Henry Ford changed the world, for both the better and the worst.
Starting from his own small workshop in Dearborn, Michigan, Henry Ford designed the first mass-produced automobile. He transformed cars from being a luxury item to being something that nearly every family owned. He created the concept of the assembly line. He argued that workers needed to be paid a livable wage and he also advocated for an 8-hour workday. At a time when every facet of American life was heavily segregated, he encouraged his factories an auto dealerships to hire black employees. He was a pacifist, who took part in a widely-ridiculed but apparently sincere effort to try to convince the leaders of the world to just stop fighting.
Unfortunately, Henry Ford was also something of an unhinged lunatic, a man whose skill at engineering and his empathy for his underpaid workers did not necessarily translate into a sophisticated understanding of anything else. When the workers in his factories tried to unionize, Ford employed violent strike breakers and he felt that most of the population were like a children and therefore incapable of governing themselves. He understood how to make car but he also fell for all sorts of quack science and was a believer in reincarnation.
Worst of all, he was a rabid anti-Semite, who blamed almost all of the world’s problems on “Jewish bankers” and who played a huge role in popularizing a scurrilous work called The Protocols of Elder Zion in America. Claiming to lay out the details of a Jewish plot to secretly control the world, The Protocols were a ludicrous document but many people believed them because they were promoted by Henry Ford, who was as big a celebrity in the early 20th Century as all of the social media influencers are today. All these years later, The Protocols are still cited by anti-Semites. A series of anti-Semitic editorials (which Ford later claimed to have signed off on but not actually written) were published in Germany under the title The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem. Hitler wrote of his admiration for Ford in Mein Kampf. Ford, it should be noted, did keep his distance from Hitler, though whether that was due to a personal distaste or the threat of an economic boycott is not known. (Jewish leaders had already organized one successful boycott of Ford in the 20s, which led to Ford closing down his newspaper and offering up an apology.) At the Nuremberg Trials, many of the Nazis said that they had first been introduced to anti-Semitism through the writings of Henry Ford. Reportedly, when Ford saw newsreel footage of the concentration camps, he was so overcome with emotion that he collapsed from a stroke.
(Two years ago, when Nick Cannon regurgitated the usual anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on a podcast, he was pretty much saying the exact same thing that Henry Ford said at the start of the 20th Century. Later, under threat of economic boycott, both Ford and Cannon would off up half-hearted apologies for their statements. Ford continued to make cars. Cannon continues to host a handful of television shows. How does that work?)
First broadcast over two nights in 1987, Ford: The Man and the Machine was a Canadian miniseries about the long and controversial life of Henry Ford. Cliff Robertson played Henry Ford. Hope Lange played his wife while Heather Thomas played his mistress. R.H. Thomson played Ford’s son, the sensitive Edsel. Michael Ironside played Harry Bennett, a sinister figure who was hired to break up union activity and who eventually became Ford’s right-hand man. If I remember correctly, I believe Canadian law actually required that Michael Ironside appear in almost every Canadian film and television show made in the 80s and the 90s. His glowering presence and menacing line delivery practically shouted out, “Don’t mess with Canada,” and he does bring a note of genuine danger to his performance here.
Ford: The Man and the Machine opens in the late 20s, with an aging Henry Ford already starting to lose control of his mental faculties. A series of flashbacks then show how Ford built his first engine, his first car, and eventually his first factory. We watch as Ford goes from being an enthusiastic, self-taught engineer to being one of the most powerful men in the world. Along the way, Ford grows arrogant. The same stubbornness that led to his early success also leads to his later problems. For all of his ability, Ford’s ego and his refusal to reconsider his conclusions leaves him vulnerable to both flattery and manipulation, whether it’s coming from the White House of Woodrow Wilson, from his own executives, or from the authoritarians who rose to power in Europe following the first World War. As portrayed in the movie, he’s a loving father who also flies into a rage when Edsel designs a car on his own. He loves his wife but he keeps a mistress. He loves his family but he’ll always prefer to spend time working on his cars than spending time with them. Henry Ford changes the world but his own hubris makes it impossible for him to change with it.
The miniseries is built around Cliff Robertson’s performance as Ford and Robertson does an excellent job in the role, convincingly playing Ford as he goes from being an enthusiastic dreamer to a paranoid millionaire to a doddering old man, a Bidenesque figuredhead who is only nominally in charge of his own company. Neither the film nor Robertson shy away from showing us Henry Ford’s flaws. Instead, both the production and the actor offer up a portrait of a complex man who transformed the way that people lived but who couldn’t escape from his own prejudices and resentments. Ford: The Man and The Machine is a history lesson but it’s a valuable one. If you’re a student of history, you’ll find much to think about in this miniseires.
For the record, I do drive a Ford and it’s a good car. However, I tell myself that it’s named after Gerald Ford.