FILM COMMENT : The Man Who Shot Great Movies : Director John Ford was a man of legendary contradictions and legendary talent. (He could also bring John Wayne to tears)
“Aggressive and defensive in about equal measure, he was gentle and irascible, bloody-minded and generous, courageous, uncompromising and endlessly evasive. He could be kind and he could be cruel. He was an artist, strictly professional, obstinately personal.”
--Fellow director and friend Lindsay Anderson on John Ford
It’s hard to believe that any one man could contain as many contradictions as John Ford, subject of a centennial tribute that starts this Thursday, but then his was not the ordinary life, not the ordinary career.
He directed films in Hollywood for close to 60 years, from the mid-teens through 1976, something like 137 motion pictures in all, a startling number when as little as half a dozen features can currently earn someone an admiring film festival retrospective.
Even the dour Ingmar Bergman is said to have called Ford the world’s greatest filmmaker, and when Orson Welles, who reportedly viewed Ford’s landmark Western “Stagecoach” 40 times before shooting “Citizen Kane,” was asked which American directors he favored, he replied, “the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”
Between 1931 and 1964, his films earned 72 Academy Award nominations and Ford himself set a record that still stands by winning four best director Oscars (for “The Informer,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “How Green Was My Valley” and “The Quiet Man”), not to mention the two he got for best documentary for World War II reportage.
He made stars of John Wayne, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen, worked closely with Henry Fonda and James Stewart, and created his own stock company of devoted journeymen actors who followed him gratefully from picture to picture.
Yet even those who loved him most admitted that he could be a sadist as a director, torturing his closest friends to get the performances he wanted. “I’ve seen big Victor McLaglen stand there and cry like a child,” said one witness to Ford tongue-lashings, “and I’ve seen Duke Wayne do exactly the same thing.” Ford frequently bad-mouthed his own films, at times claiming not even to have seen them, and his capacity for feuds was legendary.
Ford didn’t talk to Andy Devine for six years after the actor talked back to him. He didn’t talk to Fonda for 10 years after they had a fistfight during the shooting of “Mr. Roberts.” And although he remained in touch with him, he stubbornly refused to hire Harry Carey, the great silent Western star who helped mold Ford’s career, for more than 25 years.
Yet when Carey died, Ford cried so much in his widow’s arms that she reported “the whole front of my sweater was sopping wet. For at least 15 or 20 minutes he cried, just solid sobbing.” And he immediately made Carey’s son, Harry Carey Jr. (whose just-published memoir, “Company of Heroes,” is a splendid look at Ford at work), a permanent part of his stock company, using him in nine features in 16 years.
Like a force of nature, Ford just went on and on. He lived and worked long enough, dying in 1973 at age 78, to have had conflicting creative periods, to turn out films in the twilight of his career that seemed to almost mock the values he had espoused in his earlier work, to call into question what had seemed so sure to him years before.
So, even as it’s lauded, Ford’s work remains controversial. For it is possible to look at his films and feel confused, to either not quite understand what all the fuss is about or, like critic David Thomson in his “A Biographical Dictionary of Film,” to be frankly antipathetic, to consider the man’s output “bigoted, grandiloquent and maudlin” and his message “trite, callous, evasive.”
Given all this, what could be more welcome than “John Ford’s Century,” a retrospective celebrating the 100th anniversary of the director’s birth that is so comprehensive it takes two institutions to contain it. Starting Thursday, the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Melnitz Theater will screen 68 Ford films in a series that runs through September, and starting Aug. 5 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will chip in with an additional 20. No better survey of the man and his work is likely for another 100 years.
Besides Ford’s theatrical features, all four of the films he made for television (two of which have baseball settings) are being shown, as well as a selection of his documentaries. Besides his Oscar-winning World War II material (“The Battle of Midway” and “December 7th”), also on view is the director’s foray into venereal disease prevention, “Sex Hygiene.” Ford’s typical reaction to the finished 1941 film: “I looked at it and threw up.”
Born the son of Irish immigrants in Portland, Maine, Ford came out to Hollywood to work with his older brother Francis, an established silent film actor and director. And although the younger Ford at times liked to shrug off what he did as no more than “a job of work,” no American director has had his combination of innate ability honed to an almost effortless transcendence after decades of work on all those films.
Ford’s skill began with an eye for composition that turned out stunning, unforgettable images in scene after scene. A superb cinematic storyteller, Ford came to know, often without looking through the lens, exactly where to place the camera for maximum audience involvement, and woe betide any cinematographer who thought he knew better.
