If a film historian/archivist were tasked to tell the story of the United Sates of America through motion pictures, there is only one director who could answer the call: John Ford. From the Revolutionary War tale of Drums Along the Mohawk, and the legendary decades of the "Winning of the West" with his signature Westerns and his trilogy of the U.S. Cavalry, the 1930's Dust Bowl of The Grapes of Wrath, to the 1950s mayoral contest of The Last Hurrah, the saga of American growth and triumphalism is told in his more than 140 films, most of which address the "American Experience." Ford’s six Academy Awards, four for feature film direction, two for documentaries, remain the greatest of any filmmaker. His career spans six decades, from his earliest employment in Hollywood by his brother Francis in 1914, and his uncredited bit role the next year in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation as a hooded clansmen, to his final film, a documentary about U. S. Marine General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, released several years after Ford’s death in 1973 at age 79.
He was born John Martin Feeney in Maine in 1879. Over the decades, his name sometimes bore increasingly Irish variations, such as Sean Aloyius O’Fearna. His father, John Augustine, was Irish born in County Galway. His lifelong love for the Emerald Isle is reflected in his gripping drama from 1935, The Informer, a story of betrayal in the IRA, based on the novel by Liam O’ Flaherty, and also in his 1950s love song to Eire, The Quiet Man. It's no well-kept secret that Ford was unabashed throughout his life in his support of the IRA.
Ford began directing shortly after arriving in Hollywood, but most of his more than 60 silent films are lost. One of the earliest surviving is the last reel of the 1922 melodrama The Village Blacksmith that has flashes of the Expressionist style of one of his acknowledged influences, F.W. Murnau.
On August 31, 2010, The Motion Picture Academy screened a restored print of Ford’s thought to be lost feature from 1927, Upstream.
It was one of the 75 films that Academy archivist Brian Meacham had discovered in the New Zealand Film Archives on a 2009 visit.
But Ford’s first major feature film success, The Iron Horse, from 1924 is a two-hour-plus epic saga of the building of the first transcontinental railroad, an early Ford human drama cast against the epic sweep of American Manifest Destiny.
Throughout his career, Ford was a difficult interview. Whether his media reluctance was merely an extension of his legendary tough guy stance on set while directing, or was calculated role-playing, is still debated. Ford could be abrasive, dismissive, even physically violent as when he decked Henry Fonda during an argument after a day’s early shooting on Mister Roberts or when he routinely kicked Harry Carey, Jr. in the ass picture after picture. Even his directing colleague and film scholar Peter Bogdanovich ran afoul of the legendary Ford recalcitrance when he was interviewing him against the backdrop of Monument Valley for the 1971 feature documentary Directed by John Ford. The trip to the Utah setting of some seven Ford Westerns was to climax Bogdanovich’s interviews with many of Ford’s actors and crew. I was the camera assistant on several of these interviews, photographed by my mentor Gregory Sandor, including an equally abusive one with John Wayne in the den of the Duke’s Balboa Beach home. Gregory and I were prevented from doing the Monument Valley interview because it required a full IATSE crew. I was a new member of Local 659 but lacked the requisite seniority to make the location trek. And Greg was a member of NABET, a much smaller, rival union. Martin Scorsese introduces this one-minute clip; Brick Marquard photographed the interview.
For all the stories one may read about Ford’s bullying, drinking, and brawling, you will also find ones about his generosity and kindness to actors, crew and friends. Likewise, his political stance in the Hollywood community seems to be double-edged. During his middle years he was a staunch Roosevelt Democrat and later in life he supported John Kennedy. But he was also widely considered, along with his close friends John Wayne and Ward Bond, to be a conservative Republican. He and producer Daryl Zanuck were, on the surface, unlikely choices to make a film from John Steinbeck’s leftist novel The Grapes of Wrath photographed in Dorothea Lange FSA (Farm Security Administration)-style by Gregg Toland, ASC.
Twenty years later, he was an equally unlikely choice for The Last Hurrah, adapted from Edwin O’Connor’s acclaimed novel, a eulogy to old style personal politics buffeted by the new power of television advertising. In a similar vein, his attitude toward Native Americans evolved, from the merciless killers of many of his middle period Westerns to his final and flawed but deeply elegiac Cheyenne Autumn of 1964.
