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

by Scott Allen Nollen

Three Bad Men

As big a fan of these three men as I am, there is a level of revisionist history that is impossible for me to accept.

I had to stop reading the book. At least for a while. It’s a temporary interruption I’m sure, but I needed to back off from Three Bad Men. I need to take a few deep breaths and calm down before continuing.

This book chronicles the lives and friendships of John Ford, John Wayne and Ward Bond. Two great actors and one extraordinary director. It’s an interesting read. I have been reading, as is my habit, slowly, savoring. I was enjoying it.

Until I got to the section in which the author claims Ford used Stepin Fetchit and other minorities to “slyly mock America’s racism”.

That’s absolutely untrue.

What I see — and have always seen — is the perpetuation of racism by Pappy. As much as I love John Ford’s westerns, there’s no escaping the racism in his films.

They were still calling Woody Strode “boy” as late as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Even considering his belated attempt to make reparations with Cheyenne Autumn, it was much too little, way too late.

I’ll get back to the book in a while, when I have calmed down a bit. Right now, I’m sorry. I simply can’t continue reading it.

Categories: American history, Book Review, Books, film, History, Movies, Racism and Bigotry

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

24 replies

  1. Ford’s racism has been greatly overemphasized. There’s problems throughout, but the way his films evolved is apparent, especially when one looks at Fort Apache, The Searchers, and especially, especially Sergeant Rutledge. Pair that with how Ford acted in reality – always assuring proper wages for his PoC crew and cast members – creates a much more grey image than we’d like to make. Woody Strode was with Ford till the end of his life, too.

    Wayne and Bond have less on their side to help them out, I admit. But Ford’s work and life paints a portrait far more progressive than we like to admit, especially when we remember how much control directors actually did have.

    I cannot comment on the book at hand, of course, but examining John Ford’s career and life in terms of race is far, far more difficult than simply noting that in a late film “boy” is used towards a black man – a term that would’ve been used in the time and place. That was post-Rutledge, too, which makes the situation far more complicated than anyone can say.


    • Noah, Ford WAS a very complex man. The post was written last year when I had just started THREE BAD MEN. I gained more insight into Ford, Wayne and Bond by the time I finished the book. It’s a wonderful read! I still have problems with the way minorities were portrayed but that’s the way it was in Hollywood and real life. I would’ve loved to have met Pappy. I did meet the Duke during my career as a TV news reporter. It was, perhaps, the most memorable day for me as a movie maven. Appreciate your comments.


      • Oh, apologies. I didn’t see any timestamp, and it appeared recently in a tumblr tag, so I assumed it was written recently.

        This is just a sore spot for me, honestly, because so many people attack Ford for the black and white of the issue, and I myself wrote a thesis on how Ford’s films mirror the socio-politic climate of the United States. I think it’s very telling that as the culture around Ford moved forward, he did too – and in some cases, he was avant-garde with it.

        I do note, however, that Wayne was not as progressive through life, especially if you look at some of his comments made in the 70s. There’s very little on Bond, comparatively, but from what I’ve read, he was a very backwards man in terms of social equality – especially for women.


  2. It’s scary to think that we Boomers grew up with a skewed perspective perpetuated by books, films and WASPs (including some of my relatives). Fortunately, many of us recognized, even then, the hypocrisy of it all. I remember riding a city bus with my grandmother at the tender age of four or five and wondering why so many adults (including some relatives) spoke unkindly of any non-white, non-English speaking people, but sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” with us on Sunday mornings. It may be hard to believe a young child would be affected by this disconsonance, but I’m living proof that kids are intuitive. Thanks for sharing, Garry.


  3. Don’t look for the book to get much better. I thought it was terrible. As much as I like “Liberty Valance”, the interactions with Pompey bother me. I hate the end when Stoddard gives him “poke chop” money. The other day, I was explaining to my wife the racism in old Disney movies, but that is another story for another day.


    • I actually can’t watch any of those old Disney films anymore. From the Indians in Peter Pan to the crows in Dumbo … I just can’t. Garry has a lot more tolerance for this stuff than I do. Which is weird, but he accepts that it’s there and deals with it somehow. I can’t. It overwhelms me.


    • I forgot the “poke chop” money. Still bugs me, Rick, evry time.


      • I read that Ford asked Stewart what he thought about Strode’s costume in the funeral scene. Stewart said it looked “Uncle Remusy.” Then, Ford announced to the cast and crew that Stewart was racist and called Strode Uncle Remus.

        That sounds like one of Ford’s cruel jokes, but I wonder what Strode thought about it.


