Explaining John Ford

Film critic Andrew Sarris once called John Ford “the American cinema’s Field Marshal in charge . . . of last stands,” but Ford was also the grand master of last shots. From very early on in his 50-year (1917–1966) career as a director, Ford was concluding his films with evocative shots of the loner, renouncing his own happiness to somehow promote the general welfare, riding over the horizon. By midcentury, Ford was fusing this goodbye ride with a kind of curtain call of the movie’s main characters; the final shot of The Searchers, in which John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards walks away from the family he’s spent the past five years trying to reassemble, is certainly one of the most enduring images in all cinema.

But the most distinctively Fordian final shots, I think, come from two later films: Donovan’s Reef and The Last Hurrah. The first shows a parade of the film’s leading characters back to the main character’s home, in a comic tableau of racial and cultural reconciliation; the second shows a parade of political bosses, ward heelers and gofers trudging up a staircase to pay their last respects to their leader, the mayor, who has just succumbed after one of the great deathbed scenes in American pictures. The mood here is utterly elegiac; the pols are eclipsed by their own shadows as they march off into political irrelevance.

What’s most remarkable about these two shots, though, is that the characters pass by, so to speak, in order. The serious characters in the storyline, and in the protagonist’s estimation, go first; then the characters who matter in a more purely instrumental way; and bringing up the rear, the character who’s the buffoon, whom the protagonist, and Ford, have kept around solely for their own amusement. And part of the pleasure in seeing these shots as they unfold is in realizing that the order of these characters is dramatically and socially right; that Ford has created an articulated social order that he can encapsulate, and memorialize, in a single parting shot.

Articulated social orders aren’t really a staple of American narrative art, whether in film, theater or novels; America has always been too fluid and individualistic. Ford’s affinity for a military setting — I count 24 Ford talkies that are set entirely or substantially in military or paramilitary (the Irish Republican Army) orders — stems partly from his ambition to be national epic poet, partly from his veneration of tradition, partly from his aversion to boy-gets-girl storylines. But it is surely also a function of his comfort level with a social order in which everyone has a rank — a clear, demarcated place. This same vision structures his films — including The Last Hurrah and Donovan’s Reef — with civilian settings, too.

For that matter, it structured his life. Ford developed a stock company of players he used repeatedly. The same supporting actors appeared in the same supporting parts in picture after picture; the same stuntmen and grips worked on one Ford set after another, as if they’d enlisted in Ford’s army with a specific, unchanging rank. And to a mind-boggling degree, he re-created the fixed social order of his movies off the set, in his private life between pictures. The shooting done, he’d repair to his yacht, The Araner, with drinking buddies from the sets of his pictures. Ford may have turned John Wayne into a national icon, and Ward Bond may have played a succession of avuncular authority figures in Ford’s films, but to Ford, they were oversize buffoons he kept around for his own private amusement. No one in his regular entourage was remotely his peer; his friendships with his fellow leading directors, or his most talented screenwriters, or the military leaders he came to know during World War II, were all at arm’s length. He’d relax, on the set and off, with his stooges.

The position Ford created for himself, atop this hierarchy, was exceptional even for a major director. In his foreword to Frank Capra’s autobiography, Ford called a movie set “a democratic little monarchy,” under the rule of the director, but there was nothing remotely democratic about Ford’s own sets, and precious little that was benevolent about its reigning despot. In a Ford film, what matters is the greater good of the community, the nation — causes to which individuals may have to be sacrificed. On a Ford set, what mattered was the film, and the tales of abuse that Ford heaped on his actors to get what he wanted on film are legion. “God, he was an evil bastard,” one member of Ford’s stock company recalls. “[But] when you’re working with a genius, you put up with a lot.” By all accounts, Ford meted out the harshest treatment to producers who came onto the set to tell him he was behind schedule or that there was something in the rushes they didn’t understand. No one who affronted Ford’s authority — and few among those who’d never dream of affronting his authority — escaped unharmed.


Indeed, no one was more — and less — into the trappings of directorial authority than Ford. He was piped onto the set every morning with some poignant musical accompaniment, while the cast and crew stood respectfully by — as if he were some battleship returning to port after months at sea. At the same time, this Sun King of the set, at least in his later years, would be decked out as if he’d just spent the night on Skid Row, shuffling onto the set in untied shoes, sagging pants, a baseball cap, and sucking on an old handkerchief.

