A graceful paean to a legendary director's first three decades behind the camera, "Becoming John Ford" relies primarily on film scholars -- his collaborators mostly having died off -- to make a case for Ford as a darker, more daring filmmaker than his latter-day reputation suggests.

A graceful paean to a legendary director’s first three decades behind the camera, “Becoming John Ford” relies primarily on film scholars — his collaborators mostly having died off — to make a case for Ford as a darker, more daring filmmaker than his latter-day reputation suggests. Somewhat pretentiously packaged and far from exhaustive, with focus on a few (not always predictably chosen) titles at the expense of others, docu succeeds at the very least in exciting viewer interest in some of Ford’s classic as well as lesser-known features. Docu should find life on cable and as a Ford DVD supplement after further fest play.

Title’s stated emphasis seems a bit off, as “Becoming” goes as far as Ford’s first post-WWII triumph, “My Darling Clementine” (1946), skipping his later work yet briefly etching his sad, cranky, unproductive final years. Perhaps a second part was planned at some point.

Regardless, there’s considerable fascination in how pic charts Ford’s early career, from his start in Harry Carey westerns to 1924′s “The Iron Horse,” which, as noted here, became an epic only as impressed execs allowed its budget and scope to balloon mid-shoot. Ford was mightily influenced by the visual poetry F.W. Murnau brought to 1927′s “Sunrise,” and excerpts from his own little-remembered 1933 “Pilgrimage” bear that out.

Subsequent parade of (mostly) triumphs are credited in part to the patronage of Darryl F. Zanuck, the sole Hollywood executive whose input Ford — however reluctantly — tolerated, even appreciated; their partnership is revealed as key to the likes of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “How Green Was My Valley.” The end of Ford’s longtime alliance with star Henry Fonda is attributed (by latter’s son, Peter) to one irrational outburst by the oft-volatile helmer.

Among features from this period mentioned just in passing or entirely ignored are “Three Bad Men” (the infinitely superior silent version of 1949′s “Three Godfathers”), “Arrowsmith,” “The Lost Patrol,” “The Hurricane,” “The Informer” and “The Long Voyage Home.” One commentator here opines that 1937′s “Wee Willie Winkie” — a Shirley Temple vehicle Ford had been dragged into kicking and screaming — was more deserving of the accolades he had earned two years earlier for the admittedly creaky “Informer.”

Docu’s artier impulses are just annoyingly irrelevant, notably frequent closeups of interviewees when they’re not speaking, through-a-glass-darkly distortion of some vintage clips and tedious fetishizing of the workings of an old-fashioned projector. It’s also irksome that before “Becoming John Ford” begins concentrating on specific mid-career highlights, many excerpts go unidentified. Still, well-gauged clips and commentary more than compensate.

Helmers Walter Hill and Ron Shelton voice Ford and Zanuck, respectively, in soundtracked recitations of their surviving correspondences.

Becoming John Ford

Production

A Boston Road production. Produced by Nick Redman, Jamie Willett. Directed by Nick Redman. Written by Julie Kirgo.

Crew

Camera (color, DV/mini-DV-to-DigiBeta), Bengt Jan Jonsson; editor, Vincent Stancarone; music, Christopher Caliendo; sound, Devin Golub. Reviewed at Cinequest Film Festival (Special Presentations), San Jose, March 1, 2008. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Rudy Behlmer, Janet Bergstrom, James D'Arc, Lem Dobbs, Peter Fonda, Jean-Christophe Jeauffre, Tom Mankiewicz, Joseph McBride, Walter Hill, Ron Shelton.
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