John Ford: An American Director
As a child I loved John Ford movies before I knew who John Ford was. They weren’t merely fun: They pulled me into a world infinitely preferable to the real one. I didn’t identify with just his people, but with his reconstruction of places, events and entire societies. When Drums Along the Mohawk played for a week on a local TV series, I watched it every night and have never forgotten the sight of Henry Fonda eluding three Indian pursuers while silhouetted against the sky, nor that of starchy old Edna May Oliver ordering marauding Indians to remove her from her house before they burned it down, nor the terrifying amputation of General Hekimer’s leg. And I remember Henry Fonda quelling a lynch mob, then later taking his solitary walk up a lonesome mountainside and into history at the end of Young Mr. Lincoln; a drunken Donald Crisp, father of a Welsh mining family, singing a song while trying to walk a straight line to prove he was sober at the warmest party I ever attended in How Green Was My Valley; and mad, dispossessed Muley, bending into his own shadow, pounding the raw earth, and half crying, half screaming at the banker driving away with his land that, “. . .… we were born here, we worked here, some of us died here and some of us may die here still . . . …” in The Grapes of Wrath.
When my growing interest in film replaced my obsession with rock & roll a few years ago, I only then realized just how many of my favorite movies had been directed by this one man. The connections I had made in childhood proved to be merely the tip of the iceberg, in both the films themselves and my capacity and desire to respond to them.
I was surprised that his death at 78 did not particularly sadden me. But his work was long since completed and, unlike Orson Welles, Josef von Sternberg, Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, he usually got to do what he wanted, remained active for as long as he wished, and maintained more control over his work than most others in Hollywood. In his last years his conservative politics became something of an issue – although he had been typecast in the Thirties as a Hollywood liberal for making such socially conscious films as The Grapes of Wrath and The Informer. Partly because of his close identification with his leading man, John Wayne, many thought him a simple reactionary in the Sixties, a notion no doubt reinforced by his grateful receipt of the Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon last spring.
Whatever his personal politics, one knows that in any John Ford film a man of Richard Nixon’s character would have never been more than a melodramatic villain (John Mitchell would have been perfect as the crooked bank president in Stagecoach), and one searches his post-1930 work in vain for a good, let alone heroic, man of wealth or spokesman for the privileged. He was not concerned with politics per se but with values, codes, character, society and tradition. He grappled with the problem of integrating the human spirit into the strait jacket of a stable social order.
John Ford’s legacy is in his art and to do it justice requires nothing less than a book-length study. Happily, there are two promising works on the way, one by the excellent film scholar Joseph McBride and the other by critic-historian Andrew Sarris. And Peter Bogdanovich’s John Ford is a delight to read, although it is only an introduction. For my part, I only offer a few observations about Ford’s importance to a single viewer, and hope the charitable will indulge my necessary omissions, compressions, generalizations and arrogance in trying to write of someone I admired so much, but whose artistry still remains largely a mystery to me.
Breadth of vision
In comparison to that of contemporary filmmakers, John Ford’s work is distinguished above all by its breadth. A modern director is considered prolific if he makes a film every year and a half. Between 1917 and 1966 Ford directed close to 140 films, many of them commissioned assignments, but all of them bearing some sign of his personality. Unlike modern moviemakers, he filled even his smallest films with societies that covered all classes, roles and races, to say nothing of the endless detailing of everyday life. For example, in How Green Was My Valley (1941), the existence of the Welsh mining family centered around the home (which itself centered around the dining room), the mines and the church. In addition, there was a school, an offscreen bar and an isolated and lonely mansion on a hill, all defining the parameters of a small, self-contained world. In My Darling Clementine (1946), we witness the actual completion of the building of the town as the people celebrate the raising of the church at a community dance that marks their acceptance of civilization in the midst of the wilderness.