A year ago, the University of Maryland held a special screening of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), followed by a two-hour discussion of the film led by representatives of the departments of history, English, philosophy, and communications. John Ford would have been publicly contemptuous of this attention from the egghead professors. In private, he probably would have been delighted.

Ford (John Martin Feeney, 1895-1973) was a complicated, deeply divided man. He was the greatest of all American film directors: close to 100 films, starting in 1917, from two-reelers to three-hour epics, from silents to sound, from black and white to Technicolor and then Cinemascope. He was disdainful of his six Oscars—but prominently displayed them. He called himself just a hardworking mercenary—yet suffered recurrent bouts of nausea at premieres. He carefully constructed for himself a macho image based on hard drinking, poker playing, and often cruel roughhousing; yet, he was an intellectual and a voracious reader, and during the Depression he secretly disbursed money to the needy.

Ford led the fight against the Hollywood Blacklist (publicly taking on C.B. De Mille in one famous incident)—though his best friend, the actor Ward Bond, was the leading Red-hunter and though his own films reflect a deep social conservatism. He supported the terrorist IRA throughout his life (even funneling large sums of money to them). Yet from about 1921 he was also involved secretly in U.S. Naval Intelligence, and he was a founding member of the OSS (forerunner of the CIA). He voted for Goldwater in 1964—and for Nixon thereafter. Refused admission to Annapolis as a young man, he was an authentic war hero in the Second World War and retired an admiral (a lifetime goal).

This last accomplishment gives but one indication of Ford’s fierce ambition. His savage sibling rivalry with his elder brother Francis (a famous early director who first invited him out to Hollywood in 1914) makes painful reading even now. Francis, at first domineering, ended up a bit player in John’s movies. Again, though the youngest (and most fragile) child in a family of Irish immigrants, John married high on the social ladder: a Southern lady whose ancestral plantation had been burnt by Sherman and whose uncle was Chief of Naval Operations. The Herculean force of Ford’s ambitions was, however, mitigated by his tenderness and need for human warmth.

Ford lived and worked surrounded and protected by trusted buddies: Ward Bond, George O’Brien, Will Rogers, and (though he considered him something of a lummox) John Wayne. The deaths of friends (Will Rogers, Harry Carey, Tom Mix) absolutely devastated him. Nevertheless, given his own personality, it is not surprising that Ford saw human nature as deeply flawed. He sometimes gave his middle name as Augustine. Like so much of what he said about himself, this was untrue; but Ford certainly shared Augustine’s view of the City of Man, as well as his belief that only religious faith held out any hope of human redemption.

Ford the man is a fit subject for study, though his movies, of course, are what is truly important about him, for they have done much to create Americans’ image of their own past. The two books under review offer differing perspectives on the man and his work. The biography of Ford by Andrew Sinclair is decently written and for the first time brings out the full range of Ford’s intelligence activities (a fascinating story). But oddly enough, it is Tag Gallagher’s book—more concerned with the movies than with Ford himself—that turns out to contain the most precise scholarship on Ford’s life. It is Gallagher who finds witnesses to the crucial psychological impact of Ford’s struggle against—and victory over—his elder brother Francis (proving that this isn’t mere pop psychoanalysis); it is Gallagher who brings to light the full extent of Ford’s torrid love affair with Katharine Hepburn, as well as several lesser imbroglios (Sinclair characterizes Ford as basically an ideal father and husband); it is Gallagher, even, who finally discovers Ford’s true name.

Much more could be cited along these lines, and one only wishes that, like Sinclair, Gallagher had organized his research on Ford the man into one coherent narrative. Unfortunately, Gallagher’s often pioneering discussions of Ford as a person appear instead like so many scattered, refreshing waterholes in the vast desert of his film criticism. And the book is basically film criticism, not biography—film criticism of the most “modern” sort. Therein lies the rub.

First, Gallagher’s ideas are expressed in the sort of language now de rigeur in criticism of all types: a hideous mix of deconstructionism and technical film jargon. The reader must repeatedly endure sentences like these: “The Gary and Marty scenes are played on a high level of spontaneous ingenuousness typical of Ford’s experimental representationalism. . . . Naturally this comedic style seems more artificial than the grim, sculptural verismo.” (Would anyone care to define “representationalism,” let alone “experimental representationalism”? Gallagher does not. As for “sculptural verismo”—I won’t even ask.)

Second, Gallagher’s critical taste often seems as eccentric as his writing, and some discussions are incredibly self-indulgent: 18 pages spent on The Sun Shines Bright (1953), an essentially minor remake of Judge Priest (1934), which has already received its own detailed analysis; 30 pages spent on a scene-by-scene recounting of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). These movies—and others, like the obscure Pilgrimage (1933)—Gallagher considers the essential Ford: dark, expressionistic stuff with barely a real outdoors scene. Mogambo (1954)—Mogambo!—receives far more attention than either They Were Expendable (1945) or 3 Godfathers (1948). As Gallagher is several times forced to admit, his interpretations and his evaluations of Ford’s work would not suggest themselves to the ordinary viewer.

