Out of the saddle.


For two months, I’ve been writing about the history of movie westerns. I did so because I was just plain burned out on Iraq and the Middle East. I saw what was coming in Iraq--and now it’s happening – so I needed a break and I’m glad I took it.

I’ve been a western movie buff since my Saturday matinees at the West, Colonial and Bond theaters during World War Two. I must have seen hundreds of westerns in my lifetime. I even taught a course about them one semester at California State University Fresno. I’m pleased Pat Welch of Galesburg also enjoyed the columns; but I didn’t plan a column solely on John Ford – or Howard Hawks or Sam Peckinpah, for that matter. Ford was mentioned in several of the columns, and his work certainly ranks with the best; but I’m ambiguous about him as a human being. I learned a lot about him when I was in Hollywood – and some of it was not very nice. He may have been an artist, but he could be shifty, cantankerous and downright mean. On nearly every picture, he picked someone to bully – if not one of the younger actors then his own brother Francis, who was a silent star at Universal and helped John break into the business there as his director. Francis often appears in John’s sound pictures in bit parts, usually as a drunk or some menial; and John hectored him mercilessly on the set.

He did have a warmer side. He gave George O’Brien good supporting roles in his post-war westerns. I became friends with George when he had an office opposite mine at Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. I’d never seen his pre-war movies, but he was impressive as a human being – both physically and personality-wise. And he knew John Ford as well as anybody. He broke into movies as Duke Wayne did – as an assistant on the Ford unit at Fox. George became a star in silent movies after Ford gave him bit parts and picked him as the lead for "The Iron Horse" (1927). He was the hero of Murnau’s "Sunrise" (1927), for example.

In the 1930s, George became a top-ranked Fox cowboy in his own series of westerns but gave up his career to join the Navy in World War Two as a beachmaster. That’s the guy who lands at the head of the first wave and directs traffic with his back to the enemy – a prime target. When George returned to Hollywood after the war, no one wanted him anymore – only John Ford – so George finished his career where it began – on Ford westerns.

I can also testify to Ford’s taste in boats. I went aboard his sailing yacht "Araner" in Honolulu for a visit with George (Ford wasn’t there), and the boat was beautiful. If you want to see what I mean, rent "Donovan’s Reef" (1963) – Ford’s last feature. The boat appears as an inter-island schooner.

So what do I think of John Ford? I rank "The Searchers" (1956) as one of the best westerns ever made, and "The Quiet Man" (1952) is one of my all-time favorite movies. However, I know Ford faked footage on the Fox lot for at least one of his Academy Award "documentaries," and his cruelty to actors and open contempt for reporters and scholars of his work tarnish him for me as a figure in motion picture history. (In my opinion, Clint Eastwood is his equal as a director and head and shoulders above him as a human being.)

That said, I hope I can hang up my Stetson now and revert to my usual potpourri of topics. For example, in coming weeks I’d like to share some insights on the recall campaign against California Governor Gray Davis; a story about "The Cat-killers of Los Osos;" and maybe even take another shot at Railroad Days (or is it "Daze?")

But who knows what will come along to strike my fancy (or is it "fanny?")