'John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend'
Thursday, May 11, 2006; 12:00 PM
Featuring the lives and careers of John Ford and John Wayne, the American Masters documentary "John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend" aired on PBS on Wednesday, May 10 at 9 p.m. ET. This dual biography kicks off American Masters' 20th season.
(Check local listings.)
Director Sam Pollard and Series Producer Prudence Glass were online Thursday, May 11, at noon ET to discuss the work of John Ford and John Wayne and the American Masters film about their lives.
As winner of four Academy Awards, John Ford is considered by many America's greatest director. John Wayne is the actor whom he transformed from a B-western cowboy into a larger-than-life national icon. Their friendship and professional collaboration spanned 50 years; Their body of work includes "Stagecoach," "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Rio Grande," "The Searchers," "The Horse Soldiers," "The Alamo" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."
Emmy Award-winning writer, producer, director and editor Sam Pollard is an associate professor of film and television at New York University. His editing career spans over 30 years and includes the upcoming "Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela" and past works "Half-Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks," "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed," and for Spike Lee, "Bamboozled," "4 Little Girls" (also a producer) and "Clockers." Pollard is currently producing and editing Spike Lee's new documentary on Hurricane Katrina, "When the Levees Broke," which airs in August on HBO.
The transcript follows.
Lakewood, N.J.: For Prudence Glass: After 20 years of the series, do you have any favorite American Masters shows? Who would you really like to cover in an upcoming program?
Prudence Glass: No, I certainly can't talk about favorites! Personally, because I was the writer and producer on the Sidney Poitier episode, that experience will always remain closest to my heart. But at the end of this 20th anniversary season, we will have 142 American Masters, each of whom are completely stunning and representative in their own right. Our executive producer, Susan Lacy, certainly has a wish list for the future, that includes in all cultural areas, and includes probably everyone from Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte to Maya Angelou and Jerry Lewis.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi Sam, Wondering what your personal interest is in the John Wayne/John Ford story? Seems very different from your other work (certainly the Spike Lee stuff!)
Sam Pollard: Well quite honestly when I was a young man, the first film director I was aware of was John Ford. Growing up, being a big fan of westerns, some of my favorites were those John Ford films like Stagecoach and The Searchers, and Ft. Apache. I loved those films and they were touchstones for me. That's why, it some ways, it's not unusual that I would do a film on John Ford, he was an early influence. He was a major influence, something about his style of cinema and use of locations, like Monument Valley....He was a visual poet of the cinema.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Did John Wayne and John Ford ever have any major disagreements? If so, what did they disagree about?
Sam Pollard: I don't think they ever had any major disagreements. Ford was the mentor, Wayne was the mentee. Anything that John Ford said, it was the gospel. Wayne had a reputation for being very difficult with other directors, but never with John Wayne. John Ford was the man who gave him his career.
Albany, N.Y.: I learned a lot from this film about two Hollywood greats I thought I already knew...thanks for making a film with this perspective! Prudence, will you be doing other films that are structured in this way?
Prudence Glass: We have in the past doing these kind of dual biographies if you well...There is a wonderful AM on Hitchcock and Selznick and their influence on film making and the industry. And there is always a very fine AM on Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, focusing primarily on their body of work as seen during the blacklist period. So there was a foundation for doing this before the very wonderful idea, and then the film on John Ford and John Wayne which Sam and Ken made. At the moment I don't think we have another plan for doing a film with this structure but it is certainly something that we forward to exploring further. But at the moment there isn't something in the works.
Baltimore, Md.: In "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart seemed to be too old for their roles. What is your opinion about their casting?
Sam Pollard: They WERE too old. But it is clear that Ford the director admired both of these actors, he had had a long relationship with Wayne who was having a relationship with Stewart, so he tapped them for the roles. A lot of time directors who have a long relationship with the actors will use the actors who may be too old for the characters.
Herndon, Va.: Thank you for an outstanding "American Masters" At the time "The Searchers" was released, was it recognized for the masterpiece it was, and for Wayne's performance, or was it "just" another John Ford western?
