Searching for John Ford: A Life, by Joseph McBride. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Cloth, $40.00. ISBN 0-312-24232-8.
John Ford, born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna in Cape Elizabeth, Maine in 1895, hasn’t lacked for biographers since his death in 1973, but he remains an extremely difficult subject, for several reasons. One is the sheer sweep of his career, which, spanning 1917 to 1970, roughly paralleled that of American cinema itself and witnessed massive societal changes and world wars. More problematic is Ford himself, a man with a multiplicity of nicknames: Boss, Pappy, Jack. Joseph McBride, in Searching for John Ford, quotes Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) in The Searchers telling Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) “You fit a lot of descriptions,” a statement that nicely summarizes Ford’s own elusiveness.
In this rock-solid, 800-plus-page biography, McBride shows that this exceptionally powerful but also deeply flawed man hid behind his films and behind a carefully constructed identity that was always in danger of cracking, and sometimes did. A sensitive, culturally literate, poetically inclined man, he pretended (in his own phrase) to be “illiterate” and called assessments of his status as the master of the western saga “horsehit.” A passionate defender of family values in his films, he was also, frequently, a sadist on the set. The book shows him as a poisonous presence toactors like Jimmy Cagney (who called him “truly a nasty old man”) and Henry Fonda (who may or may not have knocked him down) but particularly to his treasured stock company members Ward Bond and John Wayne. Without being overly psychoanalytical, McBride shows how Ford’s personal behavior was often a projection of his anxieties. On the set of Stagecoach, he was publicly merciless to Wayne: “I really should get Gary Cooper for this part. Can’t you walk, for Chrissake, instead of skipping like a goddam fairy.” The irony here was that Wayne was apparently copying Ford’s own much-noted “feminine” walk. The book also documents Ford’s endless practical joking, much of it aimed at Bond, a rabid anticommunist whom Ford considered “stupid.”
Searching for John Ford documents every phase of his life and career, from his early missteps to his canonization as one of the greatest — and most widely influential —directors in world cinema. The book gives what are most likely definitive answers to some nagging questions in this history, one of them Ford’s alleged affair with Katherine Hepburn. McBride sifts methodically through every shred of evidence, including questionable portrayals by Hepburn biographer Barbara Leaming and Ford’s grandson Dan, and a mysterious letter found among Ford’s papers that purports to reproduce a conversation between Hepburn and an unidentified “Miss D” on the subject of her involvement with Ford. He makes an entirely credible case that this relationship was not physical, based on Ford’s Catholic inhibitions and marriage vows. At any rate, despite Ford’s wife Mary’s willingness to let him have a private life outside his beloved home and marriage, alcohol had a stronger lure for him, eventually causing drastic problems on the set of such films as Mr. Roberts, which had to be finished (and perhaps was finished off) by Mervyn Leroy.
The Ford of this book is a charismatic but also authoritarian figure who used his gifts in ways that can only be described as schizoid. In a remarkably brave move documented in one of the most dramatic sections of the book, he publicly excoriated red-baiter Cecil B. DeMille over demands that the directors’ guild members sign a loyalty oath. But typically, the next day he sent a fawning letter of apology to DeMille. The book also reveals that when actress Anna Lee, a friend of Ford’s and one of his actors, was blacklisted by mistake (there was apparently another, more left-leaning Anna Lee around), he simply made a phone call to Washington to clear things up. McBride wonders, as will the reader, how Ford could so easily cut through such a monolithic force as HUAC to spare a friend, and sees this as a typically problematic act on Ford’s part, showing both his loyalty and a power he could use for his own ends.
Of course, Ford was also a heroic, larger-than-life character who generated enormous loyalty among those who worked with him, even those who were sometimes insulted by him. His friendships were both loving and long-lasting. Claire Trevor, who worked with him on Stagecoach, recalled him as both “absolutely wonderful to me” and a master on the set, whose sometimes unsettling decisions on the set — in this case throwing out what Trevor thought was a crucial romantic scene — invariably improved the film. He was also capable of transformation. He railed against being called a racist, a charge leveled at him off and on throughout his career (and one that McBride explicates evenhandedly). “When I landed at Omaha Beach there were scores of black bodies lying in the sand. Then I realized that it was impossible not to consider them full-fledged American citizens.”
Searching for John Ford is arguably the most rounded portrait to date of this complicated man who transformed American history into cinematic art. McBride exhaustively examined the mountain of interviews, memoirs, and analyses relating to Ford, and fortunately the book documents all of these. It also contains cogent critiques of the films themselves. McBride is especially good on the seminal Searchers, interspersing a compelling production history with analysis and irresistible anecdotes from some of its contributors. (Henry Worden, an actor of German heritage who played Chief Scar, is particularly witty in his reminiscences.) If Ford remains slightly elusive at the end, it’s less a criticism of this book, which is both substantive and a wonderful read, than a tribute to its subject’s skill in camouflaging the depths of his personality and keeping the world safely at bay.