Ford and His Films

” Texas 1868″ appears on the screen immediately following the opening credits of The Searchers (1956), frame for frame the best of Westerns. Yet when celebrants at an aborted wedding later sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” they are pining for a foreign flower; the landscape through which John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards travels in stubborn pursuit of Comanches who have abducted his young niece Debbie is nowhere near the Lone Star State. The movie begins and ends in Monument Valley, the stark terrain between Arizona and Utah that became the signature site of a John Ford movie. Though he attained the rank of Admiral, even the formidable Ford could not divert a river, but when he shot Rio Grande (1950) also in Monument Valley, he diverted attention from how far from Texas the setting really is. From Stagecoach (1939) to Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Ford returned again and again to Monument Valley, calling it “my favorite location. It has rivers, mountains, plains, desert, everything the land can offer. I feel at peace there. I have been all over the world, but I consider this the most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on earth.” It may be that, but it is not Texas.

John Ford was born near Portland, Maine, in 1894, and from 1914, when he moved out to Hollywood, until his death in 1973, he called California home. But as much as Davy Crockett, Lyndon Johnson, or Lee Harvey Oswald, Ford shaped the image that much of the world, including and especially Texans, have of this state — a vast, elemental stage on which rugged, solitary white men enact their losing battles. He has much to answer for.

Few question Ford’s position in the pantheon of American filmmakers. Though How Green Was My Valley did not deserve to beat out Citizen Kane for the 1941 Oscar, it is difficult to say that Ford did not earn the six Academy Awards he received (more than any other director has won). With The Iron Horse (1928), The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Battle of Midway (1942), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and dozens of others, he created an enduring body of work — set in Texas but also Ireland, France, Kentucky, Georgia, California, Illinois, Wales, and the Pacific — that surely would have gained a Nobel Prize for Cinema, if such an award existed. In 1973, when the American Film Institute chose Ford as first recipient of its Life Achievement Award, the decision was unanimous and unsurprising. Though The Searchers was not even mentioned in his New York Times obituary, it now appears on almost every list of Top Twenty films, and along with The Grapes of Wrath, it was chosen by the Library of Congress in 1989 to be among the first twenty-five entries in the National Film Registry, paragons of American cinematic art that ought to be preserved and preferred.

Nevertheless, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson’s bravura reference guide that is as idiosyncratic and incisive as Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, refuses to laud Ford. Faulting his Westerns for being “pictorial, tediously rowdy, and based on cavalier treatment of American history,” Thomson complains: “The Ford philosophy is a rambling apologia for unthinking violence later disguised by the sham legends of old men fuddled by drink and glory.” Yet he concedes that The Searchers “is still a riveting, tragic, and complex experience” and concludes the entry on Ford by stating: “On the strength of that one film I would love to read a thorough life of Ford….”

Print the Legend is not the first life of Ford. The director’s grandson, Dan, published a reminiscence, Pappy: The Life of John Ford, in 1979, and works by Tag Gallagher (1986) and Ronald L. Davis (1995) have followed. But for his new, detailed life study, Scott Eyman, biographer of Ernst Lubitsch and Mary Pickford, had access to the Ford papers and to many who knew the man. His Ford was a mythomaniac, compulsively mendacious about his favorite subject: himself. Ford lied about his birthdate (it was 1894 not 1895), birthplace (Maine not Ireland), original name (John Martin Feeney not Sean Aloysius O’Fearna), and much else. Though he liked to claim otherwise, he did not ride with Pancho Villa, fight in World War I, or study at Brandeis — or any other — University. Nor is it likely that, chided by a producer for being five pages behind schedule, Ford ripped five pages from the script and snapped: “Now we’re back on schedule.”

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) founds a political career on the baseless boast that it was he, not Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who killed a notorious gunman. But when, forty years after the fact, a newspaper reporter discovers the truth, his editor refuses to publish it. “This is the West, sir,” he explains. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In Print the Legend, Eyman sets about separating legend from fact in the life of a man whose business was transmuting fact into legend. The Ford whom he reveals was a manipulative, sadistic, boozy genius, understood best through his desire to dominate.