Sam Pollard: At the time it was released it was just considered another John Ford western. It didn't receive the same sort of critical acclaim that George Stevens had received a few years before with Shane. It took years of reappraisal and reviewing for people to realize that it was a masterpiece. To me, that is a masterpiece, one of the all time great John Ford films.
Middletown, Md.: Do you think the western will ever make a comeback? My wife, kids and I love westerns, and we try to see all of the new ones that come out. We have an extensive DVD collection of old and new westerns, and I have quite a few friends that can't get enough of the old John Wayne westerns. Is Hollywood just not interested in making good old fashioned stories, or are they worried that they won't sell?
Sam Pollard: Quite honestly the western has come back, but it will never back in the form that I like, the form people saw in the documentary last night. The new western is Star Wars, Arnold Schwartenegger movies, the new western takes place in the future, these new action films are basically western, taking place not in the 1800's, they take place in the future, and in the new frontier of outer space. That's the new western.
John Fabry, Aberdeen, Md.: What is the significance or hidden meaning behind John Wayne's "arm-in-hand" stance in the doorway during the final Searchers scene?
Sam Pollard: Oh that's great! John Ford's first major actor that was used in his early films Harry Carey, Sr. who, if anyone goes back and watches those films, he always had a gesture where he touched his right arm with his left hand. And when John Wayne was a young man growing up he was a big admirer of Harry Carey as an actor, western star. And in that final scene in the Searchers, when that scene was being directed, John Wayne was looking at Harry Carey, Jr. , the son, and Olive Carey, the wife, and subconsciously Wayne did that gesture, as a homage to Harry Carey.
Troy, Mich.: For the producer: How much competition do you feel with the other biography shows on television? What makes American Masters shows different than, say, Biography?
Prudence Glass: Without being sarcastic in any way, I think American Masters is the gold standard. We were there first, and essentially created the genre. And have never wavered from the initial concept and the initial integrity of how we produce and create our films. We are very specific to our arts and cultural figures. We do not cover the flavor of the week, or the flash in the pan pop star. It's a very serious look at who are cultural and artistic icons are. One of the examples I would give is when we did the Bob Dylan production last year in our 2005 season. It literally was a production that was ten years in the making. We would never do a production where we did not have the cooperation of either the subject or their estate. When Biography, whom you mentioned, did a Bob Dylan program some years before, they literally did it without any music. It makes no sense. We will only do something if we have cooperation and can really do a comprehensive and insightful piece about the subject. And we hope and we aim to maintain this gold standard.
Okemah, Okla.: What impact would Ford's films have had if he had never found Wayne? Could say, George O'Brien or Ward Bond have ever pulled it off? What about Ben Johnson was right, but perhaps TOO right to continue as a Ford leading man? His compassion?
Sam Pollard: I think John Ford is a great film director and could have found someone with the stature of a Wayne to play those characters. I don't think it would have been a Ward Bond or even a Ben Johnson because I don't those actors the same kind of screen presence or charisma that Wayne had. In the early 50's, if Ford didn't have Wayne but had Jimmy Stewart it might have been close. But it would have been difficult to find someone to replace Wayne. Ben Johnson had a great presence and authenticity as a cowboy, but it was not the same presence and charisma to be strong leading man. He was a good character actor, but he was never a star.
Austin, Tex.: Dobe Carey, Tag Gallager, Peter Bogdanovich, others - whom do you feel had the best handle on who John Ford really was, deep inside? The ones who really understood him best may be gone. I'm thinking of Will Rogers and Henry Fonda.
Sam Pollard: In my opinion Will Rogers wasn't around long enough to know who John Ford really was. Henry Fonda might have been able to give us a little more depth about Ford. But I think Harry Carey who worked with Ford for over 20 years had a pretty good sense of who Ford was as a person and as a director.
Elma, N.Y.: On what basis can one contend that Ford is the top American film director? What about Howard Hawks whose comedies was less sentimental, whose western's were as memorable, and whose use of dialogue more inventive?
