The Men Who Would Be Kings
JOHN FORD INTERVIEWS, Edited by Gerald Peary,
University Press of Mississippi: 166 pp. $46 cloth, $18 paper
Other American filmmakers never had to be persuaded of John Ford's greatness. As the legend goes, young Orson Welles learned to make movies by watching and rewatching Stagecoach. Welles' much-quoted mantra was "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford," the road to Citizen Kane and Xanadu. "A John Ford film was a visual gratification," said Alfred Hitchcock, " his method of shooting eloquent in its clarity and apparent simplicity." Frank Capra called Ford "pure great," and Elia Kazan confessed that, even after half-a-dozen films, he studied Ford's oeuvre to learn how to become more cinematic. Ford "taught me to tell it in pictures... Jack taught me to trust long shots," the On the Waterfront filmmaker said.
Ford's around-the-world, on-the-record adherents include Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Wim Wenders, Satyajit Ray. Speaking for all of them was Federico Fellini: "When I think of Ford, I sense the smell of barracks, of horses, of gunpowder, ...the unending trips of his heroes. But, above all, I feel a man who liked motion pictures, who lived for the cinema, who has made out of motion pictures a fairy tale to be told to everyone, but--in the first place--a fairy tale to be lived by himself... For all this I esteem him, I admire him and I love him."
So too does this unabashed Ford freak, who is proud to have edited this anthology. My infatuation started at age 11, in the summer of 1956, four incandescent matinee days in a row of watching little Debbie being whisked away by renegade Commanches in The Searchers, and with John Wayne's rough, big-daddy, Ethan Edwards, coming after. It was my favorite film immediately and, 30 or so mesmerizing screenings later, it remains my favorite. I met Martin Scorsese once, when he was shooting Taxi Driver, and for our hour-and-a-half that's all we talked about: The Searchers, The Searchers, and how much we adored it. (I've had that equivalent conversation with many others, including--surprisingly?-- Native American novelist, Sherman Alexie.)
The Searchers, perhaps the closest we come to "the great American film," is the pinnacle of Ford's cinematic accomplishment. Among other deeds, he made, in my estimation, the best biography film of all time (Young Mr. Lincoln), the best war film (They Were Expendable), a classic romance (The Quiet Man), one of the greatest films of childhood (How Green Was My Valley), two of the best literary adaptions (The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home), many of the most distinguished, thoughtful of westerns (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).
Even--how prescient in the 1950s!-- Ford produced a profound, germane "gender-issues" film showing the tragic consequences of intractable male codes (Wings of Eagles, also his most underrated work).
These carefully wrought studio films, filtered through Ford's shimmering personal perspective, and starring his semi-private stock company of actors (Wayne, Victor McLaglen, Maureen O'Hara, Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, John Carradine, Harry Carey, Jr., Olive Carey, John Quaylen, Barry Fitzgerald, etc.), became special things indeed, hearfelt and luminous.
Ford was unusually gallant about love, and he took families seriously, particularily impoverished ones, and with a special reverence for the hard, sacrificial lives of mothers. No American director has made so many pictures so seriously steeped in American history, from the pre-Revolutionary War (Drums Along the Mohawk) to multiple tellings of the displacement of Native Americans (including Cheyenne Autumn), to stories of World Wars I and II. Here is critic Andrew Sarris's famous description about Ford: "His style has evolved almost miraculously into a double vision of an event in all its immediacy and yet also in its ultimate memory image on the horizon of history."
Formally, Ford was a master of mis en scene, of montage (when, rarely, he wished to employ it), of light and shadows, of framing and settings, of melancholy expressionism fused with transcendant romanticism. The closeups are incomparably radiant and soulful; and, as his director pal, Howard Hawks, saw it, nobody in the history of films has been Ford's match composing long shots.
Ford (1895-1973) arrived in Hollywood in 1914 and began directing in 1917, in the silent-era days of World War I; and he worked steadily into the 1960s, the dissolution of the studio system. He made more than 60 silent films, about 130 movies in all, including a handful of superb documentaries. At points, his talents were recognized and amply rewarded by his peers: he won Academy Awards, including Best Director for The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and The Quiet Man, and a Best Picture for How Green Was My Valley.
But that was then, not now.
Though he's among the great American artists of the century, worthy to be discussed with Faulkner and Pollock and Ellington and Ives, John Ford is, in truth, hardly part of our national consciousness. Entering the new millenium, he is, for the public, a forgotten man. Young people, including film students, haven't seen Ford's movies, and seem uninterested in going back and catching up. Even repertoire movie theatres are hesitant to book Ford revivals. Unlike a Hitchcock series, the films might unspool without benefit of an audience.
