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Interview: Biographer Joseph McBride talks John Ford and Orson Welles

By Jeff Swindoll Jun 16, 2006, 19:19 GMT

Interview: Biographer Joseph McBride talks John Ford and Orson Welles

It probably is the best definition of the word serendipity, but recently I made a mistake that put me into contact with John Ford biographer Joseph McBride (more on that in a moment).  It gave me the opportunity to interview him on Ford, his participation in the recent John Ford and John Wayne DVD sets, and his upcoming book on Orson Welles (a personal favorite). 

M&C: I should begin by telling our readership a little bit of how this interview came to be. I misidentified you in my review of The John Ford Film Collection. I had properly identified you as Joseph McBride in the documentary on The Informer disc.  However, I called you Jim McBride in your commentary about Cheyenne Autumn.  You kindly emailed the site to correct my mistake.  Apologies again, this was after watching an entire day of John Ford films and my brain was a bit mushy after finishing Cheyenne Autumn and typing up the review. I think you mentioned that this happens quite often since there is a director named Jim McBride?

McBride: You were gracious about correcting the blooper, Jeff, and it’s one I have become wryly accustomed to over the years. I once went to a Hollywood party at which the director Dusan Makavejev heaped praise on “my” films before I told him he wasn’t talking with the other McBride (the director of David Holzman’s Diary). At the same party, a film editor lobbied me vigorously for a job on my next film; I let him go on for a while before disabusing him of that notion. Since I just watched Ford’s Fort Apache again recently, this confusion makes me think of Henry Fonda’s WASP commanding officer calling every Irish trooper “Murphy” or “O’Brien.”

Besides our getting acquainted, another good thing came out of the confusion between Joseph and Jim McBride. A few years ago, I received a call from the UCLA Film and Television Archive saying they wanted to preserve “my” film David Holzman’s Diary. By pure coincidence, the following night I went to a party and met Jim McBride. We laughed over the confusion, and he surprised me by saying he didn’t have a theatrical print of his own film. But he contacted UCLA, and that’s how they finally tracked down a print and preserved David Holzman’s Diary, his 1967 no-budget classic about an obsessed filmmaker. Strange but true. And a new DVD edition of the film was released in England earlier this year.

M&C: What was the first John Ford film you remember viewing or what inspired your admiration for Ford?

McBride: As a kid, I had seen some of his films and particularly remember seeing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at my neighborhood theater and watching the Irish-American extravaganza The Last Hurrah on TV. I had seen The Grapes of Wrath at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and admired it. There was a Ford series at the university in the fall of 1967. So I was getting interested in Ford’s themes and visual style and was starting to pay closer attention because Orson Welles had been asked which directors he most admired, and he replied, “The old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

On December 23, 1967, shortly after I began writing my first book on Welles, I was home in Milwaukee for winter break and watched Fort Apache on TV that Saturday afternoon. The film opens with shots of cavalrymen and Indians in Monument Valley and scenes of life at the fort. Eventually you see a tiny stagecoach emerging from under John Ford’s director credit, a piece of visual magic. As the coach drives past one of the valley’s majestic rock formations, Gray Whiskers, the panning camera tilts up, leaving the coach out of frame briefly so the composition can center on the ancient “monument,” then tilts back down to find the coach. The contrast between the smallness of mankind and the eternal grandeur of the vast landscape is what’s conveyed in Ford’s breathtaking use of the camera. It’s a poetic touch that clued me into his way of thinking and made me fall in love with him at that moment. I knew we were simpatico.

