John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.
— Orson Welles
when asked who the three greatest American directors of all time were
John Ford is an American director whose lengthy career was one of the most honored in Hollywood history. Four Oscars for Best Director, which is still the record. Filmed some of the most iconic Wild West
and war movies
of the age.
Born John Feeney in 1894 (or 1895) in Maine to a large Irish family, he traveled with his older brother Francis to Hollywood during the early years of film-making. Changing their last names to Ford, Francis went to work as an actor while John found himself finding work behind the camera. By the 1920s and 1930s, John Ford was working on small-time, quickly made Westerners but was moving on to bigger and better projects. He won his first Best Director Oscar for The Informer
, a political thriller about the IRA
which cemented his reputation as a great director. Then in 1939 he directed Stagecoach
, considered for decades to be the greatest Western ever made. He went on to win three more Best Director Oscars, more than any other film-maker. (Although, ironically, none of them were for the westerns he was so well-known for. This is understandable since it would take till the 90s for Westerns to get Out of the Ghetto
and be taken seriously as dramatic works.)
In his lifetime, Ford was regarded almost unanimously as America's greatest film-maker, with all his contemporaries having nothing but respect and admiration for him. He also had an international following such respectable film-makers as Akira Kurosawa
, Ingmar Bergman
, Jean Renoir
and even outsider film-makers like Jean Luc Godard
admitting to his importance and influence. As one of the founders of the DGA, Ford also encouraged young film-makers, serving as The Mentor
to the likes of Orson Welles
, Elia Kazan
, Samuel Fuller
and many others. Years later, Steven Spielberg
would recall a meeting with the older Ford who gave him a brief lesson on the values of good composition.
In The Sixties
and The Seventies
, Ford's films fell under scrutiny on issues of representation of Native Americans and African Americans in his Westerns and dramas. The fact that many of them featured John Wayne
, a prominent supporter of the Vietnam War
and other conservative causes didn't help. In matter of fact, for most of his life, Ford was a liberal. A supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy, who personally opposed the Red Scare
. He was also highly intelligent, speaking several languages including the Navajo language. Ford's Westerns were largely set in Monument Valley Utah and he used the Navajo tribe in the region as extras which he cast in all his westerns. Ford's films aided the economy for the Navajos and he paid them fair wages on union scale in a time of segregation. For this the Navajos gave him the honorific Natani Nez
. Ford's films like Fort Apache
and The Searchers
highlighted the injustice and violence of the landscape, with the latter film even subverting John Wayne
's image as The Hero
, even addressing the hypocrisy of Missing White Woman Syndrome
years before his time. His final western, Cheyenne Autumn
also subverted the genre and addressed the Old Shame
of Native American oppression in a way few Westerns did.
No relation to the acclaimed writer John M Ford
Provides examples of:
- Artistic License - Geography: From Stagecoach onwards, Ford shot all his westerns in Monument Valley, Utah, a location that became a Signature Style but was unique because he tended to shoot all his exteriors in the region, which is actually smaller than it looks. This becomes absurd in The Searchers where all of Texas and parts of Mexico take place in a single valley that the actors keep circling around. For Ford, Monument Valley was a mythical landscape, not a realistic one. The only Western which actually takes place in Utah and the region is Wagon Master which Ford cited as one of his personal favorites.
- Auteur License: Like most "journeymen" directors who were not producers of their films in the Golden Age, Ford did not have contractual Auteur License on the vast majority of the films he directed. However research has shown that Ford evolved a strategy to exert autonomy and control while working in the system. He was economical to the point of mathematical precision, refusing to shoot extra shots and "cutting on camera" to prevent extra footage available to editors(who worked with producers), which forced the editors to arrange the film as a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces scattered to form Ford's pre-determined vision.
- Long Runners: John Ford first started making films in the 1910s with his earliest surviving film being Straight Shooting, also a Western. His last film comes from the year 1966, a span of more than 50 years, covering the first half of the 20th Century. This leads to Archive Panic since he made a lot of films and was highly consistent moreover.
