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John Ford : THE MAN AND HIS WORK by Tag Gallagher (University of California: $35; 572 pp., illustrated)

March 16, 1986|Philip Dunne | Writer-director Dunne is the author of "Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics" (McGraw-Hill)

Tag Gallagher has performed a monumental task of scholarship in reconstructing the mind and psyche of movie director John Ford.

Nearly 500 pages of text, profusely illustrated, are backed by another 100 of filmography, bibliography, notes and appendixes, even one recording the earnings of the director's movies. (Given the Byzantine nature of film company bookkeeping, let us hope that these figures are accurate.)

Taking the book as straight biography of my friend of 40-odd years, I found it fascinating and informative, filling many gaps in my own knowledge. Jack Ford was never one to talk much about himself.

Gallagher effectively shatters the twin images of Ford the tough guy, tyrant at home and on the set, and of Ford the semi-literate poet, like Jonson's Shakespeare a "Fancy's child," warbling "his native wood-notes wild."

The real Ford, like the real Shakespeare, was an intellectual, a hard-nosed professional and--yes--a poet, too.

As for the tough-guy image, Gallagher is quite right in maintaining that this was strictly a mask to conceal a warm and generous nature, and an occasionally too soft Irish heart.

(Strangely, he misinterprets something I wrote on precisely this point: "Jack's courtesy to any individual was always in inverse ratio to his affection." Gallagher takes this to mean that I considered Ford cruel and unkind. I intended to convey the exact opposite.)

True, the director could occasionally be cruel, especially to establish discipline on his set. Gallagher quotes Ford intimate Frank Baker: "I've seen big Victor McLaglen stand there and cry like a child, and I've seen Duke Wayne do exactly the same thing. Blubber like a child, and Ford just sitting there, humiliating the hell out of his star player. He was doing it for a purpose."

And Gallagher, like Ford's grandson Dan in his earlier biography, "Pappy," demolishes the myth that Ford joined Wayne and actor Ward Bond in embracing hard-rock right-wing politics.

In 1937, for instance, he contributed an ambulance to the Spanish Loyalists, referring to himself at the time as "definitely a socialist democrat" (probably a Fordian exaggeration). In 1950, he led the fight within the Directors Guild against an attempt by Cecil B. DeMille to institute an in-house political blacklist. Even when he became an admiral in World War II, he remained a champion of every underdog.

The greater part of the book is concerned with the more than 100 movies Ford directed over a brilliant and productive half-century. The films are summarized, analyzed and dissected under the lenses of Gallagher's critical microscope.

There is much of value here for the serious student, and, unfortunately, a little too much that is precious and pedantic.

Gallagher sometimes peers through an inappropriate lens, persisting in treating Ford throughout as the author of his movies, and this obeisance to the auteur theory leads him into some ludicrous contortions.

I think Jack would have been vastly amused to hear himself described, along with F. W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg, as directors whose "emphasis on determinism and passion hopelessly tangles moral issues," or as "true dialectical artists, aiming for a coherent cognitive experience of vastness and contradiction."

When we worked together, it seemed to me that all he aimed for was how best to blend screenplay, cast and camera into the telling of a good story. And nobody ever told one better.

While he undoubtedly was the author of most of his silent films, and the dominant creative force in such later movies as "The Informer," "Stagecoach" and "The Quiet Man," he also was a master at "realizing," as the French say, screenplays developed by others, notably Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox.

As pure director, enhancing the written word with mood, business, action and sheer pictorial beauty, he contributed as much to "The Grapes of Wrath" and "How Green Was My Valley" as he ever could have as auteur .

I wish Gallagher had not dismissed in a footnote the real author of "Young Mr. Lincoln"--Lamar Trotti--nor praised the writing in "Mogambo" ("lines snap with sardonic wit, weaving intricate networks of double entendre") without mentioning the writer, John Lee Mahin.

But such oddities don't detract too much from the book's overall value as a work of scholarship and as an accurate biographical portrait of a genuine American cultural hero.

And Gallagher, to his credit, does let Ford express himself on the auteur theory: "People are incorrect to compare a director to an author. If he's a creator, he's more like an architect. And an architect conceives his plans according to precise circumstances."

Let the last word, as usual, belong to Pappy.

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