That son of a bitch who happened to be a genius

March 23, 2001

With the Academy Awards season upon us once again, Mamoun Hassan pays tribute to John Ford, America's greatest director.

"You cannot contradict your time too flatly and be influential. That is impossible," wrote Wyndham Lewis. "Such men as Voltaire, or Mr Shaw, were very contradictory and contentious: but it was not their time they contradicted. It was not what was most vigorous in it they attacked. They were perfectly in tune with the Zeitgeist ."

In the cinema, above all other directors, you could say the same of John Ford. Ford was at the top of his profession for nearly 40 years, from the 1920s to the 1960s, winning a record six Oscars, four of them for best director ( The Informer , The Grapes of Wrath , How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man ). To have stayed in tune for so long despite tectonic upheavals in the United States in that period - boom and bust, the second world war and the cold war - implies an artist of great complexity.

But Ford's personality has remained contradictory and enigmatic despite innumerable articles and many books, although Robert Parrish had a good stab at it in Growing up in Hollywood , and Lindsay Anderson gave a brilliant critique of the work with inspired insight into Ford's creative process in About John Ford . A British film-maker in his radical phase once said to me of Ford, more in sorrow than in anger: "He was such an old reactionary." Ford could be just that. But he was also progressive (during the McCarthy witch-hunt, whenever he heard of someone being put on the blacklist he would say: "Send the Commie bastard to me. I'll hire him"). And he was apolitical. Whatever can be said of Ford and his films, the opposite is also true. He was generous - and mean as hell. He was a family man - and a loner. He was a company man through and through - and a mistrustful outsider (he said of the studios: "I make four [films] for them ... and one for me"). Ford was a hack director who made 135 features - and he was one of cinema's greatest artists.

Scott Eyman's masterful biography gives us both the man and his work. He also offers a fresh perspective on Hollywood, which nourished Ford and which he served, bamboozled and enriched. From the beginning, Eyman had to contend with Ford's perversity and fabulation. Ford compulsively and consistently laid false trails. Sometimes he told outright lies, sometimes half-truths and once in a while, just for the heck of it, the unvarnished truth.

Take his name, date and place of birth. He was born John Martin Feeney on February 1 1894 in Port Elizabeth, near Portland, Maine, but Ford claimed he was born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna on February 1 1895, and sometimes the birthplace was Ireland. But why? Hollywood, then and as now, was full of people re-making their past to make their future. In Ford's case, one can speculate - and not on this evidence alone - that this American patriot was at heart always an Irishman; and also that he wanted to appear even more of a prodigy.

His parents, John and Barbara Feeney, were first-generation Irish immigrants and he was one of 11 children, five of whom died in infancy. John Feeney was, variously, a fisherman, a farmer, a saloon keeper and an alderman. Eyman portrays a physically hard and emotionally warm childhood, which marked Ford's work. He liked the foot soldiers, and faces that matched the tough lives they endured. The tyro director Elia Kazan who, like Orson Welles, used Ford's Stagecoach as a directing manual, said of Ford's films: "He had roughnecks in them. He got the weather in them, he got poetry in them." Sentimentality, his Achilles' heel, could surface anywhere in his work, but he rarely falsified the milieu of ordinary people.

His brother Francis, a bit of a scallywag and 13 years his senior, left Portland and eventually ended up in Hollywood where he changed his surname to Ford, allegedly after the car. Frank started out as an actor and by 1912 had graduated to directing. Eyman quotes Kevin Brownlow, who rates Frank's films "authentic, often sympathetic to the Indian, and often concerned with the details of military life on the frontier". Ford himself called Frank "a jack of all trades and a master of all". Ford, known as Jack to his family and colleagues, left home to join Frank in 1914 and adopted his surname. He became Frank's assistant and worked in every department. He emulated, learnt from and competed with his brother, and in a few years he would surpass him. No shame in that; in time he would surpass nearly everyone else.

Harry Carey, who starred in westerns at Universal Studios, which churned them out in two-and three-reelers by the dozen, gave Ford his directing break. In four years they would make about 20 films together, with the first feature in 1917. Ford was lucky to be in at the beginning of cinema - not at its birth, but when it was learning to run. He ran with it and occasionally ahead of it. He did not have to adapt or unlearn other ways of thinking. Film-making became a natural act. He thought cinematically. Or, as Fellini put it, here was "the artist in a state of purity, unaware and raw, deprived of sterile and far-fetched cultural intermediations". Ford, who worked at appearing "unaware and raw", would have been amused. He was, in fact, sophisticated and as well-cooked as they come.

It is not clear at what point Ford began to show certain characteristic traits. For instance, he would chew on a handkerchief, not always a clean one, during the shooting of tense scenes. Less harmlessly, he would humiliate members of the cast and crew. Eyman gives the impression of Ford's shoots being hard and professionally fulfilling - but with an overhang of anxiety. His put-downs and insults were not always caused by incompetence or shortcomings. This perversity extended beyond the studio floor.

Eyman tells of an old actor who, during the Depression, asked Ford for $200 for an operation for his wife. Ford "launched himself at the actor, knocking him down. 'How dare you come here like this?' he screamed. 'Who do you think you are to talk to me in this way?'" Later that day, he gave the actor a cheque for $1,000 and had him and his wife chauffeured to hospital in San Francisco. Ford's drinking - Eyman calls him a "temporary alcoholic" - was doubtless a factor. He would go on binges between pictures but was cold sober during filming. Towards the end of his career, the drinking would spill over into the shoots.

