Friday, July 16, 2010

Joseph McBride: Searching for John Ford: A Life (a book)

Joseph McBride: Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001. - Read in the paperback edition, London: Faber and Faber, 2004, 838 pages.

One of the all-time best books on the cinema.

For over a month I have had Joseph McBride's magisterial book as my travel companion, first in Lapland, then in Bologna, and finally since last week by Lake Saimaa, where the temperature has never been so high since the 1930s. Even the water temperature has risen to an exceptional 27 degrees. The fish have escaped to deeper waters, and even professional fishermen have trouble finding them.

More time to read, then, and I'm a fast reader, yet I have digested Searching for John Ford slowly. There are many great books on John Ford (Bogdanovich, Sarris, Anderson, Sinclair, Dan Ford, Gallagher, Peary...), but this labour of love rises to a new level while fully acknowledging the merits of the fellow Fordians.

For me, John Ford is one of the three greatest masters of the cinema. He is one of the film artists whose work can be compared with Homer (the epic poetry, the art of portraying a man through action) and Shakespeare (the historical vision, the sense of tragedy, the love for the richness of humanity, the art of the popular play, the effortless movement from horror - drama - humour - to farce). McBride rises to the occasion, and while his book is full of new fascinating detail he never loses sight of the big picture.

John Ford was a man of contradictions, and Joseph McBride is a master navigator through this life full of paradoxes. His book is a wonderful example of what I'd call the third generation of biographies of film artists. The first generation books, often autobiographies, were idealized, the second generation biographies were biased in emphasizing the dark side of the genius, and these third generation books grow to a level of a multi-layered synthesis.

McBride's book is brimming with new original research and insight starting with Ford's Irish roots and his childhood in Maine until the final years. In his last feature films Ford the artist was open to new approaches and fundamental reassessments while politically he became a hawk. McBride gives a fascinating account with new information on Ford's navy career since 1934, his remarkable World War II record and his important contributions to the intelligence services before the formation of the OSS and the CIA.

Maureen O'Hara's autobiography 'Tis Herself (2004) raised the question about John Ford's sexual identity. McBride and Pierre Rissient deny that Ford was homosexual. But in the light of the biographical facts the question of Ford's bisexuality is hardly irrelevant... And even disregarding biography, the films speak for themselves. One needs just to think who gets the loving looks of the camera. I believe that all Ford biographers have sensed this and decided to look the other way. Ford was apparently not a sexually especially active man but he admired and loved both women and men just as his fellow poets in Classical Greece and Elizabethan England did.

Joseph McBride updates the John Ford filmography significantly. Besides Ford's 137 theatrical films he supervised at least 87 military non-fiction films (intelligence, education, etc.). I agree with McBride that Ford reached his greatest artistic level in 1939 and kept this level of artistic growth and renewal until the end of his feature film career.

I'm happy to disagree with McBride on one film. He hates (as did Ford, himself) Two Rode Together (1961), which happens to be the John Ford film I have most frequently seen (it happened to be the first Ford film I had on home video) and always look forward to see again. It is a special film, starting as a farce but turning into tragedy. For me, it's Ford's Cervantesian film, The Searchers played in Don Quixote - Sancho Panza mode. The cynicism is on the surface only, as there are surprising revelations to the character of the crooked Marshal Guthrie McCabe, who understands best what the others have a hard time swallowing about the truth of the Indian captives. The film is also the remarkable introduction in Ford's oeuvre of the great Fordian actor James Stewart (they did four cinema or tv films together). Reading McBride's book I wondered whether Stewart was not the greatest Fordian actor of all, at least the one best able to convey his psychic complexity and sense of humour. It's a pity their paths crossed so late but fortunately they did.

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