John Ford
John Ford; drawing by David Levine


One Fourth of July, early in the twentieth century, young John Ford and his father stood in the main street of Portland, Maine, to watch the parade. The name in those days was not Ford but Feeney. “When the flag passes,” the father said, “take off your cap.” But the boy was not wearing one. “Then cross yourself, damn it!”

Like many of John Ford’s stories, this one may even be true. True or false, it tells us that John Feeney, an emigrant from Galway’s poverty-racked coast, held patriotic sentiments toward his new nation, and identified it, perhaps by a momentary slip, with his religion, which of course was Catholic. Some of his neighbors may have taken note of the slip. An intense dislike of the Irish, bred out of fear and detestation, was strong in New England and especially so in Maine. The fear was nourished by their violent and drunken ways and the detestation by their childish devotion to rosary beads, outlandish miracles, ritual, and superstition. Even their virtues—loyalty, courtesy, brute courage, a love of tradition and song—were those common among subordinate races. Dan Ford, the director’s grandson, sums up the consequence with but slight exaggeration:

The Yankees had their Protestant church, with its steeple pointing straight up to heaven; the Irish had their saloon, with its swinging doors leading straight down to hell. The Yankees lived in the east end and ran the lumber industry, the shipping, and the counting houses, while the Irish huddled together in slums near the docks. There was little contact between the two cultures.

There was some, though. John Ford emerged from the public high school in 1914 with the football nickname of Bull Feeney, and may have briefly attended the state university. He claimed that he left the campus when a Yankee student shouted “Shanty!” at him, but students rarely shout at people named “Bull.” He nurtured, though, a lifetime edge against Yankees and their strait-laced Puritan culture, as Eugene O’Neill did, and for similar reasons. He himself was to embody every single one of their anti-Irish stereotypes, as he well knew.

Joseph McBride, whose superb biography is rightly called Searching for John Ford, has visited the time-battered cabin which John Feeney left in 1872, less than two decades after the great famine which swept his section of coast, near Spiddal. Himself of Irish descent, McBride knew as if by instinct to begin in the local pub, An Crúiscín Lán, “a smoky, stiflingly hot place by the sea,” where assorted Feeneys and Currans guided him to the broken walls and hardened clay of what had once been the sort of dwelling that could be built in a day with the help of neighbors. Like the timber cabins which western pioneers threw together. It may well be the Irishness which McBride shares with Ford that gives his account a warmth and an understanding which are at once severe, witty, and admiring.

But there is more to it than this. He has been studying Ford for thirty years or so, and he writes of him with great skill and even, when appropriate, with eloquence. He deploys his wide knowledge of American social and film history with tact, wit, and imagination—rare virtues in the blighted acres of film studies, where often appear those diseased vocabularies which then spread to other fields.

Ford’s father was summoned to America by an uncle, Mike Connolly, who, after various legendary wanderings in the new world, settled down into marriage to a prosperous Portland widow and set up shop as tavernkeeper and bootlegger. Maine had outlawed hard liquor in 1851, partly as a stern gesture of Puritan virtue and partly to shield the incoming Irish from one of their most pernicious vices. Feeney followed his uncle into the family craft, and by the time his children were growing up he owned several taverns in the Irish quarter, in flagrant disregard of the law. He married a Galway girl, the prettiest girl in Portland, his son was to say, and smart enough to marry the most successful Irish saloonkeeper. The Connollys seem to have been a bit embarrassed by their connection with liquor, but the Feeneys took pride in theirs.

John Ford’s call to the journey westward took a different form. His brother Francis, older by twelve years, handsome, clever, and ambitious in a lazy way, had drifted into the new but prospering world of motion pictures, first making two-reelers for Gaston Méliès in New Jersey and then for Thomas Ince and Universal in the streets and hills of Los Angeles. Now, after some pressure from the family, he promised John—who soon, like Frank, would be changing his surname to Ford—a job in what was still an engagingly improvised crapshoot, although one that was changing itself, year by year, into an industry.


