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The Glory and the Myth of John Ford

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...

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