Biographies and critiques of the work of John Ford and John Wayne abound to be perfectly frank. As such, any new volume on these men needs to offer some different spin on familiar material, another perspective if you like. Scott Nollen’s new book – Three Bad Men:John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond – does so by examining the lives and careers of not only Ford and Wayne but Bond too. It’s quite common to see works which examine the complex relationship that Ford and Wayne had but Bond tends to be given lower billing. While Nollen makes it clear that Ford was without doubt the prime mover, he also focuses on the significant role Bond played in the old director’s life and that of Wayne. In short, the book establishes just how inextricably these three men were linked on both a personal and professional level.
There is some background sketching relating to the early years of these men’s lives, but the bulk of the text concentrates on the Hollywood years, and particularly those when Ford, Wayne and Bond were friends and colleagues. Although they all had radically different personalities, this trio remained fast friends and their affection for one another is never in doubt. Ford looked on Wayne and Bond as surrogate sons as much as friends and co-workers, treating then with all the indulgence, frustration, cussedness and meanness that he was renowned for. Ford was a deeply complex man, an impenetrable enigma in many respects. What comes across clearly is the struggle that seems to have characterized his life – with the studios, producers, performers, and most of all with himself. The contradictory nature of the man is there for all to see in his erratic behaviour, but more than anything in the beautiful images he created and captured on the screen. His difficulty in articulating his sensitive side, burying it beneath a gruff and often abusive exterior, melted away when he got behind the camera.
Of the two actors, Ward Bond comes across as the more straightforward character, although not always in an especially pleasant way. A great bull of a man, Bond was dedicated to living life to the full, whatever the cost to himself or others. Nollen nails the ebullience, the spirit of the man, and paints a picture of a talented individual who was larger than life. Bond’s persona has probably overshadowed his screen work, and Nollen tries to balance that somewhat by drawing attention to his abilities as an actor. However, the book is neither a demolition job nor an attempt to airbrush the less savory aspects. This is very much a warts and all examination of the three men where none of the controversial or distasteful parts are disguised. The result is an honest account of three real people, highlighting their flaws, their virtues and ultimately their humanity.
The book is organized chronologically and follows the interwoven lives of the three protagonists. Both their screen work and their personal lives comes under scrutiny with all their major works being analyzed. Those films where all three collaborated (They Were Expendable, The Quiet Man, The Searchers etc) are examined in detail as is the work they did independently. One notable feature is how much of the book is given over to looking at the work of Bond. There’s a fairly substantial section on his time heading up the cast of Wagon Train on television, and a welcome appreciation of some of his finest film roles, such as his strong showing as John L Sullivan in Gentleman Jim. Of course all of this is juxtaposed with an honest, and far from complimentary, appraisal of his involvement in the shameful HUAC episode. None of the trio emerge with a great deal of credit from that particular period, least of all Bond. Once again though, it serves to highlight the contrary unpredictability of Ford.
In his preface, Nollen makes it clear that he doesn’t intend for this book to be seen as a definitive account of the lives of Ford, Wayne and Bond. Instead it’s a look at how their paths crossed and how each was instrumental in influencing the careers and thoughts of the others. There’s a good introduction by Michael A Hoey (son of character actor Dennis Hoey) and detailed appendices and filmographies of the three men. Nollen’s research is meticulous and scholarly yet the writing style remains highly readable throughout, never becoming dry or tiresomely academic. There are plenty of personal reminiscences by those who worked with the three principals and the book is beautifully illustrated with a thoughtful and interesting selection of photographs. Overall, Three Bad Men makes for a worthwhile, informative and entertaining addition to the existing canon of work on these men.
Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond by Scott Allen Nollen, foreword by Michael A Hoey
398 pages Published 2013 by McFarland & Company, Inc – ISBN 978-0-7864-5854-7