Hollywood in 1914 was a small suburb with the scent of lemon trees and with bean patches and hayfields surrounding Sunset Boulevard. But Cecil B. DeMille had just made its first feature-length film, a western called The Squaw Man, in a barn at the corner of Selma and Vine, and D.W. Griffith was in the San Fernando Valley filming the battle scenes for the movie which he would later call The Birth of a Nation. Ford’s brother was waiting for him in his yellow touring car, a cigarette propped in his mouth, dressed in the appropriate directorial breeches and jodhpurs. At his side was Grace Cunard, his mistress, codirector, and leading lady. As they drove toward Universal’s new ranch for location shooting, Frank stopped so that his brother could admire the house he was building in the hills. At the ranch, though, Frank set him to humbler tasks, beginning with ditch-digging.

But John rose rapidly, a tough, quick-witted fellow. He was a handyman on Frank’s serial Lucille Love, but assistant property man on the next, The Mysterious Rose. He was able, as McBride says, “to try his hand at just about every filmmaking job at Universal,” which was pioneering the factory system of filmmaking. All the famous directors of the Twenties learned their craft this way, at one studio or another—Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, Raoul Walsh, Allan Dwan. It occurred to few of them that they were in at the birth of a new art.

Only Griffith, part genius, part ham, part medicine-show man, believed otherwise. One day, Ford played hooky and traveled down to open country where Griffith was filming. Later, he claimed that that morning he played one of the white-robed klansmen sweeping across a stream. McBride believes him, and prints a photograph which seems to bear him out. I am less sure. It seems to me an early instance of his insertions of self into history—the history of the Civil War (in one extreme version) and the history of the first great American film. Later, famous himself, he would say that “if it weren’t for Griffith, we’d probably still be in the infantile stage of motion pictures…. Griffith was the one who made it an art—if you can call it an art—but at least he made it something worthwhile.”

They all learned from Griffith, but Ford the most of all. Among other things, he knew, as did all Hollywood, of Griffith’s uphill battle against his backers, with their money worries and fear of experiment. When he was making his own major films, he was ready from the first day on the set to do battle with the “front office” and the “people back East,” and those hapless pawns known as associate producers. He was stubborn and rough, and would earn more freedom than other directors then enjoyed. He was at Universal for seven years, three of them as a director, and earned a reputation for speed and reliability. He made about thirty films in those three years. Most of them were western two- or three-reelers, and all but a very few have disappeared, which says something about how film was then regarded. We know their titles—Gun Law, The Gun Packer, Bare Fists, A Gun Fightin’ Gentleman.

He most enjoyed the ones he made with Harry Carey as his leading man. Carey, like Ford, was an Easterner. So were many of the painters and writers and filmmakers who created our powerful and complex image of the West—Owen Wister, Zane Grey, William S. Hart, Frederic Remington. Much of what we know about the Carey of those years comes from Ford lore or from Ollie, Carey’s salty, sardonic wife, a great debunker of Ford lore. “Jack said that? He’s full of crap. God, how he romanced.”

Carey possessed a style, a way of moving and walking, an attitude toward the characters he played, which Ford savored and, in the mysterious ways of cinema, passed on to his later leading men. Carey often played Cheyenne Harry, a badman who is compelled by circumstances or his own better nature to throw in with the other, weaker side. He makes the difference, and then he rides off into the sunset. Ford and Carey wanted to show working cowboys “as they really were”—and so they did, when it came to Harry’s outfits. But they knew that in this figure, they were dealing an image of considerable mythical power.

Carey, more singlemindedly devoted than Ford to the vanishing West, built a small ranch house in Newhall, north of Universal’s acres, where the three of them at times shared quarters with a bunch of cowboys-turned-actors. Or Ford and Carey would sleep out in bedrolls, planning the next day’s shooting. In theory, there was a hired writer, but these scenario men were not held in high regard, more important, perhaps, than property men but not to be compared with the fellows at the camera. It was a casual, condescending attitude which Ford would hold toward writers to the end, to the injured pride of Dudley Nichols, Frank Nugent, and Nunnally Johnson.


