I'm a longtime fan of John Ford (who isn't, really?), the patron-saint of Monument Valley, born-again Irishman, and director of some of the best-constructed, most thoughtful films to come out of Hollywood, from THE INFORMER to THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE to THE QUIET MAN to THE GRAPES OF WRATH.
John Wayne is, so to speak, John Wayne, though his work frequently transcends the "movie star" mold with a dancer's grace and a touch of madness like in Ford's THE SEARCHERS, Hawks' RED RIVER, and Siegel's THE SHOOTIST.
Then, there's Ward Bond: a character actor extraordinaire who played brutes and cowpokes and priests and boxers across more than two hundred films. Though his supporting work with Ford and Wayne is why he's included in this trio, my soft spot for him will always be his one and only shot at top-billing in 1942's HITLER: DEAD OR ALIVE, a film that clearly inspired INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and contains the fabulous spectacle of Ward slapping the shit out of Hitler himself ...before proceeding to force-shave off his mustache!
Anyway, I just finished reading Scott Allen Nollen's in-depth examination of the lives and work of these three cinematic giants, and I highly recommend it as a fascinating study for burgeoning old-Hollywood aficionados and serious fans of cinema alike. Chronologically tracing the intertwining lives of these three "good-bad men" who were not unlike the characters in their films (Ford directed Bond and Wayne in nearly thirty pictures each), Nollen is at once objective and affectionate in his analysis, and there's a wealth of source material including documents, letters, telegrams, and plenty of rare photographs. There are riveting anecdotes (I may now actually be inspired to read Harry Carey, Jr.'s autobiography), some great yarn-spinning (including tales of Ward Bond's brutish, high-flying, indecent-exposing, Wile E. Coyote-style antics and his ruining of a key scene in THE SEARCHERS when he unplugged the camera to plug in his electric razor!), and the work definitely touches on their peccadillos and absurdities, though never salaciously.
It's deftly written and never dry; while many books of this kind become bogged down by academic posturing, Nollen remains true to the spirit of his subjects and opts for a two-fisted, no bullshit approach. I really appreciate how deeply he throws himself into the work, freely admitting "a meaningful (though a bit one-sided) conversation with a tombstone or two." He's as a film writer should be– intense, obsessive, and highly-focused; reverent without succumbing to hollow adulation.
The main drive of the work is the examination of the complex personal and working relationship between the three (though large swaths of the book are dedicated to advancing the underrated Ward Bond to his rightful place in the pantheon). None of these men could really be pinned down or branded with a particular stereotype– each had a volatile mix of id and ego (often sprinkled heavily with alcohol) that fused together to create a kind of perfect storm of filmic art.
The complex psychology of Ford's relationships with the two men is indeed worthy of an entire volume– you see a strange kind of ownership emerge, resulting from Ford's "discovering" of the two actors. This ownership was generally expressed in verbal (and often physical) sadism as Ford became master of his "whipping boys," something which may have even tied into his potential bisexuality:
"Ford loved John Wayne and Ward Bond, but his true sexual orientation wasn't something he would have discussed with them, or anyone else. When it came to his own life and psyche, Pappy [Ford] avoided the truth, exaggerated, lied, or just didn't 'have any goddamn idea.' The positive emotions he felt for his two favorite actors and whipping boys may have been the underlying cause of his negative, sadistic treatment of them (and himself); but even a lifetime of psychoanalysis may not have 'proved' anything."Vindictive and controlling, Ford "froze out" Wayne for eight years when he appeared in a rival director's Western (Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL) and later, when Bond made serious forays into television (WAGON TRAIN) and Wayne tried to direct a picture of his own (THE ALAMO), Ford would sometimes install himself as a presence on set and attempt to undermine/co-opt the work therein. These behaviors even extended beyond the trio– he punched out Henry Fonda (!) on MISTER ROBERTS and made cruel, deliberate use of alcohol to wring earth-shattering, hungover performances out of the likes of Victor McLaglen in THE INFORMER and Woody Strode in SERGEANT RUTLEDGE.
Though he reveals these men "warts and all," Nollen also paints a portrait of devoted friends and masterful artists whose lives and creative outlets meshed almost completely. (For instance, despite the abuse, Ford chose Bond to play his own alter-ego in the deeply personal THE WINGS OF EAGLES.)
Nollen takes on the accusations of racism in Ford's films, and reveals his struggle to show all sides despite the constraints of the system– especially evident in films like THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, and CHEYENNE AUTUMN. He tackles the strange political spectrum of the men, too, with John Ford's patriotic progressivism, Wayne's conservatism, and Ward Bond's ultraconservatism (and yet it was Ford who took his camera overseas into the crucible of World War II while Wayne and Bond remained in Hollywood). He doesn't shy away from Ward Bond's shameful behavior in the McCarthy era as a supporter of the blacklist:
"The social climbing Bond's ultimate political affront to Ford involved an invitation to a party he was throwing for Senator Joseph McCarthy. His great mentor [Ford] simply answered, 'You can take your party and shove it. I wouldn't meet that guy in a whorehouse. He's a disgrace and a danger to our country.'"Bond's involvement with the blacklist feels like a moral counterpoint to Ford's extensive work with the U.S. armed forces in World War II and beyond, and much attention here is paid to his military career (I learned that in North Africa a Nazi actually surrendered himself to John Ford!)
Along the way, Nollen delves into a vast spectrum of material including Ford's relationship with his older brother Francis (mentor, actor, and silent film director), Ford's gleeful propensity for Chaucer/Shakespearean-style low comedy and his hilariously bizarre obsession with highlighting Ward Bond's "horse's ass" in shot compositions ("Although FORT APACHE is a serious examination of the mythology of the American West, it humorously can be branded Ford's 'ass-travaganza'"). Of particular interest to me were Ford's work with Victor McLaglen (whose performance in THE INFORMER is one of the greatest in filmdom), his direction of genius child actor and later genre-movie legend Roddy McDowall in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, Bond's artistic process as unofficial show-runner on WAGON TRAIN, and the compelling, touching latter-day friendship between Ford and Woody Strode– and the book certainly has some genuinely emotional, poignant moments as the three "good-bad" men's lives dwindle to a close.
In the end, it definitely gets you amped up to watch some John Ford films– I've probably seen at least two dozen or so at this point, but there's still scores more I need to get my hands on, and there's obviously some big gaps in my knowledge. For instance, since I've read THREE BAD MEN, MISTER ROBERTS, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, 3 GODFATHERS, and WAGON MASTER have now leapt to the forefront of my queue.
THREE BAD MEN is published by McFarland (Order line: 800-253-2187), ISBN 978-0-7864-5854-7