. The clearest proof is the manifesto he published in 1920, of which the first two points (out of nine) are the most profound:
1. I believe in the motion picture that carries a message to humanity.
2. I believe in the picture that will help humanity to free itself from the shackles of fear and suffering that have so long bound it with iron chains.
That could easily be interpreted as the posturing of a naïve and idealistic young man, and after a few failures Vidor put his manifesto away and tried to make films that generated some income instead. But at the same time it could also be said that he remained true to those beliefs all through his career and as often as he had the chance he made films about the human condition, about human’s moral and physical battles, and the battle between us and nature. Vidor was not a modest filmmaker, and not cynical or fatalistic, and it is best to approach his work with that in mind. In some ways he might be considered, not the greatest filmmaker, but the greatest romantic among filmmakers. Several times he had to compromise, to adjust himself to the wishes of the studios and producers, but it is easy to imagine that he sympathised with his many lead characters that started out with high ideals and sometimes were able to stick to them but often had to struggle with their peers and their environment. Did Vidor look at the uncompromising architect Howard Roarke (played by Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949)) and think «If only I was more like him?» Or is Roarke a cautionary tale, a man who is too devoted to his ideas, too uncompromising as be almost inhuman?
Vidor was born in Galveston, Texas, 1894 and when he was old enough to start to work he worked at a Nickelodeon, and began making his own short films. Some were of a cyclone, and they became popular all over Texas. Then in 1915 he went to California. He did many different things, menial jobs in the film industry, until he directed his first feature film in 1919. It was independently produced and called The Turn in the Road. It advocated views associated with Christian Science (not to be confused with Scientology), a then relatively new religious movement that came about towards the end of the 19th century and to which Vidor claimed allegiance. The film was a success and Vidor started his own film company, Vidor Village, but as he was not very successful he signed with MGM rather than continue being independent. From then on he would alternate between working for a film studio and making independently produced films. Many of his most personal and peculiar films were made at studios though, Warner and MGM among them. He was also a champion of the rights of the director, and co-founder and first president of the Screen Directors Guild (which is called Directors Guild of America today). But he was mainly his own man. Once, when asked who his biggest inspiration was, he said that it was King Vidor.
A common strategy for looking at the world, for making sense of it, is to divide everything into two opposing sides. Left-wing or right-wing? Right or wrong? Good or bad? Doing so however is usually to simplify things and while making the world easier to navigate it almost always leads to misunderstandings, misapprehensions and confusions. The world is not neat, it is complex, and while the wish to use dualisms is understandable it is all the same often wrong. This also applies within film studies, and King Vidor is an example of this. Many critics and commentators have asked whether he was a radical or a conservative or «optimist or pessimist»or argued that he was first a realist filmmaker with a social pathos who turned into a maker of expressionistic, flamboyant films about powerful emotions. Andrew Sarris makes the distinction between a «humanistic museum period – The Big Parade, The Crowd, Hallelujah» and a «delirious modern period – Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead, Ruby Gentry.»
But rather than discussing Vidor by use of these dichotomies (another one is between «resident intellectual» and «neo-primitive prophet») it is more appropriate to notice for example that the early Hallelujah (1929) and the late Ruby Gentry (1952) are rather similar. They share the blend of expressionism, naturalistic settings, melodramatic emotions and religion and they both end with killings in a swamp. Vidor was neither a riddle nor was he contradictory; he of course changed over time, as most do, but there is at heart a consistency in his work and outlook. It is that the individual must make her own world and that to create, be it art or a settlement, is the most important and fulfilling thing a human can do. To live is to create. Those who are not able to create will perish, because the world is cruel and the universe indifferent. Nature is something that you have to struggle with, and must tame, in order to be successful. One of his signature films, the independently produced Our Daily Bread (1934), is a good example. In the midst of depression a number of families with neither jobs nor money begin working on a farm together, even though they do not know one another at first, being total strangers, and become a collective enterprise by living of the land. They rely on nothing but their own skills and cooperation, and are prospering as a result. An American Romance (1944) is entirely focussed on one immigrant’s path to success, constantly working hard to improve his situation. As one intertitle in Wild Oranges (1924) says, «It’s unjust to be condemned to die in a swamp, with all one’s instinct in the sky.» but by working hard and looking towards the future it is possible to escape the swamp.