But if John Ford has continuing cultural importance—if, indeed, he is a central cultural figure of post-World War II America—it is because of his naturalistic outdoor epics. These begin with the huge, silent The Iron Horse (1924—barely mentioned by Gallagher), and continued through Stagecoach (1939) to the great populist masterpieces of the late 40’s: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950). These latter movies, eternally fresh and exhilarating to the viewer (I can personally attest to their impact even on a cynical Berkeley audience), Gallagher dismisses as crowd-pleasing minor works that made money.

Moreover, insofar as Gallagher has a good word to say about these movies, it is because he sees them as subversive, undermining and exploding the myth of the American military. His treatment of Fort Apache is typical. Gallagher alleges that by showing Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) as a virtually insane martinet whose famous charge was in fact a massacre, Ford destroys the honor of the regiment, which he shows John Wayne (as Thursday’s successor) upholding in the last scene in his lies to Eastern reporters. Gallagher has missed the point. Ford was a patriot, but no naive one. His own experiences in the Second World War had brought home to him the often suicidal stupidity of the military (his documentary on Pearl Harbor had been suppressed). Nevertheless, for Ford the good outweighs the (acknowledged) evil, and so the institution must be upheld. Herein lies the theme of Fort Apache.

Gallagher is able to recognize Ford’s social conservatism when portrayed, as in the beautiful The Quiet Man (1952), in a village in Ireland. Here, Innisfree and all its social strata are depicted in loving detail by Ford, though the narrow-minded, repressive aspects of the village’s culture are not ignored, and the theme of the film is in fact the socialization (that is, his acceptance of the village traditions) of the returned American Sean Thornton (John Wayne). It is a process that leads, under Ford’s approving eye, to a cheerful ending. But in Fort Apache, Wayne is again socialized, this time to the ideal of duty as taught by Colonel Thursday, and in Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, Wayne (now portraying an older man) is sympathetically depicted as himself the transmitter of (military) tradition to youth. Gallagher’s fashionable antimilitarism prevents him from seeing that Ford’s Augustinian view of Innisfree applies as well to the military and-its problems: He forgets that Ford, after all, was an admiral.

Thus Ford validates myth and shows us the process by which the (often terrible) facts are transfigured into legends celebrating the community: a necessary thing, though sometimes a sad one. Ford was steeped in historical learning about the 19th century, but it is typical that before filming he would play Victorian songs over and over: He wanted to recapture not the facts but the mood. Similarly, his movies are consciously based on Victorian paintings (especially those of Frederic Remington) that were highly mythologized.

The actual links with historical reality are therefore not as important to Ford as the beauty of the image. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which climaxes My Darling Clementine (1946), provides a case in point. Ford actually knew Wyatt Earp personally: During the 20’s Earp, escaping from his nagging wife in Pasadena, used to come to drink and play cards at Ford’s house in Hollywood. Reviewers assumed (and Ford never disabused them of the assumption) that the version of the O.K. Corral in Clementine was therefore pretty close to historical reality. It is not: Ford clearly filmed it for the sake of the dreamlike vision of Henry Fonda as Earp disappearing into the cloud of desert dust, to have it out unseen with pistols against the Clantons (in reality, everybody carried shotguns). Ford, from beginning to end, was an Irish poet. That is his glory.

But, it ought to be emphasized, Ford’s glory is not his alone: Moviemaking is, above all, a collaborative enterprise. Ford was a great photographer and a great commander of actors, but to his great frustration he was a failure as a writer of screenplays (he satirized himself about this in The Wings of Eagles); and so he had to work from other people’s scripts. In public. Ford could sometimes act cavalierly with scripts, even tearing them up with glee before his actors. But this is mostly (again) a constructed persona: Gallagher shows that Ford generally followed scripts closely (the changes were matters of emphasis). Not enough credit for Ford’s great work in the late 40’s and 50’s has gone to the screenwriter on whom he constantly relied in this period: Frank S. Nugent.

Starting in 1948, Nugent produced for Ford the screenplays of Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, The Rising of the Moon, The Last Hurrah, Two Rode Together, and Donovans Reef. This is simply an extraordinary achievement; at the least, Nugent deserves recognition as coauthor of the Fordian mythology of America that emerged in these years. The point is proven by comparing Ford’s work in his great period with his work done in the 30’s, when his constant screenwriter was Dudley Nichols: These films are visually more expressionistic (i.e.,less beautiful) and socially more acrid and unaccepting. That Ford’s word in the postwar period was a collective effort has long been accepted in the sense that he created a “John Ford stock company” of actors with whom he was totally comfortable and whom he constantly used: John Wayne, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. Nugent should be added, in a very prominent place, to this list of inspired performers. Perhaps he even deserves a biography of his own.

