A much-lauded career is given a fresh look
By Robin Dougherty
Here are three things you might want to know about director John Ford: He once pissed in the bed of an actor he had caught drinking on his set; he was rarely seen working without a dirty, chewed-up handkerchief in one corner of his mouth; he won six Academy Awards, more than any other filmmaker before or since. (They were for The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Battle of Midway, December 7th, and The Quiet Man.)
Ford’s career — which started with silent two-reelers in the 1910s and ended with his becoming the first recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award — parallels the growth of the motion picture industry itself. He came to Hollywood as a young man and left as a washed-up legend, pausing along the way to discover an actor named John Wayne. Although he made some of the most important films of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and one great one in the ’60s (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence), few filmgoers today, or even young film critics, know Ford’s work anymore.
Since the 1960s, many who do know Ford have tended to dismiss the director as either a sentimentalist (he filled a story about labor unrest with happy, singing coal miners), a racist (his famous Westerns helped create the myth of John Wayne as Indian slayer), or a champion of ancient causes (the problems of the Dust Bowl farmers — like ancient history today). Ford’s legacy has survived primarily as fragments that have trickled down into both pop culture and academia: Film studies students learn that Stagecoach is one of the prototypes of Platoon, and that Orson Welles studied Ford’s camera work before embarking on Citizen Kane. But how many boomers recognize the image of the Beverly Hillbillies setting off to California in a broken-down truck as an echo of the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath? And this is just one small part of his legacy.
Enter Scott Eyman. His revisionist biography, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, makes the case that it was John Ford, more than any director since D.W. Griffith, who “instinctively understood the potential of film.” Eyman, book editor of the Palm Beach Post and author of five earlier works on Hollywood history, has set himself a formidable task. Trying to convince modern audiences to embrace Ford is akin to defending Tennyson for the benefit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz age fans. Is there anyone who wants to look beyond the clichés of Ford’s iconic Monument Valley settings and rediscover the director of The Informer (1935), a film that’s gorgeous and haunting yet virtually lost from our collective memory? Does anyone other than History Channel addicts still watch The Battle of Midway? Can The Quiet Man, a film about a pacifist who breaks his vow not to fight in order to defend his wife’s honor, resonate with contemporary audiences?
Eyman thinks so, and the strongest argument in his favor is that he’s such a fluid and graceful writer himself. Just as his 1993 biography of Ernst Lubitsch was nearly as much fun to read as Lubitsch’s films are to watch, this new book encourages the reader to run to the video store to hunt for the copy of The Searchers that might be hiding behind the many Unforgivens and Little Big Mans on the shelf. A consummate journalist, Eyman incorporates an impressive amount of research, including interviews with actors Ford worked with (John Wayne, Jack Lemmon, Henry Fonda, Roddy McDowall, John Carradine), producers and directors (Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Peter Bogdanovich), and family members (Ford’s grandson Dan), and others, with a flair that belies the footwork that went into it. (The book’s title refers to the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in which a newspaper editor, faced with the facts of a local story, quips: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”)
Eyman’s critical voice is less compelling than his biographical skills, however, and he happily offers the floor to numerous critics and film historians (from William K. Everson and François Truffaut to Terrence Rafferty and Stanley Crouch) to comment on Ford’s individual films and his legacy as a whole. While he’s a skilled close reader of films, Eyman seems more at home dissecting Ford’s poetry than his politics. His attempts to defend the depiction of American Indians in Ford’s films are not convincing, in part because he barely touches on the issue. In the end, he seems less interested in presenting strong arguments than in opening new doors to the director’s work. Still, as much as I had hoped he would expand on an idea that he inserts into his prologue — that Ford and Frank Capra represent opposing views of America’s sense of itself — I was happy to read along to Eyman’s affable rhythms. “John Ford was fifty-one years old when World War II ended. He was six feet tall, weighed 175 pounds, was missing ten teeth, had eyesight rated a medium-lousy 6/20, had two children and two grandchildren,” he writes in one pithy summation of the director’s life.
The choicest biographical tidbit Eyman unearths is evidence of an affair between Ford and Katherine Hepburn. The celebrated actress met the director in the late 1930s when she worked with him on Mary of Scotland (1936). Soon they were spending time together on Ford’s beloved yacht, the Araner (named for the Araner Islands, Ford’s ancestral home). The two maintained an intense friendship for several years, corresponding when apart. Eyman quotes an equal number of sources who swear that the relationship was platonic, and he suggests that Ford may have been an early version of Spencer Tracy, the other introverted alcoholic the actress famously fell for. “Certainly, it’s true that Hepburn helped unlock Ford’s ambition, freed it up,’ says Eyman. “Before Hepburn, he was a high-line workaday director, given to expressing himself only infrequently. After Hepburn, he would rarely do anything else.”
