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.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,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.
Adherence to legend at the expense of facts will ruin America – the work is well under way. And lovers of the movies should consider how far film has helped the undermining. Ford is not the only culprit: Clint Eastwood’s overpraised return to the West, Unforgiven, begins as an attempt to see things afresh, but at last its rigour collapses and it becomes not the West but just another western. Still, Ford is the pioneer of this vision, and that is what I railed against in 1975.
The Searchers is still a riveting, tragic and complex experience, a movie in which Ford gives up many of his false certainties, and a story filled with disturbing, half-buried thoughts of race and failure. On the strength of that one film I would love to read a thorough life of Ford (such as Joseph McBride managed for Frank Capra, that other fragile hero).
The reasons Ford ‘has such defenders’ are amply supplied in the book McBride has now written about him, which shows how we might do better not to understand our enemies too quickly, how even idiots have art in them, great art even, so long as we don’t ask them to mirror our certainties. Here is a Ford who is unearthed from the strange wonder of his films, and whose films are unearthed from the grave of their maker’s reputation. Thomson was not entirely wrong: he just wasn’t saying the only things to be said about Ford, and by calling for the attentions of a McBride he encouraged the writing of a book – this one – that may serve to damn his own unseeingness. It’s not always best to meet a perceived blatancy with a blatancy: McBride shows spirit in his search for what lies beyond the unlovable in John Ford, which at the same time proves to be a search for the troubled lives that might be found among the shadows and voices and characters of Ford’s amazing pictures.
J0hn Feeney was born near Portland, Maine, but his people were from Spiddal, a village about eight miles outside Galway City. The West of Ireland is its own Monument Valley, and all his life Ford never stopped thinking about it: he signed the name Feeney to his last will and it is the name that would be inscribed on his coffin. ‘If there is any single thing that explains either of us,’ he said to Eugene O’Neill, ‘it’s that we’re Irish.’ Ford’s great discovery was that many of the citizen soldiers who fought in the American Revolution were Irish immigrants: a finding, McBride writes, that ‘roused in him a vital connection to American history and the nation’s heroic ideals’.
Being Irish but not born in Ireland, Ford’s imagination was married to a complex of nostalgias, and yet sentimentality was only the beginning of the story. Ford’s feeling for Ireland and for himself gave him a way of dreaming about America and the frontier, a way of understanding power and modernity. ‘For Britain, the Irish are the Indians to the far west, circling the wagons of imperial civilisation,’ Fintan O’Toole writes in The Lie of the Land: Irish Identities. ‘Once in America, of course, the Irish cease to be the Indians and become the cowboys.’
What Thomson misses when he looks at Ford is the elegiac element in his westerns, the way his static camera summons what Andrew Sarris has called ‘his feelings of loss and displacement already fantasised through the genre’. The Old West is a vista of mourning, yet the films are about the funny and mysterious and sometimes savage ways that people survive there and go on to make lives for themselves. Hoot Gibson, a room-mate of Ford’s when he started to make cowboy pictures, said Ford ‘was worse Irish than me’, and if he failed to take up his responsibilities as a debunker of American myths, that is perhaps because those myths lay close to his heart, and also because he had an instinct for making them newly beautiful.
Lindsay Anderson noted Ford’s ability to make things ‘poetically true’, as opposed to true, but he also knew how to make his strong feelings – about the past, say, or about authority – enlarge the dimensions of his sometimes humdrum material, to the point where the best dramas pulsate with something entirely personal, the stamp of things essential to his life and surprising to the world. Ford visited Ireland in the nervous first years of its Free Statehood: on 2 December 1921 he crossed the Irish Sea from Holyhead on the Cambria – Michael Collins and Erskine Childers, on their way back from the Treaty negotiations in London, were making the same journey. The Cambria collided with a schooner (killing three men) and when Ford arrived in Galway he discovered his ancestral home was in flames. McBride tells the story well, drawing on a letter Ford wrote to Sean O’Casey in 1936:
He wrote that upon arriving in Spiddal, he went directly to the thatched cottage of his cousin Michael Thornton, a country schoolteacher and IRA leader. Ford was astonished to find the Thornton home engulfed in flames. Michael’s aged parents were standing in the road in silent anger watching truckloads of Black and Tans leaving the scene. Their son was later imprisoned by the British. Following his release, Michael Thornton worked for the Irish Free State before returning to his profession as a schoolteacher. Ford gave the name of his Thornton cousins to John Wayne’s character in The Quiet Man, Sean Thornton.