Ironically, when I finally saw Fort Apache in 35mm many years later, I realized that the stagecoach in that shot never was entirely out of frame -- that happens only on video and 16mm versions, in which the lower part of the frame is missing because of the TV aspect ratio. So that imagery wasn’t quite as daringly avant-garde as I had thought. But the point made by Ford’s use of the camera still moves me the same way today. Fort Apache is represented beautifully in the crystal-clear print in the new Ford-Wayne DVD collection (although you still can’t see the stagecoach at the bottom of the frame). The film’s complex view of American history and of the way the “legend becomes fact” -- thanks in large part to Ford’s great and underappreciated screenwriter Frank S. Nugent -- looks forward to Ford’s artistic testament, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

My short list of favorite Ford films evolves over time. For a long time my favorite was The Searchers, but then I became OD’d on it, as I have on The Quiet Man. Currently, I believe Ford’s two greatest films are Wagon Master and They Were Expendable. Wagon Master is everything I think a movie should be -- a modestly-made, deeply felt, raucously humorous look at life, poetically shot on alluring locations with a close group of friends and family serving as cast and crew. They Were Expendable is a profoundly moving summation of Ford’s feelings about sacrifice and war; Robert Montgomery’s performance as the stoical but compassionate commander, Lt. John Brickley, is one of the two greatest performances in Ford’s work, along with John Wayne’s in The Searchers. Brickley is modeled after John D. Bulkeley, the legendary Medal of Honor recipient who was a rear admiral when I was fortunate enough to interview him for my biography Searching for John Ford.

It’s good that Expendable is part of Warner Home Video’s Ford-Wayne DVD collection, although that copy is flawed by some image instability, which is particularly unfortunate because it has the best black-and-white cinematography I’ve ever seen; it’s the penultimate film in the long career of Ford’s frequent collaborator Joseph H. August. Wagon Master should have been part of The John Ford Film Collection. I’m starting a campaign to get it released on DVD in the U.S. It was out on VHS and laserdisc for a while, but currently it’s only available on DVD in France.

M&C: Tell us about meeting John Ford his'self. 

McBride: Or, as the Irish say, “Himself.” [Interviewer’s note: his’self is the Texan version of the Irish pronunciation]  That was some experience! By the summer of 1970, I had mostly finished my first book on Welles (published in 1972) and had started writing the critical study John Ford with Michael Wilmington, whom I had met when we were fellow film buffs in Madison. Mike recalls, “The first time I saw Joe (outside of Professor Richard Byrne's film history class) was on the day of the Dow Chemical [anti-Vietnam War] demonstrations [October 18, 1967], when he raced into the Play Circle during a showing of They Were Expendable to announce that students were being gassed on Bascom Hill.” Mike and I agreed that Ford was the greatest of all filmmakers and were appalled at the low regard in which he was held in the United States.

Particularly among younger and more liberal audiences, the kind we knew in Madison (where students in our film class had hooted at She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), Ford was seen as nothing more than a flag-waving reactionary who supported the Vietnam War and hung out with John Wayne. That was part of Ford’s personality at the time -- a longtime progressive, he had turned to the right because of the war and his general unhappiness with the way America had not lived up to his vision of its potential -- but there was so much more to the man and his work that many people simply could not see. So Mike (who’s now a film critic of the Chicago Tribune) and I set out to rectify the problem. I wanted to meet Ford and see what he was really like in person, which I thought an essential part of penetrating through the myths that surrounded him.

I wrote him a letter, but he didn’t respond, so I called him from the Wisconsin State Journal, where I was working as a reporter. He was surprisingly cordial and said to come on out to see him. He eagerly picked up on what I had added to my name, “County Mayo,” the part of Ireland from where my ancestors had come. However, when I arrived at Ford’s office in Beverly Hills on August 19, 1970, it quickly transpired that he assumed I was a native-born Irishman from County Mayo. When he realized I wasn’t, he turned from being warm and chatty to become frosty and difficult. So I quickly saw both sides of Ford in rapid succession (you can read this interview in John Ford).

