Tuesday nights, after the Film section is finished, I sometimes stop off at the Red Lion Pub near Lincoln Square. The bartender, Joe Heinen—who owns the place with his wife, Sue—mixes a mean manhattan, and he seems to know all there is to know about the great western director John Ford. One afternoon Ben Sachs and I stopped in to test his mettle—two against one, just like in a real western. —J.R. Jones
J.R. Jones: What classic rock 'n' roll single was inspired by a Ford movie?
Joe Heinen: I don't know.
JJ: "That'll Be the Day" by Buddy Holly. [From a John Wayne catchphrase in The Searchers (1956).]
Ben Sachs: Wasn't there also a song, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?"
JJ: That was Gene Pitney.
JH: It was inspired by the movie (1962) but it wasn't part of the movie. It wasn't the soundtrack.
BS: That doesn't happen as much anymore— people writing songs based on hit movies that aren't for use in the movie.
JJ: Especially if they're John Wayne movies. [Laughter.] What famous movie star did Ford punch in the face?
JH: Henry Fonda.
JJ: That's correct.
BS: I'm surprised there's only one.
JJ: During Mister Roberts (1955) they fell out because Ford spent all his time working with Jack Lemmon.
JH: Ford was turning the movie into Ensign Pulver. And I believe that Fonda had a financial interest in the movie. Fonda did it onstage, so he was not happy with the whole Ford approach to things.
BS: So why did Ford punch him?
JJ: It just came to a head and Ford punched him, and they never worked together again after that.
JH: Well, Ford was notoriously cantankerous, and he used to always berate his actors. Like he was ruthless on John Wayne. There was a story, when they were making They Were Expendable (1945), that he was just ripping on John Wayne. The star of the movie was Robert Montgomery. He walked over to Ford's chair, and put his hands on both sides, and he says, "Don't you ever talk to Duke that way again! You ought to be ashamed of yourself." That would be like somebody dressing down God; there was just a hush.
JJ: What did Ford do?
JH: Nothing. [Like Ford], Montgomery was another navy guy; he actually served on PT boats in the war, so Ford had a lot more respect for him. Ford liked to make fun of John Wayne's lack of military service during World War II.
JJ: What famous World War II battle was Ford wounded in?
JH: The Battle of Midway.
BS: He made the documentary about that, right?
JH: He won the Academy Award for that. And he got a medal; I don't know if it was the Navy Cross or whatever. [It was the Purple Heart.]
JJ: Yeah, but he took some shrapnel while they were shooting the Battle of Midway.
BS: You know, he was making those military documentaries during the war. He also evidently made a sexual hygiene educational film. I would love to see this.
JJ: He shot the invasion on Omaha Beach. There was all this footage in the army vaults that he had shot of the D-Day landing. They've never been able to find it. They were gonna make a movie about [the landing] but apparently they didn't wanna have anyone see [the footage] because it was so gruesome.
JH: I heard that it got washed overboard or something. On D-Day. The ship either sank or the container that it was in came loose and went over.
JJ: That sounds like a cover story.
JJ: Well, you know: print the legend.
JH: The government withholding information from us? You can't be serious.
BS: In which movie does Ward Bond play a caricature of John Ford?
JH: I know of the movie, but I don't remember the name offhand.
BS: The Wings of Eagles (1957). Where John Wayne plays a screenwriter [who is] paralyzed from the waist down. There are a couple of scenes where he meets this great Hollywood filmmaker. [Ford] dresses [actor Ward Bond] up like himself and everything, and there's the great gag where [the filmmaker is] in his office—he's walking around with a cane—and he's able to turn off this knob at the top of the cane and there's a fifth of whiskey in it. And that's why he's walking with it all the time.
JH: Well, Ford was a notorious alcoholic.
JJ: I was watching Stagecoach (1939) last night. The Thomas Mitchell character, the doctor, he's alcoholic. There's that scene where he's gotta deliver the baby and he keeps saying, "More coffee, more coffee!" Of course, now we know coffee doesn't actually sober you up.
BS: Oh, it doesn't?