Ford moved quickly from setup to setup. “Occasionally the services of a carpenter or two was required to put up a rudimentary set suggesting the interior of a frontier home…. If a more elaborate set was needed, such as a saloon, a church, or a prison, Jack and Harry grudgingly returned to the back lot.” Ford rarely looked at the rushes because, as Ollie says, “Ford didn’t really need a cutter except for the mechanical works of it, because he shot just enough film that would be necessary for the picture. He never overshot.” This too was a habit he carried with him, a useful guard against studio editing.

McBride is fine at creating for us the pioneer conditions under which Ford’s early silents were made, but perhaps does not stress sufficiently the obvious fact that a pioneer was taking as subject the pioneer experience. He quotes Andrew Sarris, though: “Here we are at a time when the Western was still relatively new, and the Old West was virtually dead, and yet Ford was already casting a somber spell on the screen, his mise-en-scène already in mourning, his feelings of loss and displacement already fantasized through the genre.” Sarris is on to something here, although it seems a heavy burden to rest upon the fact that Cheyenne Harry rides into the sunset at the end of Straight Shooting, the only Ford-Carey film to have survived intact, thanks to the film archive in Czechoslovakia.

But the tail end of the Old West did still survive. When the directors went down to Gower Gulch to recruit extras, they could find rodeo riders, kids who had worked on ranches, grizzled and bow-legged drunks who remembered the last days of the old cattle towns. From there or elsewhere, Ford was drawing the first generation of his stock company: Andy Devine and Chief John Big Tree, who had been one of the models for the Indian-head nickel, and “Pardner” Jones, who claimed to have killed the Apache Kid and who certainly was a dead shot with a rifle. Some of them had ridden the range; some of them had loud mouths, which didn’t matter in silents; and a few of them affected the taciturnity of men familiar with guns. Only a few of them were old enough to have worked in the great cattle drives, but they knew the stories. The cattle drives were their Iliad and Odyssey, just as there were men back east whose uncles had been at Gettysburg and Shiloh, like Ford’s Uncle Mike.

Emmet Dalton, sole survivor of the Dalton Gang, made western movies and so did Al Jennings, an inept but celebrated train robber. They did not look the part as impressively as did Harry Carey, Judge Carey’s son, of Westchester County, and himself late of the New York University Law School. Wyatt Earp, the real Wyatt Earp, settled now in the Los Angeles area, would drift around the studios, not yet the iconic marshal of Tombstone, laconic and deadly, that he would become at the hands of, among others, John Ford. Ford claimed that when he staged the battle in the O.K. Corral in My Darling Clementine, he worked from a diagram drawn for him by Earp. Ollie Carey greeted this claim with derision. There were old-timers in Tombstone who spoke of Earp and his brothers as “the fighting pimps.”

There is indeed a strong tone of elegy in Ford’s work. It seems to me that he later fantasized the Carey years into legend, when he was free to shoot movies as he wanted to, beyond the reach of studio accountants, provided he stayed within budget and within the boundaries of the genre. “The marvelous thing about Westerns,” Jean Renoir told McBride, “is that they are all the same movie. That gives a director unlimited freedom.”

“They adored each other,” Ollie Carey would say about her husband and Ford, “they were just complete pals.” At night, she would remember for Ford’s grandson Dan, “they would sit around this little tiny kitchen with a wood fire going in the stove and drink Mellowwood. They would talk, talk, talk until late in the night and Jack would take notes.” They would plan every shot, every move almost. Ford modeled himself on Carey, the respect for traditional manners, the air of genial authority, the withering contempt for pretentiousness, especially on the part of people in the film industry. It was from Carey that he picked up his lifelong habit of referring to each of his films as “a job of work.”

