T H E J O H N F O R D F I L E
(P A R T 1)
When asked which directors he liked best, Orson Welles famously said, “I like the old masters…by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” The comment continued: “With Ford at his best, you get a sense of what the earth is made of—-even if the script is by Mother Machree.” I read all this to Ford and he said, “Where is Orson now?” I told him Welles was at the Beverly Hills Hotel and he grunted. A couple of days later, Welles called me: “Did you tell Ford that quote of mine?” Yes; why? “I just got a telegram from him that reads: ‘Dear Orson, Thanks for the compliment. Signed, Mother Machree.’” Laughing, Welles said, “He went right for the one negative!”
Of course, Orson’s “one negative” is not unique in Ford criticism. Ford is often referred to as over-sentimental, which is true at times, but more often the work is filled with legitimate and powerful sentiment, quite a different thing. I’ve also been noticing that things which seemed only sentimental when you were younger, turn out to feel pretty real as you get older. Anyway, Welles felt that Ford, whom he also defined as a “poet and comedian,” was certainly the best American director.
He is not alone: the late Andrew Sarris has floated Ford as America’s greatest director, and a decade ago, AmericanHeritage ran a long piece calling Ford’s The Searchers (1956) “The Movie of the Century.” He is still the Academy’s most frequently honored filmmaker, with 6 Oscars for direction—-four for features, two for war documentaries —as well as the New York Film Critics’ record holder, with four as director of the year. He was the first director honored by the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the first filmmaker to receive the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award.
Personally, Ford was the first director I ever knew of, as Marty Scorsese told me he was too, and with whose work I connected immediately. When I was ten and Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) had just out, I saw it several times; I would name it at age eleven or twelve as one of my three favorite movies.
Beginning with January, 1952, the year during which I turned thirteen, living with my parents on West 67th in Manhattan, I started to keep track of every film I saw, as I have written of before, typing a 4×6 index card with comments on it for each one. If I saw a film again, I would often make new comments. This continued faithfully until the end of 1970, when I was 31 and had just finished shooting The Last Picture Show. Confronted only recently with 20th Century Fox’s stupendous DVD package called Ford at Fox (still readily available), I realized there were quite a few of Ford’s films that I hadn’t seen in years and, to refresh my memory, I started looking up my old cards on some of the more arcane titles, and then all of them.
Between 1952 and 1966, the year Ford’s last film was released–the much maligned and forgotten, but actually quite brilliant, 7 Women–I saw every new Ford movie, over fifteen of them, during their initial release. I kept a separate number of cards listing all the Ford movies I saw, in order of their viewing (85 entries, more than any of the other 56 directors on whom I kept cards).
From 1963 when I first met Ford while on assignment for an Esquire piece about him, until his death in 1973, I was in constant touch, having moved to California in mid-1964, and ending up buying a house literally across the street from him in 1972. Besides the lengthy Esquire article, I expanded this with a series of taped interviews with Ford, and published the whole thing as a little book in London and New York in 1967-8, just around the time we started filming a feature-length documentary salute to Ford commissioned by the American Film Institute—-their first in a proposed series that never materialized. Directed by John Ford (1971) opened at the Venice Film Festival and at the 9th New York Film Festival, the same one that had begun with The Last Picture Show, a film in many ways inspired by Ford perhaps more than anybody.
The little book, by the way, titled simply John Ford, has been in print continuously since it came out; in 1978, five years after Ford’s death, I enlarged and amended the work, mainly with a chapter about his passing called “Taps;” and this edition is still in print (and available here).
In 2006, we brought out on TCM and also on DVD a new and radically different version of Directed by John Ford which, of course, still features the 35mm color-filmed interviews I did with John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Ford himself in Monument Valley, with Orson Welles’ voice narrating. These have been augmented by contemporary interviews I conducted with Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Walter Hill, and HarryCarey, Jr., as well as interviews with Maureen O’Hara taken from another documentary, directed by Lindsay Anderson, and some filmed comments from me as well. There are also some priceless and very touching taped exchanges (some without their knowledge) of Ford speaking with his great love, Katharine Hepburn. This new version also has numerous clips from many Ford pictures, far more than the original pass at this material, and much better clips too. It was warmly received, the New York Times TV review summing it up pretty well (and is still available thanks to Warner Home Video).
Some years ago, the old version was shown on Public Television as part of fund-raising activities for The Film Foundation, a non-profit group founded by Martin Scorsese with numerous other picture luminaries (like Clint Eastwood) to save our film heritage from further deterioration. At one of their public auctions for funds, I was among those taped to convey over the tube two terrible facts: Of all films produced between 1895 and 1928 (the silent era), only about 10% have survived; and from 1929 to the present (the sound era), only about 50% are still with us.
The vast and comprehensive Fox DVD collection, Ford at Fox, contains a very rare chance to see 24 Ford pictures, some quite obscure, but all possessing golden moments. In my next two film blogs, I’ll be going through their list, and giving you my first reactions as noted in my old card files.