But no matter how you color his politics, he was a true American patriot even as he continued to funnel money into the IRA. His service in WWII in the Naval Reserve as Lieutenant Commander (retiring in 1951 as Rear Admiral) was not only recognized with military honors but with an Academy Award for documentary short in the stunning depiction of The Battle of Midway in 1942. He was one of the photographers under fire as Japanese fighters strafed the atoll’s airfield. Biographer Joseph McBride in his definitive 2001 book, Searching for John Ford, describes it in the opening of Chapter 10:
As Japanese dive bombers and fighter planes swooped over the Midway atoll in the central Pacific on the morning of June 4, 1942, America’s greatest filmmaker was there filming the attack for history. Standing atop the powerhouse on the narrow, triangular sliver of land called Eastern Island, John Ford aimed his handheld camera directly at the oncoming planes, “yelling at the attacking Zeroes to swing left or right — and cursing them out when they disobeyed directions.”
The sense of immediacy in this short color documentary of ordinary men under fire has a jumpy editing style that is still startling. This recently restored version is only slightly compromised by the faint banner at the bottom of the frame. During the strafing, Ford climbed a water tower for a stunning but vulnerable perch and continued filming with his 16mm camera even after his left arm was struck by shards from a fragmentation bomb. This shot is cut to several times at 6:42, 7:21, and 8:27.
In late October 1950, the Screen Directors Guild (the predecessor of today’s DGA) held a general meeting in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel called after internal dissent among the Board of Governors regarding a mandated loyalty oath being vociferously advocated by C.B. DeMille, a rabid anti-Communist who was determined to purge the Guild of subversives. In McBride’s biography, the writer gives a detailed account of the evening’s fireworks that was grounded as well in DeMille's attack on Joe Mankiewicz, the Guild President, who had recently returned from abroad. Mankiewicz was an opponent of the loyalty oath. Ford spoke:
My closest friend is Merian Cooper [they had been working together since the early 1930s]. And he happens to be a brigadier general in the United States Army, and last night as we were having dinner, Coop said he wouldn’t sign any goddamned loyalty oath and he said what we were making is a blacklist, and if a brigadier general in the Army tells me it’s blacklist, then it’s a goddamn blacklist.
In a book of interviews with Mankiewicz published by the University Press of Mississippi, the director recalls a succinct version of this incident. Mankiewicz knew that whatever way Ford would go, so would go the Guild. After a long diatribe by DeMille and his supporters, Ford rose again about 2:30 am:
My name is John Ford and I direct westerns… Cecil, you and I go back to 1916, maybe even earlier, right? Let me tell you something: when it comes to providing the people of the world with the kind of movie they want to see, there isn’t anyone in this room who can touch you, and I respect you for that’… Then he paused, as only Ford could pause, and he said, ‘But, Cecil, I don’t like you. And I don’t like a goddamned thing you stand for. I move that we go home and start making movies because that’s our job.’ And John Huston jumped up and said, ‘I second that motion,’ and there was acclamation and that was it.
Both McBride and Robert Parrish in his memoir Growing Up in Hollywood give slight variations of this dust-up but they all affirm that Ford took no prisoners that night.
It must be remembered that this was several years after the 1947 hearings of the HUAC on Communists in Hollywood and most industry figures were still running scared.
Even as Ford's work (especially the entire genre of Westerns) fades for younger generations into the sunset, and as many scholars apply life support to him as a key exemplar of the "American Auteur," John Ford remains a thorny, enigmatic, contradictory figure bordering on the schizophrenic. In his recent look at Ford's seminal late Western, The Searchers, Glenn Frankel cites the rising and falling tide of the film's reputation in the cinematic canon as a metaphor for the director's own ambivalent attitudes toward filmmaking, the American myth of the western migration--- and most especially (given the book's main focus on the history of the Commanche abduction of the real life Cynthia Ann Parker) Ford's own conflicted and racist treatment of Native Americans. The power of The Searchers lies in its unresolvable and fundamentally enigmatic view of the movie's principal characters, not just the Indians, a perspective analyzed in considerable detail by Frankel.
Uncertainty, irony, ambivalence, ambiguity lie at the heart of Ford's greatest characters, even the seemingly heroic ones. It's what makes them so compelling, aided by Ford's reputation for ruthlessly pruning dialogue from the script even while shooting the scene. In an interview in the Bogdanovich documentary director Walter Hill says "Ambiguity is the home of the great artist. . . It's what's in between the lines [of dialogue] so often that makes Ford films Ford films."
As I began writing this essay, I ran across a recent interview by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with the always outspoken Quentin Tarantino. The acclaimed writer/director had gone public with a strange attack on Ford that seemed to equate the director’s attitude on race not with his view of Native Americans but with the fact that the still teenaged Ford had ridden as a hooded Klansman in The Birth of a Nation almost a century ago.
Yeah, it's actually funny. One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else's humanity — and the idea that that's hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the '30s and '40s — it's still there. And even in the '50s.
Here is the interview on Gates’ website:
Given what John Ford had said to DeMille in 1950 at the SDG meeting, one can only speculate what the combative Ford, on hearing about this interview, may have said or done to Mr. Tarantino’s face.