Born in 1894 to two Irish immigrants living in Portland, Maine, Ford started life as Jack Feeney. Raised in a family with six other children in a so-called Irish battleship, a kind of three-deck house that dots Northeastern cities, Ford followed his brother Francis to Hollywood in 1914. Francis, who had by that time changed his name to Francis Ford and was working for Universal Studios, employed Jack as “a prop man, assistant director, stuntman, and bit actor.” (Ford also played one of the hooded Klansmen in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.) The young director made his first short film, The Tornado, in 1917, then put together his first feature, Straight Shooting, the same year, using film stock he had tricked the studio’s supply department into giving him. The film starred Harry Carey, a popular Universal actor who would go on to become a backbone of many Ford films. Though the budding director got his start on his brother’s coattails, their fortunes reversed as talkies came in, and Francis became dependent on his younger brother for work for the rest of his life.
Eyman paints Ford as an eccentric and somewhat tragic product of his Irish-Catholic heritage — a melancholic drunk with a soft spot for the Old Country (four of his works have overt Irish themes) and for ghosts (the dead speak to the living in many Ford films). Like most great men, he’s a bundle of contradictions. While his films overflow with emotionality, Ford’s marriage was not particularly passionate, and his relationships with his son and daughter were downright disastrous. His films bespeak a bold social conscience, but their creator publicly shied away from political affiliations. And though he demanded professionalism from others, his physical appearance, marked by the handkerchief hanging from the corner of his mouth, was often repulsive.
As Eyman documents, Ford’s mean streak was nearly as legendary as the characters he put on film. The book recounts a spellbinding conversation in which Ford baits Robert Wagner, who desperately wanted to star in The Searchers:
” ‘You’d like to play the part, wouldn’t you?’ ” asked Ford, after some preliminaries.
” ‘Yes, Mr. Ford.’
” ‘Well, you’re not going to.’
“A stunned Wagner got up and headed for the door.
” ‘Boob?’ [Ford’s nickname for Wagner]
” ‘You really want to play the part?’
” ‘Very much, Mr. Ford.’
” ‘Well, you’re still not going to.’ ”
The role went to John Wayne. The fact that actors would grovel for Ford is an indication of the esteem in which he was held during his lifetime. Of contemporary directors, only Steven Spielberg comes close to this star power. That Ford’s reputation is fading into obscurity is a measure of how audiences’ tastes change over decades as politics and public cynicism dictate what seems authentic on-screen. Ford fell out of favor in the 1960s as John Wayne became an icon of the status quo, and the Western genre came to symbolize the law-and-order tradition and mindless acceptance of authority that the counterculture movement wanted to undermine. At the same time, Ford’s dramatic style began to seem dated. As a humanist, Ford always worked in broad strokes. To anyone watching today, the power of The Grapes of Wrath is undercut by Ma Joad’s syrupy “we are the people” speech that ends the film. Likewise, it’s difficult to look past the colonialist trappings of The Searchers and see it not just as a Western but also as a story of a lost soul.
Eyman contends that Ford was that rare studio director who was able to put his personal signature on his work, and that he did so by pretending to be a journeyman. “To come out an artist was invariably fatal, as [Josef von] Sternberg and [Orson] Welles, among others would find out,” Eyman writes. Indeed, a John Ford film has a distinctive look and feel, one that has nothing to do with the unique topography of Monument Valley. Regardless of the great performances he got from his actors, Ford’s best films show their genius in their painterly visual elements. Today, we don’t always know what to make of a director who uses pictures rather than action sequences to tell a story. And to his detriment, Ford’s best images — the long line of cars at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, the shadowy Dublin streets of The Informer — are often employed in the service of easy sentiment. Like many an Irishman before him, Ford wants to put a soft focus on suffering. To be a Ford fan is to accept that the films succeed in spite of themselves, to realize that Ma Joad sentimentality is offset by Henry Fonda’s acting, by Ford’s keen visual interpretation of the world. Eyman’s victory is to get us to look past the blarney and up at the sky.
Robin Dougherty writes about film, theater, and television for a variety of publications, including Salon, Sight and Sound, and Miami New Times.