This weird tableau was all of a piece. These ceremonies that he mandated mattered deeply to him. His mockery of his own ceremonies mattered deeply to him, too. The authority that he wielded, the authority that these ceremonies and his mockery of these ceremonies both reflected, mattered to him most of all. Hollywood might be full of devils who took pleasing forms; in John Ford, Hollywood had itself a god who took any damn form he pleased.

When this godlike status crashed against the more â mundane demands of everyday life, however, Ford crashed with it. The term “manic-depressive” does not even begin to do justice to the cycle of Ford’s adult life. He’d work with his writers on the script for months, and on all aspects of preparation; he’d shoot the picture quickly, never covering a scene with more than one camera, holding the whole completed picture in his head every day, striving and usually succeeding in not giving the studio one single scene that they could re-cut in any way but the way he envisioned; he’d make not just a movie but an alternative world on the screen, and on the set. And then he’d try to extend it off the set, where the world proved much less orderly, where his creative powers and the trappings of genius didn’t matter all that much, where his family life was in continual disarray, where he needed to unwind. And where, between pictures for a full half a century, he’d drink himself into oblivion, staying in bed for weeks on end, sobbing, drinking, dehydrating, until his family or his friends sent him to a hospital to recover. And then it was time to make the next movie.

This bizarre, contrarian and absurdly productive life is the subject of Joseph McBride’s new biography, Searching for John Ford. Ford has been the subject of several biographies and numerous critical studies; he’s even the main character in other people’s autobiographies (notably, director Robert Parrish’s wonderful memoir Growing Up in Hollywood). But McBride’s immense, 800-plus-page volume is the definitive one, an authoritative, judicious, insightful (if not especially eloquent) account of this impossibly complex subject. It’s a long book. But then its subject made 150 films, 20 of them masterpieces; helped organize the Directors Guild of America; photographed both the Battle of Midway and the Normandy invasion; fought the House Un-American Activities Committee and funded some of Hollywood’s most reactionary redbaiting organizations; movingly depicted family life onscreen and all but destroyed his own family offscreen. Ford is not a man easily explained, if indeed he can be explained at all.

Explaining Ford is a “job of work,” to use Ford’s phrase, that McBride has been at for over 30 years now — since he co-authored a critical study of Ford back in his college days. In the early ’70s, I met McBride at local screenings of Ford films; we were two of the 40 or so Fordians who could be counted upon to show up for any Ford picture. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve occasionally encountered McBride in the years since.) In the intervening decades, McBride has reviewed films for a range of publications, authored excellent biographies of Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg and a number of critical studies, written some of the American Film Institute’s annual salutes to filmmakers — and researched the bejesus out of John Ford.

Like all of Ford’s previous biographers, McBride has had to sift carefully through Ford’s own accounts of his life, which run the narrow gamut from blarney to bullshit. More than Ford’s previous biographers, however, McBride has found the studio memos, the bit players, the Directors Guild minutes, the military comrades, to set the record straight (or, at minimum, straighter). He’s particularly judicious in making sense of Ford’s dizzying left-right-left political oscillations, and in sorting out the facts of Ford’s two great midlife adventures: his service heading up the photographic arm of the OSS during World War II, and his ecstatic mid-1930s affair with Katharine Hepburn, for whom he almost decided to break up his not-very-happy marriage.


Ford’s reluctance, finally, to commit to Hepburn is certainly of a piece with his preponderantly uncoupled screen heroes; I can’t think of another Hollywood filmmaker who turned so frequently to the motif of boy-loses-girl. Whether for reasons of national duty, simple bad luck, overall orneriness or just general indifference, Ford’s heroes usually end up by themselves. (As McBride points out, in The Wings of Eagles, a biopic Ford made of a close friend who was both a Navy man and a screenwriter, the protagonist loses his family largely because he prefers the company of the very lowlife stooges whose company Ford himself preferred.)

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 Molière’s death onstage while playing the title character in La Malade Imaginaire was 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


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