John Ford is chiefly remembered as a director of Westerns, including The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Fort Apache (1948), many of which starred John Wayne. One of the pioneers of the American cinema, Ford and his Westerns helped define the genre and, in no small way, define the United States itself in the movies. In total, Ford directed 130 films during his 50-year career and won seven Academy Award Oscars, including four as best director, a record never yet topped.
He is also fondly recalled by several generations of Irish Americans who have made an annual tradition of watching the mostly light-hearted drama The Quiet Man (1952), which also starred John Wayne, out of nostalgia for a home island most of them have never seen in person. Few people, especially those who are too young to have been alive during the theatrical release of many of his films in the 1930s and 1940s, realize Ford successfully worked in a wide variety of film genres and won four Best Director Oscars for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man. Nor do they realize he volunteered in 1941 to join the U.S. Navy to serve as chief of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), military forerunner of the civilian CIA, and filmed several naval battles. His documentaries The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943) also won Oscars.
In 1914, he followed his elder brother Francis Feeney (1881–1953), an actor, director, and screenwriter, who had taken the stage name Francis Ford, out to Hollywood, and took the stage name Jack Ford. His given name was John Augustine Feeney Jr., but in 1923, he would again change his name from Jack Ford to John Ford. Between 1914 and 1917, he worked as a propman, stuntman, actor, and assistant director. In 1917, he directed his first film, The Tornado (1917), a two-reel film, for Universal Pictures. His first hit film was a Western, The Iron Horse (1924). In 1920, he doubled his salary by switching from Universal to Fox.
In 1927, he traveled to Germany to shoot background footage for Four Sons and met the Expressionist director F. W. Murnau (1888–1931). Although he generally preferred naturalism, he would later use expressionistic techniques in The Informer (1935). His first talkie was The Black Watch (1929).
According to literature professor Peter Stowell, Ford’s best silent film was Three Bad Men (1926). Ford remade it as Three Godfathers (1948). Of his Westerns, Ford’s personal favorite was Wagonmaster (1950), which concerned a Mormon wagon train headed out west to Utah Territory. It inspired the television series Wagon Train (1957–1965), which starred two of Ford’s unofficial troupe, Ward Bond and Harry Carey Jr.
Some critics consider The Searchers, based on Alan Le May’s book of the same name, his masterpiece. John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a Confederate who concludes his kidnapped niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), would be better off dead than as a squaw, and tries to kill her. Her foster brother, Martin Pawley (Jeffery Hunter), intervenes. When Edwards and Martin join a U.S. Army attack on the Comanche camp, Martin kills the chief and Edwards scalps him. This time, when Edwards reaches Debbie, he takes her home and leaves her with Martin. In Frankly My Dear, “Gone with the Wind” Revisited, Molly Haskell called Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941) and Ethan Edwards “cinematic monuments.”
Others consider The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be Ford’s finest Western. It concerns the end of the frontier and the nature of truth. Senator Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) attends the funeral of rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Stoddard confesses to a reporter that it was not he who killed the bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) in a duel, but Doniphon. Newspaper publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) will never let this truth come out. He says one of the most famous lines in cinematic history, “This is the West, sir. When the legend contradicts the facts, print the legend.” In fact, one biography of Ford is called Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. There is a scene in the metafictional 24 Hour Party People (2002) where the real Howard Devoto appears on screen to dispute something done by an actor playing him and Steve Coogan says, “But I agree with John Ford, if you have to choose between the truth and legend, print the legend.”
Movie critics and biographers of Ford have often referred to his Cavalry Trilogy—Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), all of which starred John Wayne—inspired by James Warner Bellah short stories. In doing so, they ignore a fourth U.S. Cavalry film directed by Ford, which concerned Buffalo Soldiers (as post–Civil War Black cavalrymen were known out west), Sergeant Rutledge (1960).
Ford was capable of directing in diverse genres. Judge Priest (1934) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953) are comedies based on the works of Irvin S. Cobb. Mogambo (1953), which starred Clark Gable, Ava Gardener, and Grace Kelly, is a melodrama set in Africa. The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) is a mistaken identity comedy starring Edward G. Robinson. Wee Willie Winkie (1937) is an action adventure film in colonial India starring child star Shirley Temple. In How Green Was My Valley, Ford adapted Richard Llewellyn’s novel about a Welshman’s reminisces of growing up in a coalmining family. Mister Roberts (1955) is a mixture of comedy and drama set on an unimportant naval ship during World War II starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemon. Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958) is a police procedural mystery starring Jack Hawkins. Donovan’s Reef (1963) is a comedy about American expatriates living in the South Seas, U.S. Navy veterans played by John Wayne and Lee Marvin.
In addition to the 130 or so films he directed alone, Ford directed the “Civil War” segment of How the West Was Won (1962). He directed some second unit work for Wayne when Wayne directed and starred in The Alamo (1960).
Ford worked exclusively with Fox between 1921 and 1931, and directed 10 films for Fox studio boss Darryl Zanuck between 1936 and 1946. He directed Arrowsmith (1931), an adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name, for independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, who released it through United Artists. Ford also worked with Universal, Warner Brothers, and other studios. As an independent producer, his films were released through RKO, Republic, or Paramount. He had a reputation for finishing the production of a movie on time and under budget.
