The Men Who Would Be Kings
JOHN FORD INTERVIEWS, Edited by Gerald Peary,
University Press of Mississippi: 166 pp. $46 cloth, $18 paper
BOOK REVIEW Los Angeles Times - March 10, 2002
By RICHARD SCHICKEL
Richard Schickel is the author of "Matinee Idylls" and reviews movies for Time magazine.
the admirable "Interviews" series, published by the University Press of Mississippi. There are 20 of these valuable little books, with more on the way. Evenly balanced between old movie masters and Young Turks, they are collections of interviews the directors granted, through the years, to eager journalists.
.Sometimes the results can be astonishing, as they are in Gerald Peary's volume on John Ford. Ford was a notoriously difficult interview--abrupt, ungiving, often downright hostile to his interlocutors. In particular, he could not or would not describe the processes by which he achieved the starkly beautiful imagery with which he wowed generations of cineastes. Similarly, none of his many biographers has ever solved the mystery of how this churlish and alcoholic man achieved the sentimental warmth that animates his best-loved work. Mostly, they have fallen back on awed, useless dithyrambs. But reading Peary's book, one comes to a rather different conclusion. For all the honors that were heaped on Ford, the man was clearly ashamed of himself: perhaps not for the shifty and self-aggrandizing way he fictionalized his personal history but because he remained in his own mind an ignorant and inarticulate lowbrow, unable to keep up with his knowing questioners and angrily resentful of their learned ways.
The son of an immigrant Irish saloon keeper, Ford had perhaps a week of college before drifting west to follow his actor brother into the movies where, more or less by accident, he became a director in the days when no particular prestige was attached to that profession. His success was slow to come, and much of it derived from a natural, therefore inexplicable, gift for composition, an unerring sense of exactly where to place his camera for maximum impact. Like most people who find it easy to do something everyone else finds difficult, he undervalued that talent. In particular he could not explain it to those who gathered worshipfully around him (often enough at a sickbed) seeking his wisdom. He answered their affection with lies, evasions, dubious generalizations. The drama in many of these pieces derives in part from the fear that Ford would soon angrily terminate the talk and send the kids scurrying, in part from the sense that he would like to respond kindly to their respect but could not find the words to do so. Yet, paradoxically, I emerged from this book more sympathetic to Ford than any of his inflated biographies ever made me. There is something very touching in the spectacle of this primitive and outrageous old man, so out of touch with his own work, feelings and audience, groping for some common ground with the latter, failing to find it and then retreating back into silence and isolation.
This book is available through the University Press of Mississippi
University Press of Mississippi ORDER DIRECTLY ONLINE