The first time I saw John Ireland must have been in Little Big Horn (Charles Marquis Warren, 1951). My dad was a sucker for movies about the US Cavalry, and made me one too. The film had a profound impression on a five-year-old me—mainly for the stunning moment when Lloyd Bridges gets tattooed straight up his right side by three arrows in quick succession (a special effect whose timing and execution are still stunning 65 years later)—but also for the face and bearing of John Ireland. Even if it would be a while longer before I learned his name, I’d point him out as “that guy” whenever he showed up in something else I was watching.
Ironically, he’d already done his best-known work by then; but I’d be well into adulthood before the benefits of film societies, rep houses, videotape, and eventually digital redistribution would afford me the opportunity to catch up with the films of his meteoric rise: A Walk in the Sun (Lewis Milestone, 1945), My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), Railroaded! (Anthony Mann, 1947), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949), All the King’s Men (Robert Rossen, 1949). Not a bad first five years.
Look at him in Red River as Cherry Valance, comparing pistols with Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth, two vital young screen actors trying each other out in a scene suggesting a future confrontation with Garth (and with Clift) that never comes. Lurking in the background of the film, fall guy for a fake set-up, Ireland’s Valance transfers his animus to John Wayne’s Tom Dunson, calling Dunson out at what he alone thinks is the climax, only to get the barest flyswat of a gunshot from Dunson, who whirls, shoots, and turns back to his relentless march toward Garth without ever breaking stride. We don’t even know whether Valance is killed or only wounded, so peremptory is his dismissal. But the strength and dignity of Ireland’s investment in Valance remain among the most remarkable features of this most remarkable film. (Of course, offscreen, he’s the one who married Tess Millay—well, Joanne Dru—his second marriage, and it lasted eight years, 1949-57.)
He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia on January 30, 1914 (so, yeah, belated happy 102nd birthday, John). He never knew his father or where his surname came from. His mother moved to New York when he was still very young. He never attended college, or even high school. He tried out a number of jobs as a young man, including as a performing swimmer in water shows. But acting was the one that stuck.
He learned his craft in theatre during the early ’40s and his way with the English language from William Shakespeare. This might explain why he comes off as educated, literate, often prodigious, even when playing criminals, farm boys, or guys up from the streets. In his debut performance in A Walk in the Sun as the contemplative Windy, he owns the first 10 minutes of the film, composing the first of a series of oral letters to his sister aboard a landing craft headed for the coast of Sicily. Musing on the phrase “Mare Nostrum,” he explains what it means, then allows that he has no idea how to spell it. The way Windy’s spoken letters punctuate the film with eloquent reflections on war were surely on Terence Malick’s mind on The Thin Red Line.
Or consider the way Cherry Valance in Red River responds to cattle-buyer Melville’s observation that Matthew Garth will not fire his pistol at Tom Dunson: “Yeah—but I haven’t any such notion.” Surely no gun-crazy cowpoke ever talked like that; but on the lips of Ireland’s Valance it sounds not only natural but monumentally right. So much so that Sam Fuller, or someone, maybe Ireland himself, put similar words into his mouth as Robert Ford in I Shot Jesse James: Told by his beloved not to get into a gunfight he replies, “That’s not my intention.”
He had the same stuff as his near-exact contemporaries Tyrone Power and William Holden, though his cut was more rugged than theirs, partly because he was not quite the pretty boy they both were. Jaw as firmly set as Holden’s; creased brow and cheeks suggesting both youthful comfort with a ready smile and an older man’s world weariness; eyes as deep as Power’s but narrower, bespeaking cleverness, inscrutability, unpredictability, equipping him to play good guy or bad—often good guy and bad—with a credibility and presence that, at its best, outdid them all.
He turned the small but crucial role of compulsive, concupiscent Billy Clanton in Ford’s My Darling Clementine into a virtual star turn. In Railroaded! he played an unredeemably conscienceless criminal with such range and conviction that the movie ended up being about him rather than the innocent kid he ruthlessly frames for a cop killing. The way he grabs a not-sufficiently-compliant woman by the upper arm in Mann’s film would later be repeated in his own The Fast and the Furious—yes, you read that right, the original The Fast and the Furious, which Ireland directed for Roger Corman in 1955. But his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the journalist Jack Burden in All the King’s Men may well have represented the peak of his recognition by Hollywood. When he died on March 21, 1992, of leukemia, that was what the New York Times obit headlined.
He was third-billed as Robert Ford in Sam Fuller’s directorial debut I Shot Jesse James, notwithstanding the fact that he played the character from whose POV the film unfolded and who appeared in almost every scene. In Fuller’s luminous monochrome, Ireland’s face brightens at the very mention or thought of his beloved Cynthy. As the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard, Ireland’s Ford remains self-satisfied, unapologetic, single-minded in his pursuit of his actress-inamorata, even to the point of back-shooting his best friend. “’Tweren’t easy shooting Jess,” he says; “’tweren’t easy.” He wears a mask of alienation as he walks the hostile streets after the deed is done and after the wages of killing a popular anti-hero have become painfully clear to him. And as he lies dying in the streets of Creede, Colorado, done in by a guy completely invented for the movie, Ireland’s Ford gets away with the film’s last line as few other actors could have: “I’m sorry for what I done to Jess. I loved him.” In 1949, fer chrissake! And no matter how many times you watch the film, Ireland’s delivery of those words makes you consider and reconsider and re-reconsider every possibility.
In Little Big Horn he was top-billed over his A Walk in the Sun colleague Lloyd Bridges as Lt. John Haywood, in love with the captain’s wife and on patrol under Bridges’s captain, whose every command seems calculated to get Haywood conveniently killed. Ireland’s Haywood looks stiff and uncomfortable in dress blues, and in the company of the woman he loves; in dusty field gear, he wins the just-shy-of-mutiny patrol away from the captain, only to learn the true burden of leadership when the captain is finished off by the abovementioned triptych of Sioux arrows. (I don’t have much of a sense of the career and vision of Charles Marquis Warren, but this is still one terrifically smart movie.)
Ireland wrote and directed the still much praised and hard-to-find experimental western Hannah Lee: An American Primitive (1953), played lieutenant to Lee J. Cobb’s crypto-Capone in Nick Ray’s Party Girl (1958), and at age 46 played the lithe, athletic gladiator Crixus in Spartacus. His last great performance was probably as the movies’ finest embodiment of Raymond Chandler’s Detective Nulty opposite Mitchum’s Marlowe in the 1975 Farewell My Lovely (Dick Richards). But he graced a good half dozen spaghetti westerns with an iconic western presence, performed with characteristic commitment and professionalism in handfuls of indifferent genre and exploitation films, and acted and directed in television right up to his death. He won a star on the Walk of Fame for his contributions to the television industry.
The two Ireland performances that, for me, most embody the best this remarkable actor had to offer are Bob Ford in Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James and coming-apart jazz band leader Eddie Wilson in the “Papa Benjamin” episode of Thriller (Ted Post, 1961). As the voodoo-tormented musician, Ireland looks every inch the progressive jazz composer, in horn-rim glasses and dinner jacket (apologies to e. e. cummings, but jesus he was a handsome man), confident in mid-shot but sweaty, preoccupied, frightened in close-up. Bob Ford and Eddie Wilson are both fevered performances—illuminating fevered personalities alienated from the world they live in by acts of their own self-destructive self-confidence—and they seem, at opposite ends of his career, somehow intimate, telling us, in a confessional way, what it was to be John Ireland.
Robert C. Cumbow is the author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone. His articles and reviews are archived on Parallax View. In addition to teaching and writing about film, he practices and teaches intellectual property law in Seattle.