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The Convoluted Politics of John Ford

'Fellow Traveler' or Redbaiter?

The Director of Classic Westerns Such as 'Stagecoach' and 'The Searchers' Fought Hollywood's Blacklist. He Also Crusaded Against 'Reds.' In This Excerpt From His New Biography, Joseph McBride Examines Ford's Conflicted Life.

June 03, 2001|JOSEPH McBRIDE | Joseph McBride is the author of 14 books, including "Frank Capra: TheCatastrophe of Success" (1992) and "Steven Spielberg: A Biography" (1997)

"The truth about my life is nobody's damn business but my own," film director John Ford (1894-1973) once proclaimed. This penchant for secrecy helps explain why the truth of his life has been so notoriously difficult to pin down. No aspect of Ford has generated more confusion than his often contradictory stands on political issues.

* How could it be, for instance, that the man who helped lead the Hollywood unionization movement in the 1930s and directed "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1940 ended his days supporting Barry Goldwater and Richard M. Nixon? Such ideological flip-flops have baffled admirers and detractors alike, leading to serious misunderstanding of his films.

* Ford chronicled America's history on screen with an epic vision that spanned nearly two centuries, from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. He explored the national mythos in his Westerns, including "Stagecoach," "Fort Apache," "The Searchers," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "Cheyenne Autumn." He examined the shifting boundaries between history and legend and the ways that American ideals have been contradicted by historical fact, particularly where minority groups are concerned. But this rich, complex body of work defies such simplistic labels as "liberal" or "conservative." As does Ford.

Stubbornly insisting on letting his films speak for themselves, Ford seldom gave a straight answer to questions posed by producers or interviewers. He engaged in an obfuscation strategy to protect himself from attacks and to give himself the utmost autonomy within the Hollywood system. He refused to engage in serious discussions of his feelings or the themes of his work. He also declined the label "artist"--a dodge that history has refused to accept.

*

FORD'S LEGAL NAME REMAINED JOHN FEENEY. He was the son of an Irish immigrant saloonkeeper and Democratic Party boss in Portland, Maine. During the Irish War of Independence in 1921, Ford traveled to his ancestral homeland of County Galway to give financial and moral support to cousins fighting for the Irish Republican Army against the Black and Tans. Ford's visit lasted only a few days, ending when the British roughed him up and ordered him to leave the country. Perhaps it was the influence of his Irish heritage, with its long tradition of secrecy in the face of foreign occupation, that led him to erect such formidable barriers to his inner life.

Ford's Irishness also helped him empathize with the dispossessed American tenant farmers of the Great Depression, who reminded him of the Irish made homeless during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century. He became an outspoken supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs to combat economic injustice. In 1933, when Hollywood, like the rest of the nation, was in the throes of labor unrest, Ford helped found the Screen Directors Guild (SDG). He served on the guild committee that opened negotiations with the producers and remained an officer during the guild's first few years of existence. In 1938, he became a vice president of the newly formed Motion Picture Democratic Committee, which promoted progressive and liberal candidates. He also became involved with the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, another broadly based coalition of leftists and liberals united by their opposition to fascism. He donated an ambulance to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and helped found the Motion Picture Artists Committee to Aid Republican Spain.

In a 1937 letter to his nephew Bob Ford, who was fighting with the International Brigade in Spain, Ford wrote, "I am glad you [have] the good part of the O'Feeney blood. Some of it is very God-damned awful--we are liars, weaklings & selfish drunkards, but there has always been a stout rebel quality in the family and a peculiar passion for justice. I am glad you inherited the good strain. Politically, I am a definite socialistic democrat--always left."

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