Searching For John Ford
By Joseph McBride
(St. Martin's Press, Hardcover, 9780312242329, 416pp.)
Publication Date: June 2001
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Hollywood has given us no greater director than John Ford. Between 1917 and 1970, Ford directed and/or produced some 226 pictures, from short silent films to ambitious historical epics and searingly vivid combat documentaries. His major works-- such as Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, They Were Expendable, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance-- are cinematic classics. Ford's films about American history are profound explorations of the national character and the crucibles in which that character was forged. Throughout his long and prolific career, Ford became best known for redefining the Western genre, setting his dramas about pioneer life against the timeless backdrop of Monument Valley.
Ford's films earned him worldwide admiration. As a man, however he was tormented and deliberately enigmatic. He concealed his true personality from the public, presenting himself as an illiterate hack rather than as the sensitive artist his films show him to be. He shrewdly guided the careers of some of Hollywood's greatest stars, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Maureen O'Hara, and Katharine Hepburn, but he could be abusive, even sadistic, in his treatment of actors. He began his life steeped in the lore of Irish independence and progressive politics; by the end a hawkish Republican and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, he was lionized by Richard Nixon for creating films that extol the "old virtues" of heroism, duty, and patriotism. Little wonder that those who have written about Ford have either strained to reconcile the daunting paradoxes of his work and personality or avoided them entirely. They have printed the legend and ignored the facts-- or printed the facts and obscured the legend.
In its depth, originality, and insight, Searching for John Ford surpasses all previous biographies of the filmmaker. Encompassing and illuminating Ford's complexities and contradictions, Joseph McBride comes as close as anyone ever will to solving what Andrew Sarris called the "John Ford movie mystery." McBride traces the whole trajectory of Ford's life, from his beginning as "Bull" Feeney, the near-sighted, football-playing son of Irish immigrants in Portland, Maine, through to his establishment as America's most formidable and protean filmmaker. The author of critically acclaimed biographies of Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg, McBride interviewed Ford in 1970 and co-wrote the seminal study John Ford with Michael Wilmington. For more than thirty years, McBride has been exploring the interconnections between Ford's inner life and his work. He interviewed more than 120 of the director's friends, relatives, collaborators, and colleagues. Blending lively and penetrating analyses of Ford's films with an impeccably documented narrative of the historical and psychological contexts in which those films were created, McBride has at long last given John Ford the biography his stature demands. Searching for John Ford will stand as the definitive portrait of an American genius.
Joseph McBride is a film historian and critic whose fourteen books include Orson Welles, Hawks on Hawks, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, and Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. A former reporter and reviewer for Daily Variety in Hollywood, he is an adjunct professor of film and literature in the Irish studies program at New College of California in San Francisco.
"It's become cliché to say that a biography reflects the spirit of its subject. But in this case it appears to be true. Joseph McBride's book has the sweep, passion, complexity, and tragic grandeur of a great John Ford film. Thoroughly detailed and researched, McBride's book fills in the gaps and gives us the man in full: sentimental yet cruel, brilliant yet forever feigning illiteracy, politically liberal at one moment and conservative the next. Ultimately, McBride shows us that this artist who balked at the very mention of the word art could speak fully and honestly only through his films. For those of us who grew up on those films, the book is a treasure, and an eye-opener. For younger people who don't know his work, who have yet to appreciate the timeless beauty of his greatest pictures, Searching for John Ford should be compulsory reading."--Martin Scorsese
"Essential in every sense, McBride's Searching for John Ford is a consummate biography. The author shares his subject's great reconciling authority-- and his incisive and embracing book is an open door onto the vast, too-rarely-seen landscape of a great American artist."--Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn
"This first full-length critical biography presents a complex, fascinating portrait of a troubled and conflicted artist and man...McBride elegantly and cogently weaves Ford's personal life into the fabric of his career...McBride has produced a fine, long-needed biography of a pivotal American artist."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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