Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
John Ford Goes to War is a cable movie for filmgoers who are already aware of director John Ford's career. Co-produced by one of the better Ford biographers, it relies heavily on excellent interviews with top film critics. At just under an hour it seems a bit long, yet it whets our appetite to see Ford's original wartime docus full-length. The narrator is Kris Kristofferson.
The show is basically a straight narrative that tells the Ford story before the war in just enough detail to establish him as a film director at a career height. Already in the Navy Reserves from 1934, Ford kept his own yacht as a weekend party boat - a floating bar for buddies like John Wayne and Ward Bond. We're told that he performed 'secret missions' for Navy intelligence in the pre-war years, but it sounds like most of the research was alcoholic in nature.
Ford's close relationship with Intelligence officer Bill Donovan gave him his opportunity to become the head of a film unit for a special agency that was to become the O.S.S. (later the C.I.A.). In that capacity he filmed or supervised a number of wartime documentaries, including a couple of the most famous, The Battle of Midway and December 7th. He stayed away from home literally for three and a half years, filming in the Pacific, Burma, India and at Normandy.
The docu splits its time between painting a portrait of Ford as a domineering film director and explaining what his wartime movies were about. Ford was literally in the Battle of Midway and the roughness of some of the footage in that color film adds to the feeling of authenticity. Ford pitched The Battle of Midway to play to American mothers, adding voiceovers by Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda of The Grapes of Wrath to make it seem more 'homey.' He also included a shot of a Roosevelt family member who fought in the battle - the critics tell us that when the President saw that scene, he changed his mind and ordered the film to be widely distributed. For Torpedo Squadron 8 Ford shows the smiling faces of the crews from the doomed Squadron - the entire force was shot down before it could reach its target and many of the men died.
Some of the critics discuss Ford's body of work as being dedicated to failure and loss, and some of the other docus have grim subject matter that ties in with the theory. Manuel Quezon: In Memoriam is literally about a funeral.
What we don't hear enough about are the strategic purposes behind some of these films, all of which were to some degree meant to be propaganda. Preview of Assam is just about conditions in a province of India. But the show also includes films with an obvious message, like Ford's now-outrageous training film Sex Hygiene, a picture made for the Army before Pearl Harbor. That's the notorious short subject that has an actor portraying an Army doctor tell the soldiers, "Most men know less about their bodies than they do about automobiles," while staring at the camera in disapproval of what are assumed to be men thinking about "gratifying their sexual urges." Peter Bogdanovich tells us that Ford only remembered the film as being so disgusting that he wanted to throw up. 1
The other film heavily covered is December the 7th, a confused 40 minute docu that Ford cut down from a 90 minute first attempt by cameraman-turned director Gregg Toland. Walter Huston plays an Uncle Sam figure, debating Pearl Harbor issues with "Mr C." (Harry Davenport). As in a docudrama, the Pearl Harbor attack is mostly shown in faked special effects footage, with staged scenes of men fighting and dying. Most audiences took the simulations as real, and many shots found their way into later docus as 'authentic' footage, most obviously in Victory at Sea. As the concept of a docudrama hadn't yet been formulated, the assembled critics express disapproval of the film and say that Ford thought it was a failure as well. I remember TCM showing the original uncut Toland version of the film, so both must have been preserved.
Probably the biggest disappointment in John Ford Goes to War is not being able to see the uncut docus. The clips are very intriguing - we hear Dana Andrews' voice as the 'voice of the dead' as we are shown the mothers and fathers of soldiers and sailors killed in action. Besides the films above, the docu offers intriguing clips from others unavailable for screening. That Justice Be Done is an overview of the war crimes trial procedure in Europe. Clips are shown from an unidentified Navy film about Normandy on D-Day - perhaps they represent the work of Ford's cameramen. One of them, George Hjorth, is included as an interviewee.
Peter Bogdanovich comes off as the great statesman of film history, while Richard Schickel and Andrew Sarris strike a less formal note. Co-producer Joseph McBride is eloquent and there is good input from writer Scott Eyeman, F.X. Feeney (he gets the chore of explaining Sex Hygiene), Ford grandson Dan Ford, and the late Gavin Lambert. Journalist Bob Thomas was actively writing in Ford's heyday and lends gravity to the commentary, and Oliver Stone is included expressing strong feelings against the Ford version of history, as well as his ideas of patriotism ... briefly. John Ford Goes to War is as authoritative a look at the director that one can get - this is an unimpeachable group of critics.
Image presents the Starz! Encore TV channel's DVD of John Ford Goes to War in a fine encoding. The handsomely shot interviews share time with film clips and simple title work. Some stills seem to have been squashed out or squeezed in to better fit the format, a choice that will make anybody who works with graphics anxious although most viewers won't notice. There are plenty of stills of Ford and home movies from his boat and his appearances in uniform at Memorial Day services. Oddly, the show makes no mention of his final film, which was a docu about a sailor serving in Vietnam. Ford was probably prouder of his service as a Navy man than he was as a celebrated film director.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
John Ford Goes to War rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 23, 2005
1. UCLA had a perfect print of Sex Hygiene when Savant saw it in 1974 or so. It's amazing. The Army surgeon lectures both us and a group of soldiers watching the movie, and is the stern-faced disapproving father figure of all time. He makes it abundantly clear that a soldier making himself unfit for duty for any reason - including his 'sexual urges' - is nothing less than a traitor.
We see a dramatized epsiode showing some soldiers hanging around a base rec room; one of them is George Reeves of TV's Superman. A soldier announces that he's got better fish to fry off base, and we dissolve to him parking a cigar on the bannister of a "house of ill repute", right below a statue of a naked woman. The cigar burns down a bit to indicate the passage of time, and the soldier recovers it. Back at the base, we see him shaking hands with another soldier - spreading what ever STD he's picked up to an innocent man. (soon to be accused of treason?)
Back with the Army surgeon again. He brings in a scrawny-looking soldier who has contracted something horrible in his throat and has been ordered to function as a bad example. "Open your mouth, soldier" the surgeon commands, and sticks in a huge tongue depressor. We cut to an insert of what is obviously another man, to see horrible sores all over the inside of his mouth. "What do you have to say for yourself?" In a raspy voice the soldier (or actor playing a soldier) croaks out "I just hope my story will keep some other guy from contracting this lousy disease!" One can't help but laugh. The show makes sex seem venal, disgusting and unpatriotic! Return
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson