John Ford, the Unquiet Man: He Chewed a White Hankie

Searching for John Ford , by Joseph McBride. St. Martin’s Press, 812 pages, $40.

At one point in Preston Sturges’ wonderful wartime farce, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), the hero’s mother is trying–in front of a crowd of neighbors in her kitchen–to dissuade her son from taking off his Marine uniform: She reminds him that his grandfather, after all, “wore his Civil War uniform the rest of his life.” “Kept having new ones made,” interjects a helpful aunt. “He said he had to remind people that brother fought brother,” the mother adds piously, for the benefit of the non-family members in the room. I was reminded of that by a passage in Joseph McBride’s fascinating new biography of John Ford. Mr. McBride tells us how Ford–given his postwar “identification with the military ethos”–liked to attend Hollywood events wearing “full Navy regalia.” A daughter of one of Ford’s closest Navy buddies remembered: “Ford used to make quite a big scene about wearing his uniform to anything. He would say to my dad, ‘I don’t want to wear my uniform. Don’t put me in the position of having to wear it.’ But if Dad wouldn’t press him, he would be heartbroken.”

Sturges makes it easy to recognize that unseen grandfather, to get the joke about him: the fakery, the self-importance, best of all the unctuousness (“he had to remind people … “). It’s the sort of joke–a very American sort of irreverence–that excludes, even defies, I would argue, the work and sensibility of John Ford. Ford meant to be irreverent (Don’t make me wear it!), but he never

really was. Where Sturges made a single brilliant movie that kidded (in 1944) about fetishizing the uniform, Ford made a string of movies that did just that–the famous Cavalry Trilogy among them ( Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande ). According to Mr. McBride, Ford offered to be, even set out to be, America’s national poet on film. There were some deep strains of American poetry, anarchic and skeptical, that he was out of touch with, impulses represented by screwball comedy and film noir. And yet Ford’s greatness was undeniable. Asked to name his favorite American directors, Orson Welles replied: “[t]he old masters–by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

There have been other Ford biographies: one in 1979 by his grandson Dan Ford, Pappy (Mr. McBride draws on it quite a bit), and most recently Print the Legend (1999) by Scott Eyman, the Lubitsch biographer. Both are valuable books, but more anecdotal, less ambitiously researched than this one. A film historian with an already imposing track record of books on Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Welles, Mr. McBride wants his biography to be definitive–which it is. It’s also a vivid reminder of the many reasons why it’s not easy to love John Ford, either the work or the man. The uniform fetish is the least of it (he kept having new ones made, too).

“When you’re working with a genius, you put up with a lot,” said Henry Brandon, who played Scar in The Searchers . Ford’s meanness on the set was legendary, but selective; many of his sets were famously gemütlich –more like going to camp (songs, games, scheduled activities even) than to work, Henry Fonda once said. But Ford knew better than to mess with Fonda. He also knew how to reduce John Wayne to tears of humiliation–and frequently did. Ford might pick on anyone at all, from a star to a grip to someone who’d just asked a stupid question. What made it even worse was that people could never see his eyes: The dark glasses he wore on the set were as inevitable as the long handkerchief he was always chewing on. Harry Carey Jr., a Ford regular, claimed he could tell whenever Ford was going to get nasty to someone: A tendon in his neck started to twitch and he gnawed his handkerchief even harder. His favorite target–after Wayne–was supporting actor Ward Bond. There were serious reasons for hating Bond, who was a right-wing thug and a sort of fascist enforcer during the 50’s witch hunts; but the kind of things Ford liked to reprove and mock the actor for–like the size of his ass–weren’t really among them.

And Bond was his big buddy, just as Wayne was. Two of his closest friends, part of his gang–a backward bunch altogether, even by Hollywood standards. They reenacted all those macho rituals of drunken bonding and brawling that the worst Ford movies and the worst parts of the best ones incessantly celebrate. But Ford’s real-life gang were often up to tricks that even his movies couldn’t have turned into clean Irish fun. Like the time Wayne tried to rouse a sodden, sleeping Bond by pouring vodka on his chest and then setting it on fire. Or Ford peeing out his bedroom window by way of greeting his daughter and her friend, the actress Joanne Dru, on the porch below (“Good afternoon, girls!”).

Ford surely knew that with these guys, much as he loved them, he was lowering himself. On the set–nearly the only place where he was dependably sober–he made them pay. But that vindictiveness lowered him, too, and most of the time he would feel sorry for it later. His sentimentality (also in his movies) was the other side of his nastiness, and almost as hard to bear. “Sentiment is Jack’s vice,” said Orson Welles, assessing the movies for Peter Bogdanovich. “When he escapes it, you get a perfect kind of innocence.” Welles cited Young Mr. Lincoln (“How truly great that is!”). He might as well have named They Were Expendable , and for the same quality–a war movie not like any other, managing a heroic mode that feels both heartbroken and serene at once.

That Fordian “innocence” operates with mysterious force in The Searchers . One of the most striking things about the first 20 minutes or so of the movie is the indirection–the tact of the moviemaking itself. We know, for example, without acknowledgment by anyone on the screen, that Ethan (John Wayne) is deeply in love with his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and she with him. We know it when he first arrives, from the way he bends from his great height to kiss her on the forehead, and the way she lowers her eyes when he does so; then the way she backs wordlessly into the house ahead of him, welcoming, her apron lifting softly on the wind in front of her. She will soon say goodbye to him–in front of the preacher (Ward Bond) who has come to recruit the men for a rescue mission. Another grave, wordless forehead kiss, another resigned and lowered gaze, a light touching of forearms–an exchange not observed by the Reverend, who’s just noticed her caressing Ethan’s coat before taking it to him, and who now stands drinking his coffee in the left foreground, raising the cup to his lips, chewing thoughtfully on his doughnut, looking abstractedly (as the couple to the right behind him draw heartbreakingly apart) toward us. There’s hardly a movie scene anywhere, it seems to me (at least when I’m watching this one), that moves you so much and so powerfully. At such times, Ford makes those other “old masters”–all famous for their “touch,” their civilized elegance (Lubitsch, Ophuls, et al.)–look almost ham-fisted.

And yet Ford made many crude and cartoonish films, with performances to match (he said comedy was his real talent–it wasn’t). The sharpness of that contrast, even the violence of it (like the way he trashes The Searchers in a later film, Two Rode Together, which seems like a malignant take-off) suggests a mystery that’s beyond the facile psychologizing (sexual insecurity? masculine-identity crisis?) that Mr. McBride’s biography, at its weakest, falls into. But it’s a bounteous book, and the rest survives. Especially the wonderful stories.

Ford is supposed to be a man’s director, and certainly that was the kind of movie he mostly made. But it’s the women in Mr. McBride’s book, the actresses–Claire Trevor, Maureen O’Hara, Anna Lee and others–who have the most interesting stories to tell about how the director worked. It was “weird,” according to Lee, the rapport you felt with him. She played Bronwen for Ford in How Green Was My Valley , and he readied her for one of her biggest scenes (where Bronwen, learning that her collier husband has just died in an accident, rushes out onto the street and down the hill to the mines) without any recognizable “preparation.” He sent her off down the studio hill with his handkerchief tucked into her apron (their secret). Apparently it worked–Lee saved the handkerchief. But then someone, she thinks, must have thrown it out later. It was, after all, very badly chewed up.

James Harvey’s Movie Love in the Fifties will be out in October from Knopf.