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‘The Plot Thickens’: TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz Goes Inside the Podcast Focusing on Legendary Director John Ford

In this exclusive interview, the TCM host shares just who John Ford was as a filmmaker and a person

Let’s face it, there are a lot of podcasts out there, but few in the entertainment world are as authoritative as TCM‘s The Plot Thickens. Hosted and overseen by Ben Mankiewicz, the face of the network, the latest season focuses on legendary director — and frequent John Wayne collaborator — John Ford.

Now there are a lot of people reading this who aren’t quite sure who Ford is, unless they heard his name at the end of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (2022), when aspiring director Sammy Fableman (Gabriel LaBelle, in essence playing Spielberg) gets a very short meeting with Ford. After being told about the importance of the horizon when filming, Sammy is invited to get the f out of his office. Hello and goodbye, John Ford. But could that be true with the mainstream audience as well?

“That’s not what Steven Spielberg wants to hear, but of course it’s true,” laughs Ben Mankiewicz in an exclusive interview. “I try and roll back the hyperbole on TCM about something being ‘the best’ as much as possible, and we still do it too much. But we made a conscious decision with The Plot Thickens to say that John Ford is the most influential filmmaker of the last hundred years. I don’t think there’s any question that that’s true, but unless you’re in that world, he’s just a filmmaker who died 50 years ago who made some great films.”

Born February 1, 1894 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Ford made his directorial debut on the 1917 silent film The Tornado and by 1920 had helmed 30 others, with the next decade adding 38 more to that list. Some of his subsequent — and most memorable — credits include Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln (both 1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), Mister Roberts (1955), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West Was Won (both 1962). There would be about 140 in all.

The Plot Thickens: Decoding John Ford is a seven-part podcast diving deep into the tough personality and complex legacy of cinema’s angriest auteur. “John Ford,” describes TCM, “was a bully and a drunk who ruled Hollywood for five decades, making dozens of seminal movies – though he was incredibly hard to pin down. His behavior swung wildly from loyalty to cruelty, without notice.

“He won more Oscars than any director in history, but never showed up to accept an award,” they continue. “And he rewrote American history, painting the country with images so beautiful that people wished they were real. From his clashes with Hollywood to the front lines of World War II, Ford’s story is brought to life through a treasure trove of newly-discovered interviews with film legends, including John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Ford himself. Ben Mankiewicz reveals Ford’s brilliance – alongside the often ugly, uncomfortable truths about his life and movies, asking whether we can ever truly separate art from the artist.”

Choosing John Ford: The Plot Thickens

Behind the scenes on 1956's The Searchers: The Plot Thickens
Behind the scenes on 1956’s The Searchers©WBDiscovery/courtesy

In the earliest days of the development of The Plot Thickens: Decoding John Ford, the focus was going to primarily be on the search for a film the director reportedly shot on D-Day (the subject of episode 4 and a future article here). But as things developed, the scope widened as research went on.

“In telling that story,” Mankiewicz details, “we unearthed all this audio from Ford and from Katharine Hepburn, Ford’s wife, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ben Johnson, Woody Strode, Maureen O’Hara and so many more that no one has heard commercially. And as we were going along, we were always wrestling with the character of John Ford, who he really was, how much of what he was, was a part of this myth making that was his calling card. That became the real story.”

And for Mankiewicz himself, there’s a question of what his personal perception of Ford had been entering the project and what sort of transformation it went through by the time it was finished.

“As hard as I try not to be, I’m a pretty gray area person,” he admits. “It was a strength when I was a reporter, but it could also be a weakness, because I sort of gave credence to people who were very clearly lying to me. But I’d be, like, ‘Well… maybe. Who knows?’ Sometimes you’ve got to recognize that there’s a bad guy in the story, but that being said, it’s a strength to nonetheless see subtlety. With John Ford, you’ve got a guy who died when I was six years old, and he’d been dead for 30 years exactly by the time I started at TCM, but he is considered to be the godfather of the myth of the American West. All of our perceptions of how we look at what the West was like, and the westward movement of the country in the 19th century — all of that is Ford.

Ben Mankiewicz: The Plot Thickens
Ben Mankiewicz attends the 49th AFI Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute celebrating Nicole Kidman at Dolby Theatre on April 27, 2024 in Hollywood, California Monica Schipper/WireImage

“And Ford, those who copied Ford, and those who learned from him give us the idea that the West was made by a bunch of tough guys like the characters John Wayne played, and it had to be done. That that was our American manifest destiny. I mean, we’ve told one half of 1% of the actual story, but that’s our belief and that’s the power of these films. That’s the propagandizing power of these films, even though I don’t think Ford thought of it that way. So knowing that and knowing that he was, in kindness, irascible, and at worst, if you’ll excuse me, an asshole and cruel to people, I think of him as just this sort of old school filmmaker with a great eye.”

Mankiewicz does feel that he has come to understand John Ford more than he had prior to The Plot Thickens, and he actually has a certain affection for the man. “Part of it was in learning to an even greater extent what his flaws were,” he says. “But the more you learn about the flaws, and even the more widespread the flaws were, how much the flaws that he had crept into all parts of his life, you just recognize the humanity in him. And this aching search for community, belonging, acceptance, figuring out his place and the obvious demons that he battled and the degree of self-loathing I think he must have had.”

And through it all — and despite evidence to the contrary — he believes that John Ford loved actors, pointing out that he himself has gotten to know a lot of actors and interviewed many of them over the years. “They’re incredibly interesting and fragile as a group,” he points out. “They’re also incredibly smart and funny and interesting and able to dissect and pull humanity out of moments. So John Ford loved hanging out with these people. I mean, he literally went out of his way to leave home and get away from Hollywood and go to these remote locations where it’s basically a six-week camping trip with these people.

“He created these communities where everybody’s talking and telling stories, and Henry Fonda’s playing the guitar and they’re playing cards. Then Ford would come over, and the whole nature of the thing would change. They were both afraid of him and respected him wildly. They were all desperate — from John Wayne to Henry Fonda on down to every member of the crew — to earn the respect of the Old Man. I mean, he is the father of that family and is in charge, and while you could play cards with him and drink with the boys, when it was a bigger community, he clearly had trouble fitting in, even though that, to me, is very much what he wanted. He just didn’t know how to do it.”

There are five more episodes to come in The Plot Thickens: Decoding John Ford, delving even deeper into the filmmaker’s life and career. Look for more from Ben Mankiewicz here as well.

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