Hollywood film director John Ford was born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine on February 1st 1894 and died on August 31st 1973, at the age of 79. He is best remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time, who had an uncanny ability of knowing exactly where to place his camera and get the best out of his actors. In short, Ford is an icon of cinema, whose films not only managed to mythologized the Old West, but along the way undoubtedly made actor John Wayne a screen legend.
It wasn’t by accident that he fell into the motion picture industry. He followed his older brother to Hollywood, where he assisted his successful brother as a stagehand, prop man and as an occasional actor. Eventually after servicing his apprenticeship under his brother, he would come to realize that his real talents lay behind the camera. Therefore, it wasn’t long before he was first making a name for himself, as a silent film director, many of which were Westerns.
Interestingly, Hollywood Westerns were a dim a dozen in those early days, especially in the 1930’s and most of them forgettable B movies at best, until John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) began a resurgence in ‘quality’ Western films. Today we consider it a landmark film, and a career-defining picture for one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. He went on to make a treasure trove of classic westerns, which included the likes of Fort Apache (1949), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon(1949), Rio Grande (1950) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
It is probably fitting that if we are to remember Ford as a famous Western films director, we cannot go by without mentioning his favourite western location, Utah’s Monument Valley. His commanding use of this particular location (Utah) forever defined what audiences think of when they imagine the American West.
Yet, despite the fact that he is best known for his Westerns and arguably his trademark long shots, he was also versatile enough to explore and film adaptations of classic 20th century novels and short stories such as, The Informer (1935), a drama about the underbelly of the Irish War of Independence; and The Quite Man (1952), a romantic comedy-drama about the homecoming of an Irish-American, who travels back to Ireland to claim back his family’s farm. Interestingly, it was with these types of films that Ford made away from the western genre, that he was incredibly decorated with a record four Academy Awards for Best Director.
For students of cinema, film buffs and readers in general, here below is what I believe are the ten essential films that say something about John Ford as a great storyteller and visual artist. I hope that you agree with my choices, but I am always happy for you to persuade me otherwise.
No. 10 The Informer (1935).
The Informer is a prickly drama about Gypo Nolan, a desperate Irish drunkard, who desperately needs money to start a new life with his girlfriend in America. When the opportunity to make some quick cash comes in the form of a reward for the whereabouts of his best friend, a member of the IRA wanted by the British authorities, Nolan doesn’t hesitate to give him up. But soon after receiving his blood money for his treachery, Nolan realizes that the “reward” ultimately comes at great personal cost and anguish.
The Informer was loosely based on Liam O’Flaherty’s novel of the same name; which saw the film’s star Victor McLaglen, win an Oscar for his performance as a guilt ridden informant. John Ford took home the first of his four Academy Awards for best director and Dudley Nicholas, who wrote the script in six days, also received an Oscar for his screenplay. Of interest also to some readers is the fact that The Informer has been praised repeatedly over the decades since its release for its moody expressionistic style, which was augmented with shadows and fogs in low-key lighting by cinematographer Joseph August.
No. 9 Fort Apache (1948).
Fort Apache was the first of three cavalry pictures by John Ford. It was followed in quick succession by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950). While all three films starred the rugged John Wayne, Fort Apache in the eyes of most observers is considered as a Henry Fonda film rather than a Wayne vehicle. Interestingly, Fonda gives one of his best performances playing against type, as a lieutenant colonel who eventually leads his men to their death because of his bullheadedness and blind ambition. Importantly, Fort Apache puts racism, leadership and the wisdom of men under the spotlight and how myths are made in an attempt to protect the greater importance of military institutions.
No. 8 Stagecoach (1939).
The film’s plot deals with an eclectic group of travellers, adventure bound for Lordsburg through hostile territory. The interaction between the strangers on the stagecoach, intercut with some amazing action scenes, in particular its infamous ‘Indian attack’ chase sequence, allows us to see many of travelling party for who they really are. In short, a strong performance from John Wayne, as the fugitive Ringo Kid, out for revenge for the murder of his father and brother, leaves no doubt that Wayne had cemented his place as an ‘A’ list actor. Notably it would be the first time in film history that Monument Valley would appear on screen with its picturesque landscape of towering sandstone buttes. In short, Stagecoach was a game-changer for the Western genre.
