Takes no nerve to do something, ain’t nothin’ else you can do.
—Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), The Grapes of Wrath
He was not influenced by a politically correct generation that we live in today. He could just go flat out. I think that was sort of an imprint of Ford’s, where Ford was afraid of nothing.
“He’s like Dickens or something. There’s a whole frame of reference and horizon line that is Fordian.” One of several famous filmmakers’ assessments at the start of Directed by John Ford, Walter Hill’s offers a gruff, particular sort of poetry. That horizon line, as Martin Scorsese notes, affects “any serious person making films today, whether they know it or not.”
While such reverence isn’t news, it is, in this refitted documentary by Peter Bogdanovich, rendered in loving, impressive detail. Originally put together in 1970, the film now includes 2006 interviews with Hill, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Harry Carey Jr., and Steven Spielberg, along with Orson Welles’ narration and priceless clips from a 1969 interview with Ford. Coming from off camera, Bogdanovich’s respectful, eager questions consistently prompt terse answers, as Ford sits before Monument Valley, his Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap cocked and his cigar in hand:
Bogdanovich: Mr. Ford, I’ve noticed that your view of the West has become increasingly sad and melancholy over the years. I’m comparing for instance, The Wagonmaster with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Have you been aware of that change in mood?
Bogdanovich: Now that I’ve pointed it out, is there anything you’d like to say about it?
Ford: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Ford’s brusque manner is well known, inspiring equal parts fear, respect, and awe among the many interviewees assembled for this look-back at his career and reputation. Stewart recalls a fateful day when, asked by Ford what he thought of Woody Strode’s costume in Liberty Valance (1962), he offered that it was “Uncle Remus-y.” Ford immediately assembly the cast and crew to announce Stewart’s opinion, not commenting on it, but just making sure that everyone knew of his foolishness. And Stewart remembers costar John Wayne “beaming like the cat who just ate the mouse,” now that Stewart was officially on Ford’s bad side, at least for the moment. Everyone, sooner or later, made that list, Stewart says. Wayne, he smiles, looked at him and said, “Welcome to the club. Glad you made it.”
While that particular “club” could certainly be stressful, being in Ford’s repertory company was, according to all accounts here, an extraordinary and life-changing experience. It was, as Eastwood observes, something like a family, and Ford could be a difficult and even abusive father (as he was with his blood family). Harry Carey Jr. recalls Ford warning him that he might not like him after the end of a shoot, but, he says, “I hated him after the first day.” Hill observes that Ford was “angry a lot,” and figures that he worked through his passions, frustrations, and desires for a healthier emotional life in his films. Stewart says that Ford sets were fueled by competition: “It isn’t a relaxed set. There’s tension everyplace. Everybody’s on edge.” But he also wanted to “please” Ford.
Spielberg says that he first met Ford when he was only about 15, aspiring to be make movies like those he admired by Ford. “So you wanna be a picture maker?” he remembers Ford saying (Ford in his office, dressed like he had just returned from a safari instead of lunch). “What do you know about art?” He sent the boy to a wall in his office where he had hung a series of Western landscape paintings. Asking young Spielberg to identify the location of the horizon line in a couple of them, Ford pronounced, “When you can decide that putting the horizon at the top of the frame or the bottom of the frame is better than putting it in the middle of the frame, you may, someday, make a good picture maker. Now get outta here.” Spielberg smiles.
Such stories suggest the seeming simplicity with which Ford approached his own art, and the complexity of the results. Both Henry Fonda and Wayne describe moments when Ford came up with bits of famous business (Fonda’s feet on the porch post in My Darling Clementine  or Wayne’s square reading glasses in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon ), as these moments indicate details of character and profound emotional truths by elements that might seem distractions. As Wayne puts it,
He had a keen sense of when a thing is sentimental and when it is maudlin, and he’s not afraid of those things. As a matter of fact, one of the things he told me early in my career, was, he says, “Duke, you’re gonna get a lot of scenes during your life and they’re gonna seem corny to you.” And he said, “Play ‘em, play ‘em to the hilt. You’ll get by with it. But if you start trying to play it with your tongue in your cheek and getting cute, you’ll lose sight of yourself and the scene’ll be lost.”
And with that, you’ll likely pull up any number of Fordian images that do exactly that, in which Wayne, Strode or Ward Bond makes some near banality appear briefly transcendent, and unforgettable. It may be, as Eastwood suggests, that Ford was working in an era before cynicism or “political correctness” took hold, but it is also the case, as this documentary reveals, that he cut through whatever cultural and political baggage, to create small, resonant instants: Strode stalwart and stunning in the Sergeant Rutledge courtroom, Richard Widmark and Stewart pondering “women” on the riverbank in Two Rode Together (1961), Victor McLaglen stumbling on the foggy sidewalks in The Informer (1935) (the last two scenes fondly remembered here). As Hill articulates it, “Ambiguity is the home of the great artist and Ford seemed roughhewn and a simple fella and he wasn’t. And his films seemed sometimes roughhewn and simple and straightforward and they’re not, they’re very complicated.”
Remarkably, he achieved such complexity within a studio system, where executives regularly interfered with directors’ “visions,” looking at dailies and making “suggestions” with an eye to marketing the final product. Ford, his colleagues recall, would reduce the chances for change by leaving the interlopers with few options: he’d shoot what he wanted in the film, leaving out coverage, or close-ups, or other possibilities. He’d trim dialogue. “What do you think about talk in pictures?” asks Bogdanovich. “It’s necessary,” drawls Ford. “People expect it now.” The younger man presses on: “And yet the most important aspect of your pictures has always been the visual, wouldn’t you agree?” Ford pulls on his cigar. “Perhaps.”
Ford’s apparent resistance to being interviewed, to articulating process and context, didn’t much hide his shrewdness and innovation. Beginning his career as a prop man and occasional stunt rider and actor, Ford was briefly an assistant director before he made his first films as a credited director (as “Jack”) in 1917. He made 10 short features that year, with titles like The Fighting Gringo, A Marked Man, and Straight Shooting, most with Harry Carey, the famous Western star whose vulnerable-seeming, hand-on-his-arm stance Wayne borrowed for The Searchers (1956).
If Directed by John Ford only mentions the early films, and leaves out some altogether (his Shirley Temple movie, Wee Willie Winkie , later works like 7 Women , his documentaries (December 7th , Vietnam! Vietnam! ), it attends carefully to the “Fordian” horizon, the thematic and artistic focus for which he became justly famous. The documentary is anecdotal and selective, sometimes strained (the add-on concerning his lifelong love for Katharine Hepburn is intriguing but brief) and sometimes “corny.” But for the most part, its stories are wonderful. While his movies offer gorgeous, significant mythologies—of the West, of patriotism, of family—they were never naïve representations. Instead, they insisted on the inaccuracies of “history,” and the cruelties as well as the potency of rituals. They showed the ways that facts became legends.