b. Sean Aloysius O’Fearna (1)
b. Feb 1, 1895, Maine, USA.
d. August 31, 1973, Palm Desert, California, USA.
I read Senses of Cinema‘s call for contributions on “Great Directors” with interest. Among the list of directors to be profiled were Cox (Paul) and Cronenberg (David), both of whom I’ve met. But among the list of those for whom you were looking for “expressions of interest” I noted Ford (John), who I am delighted to say I also met and who is quite simply the greatest director of all time.
Why did Cronenberg and Cox (contemporaries of my own) get a look in before the man who Ingmar Bergman called the greatest director who ever lived? Why is Ford’s work seldom studied, when that of say Hitchcock is dissected in film class after film class? Because the great, great, great John Ford made so many films (and so many great films) his canon is virtually unassailable. I repeat myself in keeping with Orson Welles who after viewing Stagecoach (1939) 40 times before embarking on Citizen Kane (1941) said he was influenced by the old guys; the “classical” film makers, by which he meant “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford”. If the pantheon of classical music is “the three Bs” (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms), then it is arguable there is only one true great in cinema – and that’s the man who won more Academy Awards (five) than anyone before or since.
Though he would like to have been Irish, Sean Aloysius O’Fearna was American, born in Maine in 1895, the eleventh and last child of an Irish family. “Jack” was introduced into the movie industry by his silent movie director brother Francis “Ford” (who probably took the name from the Model T and later played bit parts in his kid brother’s movies like The Quiet Man ).
After working as a “cowboy” and riding as one of the Klansmen in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Jack began acting in his brother’s one and two reelers and it was not long before he was directing himself and upgraded his to the name of the Jacobean dramatist John Ford.
Claiming he got the job from Carl Laemle (founder of Universal) because “he yells real loud”, his shorts and early features, largely Westerns starring Harry Carey, are interesting, however it is in his silent feature The Iron Horse (1924), that what we now call “Fordian” is first evident.
This quality would not emerge full blown however, until the late ’30s, when after a series of Fox period pictures starring the legendary pundit Will Rogers, Ford finally perfected his unmistakeable (but elusive) “style”. It is interesting to compare say Airmail (1932), which ought to be terrific (it is after all the model for Hawks’ very great Only Angels Have Wings ) to fairly routine late ’30s Ford pictures like The Hurricane or Wee Willie Winkie (both 1937). Most see Ford hitting his straps with his first directing Oscar for The Informer (1935), but for me, when Lincoln steps onto the balcony and commands the band to play Dixie to a Northern audience at the end of the Civil war in Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), we are seeing Ford at his best.
1939 is often cited as the great year for American cinema and it was certainly a bumper one for Ford. In a twelve month period, he achieved the astonishing task of directing Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums along the Mohawk (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) – all masterpieces. The last, which pipped the recently arrived Alfred Hitchcock for the directing Oscar with his Best Picture Rebecca (1940) , was shot by Ford exposing only 40,000′ of negative (i.e. a 4:1 shooting ratio) and on condition he be given two weeks preparation between Mohawk and Grapes.
The following year, Ford won another Oscar for 1941’s Best Picture How Green Was My Valley, but as the head of the newly formed Navy Field Photographic Unit, was already on a destroyer headed for Hawaii with his favourite cameraman Greg (Citizen Kane) Toland. They arrived late on the morning of December 7th and much of the footage we now take to be combat footage of Pearl Harbour was staged by Ford and shot by Toland over the days following the attack. Also noteable among his war documentaries is a moment during The Battle of Midway (1942), when the flag detail attempt to raise the flag during battle. Quintessentially American (from the words of “The Star Spangled Banner”) and at the same time quintessentially Fordian – at this moment history and cinema seem to intersect (Ford claimed not to have “directed” the moment; that he was merely doing his job). Another similar moment may have occurred when Ford rigged 500 clockwork cameras on the landing craft for the Normandy invasion, however the footage he supervised was never assembled (but undoubtedly inspired the opening of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan ). If he could do it under battle conditions, it is not surprising that, as Howard Hawks observed: “Ford could control the movement of the sky in Monument Valley. The rest of us have to use sound stages.”
