Over 30 years ago, when I was a seminarian in Rome, one of my professors exclaimed, “John Ford is the Thomas Aquinas of the 20th century.”
Fortunately, at Columbia University I had studied under Andrew Sarris, the famed “auteur” film critic, so I knew the context. In any case, Ford’s reputation as certainly one of the best directors of cinema is unquestioned by serious critics in the United States and Europe, given the longevity, number, and wide variety of outstanding film classics (he won six Oscars and probably deserved more) in which he explored the role of myth, history, tradition, and war in epic dramas of the individual, family, and community.
Joseph Malham is a professional artist with deep insight into Ford’s vision and the artistry with which he incarnated that vision in film. Over a long and complicated life, Ford directed over 400 films, silent and sound. As Malham notes:
John Ford made films for half a century and defined the landscape. However he spent his life angrily rebuffing even the slightest suggestion that he was a poet or the Old Grandpa of the Western Saga. Ford saw himself as a working stiff blessed by a great eye for composition and surrounded by other talented individuals who simply did a job to pay his bills, support his family and spend as much as time as possible sailing and drinking on his beloved yacht.
Like millions of Americans, Ford was born on American shores as a direct result of the Irish potato famine in the late 1840’s. Ford’s parents met and married in Portland, Maine. One of the various delights of this relatively brief book is the entwinement of the experiences of Ford’s early life into Malham’s discussion of the films, Ford being arguably the most personal of directors. “For example,” Malham writes,
Ford was heroically devoted to his mother Abby throughout his life. He evolved Abby into a combination of Gaia, Sophia, and the Blessed Virgin Mother as the repository of all wisdom, strength, nurturing and love, upon which we stand and to whom we ultimately return. Indeed one can hopscotch through Ford’s films to actresses such as Jane Darrell (Grapes of Wrath), Sarah Allgood, and assorted Mildrid Natwicks and May Marshes to see the ghosts of Abby wafting behind the silvery frames in the dark.
However one takes this obsession, it was certainly healthier than his fellow Catholic director Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with blonde leading ladies.
Ford married Mary McBryde Smith, a ravishing monied Irish-American beauty with English blood. The marriage was successful and lasting. She bore him two children who were largely neglected by their father, so often away either on Hollywood sets or, in later years, overseas or carousing with friends on his yacht. In any case, although the family practiced their Catholic faith, they are unlikely candidates for canonization. John’s older brother Frank was responsible for introducing him to Hollywood. Succumbing however to the Irish predilection for alcohol, Frank faded from the scene after having enjoyed great success in the early years of silent motion pictures. In later years, his brother used him as an extra.
While Malham primarily examines Ford’s magnificent and arguably unique contribution to world cinema, his book is also a fine short history of the motion-picture business itself, running through the early efforts of Melies in France and those of Edison in New York and New Jersey, the migration from the East Coast to Los Angeles, and the development of the studio systems.
The largest and most important part of the book, however, is Malham’s analysis of dozens of Ford’s finest movies, all of which he examines not only for the source of their popularity and success but for their artistic achievement. Malham clearly has a preference for many of the Westerns, but he devotes considerable space to Ford’s wartime work in the South Pacific. Ford had his own traveling troupe of actors whom he trusted and on whom sometimes, in a sly and brutal way, he exercised his calculated temper in order to maintain control. Although he could not get away with such behavior today, he certainly got the best from Ward Bond, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Maureen O’Hara, and many other stars with whom he worked.
Joseph Malham’s book includes a treasure trove of photos of Ford and his troupe on location. Many of Ford’s films are available online or on DVD. Now excuse me, as I go off to watch The Quiet Man once again.
[John Ford: Poet in the Desert, by Joseph Malham (Chicago: Lake Street Press) 344 pp., $22.95]
Fr. C.J. McCloskey is a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.