Sam Pollard: You know, I'll step back and say this. Early, as a young man, beside Ford, there was also Howard Hawks as a favorite director. Now Hawks has a great sense of wit as a director, much more male/female tension in his films, there is definitely a sense of edginess with his characters. But if you look at his body of work, from His Girl Friday to Atari or Rio Bravo, he is a great film director, but not the same sense of visual splendor and poetic beauty that you find in Ford's films, from Grapes of Wrath to the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Washington, D.C.: Can you please explain the depth of Wayne's character in The Searchers. In the 1960s-70s friends and relatives praised him as someone who wouldn't give up on his niece, kidnapped and raped by the Native Americans. But as an adult watching the movie, it's flat out clear he's a negative, racist character. Since it's obviously over the heads of the average public, can you explain what Ford was trying to say?
Sam Pollard: My wife watched the documentary with me last night. And when the segment on the Searchers came up, she said unequivocally, I hate that film. It is the most racist film I've ever seen. And my answer has always been, because she's said this many times before, yeah, it is racist. What's phenomenal about the Searchers and about Wayne's characterization of Ethan Edwards, is that Ford shows you a character who is very complicated, that is not black or white, that is a very real person, a human being. So what we're seeing is a character that on one hand is on a mission because his family has been violated, but who also underneath this mission about bringing back his niece, there is an anger and rage about the Native Americans and what may happen to his niece as a white woman living with Scar. This is a complex guy. To me, this symbolizes a very well rounded human being. Someone says in the film last night, that's what makes Ford a memorable director - people are shades of gray. And sure, Ethan Edwards is racist, autocratic, dictatorial, misogynist, and there are also moments of love and affection, not only for Debbie, but for Martin Pawley.
DuBois, Pa.: Greetings from Tom Mix country. What influences do you believe Tom Mix had on the later films of John Ford and John Wayne?
Sam Pollard: Personally, I don't think any. I know Ford directed Mix, but Mix was not the kind of cowboy that would be in a number of Ford films. They were both under contract to Fox. Mix was a flamboyant, Gene Autrey, type of cowboy. Not authentic to me, and I know not authentic to Ford.
Wijchen, The Netherlands: I remember reading that actors and supporting crew got cancer as a result of scenes being filmed in Nevada- were you given any warnings/advice when filming on-site?
Sam Pollard: You are referring a production directed in 1955 in Nevada by Dick Powell, the film was called The Conqueror. John Wayne played Ghengis Khan, and it also starred Susan Hayward, Pedro Arnendiaz. Supposedly, these three actors, plus Dick Powell and a lot of people on the production contracted cancer. That's the story. It wasn't a John Ford film.
Prudence Glass: And we didn't film in Nevada.
Chevy Chase, Md.: My husband and I watched the film last night and loved it! My husband said that he vaguely remembered hearing that John Ford had gotten into a major fight on the set of The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, but not with John Wayne. Is he right and if so, who was the actor?
Sam Pollard: Your husband is incorrect. He got into a fight in 1955 with Henry Fonda on the set of Mr. Roberts. And that was the end of their relationship for many years.
Hackensack, N.J.: This question is for Ms. Glass: Usually American Masters programs are about individual lives of artists. Why did you decide to explore the professional relationship of Ford and Wayne instead of focusing on one or the other independently?
Prudence Glass: I want Sam to follow me up on this too, but I think that very fine films could have been done on each of them. However, exploring their relationship and incredible body of work together, I think was more interesting, went deeper, and ultimately is more instructive or more predictive of the influence and what followed, both in terms of other film makers, but very particularly in terms of a kind of national direction and identity. Which is the point that the film makes, to be sure. But sometimes artistic collaboration and artistic bouncing back and forth of one another, is just richer.
Detroit, Mich.: Hi Sam and Prudence, I've never watched an American Masters show before. I tuned in for this one because it was a subject that interested both me and my Dad, and it was great to watch it with him. What other shows will you have this season? Dad and I are very excited about seeing more!
