Amazing as it seems, John Ford, the most critically acclaimed of all American directors, has had to wait until the end of the century to get a definitive biography. Ford may well be the most written-about of American filmmakers, but nearly all of what's available can be fit in the category of critical study--such as Peter Bogdanovich's John Ford (1978) or Lindsay Anderson's About John Ford (1981)--or memoir. Even Tag Gallagher's formidable John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) has much more on the latter than the former, and what there is in the way of biography is highly tainted with layers of myths, lies, and legends, a good many of them propagated by Ford himself, which in large part explains why there has been no definitive bio.
Granted, it's hard to imagine how any one volume could contain either the man or the movies--not to mention both. John Ford's career began before World War I, and he died as the Vietnam War was heating up. In between he directed, among scores of other films, The Lost Patrol, The Informer, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Beyond their obvious import in the history of American film, these pictures can claim to have established the careers of such Hollywood icons as Henry Fonda and John Wayne.
Given the weight of this director's legacy, Print the Legend--the title will be instantly recognized by Ford fans as the epigraph from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--makes all previous books on Ford, and most books on any other filmmaker, seem undernourished. Scott Eyman, author of a highly regarded biography of Ernst Lubitsch and a ground-breaking history of the talkies, The Speed of Sound, has given us a 600-plus-page book without an ounce of fat.
John Martin Feeney--he later claimed to have been named Sean Aloysius O'Fearna in order to seem more Irish, as if that were really necessary--was born in Maine in 1895. A liar of colossal proportions, he padded his bio with college educations from several schools, though in fact he was self-taught beyond high school. Ford broke into films in the silent era, a time when an amazing number of directors (William Desmond, Allan Dwan, William Wellman, Raoul Walsh) were Irish, though Ford, as Eyman puts it, was "the only one to consistently play the professional Irishman."
Early on Ford began to exhibit the self-conscious lack of style that defined his craft. Ford despised "director's touches." ("You could be a pretty good director," he snarled at the young Fred Zinneman, "if you would stop moving the goddamn camera all the time. There has got to be a reason for moving it." He also tried "to make people forget they're in a theater" and began to display the temperament toward control of his work that is summed up in his demand "Give me the script and leave me alone." By 1938 he was ready to launch an incredible run of films--beginning with Stagecoach and ending with The Searchers--that became, as Eyman writes, "America's vision of itself, and the world's."
In other words, a tyrannical alcoholic of Irish descent from Maine actually succeeded in stamping his personality on the American consciousness. And what was that personality like? Eyman has seemingly researched everyone who knew and worked with Ford, and most of them would agree with an actress who worked with him early in his career, who recalled him as "a demonical man. Part of his mercurial personality was to do something he knew was mean or mischievous, then try to justify it." How mean could John Ford be? During the filming of The Searchers in Monument Valley, Arizona, a scorpion stung him. A few minutes later, John Wayne reported to the producer, "It's O.K. John's fine, it's the scorpion that died."
Wayne knew Ford's acid temperament well. For the better part of three decades, John Ford alternately brutalized and coddled him, molding him into a superstar in public and deriding him in private for his failure to join the service in World War II. Behind Wayne's back, Ford mocked his distinctive walk and made jokes about his manhood. ("He's a very cruel man," Wayne told Sam Goldwyn Jr. "Did he tell you I walk like a fairy?" Wayne took it because he had to; he understood perfectly that he had no career without Ford. Late in life, Ford needed Wayne to get financing for a picture; Wayne agreed to help "the dirty son of a bitch" because "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him...I'll do anything for him."
If John Ford sounds like a man who inspired contradictory reactions in others, he seemed even more conflicted himself. All his life he engaged in vicious, anti-gay remarks, while in person befriending and sometimes employing gays. ("Doesn't everyone have a gay cousin?" he remarked when chided about his friendship with Desmond Hurst, later a director himself. He was a passionately sentimental man who often wept at sad songs but reacted boorishly to the real-life tragedies of others. On one occasion he was approached by an old actor from his silent films who asked to borrow $200 for his wife's operation. Ford, who was incapable of dealing with the emotions inspired by such a request, punched the man, shouted at him, and walked away--then rented a limo to take the man and his wife to the hospital, where he paid the bills for the operation.
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.
"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.