Book Review: John Ford (Revised and Expanded) by Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington

Joseph McBride previously published biographies of Steven Spielberg, Frank Capra, and three books on Orson Welles. He also wrote a definitive biography in Searching For John Ford. Co-author Michael Wilmington wrote film reviews for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Film Comment. This isn’t a light overview of the life of John Ford (1894-1973). It’s a scholarly look at key films in Ford’s career with analysis of themes and insights. This isn’t a “thumbs up / thumbs down” look at the entertainment value of the films. The reader is well served to have a working knowledge of John Ford’s films before diving too deep into some of these chapters.

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Chapter 4 – “The Noble Outlaw”: Straight Shooting (1917), Stagecoach (1939), Wagon Master (1950). It is John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach that defined the “Noble Outlaw” in Westerns. Ford’s directing career covered the days of the Western being mere B-Movie filler, cheap entertainment before a main feature. Ford wasn’t the only man to change that perception, but he led the charge. The Western under Ford’s direction was often a film of movement like the Stagecoach. The stories of Wagon Master are starkly reminiscent of the travels of Grapes of Wrath. This chapter is a good example of taking three films at different eras of Ford’s career and drawing the through line.

Chapter 6 – “Ireland”: The Quiet Man (1952), The Rising of the Moon (1957). In the years after World War II, Ford was obsessed with war and tied spiritually even more to his beloved Ireland. In The Quiet Man, the authors smartly point to the effortless way Ford and John Wayne have become indistinguishable. This isn’t a war film, but war imposes its will on every aspect of the relationships in the film. When we get to The Rising of the Moon, Ford is celebrating the Ireland of the past. It’s a testament to Ford that he would make huge, epic, award-winning films and then turn around to make a film that goes under the radar of most viewers but is well loved among those who take the time to take it in. The stories here point to the same themes as many Ford films. The message of “traditional values” being the path to a content life is one that he can’t let go of.

Chapter 9 – “The Last Place on Earth”: 7 Women (1966). The story of women in Ford films could be a short chapter. They weren’t forgotten, but they rarely made it to the important scenes in the end. Huw says in How Green Was My Valley, “If my father was the head of our house, my mother was its heart.” That’s a great description of the women in films like The Quiet Man, Liberty Valance, and Fort Apache. The late career of John Ford let him address some of the problems he had with his past. The 7 Women film didn’t have a male lead. It takes place during the Chinese Civil War happening in 1935. That allowed him to address some of his feelings about the American Civil War without the baggage of having to talk about slavery. This isn’t a well-loved or well-reviewed film, as the authors acknowledge. The vision that Ford has of current times is devoid of the religion that he leaned on 40 years previous. The bleak look is partially his own relationship with the movie business, his view of the loss of the family, and a sense that men and women need each other.

This book was first published in 1974, not long after the death of John Ford. This version is revised and expanded to cover the doubling of the amount of early Ford silent films that were discovered since the first publication. The essays are smart and give perspective to Ford’s filmography. It’s not a book you bring to the beach. It’s a book you read in conjunction with watching the films.

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Shawn Bourdo

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