Ford tried stonewalling me with most of my questions, responding monosyllabically about The Searchers and even pretending he didn’t remember what Fort Apache was about. But I managed to get some good observations from him about his craft in the one hour we spent together. What also struck me at the time was how anxious he felt about his career. This was a director who, despite having made 113 feature films, hadn’t been able to make one in five years. Ford repeatedly interrupted our talk to ask his secretary if a phone call had come through from “the Italian gentleman, or the gentleman from Italy.” I didn’t know what this concerned, but many years later in going through Ford’s papers, I found that he had been trying to set up financing for an Italian Western he wanted to direct with Woody Strode (his Sergeant Rutledge) starring. The “Italian gentleman” was a hoped-for financier who, in the end, didn’t come through with the money.

A scene from the Dodge City sequence of Cheyenne Autumn

A scene from the Dodge City sequence of Cheyenne Autumn

So here I was, a twenty-three-year-old film buff trying to quiz Ford about his great career while he was sitting in his office helplessly waiting for a phone call he was beginning to realize would never come. This truly was the end of his career I was witnessing. He said as much to me at the time: “I’m just a hard-nosed, hard-working . . . ex-director, and I’m trying to retire gracefully.” Under these sad and bitter circumstances, the last thing Ford wanted was to reminisce about his old movies. But at the end of our hour together, Ford became cordial once again. I gave him a book I had edited of writings by our so-called “Madison film mafia,” Persistence of Vision: A Collection of Film Criticism, and when he saw I had dedicated the book to him, he said, “Oh, that’s sweet.”

I only had that one meeting with the director I most admire. It was, however, enough to give me an invaluable firsthand sense of him as a man, with all his contradictions on view.

M&C: How did you come to write Searching for John Ford?

McBride: After finishing John Ford with Wilmington in 1971 (it wasn’t published until 1974, because Ford was so out of fashion), I thought there needed to be a biography. I started researching aspects of Ford’s life and interviewing people. But it was a daunting task, and I kept putting it aside and returning to it sporadically over the years. That enabled me to get to many people I might have missed before I returned to the project in earnest in the late 1990s. I felt there still had yet to be a satisfactory biography of Ford, so I was compelled to do the job myself. I think my thirty-year project benefited from its slow genesis, because Ford is such a complex and enigmatic man that I had to mature and devote long and nuanced thought to my process of understanding him as well as his work.

 M&C: How did you come to be involved in The John Ford Film Collection and The John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection?  Was it a matter of the producers tracking down all the Ford biographers?  Quite a lot of them appear in the documentaries.

McBride: I had done some audio commentaries for the Burbank, California, production company Sparkhill, including ones for Ford’s Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, as part of the Fox Studio Classics collection. So Sparkhill thought of me when Warner Home Video asked them to produce the supplemental materials for the Ford and Ford-Wayne collections. As well as doing the commentary for Cheyenne Autumn, I am interviewed for three documentaries on these sets (on The Informer, Stagecoach, and Monument Valley [Interviewer’s note: The Monument Valley documentary is located on the Fort Apache DVD]), and appear on the American Masters documentary John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend, which is included on the two-disc edition of Stagecoach. (I’ve written a review of these new DVD collections for the upcoming issue of the Directors Guild of America magazine DGA Quarterly.)

M&C: I notice that you (Cheyenne Autumn), Scott Eyman (Stagecoach), and Peter Bogdanovich (The Searchers) provide commentaries. How much choice did you have in which film you got to do commentary on?  Was there a coin involved or did the three of you have to arm-wrestle?

McBride: I don’t know how they decided, but I was delighted to be asked to do the commentary for Cheyenne Autumn, because I have long felt that it is a shamefully maligned film, what the French call a film maudit. It has some obvious flaws of casting and staging that people have always fixated on to avoid discussing the themes of the film. In America, we still have a difficult time facing squarely our guilty legacy of genocide toward Native Americans, and so when it comes to Cheyenne Autumn, people find it easier to make fun of Sal Mineo playing an Indian rather than talking about the film’s corrosive attack on the white invaders who condemned the Indians to suffering, death, and exile within their own land. I thought it was high time somebody tried to make a serious case for this film, so I try to do so in my commentary. While discussing the problematical aspects of Ford’s somewhat stiff direction of Indian characters and his splitting of the dramatic focus between whites and Indians (an idea that has some thematic virtue but doesn’t always work), I concentrate much of my attention on the poetic imagery through which Ford conveys his meanings.

