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FILM COMMENT : The Man Who Shot Great Movies : Director John Ford was a man of legendary contradictions and legendary talent. (He could also bring John Wayne to tears)

July 03, 1994|KENNETH TURAN

"Aggressive and defensive in about equal measure, he was gentle and irascible, bloody-minded and generous, courageous, uncompromising and endlessly evasive. He could be kind and he could be cruel. He was an artist, strictly professional, obstinately personal."

--Fellow director and friend Lindsay Anderson on John Ford


It's hard to believe that any one man could contain as many contradictions as John Ford, subject of a centennial tribute that starts this Thursday, but then his was not the ordinary life, not the ordinary career.

He directed films in Hollywood for close to 60 years, from the mid-teens through 1976, something like 137 motion pictures in all, a startling number when as little as half a dozen features can currently earn someone an admiring film festival retrospective.

Even the dour Ingmar Bergman is said to have called Ford the world's greatest filmmaker, and when Orson Welles, who reportedly viewed Ford's landmark Western "Stagecoach" 40 times before shooting "Citizen Kane," was asked which American directors he favored, he replied, "the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."

Between 1931 and 1964, his films earned 72 Academy Award nominations and Ford himself set a record that still stands by winning four best director Oscars (for "The Informer," "The Grapes of Wrath," "How Green Was My Valley" and "The Quiet Man"), not to mention the two he got for best documentary for World War II reportage.

He made stars of John Wayne, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen, worked closely with Henry Fonda and James Stewart, and created his own stock company of devoted journeymen actors who followed him gratefully from picture to picture.

Yet even those who loved him most admitted that he could be a sadist as a director, torturing his closest friends to get the performances he wanted. "I've seen big Victor McLaglen stand there and cry like a child," said one witness to Ford tongue-lashings, "and I've seen Duke Wayne do exactly the same thing." Ford frequently bad-mouthed his own films, at times claiming not even to have seen them, and his capacity for feuds was legendary.

Ford didn't talk to Andy Devine for six years after the actor talked back to him. He didn't talk to Fonda for 10 years after they had a fistfight during the shooting of "Mr. Roberts." And although he remained in touch with him, he stubbornly refused to hire Harry Carey, the great silent Western star who helped mold Ford's career, for more than 25 years.

Yet when Carey died, Ford cried so much in his widow's arms that she reported "the whole front of my sweater was sopping wet. For at least 15 or 20 minutes he cried, just solid sobbing." And he immediately made Carey's son, Harry Carey Jr. (whose just-published memoir, "Company of Heroes," is a splendid look at Ford at work), a permanent part of his stock company, using him in nine features in 16 years.

Like a force of nature, Ford just went on and on. He lived and worked long enough, dying in 1973 at age 78, to have had conflicting creative periods, to turn out films in the twilight of his career that seemed to almost mock the values he had espoused in his earlier work, to call into question what had seemed so sure to him years before.

So, even as it's lauded, Ford's work remains controversial. For it is possible to look at his films and feel confused, to either not quite understand what all the fuss is about or, like critic David Thomson in his "A Biographical Dictionary of Film," to be frankly antipathetic, to consider the man's output "bigoted, grandiloquent and maudlin" and his message "trite, callous, evasive."

Given all this, what could be more welcome than "John Ford's Century," a retrospective celebrating the 100th anniversary of the director's birth that is so comprehensive it takes two institutions to contain it. Starting Thursday, the UCLA Film and Television Archive's Melnitz Theater will screen 68 Ford films in a series that runs through September, and starting Aug. 5 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will chip in with an additional 20. No better survey of the man and his work is likely for another 100 years.

Besides Ford's theatrical features, all four of the films he made for television (two of which have baseball settings) are being shown, as well as a selection of his documentaries. Besides his Oscar-winning World War II material ("The Battle of Midway" and "December 7th"), also on view is the director's foray into venereal disease prevention, "Sex Hygiene." Ford's typical reaction to the finished 1941 film: "I looked at it and threw up."

Born the son of Irish immigrants in Portland, Maine, Ford came out to Hollywood to work with his older brother Francis, an established silent film actor and director. And although the younger Ford at times liked to shrug off what he did as no more than "a job of work," no American director has had his combination of innate ability honed to an almost effortless transcendence after decades of work on all those films.

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