No. 7 The Quiet Man (1952).
Ford first acquired the rights to The Quiet Man in 1936. It eventually took him sixteen years to make his beloved ode to Ireland and most critics agree it was worth the wait. In some respects The Quiet Man also helped shaped Irish identity in the US. It particularly struck a strong accord with Irish immigrants whose feelings of displacement ran deep in their psyche. (Moreover, it is a rare Hollywood film where Gaelic is spoken.) Shot in glorious Technicolor, the picturesque Irish countryside (shot on actual location) never looked better as the backdrop for Ford’s story of a retired boxer (John Wayne), who returns to the old country to reclaim his family’s property and inadvertently falls in love with a fiery redhead local (Maureen O’Hara).
While the rose tinted lens of Ford’s idealized vision of the Irish Free State of the 1920s is forgivable, you cannot take away the fact that this film is typical of John Ford at his best. Under his direction, he gets out of his cast some truly stunning performances, in particular the seemingly perfect pairing of John Wayne (in a role we are not accustomed to seeing him play) and Irish-born Maureen O’Hara. Winner of two Oscars for Best Director and Cinematography, The Quiet Man is a wonderfully spirited film that is often genuinely funny and one that leans cleverly on old fashioned sentiment.
No. 6 How Green Was My Valley (1941).
John Ford brought to life his adaption of the novel How Green Was My Valley about a Welsh coal-mining family only a year after his triumph with The Grapes of Wrath. Moreover, with Ford at the helm, it won an Academy Award for Best Picture, upstaging everyone including Citizen Kane at the 14th Academy Awards ceremony. Ford would also go on to win his third Oscar for Best Director and the fortuitous choice to film in black and white also earned Arthur C. Miller an Oscar for Best Cinematography. Interestingly, under the original director assigned to the film, William Wyder, How Green Was My Valley was meant to be a dazzling technicolor spectacular filmed in Wales before it ended up opportunistically in the hands of John Ford. Under Ford, the production was brought to California because of the Second World War and shot in black-and-white to give it a more gritty feel. In truth, the colour of Southern Californian flowers apparently had a lot to do with it being filmed in black-and-white because they did not match those found in Wales.
In short, the film is narrated by an older Huw Morgan (Irving Pichel), who reflects on his childhood memories of his father and four brothers, as they manage to drag themselves up the towns hill everyday to work in the pit. He also recalls the loss of his childhood innocence, a town divided by wage cuts and strikes and ultimately family loss.
No. 5 She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
Why does the second of John Ford’s celebrated “Cavalry Trilogy” sit so high on this top ten list? In short, it’s because it’s an enduring favourite amongst fans and critics of John Ford’s films; which stars John Wayne as Captain Nathan Brittles, an ageing cavalry veteran, assigned one last mission (before his retirement from military service) of escorting his commanding officer’s wife and niece through hostile Arapaho territory to the stagecoach post at Sudrow’s Wells.
With its intriguing story set against the aftermath of Lieutenant Colonel Custard’s last stand, some of the most amazing cinematography ever filmed and solid all round performances from a great ensemble cast, there really is good reason to praise this film so highly. Though, if I can find fault with one thing about the film, it might be the somewhat optimistic ending of Brittle being assigned a new post (apparently Wayne insisted on the ending) which feels a little on the nose. Personally, I would rather liked to have seen Brittle fade off into retirement as an ageing hero.
No. 4 My Darling Clementine (1946).
Far from being historically accurate, especially in the retelling of the legend of the gunfight at the OK Corral, the film was allowed to take on a life of its own because John Ford believed mythmaking was sometimes more important than real events, especially in storytelling. Moreover, the uncanny way he recreated his look at American life and the Wild West appealed to audiences who didn’t seem to question his patriotism.
It follows the story of Wyatt Earp, as he takes on the position of town marshal, after his brother’s murder by the Clanton clan. Making a vow to stay in Tombstone, until his brother’s killers are found, he soon runs into the hard-drinking Doc Holliday and a young woman named Chihuahua. It is here that Ford explores their relationships with each other, before we eventually build to Wyatt Earps’ long-awaited revenge against the Clanton clan at the OK Corral.
