Lexington Filmmaker Tom Thurman’s latest, John Ford Goes to War

Lexington Filmmaker Tom Thurman’s latest, John Ford Goes to War

John Ford Goes To War
Local Filmmaker Spotlights Hollywood
Legend’s Service During W.W.II
By Patrick Reed


It’s Mace Montana from Big Top Pee-Wee!

Lexington’s Tom Thurman has forged a successful career as a documentary filmmaker during the past decade. His ambitious first project, 1992’s Warren Oates: Across the Border, about the great Hollywood character actor and Kentucky native, generated positive buzz among the international film-buff community, and 1996’s Third Cowboy on the Right, about rodeo-rider-turned-Oscar-winner Ben Johnson, drew even more acclaim and contained some of the final interviews with the veteran Western actor before his death. These pictures led to several other notable documentaries from Thurman, the most prominent of which (’round these parts, at least) is Great Balls of Fire, a lengthy history of basketball in Kentucky (which is playing again on KET this week) that reaches far beyond the principal hoops passions (UK, Sweet Sixteen) to shine much-needed light on topics such as Kentucky State University’s championship 70s teams and women’s basketball around the state in general.

Thurman’s latest aptly airs on Pearl Harbor Day this weekend (Saturday, Dec. 7th, on the Starz-Encore True Stories cable network at 8pm). John Ford Goes To War covers the legendary director’s military service during World War II when he oversaw the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services and, along with his hard-partying crew (nicknamed “Ford’s Army”), churned out over 80 films in less than five years. Consisting of interviews with people who knew the director personally (Ford died in 1973) and commentary from an impressive roster of movie scholars (including Ford biographers Joseph McBride and Scott Eyman as well as Peter Bogdanovich, Andrew Sarris, Leonard Maltin, and F.X. Feeney), John Ford Goes To War examines one of our most revered filmmakers during an important period in his life, and also touches on some insightful points about how powerful the art of cinema can be in influencing public opinion.

Already established as a Hollywood heavyweight (he began directing movies during the silent era), Ford’s decision to join the Navy was even more astounding when you consider the career he left behind: Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley were all relased between 1939 and ’41. Nevertheless, at age 46 Ford joined Frank Capra and other directors in the war effort, and his O.S.S. assignment led to such diverse efforts as the instructional reeler Sex Hygiene and a documentary about the Nuremburg trials entitled That Justice Be Done (which included horrifying footage from the recently-liberated Nazi concentration camps). In addition, Ford’s biggest successes, the Oscar-winning December 7th and The Battle of Midway, are extensively analyzed in John Ford Goes To War (and both will air in their entirety after the documentary on Saturday).

Ford’s career-long penchant for manipulating audience sentiment was perfect for propaganda, and several voices-including the “anti-Ford” himself, Oliver Stone-point out the dangers in such an approach. The critics have a point: viewed today, the largely “re-created” December 7th is inane pro-America bombast, and even the stunning verité footage of The Battle of Midway is marred by corny voice-overs from The Grapes of Wrath’s Tom and Ma Joad (Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell). Still, historical context is important, and Thurman capably merges interviews with visuals to stress just how effective Ford’s messages were in rousing the patriotic fervor of a nation under attack. (If John Ford were alive to produce a post-9/11 propaganda film we might very well be partitioning the entire Arabian peninsula into U.S. territories right about now.) Overall, John Ford Goes To War illustrates how Ford’s military output wasn’t a career interruption at all, but an important extension of the director’s mythic interpretation of American life, and this documentary’s mixture of anecdote, opinion, and history lesson should appeal to movie fans and W.W.II aficionados alike.