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Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride

Searching for John Ford

by Joseph McBride

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SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD was another tome that sat on my shelf for too long without being opened, but after reading Glenn Frankel’s excellent book on the making of THE SEARCHERS, I thought it was time to read Joseph McBride’s in depth look at man who routinely makes every Top Five list of greatest American directors of all time. At more than 700 pages, it is truly an in depth look at the man and the dissection of a career that began in the early days of silent movies and ended in the tumult of the mid 1960’s. In between we get the lowdown on the making of such classics as THE INFORMER, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, STAGECOACH, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, FORT APACHE, THE QUIET MAN, THE SEARCHERS and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE along with a host of other films beloved by movie buffs the world over. The book is also the portrait of a man who could be called “difficult” on his best days as the reader is treated to stories of his legendary irascible temperament on the set.

McBride is a critic and film historian who clearly did exhaustive research for this biography, truly doing a search for the man behind the image, a search that included speaking with the director himself late in his life despite Ford being a notoriously bad subject for an interview. Far more revealing were the many friends and close associates of Ford that McBride was able to talk to while they were still alive, many of whom, like Olive Carey, the widow of actor Harry Carey, and Admiral John Bulkeley, the real life hero who THEY WERE EXPENDABLE was based on, were able to offer truly revealing insights into Ford’s character and his life, often seeing through the public persona the man worked so hard to project and giving us a glimpse at the vulnerabilities and insecurities that lurked underneath. McBride does offer a lot of opinion on Ford’s work, breaking down and deconstructing his films to reveal what this most visual of film makers was trying to convey. There is a lot of supposition and arm chair analysis, and if I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it, I will give McBride credit for backing up his arguments.

The book begins in Ireland, the land from which his parents immigrated to America from in the 1870’s, and the place that gave Ford his firm identity as an Irish American; born in Portsmouth, Maine, in 1894 with the name John Martin Feeney, his origin would bequeath him an outsider’s keen eye for hypocrisy and injustice, as well an understanding of human nature and its attendant flaws. He was also a young man with a sensitive artistic streak, one that he would spend a lifetime trying to hide behind a macho facade. He followed an older brother’s path to the stage and from there to the fledgling film industry, where he learned the business from D.W. Griffith himself – Ford is a Klansman in BIRTH OF A NATION. He eventually settled into directing and found his niche, making his first classic western, THE IRON HORSE, in 1924. By the time sound arrived, Ford was well on his way to becoming a one of the top directors in Hollywood, winning the first of his record four Academy Awards for THE INFORMER in 1935. He would come to see himself as a chronicler of American history with such films as DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK and YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, but it would be the western genre where Ford’s talent would really shine, starting with STAGECOACH in 1939, the movie that made John Wayne a star. It would be the western where Ford would really shine, ultimately producing a string of classics in the years after World War II that would seal his reputation as the foremost master of the horse opera. Yet one of his greatest films, and the one for which he won his second Academy Award, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, was set in contemporary times and tackled an urgent social issue. When asked about his films, Ford would shrug them off as “a job of work” as if he were nothing more than a journeyman director.

One of the revelations of this book is Ford’s service during World War II; he had joined the naval reserve in the mid 30’s and was commissioned an officer after Pearl Harbor. During the war, he would come under fire at the battle of Midway and on D-Day, in both cases leading teams of film makers on the front line to get some of the finest and most harrowing footage ever taken from combat, footage used in documentaries made to boost the war effort and to explain to the public in a pre television era what the war was all about. His years of service to his country were undoubtedly the high point of Ford’s life and would cast a shadow over his work for the remainder of his career. It would also color an increasingly bleak vision of America in the post war years.

