Book Review: “But God Made Him a Poet: John Ford” — An Essential Book on a World-Class American Director
By Gerald Peary
What makes Scout Tafoya’s book a radical departure from earlier studies is his in-your-face challenges to John Ford’s character and his racial politics.
Hail my young and brilliant critic friend Scout Tafoya for producing the first important, essential book on director John Ford in many years: But God Made Him a Poet: John Ford in the 21st Century (With an X: $18.99). In writing it, Tafoya set himself an insanely arduous task: to watch every extant Ford film in a row, more than a hundred of them, including silents, lots of barely distinguished early talkies, and a host of esoteric documentaries, most on arcane military topics. Plus a fresh look at the several-dozen pictures that made Ford’s critical reputation as a world-class director and perhaps America’s greatest filmmaker.
I’m guessing that Tafoya sat down directly after each screening and pounded out a short essay about the film he just watched. The essays are fresh, witty, improvisatory, slangy, runaway with movie knowledge. Here he is describing Ford’s 1929 Salute, apparently ruined by the hack co-direction of a David Butler: “There’s a dull establishing shot, a dull shot of people dancing, then another dull exterior where dialogue drops from the mouths of our lead characters like a bowling ball from a broken arm.” Or showing youthful John Wayne majestically appearing in Stagecoach: “Wayne is a big kid, sweating and earnest, even with his reedier tenor, the voice unmistakable star material. His gallantry does so move one…. He does seem to truly have walked out of the desert like a Sam Shepard hero.”
If there is any critical influence here it’s Manny Farber of the Nation, famous for jumping into movies every which way. He focused on whatever interested him, whether an actor’s eccentric performance or a single acidic shot, never caring about the “well-made” review. His aim was to try to have the flow of his words reflect the rhythms of the movie, or convey what it felt like to watch the film. Hard to imagine: the impatient, distracted Farber doing a whole book on one director. We’ll have to do with Scout Tafoya being Farberesque — not a bad stand-in at all! On Ford’s section of How the West Was Won: “Ford fills the frame with business…. He has lines of cannons going off in sequence, surgeons operating revolving door field hospitals like something out of Metropolis, mass graves being dug, corpse dust filling the air, lavender flowers blossoming to keep the back of the frame separate from the front.”
While Tafoya admires the bulk of the films championed by Ford scholars like Tad Gallagher and Joseph McBride (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Fort Apache, Seven Women), he has no hesitation about forging his own path. In many ways, But God Made Him a Poet is a revisionist text. There’s been a critical tendency to downplay Ford’s most overtly expressionist dramas for being melodramatic, self-consciously lit, and overwrought. But Tafoya loves the cinema produced by Ford under the Germanic influence of Sunrise’s F.W. Murnau. Not only the Oscar-winning The Informer, which advanced Fordians wave away as overrated, but the roundly discredited The Fugitive, an adaptation of Graham Greene that Fordians like McBride simply hate. As for Hurricane, usually seen as a minor genre work: Tafoya elevates it to the top rank of Ford’s oeuvre, declaring, “On some days my favorite film of Ford not named Wagon Master.”
It’s fun to watch Tafoya shuffle Ford’s films about, challenging what Gallagher and McBride and Andrew Sarris regard as great or not, the same kind of shake-up done by Lindsay Anderson in his idiosyncratic About John Ford. But what makes Tafoya’s book a radical departure from earlier studies is his in-your-face challenges to Ford’s character and racial politics. For the former: Tafoya chooses the path (I agree with him) to not automatically separate the art from the artist. He finds it egregious that Ford treated his cast members often in a sadistic, dictatorial way, including the less famous and powerless. Tafoya is not amused by tales of Ford’s wanton drunkenness. And while he’s on the attack, Tafoya endorses John Wayne for his greatness on screen but he’s no fan at all of “the Duke” off-camera, quoting as a noxious example Wayne’s infamously bigoted, racist Playboy interview.
And to the movies: like many liberal-minded 21st-century people living in an era of Black Lives Matter, Tafoya is “flummoxed” by Stepin Fetchit doing his shuffling Negro thing in a bunch of Ford movies. And he is turned off completely by Ford’s reverence in many films for the Confederacy. No, the South fighting the Civil War was not a Noble Cause. It was a battle to the death in defense of slavery. As a Ford fan from an earlier generation, I am in sync here with Tafoya. I’m as baffled as he is by the undiminished adoration of Ford scholars we respect for Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright. Neither of us want these films “canceled,” but we are both troubled by their retro racial politics and their fetishizing of the Old (White) South.
And Ford’s treatment of Native Americans? At some point in his book, Tafoya outs himself as someone who possibly has indigenous blood. (Certainly as much as Elizabeth Warren.) Understandably, he’s not thrilled by the bloodthirsty savages in many Ford westerns, like Stagecoach and Rio Grande. Of the latter: “The less said about its appalling treatment of the villainous tribes the better. It’s nightmarish, fascist stuff.” And he’s not placated by Ford’s attempt to make amends with Cheyenne Autumn toward the end of his directorial career, which Tafoya describes as “a frequently beautiful film about the plight of the Cheyenne that has no interest in who they are, where white actors are top billed and speak most of the dialogue.”
My small complaint about this stylish, necessary book: I wish Tafoya had pushed the revisionist politics even further. I assume he’s as bothered as I am by Ford’s crush and love affair with the military, his credo in many movies that our armed forces should be supported, right or (often) wrong. And 2023 is the perfect moment to delve into the glaring homoeroticism in such prime Ford films as The Wings of Eagles and The Long Gray Line. A missed opportunity by the author of But God Made Him a Poet to herald a secret nonbinary John Ford, auteur.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston; ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque; and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema; writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty; and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.