Then something happened that permanently blighted the friendship. Desperate Trails in 1921 ended their collaboration. Several decades later, “Dobe” Carey, a son whose birth Ford and Carey had celebrated on the ranch with Mellowwood whiskey, would become an important member of Ford’s stock company, but the two friends would meet only once or twice a year, to tie one on or to exchange Christmas gifts, and never at the ranch.

Dan Ford suggests that Ford, who moved to Fox at about this time, was jealous of Carey’s greater celebrity and his salary at Universal. Dobe, in his otherwise invaluable and candid memoirs,1 scratches his head and shrugs. In later interviews with McBride, however, he and his mother were more forthcoming. One of the actors in the stock company, Joe Harris, later foreman of the Carey ranch, began making insinuations, as McBride puts it, about Ford’s sexuality, and Carey seems to have found them amusing. “This may have been the first time, but it would not be the last, that such gossip was inspired by Ford’s sensitivity, his diffidence around women, and his admiration for good-looking he-men.”

Carey, McBride suggests, may have resented his replacement as leading man by “younger, brawnier, and more handsome actors.” “That was Ford’s dream,” Dobe Carey says, paraphrasing his father, “to look like what he was directing. Ford was a frustrated athlete and wanted to be the Irish brawler, a big rough-and-tumble guy. He wanted to be like Victor McLaglen, but he wasn’t, so he created it on the screen.”

“Ironically,” says McBride, “the gossip about Jack’s masculinity was spread only after he finally, and somewhat precipitously, took the plunge into marriage.” That was in 1920, to a belle of the Southern gentry, Mary McBryde Smith, whose family plantation had been burned by Sherman, a circumstance which Ford would use to dramatic effect in Rio Grande. His own people, back in Portland, were doubtful about her: she was a Presbyterian and a divorced woman. Neither was she welcomed by Ollie and the fellows on the ranch, who recognized a snobbishness which she did little to conceal.

She never visited him on the set or on location, and her friends were not his. One Christmas, he gave her a Rolls-Royce, with a mink in the back seat carrying a note saying, “This ought to shut you up for twenty years.” She hired a liveried chauffeur. They had two children, a boy and a girl, who did not grow up to lead happy lives. They shared a pleasant, deliberately unpretentious house in a respectable part of Los Angeles and kept it well stocked with books and bootleg liquor. In the 1930s he had a passionate and improbable affair with Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn, who seems to have had a weakness for mean Irish drunks, urged divorce, but he backed out—a bad case of Catholicism strengthened by cold feet. Mary found out about the affair, and it had the odd but common effect of stabilizing the marriage. She and Jack settled down into a lifelong union, fortified by books and booze.


At the marriage, Irving Thalberg, then an executive at Universal, was one of the witnesses. It was a portent. Thalberg and Ford were rising stars. Ford, in his first years at Fox, was marking time, but at least not all of his early films there were westerns; then, as later, he knew that directors who filmed only westerns were a bit déclassé; “shanty,” as Mary put it. Then, in 1923, Ford was given his chance.

What he made was in fact a super-western, translated into national epic. The Iron Horse is a recreation of what had truly been one of the heroic feats of America’s westward expansion, the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, whose years of brutal and at times dangerous labor came to a triumphant close on May 10, 1869, when a golden spike was driven for the completion of a railroad which now linked the entire continent. Abraham Lincoln had signed the bill of authorization in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, at the bidding of a group of farsighted and greedy Republicans. But Ford, rather to McBride’s liberal regret, has no time for that side of the matter. His Lincoln, like the “Great Heart” in The Birth of a Nation, is an image of benign power, strengthened by that eerie gift of divination which permitted him to see through carnage to the future’s powerful and united land.

The making of the film was itself an epic, parallel in ways to the story it was filming. It would pass down into cinema legend, as Ford intended that it should. Lefty Hough, one of the property men, would remember that “the Ford outfit was the roughest, goddamndest outfit you ever saw, from the director on downward.” They were six weeks on location in Nevada in the dead of winter, very much, McBride reminds us, like the conditions at the time of the actual construction there. The men were well equipped with whiskey and whores. There were tough customers among the extras, but none tougher than Ford himself and they knew it. He displayed a cavalry major’s ability to control masses of men by mixing jollity with discipline: there was music on squeeze-box and fiddle, the tunes which would later haunt his sound films—“Red River Valley” and “My Darling Clementine.” He maintained a rigorous work schedule, although leaving himself room for improvisations, and he more or less threw away the script.

The building of the railroad is the real subject of the film, but custom—and perhaps commercial instinct—required that he throw in a subordinate, a more “human” story involving a handsome young scout, a heroine, and a white renegade who long before, disguised as an Indian, had killed the scout’s father. It is the equivalent of the loves in The Birth of a Na-tion within the Cameron and Stoneman families, but less well integrated into the story. For Dave, the scout, he found a splendid replacement for Carey, a handsome athlete named George O’Brien. O’Brien became a star overnight, and was Ford’s leading man well into the early years of talkies.

The Iron Horse was conceived as a national epic, and Ford lays stress upon the role of brawny Irish and Italian workers, many of them Civil War veterans. The Chinese are there as well, but chiefly as comic relief. The Indian tribes, sullenly hostile, are portrayed, as McBride says, “as childlike tools of an evil white man, a noble but simple people inevitably swept away by the forces of ‘progress.'” Ford’s developing, guilt-haunted feelings about Native Americans (to use a nicety at which he would have snorted) would become central to his internal drama of the West.

As would, of course, his feelings about his own people. There was always Great-Uncle Mike Connolly as an all-purpose ancestor. “I had four uncles in the Civil War,” he told one interviewer. “I used to ask my Uncle Mike to tell me about the battle of Gettysburg. All Uncle Mike would say was: ‘It was horrible. I went six whole days without a drink.'” Uncle Mike was a laborer on the Union Pacific Railroad when it was built. “By the last reel,” as Kevin Brownlow says, “with the reconstruction of the wedding of the rails on 10 May 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah…, there is not the slightest doubt that the rails lie gleaming from sea to sea—and that the Ford company laid every inch of them.”2

A still from the film offers eerie confirmation: the entire cast, the visiting politicians in their frock coats, the two locomotives, having their group photo taken by two nineteenth-century photographers with their cumbersome equipment. But behind those two, invisible to us of course, are the cameramen from the Fox studios. The past becomes eternally present, or as long as film lasts.

From the isolated triumph of The Iron Horse, Ford fell back into line as a director, by now a major one, at a studio which was bringing the factory system to the production of films. Ford’s signature upon his was mostly limited to what he called his “grace notes.” As the director and film critic Lindsay Anderson says, he was not the victim of commerce. “He seemed able to turn his hand to pretty well anything, and no doubt he was proud, as a practicing professional, to do so.” They were jobs of work.

None of the surviving silent films, with the exception perhaps of Hangman’s House, which happens to be his first film about Ireland, has a large claim on our attention, save as portent. Neither, it seems to me, although Anderson and McBride would disagree, do the early talkies. There are two films about the British army on the Northwest Frontier of India. The Black Watch (1929) gives us for the last time a magnificently unclad Myrna Loy, and Wee Willie Winkie (1937) offers Shirley Temple at her most depraved. These treats aside, these talkies display Ford’s keen—it would become obsessive—fascination with the traditions, loyalties, reticences, and unspoken codes of fighting regiments, and of course their flags. There are three films made with Will Rogers—they got along wonderfully well—and photographed lovingly by the George Schneiderman of The Iron Horse. The middle one, Judge Priest (1934), sentimentally and craftily recreates a turn-of-the-century Southern town, rich with oak trees, barber shops, folk wisdom, and a benign, unchallenged racism. In his final films, Ford would have debts to pay off to more minorities than the Cheyenne and the Apache.

