John Sean O'Feeney Ford

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John Sean O'Feeney Ford

John Sean O'Feeney Ford (ca. 1895-1973) was an American film director who, with other pioneers in the movie industry, transformed a rudimentary entertainment medium into a highly personalized and expressive art form.

John Sean O'Feeney Ford was born around February 1, 1895, the youngest child of Irish immigrant parents. Ford graduated from high school in 1913 and attended the University of Maine. He entered the film industry in 1914 as a property man, directed his first film, Tornado, in 1917, and continued to produce silent films at the rate of five to ten each year. He established his reputation as a leading silent-film maker with The Iron Horse (1924), one of the first epic westerns, and Four Sons (1928), his initial attempt at a personal cinematic statement. Both films are now part of the silent-screen museum repertory.

But Ford was to make his great contribution as a director of talking motion pictures and in 1935 produced The Informer, often described as the first creative sound film. Dealing with a tragic incident in the Irish Rebellion of 1922, Ford and his scriptwriter transformed a melodramatic novel into a compassionate, intensely dramatic, visually expressive film. It received the Academy Award and the New York Film Critics Award for best direction. That same year Ford directed Steamboat 'Round the Bend and The Whole Town's Talking, which though neglected at the time are now considered on a par with The Informer.

With Stagecoach (1939) Ford established the American western as mythic archetype. His sculptured landscapes and pictorial compositions immediately impressed critics and audiences. With this film Ford formally renounced the realistic montage film theories of D.W. Griffith and the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein to develop a film esthetic that substituted camera movement and precise framing of spatial relationships for dramatic cutting and visual contrast. Ford utilized auditory effects to increase a scene's psychological tension.

In 1940 Ford began work on the film version of John Steinbeck's Depression novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Ignoring Steinbeck's propagandistic intentions and philosophizing, Ford concentrated on the human elements in the story and unified the episodic structure of the novel with a controlled use of visual symbolism. The film remains remarkable in several respects, most notably in Ford's ability to achieve an appropriately harsh and naturalistic style without sacrificing his poetic sensibility. This success brought the director his second Oscar and New York Film Critics Award. The following year Ford's most romantic film, How Green Was My Valley, a lyrical and nostalgic evocation of life in a Welsh mining town, earned him his third series of awards.

In addition to his work for the American Office of Strategic Services during World War II, Ford produced two excellent naval documentaries in 1945, a sex hygiene film for soldiers, and a commercial war movie, They Were Expendable (1945). After the war Ford released his second great western, My Darling Clementine (1946), which combined epic realism with poetic luminosity to create the most beautiful western to date. This was Ford's finest film. Only slightly less successful were Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). His best film of the early 1950s was The Quiet Man (1952), a delightfully energetic comedy about exotic domestic rituals in a small Irish province, for which he received his fourth Oscar. The Searchers (1957) was an intense, psychological western about a group of pioneers seeking a young girl captured by the Indians. Ford next turned to the conflicts of ward politics in the Irish section of Boston in The Last Hurrah (1958).

With the exception of Sergeant Rutledge (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963), Ford's films of the 1960s were not on the same level as his earlier work. Cheyenne Autumn (1964), treating the tragedy of the American Indian, lacked his characteristic personal involvement and visual freshness. Young Cassidy, a biography of writer Sean O'Casey, was abandoned by the ailing Ford and completed by a lesser British director. Partially deaf and afflicted with poor vision (he wore a patch over one eye), Ford lived with his wife in Los Angeles during the early 1970s and died in 1973.

Over the years Ford evolved a concise cinematic vocabulary, consisting of subtle camera movement, graduated long shots, and unobtrusive editing. Notable for their realistic detail, pictorial beauty, and dynamic action sequences, his films have exerted a pronounced influence on the work of other directors. Winner of numerous awards and international citations, Ford is unique among American directors in having won the admiration of the middlebrow, establishment critics for his early social dramas (The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath) and the respect of the intellectual European and avant-garde critics for the more stylized films (My Darling Clementine, The Searchers) of his later years. As film historian Andrew Sarris recorded, "Ford developed his craft in the twenties, achieved dramatic force in the thirties, epic sweep in the forties, and symbolic evocation in the fifties."

Further Reading

The outstanding critical and biographical studies of Ford are in French. The only full-length work in English is Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford (1968). Of particular interest are sections in Roger Manvell, Film (1946); George Bluestone, Novels into Film (1957); and Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, 1929-1968 (1968). Jean Mitry's Cahiers du cinema interview with the director can be found in Andrew Sarris, ed., Interviews with Film Directors (1968). □