As Ford grew as a director, he had less and less patience with any of his collaborators. He didn’t particularly want to talk to actors, disliked looking at dailies and shot minimal footage in a way that gave editors and studio executives no choice in how to put it together. As for writers, with his habit of whittling scenes down to almost nothing, he wasn’t kidding when he told “Wagonmaster” collaborator Frank Nugent, “I liked your script. In fact, I actually shot a few pages of it.”
If he wasn’t a captive of the written word, neither was Ford enamored, as was Alfred Hitchcock, of carefully storyboarding every scene. Hard as it is to believe in an age when many directors are chained to video replays, Ford, according to biographer Tag Gallagher, simply “composed the picture entirely in his head, without even a written outline of the shots he would use.”
Although he never totally lost traces of a Down East accent, Ford is, of course, best known as a maker of Westerns. He may not have actually invented the genre, but no man put a more indelible mark on the form, from his pioneering use of the scenery of Monument Valley to his elaboration of the codes of stoicism and comradeship that characterized his heroes.
“He’ll be making Westerns a couple of years after he’s dead,” is how Pat Ford characterized his father’s devotion to those films. And when the director rose at a pivotal DGA meeting during the McCarthy era to defend Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the attacks of Cecil B. DeMille, his self-introduction was simple and to the point: “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.”
Ford perfected his grasp of the Western with a series of two dozen silent features made with Harry Carey as the dashing Cheyenne Harry, the Prairie Kid. UCLA will show perhaps the only two that survive, the 1918 “Hell Bent” and “Straight Shooting,” Ford’s 1917 debut, where his ease with outdoor settings is already evident.
The UCLA series opens with a pair of Ford’s very best Westerns, 1946’s “My Darling Clementine” and 1962’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” “Clementine” is the director’s laconic take on Wyatt Earp, a real-life acquaintance from the early silent days played in heroic O.K. Corral fashion by Henry Fonda. The quietly dazzling “Liberty Valance” is the most elegiac and reflective of Ford’s later, revisionist Westerns and features John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin in career-summarizing performances.
Among the many other Westerns scheduled, special note should be taken of what has come to be known as the Cavalry Trilogy, films (“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Fort Apache,” “Rio Grande”) starring John Wayne as an indomitable leader of mounted men. The latter may be the most underrated of the three, with Wayne well-matched against his estranged wife, beautifully played by Maureen O’Hara, and their trooper son. “You’ve chosen my way of life,” runs Wayne’s hostile welcoming speech to the boy. “I hope you have the guts to endure it.”
Despite all of this, it’s a mistake to see Ford only as maker of Westerns. According to one survey, between “Three Bad Men” in 1926 and “Stagecoach” in 1939, he directed 32 films, not one of them what Variety used to call an oater. His career included comedies with Will Rogers, historical dramas “Drums Along the Mohawk” and “Young Mr. Lincoln,” literary adaptations “The Last Hurrah” and “Tobacco Road” and such items as the Ava Gardner/Clark Gable/Grace Kelly safari romantic comedy “Mogambo” that don’t seem to fit with his reputation.
When he wasn’t doing Westerns, two types of films attracted Ford most. One was anything and everything with an Irish theme, from the taut “The Informer” to the romantic “The Quiet Man,” where Wayne and O’Hara go at it one more time. He even turned the quintessentially Welsh “How Green Was My Valley” into a thoroughly Irish film, down to having Donald Crisp’s father dancing a jig.
Irish subject matter brought out the sentiment and sentimentality in Ford, and no American director had more of either. His is an old-fashioned world of broad, rowdy humor, where serious drinking is a given and people break into song just when you wished they wouldn’t. Yet even though Ford’s softheartedness and his patriotic belief in America as the best of all possible worlds are seriously out of fashion today, the absolute sincerity behind them can still cause audience tears to flow with abandon.
Even more attractive to Ford were situations characterized by one of his titles: “Men Without Women.” Whether as shipmates on interminable ocean passages, as in “The Long Voyage Home,” Ford’s beautiful take on Eugene O’Neill, or comrades in arms in wars ranging from Mesopotamia (“The Lost Patrol”) to the South Pacific (“They Were Expendable”), the deepest connections in any Ford film, the moments you invariably remember, are always those between men and men.
Ford’s indulgence in sentimentality may divide modern viewers, but all that fades into the background in the face of the unself-conscious sureness of his storytelling touch. “Take everything you’ve heard, everything you’ve ever heard,” James Stewart told director Peter Bogdanovich, an early Ford biographer, “and multiply it about a hundred times--and you still won’t have a picture of John Ford.”
Kenneth Turan is The Times’ film critic.