Square in the middle of the Thirties, though, he made one extraordinary film, startling in its seeming lack of relationship to what preceded and what followed it. To make The Informer (1935), he had to fight against studio resistance both to its brutal and fierce subject and to the expressionist (read “arty”) way in which he proposed to tell it. Most major studios had turned it down before he encountered Merian Cooper during his brief tenure at RKO. Taken from a Liam O’Flaherty novel, with O’Flaherty’s eccentric politics smoothed out and with a cool, stripped-down shooting script by Dudley Nichols and Ford himself, it was filmed on the RKO lot by the brilliant cameraman Joe August. Victor McLaglen was lured by Ford (with the help of whiskey, legend has it) into a towering performance as Gypo Nolan, a brutish rebel gunman expelled from his “organization” and driven by fear and rage to betray a comrade. The nighttime Dublin through which he moves, created by Ford and August out of painted flats and moody lighting, becomes an exact equivalent of Nolan’s guilty anguish. Everything is put to use, from a tattered wanted poster drifting along windy alleys to the hard-faced killer, a version of what Nolan had once been, who executes the sentence of the revolutionary court-martial.

The film should stir us to compassion for Gypo, but instead we are exhilarated by its sheer craftsmanship, its even flow of feeling joined to image. One critic summed up a common response: “Many consider it the greatest talking picture ever made in America. It is as much a landmark in the history of the sound film as The Birth of a Nation.” But Griffith’s film had pointed with certainty toward the future of American films, as Ford’s did not. “It was above all,” as Lindsay Anderson has written, “a film of precise and pre-determined style and the style was one that ran contrary to the predominantly naturalistic tradition of American conventional cinema.” Ford went back to his more conventional jobs of work.

In the subterranean ways of art, though, The Informer would exert the power of its example on American films, including those which he himself would make. And it had its own pre-history. In 1926, Fox had imported the great German director F.W. Murnau, the creator of Nosferatu and Der Letzte Mann, and given him free rein for his first American film. What he gave them in return was Sunrise, which one film historian called “one of the most beautiful and profoundly influential films ever made in Hollywood.” It starred, of all people, Ford’s George O’Brien, by now world-famous, and, as Sunrise would reveal, a silent-screen actor who was not merely handsome. After Ford had seen the rushes, he gave an interview: “Ford declared that he believed it to be the greatest picture that has been produced.”

He was bowled over, as were all the Hollywood directors, by Murnau’s way of telling his story, ways which McBride well summarizes: “the hypnotic rhythms of the director’s sensuously moving camera, the subtly distorted use of both natural and artificial settings, the complex interplay of light and shade, the stylized acting that makes the characters seem like figures in a fable.” He could be writing about The Informer, which Ford made eight years later. Ford’s immediate reaction had been to apply some of Murnau’s techniques boldly (McBride says “slavishly”) to his next films, Four Sons (1928) and Hangman’s House of the same year. After that, he lay low until he could for once, like Murnau, have something like total control.

But Sunrise, it seems to me, and McBride might not agree, taught Ford something more elemental than technique. It showed him ways in which an artist could use the camera to express his attitudes toward his subject, toward the world, perhaps even, obliquely, toward himself. Despite his wide reading and his cunningly concealed cultivation of spirit, he was all his life painfully unable to express himself in language. Those of his personal letters that have found their way into print might be those of George Babbitt describing the Grand Canyon, and his articles in magazines may have been dictated but surely were ghostwritten. He would always need writers to get his story ideas down in words, and would treat them as hacks. “I think John Ford almost dies because he can’t write,” said Nunnally Johnson, one of the best of them. “It just runs him nuts, that he has thoughts and ideas and has never trained himself to set them down on paper.” It takes more than training.

