You Have A Mother Don’t You?

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Searching for John Ford: A Life by Joseph McBride
    Faber, 838 pp, £25.00, May 2003, ISBN 0 571 20075 3

It’s odd to think that Abraham Lincoln was killed by an actor, because most of the memorable American Presidents to follow him were actors in their blood. Eisenhower excelled in the part of the sturdy veteran who’d come home to tidy the porch, and Nixon was every part in The Godfather rolled into one. But it took Ronald Reagan to drive the matter past the point of absurdity: president of the Screen Actors’ Guild as well as star of Bedtime for Bonzo. The person who today seems most like a real President is Martin Sheen, who plays one in The West Wing.[1] George W. Bush – the less real real President – has settled for the part of a B-movie cowboy, and takes his role very seriously. Only the other day he was talking about ‘riding herd’ with the Middle East peace process.

Bush made Wild West philosophy a central plank of his 2000 election platform. In a documentary made by Alexandra Pelosi,[2] we were able to see him spreading his most important message – the right way to wear a pair of Texan trousers, the right kind of Lone Star belt to hold them up. Some commentators have the idea that Bush’s delivery is really an impersonation of Ronald Reagan impersonating James Stewart and John Wayne, but I think that elevates him too much: his mentality is clouded with lesser subtleties, occluded with hungers of a more brutal, mercenary, low-budget kind. He has the effective salesman’s knowledge of how to play with people’s sense of what is good about themselves, and he brings on tears in his pitch for the superiority of the American Way of Life. Cowboy simplicities about justice, evil and cowardice seem to suit the President’s mindset, and they suit the mindset of the people running his Intelligence.

James Woolsey, the former Director of the CIA, wanted an invasion of Iraq much earlier than it happened. He was in London in 2001 gathering evidence about Iraqi weapons, and had this to say about the movie High Noon in a February 2002 article for the Wall Street Journal:

Cowboys are normal people – some are impulsive, some are loners, some are neither. But what [the Europeans] are rejecting is not a modern-day cowboy, but rather a modern-day marshal, and marshals are different. They and their equivalents, such as GIs, have chosen to live a life of protecting others, whatever it takes. That’s not being impulsive – it’s deciding to be a shepherd instead of a sheep.

The extent to which cowboys are normal people, the extent to which normal people are normal people, were questions that came up all the time in the film-making career of John Ford, a career that lasted fifty years, and which one way or another says as much about home and landscape, belonging and solitude, war and peace, history and memory, America and Europe, as that of any American storyteller in any medium. Ford made some terrible films, and many of his good films have terrible things in them, and as a man he was almost certainly terrible all the time, but greatness is no hostage to goodness of character, and his hatefulness and sentimentality, his brutishness and intolerance, are no less bold or striking for being inseparable from his best achievements. Ford was the cowboy director’s cowboy director, but his work can be seen both to extol and repudiate the settled notions of American virtue that quicken the pulse of the Bush Administration. Like Bush and Co, he was all for America, but unlike them he knew that America was becoming a dangerous fantasy.

Rousing as their criticisms are, I can’t go along with the ferocity of Ford’s detractors (they seem to close their eyes to watch his films), but David Thomson makes a mighty-seeming case against him in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema. From the 1975 edition:

Ford’s male chauvinism believes in uniforms, drunken candour, fresh-faced little women (though never sexuality), a gallery of supporting players bristling with tedious eccentricity and the elevation of these random prejudices into a near political attitude – thus Ford’s pioneers talk of enterprise but show narrowness and reaction . . . The Ford philosophy is a rambling apologia for unthinking violence later disguised by the sham legends of old men . . . The visual poetry so often attributed to Ford seems to me claptrap in that it amounts to the prettification of a lie . . . Ford’s visual grace, it seems to me, needs the flush of drink in the viewer before it is sufficiently lulling to disguise the lack of intellectual integrity . . . It is sometimes claimed that Ford is a superb visual storyteller; that he unerringly places his camera and edits his footage. But the same could be said for Leni Riefenstahl. The glorification of Ford’s simplicity as an artist should not conceal the fact that his message is trite, callous and evasive.

Thomson doesn’t like Ford’s ‘message’; he is not persuaded that his movies tell a story against themselves, or that their beauty is more than ‘lulling’. He sees Ford’s shortcomings everywhere: in his abuse of geology, his celebration of dumb machismo, his irresponsible ignorance about tribes and histories, and most of all in his evasion of ‘truths’ in favour of panoramas. In a later edition, Thomson sought to mitigate his dislike, but he made his case more damning:

In an age of diminishing historical sense in America, but of regular crises that dramatise our need to ask what happened (with Watergate, Vietnam, Iran-Contra etc), I marvel that Ford’s heady obscurantism has such defenders. But to take Ford properly to task may be to begin to be dissatisfied with cinema.

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[1] The favourite TV programme of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s hot-water-friendly chief of staff. So much does Powell love it, according to the Guardian journalist Marina Hyde, that ‘when the actors from the show were in town he summoned John Spencer, who plays the President’s fictional chief of staff, to Downing Street for a chat.’

[2] Pelosi’s film, Journeys with George, is essentially a home-movie of Bush with the press corps, drinking fake beer with fake friends on the way, as it turned out, to a fake mandate. But the film affords several moments of great political insight. Pelosi: ‘If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?’ Bush: ‘I’m not, I’m a Bush.’

[3] This is not just a matter for the Indians. Hollywood’s treatment of Arabs is described by Jack Shaheen in a valuable new book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Arris, 574 pp., £14.99, May, 1 84437 019 4), as ‘cinema’s systematic, pervasive and unapologetic degradation and dehumanisation of a people’. The book at one point focuses on Ford’s The Lost Patrol, in which British troops are said to be engaged in ‘fighting an unseen Arab enemy who always struck in the dark, like a relentless ghost’. The Victor McLaglen character speaks of Arabs that ‘hide like sandflies’, and another soldier fantasises about ‘the joy of killing Arabs . . . sneaky Arabs. Those dirty, filthy swine.’ ‘The scenario,’ Shaheen remarks, ‘never describes why Arabs fight the British, or shows an Arab soldier dreaming of home, being with friends and family.’

[4] A striking book about such friends in trouble, The Memory of All That by Betsy Blair (Knopf, 352 pp., $25, April, 0 37541 299 9), was published this year. There we learn how the Blacklist could be repelled in an instant only by the very few – Blair’s then husband Gene Kelly was one. The book tells wonderful stories and had a good reception, but that didn’t stop it from being opposed on political grounds in one or two Hollywood quarters, showing how Anti-Communism lingers on.

[5] The story, called ‘John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, is a sort of dialogue drawing on the Jacobean dramatist and the film-maker. In a note to the story she Carterishly underscores the political point: ‘The Old World John Ford made Giovanni cut out Arabella’s heart and carry it onstage; the stage direction reads: Enter Giovanni, with a heart upon his dagger. The New World John Ford would have no means of representing this scene on celluloid, although it is irresistibly reminiscent of the ritual tortures practised by the Indians who lived here before.’