Directed by John Ford (DVD Review)5 Oct, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Even before director Peter Bogdanovich gave it a substantial facelift in 2006, his 1971 documentary on Ford ranked with the best of its type (and by now, there must be half-a-dozen documentaries just on Ford alone). But substantial additions and an all-out reshaping for a Turner Classic Movies broadcast not quite a decade ago turned Directed into a model of its kind — even though, by necessity, a documentary that spans 1917’s Straight Shooting to 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance will understandably and even inevitably leave out a lot of Ford achievements. For instance, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has compiled a wonderful list of 10 “overlooked” Fords that are all also personal favorites as well (Bucking Broadway; Pilgrimage; Judge Priest; The Long Voyage Home; Wagon Master; The Sun Shines Bright; Mogambo; The Long Gray Line; Sergeant Rutledge; 7 Women), and only a couple are addressed here to any extent. (All 10, by the way, have been released to the home market in one form or another — though 7 Women has thus far only rated laserdisc treatment — and obviously a couple decades ago. Bucking Broadway, a hoot, is available as a bonus extra on Criterion’s Stagecoach release.)
Even so, most of the titles that come immediately to mind are addressed in Bogdanovich’s take, with many of them rating substantial film clips amid a hefty array of big-name interviews and Orson Welles’ voiceover narration (this is a class project all the way). The lead actors most associated with Ford’s talkie career are John Wayne and Henry Fonda, though James Stewart came along late in both of their games with memorable contributions in their three features. All three kingpins are in top form in footage shot for the original 1971 cut — though it seems to me from admittedly long-ago memories of the initial version that their interviews may have been expanded some. Fonda still looks impossibly young for his age at the time, and Wayne does better in the toupee department than Charlton Heston ever did (this isn’t meant as a snipe at the Duke but merely a good-grooming observation).
Ford’s male Big Three were in a good position to talk about his disdain for wordy scripts; his glee in putting nearly every actor in the dog house from time to time (interviewed Harry Carey Jr. is valuable on this count as well); his method of rehearsing; and — as Fonda points out regarding Ford’s Battle of Midway experience — his unusual knack (or luck of the Irish) to be at the right place at the right time. Though Maureen O’Hara, in footage culled from some other project’s interview (pretty sure), talks of how Ford-ian effects thought to have been spontaneous or lucky were actually the products of meticulous planning.
Meanwhile, here’s Ford out in Monument Valley — director’s chair, eye-patch, L.A. Dodgers cap, the whole deal — doing what he can to mess up Bogdanovich’s carefully planned interview with dismissive one-word answers to questions. And this even though the younger filmmaker had written extensively on his subject in the past (and with knowledge and respect). Ford’s on-and-off health had been an issue for him extending back to the 1950s — yet for one whose final feature had come a few years earlier, he comes off as someone who could have still taken on at least one more movie. For all his presumed frustration, Bogdanovich put this footage to further good use when Ford got the first AFI Life Achievement Award in spring of ’73 (Directed was originally an AFI production, though this revised version now carries the TCM logo up front). Some of Ford’s curt answers were recycled into the AFI show for one of its high points, and the audience lapped it up. Though by this time (six month’s before his death), Ford was in such rocky shape that he “God Blessed” guest Richard Nixon on network television (in 1973).
The 2006 additions — Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Walter Hill — provide interviews nearly as scintillating as the older ones with the actors for all who regard a director as the superstar equal of a performer (which is one of the things that separates a real movie person from a pretender). Spielberg tells a terrific story about getting to meet Ford in his office when young Steven was just a teenager and being asked by Ford to pick out “the horizon” on a couple wall paintings as part of some crucial instruction on how to frame an image. And director Hill pounds it home that the politics in Ford’s films are never as pat as they seem — even in his later work when Ford turned increasingly conservative in his views. (A World War II/Korea vet who became a rear admiral, he was not exactly going to be storming the Pentagon with Norman Mailer).
I’m always amused at knee-jerk liberals who dismiss Ford’s movies out of hand for their conservative sentiments when the truth is that I’ve known a lot of at least moderate lefties count themselves as his biggest fans (this was definitely true as well when I was at NYU’s Graduate School of Cinema during post-Kent Sate student strikes, and the firebrands still wanted someone to thread up 3 Bad Men or The Sun Shines Bright). What I love here is seeing, in just one two-hour bite, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Spielberg, Hill and Bogdanovich saying that Ford is great and even timeless (a kind of “what have you done lately?” to his detractors). It’s great that Warner Archive has put this one back into circulation; used copies from the original release were bringing in no little dough (the first Google click I tried found someone asking for $65).