The effect of geniuses like Ford and Nugent is shown if you compare Alan LeMay’s original novel The Searchers with the movie they made of it. The book is now back in print, but for those who only know the movie, it is a disappointment: surreal, lacking in historical detail and flavor, a mere sketch of an idea. What Ford and Nugent did was to darken the main character, Ethan Edwards. In the movie, Ethan is looking for his niece, his only surviving relative, kidnapped by Comanches—looking for her in order to kill her. This was John Wayne’s greatest role: a brooding, sullen racist who redeems himself only at the very end of the film, and then only partly. How different is the book, where the optimistic speech on inevitable progress in the harsh land, given in the movie to Mrs. Jorgensen (“she used to be a schoolteacher, you know”), actually belongs to Ethan Edwards himself! By creating an altogether bleaker and more formidable Ethan Edwards, Ford (and Nugent) raises him to truly mythic dimensions: the Hero as Outsider. Wayne named one of his sons Ethan.

Five years after The Searchers, a later, much better novel by LeMay was made into a movie, The Unforgiven is a brilliant book, an utterly convincing recreation of the Texas frontier of 1874—and the result is a long, dull film directed by John Huston. The difference between the two films shows the difference between an inspired group of people (those around John Ford) and a group of mere journeymen. Ford and his people took a rather mediocre property, discerned the classic that it might be, and brought that classic to the surface; Huston and company took a far better original property and dissipated its power. (The Unforgiven is the mirror image of The Searchers: It deals with an Indian girl who is brought up by whites, and what happens when her Kiowa relatives come searching for her. With Ford—and Nugent—it would have made a great film.)

But because it remains true that The Searchers is one of John Ford’s most personal films, we must return to the question of his creativity and vision. First, it should be remembered that the aging Ford made this movie after a period of terrible personal trauma: a serious stomach operation, an eye operation that left him blind for weeks, the loss of his home of 35 years (bulldozed to create a parking lot for the Hollywood Bowl!), artistic failure on the set of Mr. Roberts and bitter withdrawal from that picture. Second, Ford himself called The Searchers “a psychological epic,” and its final scene is famous: Ethan Edwards, having rescued his niece (and not killed her), brings her back home, but while all the other characters enter the house, Ethan remains silhouetted in the doorway, gripping his left arm with his right hand; at last, he turns away from the doorway and wanders out into the heat and the dust. Why doesn’t Ethan enter the house, return to the community? Partly it must be punishment for his racism (an issue about which Ford felt very strongly).

But in reality, Ethan’s racism, as Ford makes clear, only masks a deeper psychological trauma: The Comanches did what Ethan had wanted to do. They destroyed his brother’s family. For at the beginning of the film (the book is far more unclear) Ethan is depicted in love with his brother’s wife, and his return to the family ranch from the Civil War makes everyone uneasy. The theme of harsh conflict between brothers sounds familiar. Moreover, while the image of Wayne gripping his left arm is partly a reference to Ford’s old friend Harry Carey (it was Carey’s “signature”), the fact is that Ford himself had been seriously wounded in the left arm during the battle of Midway, and it constantly bothered him.

It may be, then, that the haunting image of Wayne standing in the doorway holding his arm, only to walk away, originates in the deepest levels of Ford’s psyche. But in any case. Ford’s closest friends had known all along that he was the Hero as Outsider (things just got worse as he got older). The Irish camaraderie, the drinking and roughhousing within the small, warm group, was forced—a mask. Ford’s real idea of a good time was solitary reading, alone out on his boat. As usual, it is Gallagher who comes up with the crucial evidence, the testimony of Ford’s longtime friend, the actor Frank Baker: “He was never relaxed, never mellow, never allowed you to relax either. He was always unhappy. He never had a day’s happiness. Will he find peace? Lonely spirit! What was he looking for?”

Well, the whole world is full of neurotics. But few American artists have equaled John Ford’s impact: With the help of his collaborators, he established America’s vision of its own past, from Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) to Cheyenne Autumn (1964)—and not just a vision, but an emotion, a celebration of community and tradition. If the fiercely secretive Ford was also secretly a tormented man, he was not the first Irish poet, nor the last, to transmute inner torment into lasting artistic achievement.


[John Ford: A Biography, by Andrew Sinclair (New York: Ungar) $10.95]

[John Ford: The Man and His Films, by Tag Gallagher (Berkeley: University of California Press) $35.00]