Book Review: ‘Wayne and Ford’ ponders movie-bred masculinity
“Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), by Nancy Schoenberger
American movies feature a handful of great actor-director partnerships — Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese come to mind, for example, as do Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock. Arguably, no collaboration has been more fulfilling for audiences or more influential for narrative filmmakers than John Wayne and John Ford.
Together, Wayne and Ford created the mature Western with “Stagecoach” (1939) and brought it to its peak with “The Searchers” (1956). Each made sturdy Westerns with others and added to their own list with “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), which carries a famous line tinged with irony that goes to the heart of the genre: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Wayne and Ford’s productive if knotty relationship is practically a legend in itself. That’s a plus and a minus for Nancy Schoenberger’s new book, “Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero.” At just over 200 pages, it serves as a lean and energetic introduction to a pair of moviemakers who are central to understanding American cinema. For those already keen on the topic, Schoenberger offers a slightly different point of view about their legacy.
Given the many books about the actor and director, the Wayne-Ford relationship is easy to recount. Ford was established in the business by the late 1920s when he became a father figure for Wayne, hired him for some of his first acting jobs, then rescued him from the purgatory of low-budget productions in the 1930s, giving him the chance to shine as an actor. In the decades that followed, Wayne delivered time and again for Ford — after “Stagecoach” they made 13 more movies together — and he continued to work for “Pappy” even after Ford’s gifts had gone stale and Wayne had become the most popular star in Hollywood.
A sentimental bully and a binge drinker, Ford never let Wayne forget his shortcomings — in particular his failure to serve in the military in World War II — and berated him on the set for movie after movie, maybe even more so after Wayne’s studio clout surpassed his own. Wayne showed gratitude and loyalty in ways Ford could not but kept Ford at arm’s length when directing his first movie, “The Alamo” (1960). The dynamic was that of a father who raised his son well but turned jealous of his son’s success and, of course, his youth.
Framing this tale of dysfunctional male love is Schoenberger’s insight that Wayne and Ford created a “code of masculinity” in their Westerns. “We all know that code,” she writes, “because, for good or for ill, it shaped America’s idea of masculinity, what it means to ‘be a man’: to bear adversity in silence, to show courage in the face of fear, to bond with other men, to put honor and country before self — in three words, ‘stoicism,’ ‘courage,’ ‘duty.’”
Too often Schoenberger undermines her presentation by not double-checking her material. Among other stumbles, she misquotes Wayne’s final line in “True Grit” and his Oscar acceptance speech, calls “Liberty Valance” Ford’s final Western (that would be 1964′s “Cheyenne Autumn”) and describes “The Alamo” as Wayne’s rebuke to Vietnam protests, which came years later.
In her conclusion, Schoenberger laments that future generations of men won’t conform to the Wayne mold cut by Ford, yet she hardly ponders why they didn’t always fit the mold themselves. Experts at selling fictional moving images, the actor and director were all too human away from the cameras. Could it be that their code was more theatrical than realistic, merely a fresh coat of folklore applied to Old West history?
Americans do hold dear their myths. In that sense Ford had it right: Print the legend.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky).