Unless you’re a loser, you know that John Ford is the greatest American filmmaker. And since no reader of Rio Bravado is foolish enough to believe otherwise, I entreat all of you to read Joseph McBride’s definitive mammoth biography sometime. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about this crazed sadist with an eye (literally, in his later eye-patched years) for grandeur. And not just any grandeur, but the kind of scenic mythopoeia that fortifies the soul and limns the contours of history with needlepoint delicacy and big breathtaking brushstrokes. The kind that investigates its own desperate nostalgia, whose supercharged emotions billow from the chimneys of distant hovels and tumbleweed-scrawl the barren landscape where hallowed anachronisms go to die.
Anyway, here are ten things I learned from McBride’s book that utterly fascinated me. Enjoy!
1) Ford’s brother Francis Ford beat him to Hollywood and collaborated on Universal serials with his girlfriend, together with whom he lived a life of reckless ambition that ultimately sunk him come the silent era’s wistful twilight. Out of his ashes John Ford rose to stature and cast his big bro in such poignant roles as Slim Pickens’ backwoods buddy in The Sun Shines Bright.
2) I enjoyed reading about Ford’s friendship with Hepburn. It’s so weird that they only made that one film but remained friends for decades. What I didn’t know so much about, on the other hand, was Ford’s weird relationship with Spencer Tracy, who after starring for Ford in Up the River (his first feature film to boot!) was petitioned many times to become a member of Ford’s stock company. Tracy, of course, never succumbed to these invitations and went off to become one of MGM’s golden boys. And it was Hepburn who helped them rebuild their relationship in time for The Last Hurrah in 1958.
3) Ward Bond is seemingly the ultimate lunkhead, the most pea-brained right-winger ever to be set on fire by John Wayne. I never imagined that his relationship with Ford was so imbalanced, less gruff roughhousing buddies on equal footing than the toxic parasitism of a groveling sycophant and his cacklingly abusive boss. Hilarious stuff.
4) Ford’s relationship with his son is so painful to read about. Emotional neglect, halfhearted string-pulling that didn’t even really pay off, and — most shockingly — cutting Pat out of his will entirely. Ford had big problems folks!!!
5) Ford was so vain about his military career. He’d already snagged plenty of medals but kept on lobbying for more until the end of his life. Thankfully Richard Nixon was there in ’73 to give the old guy a Presidential Medal of Freedom!
6) Ford’s daughter Barbara got married to Robert Walker after his divorce from Jennifer Jones. A whirlwind courtship followed by harrowing abuse. I never knew this bit of trivia and it reads like the weirdest, most misguided, most terrifying development in the life of this poor girl and this hypersensitive nutjob of an actor who achieved more in death (sabotaging Leo McCarey’s My Son John) than most people do in life.
7) Virulent racist extraordinaire James Warner Bellah was responsible for writing many short stories that formed the basis of mid-to-late period Ford classics — even those deemed by many of his admirers to be progressive, such as Fort Apache and Sergeant Rutledge. While the former is a masterpiece, thanks in large part to the screenplay wizardry of Frank S. Nugent, the latter remains weird and flawed in a hundred different ways.
8) The catalogue of embarrassments that beset Ford during the sinking ship that was his stint on Mister Roberts. It’s not just the blowout with Fonda — no matter whose account of which you happen to believe is just a goddamn embarrassment — but also a poolside encounter with Betsy Palmer that paints dear old Pappy as the ultimate perv (and he went on to crush hard on just about every young actress he cast in a movie from then on out).
9) John Wayne gave Ford some work on The Alamo as a pity gesture. Ford was such a lonely guy in his old age, and he always resented that Wayne skyrocketed to popularity while he floundered about in relative obscurity. I can’t wait to watch the Ford-fawning docs released in a momentary spurt at the start of the seventies. Bogdanovich to the rescue!
10) John Ford’s Araner adventures seem legendary. I wish I coulda hopped aboard 😦