Various writers have attempted to categorise Ford’s post war work by decades, but I see little point. He returned to his milieu with Westerns from My Darling Clementine (1946), the story of Tombstone and Wyatt Earp (who had been a technical advisor on Ford’s early silent westerns), to late nostalgic works like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). He invented a hybrid form, the “cavalry picture” and his so called “cavalry trilogy” (Fort Apache , She Wore A Yellow Ribbon  and Rio Grande ) make a fascinating “movie marathon” for the uninitiated. He made Irish pictures, most notably his Oscar winning The Quiet Man, which Neil Jordan describes as cliché ridden, but eclipsing all Irish cinema since by dint of the sheer genius of its director. He made Navy pictures (and would retire a full Admiral) including documentaries in both Korea and Vietnam. Most noteable among these for me (and director Lindsay Anderson whose book on Ford I list below) is his first post war picture They Were Expendable (1945). Reluctantly pulled out of combat to make the picture, which for many years he disowned, Ford fuses the feel of real battle (the PT boat from which he “directed” the Normandy invasion was skippered by the man whose diaries provided the basis of the script) with the mythological – before the War was over, Ford had already turned its heroes from Macarthur (with whom he’d spent time in Melbourne) to the men and women who were left behind in the Philippines into myth.
Ford’s style was one of measured simplicity. His pace is slow, his shots simple and unpretentious. Though it is possible to trace the much vaunted lighting style and deep focus of Orson Welles to Ford’s earlier films (cf The Long Voyage Home ), his later Technicolor works are the essence of simplicity – eye level camera with hardly a dolly in sight. Director Andrew McLaglan (son of Ford stock company veteran Victor, who cut his teeth as a Ford assistant) tells an amusing story of how he suggested that there was a good angle from an overhead bridge, for John Wayne’s introductory shot in The Quiet Man. Ford simply asked “do you stand on a step ladder when you meet someone?”
Director John Milius describes John Ford’s style in terms of the Japanese idea of “conservation of line”, saying Ford can do with a couple of “brush strokes” what it takes others six or eight to do. Early in his career, Ford talked about what he called “invisible technique”, to make an audience forget they were watching a movie. But later he refused to dissect his work, saying things had to be dead before dissection, and telling young directors like myself only to “make sure you can see their eyes”. The impact of an astonishing scene like Tom’s farewell to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath is achieved with virtually television coverage. Yet only in Ford would the characters’ eyelines intersect at a point somewhere in the middle distance, as if they both see something spiritual.
It is for me in the spiritual that Ford expresses the greatest we can hope our art to be. It is his capacity to mythologise; to ennoble that which might otherwise go unnoticed (like the image of the Philippino extra listening to the announcement of Pearl Harbour, or the “expendable” limping away down a beach, “glorious in defeat”, because the artist tells us they were and are).
Orson Welles called John Ford the greatest “poet” the cinema has given us. He is at the very least the US’s greatest historian (his films having examined virtually every era from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam) and his landscape surpasses that of say a Remington. His images of the individual dwarfed by this landscape, of family and community huddled against the brutality (and primal beauty) of Monument Valley in The Searchers is unsurpassable. It is not necessarily a true history, but as Ford says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes truth, print the legend”.
John Ford was more than a filmmaker. He was a legend.
Rather than be daunted by the full filmography below, I shall presume to list some Ford films readily available in most larger video stores in suggested viewing order. I am pre-supposing the reader has little or no knowledge of Ford’s work (you might use two stores rather than depart from this order, at least at first).
Do not begin with The Searchers – it is an acquired taste and without a knowledge of Ford’s milieu, it will seem like little more than a pot-boiler (which it was). But viewed with a little knowledge of Ford’s work (and the now lost Western genre), it will soon find its place.
The Grapes of Wrath – Probably Ford’s most accessible work to a modern audience. Note particularly the contrast of highly stylised chiaroscuro lighting (Greg Toland a year before Kane) to the documentary realism of say the encampment scenes.
