New Book About John Ford Avoids Easy Answers

johnfordForty years after his death John Ford remains an enigma.

In his new book Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond author Scott Allen Nollen calls Ford “one of the most complex, contradictory, and downright confounding men who ever burned daylight.” And, in the context of his creative collaboration with the two actors most inextricably linked to his films – “an association unparalleled in the history of Hollywood Cinema” – Nollen seeks to shed light on the troubled genius.

He succeeds to the extent one can when writing about men who are long dead, and about whom much has already been reported. And your level of interest in the result will largely depend upon how much you like your legends deconstructed.

Born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth, Maine on February 1, 1894, Ford was honored four times with an Academy Award for Best Director – for THE INFORMER (1935), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), and THE QUIET MAN (1952) – yet he consistently downplayed the visual artistry of his work. In one fascinating account, Nollen relates the story of 32-year-old Ford studying in Berlin under the tutelage of newly minted Fox contractee F.W. Murnau, just weeks before the German director would begin work on SUNRISE (1927). Ford’s extraordinarily lyrical Fox film PILGRIMAGE (1933), which I saw earlier this year at Film Forum, bears some striking similarities to SUNRISE. In addition, echoes of Expressionism carry through much of his work, despite Ford’s insistence that he made pictures solely “to pay the rent.”

Perhaps even more baffling than his dismissal of the virtuosity of his work is Ford’s well-documented horrendous behavior toward cast and crew. While he was devoutly loyal to key members of his team behind- and in-front-of the camera, he was also extremely unpleasant to even his closest friends, meting out “verbal attacks, outright humiliation, and even physical abuse,” according to the author. In fact, the biggest surprise in Three Bad Men (which takes its title from Ford’s 1926 film of the same name) is that neither Bond nor Wayne told their “Coach” to take a flying leap. Though the fact that both tolerated Ford says as much about them as it does about the director who gave them their respective starts.

ward-bond-35The prolific Bond (born in 1903 in Benkelman, Nebraska) appeared in 28 Ford films, beginning with SALUTE (1929) and concluding with THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957), in which he plays a character based upon the man Nollen calls his “mentor, tormentor, friend of three decades, and surrogate father.” Bond died of a heart attack in 1960 at the age of 57 and Wayne, his co-star in 23 films, delivered his eulogy and helped to scatter his ashes in the Catalina Channel in Southern California.

Wayne (born Marion Morrison in 1907 in Winterset, Iowa) appeared in 27 Ford productions (including three for television), working his way up from prop man and extra to iconic star. And it was “Duke” who brought the threesome together, when he recruited USC football player Bond to appear in SALUTE. They shared a sleeping compartment on the cross-country train trip to the shooting location in Annapolis, Maryland, and a lifelong relationship was formed.

In a 1964 Cosmopolitan profile, Ford called the actors “two of my closest friends.”  But Nollen’s thorough reporting of Ford’s abusiveness might require a redefinition of the term. Ford was both the beneficiary of the mythical identity he had created for himself and a victim of it, often collapsing under its weight. He battled a serious case of alcoholism, and Nollen relates many tales of the director’s benders, including one after the completion of his final film, 7 WOMEN (1966), in which he was trying to find “real oblivion” according to grandson Dan Ford.

JohnWayneyoung “He wanted to be a two-fisted, brawling, heavy-drinking Irishman. He wanted to do what John Wayne did on the screen,” Ford “Stock Company” member Harry Carey Jr. said. “There was a part of him that Wayne exemplified physically, something he always wanted to be. So he created that on the screen.”

More unfortunate perhaps than the bad behavior of Ford is the involvement, particularly of Ward Bond, with the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late ’40s and the creation of the Hollywood blacklist. Wayne was complicit, but less conspicuously, and Bond bore the brunt of the backlash for his behavior. His difficulty in getting work after this dark period led (in part) to his move to television, where he starred in NBC’s Wagon Train beginning in 1957. Bond’s tenure as wagon master Major Seth Adams concluded with his death, a few months into the fourth season. One of his last episodes, which aired two weeks after his passing, was directed by Ford and featured Wayne, bringing the three-decade saga full circle. 

Nollen, a prolific author of more than 40 books on film, literature and music, including profiles of Paul Robeson, Boris Karloff, and Laurel and Hardy, interweaves the story of these three complicated men into an engaging, integrated tale. And while Ford and Wayne have been the subject of many previous publications, Three Bad Men is the first biography of Bond, an actor Nollen clearly enjoys (and I agree with him on that).

One warning: the book is heavy on detail and texture, which will delight fans familiar with the films of Ford, Bond, and Wayne and daunt those who are not. I fall somewhere in between and found it difficult to fight the temptation to put the book down and watch the film Nollen was writing about, in order to better follow the narrative. 

BookFinally, Nollen re-dishes some previously reported dirt from four-time Ford actress Maureen O’Hara, who co-starred in THE QUIET MAN (opposite Wayne) and apparently did not have a pleasant experience. O’Hara claimed in her 2004 autobiography ‘Tis Herself: A Memoir that she walked in on Ford in mid-embrace with “one of the most famous men in the picture business” (supposedly Tyrone Power) and that Ford was a “closet homosexual.” O’Hara goes on to suggest that these “conflicted feelings” were at the heart of Ford’s alcoholism and his bad behavior.

True or not (and we’ll never know for sure), this revelation could have been presented as the definitive genesis of Ford’s duality: the easy answer for why the sensitive artist chose instead to play the hard-drinking roughneck. Instead, the author shares it matter-of-factly, avoiding simplistic suppositions. 

“When it came to his own life and psyche, (Ford) avoided the truth, exaggerated, lied, or just ‘didn’t have any goddamn idea,'” Nollen writes. “The positive emotions he felt for his two favorite actors and whipping boys may have been the underlying cause of his negative, sadistic treatment of them (and himself); but even a lifetime of psychoanalysis may not have ‘proved’ anything.” 

In life there are no easy answers. That may be the only way in which John Ford is just like the rest of us. 

For more information on Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond click here. And for the perspectives of two writers who know way more about this topic than I do, visit Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and Immortal Ephemera.


About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, producer, and digital marketing consultant. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. I've written for, Game Show Network, getTV, Sony Movies, and NYC weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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2 Responses to New Book About John Ford Avoids Easy Answers

  1. kelleepratt says:

    Reblogged this on Outspoken and Freckled and commented:
    Another great post from Will McKinley on the great John Ford

  2. I read Ronald L. Davis’s book John Ford: A Hollywood Master, 3 months ago, for a blog I wrote for the Mary Astor Blogathon-i picked The Hurricane, as my topic. I found Davis’s book interesting and it went over each movie Ford directed, and the early silents he worked on before directing.

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