Portrait of the artist as a monstrous man

<i>Print The Legend: the life and times of John Ford </i>by Scott Eyman (Simon &amp; Schuster, &pound;25)
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The Independent Culture

John Ford would be on most people's shortlist of the greatest movie directors. All his major films deal with just four subjects: Ireland, the Pacific, rural America and the Western, but within these confines he was incomparable. To the buff, titles such as The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr Lincoln, Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance speak for themselves. Since the Western was the major art-form produced by Hollywood, and Ford its pre-eminent creator, there are grounds for saying that Ford invented the archetypal image of the West, not least through his recurrent use of Monument Valley.

John Ford would be on most people's shortlist of the greatest movie directors. All his major films deal with just four subjects: Ireland, the Pacific, rural America and the Western, but within these confines he was incomparable. To the buff, titles such as The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr Lincoln, Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance speak for themselves. Since the Western was the major art-form produced by Hollywood, and Ford its pre-eminent creator, there are grounds for saying that Ford invented the archetypal image of the West, not least through his recurrent use of Monument Valley.

Ford had all the necessary attributes of a great director, but above all he was a poet and painter. In a classic instance of compensation, this man who had impaired vision and wore an eye-patch had a matchless eye for camera set-ups and composition.

Yet, as is so often the case, the artist was much greater than the man. John Ford the human being was a monster with few redeeming characteristics. He bullied his actors mercilessly and played mind-games with them. He made Donald Sinden a representative of the hated English establishment and tortured him on Mogambo, but did the same with fellow Irishmen - both James Cagney and Spencer Tracy worked with him once and refused to again.

The main butt for his cruelty was John Wayne, who gains much stature in Scott Eyman's narrative. One thinks of the private Wayne as a rather nasty semi-fascist, but he protected other actors and directed the terrifying Ford flak onto himself. Wayne was also compassionate, and tried to re-launch Ford's career in his seventies when others had abandoned him.

One of Ford's most tiresome habits was the one popularised here by Kingsley Amis - that irritating ploy whereby a widely read man pretends not to have heard of T S Eliot or whoever. Ford's macho, philistine stance may have had something to do with his worship of the military. Physically courageous, he shot action footage of the battle of the Midway from a US aircraft carrier in imminent danger of being sunk, was given a command in the navy and ended his career as a full admiral. Ford always hankered after official recognition and badly wanted America's gongs and honours.

Politically, Ford managed to combine ostensible Republican loyalties with admiration for FDR, and worship of John Kennedy with adulation for Nixon. An Irish Catholic who idolised General MacArthur and thought he should have been given free rein to bomb China in the Korean war, Ford had impeccable anti-communist credentials, which he used to swat aside criticism of The Grapes of Wrath as "pro-red". Deliberately provocative, he went out of his way to hire blacklisted writers in the Fifties just to show that no Senator McCarthy could push him around. Given his politics and religion, one might have expected him to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War, but he was an ardent Republican. Eyman suggests that he saw the Spanish Republicans as a transmogrified IRA, with Franco as the English establishment.

Ford's politics are significant in two areas. He despised the right-wing stance of his collaborators, John Wayne and Ward Bond, which may be why he treated them like dirt. Eyman, however, suggests that it was their failure to see active service that irked him. By contrast, he always treated James Stewart - an authentic war hero who flew combat missions over Germany - with great respect.

Ford was also an old-fashioned Irish Republican who adored the backward island beloved of Eamonn de Valera (and immortalised in The Quiet Man), and consequently loathed the English. Eyman does not quite get to the heart of this alcoholic son of a Maine saloon-keeper, and some of the analysis of films is superficial. But his book is a highly readable, massively researched narrative, packed with anecdotes and Hollywood gossip.

The reviewer's new book, 'Villa & Zapata,' is published by Cape

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