For film buffs like me, McBride’s book gives us a fascinating look at Ford’s creative process and his collaborators, including frequent screen writers Frank Nugent and Dudley Nichols, along with producers Merian C. Cooper and Sonny Whitney, not mention studio heads like Daryl F. Zanuck. We are treated to such tidbits as how Ford would routinely cross out lines exposition from each script as soon as it was in his hands; how he instinctively knew how to stage a scene, whether it be set around a table in a log cabin or an Indian attack in the open country of Monument Valley; the tricks he would use to make sure a movie would be edited in the way he wanted it be by the studio. We meet the many beloved members of the “John Ford stock company,” including Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Harry Carey Jr., Mildred Natwick, John Qualen, Hank Worden, Ben Johnson, Woody Strode, Jack Pennick, Andy Devine, George O’Brien, Ken Curtis, not to mention the biggest star in the history of Hollywood, John Wayne, who started out a prop man on one of Ford’s silent movies in the late 20’s. In his director’s role, Ford clearly saw himself as the commanding officer, there to lead his crew of actors, stuntmen, and technicians to the successful completion of their mission. And in this he was not a gentle commander, for to work for Ford was to feel the lash of his sharp tongue and be on the receiving end of his short temper; the two most frequently y to get the rough treatment being Wayne and Bond, “Pappy” Ford’s surrogate sons. Yet there was always a method to the man’s madness as he made one classic movie after another and got terrific work out of all of his actors, who always returned for the next picture because to work for Ford was a guarantee you’d do your best. With few exceptions, he was loved by all who worked with him and considered their films made with him to be the high point of their careers.

The family is often at the center of many of Ford’s films, and it figures in the themes of most of them, yet in real life, he was a failure as a husband and father, a man who only felt at home on a movie set or the deck of his yacht; as the years went by, his increasing alcoholism would result in benders once a film was completed. The close bonds of the Joads in THE GRAPES OF WRATH or the Mogans in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY could not be replicated in reality. It was one of the many contradictions McBride documents well. So too Ford’s politics, for the man could be a staunch liberal, voting for FDR and Truman and publicly taking a stand against loyalty oaths in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, yet becoming conservative enough later on that he remained silent as Wayne and Bond led efforts that blacklisted many in the movie industry and overseeing the production of a pro Vietnam War documentary for the Johnson Administration in 1968.

In the later years of his career, Ford took an increasingly pessimistic view of modern America, his last great western, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is one of the saddest movies to ever come out of Hollywood, yet unlike The Duke and Ward Bond, he did not retreat into reactionary super patriotism and publicly support politicians who promised to turn the clock back, he seemed to sense that what was lost was gone for good. But to his credit, he took chances in his old age, starting with THE SEARCHERS and continuing through CHEYENNE AUTUMN, he tackled to subject of racism in his own way. And for this director who is most famous for his male dominated films, his last movie, 7 WOMEN, has a mostly female cast, with one character clearly suppressing lesbian tendencies; hardly the stuff of an old man chasing past glory. Even though Hollywood considered him over the hill and no longer box office, Ford was still trying to get back behind the camera and get another project going right up until terminal illness struck him down in the early 70’s.

Yet as his career behind the camera faded into the sunset, his influence only grew larger, as a new generation of directors watched and learned from the master; Sergio Leone, Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese are among the few who would openly pay homage to Ford in their films, many made long after the man had left the scene. For us movie buffs, his gallery of vivid characters, live and breathe still, as real today as the first time we were introduced to them: Gypo Nolan from THE INFORMER; The Ringo Kid and Dallas from STAGECOACH; the Joads from THE GRAPES OF WRATH; Huw Morgan and his coal mining father from HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY; Ole and Drisk from THE LONG VOYAGE HOME; Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and Chihuahua from MY DARLING CLEMENTINE; Colonel Owen Thursday from FORT APACHE; Kirby and Kathleen Yorke from RIO GRANDE; Travis Blue and Elder Wiggs from WAGON MASTER; Sean Thornton and Mary Kate Danipher from THE QUIET MAN; Ethan Edwards and Martin Pauley from THE SEARCHERS; Liberty Valance and Tom Doniphon from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. In the course of reading this book, I ran across most of them at one time or another on TCM, AMC or any of the other movie channels in my cable package. Blu Rays and DVDs of his films can found in every true cinephile’s library. More than that, when I saw HELL OR HIGH WATER (released in 2016) a few months ago, I could see echoes of John Ford’s poetry in nearly every scene. In the great hereafter, I’m sure Ford would be mightily pleased by all this, not that he would ever let you know it.

