After the Second World War, John Ford's relationship with 20th Century Fox was at its low ebb; the director had never been more than tersely professional with studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, and the latter man's interference with Ford's 1946 My Darling Clementine led to an insoluble break between the two. Ford would only shoot two more films at Fox, both of them light comedies and both of them largely forgotten.

Truth be told, the earlier of these, 1950's When Willie Comes Marching Home, probably doesn't deserve the remembering (I have not seen Ford's last Fox film, What Price Glory, but what little reputation it has is bleak). Though not without its charms, and certainly an intriguing cultural document, it feels tossed-off, and my suspicion is that the director was attracted by the project's theme before discovering that he just didn't care for it all that much.

When Willie Comes Marching Home opens in its most Fordian (and truth be told, most Capraesque) moment: a montage of life in Punxsutawney, West Virginia, a town that we're told is not a big town, and not a small town. It's just a town. It's 1941, and we're introduced to Punxsutawney through the eyes of Bill Kluggs (Dan Dailey), a local all-around good guy, with a swell girl and a halfway decent band for which he plays trombone. For a few minutes, nothing happens as we follow Bill through his life, which seems pretty unremarkably American - which turns out to be exactly the point, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The sequence isn't perfect; for one thing, it's much too derivative of many better films (I was especially reminded of the slower moments in It's a Wonderful Life). The dialogue is corny, perhaps deliberately so, and Dailey delivers it without much energy, certainly not deliberately. But the details are all well-observed, and it's impossible to miss the affection the director has for his mise en scène.

The film proper begins on December 8, 1941, when Bill is the first in line to sign up to fight. Four weeks of basic training later, he is dropped right back in Puxsutawney at the newly built army base, where he proves such an able gunning instructor that he remains there for years, teaching and incurring the disdain of his townfolk who view him as a slacker or coward. Eventually he manages by luck to wind up on a bomber headed for France; four days later, he's back in Punxsutawney with a top-secret story that he can't tell, and a whole mess of friends and family who don't believe him when he tries.

Broadly speaking, this is a comedy; by which I mean that it is all presented as light-hearted and jolly, appealing to the audience's patriotism through the warm haze of a five-year-old victory. It's closest analogue is probably the less-screwy work of Preston Sturges: mining laughter out of the hypocrisies of Everytown, USA, indicting the locals' behavior without indicting their character (most of the first half of the film is based on Bill's frustration at how everyone who thought he was a hero eventually thinks he's a waste and a jerk, all through no fault of his own whatsoever). The presence of William Demarest, among the loyalest members of the Sturges stock company, as Bill's snotty father who can't imagine why his son isn't in combat (oho! but he had to be drafted to fight in the first war!), does nothing to discourage this comparison.

So, it's John Ford's Preston Sturges comedy, except not. Because John Ford turns out to be sort of bad at comedy. That's not true, of course - he's great at comedy, when it's used as a flavoring, and I'd argue that one of his most characteristic tricks is to alternate drama with broad low humor (I think particularly of The Searchers). And it would only be two years after this that he would prove his hand at a mostly straight-up romantic comedy, and win an Oscar for doing it, in The Quiet Man.

But Ford, beyond doubt, is not good at the comedy in When Willie Comes Marching Home, which manages sometimes to achieve a gentle wryness but never hits "funny." More often, it's just pretty much there, without any real humor or wit or even sourness. Ford's heart was plainly not present - it's the only film I've ever seen of his that doesn't have any signature shots. Perhaps once or twice during the basic training sequence early on.

It doesn't help that Dan Dailey is one of the worst leading men in the director's long and winding career. 36 at the time of shooting and looking every inch of it, he was a terrible choice to play a young man in his early twenties, but that's only half of it. The other half is that he's just not a very good actor, registering barely even one emotion, and that being boredom. It is axiomatic that when an actor looks constantly bored, the audience will eventually find themselves sympathising.

In 1950, I suppose (without evidence), that Ford was looking for a way to communicate his experience in the military to an audience that was far enough from the war that it was no longer a live memory. Most of the film is a gentle poke at all the outwardly patriotic Americans who didn't really have a clue what "war" is, and coming out as it did long after combat, it isn't a Best Years of Our Lives-style attack on civilian ignorance, but more of a joshing "yeah, you guys really pissed us off, heh heh." It's a film that literally could have only been made in a window of about six months: when WWII was safely consigned to the last decade, but before US intevention in Korea ripped the scabs off.

It's interesting history, but as a drama, the director just wasn't there. It's almost certainly the most impersonal Ford film I've ever seen, perhaps because he was telling another man's story (it was a fictionalised version of scenarist Sy Gomberg's actual war tour), perhaps because he just really didn't like Zanuck, perhaps because he was too close to the actual event. At any rate, it's a painfully disposable entry in the middle of an inordinately strong run of films, looking for all the world like any third-rate hack could have made it and eking out only the mildest of grins in all its hijinks. Great blobs of nothing are always worse when an artist is responsible.