Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book Review: Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond

Over the past month I've had the pleasure of reading the new film history THREE BAD MEN: JOHN FORD, JOHN WAYNE, WARD BOND. This book by Scott Allen Nollen is an engaging and informative look at the intersecting lives and careers of three closely linked movie greats.

A quick glance at my bookshelves leads me to guess that more film books have been written on John Ford than any other director. Nollen thus had an enormous amount of previous history to wade through, and in THREE BAD MEN he does an excellent job synthesizing his considerable original research -- which is particularly informative on Ward Bond -- with information gleaned from previously published histories such as Dobe Carey's important record COMPANY OF HEROES. In addition to his primary source research on Ward Bond, Nollen interviewed or corresponded with Ford actors such as Anna Lee and Henry Brandon.

Given my love for Bond -- who I listed along with Wayne as one of my 20 Favorite Actors a few years ago -- THREE BAD MEN is particularly valuable for its chronicle of the evolution of Bond's career, as well as providing insights into his personal life.

I especially enjoyed the quotes from letters Bond wrote to his parents early in his film career, when he was juggling work in "pictures" with his studies and football at the University of Southern California. (The wealth of quotes from correspondence in the book caused me to wonder about the history we are losing due to the disappearance of the letter!) Following Bond's journey through countless bit parts and character roles to become a highly respected acting professional, as well as understanding how the Ford/Wayne films fit in the context of his career, is one of the book's biggest pleasures.

Nollen simultaneously juggles the history of Wayne and Ford's lives and careers, and for the most part he does this successfully, though occasionally I found myself having a bit of trouble following the timeline as it jumped forward and backward and between the three men. For instance, a quote by Bill Clinton on Wayne might have been better left to a closing chapter, as it seems dropped out of nowhere in an early chapter on Wayne's evolving career and the film persona he created.

Along these lines, I think the sprawling story could have been tightened up if the author had let the facts speak for themselves and steered away from framing topics such as politics from his own point of view, instead allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. The facts in Nollen's exhaustively researched volume stand on their own as immensely interesting reading and important film history.

The three men profiled in the book were, like everyone else, flawed human beings, leading Nollen to reuse one of Ford's movie titles as the title of his book. Indeed, it's a miracle Ford's liver, in particular, survived as long as it did. At the same time, of course, these were fascinating men of genius and immense talent, who understandably led the author to devote years to research and writing, with the end result being a most valuable volume which presents rounded portraits of its subjects.

There are many great stories recounted in the book; my already considerable estimation of Robert Montgomery grew when I learned that during the making of THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945) he refused to put up with Ford's usual insulting of Wayne, walking over and telling Ford "Don't you ever speak like that to anyone again." Ford teared up and backed down -- and promoted Montgomery to serve as director when he was hospitalized. It makes one wonder what might have happened if more cast and crew members hadn't enabled Ford's legendary obnoxious behavior, but such was the price many were willing to pay to appear in Ford's films.

As an aside, I was glad that Nollen appreciated one of my favorite relatively little-known Westerns, A MAN ALONE (1955), in which Bond had a major role. Nollen praises actor-director Ray Milland in his brief comments, and the book includes a fantastic photo of the movie's cast and crew which I'd never seen before.

Since I'm someone who revels in details, I really appreciated the book's appendixes, including a listing of all Ford's films with either Wayne or Bond, and another list of all Bond's film and TV credits. I especially appreciated the inclusion of production dates.

This softcover book is 398 pages including all of the appendixes and the index. It contains numerous well-reproduced photographs.

THREE BAD MEN is available from the website of the publisher, McFarland, or at their phone order line (800-253-2187).

Additional sellers include Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Amazon also sells THREE BAD MEN in a Kindle edition.

For additional reviews of this book from two experts on Western films, please visit Toby at 50 Westerns From the 50s and Colin at Riding the High Country.

THREE BAD MEN is a "must" addition to the library for anyone interested in Ford, Wayne, and Bond. My thanks to Scott Nollen and McFarland for providing a review copy of this very enjoyable and interesting book.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Laura, left a nice comment and then lost it when signing in at the bottom.

Thanks very much for taking the time to read Three Bad Men and for writing such a fine review.

I will be posting the link in quite a few place, so be prepared for comments, LOL. Thanks again, Laura, Keith

3:25 PM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Thanks for the detailed review. I've been interested in this book especially for the info on Bond. I always hear interesting anecdotes about Bond in other biography's but have never seen a biography on Bond himself.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Great review! I'm not particularly interested in either of the people profiled in the book but would read it just to learn about them and perhaps pique my interest.

I worry about the demise of letter writing too. I doubt we'll be able to preserve and refer back to the history of email correspondence like we could letters. It's a shame because there is such a wealth of information (and insights) that was passed between people through letters! :-)

3:50 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for the feedback!

Keith, I'm sorry you've had trouble leaving a comment yesterday and hope Blogger is behaving itself today! I appreciate you spreading the word about my review very much.

Robby, if you're a Bond fan I think you'll really like this book, it was great to have him be a focus of the book instead of just a "supporting character."

I hope you have the chance to try the book one day, Raquel. The Ford Westerns are very special for me, and it would be wonderful if reading more on the topic helped develop your interest in trying some out. Thanks for reading the review!

Best wishes,

5:18 PM  

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