The reverberations of this trip to Ireland and the power of the burning house go all the way into Ford’s movies: it is the family home burned by the Indians at the beginning of The Searchers; the working-class dwellings torn down by corporate bulldozers in The Grapes of Wrath; the departing son is like those who have to leave their homeland in How Green Was My Valley or wander stateless like Ford’s Mary of Scotland and like every cowboy he put on the screen. The Quiet Man, a sentimental favourite with the Irish, promotes a central myth among tribes of that sort: the myth of the man returning home to reckon with what he is made of. As much a keynote of the lachrymose paperback as of Joyce’s Ulysses, as much a feature of Irish songs as of plays like Tom Murphy’s Conversations on a Homecoming – the knock at the door, the traveller returned. If Ford’s version is the most colour-saturated, it is also the one most infected with American anxiety about the high price of exile, the belief that for all that America can give (and materially it can give you everything) it can’t guarantee you a culture of belonging.
Each one of Ford’s films is about a man trying to find a people. Sometimes, he finds them among the half-cocked, drunken renegades of the wild frontier. At other times, as in his cavalry trilogy, the people sought are a company of men, a regiment where one can test one’s bravery and honour and achieve one’s rank. Sometimes it is among the Indian tribes, as in Cheyenne Autumn or in The Searchers, when the Natalie Wood character comes to live with her abductor. Ford was looking in green valleys and dust bowls and army units and Christian missions all his life: that is perhaps why he was, as a maker of westerns, the great visionary of empty space and plains rolling to the horizon – his life and his work were energised by the notion of an authentic home, a place that would be his, if only he could find it. In Stagecoach, all the main characters are trying to get to a new place, and with each turn of the wheel there is more of the past behind them, more danger overcome. A small family of roamers, they are looking for a real destination: not just Lordsburg, but some more significant point of arrival. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) falls in love with good-time gal Dallas (Claire Trevor) during the journey, and he makes the grounds of their suitability for one another clear: each has lost their parents, and has no other home bar the one they might invent together. An interviewer asked Ford why he was so taken up with the theme of the family. Ford shrugged and said: ‘You have a mother, don’t you?’
If you want to understand the early history of American liberalism don’t look at the experience of the parents, the immigrants, but at the aspirations of the children, the ones for whom America offered a tricky answer to the problem of belonging. The parents wanted a better life: they got on a boat. The children have a better life: they can’t find a boat that will take them back to themselves. American patriotism isn’t quite like other patriotisms: it is born of hysteria and Ford’s cowboy films map the violence of unbelonging. John Wayne, Victor McLaglen, these men hunger for authority, for company, for routines and customs and native patterns: without them, they are cursed to gun their way across the American landscape, killing Indians for the crime of having a culture. Ford’s depiction of the Indians often has a quality of frustrated envy about it, as well as genuine fear. Himself a stranger, he had a good old-fashioned dislike of other strangers. It was (and is) Hollywood’s way to reject cultures that fail to make themslves available for understanding.
In The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Senator Ransom Stoddard – ‘Rance’ – played by James Stewart, is one of those figures whose efforts marked the passage from western lawlessness to proper democracy. As a young man Rance is mugged by the local personification of evil, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who strides around with a whip making everybody feel bad. Everybody except Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who stands up to Valance but feels bad for other reasons, and who burns his own house down when the drink overtakes him. Rance comes into this lawless town with his law books in his bag: he is looking to be an attorney one day, but seeing as he’s detained in Shinbone, he takes a job, falls in love, and sets about trying to teach the locals a thing or two about American values. Despite doing so under a framed picture of Abraham Lincoln, Rance fails to impress the town with talk of brotherhood and the Declaration of Independence: what does it is his shooting and killing the hated Liberty Valance in a duel. The irony is only deepened when we eventually learn that it wasn’t the academic Rance who killed him: Tom Doniphon shot him from an adjacent alleyway, but allowed the glory to settle on the man who would eventually go on to a seat in the US Senate.
I’ve said nothing about the wonderful antics of the townspeople in this film (especially the Falstaffian editor of the Shinbone Star, played by Edmond O’Brien), but the depth of the allegory the film lays out makes it one of the wonders of the western genre. Here is a way of understanding American history, the democratic personality, community, violence, and the role of legend in getting from one era to another. When the James Stewart character is an old man and returns to the town to play the true story of how the state became governable thanks to somebody else’s shooting of Liberty Valance, the new editor of the Shinbone Star won’t print it. And then we have the famous line: ‘This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’
Today that could be the motto of CNN or Fox News. Ford’s own personal chaos allowed him to understand something profound about America’s relation to itself and its people’s relation to the rest of the world: that the progress of the unbelonging will not be halted, that no culture is as strong as one built on the legend of tough policing and moral superiority. Liberty Valance was downed by the unstoppable wheels of civilised democracy in the form of James Stewart – except that he wasn’t. He was killed by an invisible man with nothing to lose and a belt full of bullets.