Of interest is Ford’s choice for Wyatt Earp, which went to Henry Fonda over action hero John Wayne. In hindsight there can be no doubt that Fonda exhibited all the humanist characteristic Ford had hoped for Wyatt Earp. Fonda is without a doubt a thoughtful strong actor whose facial expression and gestures in particular brought a quiet satisfaction to many of the key scenes in this character study film.
No. 3 The Searchers (1956).
John Ford’s The Searchers wasn’t originally received well during its release, but in time after further appraisal it would come to be seen as one of the greatest Westerns ever made. It stands out for several reasons but primarily because of its marvellous score, its game-changing cinematography, especially its astonishing use of landscape around Monument Valley; and its underlining story about a man out for revenge. John Ford was certainly a director throughout his career who was prepared to take risks and no more so than with The Searchers. It is brave and bold, but also unapologetic in its racist attitudes to Native Americans, something that we would all probably today express an inward shiver of embarrassment thanks to enlightened eyes. But that’s the beauty of this western because The Searchers was made to shock us and question the validity of one man’s crusade to find his missing niece taken captive by a race of people he despises.
No. 2 The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
John Ford’s own understanding and fondness of the American people and their history is no more evident than in his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. It is one of the important motion pictures ever that dealt with the physical and psychological hardship and social dislocation caused by the Great Depression. Based on the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (first published in 1939) by John Steinbeck, it follows the story of the Joad family, who get kicked off their land in Oklahoma, and are forced to search for a better life in California.
Everyone, including Ford realized they were making an important motion picture and it came as no surprise that Ford made every scene count no matter how important or insignificant. As a filmmaker he certainly knew what he wanted his pictures to look like and used his directorial style to get the best out of his film crew, actors and actresses. Typically, though he clashed with many individuals on set, but no one could begrudge his vision and work ethic to make The Grapes of Wrath a truly remarkable picture. For his efforts, Ford would pick up another Oscar for Best Director. In short, it is also said that Ford’s clever appointment of cinematographer Gregg Toland, who gives the film its almost documentary look, was godsend to the artistic success of the film. Of interest, it’s a shame Henry Fonda was robbed of an Oscar for his performance as the film’s anti-hero, Tom Joad.
No. 1 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
John Ford’s love affair with the old west throughout his long career peaks and boils over in arguably his greatest film masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It is particularly fitting in the film’s most famous line – “this is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” – that Ford celebrates his gusto for mythmaking here too.
The film opens with Senator Ransom Stodbard (James Steward) returning to the small frontier town of Shinbone to pay his respects to an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who died broke and drunk and lost to the annals of history as a nobody. But Doniphon wasn’t a nobody, he was in fact the real man who shot the seemingly inhuman outlaw Liberty Valance, and gave Stodbard the credit for killing Liberty Valance to help him launch his political career. When a newspaper reporter approaches Stodbard on the day of Doniphon’s funeral, and asks him why a United States senator would travel across the entire country for a local funeral in Shinbone, Stodbard decides to tell the truth about his unearned reputation as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”.
Cleverly filmed in black-and-white to evoke a sense of nostalgia, Stodbard’s story is told in flashback in a thoughtful manner that focuses on Ford’s central theme, that sometimes it’s necessary to invent a hero, particularly when a suitable hero doesn’t exist. In many ways, Ford’s film is also a sombre glimpse into the death throes of an old world being eclipsed by the progress of the new.
It’s almost a shame that the film only earned a lone Oscar nomination for Best Costume, but when you consider the stellar films it was up against in 1962, particularly Lawrence of Arabia, it’s understandable that audiences and critics might have tired of westerns by then. The years since its initial release have nonetheless been good to Ford’s late-career masterpiece, so much so that I believe it’s more or less a toss of the coin as to whether or not it stands as Ford’s quintessential film. In my book it just scraps in ahead of both The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath.
Great analysis! I love the history and back story you put in here. I admit Ford is not really for me. The racism of “The Searchers” makes the film simply unwatchable for me. You may have heard the take Cody and I recently gave “How Green Was My Valley” on the Green Screen podcast. It was okay but we weren’t that impressed. Why did those miners never stop singing? Anyway thanks for the great rundown here. Hope you do more of these.
Great write-up Robert. With regard to Monument Valley, it’s truly magical, and one of the most dramatically beautiful places in America, if not the entire planet.
Great post, Robert!