It must not necessarily be for oneself though; Stella Dallas (1937) is about a mother who is building a life for her daughter, one of many examples of self-sacrifice in Vidor’s films. The most extreme example is to be found in Bird of Paradise (1932) where two young lovers, a white man and a woman from an island in the South Sea who do not speak each other’s languages, escape from their constraining worlds and build their own home and gather their own food on a deserted island until they are captured by the cultures they were trying to get away from, and the woman, in order to save her lover and her village throw herself into a volcano. Here Vidor’s romanticism is perhaps getting the better of him, but as it combines the urge of the characters to build their own world and the hostility of tradition and society it is also a good illustration of his beliefs. Bird of Paradise is very close to Ruby Gentry and Duel in the Sun (1946).
One way to highlight the particulars of Vidor’s thinking is to compare him to some of his contemporaries. In the films of Raoul Walsh, nobody is particularly interested in building or creating anything, his heroes are always on the move, going someplace else. (Although Mamie Stover in Walsh’s The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) might be seen as the kind of character Vidor idealises.) In the films of Henry King what matters is community and religion, his characters are usually not trying to create anything, they want to find spiritual peace. Unlike the films of John Ford, Vidor’s films are about the future, not the past, but like the characters in Howard Hawks’s films Vidor’s characters prefer to create their own worlds. A difference is that Hawks’s characters often try to create their worlds away from the rest of civilisation (Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Hatari! (1962) being the most obvious examples) whereas Vidor’s characters are trying to make it in this world, to live side by side with their compatriots. In addition, Hawks’s focus is more on groups of friends than Vidor’s stronger emphasis on the individual. Visually they are also very different from one another.
What is striking about Vidor’s style is how it combines naturalism with expressionism. With the exception of The Fountainhead, which is all décor and design and has a graphic look that sometimes makes it feel like a painting by Kazimir Malevich, Vidor’s films have a real feeling for the earth and for the elements (even Duel in the Sun), combined with striking compositions and elaborate staging and lighting patters. His films often deals with violent emotions and abstractions and the visual patterns work in tandem with these feelings and themes. Here there is no difference between the earlier and the later films, and the shots of humans dwarfed or beaten by their surroundings, be it mountains, trees or skyscrapers, are key images in his oeuvre. There is a roughness to his images and his films, they are not meant to be comforting or soothing, they are meant to challenge. Durgnat and Simmon have likened Vidor to Luchino Visconti and it is easy to agree with them.
In Our Daily Bread the farmers have a meeting to decide what kind of «government» they shall have. They settle for a «big boss», who is duly elected. But the way the cooperative works is not by a hierarchy or by force. Instead each and every one does what he or she does best, and most things happen informally. The film has been hailed by some for being very left-wing, and criticised by others for the same reason. It has also been dismissed as fascist. But the film is more complex than that and what is left or right, particularly in a different context than our own, is not always obvious and neat. In a way the film might be said to embody Adam Smith’s idea of «the invisible hand», and everybody on the farm is equal to everyone else. In that respect it is idealistic and, as so often with Vidor, romantic.
It is perhaps best not to approach Vidor from the usual binaries but as his own man, in many ways a unique filmmaker with his own agenda. Vidor said of The Fountainhead that «the integrity, the divinity almost, of the artist is [a] theme I’ve always been interested in; that the whole universe springs from the individual – what he’s conscious of, that’s reality; what he is not conscious of doesn’t exist.» A creed worthy of a filmmaker-philosopher.
John Baxter, King Vidor, Monarch Press, New York 1976, pp. 9-10.
King Vidor, On Film Making, David McKay Company, Inc, New York 1972, p. 197.
 David Thomson, A Bibliographical Dictionary of Film, André Deutsch, London 1995, p.775.
 Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema – Directors and Directions 1929-1968, E.P. Dutton and Co, New York 1968, p. 117.
 Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American, University of California Press, Berkeley / Los Angeles / London 1988, pp. 9-10.
 Durgnat and Simmon, p. 102.
 Richard Schickel (edited by), The Men Who Made the Movies, Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago 2001, p. 158.