By this time, Ford had his own Hollywood legend to contend with, and it wasn’t subtle: the binge-drinking, woman-slapping, actor-baiting hero of the Naval Reserve, getting more right-wing by the second, and fulfilling his destiny as a man who would burst into tears at the first bars of an Irish song but refused to speak to his own son for the best part of the son’s life. Ford’s politics had been borrowing more and more from his splenetic side for years. Early on he had described himself as a ‘socialistic democrat – always left’. But his Irish Republican cousinage, his belief in the Spanish Loyalists, his involvement with the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, his picketing (afterwards denied) in support of the Los Angeles Newspaper Guild strike of 1938, did not stop him from later showing friendliness to the militant Anti-Communists in the industry or becoming one of the founder members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.
Ford had come under fire while trying to film the war – the American landings in North Africa, the Battle of Midway, the landings at Omaha Beach – and though he received a Purple Heart and the results won Oscars, he never felt rightly rewarded for those efforts and all his life continued to campaign for more recognition from the naval and military authorities. The war years had pushed him further to the right, bringing him under the influence of hard-line Anti-Communists and burgeoning Cold Warriors. Back in Hollywood, he was ideologically pushed around by John Wayne and Ward Bond, both rabid Red-baiters. As a cowboy director, he made a virtue of being ‘on both sides of the epic’, rooting for the cowboys and the Indians (in his head they took it in turns to be the Black and Tans), but the Blacklist was one of the issues on which Ford’s two-mindedness faltered. His FBI file noted that his political activities ‘were of a mild nature’, but thought it likely that he was ‘long a fellow traveller’ with ‘Communist Party Front groups’. As McBride says, he took ‘some principled stands against the Blacklist’, but he also did much to allay fears that he himself was suspect: at one point he named names in an almost casual way, but when the Committee mistakenly blacklisted Anna Lee, one of his favourite regular actors, he railed against it. He made a call and got her removed. McBride remarks:
Although the story demonstrates Ford’s loyalty to a friend in trouble, the fact that he could get someone off the Blacklist simply by picking up the phone raises disturbing questions. Why did Ford have such power? How often did he use it? Was it appropriate for anyone to be able to say if someone should or should not work? And by clearing Anna Lee, did Ford facilitate and tacitly approve the blacklisting of the woman with whom she had been confused?
At any rate, and however steep his ambivalence, Ford was capable of shaking up a cocktail of native sentimentality and bullish American patriotism and pouring it into the ear of anyone who liked him. ‘Your letter received,’ he wrote to one of his relatives, ‘with the discouraging news that the Reds – one John Huston – are seeking refuge in our lovely Ireland. This aint good, he is not of the right wing.’
No artist would want his style to have to answer to his bad character, but bad character isn’t always a hindrance to a perfect style: it may even be that the style could not exist were the artist merely a good person. This is the deepest mystery about John Ford: how could such crudeness as Ford undeniably had as a man not stand in his way as an artist? How could a man who prided himself on the possession of such reactionary certainties demonstrate such subtlety in his handling of America’s psychogeography, the dreams of its people and their long travels and longer regrets? The sky in Ford’s movies is full of the romance of possibility: it seems to suggest a future for the world much better than that endured by the men and women rolling onwards in the covered wagons below.
How could a man so blurred with loathings and prejudices also be so open to human weakness, experience and variety? Henry Fonda’s character in The Grapes of Wrath? John Wayne’s mysterious bigot in The Searchers? Roddy McDowall’s dreaming little boy in How Green Was My Valley? Claire Trevor’s loose woman in Stagecoach? John Wayne’s old soldier Captain Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon? James Stewart’s ironical hero of democracy in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance? Margaret Leighton’s fanatical religious zealot in Seven Women? What even the most elegant of Ford’s detractors don’t want to say, I imagine, is that John Ford was an artist in spite of himself – almost to spite himself. His films are beautiful and exciting in a way that might surprise those who imagine that beauty keeps its own company.
‘The light,’ Angela Carter wrote in a story about both John Fords, is ‘the unexhausted light of North America that, filtered through celluloid, will become the light by which we see America looking at itself’.It comes down to this: Ford’s rarity was to show America at the difficult business of becoming itself, and his talent for composition, like the strange stillness of his camera, is one of the most magical, most painterly things in the history of the cinema. The militarisation of American democracy was not invented by Ford, merely described. In Young Mr Lincoln, he showed a President who could set out to reconcile oppositions and place universal tolerance among the great American ideals. ‘All his actions as a young man,’ writes the excellent McBride, ‘are supercharged with our common knowledge of his destiny.’ Yes indeed, Lincoln’s destiny: to be killed by an actor who would step into his shoes.