“I prefer working where I can control things, and you can’t outdoors.”
The surprising, almost stunning, part about that quote is that it came from Lucien Ballard, one of the finest cameramen in movie history whose outdoor cinematography is legendary. Despite his preference for studio work, Ballard has captured famous images of the American Western, while working with the form’s preeminent stars and directors.
Great cameramen develop their own style: Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography for Orson Welles and John Ford became a signature, as did Joseph Biroc’s starkly shadowed work with Sam Fuller, or Bruce Surtees’s naturalism for Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel.
Ballard was no exception, but he could adjust his eye so that the style of his camera work seamlessly took on the nature of the story. What could be more visually different, or more famously climatic, in the Western genre than the “Battle of Bloody Porch” in The Wild Bunch or Rooster Cogburn riding down on Ned Pepper’s gang in True Grit?
The greens and colors of autumn that compose the beautiful pallet of True Grit are in direct contrast to the dusty, arid yellows and browns of The Wild Bunch. Henry Hathaway’s steady, painterly directing is the polar opposite of Sam Peckinpah’s constantly searching camera and use of slow motion. Shooting two great Westerns back-to-back would be achievement enough, but two films with such enormous looks and sensibilities make Ballard’s work almost miraculous.
The only time I met Ballard was through director Budd Boetticher, who had drafted USC students to work on his 1982 documentary about training stallions for bullfighting. I was one of the lucky few chosen to participate, and we shot footage at a corral near Boetticher’s home in Ramona, California. Ballard served as visual consultant.
Ballard cut quite a figure; in his 70s, looking strikingly like Stewart Granger, he leaned on a cane. I learned that he had always brandished a walking stick, sometimes using it to prod his crew.
He and Boetticher were enjoying a nostalgic laugh when I got my few moments with him. But rather than ask about a Western, I stammered out my admiration for his work on Richard Wilson’s Al Capone. He liked the film; he was justly proud of his black-and-white crime dramas, which included Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Boetticher’s own The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.
In an interview around this time, Boetticher recalled the “problem” of having Ballard capture the period gangster film: “So at the first day of rushes, here came my producer, and he said, ‘Budd, I thought you said that Lucien Ballard was a good cameraman!’ And I said, ‘Quote me correctly: He’s a great cameraman!’ He said, ‘Well my god, this stuff looks like its been shot in 1920.’ So how you gonna win?”
Legend has it that a three-day party at Clara Bow’s house in 1929 convinced then-camera assistant Ballard to make movies his life. Director Josef von Sternberg, and his star Marlene Dietrich, later promoted him to director of photography.
Ballard shot miles of film at Paramount before moving to Columbia to shoot movies and shorts, including those featuring the Three Stooges. Columbia led to 20th Century-Fox, where Delmer Daves took him out West for Return of the Texan, in 1952. Ballard’s black-and-white images were stark and lean, but his next Western would be in CinemaScope and color. White Feather was a decent throwaway picture for Fox and came at the end of Ballard’s contract. After more than 50 films, some starring his then-wife, the beautiful Merle Oberon, he wanted to freelance.
With this decision came a series of Westerns, crime dramas and comedies that displayed incredible artistry in their photography. Whether the budget was big or small, Ballard brought all of his talents to bear on a project, always making his camera work for the story, its time and place, period or contemporary.
That Ballard is receiving recognition again comes from the Hollywood habit of remakes. The Coen Brothers’ True Grit, which earned an Oscar nomination for its photography by Roger Deakins, and the announcement of The Wild Bunch remake, starring Will Smith, have placed Ballard’s films in the spotlight, giving the director the encore he so richly deserves.
C. Courtney Joyner is a screenwriter and director with more than 25 produced movies to his credit. He is the author of The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors and Writers.