JH: It makes you a wide-awake drunk. [Laughter.] My favorite Ford-movie drinking is in Fort Apache (1948). There's a scene where they find liquor hidden in boxes labeled "Bibles" and Henry Fonda, as the colonel, tells the sergeant, "Sergeant, pour me some scripture." [Laughter.] And when he's finished he says, "Destroy all this stuff." Henry Fonda leaves, and it's Victor McLaglen and the other two guys, and McLaglen just sticks his cup in the whiskey and pulls it up and says, "Well boys, we've a man's work ahead of us this day." And the next scene is that they're in the stockade. Their heads are gonna explode.
BS: My favorite drinking scene in Ford—it's around the same time. Victor McLaglen, the day before his retirement, in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), he's sort of hoodwinked into getting drunk and getting into a giant brawl so that he doesn't go off with the cavalry on his last day in service. And he punches out two dozen guys at the bar after he gets drunk.
JH: Well, Victor McLaglen was actually a boxer in his early days. He once won six rounds with Jack Johnson. He left home like at 15, joined the British army, and had this roustabout life until he ended up in Hollywood.
BS: That's the great thing about Hollywood in the 10s, 20s, 30s. These people come from backgrounds that have nothing to do with movies. Howard Hawks was an engineer—that's what he got his degree in. Preston Sturges was an inventor, George Raft was a gangster. That's one of the things that makes Hollywood movies from that era so interesting, that you're seeing these people who were not made to be movie stars or moviemakers.
JH: The last guy I know that's kind of like that is Harvey Keitel. I think he did some time in the merchant marine. If you have that kind of background, the tough-guys scenes seem much more believable. You can really see Harvey Keitel beating the snot out of somebody.
BS: Have you, in your years as a barman, seen a fight equivalent to Victor McLaglen's in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon?
JH: I worked at a bar on 400 N. State on Saint Patrick's Day. Back then, that was where the parade formed. They didn't expect the crowd; they didn't have doormen on. So after the sixth fight we stopped breaking them up. We said, "You know, when they're finished beating the snot out of each other, we'll throw 'em out." But there were six separate ones where people were just drunk out of their mind by ten o'clock in the morning and by 12 o'clock it was totally unmanageable.
JJ: I read where they were shooting The Searchers and word came to the set that Ford had been bitten by a scorpion. So they sent John Wayne to go check out the situation. He came back an hour later and said, "He's fine but the scorpion's dead." [Laughter.] They seemed to have such an antagonistic relationship, yet they worked together on two dozen movies.
JH: I was watching an interview with Lee Marvin and he was talking about working with John Wayne on the two Ford movies. And he said Wayne always knew not only that Ford had made him a star but that he was a star because Ford created the John Wayne persona. And so he was very amenable. He knew that Ford knew what looked good for John Wayne, and so no matter what Ford said, Wayne always was very agreeable to it.
JJ: But people were terrified of [Ford]. Strother Martin was working with him on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and was just frightened whenever he was in his presence. He found that if he could just touch Ford, just pat him on the shoulder or something, it made him real, and he could relax a little bit. So every day when he came in, the first thing he'd do is touch Ford on the knee or on the shoulder or something. He mentioned this to somebody, and it got back to Ford. The next day Strother Martin came in and touched him and he said, "Don't you ever fucking touch me again!" [Laughter.]
JH: Well, they say that Ford was actually a very sensitive, artistic person, and he covered that up behind this overly gruff exterior. Right after the Depression started, some guy who used to do small parts in his movies showed up by the studio and said, "I'm broke, my wife needs an operation, I need 200 bucks for it." Ford pushed him down and said, "How dare you come here asking me for money?" Then he went in his office, gave his driver a thousand dollars, and told him to pick the guy up in his limo and the wife and take them to the hospital. But he couldn't know that it came from Ford. And I guess he did that with several other people. He used to have one aide, and anytime any people he knew needed dough, the money was always funneled through a conduit.
JJ: There are a lot of stories about him intuiting people's personalities. In Liberty Valance there's a scene where Jimmy Stewart gets beaten up by Lee Marvin, and they kept running the scene and running the scene and Stewart kept forgetting his lines, which he never did. He kept getting it wrong, getting it wrong, getting it wrong. Finally Ford just leaned over and whispered in his ear, "You're not a coward." And then [snaps] he did the scene perfectly.
