YMMV / John Ford

  • Alternate Character Interpretation: Recently, Quentin Tarantino has raised the issue of Ford's role as an extra in Birth of a Nation, where he played one of the Klansmen. Ford scholars have always seen it as a throwaway gig (he had not started his career as a director and was working odd jobs at the time) but Tarantino sees it as indicative of Ford's racism. Ford's portrayals of minority characters did indeed become more nuanced and Fair for Its Day as time went on (compare Stagecoach to Cheyenne Autumn for example, as well as Sergeant Rutledge—one of the first films at the time with an African-American male lead). Still, Ford himself was typically the one to bring up his role in Griffith's film—and not in the context of apologizing or providing context for it. So was Ford honestly unaware of the racism of Birth of a Nation (unlikely); did he simply feel that Money, Dear Boy, or just a chance gig to appear in a film by the most respected director of his age, was an acceptable reason for appearing in it; or did he actually agree with the film's support of "separate but equal" as Quentin contends? note .
  • Creator Breakdown: Two examples from the '50s:
    • Mister Roberts: he fell out with Henry Fonda early in production, culminating in Ford punching Fonda in the face. Then he took to drinking, had emergency gallbladder surgery in the midst of filming and was ultimately forced off the project.
    • While filming The Horse Soldiers, stuntman Fred Kennedy died while performing a horse fall. Ford was devastated by Kennedy's death that he all but refused to film the scripted finale, leading to the movie's rushed conclusion.
  • He Also Did: Ford made a number of documentaries for the United States Navy, including the acclaimed December 7th: The Movie and The Battle of Midway, and the infamous Sex Hygiene. He also did uncredited second unit work on a variety of films, including The Adventures of Marco Polo and John Wayne's The Alamo (exactly how much of that movie he shot remains controversial).
  • Fair for Its Day: His portrayal of Native American characters is usually much better than most other Westerns from his time, which often treat them as barbarous, murderous savages. And despite some unfortunate instances of Modern Minstrelsy (such as the "squaw" in The Searchers), Ford at least treated them with a level of respect many other Western directors lacked, and Native American characters were often given more character traits than just "the Indian" or "the bad guy". A lot of younger viewers and modern directors like Quentin Tarantino consider his films racist and dated. Careful viewing and attention to history reveals a different picture.
    • Ford's westerns always used the Navajo tribe of Monument Valley, Utah as extras and he paid them minimum wage on same rates as white actors (rare for any director of that time) and his film productions generated much business and attention and helped their economy. For these actions, the Navajo made him a honorary member of the tribe gave him the honorific Natani Nez (which means Tall Leader). Ford also spoke the Navajo language.
    • Jim Jarmusch, after making Dead Man(a revisionist, Deconstruction of Westerns) made a fair point that his films frequently cast the Navajo as stand-ins for other tribes, perpetuating stereotypes. This is generally true with one exception. The western Wagon Master, obscure, but cited by Ford as one of his favorite films, the only film where the Navajo play Navajo. In any case, while Ford does generally use Navajo to stand-in for other tribes, this is on balance because of limitations than anything else, since he uses the very tiny Monument Valley to stand in for other regions, (Texas in The Searchers most egregiously).
    • His films avert Politically Correct History by constantly highlighting the presence of the Native Americans in the Western landscape(which wasn't as common for Westerns back then) and pointing out the fact that America was built on the violence and destruction of their land and culture. The Searchers was radical for describing the Deliberate Values Dissonance of Missing White Woman Syndrome on the frontier showing that crusading White hero John Wayne is Not So Different from his villain Scar, creating an anti-hero conflict that inspired later directors. Several of his films dealt with racism. Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright highlight the lynch mob mentality that African-Americans routinely feared. in his later years he sought out to make actor Woody Strode into a movie star, with Sergeant Rutledge.
    • Likewise despite the generally macho premise of his films, women play a stronger and more important role in his films than other Westerns, and his final film, 7 Women is Exactly What It Says on the Tin and famously casts a pre-stardom Anne Bancroft in a role that John Wayne would have played, anticipating action movie roles of the kind that Sigourney Weaver would get credit for.
  • Moment of Awesome: Ford worked with documentary crews in the Pacific theater during World War II. He won an Oscar for the documentary The Battle Of Midway parts of which he actually filmed during the battle (he was on the island waiting for transit elsewhere when the attack came). Combat scenes he filmed would be edited into the big epic Midway.
    • Orson Welles watched Stagecoach repeatedly for inspiration before coming to Hollywood to direct his first feature film: Citizen Kane. You might have heard of it. Ford also recruited his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, after seeing the latter's work on Ford's The Long Voyage Home.
    • Perhaps Ford's greatest moment came during the Red Scare. During a meeting at the Directors Guild of America, Cecil B. DeMille was attacking other directors whom he considered to be Communist sympathizers. Ford held his tongue til DeMille started calling William Wyler "Villiam Vyler" and attacked Joseph Mankiewicz. He stood up, and declared, "My name is John Ford. I make Westerns. I don't think there is anyone who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille - and he certainly knows how to give it to them. In that respect I admire him. But I don't like you, C.B. I don't like what you stand for and I don't like what you've been saying here tonight. Joe has been villified and I think he needs an apology." When DeMille remained silent for thirty seconds, Ford added, "Then I believe there is only one alternative, and I hereby so move: that Mr. DeMille and the entire board of directors resign, and that we give Joe a vote of confidence - and then let's all go home and get some sleep. We've got some pictures to make in the morning." And that's exactly what happened: DeMille and the board of directors resigned, Mankiewicz received a vote of confidence, and everyone got some sleep so they could make pictures in the morning.

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