- Magnum Opus Dissonance:
- His famous films in his lifetime was The Quiet Man, How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, The Informer, Stagecoach. Critics would cite Young Mr. Lincoln. Later generations of film-makers and audiences cited The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. What were Ford's favorites?
- Wagon Master which he described as "the purest, simplest Western I ever made." A rare title that Lindsay Anderson called "the first avant-garde Western" citing its unconventional use of music, gorgeous composition and minimalist storyline and its plot of multiple characters with no real central figure.
- The Sun Shines Bright which despite its Executive Meddling, he felt was a film he achieved what he wanted to. Another obscure title.
- Old Shame: Ford hated The Plough and the Stars (1936), which started as a passion project (Ford received the blessing of playwright Sean O'Casey and even cast several of the stage version's stars) but soon fell victim to studio politics and Executive Meddling. Things got so bad that Ford walked off the project, leaving assistant directors to finish filming. Not surprisingly, critics generally rank Plough among Ford's worst movies.
- Ford also strongly disliked Two Rode Together (1961), a paycheck film he called "the worst piece of crap I've made in 20 years" (presumably referring either to Plough or Tobacco Road). That film has a more positive, though still mixed critical reputation.
- Production Posse: Ford used the same actors across all his films - what became known as the "John Ford Stock Company" - because he could count on them to perform as he needed. They included John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara, and Ward Bond, as well as Harry Carey, Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald, and his brother Francis Ford. Towards the end in The Sixties there were Woody Strode, Patrick Wayne (John's son), and Jeffrey Hunter. The most frequent is Jack Pennick, who appeared in a staggering forty-one Ford movies.
- Rated M for Manly: In John Ford's World, Real Men ride horses, drink whiskey, start fights, love their women, and save the planet. Usually by Thursday, Friday at the latest. At least that's how he was seen for the majority of his life. But this is a Flanderization, his films on careful viewing with attention to context and his great technique show that he developed a Myth Arc in his Westerns and Non-Westerns about older communities being replaced by modern, soulless ones, and minorities playing a major role. His Westerns moreover constantly highlight the violence and hypocrisy that went into the building of America.
- Scenery Porn: If the film is based outdoors, be it the West in Monument Valley Utah or Ireland in County Mayo, you are looking at some of the most gorgeous shots in film history. Cinematographers who worked with him - and would argue about what they were doing - tended to get Oscars for how beautiful the films turned out. As a young man, Ford initially considered being a painter and was influenced by Western painters Charles Schreyvogel and Remington, and also fellow Maine artist, Winslow Homer. His movies are studied by all film-makers for its eye for composition and framing, the painterly values he brought to the movies but in a subtle manner that pays attention to character movement, lighting and narrative, how to suggest characterization by placement of camera and positioning of actors.
- Settling the Frontier: A theme of his Westerns and part of a wider Myth Arc in all his films. Mrs. Jorgensen (Olive Carey) famously sums it up in The Searchers:
"It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothin' but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. Maybe for a hundred more. But I don't think it'll be forever. Some day, this country's gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come."
- The Western: What Ford is best known for. His classics - Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, Rio Grande, even The Searchers - was the Trope Codifier for the "Classic Western", defining John Wayne's screen persona. They also featured Unbuilt Trope that would later typify the revisionist westerns, with even Stagecoach subverting the black-and-white morality of many Westerns and Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Searchers already blurring the Black and White Morality to grey areas.
- Ford's Westerns were also highly unusual, in in that there's not a lot of action, there's an equal, and at times greater, focus on community building, ritual, emphasis on dance sequences and Settling the Frontier in literal terms, that is depicting the values and institutions that build civilization in the west. He also tends to focus a lot on common, everyday people as much as cowboy heroes.
- He generally stays away from mythical heroes of the kind that later westerns traffic in. The one exception was My Darling Clementine which was a highly inaccurate look at Wyatt Earp but also a Trope Codifier for later depictions. Years later, in Cheyenne Autumn, he offers a Deconstructive Parody of Wyatt Earp years ahead of the time, showing the famous lawman as an amoral sleazebag and pimp (and casting Jimmy Stewart no less).