Filmmaker John Ford reassessed in new book

John Ford: The Man and His Films By Tag Gallagher. Berkeley: University of California Press. 572 pp., $35. A new biography, ``John Ford: The Man and His Films,'' has been greeted by many reviewers as a signal event in the movie-book world.

I agree that it gives a broad and thoughtful overview of an essential filmmaker's career, from silent-movie days into the 1970s. I also feel it has major shortcomings, though, which are being minimized by Ford-followers in their delight at seeing such a hefty analysis of their directorial hero.

It has only been about 30 years since many film critics started to embrace the so-called auteur theory. This posits that a first-rate movie director is the equivalent of an author - not just a project coordinator or collaborator, but a full-fledged artist whose personal style and insights mold every aspect of a finished work.

Few directors reaped more benefits from this notion than Ford, whose reputation in the '50s had not been high, except in Hollywood's own inner circle.

Before that time, critics tended to judge Hollywood movies in terms of theme rather than style - praising films that dealt with social issues and giving extra points if the screenplay borrowed from literary sources. Such observers often overlooked subtleties of visual style and syntax. Hence an ingenious stylist like Ford, who specialized in westerns like ``The Searchers'' and nostalgic tales like ``How Green Was My Valley,'' could be dismissed as a mere yarn-spinner whose work was more suited to ``reviewing'' than to ``criticism.''

In the last chapter of ``John Ford,'' cinema scholar Tag Gallagher makes an excellent case for Ford as as a brilliant auteur - an introspective and self-aware artist who used the cumbersome filmmaking process as a tool for deeply personal expression.

Gallagher studies Ford's unusual ways of guiding performances. He demonstrates Ford's keen sense of cinematography and screenwriting. He analyzes Ford's distinctive approach to character development, editing, composition, sound, and music. Later he turns to Ford's characteristic themes, tracing the nature of the Fordian hero and (less persuasively) the Fordian concept of life vs. art.

The trouble is that Gallagher saves all this for his last chapter. It makes a neat summary of his most important points, and a good argument for auteur criticism, to boot. I would have been a lot happier, though, if he had stated his key positions so plainly at the outset. Instead, he buries them (for more than 450 pages!) in murky bogs of plot summary, character study, and shot analysis - much of it written in a gnarled, elliptical style that will puzzle even Ford fans at times.

The book's other problem is a split between its intentions and its achievements. Although the subtitle promises a look at the man and his films, the films get the biggest share of attention. The man gets more shadowy as the pages pile up.

Gallagher offers compelling evidence that Ford was a most complicated character, hiding a high degree of sensitivity and even sentimentality behind a mask of crusty, macho masculinity. The mask was physical as well as behavioral, extending as far as an eyepatch that wasn't entirely necessary during much of the time Ford wore it.

Such a complex personality must be explored with great care if it's to be thoroughly understood and vividly portrayed.

Gallagher's main interest lies in the filmmaker's work, however. He considers Ford's personality (after a prologue chapter that does contain much helpful detail) mainly as a series of afterthoughts, scattered among more intensive ruminations on Ford's career.

Ford, the human being, doesn't come to life with much clarity, therefore, and Gallagher's sketchy biographical treatment actually raises more questions than it answers.

Was the director really so reckless, for example, as to use live ammunition when filming battle scenes? Or has Gallagher simply swallowed some of the legends that have grown up around Ford and his cronies?

More important is the question of Ford's attitude toward racism, especially since his on-screen treatment of blacks and Indians has come under much attack. Gallagher capably states a long-standing defense of Ford, holding that his movies kept a critical distance on race-related issues (through nuances of narrative structure and visual style) that proves he didn't sympathize with the racist behavior he sometimes portrayed.

Yet the book is peppered with hints of Ford's personal failings in this area, and Gallagher's attempts to explain certain nasty-sounding remarks and incidents (some involving anti-Semitism) seem pretty weak. Gallagher's own credentials as a judge of racial sensitivity are not strengthened, either, by his occasional use of terms like ``Jap'' and ``colored.''

Such matters may be clarified further, and very possibly to Ford's credit, when other students of his life and films put the two into a more productive balance.

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