Ford, John (1894-1973)

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Ford, John (1894-1973)

Film director John Ford is a profoundly influential figure in American culture far beyond his own prolific, wide-ranging, and often impressive output in a 50-year plus cinema career that began in the silent era with The Tornado (Universal, 1917). Despite the variety of subject matter he tackled for the screen, he remains historically, critically, and in the public consciousness, as the architect of the Western, the genre on which he cut his teeth during the silent era. It was, however, not only the numerous popular and acclaimed Westerns he made for which he is important: his romantic, émigré's vision of the Old West and the pioneering spirit has crept into the perception of American history, blending idealized fiction into the harsher truth of fact for generations of Americans and, certainly, for non-Americans in the many countries where his work is regarded as a classic staple of Hollywood cinema at its best.

John Ford is the most decorated director in Hollywood history, and his four Academy Awards as best director in part illustrate his range while, curiously, ignoring his westerns (from which he took a decade-long break from 1927). He won his first Oscar for a return to the political roots of Ireland with The Informer (RKO, 1935), a tale of a simple-minded Irishman (Victor McLaglen) who betrays an IRA leader. It was garlanded with Oscars and extravagant critical praise for its stylization and grim atmosphere. Ford returned to Ireland again for The Quiet Man (1952), a Technicolor comedy, vigorous and funny. In between, he was honored by the Academy for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), from Steinbeck's novel about a family trekking to California to escape the disaster of the 1930s dust-bowl, and How Green Was My Valley (1941), a nostalgic tearjerker set in a Welsh mining community. To these films, add The Whole Town's Talking (1935), a comedy melodrama with Edward G. Robinson; the Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie (1938), set in colonial India; Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), What Price Glory (1952), Mogambo (1953) and his last feature, Seven Women (1966), set in an isolated Chinese mission in the 1930s, and one gets an inkling of the depth and range of Ford's interests and his professional skill.

Ford was born Sean O'Feeney in Portland, Maine, on February 1, 1894, one of the many children of his first-generation Irish immigrant parents. Of his siblings, he was closest to his brother Francis, some 12 years his senior. Always restless, Francis ran away from home to seek his fortune at an early age, changed his name to Ford, and forged a modest acting career in the theater, before moving into the film business with Edison and Biograph. By 1913, he was in Hollywood, writing, directing, and acting in silent action serials at Universal Studios, where, in 1914, his younger brother joined him. Known initially as Jack Ford—the name under which he was credited when he began directing, changed to John in 1923—Ford learned the rudiments of filming as gopher, jack-of-all-trades, and apprentice to Francis, eventually being allowed a hand in acting, writing, and camera work. In 1917, just as Francis Ford's star was fading, Universal's founder and chief Carl Laemmle made John Ford a director, entrusting him with The Tornado, a two-reel short. The film was a success, and thus launched the most prolific directing career in film history. In Ford's four and a half years at Universal he made his reputation as a director of westerns, and forged a significant creative relationship with actor Harry Carey, whom he later frequently cited as having been the most important influence on his work outside of his brother Francis. When the fledgling director met Carey, 16 years his senior, the actor had already worked in almost 200 films, and would appear in 25 of Ford's 39 films for Universal. By 1921 Universal had relegated Carey to "B" westerns, but Ford's stock had risen considerably. He had proved himself capable of making films that came in on time, often under budget, and generally turned a profit.

Ford used his increasing reputation to jump ship to Fox, where he made 50 films. The move was well-timed: within a few years after his arrival, Fox rose from a second tier studio to an industry leader, and although Ford, always stubborn, had run-ins with management from time to time, for the most part he enjoyed a freedom few of his counterparts could claim. By 1939 Ford's stock could not have been higher, but he had been absent from his first love, the western, for some ten years. Aware that the genre was not taken seriously by critics but that he certainly was, he determined to use his reputation and influence to bring prestige to westerns. The first fruit of his ambition was Stagecoach (1939), a watershed film that marked the first of the director's nine films to be set in his signature landscape of Monument Valley, and the first of his famous collaborations with John Wayne. Contemporary audiences think of the Valley as a cowboy movie cliché, but Stagecoach was its first appearance and it owes its resonance and associations to Ford's work. As Jane Tompkins argues, for a western film "not just any space will do. Big sky country is a psychological and spiritual place known by definite physical markers. It is the American West, and not just any part of that but the West of the desert, of mountains and prairies, the West of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and some parts of California." Ford's repeated use of Monument Valley caused it to become an archetypal mythic landscape, a virtual stand-in for any and all of the above named places. Never identified by name in any of the Ford films in which it is featured, Monument Valley serves to represent locations as diverse from one another as the city of Tombstone, Arizona (My Darling Clementine, 1946) and the Texas plains (Rio Grande, 1950, The Searchers, 1956).

