Last week James Wolcott and I had a bit of a back and forth and back again over the question of just how conservative the director John Ford was. It's a tricky question, because it's as hard to use the word conservative these days without meaning the rightwing authoritarianism that's going by that name in Washington as it is to use the word communism to mean anything other than what happened in the old Soviet Union.
Ford was staunchly anti-communist and he could blow off hats and lift skirts with the breezes raised by his all too energetic flag waving, but 60 and 70 years ago those qualities did not disqualify you from being a Democrat or even a liberal.
This is only important as an issue of memory for me. I'm convinced that I read that Ford was actually more of a conservative Democrat than he was something we'd identify nowadays as a conservative. I've been re-reading Garry Wills' John Wayne's America to try to answer the question for myself and prove I'm not growing senile. So far I haven't concluded anything about Ford's politics. But I am sick to death of him as a character. Wolcott called him a conservative coot. The emphasis should fall on coot. But coot is too friendly a word for him. Ford comes across in Wills' book as a twisted little imp, as sadistic, mysogynistic, bad-tempered, and cruelly mischievous as Rumplestiltskin.
Even though it's (poorly) ghostwritten and confused as heck about all kinds of things, the book is fascinating. Her accounts of "Pappy" John Ford, who was her mentor, tormentor, friend and abuser are worth the price of admission, and the settling of scores throughout the book is quite amusing, beginning with the nasty nuns who tried to break her spirit in Dublin. It turns out that Ford was not only a great visual artist, but also a gay closet case and an evil binge drinker who loved destroying other people.
This is not to even mention her anecdotes about Walt Disney (from "The Parent Trap" days) raising himself out of his deathbed at the hospital to point at Maureen and croak out, "That bitch." Plus, her final husband was aviation pioneer Charles Blair who was probably killed by the CIA in a phony plane accident after ten years of their marriage. Or her anecdotes about the "charming" Che Guevara when she was filming "Our Man in Havana." Highly recommended, though very weird.
I think I'll check it out. And I'll keep reading Wills' book. Meantime, others have had some interesting things to say on the question, starting with George at A Girl and A Gun.
I think the essence of Ford’s art is in his style and not in his politics, which are conventionally patriotic and mostly unquestioning of received opinion about “what made this country great.” He believed, or was willing to support the position, that the US cavalry played a heroic role in westward expansion and that its original inhabitants were, at bottom, noble savages. Wolcott calls Ford “a classicist,” and I think he’s exactly right. Ford was formalist in his vision, dedicated to composition and structure. He adhered to enduring institutions like the Catholic church precisely because they endured and were therefore honorable and worthy of respect. He was formulaic, resorting to pre-established set pieces like his Irish sentimentalism and male rough-housing and corny old songs (“My Darling Clementine,” “Red River Valley”) the way that Homer resorted to “the wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn” to help fill narrative space. He also went to the well a bit too often, and some of his later efforts—The Horse Soldiers (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Donovan’s Reef (1963) to name only a few that come to mind—were just about unwatchable. But in the great westerns, from 1939 (Stagecoach) to 1956 (The Searchers), he organized space and movement within it in a way the western never outgrew, at least for me. In later years, whether I was watching movies by Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood, Ford’s way of seeing that time and place was in my head, and it’s probably never getting out.
You should read George's whole post.
In a comment to my post on Ford, Phil Nugent makes the case that though Ford was a conservative his politics didn't trump his character:
Ford WAS a conservative, but he deserves but be remembered as someone different from the people who've taken over that label, stretched it and pitted it out and degraded its meaning, and claimed it for their own. He was a man formed by experience who had some strongly held beliefs but wasn't looking for a crowd of nodding heads to join. One of the most famous stories about Ford is about how he shot down the attempt by Cecil B. de Mille to institute some kind of Red Scare blacklist inside the Directors' Guild by attending the meeting de Mille had called and making a simple speech, acknowledging all that de Mille had done for Hollywood but ending, "But I don't like you, C.B., and I don't like what you're trying to do here." Wayne was more a prototype modern chicken hawk. As you say, he never actually served in military combat, but --like Ronald Reagan--he seemed to think that he had. Ford, a mean bastard who liked to test people, was said to have treated them increasingly contemptously throughout the years of their association, and Wayne made sure the abuse would continue by never standing his ground or speaking back. Yet he was a much pettier bully with those he thought he could afford to push around, bragging in a Playboy interview about having run the screenwriter Carl Foreman "out of the country" in the HUAC days.
