Sunday, July 30, 2017

A review of PBS's “Henry Ford” movie

"A lot of guys have had a lot of fun joking about Henry Ford because he admitted one time that he didn't know history. He don't know it, but history will know him. He has made more history than his critics ever read."

- Will Rogers, comedian

An interesting anecdote about Henry Ford

During the lifetime of Henry Ford, a newspaper once called him an "ignorant anarchist" (or words to that effect), which would have been a fairly serious charge at that time. Henry Ford not only disputed this with considerable umbrage, but he sued the newspaper for libel and defamation, and managed to actually win the suit. When he was put on the stand during this trial, the opposition set out to prove his ignorance by asking him questions about his knowledge of history. Paraphrasing the conversation they had, the opposition asked: "Do you know anything about the Revolution?", and he said yes. "Do you know when it was?" "Yes," he said, "it was in 1812." The opposition seized on his error, and said: "Don't you know that there wasn't any revolution in 1812? Had you forgotten that this country was born in a revolution in 1776?" "Yes, I suppose I'd forgotten that." He was grilled with high school questions like this for several days, and his lack of formal education showed; but he won the libel suit anyway. The jury basically said that he might be ignorant, but he was no anarchist. More to the point, he actually became more of a folk hero after the trial than before, seeming more like a common man, and gaining the admiration of millions.

Henry Ford

There are many ways to be intelligent

Henry Ford may not have known anything about history, and I obviously would not agree with him when he said that "History is more or less bunk" - I am, after all, a history blogger, who has written about history extensively; and I am very invested in the importance of history. Nonetheless, I think that it would not be fair to call Henry Ford "ignorant," this man who knew so much about cars and business. When it came to machinery, assembly lines, and business generally; the man seems to have been a true genius; and if you'd talked to him about these things, you would have seen that he was a tremendously smart individual. But much like certain people I could name today (but won't at this time), this elitist newspaper had no respect for practical intelligence; and went out and praised thinkers to the exclusion of praising doers. The satisfying thing about this story was seeing their attacks on his education backfire on them - instead of permanently humiliating him, it created sympathy for him among the public. Suffice it to say that it was probably the least scandalous thing that anyone could have printed about him, and it had the opposite effect of making him a sort of folk hero - a humorous effect that must have been satisfying for Ford.

Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield with a racing automobile

Making history

As mentioned before, I might disagree with Mr. Ford about the importance of history, but a word or two about him from one of his contemporaries might be enlightening on this subject, which is specifically from the comedian Will Rogers: "A lot of guys have had a lot of fun joking about Henry Ford because he admitted one time that he didn't know history. He don't know it, but history will know him. He has made more history than his critics ever read." The point is well taken, and I would presume that PBS agreed with him that Henry Ford was historically important - otherwise, they probably wouldn't have made this two-hour documentary about him, which is such a fine treatment of the life and legacy of this legendary automaker (generally speaking). This is not to say that politics don't get in the way at times, but this film is generally a good one which gives great insights into the man and his work, and the influence he had on the way that the country did business - even up until the present day.

Will Rogers, comedian

Liberal bias

To be sure, PBS's liberal politics make it somewhat hard for them to give sympathetic depictions of businessmen; and PBS seems to give too many negative things on Mr. Ford in this documentary. They point out his Antisemitism, for example, and are entirely correct to condemn him on this score; but with the exception of that, most of the charges that they bring against him seem to be without foundation; with the criticism of his negative attitude towards labor unions being among the less compelling of these charges. Ford was generally very fair to his workers (particularly by the standards of his own time), and his $5-a-day work wages (which were actually quite enormous for the time) bring praise from many people, including PBS - as does his support of a forty-hour workweek (which was much better than the painfully long hours so common in that time). Thus, even PBS seems to acknowledge that he was revolutionary for the time in how well he treated his workers; although they try to downgrade his motives by pointing out the profits he made from this, since it was actually more profitable for him to do this than the alternative of paying them less would have been - a testament to how capitalism can sometimes make it worth management's while to pay someone a reasonably high wage; and how lowering a worker's wage is not always the method of choice for the "captains of industry" that lead this country. On the contrary, it can sometimes be a self-defeating thing for them to do this; and since they know they'd be shooting themselves in the foot by doing so, most of them simply would not dare; and they thus pay people the value that the market thinks they're worth, instead of trying to get away with something else than that on a regular basis.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford in his first car

Capitalism and Henry Ford

The producers are on stronger ground when they criticize what he called his "Sociology Department," which was an early experiment in social engineering that provided his company with enormous power over the minute details of its employees' lives. The degree to which Ford involved himself in the domestic lives of his workers, invading their homes and violating their privacy, would be illegal today (and rightfully so); and it is well that there are laws against it now which make that kind of control impossible in the modern world (at least in the United States). We who favor capitalism are not against having a government, or even against having some laws and regulations; but just think they should be limited to those regulations that are needful. People who might be inclined to take Ford's social engineering as an indictment of capitalism might do well to remember that similar things have happened in communism as well; and it would seem to me that they happened here to a much lesser extent than they happened there (to put it mildly).

Ford assembly line, 1913

Strengths of this documentary

With all the criticisms I've thrown at PBS over the biased nature of some of its coverage here, you might think it strange that I still refer to it as a "fine treatment" of his life and legacy. But the reason is actually quite simple, which is that it actually does give some positive things in this documentary as well, and it is one of the few PBS programs to give any degree of sympathetic depiction of a businessman's engaging in competition - even if that sympathy is sometimes compromised by political bias, in the ways noted earlier. For example, they show how Henry Ford created his automotive empire; and discuss the business decisions that produced his success to a much greater extent than their documentary about the Rockefellers discussed the famous oil tycoon's rise to power. Among these decisions is one that was actually discussed in one of my business classes (I was a business major, you see), which was his use of the assembly line to speed up the process of assembling all the parts for his final product. Ford was not the first person to apply the assembly line in the workings of his factories, but he is among the earliest pioneers of its use; and his mass production of the car known to us as the "Model T" benefited greatly from its use, bringing lots of cheaper cars to the American people in the process.

The "Model T," Ford's most influential car (photographed 1910)

Remembering Ford today

The government called upon his company to participate in its war efforts during the two world wars, and he temporarily entered the aviation business during this time (as well as other businesses, like Army Jeeps) to contribute the needed engines for them to work properly, and he made an enormous amount of money from doing so (something that was appropriate, given how much the government needed his services). Nonetheless, he is remembered primarily as an automaker (and rightfully so), as well as a pioneer in the business world that brought cheaper cars and higher wages to many. I will again acknowledge here that in at least some instances, PBS was right to point out certain parts of his legacy that were less sympathetic (although I reiterate my criticism that it went overboard on this); but they have overall given a fine depiction of this influential businessman, which may be the definitive film on the subject despite its many weaknesses; and may even remain so for years to come.

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip

Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio

The Men Who Built America

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