Oct 19, 2017

Book Review--The Legendary Partnership of Wayne and Ford

Wayne and Ford: The Films, The Friendship and The Forging of an American Hero
Nancy Schoenberger
Doubleday Books/Nan A. Talese, 2017

John Wayne and John Ford are legends of American cinema. Both together and apart they made some of the most magnetic films Hollywood had to offer, but it is unlikely they would have reached the heights they did if they hadn't found each other. In a new book Nancy Shoenberger explores the life, work and relationship of these complex, influential men, focusing attention on the way they interpreted and communicated masculinity.

I was drawn to Wayne and Ford because I liked the way Schoenberger handled dual biography in her 2011 tome Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. Here she tackles a less tumultuous, but similarly layered relationship. There's less heat, but plenty of intrigue.

Of the 200 films Wayne made in his long career, only 69 would be westerns, but they were his most significant roles, and mostly due to his work with Ford. Likewise, the director, who even somewhat ironically referred to himself as a maker of westerns approached many genres successfully, but found his greatest success making fantasies of masculinity and honor in the Monument Valley with his greatest star.

Wayne and Ford charts the simultaneously abusive and familial nature of their relationship. Though Ford inspired loyalty in his actors, who felt he gave them the artistic success they craved, he was a harsh and sadistic taskmaster. The director saved the worst of his abuse for Wayne, who always took it without complaint, even when he reached the heights of his success. Nevertheless, their bond was lifelong and both could depend on each other for help throughout their careers, whether or not it was requested.

Schoenberger looks for insight into this unusual relationship by digging into their personal lives and films. As both men often had great control over the way their movies were made, they were often a reflection of who they were. Despite the differences in their personalities and relationships, in their cinematic explorations of love, duty and what it is to be a man, the two are found to have similar values.

While there was not much that was new to me here, having read individual biographies of Wayne and Ford, being able to focus on their bond and films helped me to better understand the influence they had on each other and their public. In Wayne, Ford saw much that he wanted to be, and in a way he resented his manly physicality. The actor may not have understood this, but he was always aware that the director had essentially made his career after a decade of making cowboy flicks for kids and it is possible he never thought to think past that reality.

In the end, John Ford and John Wayne are only two humans, who lived their lives and passed on, and yet it is endlessly compelling to speculate about these complex men. Wayne and Ford is to be relished because it takes great care and enjoyment in that pursuit.

Many thanks to Doubleday Books/Nan A. Talese for providing a copy of the book for review.

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