“American Masters” kicks off its 20th season with a top-notch production about the intriguing relationship between John Ford and John Wayne — a collaboration that yielded 14 movies, including such classics as “The Searchers,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “The Quiet Man.” In this no-holds-barred documentary of the kind Ford would have admired, the focus is largely on the director, who discovered Wayne but in later years saw the balance of power shift to the star.
If nothing else a treat for the clips, it’s a well-spent 90 minutes for film buffs, including those at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, where it screens in the Classics section.
Ford was already an A-list director when he began championing Wayne, leading to the actor’s breakthrough role in the 1939 Western “Stagecoach.” Still, writer-producer Kenneth Bowser also chronicles how Ford often verbally abused Wayne, who endured the barbs even as he rose from bit player to star to American icon.
Gradually, Wayne’s own celebrity and power mushroomed, spurred in part by his performance in Howard Hawks’ “Red River,” prompting Ford to comment that he had no idea the “big sonofabitch” could act that well. In their later pairings, it was Wayne’s box office clout that allowed an aging Ford — who indulged in drinking binges whenever he finished a movie — to make a highly personal project such as “Quiet Man.”
Yet through it all, Wayne remained deferential toward Ford, even when the director bizarrely showed up uninvited on the set as Wayne directed “The Alamo,” plopping himself in the director’s chair and offering unsolicited advice.
Liberally featuring memorable scenes from Ford’s filmography, Bowser and director Sam Pollard pepper the documentary with the customary array of interviews, tracing the political rift between the two (Wayne was an ardent conservative and anti-communist, Ford an outspoken opponent of McCarthyism) as well as Ford’s WWII service while Wayne was back home cranking out features.
What’s undeniable is that in Ford’s favored shooting spot of Monument Valley, the star who became a patriotic symbol and the autocratic director affectionately known as Pappy forged an enduring image of the American frontier at once stirring and ambivalent.
Indeed, “The Filmmaker and the Legend” itself employs a recurrent theme in Ford’s work, seeking to separate myth from fact, while nevertheless exulting in Ford’s towering directing accomplishments and Wayne’s underrated acting talent.
To sum it up in the kind of tough, martial language both men would surely appreciate: Mission accomplished.