What he had trained himself to use was a camera, beginning back in 1914, when he was his brother Frank’s dogsbody, and all you needed was the camera, a bit of real estate, and a rudimentary sense of composition. As the tricks, as the technique developed, he developed along with them, but without seeing any reason to call the product other than a job of work. He and Harry Carey discovered together how a gesture, a stance, a way of walking, if the camera is allowed to rest quietly upon it, can express fairly complex feelings, even in a job of work. But films like those by Murnau showed him that the expression of feeling through light, shadow, cutting, and rhythm was what he had had in mind for the past few years. “Cinema,” Erich Rohmer has written of Murnau, “organizes space as music organizes time, taking that total possession of space that music takes of time.” By the time he saw those rushes of Sunrise, Ford knew that, although he would have called it “horseshit.”

In 1934, he bought at a Depression price a 106-foot ketch which he re-christened the Araner. It would claim his life away from the camera and a major portion of his income. She took a professional skipper and a crew of six. “It was terribly expensive,” Mary Ford said in her equable way, “but it was our life.” So it was, at least as much as was their home in the hills, but when the family was ashore it served other needs. Occasionally, other women were allowed aboard: there is a photograph of Katharine Hepburn, sitting at Ford’s feet, and smiling her Bryn Mawr smile. And occasionally, when he was planning a film, he would sail down the Mexican coast or out to sea, alone or with one of his writers.

But the Araner was basically a man’s world. He only allowed on board men he trusted, and especially members of that stock company he had been building since the days of Cheyenne Harry Carey, slowly adding to it as the years accumulated them—Farrell MacDonald, the eternal bartender, and Joe Pennick, the eternal buck sergeant. George O’Brien would be asked aboard, but not too often, and a young cowboy star whom he had discovered as a prop boy and rechristened as John Wayne. Wayne had been a hit in his first film, Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), but during the Thirties he had been making B and C westerns on Poverty Row. Ford himself had not made a western since a silent with George O’Brien in 1926.

On the Araner, surrounded by raucous pals and toadies, Ford could afford to get slobbering, falling-down drunk. By the time he bought the Araner, he had become a drunk of legendary proportions and Hollywood knew it. Never on the set, of course, but as soon as a film was a wrap, he would be off on a bender, mean, abusive, and out of his skull. The meanness was by no means solely a function of his drinking. He had a second reputation for verbal cruelty, especially of inferiors, especially of actors, and for sly, humiliating practical jokes. Real actors like Thomas Mitchell and John Carradine wouldn’t put up with it—nor would cowboy actors who had been real ranchhands, like Ben Johnson. Henry Fonda summed it up for them: “A son of a bitch who happens to be a genius.”

But the members of the permanent cast, those whom he created and shaped, John Wayne and Ward Bond are instances, became, literally, his creatures, and he would kick their butts when the mood seized him. His uncritical admirers (McBride is not one) will claim that he was making them better actors. You can hear that argument in any night court.

Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail is a beautiful film, and the very young John Wayne looks great in it, like Fenimore Cooper’s youthful hero, but the movie was a commercial failure. Shortly after that, Ford stopped talking to him, and no one knows why. He was exiled from the Araner. Perhaps Ford was angered that his discovery had played a lead for Walsh. Then one day Wayne was let back on board, but he continued to make C westerns, like The Three Mesquiteer series. “To this goddam day,” Wayne told Ford’s grandson, Dan, “I don’t know why he wouldn’t speak to me for years.”

Ford’s apologists claim that the young man needed seasoning, and certainly he got it. Wayne was more serious about his acting than is often realized. He had a strong cinematic presence, as he was well aware, but what he lacked as yet was the kind of personality that would carry him from one western to the next, and distinguish him from the innumerable Tim McCoys and Bob Steeles and Ken Maynards. He studied ways of walking, of holding himself, ways of generating his distinctive speech patterns with their broken rhythms. We still hear him calling someone “Pilgrim,” or telling him, “That’ll be the day.” In the last scene of The Searchers, Wayne grasps hold of his forearm, in a gesture strongly reminiscent of Harry Carey, but he did not need Ford to coach him, as legend would have it. He had studied Harry Carey. Ford knew that Wayne “moved like a dancer,” and so did Wayne. And, as Dan Ford says, his grandfather “knew that Wayne had the phenomenal, almost pathological drive that it took to survive in Hollywood.”

