Magazine article The Spectator

How the West Was Filmed

Magazine article The Spectator

How the West Was Filmed

Article excerpt

How the West was filmed

Allan Massie

SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD by Joseph McBride Faber, L25, pp. 838, ISBN 057200753

It's a rare Rim that knows its own author. Actually it's a rare one that had a single author, though Chaplin's come very close. Film-making is an exercise in collaboration. Producer, director, script-writer, cameraman, sound engineer, editor, actors and actresses, all play their part. When the Hollywood studio system was fully developed, the producer was the dominant figure; the director, then, as Gore Vidal likes to say, was 'the producer's brother-in-law', handed the script, cast list, locations, and told to get shooting. Sometimes several directors would work on a movie in succession; they were almost as expendable as writers. When the shooting was finished, so usually was the director's job. He might have little say in the final product.

The studios saw directors as technicians. It took critics and theorists of the cinema, many of them French, to decide that directors were artists and the true 'auteurs' of the movies they made. Most weren't. A few, a very few, were. One of them was John Ford.

Even that claim must be qualified. Between 1917 and 1970 Ford directed 113 full-length feature films. I don't think that even Joseph McBride, his admiring critic and biographer, would claim Ford's authorship for all of them. Like everyone else in Hollywood he was often compelled to do only what he was hired to do. He didn't always do it very well. There are films he lost interest in, and directed perfunctorily. There are others he botched, The Fugitive, his version of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, for example. Sometimes he took, or was given, subjects that were all wrong: Mary of Scotland was one. But there are many, at least 20, which are so distinctive in their treatment of themes which are the common currency of film that one inescapably grants Ford authorship. There are few film directors of whom one can say as much.

Ford was an artist. Like many - most? - true artists, he hated being asked to explain his work. Perhaps he couldn't. That's not surprising. Most novelists flounder - see the Paris Review interviews - when asked to account for what they have done, why and how. It's the first and great merit of Joseph McBride's biography that he understands this, also how Ford's intransigence

continues to prevent his being taken as seriously as his work warrants ... His films were the true outlet of this secretive man's inner thoughts and feelings, but since these thoughts and feelings were expressed more visually than verbally, they have often been misunderstood - or not seen at all - by critics who think primarily in literary terms ... Discovering how Ford's great films emerged from his jealously guarded inner life is the object of this biographical search.

Ford was born in Portland, Maine in 1894. His father, a saloon-keeper, was an immigrant from County Mayo. So was his mother Barbara Curran. They were 'shanty Irish', and being Irish was important to Ford. He followed an elder brother to Hollywood, and was directing westerns before he was 25. He married in 1920. His wife was Protestant and members of her family had fought on the Confederate side in the civil war. They stayed married, despite long absences and infidelities on Ford's part. Both were alcoholic, Ford a binge drinker between movies, frequently having to be put in hospital to be dried out. Family and home are revered in Ford's films; he made no success of them in life. …

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