Follow TV Tropes


Creator / John Ford

Go To
"My name's John Ford. I make Westerns."

"I prefer the old masters, by which I mean: John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."
Orson Welles, when asked who the three greatest American directors of all time were.

John Ford (born John Martin Feeney; February 1, 1894 – August 31, 1973) was 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 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. A 13-year-old aspiring filmmaker named Steven Spielberg briefly met Ford, who gave him some advice on the value of good shot composition, a moment that is re-created in Spielberg's film The Fabelmans with David Lynch playing Ford.

In The '60s and The '70s, 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, publicly denounced pro-blacklist filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille at a meeting of the Director's Guild and helped blacklisted actors and writers find work. Later in life however, Ford identified himself as a "Maine Republican" in 1947 and supported both Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon though even then, both men were relatively moderate Republicans and Ford's views were still not nearly as right-wing as Wayne or other actors. 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. Ford passed away in 1973.

No relation to the acclaimed writer John M. Ford.

There are several excellent biographies of Ford available, including grandson Dan Ford's Pappy: The Life of John Ford; Joseph McBride's Searching for John Ford; Scott Eyman's Print the Legend; and Peter Bogdanovich's John Ford and John Ford: The Man and His Films by Tag Gallagher. Bogdanovich also produced a feature-length documentary, Directed by John Ford, featuring interviews with Ford and many of his collaborators.

Notable films include:

His work provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Miss Andrews (Margaret Leighton) in 7 Women is a, well, not terribly ambiguous but heavily repressed lesbian, with a giant crush on Emma (Sue Lyon, Lolita herself).
  • 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.
  • Author Appeal: Ford was very proud of his Irish heritage worked it into his films, even managing to convince the studios to let him make two films in Ireland: The Quiet Man and The Rising of the Moon, the first American director to do so. Many members of his famous stock company, such as Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, and Arthur Shields were Irish. In fact he had such a reputation for hiring Irish actors, Anna Lee made up an Irish grandfather for her audition to impress Ford for How Green Was My Valley.
  • Author Avatar: Ward Bond plays director John Dodge in The Wings of Eagles, a biopic of Frank "Spig" Wead, played by John Wayne. Wead was an aviation pioneer who after an accident which crippled him and left him invalid became a screenwriter on many Ford films (including They Were Expendable).
  • 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 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.
    • In Peter Bogdanovich's Directed by John Ford, Maureen O'Hara discussed how the wedding scene in How Green Was My Valley was often believed to contain an accident (where a gust of wind suddenly lifted her character's veil as she stepped down). She insisted that Ford entirley staged this scene, timing the wind machine just right to get this effect, and noted that Ford had a gift of making scenes look "natural" and "accidental" even when they were staged and planned to Ludicrous Precision.
    • Ford noted that he, and other directors assert their personality not so much by controlling or dictating the content so much as controlling the conditions.
      John Ford: People are incorrect to compare a director to an author. If he's a creator, he's more like an architect. And an architect conceives his plans according to precise circumstances.
    • Finally, fed up with Executive Meddling from the studios, Ford became one of the first Hollywood directors to form his own production company, Argosy.
  • Biopic: Mary of Scotland, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Prisoner of Shark Island, The Long Gray Line, The Wings of Eagles, The Last Hurrah, Young Cassidy in addition to many Expy of real-life figures in his Westerns such as Owen Thursday/General Custer in Fort Apache and many other films.
  • Christianity is Catholic: A huge aversion. While Ford, like many Irish Americans, was raised Catholic, his movies pay considerable attention to the diversity of Protestant beliefs in America, especially his westerns. There are Baptists, Quakers, Episcopalians,and in the case of Wagon Master, Mormons (who are treated sympathetically). The one film which Ford made that dealt with Catholicism was The Fugitive (which might be why Ford was personally fixated on that movie).
  • Historical Hero Upgrade / Historical Villain Upgrade: Ford's movies were based on existing historical research and information so there's a lot of fluctuation and ebb and flow, but there are also aversions:
    • Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine is portrayed as a noble lawman bringing civilization to the West, which a casual reading of an Earp biography would consider generous. What's not well known is that years later, in Cheyenne Autumn, Ford cast James Stewart as Earp in a cameo and portrayed him far more accurately as a corrupt sleazebag Anti-Hero.
    • Samuel Mudd in The Prisoner of Shark Island is portrayed as wrongfully accused and innocent of involvement in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln. Later biographers have found convincing evidence that Mudd was in fact a collaborator of Booth and Co, and not entirely spotless as the film paints him to be.
    • Ford's films also deconstruct the process of heroic myths. In Fort Apache, Owen Thursday (a transparent Custer Expynote ) is shown as a mean martinet and Jerkass who gets his soldiers killed but in the end he's remembered as a hero similar to how Custer was remembered as a hero for decades. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance likewise shows what this process means in a very ironic, misremembered quote:
      "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
  • Hollywood Atheist:
    • Despite being a Catholic himself, provided an aversion in his final film, 7 Women, where Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), an atheist doctor working in a religious mission ends up performing a Heroic Sacrifice. The film makes the religious characters deeply unsympathetic while Dr. Cartwright is present as a Distaff Counterpart to John Wayne's usual characters. In the film her atheism doesn't really provide any personal baggage for her and it's simply presented as normal while emphasizing and respecting her humanism. John Ford explained her simply:
      John Ford: She was a doctor—her object in life was to save people. She was a woman who had no religion, but she got in with this bunch of kooks and started acting like a human being.
    • The Searchers plays this straight with Ethan Edwards, who was presumably a religious man once but is now soured, makes repeated demeaning references to religion and mocks priests by describing Christianity as "by what you preach" indicating that he himself is not a Christian anymore. Edwards reason for his atheism is presumably the loss of his loved ones, his time as a Confederate Soldier and general Jerkass nature.
  • Hyperlink Story:
    • His final western, Cheyenne Autumn doesn't really have main central characters. Most of the actions concerns a group of Cheyennes forced off their reservation and most of the action follows their exodus across harsh terrain. Parallel plots concern a Quaker woman (Carroll Baker) who helps them, and a US Cavalry led by Richard Widmark who tracks them, other sections concern real life senator Carl Schurz (played by Edward G. Robinson). The most famous part of the film is an interlude featuring Jimmy Stewart as an anti-heroic Wyatt Earp that is absolutely unconnected to the main plot.
    • Stagecoach is another example. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) doesn't show up for the film's early section, the various subplots concerning the other travellers are given attention while Thomas Mitchell's literary-minded and alcoholic doctor gets most of the lines. Fort Apache likewise is more about the customs and lives of the titular military fort, with the film's hero-villain Owen Thursday being mostly a Flat Character.
    • Of course as a result of what Tag Gallagher calls Ford's "vignette style" many of his films feature this, even the ones which are character studies, thanks to Ford's stock company of supporting players and his skill in making even the most throwaway walk-on roles memorable.
  • The Lad-ette: Normally, this character type is more typical of Howard Hawks films, but Ford's films occasionally provide examples: Ava Gardner's performance in Mogambo (where Ford is more or less channelling Hawks anyway) and most notably, Anne Bancroft in 7 Women with Dr. Cartwright, an atheist doctor alcoholic who is also a Boisterous Bruiser and is presented as a Distaff Counterpart to John Wayne's usual characters.
  • Prima Donna Director:
    • He was not an easy man to work for, viciously insulting his cast and crew to motivate them. John Wayne was the usual butt of Ford's abuse; Ford enjoyed forcing Wayne to take a three-point stance and kicking his backside. While shooting They Were Expendable he was so cruel to Wayne that costar Robert Montgomery refused to continue filming until Ford apologized. He also needled Woody Strode with racial epithets while shooting Sergeant Rutledge, though Strode treated it as a motivational technique. On Mister Roberts he punched Henry Fonda in the face during a heated argument. Fonda forgave Ford, but refused to work for him again.
    • Of course, some of Ford's collaborators (including actors Anna Lee, Shirley Temple and Hank Worden) claim Ford's outbursts were exaggerated in the telling. Worden explained that Ford only picked on actors he felt could handle his ribbing; if an actor was non-responsive, Ford would use gentler techniques. He did make a point to apologize or atone when he went too far...though that usually didn't stop him from doing it again later.
      Maureen O'Hara: We used to call him the meanest S.O.B. that ever was. But he was our S.O.B. We adored him. A difficult old devil, but the greatest director that the picture business has ever known.
  • 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 and women playing a major role. His Westerns moreover constantly highlight the violence and hypocrisy that went into the building of America.
  • Scenery Porn: Ford's films are remarkable for its visual beauty, in both colour and black-and-white. The exterior photography, be it the West in Monument Valley Utah or Ireland in County Mayo, or the African Savanna,note  will provide you with some of the most gorgeous shots in film history. Many cinematographers who worked with him recieved Oscars for their work. Ford who was inspired by paintingnote  are admired by film-makers for its eye for composition and framing that pays attention to character movement, lighting and narrative and provides characterization by camera placement and blocking. As per an anecdote by Steven Spielberg as retold in the documentary, Directed by John Ford, the young Spielberg got a rare chance to meet John Ford in an office with a lot of Western paintings. Ford noted that the young Spielberg wanted to be a director and in a bit of Secret Test of Character asked him to look at the paintings and tell him where the horizon was in each picture, at the top or the bottom of the frame. Spielberg noted that the horizon was never in the middle, to which Ford said: "If you come to the conclusion that it's more interesting to put the horizon at the top or the bottom of the frame, and never in the middle, you might become a good picture maker."
  • 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:
    Mrs. Jorgensen: "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.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Surprisingly common in Ford's work, notably the drunken actor reciting Hamlet in My Darling Clementine and Peabody declaiming the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
  • The Western: What Ford is best known for. His classics - The Iron Horse, 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).