The first film that audiences and critics would recognise as a "Ford" was made when he was 31, with a dozen two-reelers and 35 features under his belt. He embarked, as both producer and director, on The Iron Horse , a film about the meeting from the east and the west of the two lines of the transcontinental railway. The film's making was as hazardous and nearly as costly as the original event. The theme is obvious in its simplicity: the binding together of America. No other artist, perhaps in any medium, would dwell and ruminate to such effect on this theme. Sometimes, as a child of his times, Ford would play down and distort the role of one group or another (as he did the Indians in The Iron Horse or the blacks until he made Sergeant Rutledge ) but he would give epic proportions - principally through the western - to one of the most extraordinary enterprises in history, the creation of the United States. He would show the building and destroying, the celebrating and fighting, the giving and grabbing, the openness and bigotry and the idealism and cynicism. As Eyman says, he would become "the tribal poet of America".

During much of the silent era, American directors, Ford included, were the sons of D. W. Griffith. Griffith had extended the language of film but every frame, shot, cut and sequence was in the service of narrative. The films were not devoid of dramatic colouring, elaboration or expression, but the story always came first. The arrival of F. W. Murnau, the great German expressionist, took Hollywood not so much by storm as by the intricate movements of the camera and complex lighting. The image was the story. In Murnau's hands, Eyman says, "film was plastic... light could be sculpted... and the essence of cinema was a rhythmic succession of striking images".

Ford, whose own images had a stark and sturdy beauty, succumbed - to a degree. But he did not like moving the camera. He preferred to use the basics - the entry and exit, and movements towards, away from and across the camera - like nobody else. He liked action within the still frame. Whatever the development, the composition held. And in that composition the relationships unfolded. A scene in Young Mr Lincoln shows how. Lincoln, played by Henry Fonda, is at his desk considering a dispute between two brothers (the North and the South?), who stand a few feet apart in front of the desk. Lincoln has his feet up on a window ledge, almost with his back to them. He is laconic, almost disinterested. Then he turns around and faces them. He becomes the judge. The brothers become animated, hostile and move closer to each other. Lincoln gets up and walks across to stand behind them, threateningly. He enforces a settlement. There are a couple of short cut-ins, but the mid-shot develops the story. The mid-shot, which exposes inferior directors, tells the story effortlessly; and Lincoln's future role in the civil war is condensed into that small scene. Modern Hollywood directors would have covered it from 20 angles - and missed its point.

Ford's brush with German expressionism prepared him for a period of extraordinary creativity. It started in 1939 with Stagecoach , followed by Young Mr Lincoln , The Grapes of Wrath , How Green Was My Valley , They Were Expendable and My Darling Clementine . The range is breathtaking: personified by Fonda, the thinker who hid behind a taciturn and homespun manner, and John Wayne, the man of action, slow to anger but decisive when driven. They had one thing in common: emotional and moral reserves. After a sour experience in the making of Mister Roberts , Fonda had had enough of that "son of a bitch who happens to be a genius" and would not work with Ford again. Something went out of Ford's films after that.

Directors have been compared to generals, but Ford was an admiral. In fact, he ended up as a real one for his work during the second world war in running a US Navy film and photography unit covering the fighting in the Pacific and later in Europe. He was in the thick of the action at the battle of Midway and was slightly injured. Apparently, he behaved as stoically as Wayne did in Ford's movies.

He had his crew on land, his stock company: Harry Carey, Wayne, Fonda, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen, George O'Brien, John Carradine, Harry Carey Junior and so on. Ford made stars of a couple, discovered a couple, gave all of them their best parts, and regularly abused them. In return, they gave him their best, went drinking with him, put up with insults and humoured him. They called him "Pappy".

After the war, he made what has been called his cavalry trilogy: Fort Apache , She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande . They were adaptations from stories written by James Warner Bellah published in The Saturday Evening Post . Bellah was a charmer, described by his son as "a fascist, a racist and world-class bigot". Ford played a considerable role in the adaptations. His background notes for Fort Apache are fascinating, and his treatment for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is the film. What emerges clearly is that Ford took all the derogatory, racist and anti-Indian elements out of Bellah's stories. The Indians in Fort Apache are put upon, stoical and honourable. They will fight only when pushed beyond endurance, and then they will more than match the strategies of the military academy. And they are more gracious in victory than their enemies.

The trilogy shows Ford at his most commanding and in his natural element. The locations - particularly his brooding Monument Valley - are spectacular, and his action sequences remain as epic and thrilling as when they were made. But these films, indeed all Ford's films, are character driven: he was always interested in character. Yet character can be manifested in many ways. Ford's are more akin to Homer's than to Shakespeare's. That is why Lindsay Anderson balked at Ethan Edwards, the hero of The Searchers . He was too neurotic for Anderson. He came from a different tradition. But for us, at this distance, Ford was always going in that direction. He travelled with his nation from the optimistic, idealised notion of itself as dynamic and free through to something more sober and darker.

The poetic and ambiguous ending of The Searchers speaks directly to our times. (It is the Ford film most highly rated by critics.) Ethan Edwards - Wayne in his greatest role -finally catches up with his favourite niece, Debbie, the only survivor of an Indian massacre of her family. He has been searching for her to kill her because she has been defiled by the Indians. But at the climactic moment, he decides against killing her and takes her back to the homestead. There he is totally ignored and he turns and walks away to face a life of wandering: the door is shut on him. Ford, who used hymns and popular ballads throughout his films, ends with this song: "A man will search his heart and soul / go searching way out there / his peace of mind he knows he'll find / but where, O Lord? Lord, where? / Ride away. Ride Away. Ride Away."

Eyman's Print the Legend is a tremendous achievement. It is intelligent, informative, insightful and a joy to read. John Martin Feeney, Sean Aloysius O'Fearna, John Ford, Jack Ford, Pappy, has found his biographer.

Mamoun Hassan is dean of editing, International Film and Television School, Cuba, and director, Alchemist Films, a film investment group.

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