They Were Expendable – another realist piece, remarkable in that Ford came out of active duty to re-create what he had just experienced, yet gave this story of the US’s greatest defeat in WW 2, a mythological sense of historical perspective. Note the final scene between John Wayne and Donna Reed.
How Green Was My Valley? – a non realist evocation of life in a Welsh mining town a century earlier. This is not shot by Toland, yet note Ford’s composition and lighting at the same time as Kane was being shot. Allow yourself to be swept away by the sentiment. A complete contrast to the previous two films and yet so clearly the work of the same director.
Fort Apache – First of the cavalry trilogy. Loosely based on Custer, it is a more accessible introduction to the Western genre, being Ford’s first film in a new sub-genre.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – Third of the cavalry trilogy (but shot second). It won the Academy Award for Technicolor cinematography (note in particular the thunderstorm sequence, extemporised during a real storm “under protest” by the cameraman). And John Wayne’s performance as an old man, two years after Fort Apache.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – do not be put off by its studio bound look, or the age of Wayne and Stewart playing young and old. This does not need Monument Valley, being a morality play of Shakespearian proportions.
The Quiet Man – You are now ready to wallow in Ford sentimentality. But note the almost expressionistic treatment of the boxing flash-back (when he wanted to, Ford could grab an audience by the throat).
The Searchers – Warrants and rewards with repeated viewings. Apart from containing the best suspense sequence ever filmed (the Indian raid), consider the time frame of the story – Ford effortlessly has years pass without in any way diluting the urgency of the drama. To quote John Milius: “…anyone who thinks John Wayne can’t act has not seen The Searchers “. Consider the relationship between Ethan (Wayne) and his sister in law early in the story. Then Ethan and Martin (the searchers) as the story progresses. Also the sense of family, community and finally man’s plight in a hostile universe. (There are many versions on tape, but the “Technicolor restoration” on VHS is better than the DVD).
You are now ready to watch any and all of Ford’s work.
The Tornado (1917) (as Jack Ford)
Trail of Hate (1917)
The Scrapper (1917) (as Jack Ford)
Cheyenne’s Pal (1917) (as Jack Ford)
The Soul Herder (1917) (as Jack Ford)
Straight Shooting (1917) (as Jack Ford)
Up Against It (1917)
The Secret Man (1917) (as Jack Ford)
A Marked Man (1917) (as Jack Ford)
Bucking Broadway (1917) (as Jack Ford)
Red Saunders Plays Cupid (1917)
The Phantom Riders (1918) (as Jack Ford)
Wild Women (1918) (as Jack Ford)
Thieves’ Gold (1918) (as Jack Ford)
The Scarlet Drop (1918) (as Jack Ford)
Hell Bent (1918) (as Jack Ford)
A Woman’s Fool (1918) (as Jack Ford)
Three Mounted Men (1918) (as Jack Ford)
Roped (1919) (as Jack Ford)
The Fighting Brothers (1919) (as Jack Ford)
A Fight for Love (1919) (as Jack Ford)
Bare Fists (1919) (as Jack Ford)
The Gun Packer (1919) (as Jack Ford)
By Indian Post (1919) (as Jack Ford)
Riders of Vengeance (1919) (as Jack Ford)
The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1919) (as Jack Ford)
Ace of the Saddle (1919) (as Jack Ford)
Rider of the Law (1919) (as Jack Ford)
A Gun Fightin’ Gentleman (1919) (as Jack Ford)
Marked Men (1919) (as Jack Ford)
Rustlers (1919) (as Jack Ford)
The Last Outlaw (1919)
The Prince of Avenue A (1920) (as Jack Ford)
The Girl in Number 29 (1920) (as Jack Ford)
Hitchin’ Posts (1920) (as Jack Ford)
Just Pals (1920) (as Jack Ford)
The Big Punch (1921) (as Jack Ford)
The Freeze-Out (1921) (as Jack Ford)
The Wallop (1921) (as Jack Ford)
Action (1921) (as Jack Ford)
Sure Fire (1921) (as Jack Ford)
Jackie (1921) (as Jack Ford)
Desperate Trails (1921) (as Jack Ford)
Little Miss Smiles (1922) (as Jack Ford)
Silver Wings (1922) (as Jack Ford)
The Village Blacksmith (1922) (as Jack Ford)