In June of 1968, I was asked by Eric Timmerman, a friend from my USC Cinema School days, to work as camera assistant for a series of interviews with Hollywood celebrities. Eric, and his partner Wayne Threm, ran a small production company, Icon Films, on Seward St. in Hollywood; they produced educational and documentary films. Several times a year the BBC would enlist them to provide support services for material to be shot on 16mm as BBC file footage and for special programming aired in England. On this trip, they wanted to interview John Ford in his Bel-Air home. Ford had recently retired, his last feature having been the 1966 historical drama, 7 Women. Ford was not well and, though not housebound, he did not go out much in public. His previous film interview had been with the French critic Andre LaBarthe for a program titled Cinéma de Notre Temps. He had conducted that one from his bed, having taunted the hapless Gaul with his own fractured French. Shortly before his death in 1973 and now living in La Quinta, Ford allowed himself to be photographed in his bed with his friends John Huston and Dennis Hopper
The BBC interviewer on that June 1968 shoot, Philip Jenkinson, was an earnest man of 33 who was already well known in England as host for a late night film series. He was also an avid collector of 16mm prints of classic films, this at a time a few years before wide use of VHS and home video recorders. I knew little of Jenkinson, but he appeared incredibly nervous as we approached the entry to Ford’s home. Ford’s butler showed us into the dark den where we set up lights while Jenkinson reviewed his notes. My dual role that day was to serve as camera assistant prepping the 16mm Éclair NPR, load the magazines, and keep the camera reports. During the interview, I was also to serve as the sound boom man.
Ford appeared shortly, without much of a greeting or preliminaries, and seated himself deeply into his chair, his crossed legs revealing bright red socks.
He squinted at the barely diffused quartz key light from camera left. Since we were exposing color reversal stock, a lot of light was required. We earlier had been warned that Ford had severe eye problems that required his frequent wearing of an eye patch or tinted glasses. Between the irritating light and the even more irritating Oxbridge accent of Jenkinson, the stage was set for a fiasco. I lay prone at Ford’s feet just below the lens frame, my Sennheiser microphone pointed up at him.
Suffice it to say — this interview, like many others, did not go well. I have always remembered this morning with an aura of imminent trauma, as its sour mood did not bode well for me as a recent film school student hoping soon to enter the corridors of Hollywood filmmaking. The old guard still commanded a fearsome hold.
Over the years, I’ve recounted to film students that the several hours I spent with Ford as an example of how little engagement there was at this time between the studio industry and the scholarly/critical community, Ford being the exemplar of this indifference, if not hostility. Then, last year, while on a YouTube search, I found a fragment of what purported to be a never broadcast BBC interview of Ford from 1968. I recognized it instantly as the interview on which I had worked.
The video looked like uncorrected, raw dailies; I could believe it had never been broadcast, although Joseph McBride says he saw a finished version titled My Name is John Ford: I Make Movies. Here is the only fragment I have found, about 10 minutes. It has bad color, goes to B/W, jump cuts, and has video breakup from the transfer just at the beginning of the clip. But, yes, it is pure John Ford.
About 22 minutes into the the interview, perhaps out of pure irascibility and dodging Jenkinson's insistent question about Will Rogers, Ford stopped talking, took one of his long pauses, and looked over at me. It's not in the YouTube clip.
“Young man, what is that thing?” I thought he meant the wind-socked shotgun mike I had pointed at him. Before I could answer, he continued, “What is that thing on your upper lip?”
“Mr. Ford, I’m trying to grow a mustache.” Another long pause, fixing his weak eyes on me. Just one word more came from the master: “Don’t.” And that was the total of my “conversation” with Mr. John Ford. (Update: Ben Spek, a camera operator and Criterion Collection fan, emailed me that the full interview is a supplement in the Criterion disc of Stagecoach. I've seen the full interview now — and the actual film record is somewhat different than my recollection, no wonder, after 45 years, and the big surprise to me was that the cameraman John Morrill panned over and caught me briefly on camera. I still prefer my more anecdotal recollection to the actual filmed moment. but, hey, that's the movies.)
After the interview, Ford’s mood brightened. He had his valet bring out a salver on which rested a number of conical shaped Pilsner beer glasses, each one with a frothy head and an amber brew. It sure wasn’t Budweiser. When we finished and as I was packing up, I picked up my empty glass and examined the etched initials: JFA. I held it up wordlessly, looking down to my assistant’s bag. Ford saw me and nodded in the affirmative. I put the glass in the bag.
For 45 years I have treasured it as the only connection I have to a long-gone era of American movies: a kind of secular, cinematic Holy Grail. I’ve never again drunk from it.