In the final chapter of Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero, a new study of the complicated father-son dynamic between all-American icon John Wayne and the studio workhorse who inflated Wayne’s stature while deflating his ego, author Nancy Schoenberger reveals the book’s Freudian impetus: her father, a broad-shouldered, hard-scrabble Republican veteran who reminded her, in looks and manner, of a certain big-screen cowboy (what else, one wonders, might prompt a Creative Writing prof at the College of William and Mary to write about this subject?)
Small wonder, then, that the book, for everything else that it is, stands largest as a valentine to a certain breed of man, one whose iron demeanour and innate leadership was born of the toughness of the Depression, the battles of World War Two, and the post-war dog-eat-dog world of big business.
It was certainly Wayne’s pedigree, the tall, handsome son of an ne’er do well Iowan done in by hard times, rescued by a teenage talent for football (hence his relocation to California) and, in time, the stuff it took to perform dangerous stunts in B Westerns. After a long apprenticeship in such children’s fare, Wayne was rescued by Ford, who, in his 1939 Stagecoach (Ford’s first talking Western, believe it or not) gave him his first genuine acting opportunity while anointing him as the quintessential Western hero – a role Wayne would go on to play countless times. By the late Fifties, in fact, the guise had made him number one at the box office, a status he risked with a bravery rivaling the kind he exuded onscreen, by trying his hand at directing himself (the semi-disastrous The Alamo.)
Wayne remained ever appreciative – not an easy task. Ford, while widely respected as one of Hollywood’s most dependable helmsman, was a hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-on-everybody son of a bitch. He took as much pride in needling his players as he did showing off his favourite location: Utah’s Monument Valley.
Through seven films, he and his protegé drank, fought, drank, fought some more, and somehow, made magic. Almost all of their collaborations in fact, are considered classics, though the truth is, while most are extremely good, only a handful deserve such exalted status (Stagecoach, certainly, and the extremely influential The Searchers.)
Don’t try telling that to Schoenberger, though; she holds each film up as high art, lovingly providing detailed plot synopsis, due explorations of even their least interesting dynamics, and unabashed accolades for Wayne’s acting. It is there, of course, where she breaks most with popular sentiment; dimension, in the esteem of classic movie lovers, belongs to Wayne’s macho men contemporaries, many with whom he co-starred: Jimmy Stewart, Richard Widmark, even the equally taciturn Robert Mitchum. But Schoenberger is decidedly out to restore sight to a collective eye as blind as Rooster Cogburn’s, hoping it might recognize a sensitivity and range transcending stereotype.
To her credit, it’s a partly persuasive argument. If it fails, in the end, to convince, its largely due to the inseparability of her schoolgirl crush on her subject from her observational acumen.
She’s less crazy about Ford – who wouldn’t be? – but too attempts to draw him anew, portraying him as a more complex personage than previous biographers. Points of interest include his fairweather attitude toward American Indians, his little expressed romantic side, and allegations, believe it or not, of homosexuality, backed up by no less than his favourite leading lady, Maureen O’Hara. It’s mighty hard to take seriously, especially as it’s adamantly rebuked by big-name defenders who spent considerable time with him (including Ford’s grandson and biographer Dan Ford and interviewer-filmmaker Peter Bogdonavich.) Regardless, Schoenberger, like her defense of Wayne, stands firm.
Great chemistry doesn’t necessarily make great art. This dual biography is out to prove that indeed, the complex breed may. If not that though, then it at least makes for an interesting, if inflated, examination of the Western genre’s most famous bromance.