“John Ford’s primary emotional need was control — of his work, of his actors, of his cronies,” notes Eyman, though the same could probably be said of most directors; it is why they direct. At the core of “Pappy” Ford’s set was a dysfunctional family, the men behind and before the cameras — including Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., Victor McLaglen, Robert Parrish, and John Wayne — he worked with and bullied on project after project. The way in which Ford subjected them to verbal and physical abuse suggests a fraternity’s initiation rituals, except that initiation never ended. Decades after hiring Marion Morrison out of U.S.C. to help with props on a 1928 silent called Four Sons, and after transforming him into the star John Wayne in Stagecoach in 1939, Ford was still insulting him publicly at work. By almost all accounts, the director was a terror, a surly martinet who chomped on a dirty handkerchief and delighted in reducing ingenues to tears. He disowned his own son, Pat, and neglected his wife, Mary, sometimes for other women (Eyman suggests flings with Katharine Hepburn and Maureen O’Hara). When a member of his production team dared talk back to the vindictive Ford, the result was either banishment, or else (as in the case of John Carradine) the director’s respect, as if the man had passed a cruel and crucial test. Ford himself was occasionally incapacitated for weeks at a time by alcoholic binges.

For those who returned to him picture after picture, decade after decade, Ford demanded and commanded absolute loyalty. Henry Fonda, who, according to Eyman, thought of Ford as a “son of a bitch who happens to be a genius,” put up with him on seven pictures. But others relished the ordeal as an opportunity to prove their manly mettle, as well as to work with a master of the medium, one particularly gifted with visual imagination.

Eyman argues that Ford affected macho crudeness in order to camouflage acute sensitivity. Like his films, which rarely offered women memorable parts, his sets were versions of the Field Photo Farm, a clubhouse for veterans that he built in the San Fernando Valley. It would not do to acknowledge the real influence of the exquisite F. W. Murnau on his own visual style. It was only in his movies and in his cups that Pappy allowed himself to be sappy. “One thing I want to get straight with you, Ken,” said Ford, introducing himself to Ken Adam, the art director who came to work on Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958), “is that I’m not one of those airy-fairy, artsy-craftsy directors that you might have worked with before. I don’t shoot up an actor’s nostrils and I don’t put the camera between his legs. I tell a story and I shoot it the way I think that story should be told.”

Straight Shooting was the title of the first feature that Ford directed, in 1917, and, despite the intricacies of his attitudes and behavior, it is a title he would gladly apply to himself. The Iron Horse (1924) established him as a formidable force in silent film, and decades later, insisting that: “Pictures, not words, should tell the story,” he was still referring to himself as “a silent picture man.” But, beginning in 1928 with Napoleon’s Barber, Ford reinvented himself in talkies. After Pearl Harbor, Ford headed the Navy’s Field Photo Unit and was assigned to work directly under Wild Bill Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services. Particularly with The Battle of Midway (1942), Ford was intrepid in documenting combat. Admiral Ford’s exhilaration over the military life was later demonstrated in his cavalry Westerns and in Vietnam! Vietnam!, the apologia for American intervention that, aging and ailing, he produced for the U.S. Information Agency in 1972. By the time he directed his final feature, 7 Women, in 1966, in the twilight of the American studio system, Ford had worked with most of the major studios, as well as through his independent company, Argosy. His final public words, in gratitude for the president’s appearance at the ceremony for his A.F.I. Life Achievement Award, were: “God bless Richard Nixon.”

Yet Ford was never quite the troglodyte, the Patton of Bel Air, that he came to seem to many. Sergeant Rutledge (1960), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and 7 Women were belated attempts to repair his image as a sexist scourge of Indians and blacks. The son of Galway immigrants who usually sided with the underdog, he was pro-Loyalist during the Spanish Civil War and a staunch supporter of FDR’s New Deal. In 1937, he described himself as “a definite socialistic democrat — always left,” and he dramatized his sympathy for the dispossessed by adapting Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. During Hollywood’s purge of leftists, Ford found work for victims of the blacklist, and he stood up, publicly and successfully, against Cecil B. DeMille’s attempt to exact loyalty oaths from members of the Screen Directors Guild. Ultimately, though he voted Democratic and took particular Irish pride in the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, Ford belonged only to the party of the past. And Ford’s conflicted past challenges the left and defies the right.

The sentimentalist of The Last Hurrah, the elegist for the vanishing frontier, Ford was partial to the preterite — e.g., How Green Was My Valley, They Were Expendable, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Dismissing Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man with “thankfully forgotten self-important Westerns,” Eyman contends that: “…the last thing anybody needs from a movie is a cynical history lesson.” Yet that is exactly what Ford does at his best, in showing us how legends, like sausages, are made. When not shrouding it in an alcoholic haze, he gazes back at yesterday with anguish but not nostalgia. “That’ll be the day,” repeats Ethan Edwards. But it never is.

Steven Kellman writes on film for the San Antonio Current.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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