The depressing scenario we know too well. Ford movies are "old" movies, many in black and white and with the casts and crew all dead. Who today cares? And who contemplates, in a Website postmodern world, long-ago American history? Would anyone under fifty be interested in ancient Hollywood genre movies, many of them woefully unfashionable westerns, and all of them unapologetically sentimental? Would a contemporary crowd pay to seen corny, creaky John Wayne?
But there's another key point in the disappearance of John Ford: the filmmaker's complicity in his own oblivion, his lifelong insistence that his movies should not be taken seriously as anything more than popular entertainments. An undeniable barrier to Ford's acceptance as a modern master was Ford himself. While other modernists (Fellini, Tarkovsky, Bergman) were elegantly poetic about their art, taking their genius (and interviews) seriously, Ford as a rule loathed journalists and was wary of cooperating in their assignments. He was legendarily monosyllabic, and gruff to those who posed intellectual questions about his works; and the better they knew his films, the more he might make them suffer.
A paradigmatic Ford encounter of the lethal kind was the filmmaker's brief, acerbic meeting in 1970 with Joseph McBride, a precocious critic who would cowrite with Michael Wilmington the brilliant analytic study, John Ford(197l). Ford, almost immediately testy, pushed his interviewer off-stride by a seating at his deaf ear, forcing McBride to sacrifice his momentum repeating questions. As for Ford's "thoughful" answers: Ford described his Seven Women as "just a job of work," he said of Jean Renoir's films, "I like all of them," and he characterized The Searchers as " a good picture. It made a lot of money, and that's the ultimate end."
Just minutes into the Q&A, Ford excused himself. Interview over.
"...Everybody asks the same questions, all you people," he told McBride, "and I'm sick and tired of answering them, because I don't know the answers. I'm just a hard-nosed, hard-working...ex-director, and I'm trying to retire gracefully."
The John Ford Movie Mystery, that was the title of Andrew Sarris's book about him. The mystery? From whence sprang Ford's mighty film art: poetic, thematic, thick with cross-references movie to movie, undeniably symbolic? How do you connect the marvelous cinema--so emotional, so richly humanist--with the impatient, cantankerous man who subverted attempts by others to elucidate them?
"I hate the analysis, the evaluation that others permit themselves to have," Ford told a French interviewer. "I am a peasant, and my pride is to remain one." Though he was a self-taught expert on American history and military affairs, someone who talked comfortably with John Steinbeck and Eugene O'Neill, he came on when he wanted to (often) as what he also was: a blue-collar, Irish-Catholic from Maine, who played football in high school and dropped out of college within weeks to head for California.
Why did he make movies? Because, he contended, of the joy of shooting in the open air and sleeping in a tent. What was he most proud of? Not his Oscars: military decorations, being made by Native Americans an honorary chieftain
Nobody tried harder to break through Ford's hard-ass veneer than the British critic-turned-filmmaker (This Sporting Life, O Lucky Man) Lindsay Anderson. He corresponded with, and met, Ford on a series of occasions through the years, beginning in the late 1940s when, as an Oxford student, he wrote enlightened essays praising Ford's films. In 1973, he would visit Palm Springs, California, where the filmmaker lay dying.
The exasperating record of their meetings is contained in Anderson's reminscences, About John Ford.
At the best of times, Ford was vaguely friendly, controlling the agenda of the conversations. At his worst, Ford caused Anderson deep hurt because he was so rudely indifferent to Anderson's side of their exchanges. "He doesn't want to be told anything. Not unless he asked," Anderson wrote of Ford in 1952. "I was not interested to meet Ford as ... a yessing disciple, oohing and aahing over stories which my common sense told me were not true."
In 1957, Anderson encountered Ford again, and once more came away feeling cheated. The result was a telling summation of the perils interviewing John Ford on one of the filmmaker's bad-mood days: "His defensive barriers were so strong; and one of its effects was infallibly to make one say the wrong things, ask the wrong questions.... His technique was brutal, ruthlessly destructive; by lying, by contradicting everything he'd ever said, by effecting not to understand the simplest question, he could reduce one to dispirited impotence."
And yet, that's not the whole story. Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, testifying that "my relations with Mr. Ford weren't always as amicable or easy," still managed in 1966 to coax the crotchety old director into a series of lengthy talks which constitute the monumentally important book-length career interview, John Ford, and which were utilized in Bogdanovich's masterly documentary, Directed by John Ford. And when Lindsay Anderson asked Ford on his deathbed if there's anything he wanted, Ford replied, and sincerely, "Only your friendship."
