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In 1971, Peter Bogdanovich was, perhaps, America's most promising young filmmaker, having directed the remarkable "Targets" (1968) and "The Last Picture Show" (1971) earning him an Academy Award nomination for the latter. At this point, he chose to make a documentary about legendary film director John Ford. The result was a documentary that drew excellent reviews, following a screening at the 1971 New York Film Festival and a television broadcast. It was later withdrawn from circulation because of legal rights. It was only in early 2006 that Bogdanovich - who was reportedly never totally happy with the 1971 version - went back and revamped the documentary to his satisfaction. He recorded totally new interviews with Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg and incorporated a rare audio recording of Ford and his rumored 'significant other' Katharine Hepburn. He has integrated these new elements alongside the strongest sections from the first version - including extended ... Written by
"Directed By John Ford" is a moving, thoroughgoing, yet somehow incomplete look at that master of directors, John Ford, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, a hot young director himself when he first made this film, in 1971.
The version of "Directed By John Ford" I saw is not that version, but a retooled one made in 2006 featuring up-to-date commentary from Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and Bogdanovich himself, among others. There's also surviving footage from the 1971 version, showing John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Ford himself, all still alive at the time and willing to sit down and talk with Bogdanovich, though barely in the case of Ford himself.
Q: Mr. Ford, I've noticed your view of the West has become increasingly sad...Have you been aware of that change of mood? A: No.
Q: Now that I've pointed it out, is there anything you'd like to say about it? A: I don't know what you're talking about.
The others interviewed are more willing to share their views, not to mention their scars. "He dares you to do it right do it good," notes Stewart, adding "It's not a relaxed set." Ford was a rank sentimentalist and a bullying manic depressive, pressing every psychological button among his cast, crew, and himself. Wayne and Fonda note how hard-nosed Ford could be with the amused bewilderment of Catholic schoolboys discussing a crazy nun.
The modern-day interviews are interesting, too, though not nearly so. The result here is less a retrospective than an appreciation piece, and something of a disjointed one, with half the interviews discussing Ford in the present tense and half wistfully acknowledging the world Ford left behind.
"He's like Dickens or something," says Walter Hill, the guy behind "Deadwood" and "48 Hrs." "There's a whole frame of reference and horizon-line that's Fordian." The best thing to say about this documentary is that you get some concrete sense of what the adjective "Fordian" means. His films could be messy and emotional, but there was often a economical driving force at their heart, running through them tight as a clothesline.
You also see how Ford influenced directors who came after him. One scene from a 1961 film "Two Rode Together," shows Stewart and Richard Widmark sitting at a stream and having a long conversation about Stewart's love life. It's introduced by Scorsese as an influential scene in his own film-making, but there was nothing recognizably of Scorsese in the clip I see, which is amiable, drawn-out, and too whimsical by half for Scorsese's macho style. But it did remind me a lot of Quentin Tarantino, who it turns out is a huge Scorsese fan. Ford's roots run deep, and often past a lot of people, as with me.
The film loses steam in the second half, though, with a labored reflection on how Ford captured the story of America on a chronological basis. There's some brief audio of Ford talking to Katharine Hepburn that hints at a great romance between the two, but it's thrown up late and not tied in well to anything else.
But this is a fine overview of Ford's fantastic career, however unsettled as to its perspective. Ford himself was a little unsettled, too.
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