        • I don’t know that Strode ever wrote anything in the way of a bio, not at least that Garry knows of and he usually knows. Ford was given to cruelty on a lot of levels. He gets forgiven a lot because he was a genius but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also an asshole.


  4. I’ve long since finished the book and owe the author a review. I must confess I enjoyed Scott Nollen’s due diligence and learned things I didn’t know before in my years as a movie maven.


  5. Yikes. I haven’t read the book, but if it’s called Three Bad Men, why go out of the way to whitewash that part of their legacy?


  6. The irony of us NOW is how we don’t seem to remember that the reason we fought racism (fight?) is because it was so pervasive and often unconscious (so all that “consciousness raising”).


    • Yes, consciousness raising. Most of the worst racism I’ve encountered is from people who are sure they aren’t racists. They don’t understand what they are saying, the implications of the words they use.


      • I taught a Korean student years ago who insisted there was no racism in Korea because they were all one race. I thought, “Sweetie, you just DEFINED racism and you don’t even know it.”


        • People often don’t realize how much racism they carry and express by the way the say things, by their assumptions. They are also the hardest people to make aware because they totally deny that that ARE racists. Some of their best friends, you know?


          • It’s really complicated (duh!) a few years ago I was teaching Brave New World in a critical thinking class at a community college where I taught part-time. One of my students was an African/American woman about 30 who had grown up with a very strong anti-white attitude and the belief that white people categorically hated black people. She didn’t have a chip on her shoulder; she had a plank. The novel was very difficult for her and she disrupted class almost daily railing at me for being “Whitey”. There was almost a fist-fight in class between her and another African/American woman who was trying to learn what I was teaching. The first woman went to the Educational Opportunity Program office and filed a complaint against me for racism because I was teaching a book that “…only white people could relate to.”

            She was also a tutor for EOPS and let all the black students know that they should NOT take my classes because I was a racist. The next semester I had a Nigerian woman in my class. She was about 35, amazing. I was teaching the same class and I had not yet backed away from teaching Brave New World. At the end of the semester she told me how this other woman, in an EOPS tutoring session, had warned her about me. I asked her what she thought and she said, “No. Lots of the people here don’t expect to have to work hard to learn something.”

            Two years passed. I was sitting on the patio outside my office at the university where I was teaching full-time. The first African/American girl had transferred (I didn’t know this). She saw me and came running over to me and said, “I am so sorry. Now I know you were just trying to prepare us for what we would find here.” I thought I would cry.

            Race is, to me, one of the dumbest and most utterly superficial demarcations between people. It’s a sign of the general stupidity of human beings that they (we?) can’t see past it, past our “conditioning” and our expectations to the person, and I wonder how is it we haven’t learned that the best approach is always one of respect and compassion for every human. Anyway, that this problem has NOT really gotten better or easier to deal with in the classroom is another reason I’m glad I’ve retired.


            • The world isn’t getting better, more compassionate, or smarter. I’m very glad to be only a minor player in a peripheral role at this point. I am so disappointed in what we have become as a world and as a nation. We were so optimistic, so hopeful, so sure we would make things better. How wrong we were.


              • I don’t think we could have known (I sure didn’t) how many stupid people there are in the world. I really thought everyone was going to be like the people who taught me and who were my friends in high school.

                I had NO IDEA who those people were until I went to my 40th reunion (I had only been to my 10th) and there they were, very happy to see me, and we wandered around the school — then a GREAT school, now a marginal school. We were an exceptional class involved in an experiment called “modular scheduling” in which our classes didn’t meet every day and we had open time between — like college. Our class was one of the two best classes in the history of that entire district. I did not know we were special. I imagined the whole world out there was like that and we were all working toward some great and wonderful thing. At one point during the school tour during my reunion, I just stood in the cafeteria and wept at all the dreams, and the people, and us as young people, and how little I had understood of reality. The little granddaughters of one of my friends came running over to me (I didn’t know them) and wrapped their arms around my legs and pretty soon the whole group of classmates was wrapped around me. I can’t explain it but it was tremendously moving and healing.

                Later on, I made the conscious choice to teach others because I believe (still) that whole thing — “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.” I had been given so much and it didn’t take many forays out into the world for me to see how many people had so little. I honestly believed everyone else was doing the same thing. Anyway, I’m OK with hanging up my gloves and leaving the ring. It was never meant to be a fight, anyway, And maybe the good we did is more than we know and time will show it for what it is.



  1. Reading, Writing But No Arithmetic | Surrounded By Imbeciles

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