From this point we have a better understanding of the politics of Ford’s acclaimed STAGECOACH, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, and THE GRAPES OF WRATH. For example, GRAPES features as a recurring theme Red River Valley, a popular folk tune from Canada that served as the melody for a song called Cookhouse that was recorded on a famous fundraiser album produced on behalf of the Spanish Republic and featuring a young Pete Seeger. YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, released in 1939, was produced at a time when the Communist Party USA was printing materials that said “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th century” and featuring Washington and Lincoln as opposed to Marx and Lenin on their banners.
Browder published in 1938 a pamphlet titled A Message to Catholics, a point that would have greatly appealed to an Irish Catholic director whose faith shaped his own trajectory as an artist. It is also worthwhile here to recall this point made by Stalin in his 1924 Foundations of Leninism:
The unquestionably revolutionary character of the vast majority of national movements is as relative and peculiar as is the possible revolutionary character of certain particular national movements. The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism… For the same reasons, the struggle that the Egyptians merchants and bourgeois intellectuals are waging for the independence of Egypt is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the bourgeois origin and bourgeois title of the leaders of Egyptian national movement, despite the fact that they are opposed to socialism; whereas the struggle that the British “Labour” Government is waging to preserve Egypt’s dependent position is for the same reason a reactionary struggle, despite the proletarian origin and the proletarian title of the members of the government, despite the fact that they are “for” socialism. There is no need to mention the national movement in other, larger, colonial and dependent countries, such as India and China, every step of which along the road to liberation, even if it runs counter to the demands of formal democracy, is a steam-hammer blow at imperialism, i.e., is undoubtedly a revolutionary step (Stalin).
Those words, with little modification, could also be used to describe the anti-colonial character of the Irish Catholic Church. As such, Ford would have found a great amount of comfort within Communist Party USA circles as a Fellow Traveler. It is possible that he would have even used such Marxist-Leninist logic about anti-imperial struggle to shape his representation of American Indians.
The point of all this is not to invalidate the critiques of Ford’s racial politics as much to contextualize them as symptomatic of a certain shortcoming of Popular Front racial politics. The Communist Party was rife with flaws that allowed for its later demise. For instance, its inability to be totally independent of Moscow did create awkward moments where many members would leave in bewilderment or disgust, such as in the case of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or following the revelations of Khrushchev’s so-called Secret Speech detailing the Stalin cult of personality. The way that the Communist press organs, such as the Daily Worker, were tied to the Party and its changing lines on various issues created a good amount of what Liberals would later call hypocrisy.
We must properly understand the shortcomings of a film like STAGECOACH in terms of the shortcomings of the Old Left with regards to American Indians, women, and minorities. Despite his flaws on these issues, Ford remained apparently a closeted Popular Front “socialistic democrat”, telling a British interviewer in 1968 “my sympathies lie with the Indians” and equating the morality of the Europeans in his films with the behavior of the Black and Tans he encountered during his sojourn to Ireland (MY NAME IS JOHN FORD: I MAKE MOVIES).
We should also at this point create a more firm definition of the political line of the Communist Party USA during World War II, later pejoratively called “Browderism”, and what it envisioned for a postwar American political landscape. Towards the end of the war, prior to the death of Roosevelt, Earl Browder dissolved the Communist Party as an electoral organization and replaced it with the Communist Political Association. This group was intended to serve as a Left caucus offering critical support for candidacies within the American two party system, similar to the stance taken by today’s Democratic Socialists of America. Henry Wallace, the second Vice President under Roosevelt, was quite open to working with Communists and other elements of the Old Left, a stance which would later come back to haunt him during the early days of the Red Scare initiated by President Truman. The degree of Wallace’s conciliatory tone regarding Stalin is best exemplified by his 1942 The Four Duties Pursuant to the Four Freedoms:
Russia…was changed from an illiterate to a literate nation within one generation and, in the process, Russia’s appreciation of freedom was enormously enhanced… The march of freedom of the past one hundred and fifty years has been a long-drawn-out people’s revolution. In this Great Revolution of the people, there were the American Revolution of 1775, The French Revolution of 1792, The Latin-American revolutions of the Bolivarian era, The German Revolution of 1848, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Each spoke for the common man in terms of blood on the battlefield. Some went to excess. But the significant thing is that the people groped their way to the light. More of them learned to think and work together (Wallace).
Ben Saltzman, a former member, exclaimed:
Do you know how strong we were in 1946? We had the country in the palm of our hands! We could have taken over. Yes! We could have taken over. Only we didn’t know it… Those May Day parades. Thousands marched! We were thousands! We could have had the country (Gornick 38).
In an interview by Anders Stephanson of Gil Green, longtime American Communist Party official, he defines the contours of the repudiation by Moscow of Browder’s policies.
It was delivered in the form of an article written by French Party member Jacques Duclos for the periodical Les Cahiers du communisme, a document known to history as the ‘Duclos letter’:
AS: But in 1945 Browder went out as a result of Duclos’s attack on his coalition line.
GG: I was terribly shocked by the article. But in my naiveté and innocence, I was shocked because I was supposed to have been involved in what was a betrayal of Marxism. This was undoubtedly coming from Moscow, and had greater significance than an article by some leader of the French party who suddenly attacks the line of the American party without even letting us know his views beforehand. According to the Italians, later on, there is evidence that it was not aimed so much at Browder and the party here as at the Italian and French parties. The fear was that, with their underground fighting against the Nazis, they would emerge with tremendous prestige and be able to take an independent course. And while the blow was struck against us here, it wasn’t necessarily concerned with us alone (Green and Stephanson 311).
One of the more notable instances of Ford showing this side of his personality was his constant opposition to anti-Communists in Hollywood during the Cold War years. In one instance he famously rebuked Cecil B. De Mille’s 1950 witch hunting of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and other alleged Communists in the Director’s Guild of America. In another, he was always caustic towards Ward Bond and John Wayne’s anti-Communist actions, though some of this attitude can also be informed by the fact Ford was an alcoholic prone to bouts of rage.
This attitude can also be seen on screen. FORT APACHE, released in 1948, can be easily read as not so much an analogy to Custer’s Last Stand as the beginning of the Cold War. At the close of the film, Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (played by Henry Fonda) rebukes and insults Cochise, who has offered to be otherwise peaceful with the cavalry. This is quite like the belligerent tack to the right President Truman took with regards to the Soviet Union soon after taking office, culminating in the outbreak of the Greek, Korean, and Vietnamese civil wars. FORT APACHE ends with John Wayne’s character exhibiting barely-concealed contempt of men who shower praise on the legendary Owen Thursday and his “Last Stand”.
Berg, Churchill, and Dagle are quite correct in their critique, from a current day vantage point, of Ford’s rather problematic racial politics and trafficking in typical Noble Savage stereotypes of American Indians. Peter Bogdanovich, whose father’s May 1939 arrival in America from Yugoslavia occurred as the fascist Ustaše were gaining popularity and just after Mussolini’s Italy had invaded Albania, said in his documentary on Ford:
A lot of people have said that Ford agrees with the point “Print the legend” [at the end of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE]. But in fact that isn’t the point at all because Ford has just told you the truth in two films, vividly showing that Henry Fonda was desperately wrong [in FORT APACHE] and that Jimmy Stewart didn’t kill Liberty Valance. So he’s printed the truth, not the legend. And that’s the point of the films, irony, that history is never necessarily correct (DIRECTED BY JOHN FORD).
This irony that Ford is using extends to the white supremacist element of history, imperfect and problematic but still present.