John Ford: Ford focus

Fifty years after the release of 'The Searchers', Geoffrey MacNab looks at the life of director John Ford

"No. No." "I don't know what you are talking about." "I wouldn't know." "Cut!" These are some of the more fulsome and expressive answers that John Ford gave when he was interviewed by the filmmaker and critic Peter Bogdanovich for the documentary, Directed by John Ford (1971). The interview took place against the backcloth of Monument Valley, where Ford made his most famous westerns. The problem for Bogdanovich was that Ford didn't much like discussing his work.

Bogdanovich has helped fix Ford's image for posterity. With the cameras rolling, the director enjoyed living up to his image as taciturn sourpuss. The documentary, which Bogdanovich is currently re-editing with new interviews from such other Ford lovers as Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen and Clint Eastwood, catches Ford at the end of his career, when the filmmaker was at his most embittered: an old man forgotten by Hollywood who wore dark glasses or an eye patch because of his eye ailment and peered out at the world with undisguised misanthropy.

The stories about Ford's encounters with historians and journalists during this period make him sound more like Scrooge than one of the world's greatest film directors. Ford would make his interviewers sit on his "deaf" side so that he couldn't hear a word they were saying. They would repeat their questions. Their voices would get louder and louder until they were shouting. When they finally got through, they would be rewarded with a ... monosyllable.

Bogdanovich was 23 when he first met Ford on the set of Ford's late western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964). To his evident surprise, the querulous old director was civil to him. "He was very nice to me which everybody was amazed at. I think it was that I was young and knew his films. I didn't just know the famous ones. I knew all of them in detail. That impressed him."

The relationship began to totter when Bogdanovich wrote an article about Ford for Esquire magazine in which he included Ford's profanity. Bogdanovich showed the article to Ford before he sent it to his editors. Ford exploded. He was a Roman Catholic, after all, and didn't like the world to think he spoke that way. Bogdanovich meekly removed all the swear words.

"Later, I'd go over and visit him and he would kid around with me and pick on me, saying, 'Jesus Christ, Bogdanovich! Is that all you can do - ask questions! Have you ever even heard of the declarative sentence!'"

Not that Ford was enjoying retirement. "I don't think he was a happy camper, no," Bogdanovich blithely declares when I ask him if Ford was a contented man. "His family life wasn't happy. I think he fell in love with Katharine Hepburn and lost her because he was already married. It didn't work out. That was a big thing."

Ford's world was far from complicated. He liked liquor. He liked cards - especially winning at cards. ("The worst thing in the world you could do was beat Ford at cards. Actors would go in and they would deliberately lose to him. And he'd cheat too," remembers his grandson, Dan Ford.) He liked fishing. And he liked making movies. Everything else was a drag. By 1971, his filmmaking career was over (he died in 1973) and there was nothing to occupy him.

"He didn't find outlets for his creativity," suggests Dan Ford. "He could have done a book, gone on speaking tours, done some television. He could have done what Hitchcock did, put his name to a TV show. But he was such a control freak and such a director at heart that he wanted to be in complete control or he didn't want to do it."

It is debatable whether Ford ever really was quite as cantankerous as he liked to appear in his declining years. Beneath the bluster and machismo, he was - both his grandson and Bogdanovich insist - an immensely cultured, well-read man. "He just didn't like to talk about his work or himself. He didn't like to discuss how things were done," says Dan Ford. "He would disapprove of the backstage shows they have on TV now. He didn't want non-professionals to know what went on under the tent. It was like revealing a magic act."

All agree that Ford was never an easy personality, even if he wasn't quite the ogre he pretended to be whenever film historians came knocking. Right from the outset, he bore grudges and often bullied his actors. For many years, for example, he refused to speak to John Wayne because Wayne had "betrayed" him by accepting the leading role in rival director Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930).