Rob Farley of Lawyers, Guns and Money dropped a line to point out that Ford was indeed an ultra-conservative, a reactionary in fact, but that, interestingly, that's what gave Ford's westerns their grandness:
It's truly remarkable that Confederate nostalgia and reactionary politics can be wedded so fruitfully to an outstanding directorial eye and grasp of character and narrative. More than that; the best chracters in Ford appreciate their own anachronism. Indeed, I don't think that any but a reactionary director combined with reactionary actor could bring a character like [The Searchers'] Ethan Edwards to life. The ambiguity and conflict in his character seems genuine because it is genuine; we appreciate that different impulses are tearing him apart, and we believe all of them. Same thing with Tom Doniphon [Wayne's character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance].
But back in my comments section, Robert Anderson resists pasting the conservative label on Ford:
The statement that John Ford was in the conservative camp during the Blacklist era is dead wrong. The blacklisting disgusted him ("John Ford" by Tag Gallagher, p. 340). He is famous for saying "Send the commie bastard to me, I'll hire him." He had his military order condemn the HUAC hearings as witchhunts. In 1950, Cecil DeMille, proposed that the Director's Guild require a loyalty oath for its members, in what amounted to a requirement for directing movies. After a famous intense four hour debate, Ford stood up and said: " My name is John Ford, I direct westerns." He then condemned the oath and moved for DeMille's resignation and an endorsement of Joseph Mankowitz, Guild president and a left-winger. Moved by Ford's eloquent speech, the Guild passed his motion.
You have to be careful with Ford, he's a complex guy. He hated racism, but he loved the Cavalry. In 1967 in his old age, he called himself a "liberal democrat and a rebel."
I think all this circles us back to Wolcott's original point. Wolcott was responding to the outrage some wingnuts were expressing over the sight of Mel Gibson and Michael Moore admiring each other's work.
What cultural-rube Hollywood haters don't understand is that there is a fraternal order among filmmakers, whatever their political stripes. That's why a nihilist and Nixon-hater like Sam Peckinpah could pay homage to a conservative coot and classicist like John Ford. Why a Republican like Clint Eastwood has no problem compunction working with lefties like Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. Talented people respect talent. They have larger spirits than the political pundits that glom on to them.
Sunday morning update: And forth again. Wolcott gives a nice shout out to Mike, George, Phil, Rob, Robert and all the rest of you who've left comments on this post and The Moviegoer. I get the traffic but you get the credit. You did all the heavy lifting. Thanks, folks.
In his post, Mr W praises the westerns Jimmy Stewart made with Anthony Mann, to which I say, Boys and girls, listen to the man. Wolcott's favorite is Winchester '73, a real good one, but I'm kind of partial to The Far Country---Ruth Roman in technicolor. And The Naked Spur is intense, and very unsettling if you're used to thinking of Stewart as George Bailey or Elwood P. Dowd. Stewart plays the ostensible hero, and Robert Ryan's the villain, but Stewart and Ryan have a contest going to see who can play it the most menacing and unsypathetic. Ryan wins, but only because Janet Leigh chooses Stewart and you figure she must know something we don't.
In related news: That post of mine, The Moviemaker, is fast moving down the page. In case you haven't seen it, it's basically a riff around a link to a fun list of 100 Great Films. If you haven't looked at either the list or my post, I wish you would take a gander at both. In the comments, some folks have left lists of their favorites on the list and movies they would add to it. There are some interesting recommendations. Please check it out, and leave some recommendations of your own. Thank you for your support.