A pretty gritty picture
By Allen Barra
Is John Ford's story the story of American movies? Many film critics and historians would answer with a resounding yes, and even those who say no wouldn't deny the legitimacy of the question. Even if there are directors we would place above Ford, who would argue that America's self-image is primarily influenced by movies and that the movies made by Ford have influenced our view of Abraham Lincoln, of the Old West, of the Depression, of the entire immigrant experience?
Which means that Scott Eyman's "Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford" is one of the most important books ever written on the movies.
Amazing as it seems, Ford had to wait until the end of the 20th century to get a definitive biography. Even Tag Gallagher's formidable "John Ford: The Man and His Films" (1986) has much more on the films than the man, and like all previous books on Ford, is highly tainted with layers of myths, lies and legends.
"Print the Legend" makes all previous books on Ford seem undernourished. Eyman, who has written a highly regarded biography of Ernst Lubitsch and a groundbreaking history of the talkies, "The Speed of Sound," [Kally's note: as well as an excellent biography of Mary Pickford and a collection of interviews with five American cinematographers] has given us a big book without an ounce of fat.
Ford's career began before World War I and ended with his death as the Vietnam War was heating up. In between, he directed "The Lost Patrol," "The Informer," "Stagecoach," "Young Mr. Lincoln," "Drums Along the Mohawk," "The Grapes of Wrath," "How Green Was My Valley," "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Rio Grande," "The Quiet Man," "The Searchers," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Much of Henry Fonda's career might never have happened without Ford; John Wayne's career might never have happened at all.
John Martin Feeney -- he later claimed to have been named Sean Aloysius O'Fearna in order to seem more Irish, as if that was really necessary -- was born in Maine in 1895. A liar of colossal proportions, he padded his bio with college degrees from several schools when, in fact, beyond high school he was entirely self-taught. Ford broke into films in the silent era, a time when many directors (William desmond, Allan Dwan, William Wellman, Raoul Walsh) were Irish, though Ford, as Eyman puts it, was "The only one to consistently play the professional Irishman."
The others kept their real names and made films about mainstream Protestant America; Ford anglicized his and put his Irishness at the center of his work. Pre-Colonial pioneers, Welsh miners, even Abe Lincoln himself faced grim circumstances with the same stoic sense of duty, love of family, and dark Catholic fatalism.
Eyman pores through the silent films, reassessing some war horses and unearthing a small gem or two, always looking out for the strands that reveal a career and a personality. Early on, Ford began to exhibit the self-conscious lack of style that defined his craft. Ford despised "directors' touches" and tried "to make people forget they're in a theater."
He also began to display the fierce independence toward his work summed up in his dictim, "Give me the script and leave me alone." In 1938 he began an incredible run of films -- beginning with "Stagecoach" and ending (most critics would agree) with "The Searchers" (1956) -- that represented as Eyman writes, "America's vision of itself, and the world's (vision of America)."
Who was the man behind the work? "He was an S.O.B.," said an actress who worked with him early in his career, "a demoniacal man. Part of his mercurial personality was to do something he knew was mean or mischievous then try to justify it."
To his son, Pat, he was "A lousy father, but he was a good movie director and a good American." Even his friends openly acknowledged his meanness. During the filming of "The Searchers" in Monument Valley, Ariz., a scorpion stung him. A few minutes later John Wayne reported to the producer, "It's OK. John's fine, it's the scorpion that died."
Wayne had good reaon to sympathize with the scorpion. For the better part of three decades, Ford alternately brutalized and coddled him, molding him into a superstar in public and deriding him in private for his failure to join the service in World War II. Behind Wayne's back, Ford mocked his distinctive walk and made jokes about his manhood ("He's a very cruel man," Wayne told Sam Goldwyn, Jr., "Did he tell you I walk like a fairy?")
Wayne took it because he had to; he understood that he would have had no career without Ford. Late in life, when Ford needed Wayne to get financing for a picture, Wayne agreed to help him because "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him I'll do anything for him."
He was deeply sentimental, but often erupted in anger to others' shows of emotion. On one occasion he was approached by an old actor from his silent films who asked to borrow so his wife could have an operation. Ford punched the man, shouted at him and walked away. Ford then rented a limo to take the man and his wife to the hospital where Ford paid the bills for the operation.
The public Ford was no easier to figure. No one has ever succeeded in defining his politics. Which was the real John Ford, the director of the most beloved populist American film of all time, "The Grapes of Wrath"? Or the man who was alarmed that his fellow director John Huston was "Seeking refuge in our beloved Ireland" because Huston "is not of the Right Wing"? The man who went out of his way to invite Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl to his home, or the man who, during the Hollywood witch hunts, hired blacklisted people?
Eyman says Ford's "true political religion was to be contrary, a one-man insurrection against perceived manners and mores." Ford "delighted in pretending to be a roughneck, but his films show that he was tender and sensitive. He tested people relentlessly, tested their abilities, their temperament, their fears, and above all, their loyalty, mostly by abusing them."
"He devised," writes Eyman, "a belligerent, deceitful carapace to protect an inner man on the run from insoluble inner tensions." Like John Wayne's characters in "The Searchers," Ford "drove all before him with the forces of his fierce personality."
At the same time, "As nearly as can be determined, he never gave himself completely to anyone."
"Filmmaking," says Eyman, "not alcohol, was Ford's primary narcotic, and nostalgia his primary emotion." America's sense of itself, Eyman argues, "As far as the movies are concerned, derive from two people: Frank Capra and John Ford.
"Of these two men, it was John Ford who told the truth that doing the right thing can and probably will get you killed, that defeat may be man's natural state, but that honor can and must be earned."
Ford never measured up to the standards of his heroes, but Ford the artist never flinched.
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