Understanding John Ford

Glenn Frankel’s new book on The Searchers goes to show the continuing interest in John Ford. My interest in Ford was sparked by Professor John Marini of the University of Nevada-Reno, whom I heard speak about Ford on a Claremont Institute panel at the annual convention of the American Political Science Association a few years ago. On the Claremont panel John gave a version of his paper on the creation of the epic Western that has now been published as the lead essay in the collection Print the Legend: Poliitcs, Culture and Civic Virtue in the Films of John Ford. The book includes two essays on The Searchers, one by Paul Cantor and one by John Alvis and David Alvis. (The essay collection should not be confused with Scott Eyman’s Ford biography with the same title.)

You can get a taste of John’s take on Ford in the Claremont Review of Books essay “There once were giants.” Marini’s valuable overview of the Western portrays it as a response to the Progressive critique of American history. Here is John on the thematic premises of the Western:

The implicit premise of the western…is that our fathers were in some respects better than we are: whatever they may have left us to live down, they also gave us something to live up to. The western restores our connection to the past by acknowledging the fullness or moral wholeness of the past. This could only be done by recognizing the possibility of true greatness of heroes in the past, and, of course, there cannot be heroes without villains. The greatest directors of western movies portrayed a world in which genuine heroes and therefore genuine villains were possible, where human and American virtues and vices contended in all seriousness and the heights and depths of human behavior–like the American Revolution and the legacy of slavery–came into view in a way that was and is meaningful to the moral imagination.

Valuable as his new book is, Professor Frankel is a liberal whose book reflects current liberal preoccupations foreign to Ford. Mushier types like David Brooks have done worse by him. I think that Marini brings us closest to understanding Ford on his own terms. In the Hillsdale College lecture below, John addresses “John Ford in World War II.” If you have any interest in Ford, it is well worth your time.

Thanks to Doug Jeffrey and our friends at Hillsdale for making the video available via YouTube.

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