BS: He was able to stay on the good side of as many people in Hollywood as he could. He managed to work both sides of the Hollywood blacklist. There's an incident in [October 1950] when there were enough young, left-leaning filmmakers to kick out Cecil B. DeMille, the head of the Director's Guild, because he wanted these mandatory background checks on filmmakers, like this pledge of loyalty to not join the Communist party. Ford supported the filmmakers who wanted to take DeMille down. And then the day after the vote was cast, Ford wrote a personal letter to DeMille saying, "I'm proud of you for standing your ground. You're a strong American."
JH: Yeah, Joseph L. Mankiewicz was head of the Guild, and DeMille wanted to get rid of him and he wanted the oaths instituted. They said it was a tour de force by Ford, because he just waited till the very end of the evening, and then he said, "Well, the whole board should resign," because he knew that there were enough new people to get rid of the DeMille faction. Personally he didn't like DeMille, because in the meeting he said, "I don't really like DeMille, but I respect the movies you make and even standing up for your"—which is actually kind of the point. It's the John Wayne role in all his movies, the iconoclast who does what he thinks best no matter what.
JJ: If The Searchers had never been made, what do you think would be considered his masterpiece?
JH: Probably Grapes of Wrath (1935). That's the one that has the most modern sensibilities. It's very propopulist. A lot of his western stuff, people might have issues with shooting Indians and things like that. [The Grapes of Wrath] was in his pro-New Deal days, and that's the one that I see quoted most.
JJ: On the way over here we were talking about how people perceive Ford's politics, and how he's gotten sort of a bad rap. If you look at a movie like Stagecoach (1939), the villain in that is a banker. They're in the stagecoach and he's ranting, "There's too much regulation!" It sounds like a Mitt Romney speech. The outcasts—the prostitute and the drunk and the gunslinger—are the heroes of the movie, and the respectable people are all the villains.
JH: Well the sprinter Rafer Johnson had a small part in—Ford made a movie called Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and that was really the first time there was a black guy [Woody Strode] in the John Wayne role, the hero-action guy. Johnson became friendly with Ford and he used to go to his house. He said that, in matters of race, Ford was ahead of the rest of the country. He's a contrarian, he's one of these guys that, if you say he's a Democrat, he'd say he's a Republican; if you say it's black, he'd say it's white. But Johnson said, "If you want to know what he really thinks, it's in his movies." There's a great little bit that he does in Liberty Valance, where the black guy's in school and he's supposed to recite the Declaration of Independence, and he forgets the part that says "all men are created equal" and somebody else helps him. He says, "I'm sorry, I just forgot that part." And Jimmy Stewart, as the schoolteacher, says, "Well, that's all right. A lot of people forget that part." So I think that's Ford's real politics.
JJ: The one movie of his I have a lot of trouble watching now, even though a lot of people love it, is Judge Priest (1934), because of all of that Stepin Fetchit stuff. I find that stuff unbearable.
BS: And yet Stepin Fetchit was the first African-American millionaire. He was a genius when it came to negotiating his contracts. He was able to pull the ignoramus act whenever he wanted to. He would often pretend to forget his lines if he didn't like the lines in the script. So he was another one who was able to work both ends of the stick. But as for Ford's thoughts on race relations, 20th Century-Fox wanted to make Pinky (1949), that Elia Kazan ended up directing, about the black character who passes for white, and Ford pretended to have a bad cold for two months so that he wouldn't have to direct it.
JJ: I've heard that too. But what is it he didn't like about it?
BS: I don't know.
JH: It was Ethel Waters. She was a really over-the-top personality. Ford actually started on the movie and worked with her a week, and he just saw that his dictatorial style was not gonna work with her, so he bailed out. But on The Horse Soldiers (1959), there was a black maid or something. [It was] shot in Louisiana, and [Ford] insisted that all her scenes be shot in Hollywood, so that she wouldn't have to live in segregated housing. The Stepin Fetchit thing, I always think that's the weakness of Ford's movies, the comedy. I don't know if he thinks he's gotta play to the rubes. But even in The Searchers, the guy who's Moses—some of the stuff is just so broad. I can see Irish people having trouble with some of the Victor McLaglen, the prototypical Irish drunk guy. When he does comedy, he just hits you over the head with it.
