The Loud Man

A definitive biography captures the contradictions of John Ford, the meanest, greatest director of the Western

Nowhere did the volcanic contradictions of Ford's nature show so vividly as in his politics. Even his closest friends could never decide whether Ford was an archconservative or a Roosevelt New Deal liberal. Which was the real John Ford, the director of the most beloved populist American film of all time, The Grapes of Wrath, or the man who was alarmed that John Huston was "seeking refuge in our beloved Ireland" because Huston "is not of the Right Wing"? The man who went out of this way to invite Leni Riefenstahl to his home, or the man who, during the Hollywood witch hunts, hired blacklisted people? ("Send the Commie bastard to me," he said of one man, "I'll hire him.")

The answer, as Eyman makes clear, is that both sides were the real Ford--both sides and many more. "His true political religion," writes Eyman, "was to be contrary, a one-man insurrection against perceived manners and mores." John Ford "delighted in pretending to be a roughneck, but his films show that he was tender and sensitive. He tested people relentlessly, tested their abilities, their temperament, their fears, and above all, their loyalty, mostly by abusing them." At the same time, Eyman notes, "As nearly as can be determined, he never gave himself completely to anyone,"--in the end, not even to his best biographer, who doesn't claim to understand his subject but embraces and accepts the John Ford who made the movies.

Built Ford tough: The director on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with actors James Stewart and John Wayne
Built Ford tough: The director on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with actors James Stewart and John Wayne

"Filmmaking," says Eyman, "not alcohol, was Ford's primary narcotic, and nostalgia his primary emotion." For better--and sometimes for worse--John Ford took a powerful nostalgia for an America and an Ireland that never were and made them our own. America's sense of itself, Eyman argues, "as far as the movies are concerned, derive[s] from two people: Frank Capra and John Ford. Of these two men, it was John Ford who told the truth." If it's not quite so simple as that, many would concur at least that there was truth in Ford's telling, at least as much truth as movies have to offer.

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