The Face on the Bar-Room Floor (1923) (as Jack Ford)
Three Jumps Ahead (1923) (as Jack Ford)
Cameo Kirby (1923)
North of Hudson Bay (1923) (as Jack Ford)
Hoodman Blind (1923)
The Iron Horse (1924)
Hearts of Oak (1924)
Kentucky Pride (1925)
The Fighting Heart (1925)
Thank You (1925)
The Shamrock Handicap (1926)
3 Bad Men (1926)
The Blue Eagle (1926) (uncredited)
Mother Machree (1928) (uncredited)
Four Sons (1928)
Hangman’s House (1928) (uncredited)
Napoleon’s Barber (1928)
Riley the Cop (1928) (uncredited)
Strong Boy (1929)
The Black Watch aka King of the Khyber Rifles (1929)
Salute (1929) (uncredited)
Men Without Women (1930)
Born Reckless (1930)
Up the River (1930)
The Seas Beneath (1931)
The Brat (1931)
Doctor Bull (1933)
The Lost Patrol (1934)
The World Moves On (1934)
Judge Priest (1934)
The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)
The Informer (1935)
Steamboat Bill (1935)
Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935)
The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)
Mary of Scotland (1936)
The Plough and the Stars (1936)
Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
The Hurricane (1937)
The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) (uncredited)
Four Men and a Prayer (1938)
Submarine Patrol (1938)
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The Long Voyage Home (1940)
Tobacco Road (1941)
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
The Battle of Midway (1942) (documentary)
Torpedo Squadron (1942) (documentary)
Sex Hygiene (1942) (documentary)
We Sail at Midnight (1943) (documentary)
December 7th (1943) (documentary)
They Were Expendable (1945)
My Darling Clementine (1946)
The Fugitive (1947)
Fort Apache (1948)
3 Godfathers (1948)
Pinky (1949) (Directed by Elia Kazan, partly directed by Ford [uncredited])
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Wagon Master (1950)
Rio Grande (1950)
When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950)
This Is Korea! (1951) (documentary)
The Quiet Man (1952)
What Price Glory (1952)
Sun Shines Bright, The (1953)
The Long Gray Line (1955)
Mister Roberts (1955)
Rookie of the Year (1955) (TV)
The Bamboo Cross (1955) (TV)
The Searchers (1956)
The Wings of Eagles (1957)
The Rising of the Moon (1957)
Wagon Train (one episode) (1957) TV Series based on Wagon Master
The Last Hurrah, The (1958)
Gideon’s Day aka Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958)
The Horse Soldiers(1959)
Korea (1959) (documentary)
Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
Two Rode Together (1961)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
How the West Was Won (1962) (segment The Civil War)
Flashing Spikes (1962) (TV)
Donovan’s Reef (1963)
Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
Young Cassidy (1965) (part only)
7 Women (1966)
Vietnam! Vietnam! (1971) (unreleased documentary)
Publications: there are many, however the following are personal favourites –
Anderson, Lindsay. About John Ford, London: Plexus Publishing, 1981.
Ford, Dan. Pappy – The Life of John Ford, Prentice Hall, 1979.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era Book Review by David Boyd
The Battle of Midway by Martyn Bamber
Flashing Spikes by Quentin Turnour
Ford Till ‘47 by Tag Gallagher
Four Sons by David Boxwell
John Ford: Other Directions by Quentin Turnour
Sergeant Rutledge by Andrew Tracy
Compiled by Michelle Carey
The John Ford Web Page
All-inclusive fan site, with lots of news and information on books, films, a guestbook, excerpts from Tag Gallagher’s book on Ford, biography and a Christmas wish from John Ford!
John Ford at Reel Classics
Nice colourful page with great poster reproductions.
John Ford’s Most and Least Famous Works
Some personal thoughts on various Ford films.
My Darling Clementine
Review by Tim Dirks.
My Darling Clementine
Review by Roger Ebert.
David Hart’s study notes for this film.
Hero,Text and Ideology in John Ford’s The Searchers
Essay by Katherine Lawrie.
Review by Tim Dirks.
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