Yes, there were situations when John Ford acted almost civil, and, how serendipidous, a few easygoing storytelling days happened in the presence of a journalist. The revelation of John Ford: Interviews is the pleasant discovery that there were far more times than anyone previously imagined when Ford more or less "opened up," when, on the record, he discussed his life and career in a friendly, communicative fashion.
Begin at the beginning, with Billy Leyser's 1920 meeting with Ford for The Cleveland News. No trouble here: the filmmaker offered a meat-and-potatoes description of behind-the-scenes making the silent western, Marked Men. But by 1936, after his break-through Oscar-winning film, The Informer, Ford was accruing a volatile reputation: for sarcasm on the set and disarming honesty when being queried.The New York Times's Douglas Churchill wrote of Ford, "He is one of the most difficult men in town to interview. Graced with a rich, deep wit, he constantly says things he shouldn't....His comments on actors as a breed would probably inspire one of the most enthusiastic lynchings the West has known." Difficult? The problem here wasn't Ford, refreshingly uninhibited; it was the family-paper timidity of the Times faced with what Ford dared say on the record.
Could Ford be cooperative and charming? Consider
Emanuel Eisenberg's 1936 New Theatre piece, "John Ford: Fighting Irish." Eisenberg had been warned: Ford was deadly busy; Ford was "a non-giver of interviews." Yet what actually occurred: "...(W)e sat for almost two hours in an easy, informal, wandering talk.....and he...extended a further visit to come down to the set next week and watch him direct..."
That was the happy fate, too, of Photoplay's Howard Sharpe who, also in 1936, took up Ford's invitation to observe a day of shooting for Plough and the Stars. To Sharpe, Ford talked expansively: about the casting of Katharine Hepburn for Mary of Scotland, about how he lights the set and about how he researches. Additionally, Ford dropped the pose of a philistine, and admitted, "Usually I take the story and get every line of printed material I can find on the subject. And then I take the boat and simply cruise until I've read it all."
Did Ford have it in for the establishment New York Times? In 1939,Times critic, Bosley Crowther set up an interview, worried aloud that "Anything might happen, anything might be said by this cantankerous fellow who reputedly eats young actors like pretzels..." Nothing was said; Ford clammed up for Crowther, who wrote in frustration: "Conversation was surprisingly difficult, and from an Irishman, Mr.Ford was grimly laconic..." The Times's Theodore Strauss did no better in 1941, complaining "that it was difficult to make Mr. Ford talk about himself...He spoke little, and less for the record, of the changes that have come over the movie citadel..."
The terse Times interviews were an omen. There were few encounters by journalists with Ford through the 1940s. Had he shut down? Moving into the 1950s, Ford was most likely to sit for an interview when he'd ventured away from America, to England or Ireland, or if he was visiting Paris, which he embraced nostalgically because of having been there in the War. In the mid-50s, he met twice on record, affably, with the French critic-theorist, Jean Mitry, and also with Bert Miller, writing from Paris for a Swedish magazine.
Back in the USA, he consented to be quizzed about making The Grapes of Wrath by a young American scholar, George Bluestone, for what would become the classic book, Novels into Film. (Bluestone, now a retired cinema professor at Boston University, has contributed here an original recollection of his unusual meetings with Ford.) In 1963, Ford talked with Peter Bogdanovich in Monument Valley, on the set of Cheyenne Autumn. "I like making pictures, but I don't like talking about them," he said. No joking!
However, also in 1964, he was the subject of a remarkable wide-in-scope interview with Bill Libby for Cosmopolitan. Libby explained the secret of his unprecendented rapport with Ford: he simply asked the filmmaker to defend westerns. Ford barked, "Is it more intelligent to prefer pictures about sex and crime, sex maniacs, prostitutes and narcotics agents?" Ford's peevishness somehow got him going. Never again would he talk so articulately about western movies: their history, their morality, their appeal.
In 1965, Ford reverted to acrimonious form, amusingly subverting a French TV team which came to film him in LA. Sitting in pajamas on his bed, smoking a cigar, he pretended to have forgotten his early films, changed the subject mid-talk from his movies to Spanish wine, and suddenly stopped the shooting by clapping his hands and declaring, "I've got to have dinner!" In contrast, Ford began 1966 by sitting down at home to another comprehensive talk, reminiscing even about his silent days, with the astute Danish critic, Axel Madsen.