Stagecoach is in many ways essentially a "B" western, rife with stereotypes, that follows the structure of what would later be known as a "road movie." However, Ford was fully aware of the stereotypes, the use of which, as Richard Slotkin observes, "allowed him to take advantage of genre-based understandings—clichés of plot, setting, characterization, and motivation—to compose an exceptional work marked by moral complexity, formal elegance, narrative and verbal economy, and evocative imagery." Stereotypes or no, the characters were given rich life by a superb cast led by Wayne, Claire Trevor, and Thomas Mitchell, who won an Oscar. The film also won for its music score, and garnered five additional nominations, including those for picture and director. Exquisitely photographed, critic Frank Nugent has called it "A motion picture that sings the song of camera," while John Baxter, writing in 1968, identifies it as "The basic western, a template for everything that followed."

With the huge critical, popular and financial success of Stagecoach, Ford earned the freedom to make just about any western he wanted. By 1941, however, his Hollywood career was on hold while he served as Lieutenant Commander Ford attached to the Navy during World War II. Appointed Chief of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, he made two Academy Award-winning documentary propaganda films, The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7 (1943). After the war Ford returned home and, although he made many other films in between, focused steadily on the estern, beginning with My Darling Clementine (1946), starring Henry Fonda, which marked the beginning of a near ten-year period of filmmaking by Ford that frequently reflected mainstream America's post-war optimism. As Mark Siegel notes, " Clementine seems to reflect an America looking back on the recent world war. One image Americans held of their participation in World War II was that … America needed not just to revenge itself but to make the world a safe and decent place in which to live…. [T]he hopefulness of this movie, which shows Tombstone as an increasingly civilized social center, seems typical of American optimism immediately after World War II." Ford's optimism continued throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, evidenced by such films as his marvellous Cavalry Trilogy, starring Wayne—Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950)—and Wagon Master (1950). But that optimism would not last.

According to Peter Stowell, most of Ford's westerns presented America as a "strong, vibrant, frontier culture that must retain its strength through a wilderness frontier hero, while it demonstrates its progress through a series of civilizing factors." Thanks to Ford's influence, most classic Hollywood westerns share these traits, but towards the end of his career Ford's optimism turned to cynicism, and he began lamenting the progress he had once celebrated. In his later films, most notably The Searchers (1956)—a bitter revenge western starring John Wayne and considered by many to be the director's masterpiece—The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), he began to question the myths that he, more than any other filmmaker, had played such a central role in creating. As Jon Tuska observes, "memories, instead of being cherished, became bitter; progress became a hollow drum that beat mechanically." While Ford's earlier westerns established the tone and morality that typify the classic Hollywood western, these late works, notably The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, paved the way for the moody revisionism that has characterized much of western cinema since.

John Ford died of cancer on August 31, 1973. Shortly before his death he was made the recipient of the first American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award. Since that time Ford's reputation as a filmmaker has continued to grow, and by the end of the twentieth century he was widely considered the most influential director in Hollywood history. His gifts and his influence have been acknowledged over the decades by the finest of his peers throughout world cinema, and Orson Welles spoke for many when, asked which American directors most appealed to him, he replied, "The old masters … by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."

—Robert C. Sickels

Further Reading:

Bogdanovich, Peter. John Ford. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967, 1978.

Darby, William. John Ford's Westerns: A Thematic Analysis with Filmography. Jefferson, McFarland & Co. Inc., 1996.

Davis, Ronald L. John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Gallagher, Tag. John Ford: The Man and His Films. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986.

McBride, Joseph, and Michael Wilmington. John Ford. New York, Da Capo Press, 1975.

Siegel, Mark. American Culture and the Classic Western Movie. Tokyo, Eihosha Ltd., 1984.

Slotkin, Richard. "The Apotheosis of the 'B' Western: John Ford's Stagecoach. " In Gunfighter Nation. New York, Atheneum, 1992, 303-11.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Tuska, Jon. The Filming of the West. New York, Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1976.

Yawn, Mike, and Bob Beatty. "John Ford's Vision of the Closing West: From Optimism to Cynicism." Film & History. Vol. 26, No. 1-4, 1996, 6-19.