"Directed by John Ford" contains much of the same material, as Peter Bogdanovich's pioneering 1971 study of Hollywood's most lauded director. Thirty-five years on, Bogdanovich has reworked his invaluable docu, adding contempo interviews and a surprise kicker. Pic will air on Turner Classic Movies and enjoy a long life as a homevid title for buffs.
Directed by John Ford” bears the same title, and contains much of the same material, as Peter Bogdanovich’s pioneering 1971 study of Hollywood’s most lauded director, the man Walter Hill herein calls the Charles Dickens of the cinema. Thirty-five years on, Bogdanovich has reworked his invaluable docu, adding contempo interviews and a surprise kicker. As the earlier film has long been out of circulation, this edition allows a new audience to benefit from the insights, and experience the vitality, of Henry Fonda, James Stewart and John Wayne sounding off about their irascible taskmaster. Pic will air on Turner Classic Movies in October, and enjoy a long life as a homevid title for buffs.
It’s been a good year for Ford appreciation, what with Sam Pollard and Kenneth Bowser’s very fine American Masters docu “John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend” and the 50th anni DVD edition of “The Searchers” having already spurred Ford partisans and detractors into a new round of debate.
Ford’s arguable datedness in some areas, including his Irish sentimentality and often blindered view of women, makes him passe for some. But docu makes it abundantly clear that even the most successful modern directors have a lot to learn from the way Ford communicated enormous feeling and thought via economical silent exchanges and gestures, as well as from his increasingly complex analysis of American history.
The original “Directed by John Ford” was first shown (at the Venice Film Festival) two years before its subject died. Produced by George Stevens Jr. and James R. Silke, pic was the first and last entry in a proposed series of American Film Institute docus about great directors, and was, in effect, an extension of Bogdanovich’s contributions as a popularizing film critic, positioning Ford as an unassailable auteur and chronicler, through some 135 films, of the American saga from frontier life to urban politics.
Since proper clip clearances were never negotiated, the original docu never went much further than fests, classrooms and a couple of PBS airings, although bits of Ford being comically crusty in his Monument Valley interview with Bogdanovich have cropped up elsewhere. This retooling runs 13 minutes longer, the most notable difference being the addition of fresh interviews with contempo admirers Clint Eastwood, Walter Hill, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, along with thesp Harry Carey Jr. and interludes with Bogdanovich himself.
No matter how articulate these fellows may be — Scorsese succinctly anoints Ford as “the essence of classical American cinema” — inclusion of the new interviews creates a bifurcated perspective that splits the p.o.v. between the retrospective appreciation of non-intimates and the first-hand observations of the director’s close collaborators; Fonda, Stewart and Wayne were all about 60 at the time of their interviews and were anything but geriatric, their recollections of their testy but fondly remembered boss possessing an extraordinary here-and-now immediacy. It’s not for nothing that the best story from one of the film’s newcomers is Spielberg’s account of his teenage encounter with the intimidating old master.
Mix of old and new makes for a certain lack of focus at the outset, but docu finds its groove 20 minutes in with Ford’s entrance; sitting gruffly in Monument Valley, he hilariously answers his interlocutor’s highfalutin’ questions with dismissively terse answers, even calling “Cut!” when he runs out of patience.
There’s a lot on “The Searchers,” and younger viewers whose limited impression of Wayne is as a tough, mean guy will have their eyes opened by the interview with Ford’s greatest star; he’s a funny, supremely likable man and a wonderful storyteller who illuminates something of the tricky dynamic between Ford and actors, himself included.
Bogdanovich shot all the original interviews on film using a dolly, which gives them a vibrant look as well as an elegant mobility rare in docus; the newly shot material, shot on video, looks mundane by comparison.
The critical survey of Ford’s career and treatment of history is superb. With his subject now long gone, Bogdanovich is able to be frank about Ford’s family difficulties, which he reinforces with telling scenes from “How Green Was My Valley,” a film not included in the docu’s first version.
A pointed 1992 interview with Maureen O’Hara done by Lindsay Anderson fleshes things out further, as does the amazing private tape recording of a conversation between long-ago intimates Katharine Hepburn and Ford when the latter was on his death bed.
In the end, docu will prove very moving to anyone able to connect with what Ford accomplished. Whatever his flaws as a man and an artist, few have ever come near creating the vast web of personal, poetic, narrative and historical associations Ford spun across his long career. Bogdanovich, then and now, proves himself an ideal interpreter and synthesizer of that achievement.
Original narration by great Ford admirer Orson Welles is retained here and provides an added sonorous pleasure.