No lover of film could dislike this book. No one will read it cover to cover, at least at one sitting, but you can take long ambles in it and come away deeply refreshed and richly informed. Searching for John Ford is well researched and well written. This is no small feat, for often these two traits are at odds in biographies. When I saw the book, I gasped at its size, which sometimes suggests a biographer has fallen too much in love with his detailsthe reason many definitive life studies are so deadly dull.
For the most part, Joseph McBridea film critic and historian and a former reporter and reviewer for Varietyhas avoided this trap. Like Ford films, and his favorite landscapes, his book is big, but dramatically unified. McBride deftly shifts foci among events in Ford’s life, his immigrant roots, his democratic populism, his movies and the real world of studio politics and finance that he had to navigate to get them made. McBride also consistently contrasts Ford’s evocations of home and community with his alcoholism and abuse of relatives (his son Patrick especially) and friends. Not always happy reading, it does recall Yeats: sometimes artists choose perfection of the life or of the work.
McBride also keeps his balance; he is neither hagiographer nor pathographer out to destroy a reputation. John Ford, né Feeney (1884-1973), may have grown up in Maine and longed for his ancestral lands near Galway, but McBride describes in vivid detail how for many actors he was the director from hell. If he liked you, he mistreated you, the supporting actor Dobie Cary said. If he ignored you, then you’d probably never work with him again. As Thomas Mitchell said after Stagecoach (1939), Ford was the meanest s.o.b. on location I ever saw. He chews up actors and spits them out. He brutalizes the crew. He’s tyrant. And I’d crawl over those damned rocks at high noon to work with him again. To work with him again becomes a lyric refrain of his victims.
As McBride shows, for many actors whom he personally mistreatedJohn Wayne, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglenFord was both deity and demon. McBride’s account of how he prepped McLaglen for his Oscar-winning role as Gypo Nolan in The Informer (1935) is a gem. For such skills Ford still has champions among the auteur theoristsSarris, Bogdanovichwho say he artfully manipulated a crass system to get better results than it deserved.
McBride gives these theorists plenty of new material, continually describing in detail how Ford battled studios to get the film he wanted. His subversion of producers still gives him iconic status in Europe, though his star has faded in America, McBride notes, in comparison with others who milked the studios, like Hitchcock and Capra.
Ford never wanted to be known as an artist; and although he talked with the (then) young writer McBride just before his death, he never wanted to answer questions about art. In Hollywood, to acknowledge idealism is suicide. Yet Ford was an artist with his own vision. For Stagecoach, for example, the studio wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich; Ford rightly insisted on the then relatively fresh faces of John Wayne and Claire Trevor (Trevor and later Maureen O’Hara both knew a different Ford than the world did: he was kind to them, and both fondly note he never dictated a line-reading).
At the name of Wayne, McBride admits, many cinéastes turn away, muttering about The Green Berets. But the author also shows how Ford got Wayne to transcend macho to represent something else, not just in Stagecoach but also in The Searchers (1956), the American Iliad. Wayne’s rugged outsider, Ethan (That’ll be the day) Edwards, has a lineage back to Achilles, but, as McBride shows, he also incarnated the misanthropy Ford used to hide emotional vulnerability. The film, he argues, functions as exorcism.
For a biographer, McBride acknowledges, Ford presents a problem: he hid himself so well that writing about him involves searching for the demons bedeviling him. Ford is a bit of an enigma, even after over 800 pages. Psychobiographies can go too far, but this book sometimes suffersMcBride alertly admits thisfrom having too much action, not enough deciphering of motive. At times, McBride’s comments on movies also stretch a bit. Once he cites a critic claiming Monument Valley appealed to Ford because it resembled the rocky west of Ireland, his ancestral home. No: it was a good set.
But McBride is not wrong about the importance of Irish heritage to Ford; no film goes for too long without rowdy humor, often via McLaglen. Reading The Grapes of Wrath (1940) as an echo of Irish immigrant history also makes perfect sense. Moroever, McBride argues that Ford was not simply a maker of Westerns, from which his other work is a departure. Ford made Easterns tooThe Informer, the Welsh but nonetheless Celtic How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Quiet Man (1952) and even The Last Hurrah (1958)a final lesson to WASP snobs, albeit in Boston. His accounts of these films make for the best passages in the book, whose cover, one notes, is shamrock greenwith a photo of Ford that resembles his near-contemporary, James Joyce (1882-1941).
Regarding The Quiet Man, McBride notes again how Ford projected himself into Wayne’s retired American boxer (Sean Thornton) seeking peace on ancestral turf. Ford, McBride argues, identified with Thornton because he wanted out of murderous Hollywood during the blacklist, a time when he heroically opposed right-wing rants and, alternatively, accommodated them.
Some film historians see Ford only as the laureate of a bygone America that reached its climax in the 1950’s. But as McBride shows, no film about Vietnam (especially The Deer Hunter or Platoon) is without his influence; Scorcese’s disguised tribute is Taxi Driver. But if he mentored so many, who mentored him? McBride notes that a brother, Frank, preceded Ford from Maine to Hollywood as a director of silent films. Once there, Ford worked with D. W. Griffith; in the 1930’s, he translated German expressionism into American. But perhaps the biggest influences on Ford were a grammar school art teacher, who infected with him with a love of composition, and two high school instructors, one each in history and drama. Who, today, is giving future mythmakers their raw material?