JJ: When did you first get interested in Ford?
JH: Well, I was growing up back in the days of four TV stations. Except for Johnny Carson, all three channels would show old Hollywood movies at night. So I grew up watching this stuff. Then I had an older brother too, so he controlled the TV. But if there was shooting in it, I was into it!
JJ: When did you become conscious, though, that all of these movies had been made by one guy, and that John Ford was the guy that made all these movies?
JH: Probably sometime in high school or something. You start reading more about it. It's always interesting when you find that other people take what you like seriously. I'm usually saying, "OK, it's just another cowboy movie." And then, wait a minute: now there's some guy saying this is art.
JJ: So is The Grapes of Wrath your favorite?
JH: Well, I like They Were Expendable a lot. I like Fort Apache.
BS: I think Fort Apache is one of the most complex films he made, with the contrast between Fonda's character and Wayne's character. You have these two models of authority, and again, getting back to the progressive side, Fonda is the more authoritarian one, the more dictatorial one. He's clearly the villain in the film.
JH: Yeah. I always thought Fort Apache could be a metaphor for Vietnam, where you've got the American army that wants to go in and deal with a native people, and you've got the John Wayne guy who understands the native culture and says, "Wait, these people have grievances; they're legitimate grievances." And you've got the Henry Fonda guy who just dismisses everything about them. And [the cavalry company] get wiped out.
JJ: That must've been something he brought back from World War II, this commander who's got this huge ego and winds up getting all his men killed just for the sake of his own glory.
BS: After They Were Expendable, that's his first major film after the war. In J. Hoberman's history of Cold War-era Hollywood, he cites Fort Apache as the first major postwar western, setting the template for the more morally ambiguous westerns that would start coming out in the 50s.
JH: It's hard to not like The Quiet Man (1952). Someone described it as John Ford describing an Ireland that exists only in John Ford's imagination. [That would be our own Dave Kehr.] But that little town, they're still making a living off of that. I've got a couple customers who come in here—the place is called Cong. The house is there; it's a tourist trap. The whole town's like a tourist trap now, and they're still living off that movie. . . . [Producer] Merian Cooper said he wouldn't release movies that were over two hours in length. And Ford said, "Well, I've cut this down and can't get it any shorter than two hours and ten minutes." Cooper said no. So Ford takes it to Hollywood to screen it for all the studio execs, and right when the fight's gonna start, the screen just goes blank, and Ford said, "Well, I couldn't think of any other way to end it, so I just stopped it there." The Quiet Man is the only Merian Cooper movie that's two hours and ten minutes.
JJ: There's another story where he had some executive complaining about the fact that he was behind schedule, so he just took the script and ripped out a scene and said, "Good, now we're back on target." And threw it away.
BS: Well, he had such an innate sense for editing. It was his practice for a long time that, when he was filming someone in closeup and knew he wanted to cut to someone else in the scene, he just put his hand over the camera. So then editors could not edit it any other way. "Where am I supposed to cut?" "Well, just cut out where my hand is in front of the lens, and put in something else." And then when he knew he wanted to show that actor's face again he'd pull his hand away.
JH: Michael Curtiz was like that. He knew what he wanted the film to be, and so he was like Ford. He shot the bare minimum amount of footage. Jack Warner threatened to fire him over that. He says, "You're not giving the editors enough film."
BS: Are there any contemporary films that you see where you're reminded of Ford? Do you think there are some traces of what he gave to movies still out there?
JH: I think Kevin Costner's Open Range (2003) is very much a Ford western. There's not really a lot of action in it. It's a fairly slow pace. Some of the scenes, where they're crossing some water and it pans off, and I said, "Wow, this looks like John Ford."
JJ: What about Spielberg? He worshipped John Ford. Do you see anything of Ford in his movies?
JH: I always think of Spielberg being such fast-paced movies. They all seem like they don't meander as much as Ford's movies do.
BS: There are images here and there in Spielberg where you see the Ford influence, but the overall feel of them, I don't know.
JH: I see a lot of movies where Ford almost intentionally frames things to look like—especially in his westerns—like a Remington painting. There's one scene, I think it's Fort Apache again, where it's Henry Fonda on a horse. It just stops, and the camera stops. It could be a painting. I don't see as much of that now.