A gift from the soldiers (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon)

A gift from the soldiers (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon)

I didn’t fully appreciate the visual imagery until I was able to see the film in 35mm in 1994 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Before that, I had only seen it in shortened pan-and-scan television and 16mm prints. It’s literally not the same film when you see it that way. But Warner Home Video has done a spectacular job of putting out Cheyenne Autumn the way it was originally seen in its roadshow engagements, in widescreen and with the satirical Dodge City sequence intact (the best part of the film, truncated by the studio for the general release). I still can only imagine what Cheyenne Autumn, with its magnificent cinematography of Monument Valley by William H. Clothier, looked like in the original Super Panavision 70 theatrical prints.

I hope people listening to my commentary will now treat Cheyenne Autumn with the respect it deserves and that it has in fact received outside the U.S. Here is a sixty-nine-year-old filmmaker not resting on his laurels but going “searching way out there,” taking great artistic and personal risks to reexamine some of the central premises of his own work and the conscience of his country. The imperfections of Cheyenne Autumn -- I call it “in some ways a noble failure, but quite a magnificent achievement in many ways” -- should not blind us to its considerable strengths; not surprisingly given the difficult subject matter, the film’s achievement and limitations are inextricable. One limitation placed on me by Warner Home Video, by the way, was that I wasn’t allowed to explicitly discuss the fact that Cheyenne Autumn is actually based in large part, and without credit, on a Howard Fast novel, The Last Frontier; you’ll find some audio gaps in my commentary as a result but only a hint of the film’s complicated provenance. You can read the full story of the sources in Searching for John Ford.

Dust in the wind (Fort Apache)

Dust in the wind (Fort Apache)

M&C: I was somewhat disappointed that more attention was not given to The Informer. I take it that there was more footage from the documentary that did not make it into it?  Would they have turned you away if you volunteered to do commentary for the picture?  I assume that there's only so much money in the budget for these discs and they felt they had to spread it out to the ones they assumed would sell better. 

McBride: I talked at some length in that interview about the themes of The Informer and its relation to Irish history, but almost none of that made it into the short because the emphasis was on the film’s lavishly expressionistic visual style. I would have been happy to do an audio commentary on The Informer. I asked if I could provide one for Fort Apache, but Warner Home Video was only interested in having three films with commentaries, probably for budgetary reasons. Too bad. Fort Apache is another widely misunderstood film, and I still have a lot more to say on it, even after having written two books on Ford.

M&C: Any new books or participation in DVDs in the works?

McBride: I did audio commentaries on six Buster Keaton silent shorts for the upcoming Masters of Cinema collection to be released in England (Region 2 DVD), The Complete Buster Keaton Short Films 1917-1923. That four-DVD set, which runs 720 minutes, will knock your socks off! Keaton is the consummate master of silent comedy. As for books, my new book on Welles, my third on the subject, will be published in October by the University Press of Kentucky. It’s titled What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career. I write extensively about Welles’ relatively little-known later work (1970-85), relating it to the rest of his career to show how he gradually became a fully independent filmmaker before that term was widely used. In showing how he triumphantly managed to keep making films outside the system, I am trying to reverse the conventional wisdom that Welles was a self-destructive failure. I am pleased that Martin Scorsese, who has managed to pursue his own independent path while making the system work for him in ways Welles would have envied, has called What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? “an extremely important book.”

I’d like to personally thank Mr. McBride for being such a good sport and wish him well in his upcoming book on Orson Welles and Buster Keaton set (unfortunately at this writing, only available in Region 2).  I know that I’ll be ordering What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?.  It was a pleasure conversing with him.  Thank you Jim…..aw hell, I did it again. 

What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career is now available for pre-order at Amazon. Visit the book database for more information.

Searching for John Ford: A Life is now available at Amazon. Visit the book database for more information.



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