“My name is John Ford—I am a director of westerns…I have never thought about what I was doing in terms of art, or ‘This is great,’ or as ‘world-shaking,’ or anything like that—to me, it was always a job of work, which I enjoyed immensely and that’s it.”
Ah! here’s a picture, in color—Monument Valley. Ford country. The background: Those magnificent, world-famous rock formations. The foreground: A Ford Truck and a porta potty. The title: “The Searchers”.
I worked with wonderful John Qualen once upon a time. At show’s end we shook and said adios. I told him he deserved an Oscar for “The Grapes of Wrath”. His honest blue eyes twinkled. “John Ford would like you,” he said. We’ll never know.
Ah, what’s this piece of paper a’molderin’ ‘neath the Victrola? It’s a yellowed NEW YORK TIMES book review titled “The Man Who Shot the West”. It’s flick critic Richard Schickel’s take on a book by Scott Eyman, PRINT THE LEGEND—THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN FORD. Pretty long review. When I finish reading it I don’t know if I want to read the book or not. Schickel doesn’t critique the book, he critiques Ford, and Ford gets a big Thumb down. “When the truth becomes legend, print the Legend.” Famous line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Schickel considers this philosophy so much baloney. Here’s a quote from his vitriolic diatribe. “John Ford (1894-1973) was not a nice person. He was an alcoholic, given to epic binges. He was also a director who delighted in cruelty, publicly humiliating his casts and crews, a man who carried petty grudges for punishing decades…vicious…mean…a bully…a tyrant!” He deems “The Searchers” “a spoiled masterpiece.”
For him, “Quiet Man”, “Far from being the genial travelogue Ford thought it was, is among the most witless and vulgar movies ever made by a supposedly major director.” Also, “He was incapable of portraying a mature relationship between a man and a woman.” He accuses Ford of constantly backing away from serious or tragic subject matter “with descents into low comedy, rank sentiment, false nostalgia…these failures were akin to the emotional failures of his private life, where he was always slipping away to the yacht to cruise and booze with his buddies, leaving his family to its own sad devices.”
Schickel considers Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Sam Fuller, and Sam Peckinpah to be better at their craft than Ford. Why then Ford’s enduring legend? Schickel ascribes it to Ford’s use of his camera, but adds, “Never mind that these pictures owed much to Remington and other western painters and Monument Valley, God’s own grandiose and falsifying stage set, which Ford nonetheless used powerfully to suggest the puniness and fragility of man and his works. These compositions, indeed, are still capable of evoking a certain kind of nostalgia.” Hmmmm! False nostalgia, no doubt. “But it is time to print the complicated truth about Ford, not another fawning version of his legend.”
Whew! Man has a bug up his butt, don’t he? Your honor, as Mr. Schickel sits glowering at the prosecutor’s table, I’d like to submit a few words in Mr. Ford’s defense, since he can’t speak for himself. Ay dogies, wouldn’t that be something if he were here? Duck, Mr. Schickel. Uncle Jack’s hurling one of his six Oscars at you. As exhibit-A I present 10 Ford flicks that transported me to uncharted sectors of my soul: “The Hurricane”, “Wee Willie Winkie”, “The Long Voyage Home”, “The Long Gray Line”, “Three Godfathers”, “Judge Priest”, “How Green Was My Valley’, “The Informer”, “The Prisoner of Shark Island”, “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend”. Oh yeah, and my favorite training film when I was in the Army, “Sex Hygiene”. Next, I present words from some character witnesses. Here’s one of your favorites, and I hope one of mine, Orson Welles. Let’s hear what he has to say about his favorite directors. “The Old Masters—by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, John Ford…my teacher…‘Stagecoach’ was my movie textbook. I ran it 40 times.” Thank you Orson, what does your colleague, the great French director Jean Renoir, think of Ford? “John Ford was a king; he knighted all those who had the immense luck to work with him.”
Your honor, I interject that Ford acquired his life-long love of landscape during his first visit to Ireland. I know well the overwhelming power of The Emerald Isle’s beauty. In 1970 I drove the entire perimeter of the Old Sod. Everywhere I looked I saw a miracle of nature. I was happy I hadn’t brought my camera, else I would have beheld the land o’leprechauns strictly through a viewfinder.
Your honor, I now call on Dobe Carey to come to John Ford’s defense by tossing in a few quotes from his great book COMPANY OF HEROES. “I’ve sat on many movie sets and listened to many actors talk about John Ford—I’ve heard them say, ‘I wouldn’t fall for that game he plays! He makes them all kiss ass! Wayne—all of them. I don’t go for that crap! He’d try his sadistic act on me just once, and I’d tell him right in front of his whole gang of ass-kissers, ‘Mr. Ford, stick you picture up your royal ass!’ I wish I had a buck for every time I’ve heard those words, but I never saw it happen in any of the nine movies I did for him. There were rules to follow when you were working for Ford. The rules were only for the actors he truly loved; those of us who were fortunate enough to be one of his regulars or what was later known as his ‘stock company.’ He was foxy. He directed some of the most gifted actors in the world, but I only know about the company I was lucky enough to work with. Yes, he truly loved us. Not because we were Oliviers or whoever, but because we did what he asked in the very best way we knew. And that made him supremely proud and happy. On the other hand, there were many actors who could get away with stuff we could not. But they didn’t see him between pictures, or go to his parties, or drink his whiskey when work was done, or sit by his bed to talk, or pray with him on Memorial Day. People
Funny about critics, your honor—they think they’ve got a pipeline to the truth. Don’t we all? We all see a flick in our own unique way—one flick becomes a million flicks when a million folks see it. Same goes for what we feel about each other. Wonder how many John Fords there were on his turbulent journey. Shakespeare could have crafted a honey of a tragi-comedy about the life and times of Pappy Ford.
In conclusion, your honor, how about this irony? I brought this heavy book to show you—use your legs when you lift it. THE OVERLOOK FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA–THE WESTERN. Please turn to Appendix 4 on page 379, The Critic’s Top Tens. Lookee here! Richard Schickel’s list: 1–“Stagecoach”. 2–“Fort Apache”. 3–“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”. 5–“My Darling Clementine”. 6–“The Searchers”. Hmmm! 5 outta 10 ain’t bad.
What’s that, your honor? Case dismissed!