McBride discovers John Ford
March 20, 2008 -- A stagecoach rolls through a valley while the camera pans upward, pausing on a rock formation. The simple scene in the 1948 film "Fort Apache" first endeared Joseph McBride to legendary director John Ford’s work and sparked a curiosity that has spanned McBride's career.
"I loved that camera movement, because Ford was making a statement about what was really important in that scene," said McBride, an assistant professor of cinema at SF State. "That really gave me a glimpse of Ford’s thinking."
Throughout his 30 years researching the life and work of the legendary director, McBride has gained rare insight in to the complicated inner workings of a talented filmmaker who has influenced the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas. That insight led to McBride's 2001 book, "Searching for John Ford," since translated into multiple languages and considered by many the definitive work on Ford’s life and work. The book’s French translation was honored in February by the French Film Critics Association as the best foreign film book of the year.
But understanding Ford's contradictory personas was difficult for McBride, who has also written extensively on Orson Welles. McBride wrote his first book about Ford in 1974, but felt a definitive Ford biography had yet to be produced. Nobody had fleshed out the differences in Ford's life and work.
On his first trip to Los Angeles in 1970, the then-23-year-old McBride found himself face-to-face with Ford in the aging director’s office. Ford offered monosyllabic answers and seemed agitated and defensive throughout the one-hour interview. The experience would serve McBride well later in his career. Though brief, the encounter personified the conflicting aspects of the director’s complex personality. "The thing that held me back was trying to understand Ford," McBride said. "He was a very complicated man. He seemed to contradict himself quite a bit. It took me a long time to accept that, instead of searching for ways to reconcile that."
McBride took his knowledge of Ford into the classroom last fall in his upper-level cinema class about Ford and his work. McBride showed rare Ford films in class and discussed the finer points of the pieces, noting that while Ford is famous for his Westerns, he made movies that dealt with racism and other social ills. The Cowboys don't always win in his films.
"I really loved digging into the characters and themes in Ford's films, and linking them to Ford's own personality and experiences," said Catherine Lombardo, who took McBride's class about Ford. "The assignments really brought me to the opinion that Ford is an auteur."
After declining in popularity following his death, Ford's films have rebounded lately. McBride says Ford's message is more relevant than ever as people look for answers through artistic expression. "Our country is in a state of crisis about who we are as a people and what we stand for," McBride said. "All these things have caused a soul searching in America. During World War II, people in Great Britain turned to Shakespeare. Ford is America’s Shakespeare."
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