"He (Ford) was jealous," Bogdanovich says of the long period in which he snubbed Wayne. "Raoul and he had an unspoken rivalry anyway. And Walsh was more of a macho guy than Ford was. Ford liked to pretend to be a hard-drinking, rough, macho guy but he wasn't. He was a pushover in many ways. Walsh was a hard-drinking, fornicating son of a bitch, but he was a lot nicer than Ford."

There are conflicting accounts about Ford's politics, his personality and even his love life. In truth, it doesn't make much difference whether he was mean or kind-hearted, liberal or conservative. Arguably, all that really mattered was what he most hated discussing - the films themselves and especially the westerns. And of all the westerns, the one on which his claim to greatness lies most surely is The Searchers (1956).

To anyone who has grown up seeing scratchy prints of The Searchers on TV, the film might appear to be just another of those Sunday afternoon John Wayne westerns. See it on the big screen in its restored version and you will immediately get a different sense of what the film is about.

Ford had a genius for framing. No one else knew how to film landscape like he did. The Searchers was shot in VistaVision and in Technicolor. Its landscapes are austere but majestic. Ford shows just how insignificant the humans are against such an awe-inspiring backdrop, but the camera is still alert to every gesture the humans make.

The film is full of what Bogdanovich calls "Ford shots". To illustrate what these are, he tells an anecdote about Howard Hawks's western, Red River, with its scene in which the clouds cover the sun and the shadows stretch over the mountains as a funeral is taking place. To an outsider, it looks as if the filmmakers are orchestrating the elements. "I asked Hawks one time, 'how did that come about?' He said, 'well, we saw it coming. We tried to get it. Once in a while you get lucky. You get one of the Ford shots.'"

The elegiac mood in The Searchers is set right at the outset, with the Stan Jones song about a lonesome cowboy on the soundtrack followed by the first strains of Max Steiner's evocative and melancholy score. We see Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding out of the landscape. Even before the massacre that turns him into a vengeful near-psychopath, it is apparent that he is an Ahab-like loner, an old confederate who still hasn't come to terms with the end of the American Civil War. It is also made very clear that he is a racist. "I could mistake you for a half-breed," he sneers at his nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter).

There is much that is toxic and unwholesome about The Searchers. Murder, rape, and fear of miscegenation are key elements. Early on, Ford plays up the homely, Laura Ingalls Wilder-like elements of the family living on the prairie in order to make their massacre all the more shocking. Wayne's Ethan is vicious and sadistic in the extreme in his quest for vengeance. The irony is that the man he is so desperate to kill, the Comanche leader Scar, is exactly like him: an embittered warrior who reacts to changing times by lurching further into violence. Ford knew that audiences loved Wayne. He played on their loyalty to him and their conviction that Wayne was, in spite of everything, a decent man. With any other actor, the film would have had a completely different resonance.

Ford considered The Searchers to be a successful film because it made money - and box-office returns were the only measure that counted. The critics reacted to it as if it were just another big-budget, proficiently directed star western. "It wasn't highly thought of at the time. It was a box-office draw. It did business, but the reviews weren't anything to write home about," recalls Bogdanovich.

Only slowly did audiences and critics begin to realise just how much subtext there was in the movie. On the one hand, this was an Old Testament morality tale. On another, it was an over-determined Freudian study about the dreariness of the other. It also held up a mirror to the racial tensions and simmering violence in the US of the 1950s.

Above all, the film had a devastating emotional impact. It is well-nigh impossible to watch that famous late sequence in which Ethan swoops down on the teenage girl (Natalie Wood) who has been living all these years with the Indians without getting a lump in the throat. Just when the act of violence that will damn him until eternity seems inevitable, Ethan holds back. "Let's go home, Debbie," is all he says, but it is still arguably the most affecting moment in any Ford movie.

When a director can create scenes like these, it doesn't seem to matter so much that he was a mean-tempered sonofabitch who bullied his actors and didn't always answer journalists' questions.

'The Searchers' 50th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition DVD is on release now from Warner Home Video. Peter Bogdanovich's re-edited version of his 1971 documentary, 'Directed by John Ford', will be released later in the year.

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