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Ford, Harrison (1942—)

Ford, Harrison (1942—)

Starring in two of the most successful film trilogies of all time, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones adventures, actor Harrison Ford became the action hero for a new generation of blockbusters in the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout the 1990s he further consolidated his film star appeal and was voted "The Greatest Movie Star of All Time" by Empire magazine in October 1997.

Ford's most notable roles prior to Star Wars were appearances in George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973) and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), establishing him as a competent character actor and, more importantly, making him known to the "Movie Brat" directors who came to dominate commercial cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. The most famous biographical fact about Ford was that he was working as a carpenter to the stars when Lucas called him in to take part in auditions for a new science-fiction project. Breaking all box office records and establishing the trend for special-effects blockbusters, Star Wars (1977) was a much bigger film than any of its actors; but Ford's Han Solo clearly had the edge as an attractive rogue—a cowboy in the first film, a romantic hero in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and a freedom fighter in Return of the Jedi (1983).

Apart from a lighthearted cowboy role in The Frisco Kid (1979), for a while it seemed that Ford was going to be typecast in war movies, as the Vietnam veteran in Heroes (1977), the action man in Force 10 from Navarone (1978), the romantic hero in Hanover Street (1979), and the sum of his associations as Captain Lucas in Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). But it was with the release of Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 that Ford was able to take center screen in an altogether different, but still highly familiar set of adventures. As an archaeologist in the 1930s, the Indiana Jones character was able to combine all of the essential action fantasies of the Lucas-Spielberg team; as typified by the first film, for example, this adventurer could take part in a mythic quest against the Nazis—fantasy and war movie heroics lovingly packaged in Saturday morning serial form. The two sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), clearly established Ford as the family action hero of the decade, an actor who combined elements of Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant, partly in his looks and his acting style, partly in the types of pastiche films which he chose, and all in contrast to the solely muscle-bound poundings of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ford's performances in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and Peter Weir's Witness (1985) may, in fact, remain his most interesting in this respect. Not overtly commercial films, they nevertheless established Ford as an actor with understated authority, comparisons with 1940s film noir in the former and High Noon in the latter, serving to enhance, rather than detract from his contemporary generic appeal. Although possibly Ford's least favorite film, Blade Runner nevertheless gained cult and now classic status, and for Witness he gained his only Academy Award nomination. Ford probably demonstrated his greatest acting range as a stubborn inventor in Weir's The Mosquito Coast (1986), but it is still a performance in a film without simple generic identity, balanced by his next two films, Mike Nichols's romantic comedy Working Girl (1987) and Roman Polanski's Hitchcockian thriller Frantic (1988).

Ford's attractiveness lies in the fact that he's something of a reluctant star who can nevertheless bring authority and appeal to the most generic of films. Part of his ongoing success has been due to the deliberation and discrimination with which he has chosen his films, taking care to alternate action with light comedy and drama, and working with the most professional directors available. After two of his most mediocre films, Alan J. Pakula's solid courtroom drama Presumed Innocent (1990) and Mike Nichols's sentimental Regarding Henry (1991), Ford had the sense to move on to action thrillers, starring as Jack Ryan in the high-tech Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), and as the innocent doctor on the run in The Fugitive (1993).

Two of Ford's most ill-received films appeared in 1995 and 1996; in the old-fashioned remake of Sabrina he played the Bogart role, and in The Devil's Own he courted controversy. Though Ford often noted that he choose films with "strong" stories, some of his films have had controversial political agendas. Both Patriot Games and The Devil's Own offered a simplistic vision of the IRA situation in Ireland. Clear and Present Danger, however, is actually quite radical in its attack on sub-Republican government, while Air Force One (1997) offers a more populist political agenda. Directed by Wolfgang Peterson, Air Force One is an undeniably professional action film, but with Ford playing a U.S. president who gets to fight back at terrorists, too contemporary, perhaps, to avoid "political" readings. From these films with deliberate political currents, Ford moved on to Ivan Reitman's lightweight "castaway" comedy Six Days, Seven Nights (1998), playing the sort of cantankerous figure Cary Grant played in his later years. Another classic comparison for an actor who also happens to be one of the most important stars of the contemporary era.

—Stephen Keane

Further Reading:

Clinch, Minty. Harrison Ford: A Biography. London, New English Library, 1987.

Jenkins, Garry. Harrison Ford: Imperfect Hero. London, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

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