The title of this volume alludes to what is probably the best-known anecdote of John Ford’s career. Rising at a Directors Guild meeting in 1950 to speak against an attempted right-wing takeover of the Guild led by Cecil B. DeMille, Ford began by introducing himself. “My name’s John Ford,” he said, “I make Westerns.”
Even at the time, the words must have seemed extraordinarily self-effacing coming from the man who had restored the Western to respectability with Stagecoach in 1939, and then proceeded in the years since the war to redefine the genre with a series of classics including My Darling Clementine (1946), Wagon Master (1950), and the cavalry trilogy. From our perspective, with another half-dozen Westerns added to the Ford oeuvre before his final film, Cheyenne Autumn, in 1964, and The Searchers (1956) now all but universally recognized as his masterpiece, it seems almost a tautology: Ford not only made Westerns, we are likely to think, he was the Western.
John Ford Made Westerns is a survey of Ford’s changing public and critical reputation over the years. As Charles J. Maland points out in his contribution, pre-war filmgoers, for whom the definitive Ford film was probably The Informer (1935), were likelier to think of Ford as “an artistic director interested in exploring Irish culture using expressionist style” (p.220) than as a specialist in Westerns. Although the great majority of his 60-odd silents were Westerns, Ford had abandoned the genre altogether during the ’30s. But when he returned to it, he did so with a vengeance, turning out 14 Westerns over a period of 25 years, and dominating the genre as thoroughly as Hitchcock did the thriller. The nine essays that form the bulk of John Ford Made Westerns, most of them original (Robin Wood’s and Ed Buscombe’s contributions have been published previously), focus single-mindedly on these 14 films, with only passing reference to either Ford’s silent Westerns or to his non-Westerns (aside from Young Mr. Lincoln , arguably a sort of borderline Western).
Aside from Maland’s contribution and Robin Wood’s challenge to what he regards as an inflated critical valuation of Ford’s late films, most of the essays focus on issues of ideology and inter-textuality. In the first of a series of revisionist essays on the ideological implications of Ford’s handling of gender, race, ethnicity, and class, Gaylyn Studlar argues that his Westerns challenge “the expected meaning of gender in the genre by being more interested in reconciliation than revenge, hard-won domesticity than domination over the land, the formation of families than the legitimation of violent ‘legendary’ masculinities” (p. 68). Charles Ramirez Berg and Joan Dagle argue for a similarly unexpected complexity in Ford’s treatment of race and ethnicity, Berg on the basis of a somewhat old-fashioned content-analysis of the films, Dagle, rather more originally, by means of a consideration of their changing narrative patterns. Peter Lehmann discusses what he terms the “repression of capitalism” in the films, arguing that “it is only by repressing the role of money, trading, and capitalism in the West that Ford can represent his ideal communities and families” (p.133).
The remaining essays examine relationships between Ford’s Westerns and the other arts. Kathryn Kalinak examines the use of music in Ford’s films, particularly its ideological implications (and suggests, incidentally, a very different interpretation of the role of ethnicity in them than that claimed by Berg and Dagle). Ed Buscombe and Barry Grant both explore the origins of elements of Ford’s west in the “pre-history” of the Western. Buscombe demonstrates the influence exercised over the Western generally, and Ford specifically, by the paintings of Frederic Remington, persuasively arguing that “by the time Western films began to be made a corpus of work was in existence which already predefined what ‘the West’ could be taken to mean” (p.166), while Grant traces narrative and thematic continuities between Ford’s Westerns and James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.
The volume concludes with a dossier of popular magazine articles and interviews (illustrating the changes in the Ford persona described by Maland), a filmography (confined to the sound Westerns), and a useful select bibliography. Some readers may object to the sustained emphasis on ideological issues, and, as with any anthology of this sort, some contributions will inevitably seem stronger than others. But the overall standard of this volume is very high indeed: every one of the essays has something to say, and says it clearly and persuasively.
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