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American Experience: Henry Ford (DVD Review)

25 Feb, 2013 By: John Latchem

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

A mass of contradictions who has inspired more than one book I’ve devoured, Ford was a genius American Original whose knowledge of basic American history (once tested in court) was appallingly malnourished; a man who basically created the very mobile industrial society he grew to hate and likely always had; plus a touter of so-called family values whose badgering his only child (son Edsel) no doubt contributed to the latter’s early grave. Running 107 minutes, this recently telecast documentary covers only the patriarch’s saga, though one could make a follow-up possibly as good about what happened following the senior Ford’s death in 1947.

A literal farm boy, Ford actually walked from the sticks to the bustling Detroit just a few miles away and labored for years (both for others and then himself) until his Model-T and the assembly line brainstorm rewrote history. By paying outstanding wages for basic labor, Ford was able to create a middle-class existence for his own workers, though the social-engineer dimension to his personality spurred a move on his part to all but dictate to his employees (many of them immigrants) how they should live. Eventually, time passed Ford by (the Depression didn’t help), and only wartime contracts kept the company solvent as the increasingly reactionary car maker employed thugs to break up unionizing — physical altercations we see here via some truly remarkable archival footage obviously shot by someone unafraid to leap with camera smack into the action.

Meanwhile, son Edsel (a capable-plus administrator but one who loved the rich-man’s life his father abhorred) tried to be an all-around mediator at the company but always got shot down by dad. Admiring of Ford in many ways, this portrait in no way flinches from dealing with the old man’s dark side, which embraced active anti-Semitism, even in print. It ends just before an essentially U.S. Cavalry rescue of the company by Edsel offspring Henry II shortly after World War II — and mercifully makes no mention of the youngest Ford’s haywire intended tribute to his in many ways tragic father: the dud Edsel automobile, which became the Heaven’s Gate in its field shortly after its launch with a 1957 CBS musical special that’s still one of the best of its type ever aired on TV (try Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong and Bob Hope).

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