This is the story of the world that director John Ford lived and worked in. It is important here to describe it in detail so to better grasp the nuances that defined his films and the lessons he was trying to impart. This world that he lived in as a young man made him the wizened auteur he later became.
In order to understand both THE SEARCHERS and TAXI DRIVER, one must have a firm grasp of the earlier film’s major antecedent, Ford’s 1939 STAGECOACH, and the ideology that informed it. THE SEARCHERS features in it shots, most notably a quick zoom in on John Wayne’s face, that directly mirrors the earlier film.
Ford scholars for years have seen these similarities as an effort to present the two films as bookends. STAGECOACH, made at the start of many careers, was an adventure filmed when there was peril but also hope in the world. THE SEARCHERS, as the denouement, is a haunting examination of the more difficult aspects of those careers. Much has been written previously in regard to the issue of race and racism in these films, most notably perhaps being Fantasies of the Master Race by Ward Churchill, The Margin as the Center: The Multicultural Dynamics of John Ford’s Westerns by Charles Ramírez Berg, and Linear Patterns and Ethnic Encounters in the Ford Western by Joan Dagle, among many others.
Yet except for a few references to STAGECOACH as a “Popular Front Western” in the academic literature, this author has yet to see material that has ever combined the insights of presidential history regarding Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Wallace’s attitude towards the American Communist Party, labor history about the Old Left, and film scholarship related to Ford. This warrants a further discussion particularly because of how so-called “red diaper babies”, the children of Old Leftists, would eventually grow up to become members of the New Left generation that is put under the microscope by Scorsese’s picture.
I contend that Ford was a Fellow Traveler of the Communist Party and that such ethos are on display prominently in his films made from approximately 1935-1945 and in the subtext of his post-1945 films. “During the years 1928-56 some of the most distinguished writers, philosophers, critics, scientists, and publicists of the West became communists or fellow-travellers [sic]” (The Fellow-Travellers 13). This trend had a profound impact on Ford’s work that seems quite obvious.
The notion of a Fellow Traveler was not unique to the Russian Revolution and the Communist Party. Its root is the Russian word paputchiki. “Basically, fellow-travelling [sic] involves a commitment at a distance which is not only geographical but also emotional and intellectual. It is remote-control radicalism…” (Ibid. 3).
American fellow traveler culture was slightly unique in comparison to European counterparts for a variety of reasons. Hollywood had been set up primarily as a west coast escape from the litigious oversight of film camera and projector inventor Thomas Edison’s patent enforcement agents, be they lawyers or hired thugs, meaning the existence of the film industry intentionally existed in an isolated place, removed from the mainstream media based in New York and Washington. It would take an extra decade, until the 1930’s and its economic woes were in full swing, for this to develop. Caute adds further nuance, describing them as a type of elite intellectual who was in favor of rationalism, modernism, and cosmopolitan virtues, “true sons and daughters of the Enlightenment” (The Fellow-Travellers 3). This meant that a Fellow Traveler community in Hollywood would only begin to take shape as the metropolis was built out of acres of orange groves.
As this community grew, with a huge migration of talent hailing from Eastern European Jewish enclaves with a substantial socialist heritage dating back to the Pale of Settlement, Russian events would impact the character of the California Communist Party and these non-member supporters. The ascent of Joseph Stalin played a significant role in altering opinion of the Soviet Union in the minds of many foreigners that became Fellow Travelers. Whereas the anarchic, utopian tone of Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution called for a never-ending series of Communist revolutions across the globe, Stalin’s claim to be building Socialism in One Country presented visions of a domesticated Communist Party that was focused on making the lives of the Soviet peoples better through construction of heavy industrial projects. Communism was making itself more palatable to Western liberals as Stalin moved towards a less radical philosophy. And quite quickly, as the 1929 stock market crash became a worldwide Great Depression, the land beyond the Ural Mountains with full employment, universal healthcare, and laws protecting union rights began to not just seem appealing in comparison, they began hiring. Workers from the West began to return from jobs in the USSR telling stories of a world without the depredations of the capitalist system.
John Ford would have heard stories like this over the years as he grew into a popular director in Hollywood.
To be continued…