In 1966, Ford also returned to Paris, where he'd been invited for a gala theatrical revival of the 1948 Fort Apache. He consented to something totally out of character: he'd set aside some hours each day to meet with representatives of the French press. Although he would never admit it, Ford must have been pleased that so many French knew his films well, and were devoted to them.
One by one, the best French critics came and talked to Ford, 7l, as he sat up in his hotel bed at the Royal Monceau. He was quite friendly to all, though not always forthcoming about his old pictures. Observed one critic: "As soon as there's talk of one of his films, he scowls and pretends never to have seen it....John Ford hasn't seen John Ford films." But the two press attaches attached to him, future Cannes programmer, Pierre Rissient, and future filmmaker Betrand Tavernier, realized that things would go better if they introduced the critics not as journalists but as their friends. Sure enough, Ford loosened up and opened up, even having drinks and dinner with his French compatriots and singing aloud songs from his movies.
"Once in a while we gleaned some information," Tavernier said, though it was spread through a host of newspaper interviews. (The best of these--with Eric Leguebe,Michele Mott, Claude-Jean Philippe, Claudine Tavenier, and Bertrand Tavernier--appear in this volume.)
In America, 1968, Ford relaxed and had fun chatting with fellow western director, Burt Kennedy, for Action, the magazine of the Directors Guild. In 1969, he made an informal appearance at the University of Southern California, and set his own agenda: he entertained with raucus stories of practical jokes that he and "Duke" Wayne had played on fall-guy actor Ward Bond. In 1971, he returned to USC for another Friars-like night of movie-related anecdotes. It was Ford's 75th birthday; however, in the next years, his health would fail. Cancer.
Fortunately, John Ford's last interview, after he had come home from surgery, is one of the best of all time, a true "summing up." It was in 1973 with Walter Wagner for a chapter for You Must Remember This, Wagner's 1975 book of oral histories of old-time Hollywood. Ford reached back to proud family sagas, how his own father came from Ireland to fight in the War Between the States. He told at length, and with relish, his favorite story of movie-making: How I Became a Director. And he ended--how else?-- with a deathbed, blasphemous denial of his artistry.
"You say someone's called me the greatest poet of the Western saga," Ford said. "I am not a poet, and I don't know what a western saga is. I would say that it is horseshit. I'm just a hardworking, run-of-the-mill director."
Oh? Quoth Ethan in The Searchers: "That'll be the day!"
This book could only exist because of the astounding toil of my Assistant Editor, Jenny Lefcourt, working out of Paris. While writing her Ph.D. on early French cinema for Harvard University, Lefcourt somehow carved out time to locate every Ford interview conducted in France, and to translate them into English so that I could decide among all which would be most appropriate for this book. The selections made, Lefcourt's efforts continued, because she was the person who located the authors and magazines and negotiated rights for all the French selections. I am deeply indebted to her, as should be all Ford historians.
Back in the US, Keith Hamel, now a Ph.D.candidate in film at Indiana University, worked as a second Assistant Editor, helping me with American permissions. I thank Bill Westfall in Boston, Jon Bloom and David Bartholomew in New York, Michael Chaiken in Philadelphia, and Geoffrey MacNab in London for locating hard-to-find library articles. I thank Ted Elrich at the Directors Guild of America for securing permissions for two Ford interviews, and Mike Robinson at Doc Films in Chicago. At the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, site of the essential John Ford Papers, I was assisted immensely by Sandra Taylor, Curator of Manuscripts, and by librarian Helena Walsh. Dan Ford, John Ford's biographer grandson, very generously allowed me permission to use interviews and clippings in the John Ford Papers at the Lilly Library.
I also thank Pat Collins in Ireland, Klaus Eder in Germany, Jean Roy in France, Peter Cowie, Richard James Havis, and Derek Malcolm in England, and Peter Bogdanovich in New York... And more crucial translations, from Swedish and Danish into English. For these, I am grateful to Jan Lumholdt and Ludvig Herzberg, both of whom are exemplary film critics.
I am grateful for the expert editorial help, and patience, of Seetha Srinivasen and Anne Stascavage of the University Press of Mississippi, and, as ever, to my wonderful friend, Peter Brunette, general editor of the Conversations with Filmmakers Series. Finally, thank you to my university, Suffolk University, for a summer stipend allowing me travel to the amazing Ford collection at Indiana University.
This book is for Amy Geller, with my hope she will watch lots of Ford movies. And a special dedication to the pantheon film critic, Andrew Sarris, whose American Cinema led me to John Ford.
- Gerald Peary
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