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'Fellow Traveler' or Redbaiter?

The Convoluted Politics of John Ford

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)

Somewhat paradoxically, this "socialistic democrat" was also a dedicated military man. Ford became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1934 and spent his time between films from 1936 through 1941 sailing his yacht, the Araner, to Mexico and Hawaii on spying missions for the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). His grandson Dan Ford's 1979 book, "Pappy: The Life of John Ford," dismisses Ford's spying escapades as mostly bibulous fantasizing, but recently released military records show that Ford was serious and methodical about his intelligence-gathering operations. In retrospect, his reports on Japanese military infiltration of Baja California seem alarmist, but he was reflecting a genuine concern of American military intelligence in the years leading up to World War II. The ONI found Ford's "valuable and most interesting data" to be of "considerable importance." At a time when isolationism was still rampant and served to inhibit Roosevelt's foreign policy, Ford was well ahead of most Americans in his concern over the probability of war between the democracies and the fascist powers. He went on to serve in World War II, making documentaries for the Navy and the Office of Strategic Services, and retired from the Navy as a rear admiral in 1951.


FORD OFTEN WORE MILITARY FATIGUES AND A NAVY BASEBALL CAP with a captain's eagle while directing his Hollywood movies after the war, many of which revolved around military themes. But in his political stands he continued marching to his own erratic drummer. During the postwar blacklist era, Ford defiantly declared, "Send the Commie bastard to me, I'll hire him." That remark was quoted in two books on Ford to paint the director in a heroic light as a staunch opponent of the Hollywood blacklist. And he was among the relatively few people in Hollywood who from time to time did take some principled stands against the anti-Communist witch hunt.

However, Ford's intermittent acts of courage do not tell the whole story. His immediate response to the October 1947 hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) on alleged Communist influence in Hollywood was to head a Screen Directors Guild committee in protest. "We recognize the right of Congress to investigate," the SDG committee announced, "but we firmly believe that an American citizen should not have his reputation attacked by anyone without the rights which we believe were the intent of the Constitution to give."

Ford and another committee member, John Huston, went to Washington to support the "unfriendly" witnesses accused of being Communists. At the SDG board meeting on Oct. 21, Ford and William Wyler blasted director Sam Wood for telling HUAC that there had been "a constant effort" by Communists in the guild to "steer us into the Red River." Calling Wood's allegation "preposterous," Ford sarcastically remarked, "Of all the pictures made in Hollywood, there is only one I have seen that smacked of Communism and followed the 'party line' from end to end. The little number called 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' [directed by Wood in 1943 from Ernest Hemingway's novel about the Spanish Civil War]. That followed the Marxist line right on down."

Ford's jab at Wood for glorifying the Spanish Loyalists showed how far he had come from his own support of the Loyalist cause, and his claim that the film "smacked of Communism" also implicated its screenwriter, longtime Ford collaborator Dudley Nichols. Ford went on to criticize Wood for labeling people politically: "I object to calling names. Right and left and center of the road. There is no such thing if we live up to the context of our Constitution. I mean we're all liberals, because it's a liberal Constitution. Thomas Jefferson was probably the greatest of all liberals, and he was considered a leftist at that time."

But after the studio chiefs bowed to reactionary pressure and blacklisted the Hollywood Ten, liberal opposition to the witch hunt began to collapse and people ran for political cover. During the October 1947 HUAC hearings, Ford first declared himself "a state of Maine Republican," although he did so then (and again in 1950) only to members of his guild, not for public consumption. Ford also sought protective coloration in close political ties with his right-wing cronies John Wayne and Ward Bond, who were among the ringleaders of the blacklist through the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA). That right-wing organization, whose first president was Sam Wood, provided HUAC with much of the information on alleged film industry "Reds." The group also zealously supplied information to the California Senate's Tenney Committee and other witch-hunting organizations.

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