First off, this review is a bit of a cheat—I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the original 1971 cut of Directed by John Ford, which has been replaced in the marketplace by a substantially re-edited 2006 version. That’s the cut I saw, and it’s something of a hybrid. Although the bones of the piece are the same as in the 1971 version, writer-director (and Ford acquaintance) Peter Bogdanovich not only excised some material and inserted replacement clips, but he also recorded brand-new interviews with contemporary Ford admirers including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Furthermore, Bodganovich conducted new interviews with still-living Ford collaborators and taped new onscreen remarks of his own. So, while the 2006 version of Directed by John Ford presumably represents the director’s fullest possible vision circa the time of its release, it’s a stretch to say that I’m actually reviewing the 1971 movie. Still, because the best parts of any version of Directed by John Ford are 1971 clips featuring Ford and his famous leading men—Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne—most of what makes the picture interesting has remained unchanged since the original release.
Anyway, as the title suggests, Directed by John Ford is a product of Bogdanovich’s lifelong crusade to celebrate the contributions of cinema giants. Yet Bogdanovich’s interaction with Ford was complicated. A master of mythmaking onscreen and off, the man considered by many to be the greatest auteur of Western movies was born John Martin O’Feeney, but, to quote a famous line from his 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In other words, the man whom Bodganovich encountered was deeply invested in protecting the reputation of macho filmmaker “John Ford.” Though obviously in physical decline and well into professional twilight—he’d already directed his last feature—Ford comes across as belligerent and virtually monosyllabic, as if discussing his own artistry is unmanly. Watching Bogdanovich tangle with Ford during their interview in Ford’s quintessential shooting location, Monument Valley, is the core of the picture.
Elsewhere, during the interviews with Ford’s key actors, Bogdanovich asserts himself as much as he showcases his subjects. Taking the unusual approach of mounting his interview camera on a dolly track, Bogdanovich can be seen in many shots motioning for his cameraman to push in or pull back. Most of the star interviews feature puffery, because even when the actors describe Ford’s difficult personality, they’re burnishing his manly-man bona fides. And while the contemporary interviews with Ford-loving filmmakers lend scholarly weight to Directed by John Ford, it’s hard to say they’re essential. Beyond the footage Bogdanovich collected in the early ’70s, the components that really are essential are clips from Ford’s classics—The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), and more. In a profound way, Ford’s work speaks for itself, revealing a world of obsessions that that Ford never articulated for any interviewer. Therefore, Directed by John Ford is illuminating, though not necessarily in the manner that Bogdanovich intended.
Directed by John Ford: GROOVY