Prudence Glass: Wonderful!! Having new viewers is obviously fabulous! We have a total of 8 new productions this year. John Ford/John Wayne opened our 2006 season last night. And we will be on the air through the end of October with the following new productions: Next Wednesday night is the World of Nat King Cole. Then we will be having a film about Woody Guthrie, a film about Walter Cronkite, a film about Marilyn Monroe, who in June of 2006 would have been 80 years old, and this film we are approaching very uniquely through, essentially the iconography - Marilyn as this persistent image that still lives after all these years. The other new productions are on Frank Gehry the architect, Andy Warhol, and Annie Liebowitz. But in addition, through this five or six month period, we are able to bring back repeats and encores from the American Masters library over the last 20 years. And some of those programs in the rest of May, after Nat King Cole, we'll be bringing back, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Muddy Waters. And we will also be repeating right after the Walter Cronkite production in July is a film about Edward R. Murrow which we made in 1991, and as with several of our films, Hollywood is now catching up. We did Edward R. Murrow before, Ray Charles before....So we are able to bring back many of our 142 films, made over 20 years. Others we are bringing back are George Gershwin, Cole Porter, we're repeating the Bob Dylan from last year that was such a success, Willie Nelson, Albert Einstein, Judy Garland, Leonard Bernstein, and Preston Sturgess, and also James Dean.
Wilmington, Del.: For the producer: What made you choose Sydney Pollack to narrate this film? Not a name that says "Western" to me.
Prudence Glass: I can answer part of it. I think that when one is talking about Sidney Pollack, one is talking about another great director. Who in particular has a very comprehensive understanding of film making and film history. And this just exuberant love for the genre.
Sam Pollard: The reason we selected Sidney is exactly what Prue said, his love for cinema. He's a director that had a relationship with an actor - Robert Redford - similar to the one that Ford had with Wayne. SO I thought he would have a really good understanding and sensitivity to who these two men were and the dynamic of their relationship.
Westchester, N.Y.: Can you think of any other Hollywood professional relationship that became so divided by personal politics as Ford & Wayne's did? And can you offer any insight into why Wayne so changed his political tune later in his career? Compelling film...especially bringing this subject matter to light.
Sam Pollard: I think that Wayne was always a staunch Republican even as a young man. I don't think he changed at all, if anything he became more entrenched in his beliefs. And I also think that this icon of who Wayne was as a movie star, which was really created by Ford, Wayne bought into. It affected his politics. He believed his own press. They disagreed, but it was never a dispute. They never really had overt dialogues about it, they just had different beliefs.
Sweetwater, Tex.: Looking on the careers of Ford and Wayne, one thing sticks in my mind - with or without John Wayne, who did plenty, Ford never made a (sound) picture about COWBOYS. He made plenty about cavalry, frontier lawmen and outlaws, but never a cattle empire film or even a cattle drive story. Can we read anything into this?
Sam Pollard: No.
Herndon, Va.: You're right about Tom Mix, BUT, the funny thing is, he actually had been a cowboy! But it's not what you really are/were, it's how you are on the screen that counts.
Sam Pollard: That's right. I know he was a cowboy, but he was also a dandy!
Philadelphia, Pa.: How would you compare John Ford as a director with Steven Spielberg?
Sam Pollard: Good question. I would say they both as film makers and directors embrace the notion of an American individualism and American self-determination. In both of their films there is always a sense of optimism. I think they both of a real strong grasp of the medium, in how to use the medium as directors. Both wonderful directors. But I happen to like Ford more than Speilberg, personally.
Prudence Glass: Thanks very much, I would love to thank everybody for watching last night and for participating in this chat today! I want to encourage people, especially new viewers, to stay with us this season...Again because it's the 20th anniversary, it has these emblematic new productions, as well as selections from the library that we've had indications that people have wanted us to bring back. It's a strong season, and it is a season that represents ourselves, the people who have made us watch, and made us listen, made us read, and make us think. They're really our cultural heroes who have helped enrich all of our lives. And thanks again!
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.