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Death Comes for John Ford

The night Richard Nixon honored the great director.

John Ford and John Wayne Talking
(Getty Images)

Fifty years have elapsed since the death of the great American filmmaker John Ford, but it feels like longer. He entered the world in 1894 as John Martin Feeney. In the course of a career without compare, Ford amassed more than 140 directorial credits, including the uncontested masterpieces Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956)—four Oscars, a Purple Heart (he had been in the Navy and made documentaries during World War II), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Long before his death in 1973, Ford had taken on the quality of a landmark, not unlike the buttes in his shooting location of choice, Monument Valley. There were documentaries with the solemn titles such as The American West of John Ford and Directed by John Ford, the latter made by the filmmaker’s devoted friend and tireless champion Peter Bogdanovich. According to Bogdanovich, Hollywood’s Golden Age ceased with the 1962 release of Ford’s dirge-like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When that train goes away, I thought, that’s really it, isn’t it, the end of Ford,” Bogdanovich told writer Peter Biskind, referring to the film’s final shot. “And the end of Ford was really the end of that era.” No matter that Ford lived another 11 years and made another four movies, plus his segment of the multi-director super-production How the West Was Won (1962), and Young Cassidy (1965), which he started but did not complete.


The most public pre-funeral for Ford took place in March 1973, five months before Ford succumbed to cancer, when the American Film Institute placed in his hands the star-shaped trophy for the first of its now annual Life Achievement Awards. AFI’s resourceful and ingenious founder, George Stevens Jr., was a famous liberal Democrat—as was Ford, some of the time—but he had floated the idea of President Nixon appearing at an event honoring Ford to Nixon administration lawyer Leonard Garment. The answer came back in the affirmative, so in just over a month, the AFI organized the ceremony.

The event, which aired on CBS, was conceived as a celebration, but in truth it plays more like a wake. The stars who were booked on the broadcast included representatives of the waning but once-robust tradition of conservatism in Hollywood—among them John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Charlton Heston, then chairman of the AFI. In movie theaters in 1973, audiences were going to see The Exorcist, Enter the Dragon, and The Devil in Miss Jones. On that night, it was the old-timer’s hour—maybe their last hour. Danny Kaye was Danny Kaye, and Maureen O’Hara, Ford’s leading lady for a stretch in the 1950s, crooned tunes. 

The sense of cognitive dissonance was not lost on Bogdanovich, who was always more respectful of his predecessors than his peers. In the revised edition of his classic interview book John Ford, Bogdanovich wrote of a number of stars who declined to attend the AFI event because of Nixon’s involvement. “Jane Fonda, I believe, even picketed,” Bogdanovich noted. “But then, that was her main occupation those days, as well as her privilege, though one might wish she would stop mixing politics with art quite so ferociously.”

Politically, Ford himself was difficult to categorize. His filmography expresses a multitude of positions. He made films that were militantly pro-worker (The Grapes of Wrath), ardently anti-racist (The Searchers), passionately pro-Irish (The Rising of the Moon), and enthusiastically pro–British colonialism (Wee Willie Winkie). It is an unusual mix, to say the least. As Joseph McBride reports in his definitive biography, Searching for John Ford, the filmmaker identified as “a definite socialistic democrat—always left,” in a letter written in 1937, but expressed impatience with anti-Vietnam social unrest in an interview conducted in 1968: “I think our ancestors would be—can you say ‘b-l-o-o-d-y’? I think they’d be bloody well ashamed of us if they saw us now.”  

Yet Ford’s varied political convictions belie the basic constancy of his vision. This was not a man who would countenance the tearing down of statues or the renaming of institutions. Regardless of whether Ford once supported FDR or opposed the Hollywood blacklist, he always made pictures in which the military’s sacrifice was acknowledged (They Were Expendable), the male instinct for rowdiness was tolerated (Donovan’s Reef), the family unit was cherished (How Green Was My Valley), the customs and traditions of a young nation were embraced (the many dance scenes in his films, including Fort Apache and Wagon Master), and the virtues of gallantry and perseverance were commended (The Wings of Eagles). He loved to film men riding horses, girls wearing flowing dresses, and Mae Marsh—eons ago, D.W. Griffith’s leading lady—in cameos. He loved to hear people sing “Shall We Gather at the River,” and he loved teasing someone uptight or upright, like demure Bostonian Elizabeth Allen in Donovan’s Reef.


Historically, these were not values or sentiments that belonged to either political party. In his remarks in tribute to Ford, Nixon seemed to acknowledge this bipartisan cinematic legacy. “I’m grateful to all of you in Hollywood, in this great profession, for making us first in the world in motion pictures and conveying, through American motion pictures to the world, what I believe is a complete picture of America and a good picture of America,” Nixon said, erring only in conflating Ford’s intentions in the past with Hollywood’s agenda in the present. By 1973, to wish to paint “a good picture of America”—as Ford did, as Frank Capra did, as Leo McCarey did—was by default to associate with the Silent Majority that twice catapulted Nixon to the White House but which was irretrievably out of step with mass media.

In proudly sharing the stage with the president and accepting from him a temporary promotion to full admiral in the Navy, Ford embraced that alignment. Rather notoriously, Ford said during his remarks: “God bless Richard Nixon.” Those words, an expression of appreciation for American POWs being brought home from Vietnam, caused annoyance to some of Ford’s most eloquent admirers. “The remark disconcerted those who had forgotten the stinging satires of Nixon in The Last Hurrah and The Sun Shines Bright,” wrote Tag Gallagher in John Ford: His Life and Films. 

It is not surprising that Ford would set aside his past satirical spirit. This is the man who unfashionably insisted that icons of American history should be regarded favorably, whether or not such support was justified by the historical record. “We’ve had a lot of people who were supposed to be great heroes, and you know damn well they weren’t,” Ford said. “But it’s good for the country to have heroes to look up to.” 

More than that, Ford surely recognized that he and Nixon had common enemies. When they came together that night in Los Angeles, Ford had not been at the helm of a feature film in seven years. Nixon would be forced from office the following year. The cognoscenti had conspired to make strange the otherwise mainstream, pro-America views shared, on some elemental level, by our greatest filmmaker and our 37th president. 

“Polls have indicated that over 90 percent of Hollywood’s best writers, producers, actors, and directors were passionately opposed to the war in Vietnam,” Nixon recalled in a remembrance of Ford he penned for biographer McBride in 1988. “The John Waynes, the Bob Hopes, and the John Fords were considered to be rather strange aberrations from this generally fashionable view.” Nixon also wrote of the sincerity of Ford’s convictions: “He was passionately moved by the scenes of the POW’s coming home. He congratulated me for the strong policies which he felt had contributed to bringing them home. His last words were, ‘No amnesty for the draft evaders.’” 

The inconvenient truth, then, is that Ford was a marked man that night in 1973—not just because death came for him five months later, but because his views, his principles, his beliefs, made him, in the eyes of a new Hollywood, already six feet under.

In Bogdanovich’s documentary Directed by John Ford, a famous montage shows Ford half-heartedly answering (or, more often, simply refusing to answer) the questions lobbed at him by his protégé. Today, when I look at the man in the montage—cagey, combative, self-effacing but confident, prone to kid but sentimental deep-down—I see a man whose type has virtually disappeared from the American scene. Trump has some of his mix of manliness, tempered with jocularity and compassion, and look at the grief it’s gotten him. As Bogdanovich knew, the train at the finish of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was vanishing into the horizon—gone, gone, gone, even while its maker was still alive.