Joseph McBride’s biography, first published in 2001, is the definitive book on John Ford, truly doing justice to the man and his vibrant legacy. A must read for anyone who loves movies. ( )
  wb4ever1 | Mar 1, 2017 |
Pour Ford, le cinéma était une façon de créer un monde privilégié qui fonctionnait selon ses propres règles. Un monde où il était le 'Patron' incontesté, le 'Chef', le 'Vieux', le 'Pappy' d'une famille d'acteurs et de techniciens. Les Indiens Navajo l'appelaient 'Natani Nez', généralement traduit par 'Grand Soldat'. De film en film, Ford utilisait les membres de sa troupe dans des rôles semblables. Ses acteurs sont devenus de vieux amis pour des spectateurs qui les ont vus vieillir. Son œuvre possède la résonance envoûtante d'une mémoire tribale. ' Un plateau de Ford, a écrit le critique Andrew Sarris, c'est une communauté propre représentant à l'écran une communauté plus vaste et plus lyrique encore. ' Mari absent et parfois infidèle, Ford fut un père médiocre en raison de sa personnalité dominatrice et de son égocentrisme. Sa vraie famille était celle du cinéma. Le ' mystère John Ford ' n'est pas seulement celui de ces films délicats et émouvants, réalisés par un type mal dégrossi. C'est le mystère de sa personnalité. Dans L'Homme tranquille et The Secret Man (L'Inconnu), Ford révéla quelque chose d'intime ; pour le reste, à quiconque essayait de pénétrer les secrets de son art, il répondait par monosyllabes, des je ne sais pas hautains ou des remarques énigmatiques, avec une indifférence calculée ou une attitude sarcastique. Ce qu'il faisait, c'était simplement ' a job of work ' : un boulot. (extrait). Après Conversations avec Billy Wilder et Howard Hawks, le renard argenté d'Hollywood, publiés dans cette même collection, voici un nouvel ouvrage consacré à l'un des grands cinéastes d'Hollywood.
  PierreYvesMERCIER | Feb 19, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312242328, Hardcover)

Hollywood has given us no greater director than John Ford. Between 1917 and 1970, Ford directed and/or produced some 226 pictures, from short silent films to ambitious historical epics and searingly vivid combat documentaries. His major works-- such as Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, They Were Expendable, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance-- are cinematic classics. Ford's films about American history are profound explorations of the national character and the crucibles in which that character was forged. Throughout his long and prolific career, Ford became best known for redefining the Western genre, setting his dramas about pioneer life against the timeless backdrop of Monument Valley.

Ford's films earned him worldwide admiration. As a man, however he was tormented and deliberately enigmatic. He concealed his true personality from the public, presenting himself as an illiterate hack rather than as the sensitive artist his films show him to be. He shrewdly guided the careers of some of Hollywood's greatest stars, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Maureen O'Hara, and Katharine Hepburn, but he could be abusive, even sadistic, in his treatment of actors. He began his life steeped in the lore of Irish independence and progressive politics; by the end a hawkish Republican and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, he was lionized by Richard Nixon for creating films that extol the "old virtues" of heroism, duty, and patriotism. Little wonder that those who have written about Ford have either strained to reconcile the daunting paradoxes of his work and personality or avoided them entirely. They have printed the legend and ignored the facts-- or printed the facts and obscured the legend.

In its depth, originality, and insight, Searching for John Ford surpasses all previous biographies of the filmmaker. Encompassing and illuminating Ford's complexities and contradictions, Joseph McBride comes as close as anyone ever will to solving what Andrew Sarris called the "John Ford movie mystery." McBride traces the whole trajectory of Ford's life, from his beginning as "Bull" Feeney, the near-sighted, football-playing son of Irish immigrants in Portland, Maine, through to his establishment as America's most formidable and protean filmmaker. The author of critically acclaimed biographies of Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg, McBride interviewed Ford in 1970 and co-wrote the seminal study John Ford with Michael Wilmington. For more than thirty years, McBride has been exploring the interconnections between Ford's inner life and his work. He interviewed more than 120 of the director's friends, relatives, collaborators, and colleagues. Blending lively and penetrating analyses of Ford's films with an impeccably documented narrative of the historical and psychological contexts in which those films were created, McBride has at long last given John Ford the biography his stature demands. Searching for John Ford will stand as the definitive portrait of an American genius.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:53 -0400)

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