Ford gave him his chance one day in 1937, as the Araner was underway. After a full day and night of cat-and-mouse, he told Wayne that he wanted him to play the Ringo Kid in a western called Stagecoach, his first in thirteen years. Wayne would be in for some ugly months of taunts and humiliations, but the film would make him a star, although it would take critics years to realize that he was a remarkable actor. As for Ford, he was ready to make the films by which he is remembered.


Frederick Jackson Turner’s speech before the American Historical Association on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” was delivered, as McBride reminds us, in 1893, the year before Ford was born. And he goes on to quote the key, familiar sentences. “American social development,” Turner told his audience, “has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perpetual rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.” But “the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”

Even effete Easterners, on the Atlantic coast, knew not only that the frontier was closed, but that with its closing a dream had come hurtling against the actuality of that other ocean. The dream itself had not been closed but only its transient investiture in a movement across prairies and over mountains. Henceforth, it would exist in realms at once more hospitable and more treacherous, in the dreams of American writers.

For confirmation, we may look almost anywhere, into our most familiar texts, from Huckleberry Finn to On the Road, from Whitman to Hart Crane and Scott Fitzgerald.

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent….

Nick Carraway is wrong, though. Only the trees had vanished, not the dream, which has given him the very shape of his words. It is one of the largest of American themes, but we have learned to read and to accept it in our writ-ten literature. Perhaps, though, we have not learned to read it in our films, and specifically in the films of John Ford, his western films centrally, but also in other films which he has deliberately given continental resonances—The Grapes of Wrath, They Were Expendable.

“I knew the railroad was coming,” Frederic Remington says in examining the purpose behind his western art. “I saw men already swarming into the land. I knew the derby hat, the smoking chimneys, the cord-binder and the thirty-day note were upon us in a restless surge. I knew the wild riders and vacant land were about to vanish forever.” Remington is a specific and often-acknowledged influence on Ford: compare his version of Custer’s stand with Ford’s in Fort Apache. But his word “railroad” can conjure up a different image. There comes a moment in The Iron Horse in which Davy, the young scout, stands alone, looking along the completed track. Steel, money, and back-breaking labor have conquered the wilderness and soon Davy will be out of work. There will be no more need for scouts. Ford’s last western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), opens with Tom Donophon, once a celebrated gunfighter, quick as legend, lying dead in a pauper’s coffin. It closes with a railway train moving eastward. The West was vanishing, even as dream, from Ford’s vision and from ours.

Andrew Sarris, ever one for the mot juste, has called Ford “America’s cinematic poet laureate,” but we don’t have poet laureates, thank God, not even Walt Whitman. Sure enough though, McBride speaks of Ford as having, as Whitman had, “a natural allegiance with the spirit of the American common people.” McBride has written the best life of him we are likely to have, and his judgments of the films, his ways of telling us about them, are invariably intelligent and sensitive. Of the works of this astonishing artist, though, not enough can ever be said or written.

Ford, it seems to me, is a major American artist, using, as Mark Twain did, a popular form to express a private vision—a characteristically American circumstance. His westerns form an arc, beginning with The Iron Horse and passing through Stagecoach, the first of the great ones, “the ideal example,” as André Bazin has said, “of the maturity of a style brought to classic perfection…like a wheel, so perfectly made that it remains in equilibrium on its axis in any position.” The arc sets with Liberty Valance, darkened by time, almost at nightfall.

—This is the first of two articles on John Ford.

This Issue

November 29, 2001