It’s well documented in many biographies that John Ford was a great filmmaker who was as caustic and cantankerous as he was brilliant. And there’s no shortage of life histories detailing John Wayne’s mythic status as he-man, movie star and staunch political conservative.
What’s not so well known is the important part that character actor Ward Bond played in those two men’s relationship, and Bond’s never-before-told biography is the best thing to emerge from “Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne and Ward Bond” (McFarland, $49.95), film writer Scott Nollen’s tough and entertaining bromance about three very contradictory movie musketeers.
Ford directed Wayne and Bond in nearly 30 pictures each, and over the course of their lives the three formed a fast friendship that withstood career ups and downs, political differences, drinking binges and furious fights. Nollen traces their intertwining stories chronologically, analyzing their movie work and their personal lives through documents, letters, telegrams and troves of rare photographs.
With Ford and Wayne, he is largely synthesizing material that has been widely reported and deeply hashed over in numerous other books (as recently as Scott Eyman’s fine new Wayne bio). Naturally, Ford and Wayne’s lives give rise to scads of vivid anecdotes, larger-than-life yarns, rascally tales of womanizing, boozing and power playing. That Ford was a father figure who could be as cruel to Wayne as to the most lowly bit player is no new revelation.
But it’s in Bond’s story that the book manages to shed new light on the two others and to stitch together a revelatory new narrative that paints a vivid, full-bodied portrait of the rough-gruff, politically liberal, surrogate father Ford and his two wayward, strong-willed, politically right-wing sons.
Bond was a struggling young actor – juggling patchwork jobs in “the pictures” with his studies and football at the University of Southern California – before he encountered Wayne (a USC football teammate) and Ford, who promoted Bond from an extra to a supporting player in 1929’s “Salute.”
Nollen gleans a wealth of new information on Bond’s early struggles and career trajectory from letters the actor wrote to his family, and he offers up a thorough accounting of Bond’s gritty path from bit parts to a key role in Ford’s rough-and-tumble stock company and on to his late TV success on the hit series, “Wagon Train.”
The book is chockablock with wild and colorful stories about the three men’s roistering, often toxic relationship – featuring notable anecdotes about Ford’s sour disposition and his startlingly abusive treatment of both Wayne and Bond, and about the clash of political viewpoints between the director and the two actors. But the most potent, underlying notion of the book is that the high profile Ford and Wayne can’t be fully understood without considering the lumbering third wheel of this trio of “bad men,” Ward Bond.
- Dennis King