SEPTEMBER BOOK REPORT (9/13…Nazis, Research and Grandpa Ford)

The Scarlatti Inheritance, Robert Ludlum (1971)

If the Nazis hadn’t existed, surely popular fiction writers would have needed to invent them. Exist they did, however, and, as they can never meet too many evil ends, stuff like this always goes down easy with me. This is a particularly compelling example–Ludlum was an able practitioner of this sort of thing in his heyday, from whence this derives. I read it a month ago now, so I don’t exactly remember much about what happened–for that you need at least a touch of art–but there was a whole good-vs-evil thing going on and good triumphed in the end, albeit wearily and not without cost. Never make it on telelevision these days with that kind of outmoded thinking, but I enjoyed the ride.

Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle For a State, Mark Christ (2010)

Fiction research for me. On that level a gold-mine for anyone looking for info on the subject of the title. It’s just what it says–a straightforward account of the major military events in a relatively under-reported theater of the Civil War. The battles at places like Pea Ridge and Arkansas Post didn’t end up being the stuff of legend, but they were not without significance. The Union’s ability to dominate the region with relative ease thanks to a handful of able commanders who, at one point, included William Sherman in the midst of recovering the reputation he had more ore less put in jeopardy with a less than stellar performance at Shiloh, certainly made life easier for U.S. Grant elsewhere in the West, rendered Confederate sympathizers in Missouri and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) impotent and cut off yet another potential source of valuable resources from the main body of the Confederacy. Christ employs a modest, unassuming style that probably won’t excite anyone who isn’t already interested in the subject but stays refreshingly and reliably on course for those who are.

 Pappy: The Life of John Ford, Dan Ford (1979)

This life of the great director was written by his grandson and published only a few years after Ford’s death. Recent times have brought forth longer, scholarly bios by critic/historians Scott Eyman and Joseph McBride. Although I’ve read plenty of Fordian criticism and scholarship, I haven’t read the major bios as yet (an oversight I hope to soon correct). But, however fine they are and however much fleshy detail they add to this bare-bones account, this is still an immensely valuable book for anyone even remotely interested in John Ford or, for that matter, the twentieth century movie business with which the director was even more intricately intertwined than I had imagined. Dan Ford is clear-eyed about his grandfather’s enormous strengths and weaknesses and offers a host of anecdotal detail exemplifying each.

Better than that, this account moves. Sometimes rapidly, sometimes langorously, catching a rhythm not unlike Ford’s own films. That’s a rare quality in any genre. Exceptionally so in biography, that most inherently disjointed form. It makes Ford’s life and work of a piece without straining for effect, reaching a visceral and emotional apex near the end with Dan Ford’s account of happening upon his then aging grandfather, drunk, depressed, long past making movies, collapsed on the floor of his beloved, creaking yacht (soon to be sold as a relic at fifteen cents on the dollar) and wrestling him to bed. As he left the room, the grandson, assuming the old man was dead to the world muttered some appreciative words about his grandfather’s genius and staggering legacy.

Ford immediately said: “I heard that.”

By then, the reader knows the man well enough to be surprised if he hadn’t.

This account is especially strong on Ford’s time in the OSS, which began frankly before there even was an OSS, lasted through World War II, and explains why Ford’s groundbreaking documentary film crew was ultimately connected to one major event after another: Pearl Harbor (aftermath), Midway, North Africa (highlighted by a hiliarious and finally moving account in which Ford’s crew turns a German prisoner they’ve captured over to a French officer and then–on Ford’s command–wrests him back when the Frenchman starts verbally and physically abusing him, finally turning him over to the Americans– a sequence that will surprise no one who has seen and grasped the better parts of The Prisoner of Shark Island, made in 1936 and, like a lot of Ford’s films, about the past and the future in equal measure) not to mention D-Day and Auschwitz, with side excursions into Burma and China.

Fascinating life and Dan Ford does full justice to it.

In the end, though, John Ford is a person of interest because of his art–his status as a world class filmmaker–and his grandson does well on that count, too. I didn’t agree with all his assessments of individual films, but Ford’s reputation wasn’t nearly as secure when the book was written as it is now (when it still isn’t entirely secure as no artist’s can be if his art has politics in it, not to mention art) and, even on this front, where it’s probably least valuable, the book is as good a starting point for a critical assessment as any.

Highly informative and just as enjoyable then–I hope the later bios live up to the same standard.

NOTE: I’m about to begin reviewing books for BroadwayWorld.com. I’ll post an announcement here when I submit my first review, which will be of Scott Berg’s 38 Nooses and should be up next week.

2 thoughts on “SEPTEMBER BOOK REPORT (9/13…Nazis, Research and Grandpa Ford)

  1. Hi John,
    Somehow I missed this post until now. I highly recommend Tag Gallagher’s biography. I don’t believe any quite “gets” Ford at his most artistic and emotional level as Tag does. It’s extremely in-depth and was at times out of my depth, but no one else has written quite like he has—he also does magnificent video essays on Ford’s films and other artists.

  2. I actually have read Tag’s book….But it’s such a unique animal I wasn’t sure I should call it a biography in the strict sense (Even though it contains copious amounts bio of course). I agree that his work is by far the most in-depth as far as Ford’s films go and his analysis is always fascinating. Even when I disagree with him he makes me think, which is the final test of any serious critic.

    And I do love his video essays. The one on the Criterion issue of Stagecoach is one that makes want to grab people and say “look, look at this!”

    Still working on my latest installment of The Searchers BTW…got it about two-thirds nailed and now I’m waiting for a final burst of inspiration (I think it was about one-third the last time I brought this up (lol)! Soon, I hope!…I’ll definitely keep you posted.

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