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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 It was later withdrawn from circulation because of legal rights.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
"What attracted you to the Western?" "Hell would know." (2006 re-release review)
The introduction of John Ford, as an interviewee, in Peter Bogdanovich's documentary 'Directed by John Ford', is quite awkward, and really funny. He sits in a chair, slightly uncomfortable, glancing out as his own backdrop he's been up by, Monument Valley, and smoking a cigar from time to time. Bogdanovich's questions aren't bad, but they're prime fodder for someone like Ford to just rip apart, or just scoff at or ignore. He finishes it by saying "CUT" as if he was the director. But after this, and throughout the rest of the documentary, Ford is much more on a level field with Bogdanovich (or perhaps his questions were more straightforward), and we see a man who is uncomplicated on the surface, but is an artist underneath, a complex one who regards his country with a slight sense of irony, but also a true warmth for people and family and the 'other' like the American Indians.
And boy could he compose a shot! One of the joys of Directed by John Ford is to get to see these scenes from Ford films, some quite long and some just snippets, and see how it is painterly, from, as narrator Orson Welles would once say, a "poet in a mind's eye". And seeing those scenes from the Searchers and Grapes of Wrath and Fort Apache are incredible to see in the context of the interviews. Also, if you haven't seen many Ford films, it's a great window into his work (if not completely full of spoilers), and if you have then it's like revisiting a great body of work in one book or other.
The interviews also give insight, while at the same time not being dishonest about how Ford could be on a set. He could tease actors, or just outright bully, and on occasions he would ask an actor a question, such as "how do you think Woody Strode looks, (Jimmy Stewart)" and get a frank answer, he would embarrass the star in front of the entire cast and crew. Sometimes actors would even come to the defense on the side of the one Ford would be picking on, and then, as any bully, he would back-off. But somehow, the interviewees like Fonda and Stewart and Harry Carey Jr and 'Duke' can attest to, a lot of the stern and angry behavior from the director was worth it - and part of his own personality as a tough but sensitive Irish-American.
We see how his films reflect the man - quiet and bold, sentimental but never corny, raw, naturalistic, and stylized. It's a complex man, given a documentary full of rightful praise and some moments that will be helpful to burgeoning movie-buffs (i.e. a scene from Two Rode Together that Scorsese says changed his life is, in fact, an extraordinary scene, and all in a two shot no less!)
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