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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)

Even in the waning days of the Nixon presidency, Ford rallied unabashedly to support him. Nixon, for his part, sought comfort and reflected honor by cloaking himself in the mantle of the great filmmaker, whom he told me he considered "one of my heroes in every sense of the word." In March 1973, Nixon presented Ford with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. Describing Ford as both a master filmmaker and an influential "interpreter of the Nation's heritage," the award citation declared, "In his life and in his work, John Ford represents the best in American films and the best in America." Nixon presented the medal during a nationally televised ceremony at which Ford also received the American Film Institute's first Life Achievement Award.

In January 1988, Nixon sent me a fascinating four-page essay titled "Reflections on John Ford."

"I vividly recall a telephone conversation I had with John Ford when I informed him that I was coming to California to present the Medal of Freedom to him," Nixon wrote. "We both knew that his illness [cancer] was fatal but one would never know it from the strength of his voice and of his convictions. He was particularly moved by the scenes of the POWs coming home. He congratulated me for the strong policies which he felt had contributed to bringing them home. His last words were, 'No amnesty for the draft evaders.'

"Some critics will say that this indicates that he was a hardhearted, bloodthirsty warmonger. They totally miss the mark. He hated war, as I did. But he knew that in Vietnam, in spite of some mistakes that were made in conducting the war, America's goals were noble ones. He knew too that those who did their duty and went to Vietnam deserved praise, not condemnation."

Like so many other observers before and since, Nixon saw what he wanted to see in Ford's work. Overlooking the darker aspects of Ford's view of American history, Nixon wrote, "John Ford in his life and in his motion pictures celebrated courage, loyalty, honor, strength, sacrifice, patriotism . . . I don't see many Hollywood motion pictures these days and I am sure that there are some good ones. But what concerns me as I believe it would have concerned John Ford, is the tendency for many Hollywood pictures to reflect life in Hollywood rather than life in the United States. Many movies are sick because those who write, produce, direct, and act in them are sick. It just isn't considered fashionable to portray the old virtues that John Ford stood for."

Ford made his final political statement at the AFI tribute: "God bless Richard Nixon." This public coda to Ford's career dismayed many of his admirers, particularly those to the left of center. But it served as a reminder of his characteristic political unpredictability. It also underscored the importance of not viewing Ford's powerfully complex films about American history through the narrow prism of his transient, and so often contradictory, personal political stands. If Ford never entirely resolved the issues that obsessed him, if he often seemed to dispute himself and sometimes acted against his own principles and ideals, that was part of the fuel that powered and enriched his creativity. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats could have been commenting on Ford when he wrote, "We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry."

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Adapted by the author from his forthcoming biography, "Searching for John Ford," St. Martin's Press, 2001.

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