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But it’s not just families that fall apart in Ford films; it’s entire worlds. Ford is the poet of imperiled Edens, of societies on the brink of extermination. Death and disorder hang over Ford’s Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, his Welsh miners in How Green Was My Valley, his American sailors on Bataan in They Were Expendable, his Southern pols in the “Judge Priest” pictures, his Irish pols in The Last Hurrah, his pioneers in The Searchers, his Indians in Cheyenne Autumn. No one could create worlds more lovingly or destroy them more wrenchingly. His feel for the celebratory rituals of a society, its dances and picnics and parades, is always sure; his depiction of impending doom is devastating. It hovers, terrifyingly, at the edge of the screen — in the shot where the Joads drive into a migrant-labor camp while the discarded possessions of their fellow Okies smolder in the background; in the shot where the American Army flees the advancing Japanese on Mindanao while discarded guns, buildings, ships and bridges are all exploding in the background.
It should come as no surprise that it was Ford who created the movie stars who became the iconic pop-culture authority figures for both the American left and the American right. Henry Fonda starred in seven Ford films, John Wayne in 13. Most of the time, they played characters who defended their community against external threats (capitalism in The Grapes of Wrath, with Fonda; Comanches in The Searchers, with Wayne), and some of the time against internal threats (racism — displaced as a lynching of whites so as not to upset the Southern-white audiences of 1939 — in Young Mr. Lincoln, with Fonda). Often, their characters (Tom Joad, Ethan Edwards) threatened the very communities they were defending through their own violent streaks. Seldom could they squeeze back into their communities after they’d done what they had to do to preserve them: At the end of their respective pictures, young Abe Lincoln walks off into his historic future — our historic past — just as Ethan Edwards walks off into the mythic past. Socially unintegratable individuals who fight to preserve the social order (sometimes from itself), they are both projections of Ford himself.
The “stunning departure of Lincoln into the landscape at the end of the film,” as Sergei Eisenstein called it in one of his essays, is one of those moments that encapsulates Ford’s vision. Like memory itself, Ford movies are set in the border zone between the temporal and the eternal, and we often see his characters at the very moment they cross from one to the other — the sailors who, at the very moment they realize they’re being left behind to die, also realize their unit is the one that will enable Douglas MacArthur to escape to Australia; Wyatt Earp and his lady friend who walk down a Western street and into a national epic through the sheer virtuosity of Ford’s shot making.
By the end of his career, Ford had developed major misgivings about the nation that had been the object of his epics; in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he brilliantly deconstructed the myth he’d spent nearly half a century developing. (McBride has unearthed a letter Ford sent before the picture’s 1962 opening to Bosley Crowther, The New York Times film critic, pointing out that he’d deliberately made the picture look like a 1930s cheapo B Western so that the artificiality of the story would be apparent. Crowther still didn’t get it, nor did many other critics at the time.) But Ford’s ambivalence extends even to the deconstruction of the myth. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says Liberty Valance’s newspaper publisher after the hero of the story told in the movie confesses that his heroism was a sham. The publisher won’t undermine the myth that the movies generally, and Ford particularly, so lovingly created.
Throughout Searching for john Ford, McBride’s achievement is to separate the facts from the legend, and to link the contradictions that Ford worked out so brilliantly on the screen to the contradictions he failed so utterly to work out in his life. His research has been prodigious, and nowhere more so than in dealings with Ford’s beginnings and his end. Since Ford died in 1973, there have been two accounts of his last words, spoken as he lay dying. A priest administering the last rites said that Ford had awakened from a coma to say, “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” Others said that Ford had bestirred himself to say, “Will somebody please get me a cigar?”
McBride closes his book by offering a third, hitherto unreported last line, a deathbed pronouncement as incredibly fitting for a filmmaker as MoliÃ¨re’s death onstage while playing the title character in La Malade Imaginairewas for a playwright. In this version, which came from Ford’s son, as the priest delivered seemingly endless last rites, Ford flickered back to consciousness for one final moment, eyed the priest balefully, and said: “Cut!”
It’s probably too good to be true, but as the man said, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD: A Biography | By JOSEPH McBRIDE | St. Martin’s Press | 850 pages | $40 hardcover