The first of Ford’s Argosy independent films was The Fugitive (1947), an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, about a priest martyred by an atheistic government. The last Argosy film was The Quiet Man.
His films in general had panoramic views of the landscape or seascape that placed human activity in the context of the natural environment. His Westerns were often filmed in Monument Valley in Arizona. Ford hardly ever used panning shots except when tracking horsemen. John Wayne explained, “He didn’t believe in keeping the camera in motion; he moved his people toward the camera and away from it.” His style of cinematography in those films is often cited as influence on Akira Kurosawa (1910–1938), who himself inspired a number of American directors, including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
According to historian Thomas Cripps, there was hardly any representation of American Indians in Ford’s earliest Westerns made in the silent film era. By contrast, with his later Westerns filmed in Arizona’s Monument Valley, he employed many Navahos from the reservation as extras, bit players, and laborers, and he insisted they be paid on the Hollywood scale. He did so much for the Navaho economy that he was inducted into the tribe as an honorary member with the name Natani Nez (“Tall Soldier”).
Arrowsmith was a groundbreaking film because of its depiction of a black physician, Dr. Oliver Marchand (Clarence Brooks). The eponymous hero, Dr. Martin Arrowsmith (played by Ronald Colman), meets the Howard University–educated Dr. Marchand when he goes to the West Indies to test a cure for the bubonic plague.
There was another good role for a black actor in Ford’s highly fictionalized account of Dr. Samuel Mudd’s imprisonment as an alleged conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination, entitled The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Buck (Ernest Whitman), a slave of Dr. Mudd (Warner Baxter), joins the U.S. Army to become a guard on the fictitious Shark Island and helps Dr. Mudd when the prison’s army surgeon falls ill and Mudd must deal with an outbreak of yellow fever.
Sergeant Rutledge starred Willie Strode as First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white girl and the murder of her father, and Jeffery Hunter as Lt. Tom Cantrell, Rutledge’s friend and defense counsel. It is surprising that critics do not pay more attention to Sergeant Rutledge, given that as with The Searchers, which is often upheld as an example of an antiracist film, with Sergeant Rutledge Ford very much takes a stance against racism.
The Quiet Man (1952) is Ford’s best known film about Irishmen and was actually filmed in Eire, but it was far from his only film about Irishmen. To get enough money to sail to the United States, Victor McLaglen played a man who sold out his IRA friend to the British in The Informer (1935). McLaglen won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. In The Long Grey Line (1955), Tyrone Power played an Irish immigrant who spends about half a century as a noncommissioned officer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Power also narrated The Rising of the Moon (1957), Ford’s semi-comic anthology film with three sections, all set in Ireland.
The Quiet Man starred John Wayne as Irish American professional boxer Sean Thornton, who returns to his mother’s (fictional) hometown of Innisfree after accidentally killing a man in the ring, and Maureen O’Hara as Mary Kate Danaher, a daughter of the local gentry who does not understand her husband’s reluctance to pummel her brother into handing over her dowry. Ward Bond played Father Peter Lonergan, the elder of the two Catholic priests in the village, with whom Maureen O’Hara has a famous scene in which her character confesses to him in Irish Gaelic while he was fishing that she refused to sleep with her husband on their wedding night. The film was inspired by Green Rushes, an anthology of five short stories set at the conclusion of the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921) by Maurice Walsh (1879–1964), which was published in 1935. Victor McLaglen is best known now for playing the obstinate, domineering brother-in-law in The Quiet Man, but he had starred in many of Ford’s films and won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Informer. Innisfree is a delightful place where Father Peter Lonergan leads the town’s Catholic majority into masquerading as Protestants so the vicar and his wife will not be transferred.
By contrast, The Last Hurrah (1958), which Ford made for Columbia Pictures, is a much more cynical look at the Irish American political class in Boston, adapted from a book of the same name by Len O’Connor. It starred Spencer Tracy (1900–1967) as Mayor Frank Skeffington, clearly a stand-in for Mayor James Michael Curley of Boston (though O’Connor always denied this), an old-fashioned political boss. Jeffery Hunter played his nephew, newspaperman Adam Caulfield, who witnesses the uncle’s last election campaign.
Ford tended to work with the same screenwriters, stagehands, and cameramen. Between 1920 and 1935, he made 22 films with cameraman Gorge Schneiderman. Dudley Nicholas (1895–1960) wrote 13 screenplays that Ford directed. Frank “Spig” Wead (1895–1947), a naval aviator and screenwriter, wrote the screenplays for two of Ford’s films: Air Mail (1932) and They Were Expendable (1945). Ford played tribute to him in The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wayne played Wead, Maureen O’Hara played his wife, Min, and Bond Ward played Ford’s humorously named stand-in director John Dodge. Ford worked frequently with former New York Times movie critic Frank S. Nugent (1908–1965). He wrote or cowrote the screenplays for Fort Apache (1948), 3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), Mister Roberts (1955), The Searchers (1956), The Last Hurrah (1958), and Donovan’s Reef (1963). Even before they directly worked together, Nugent had worked as an editor on the screenplay for Grapes of Wrath. Another writer who had a large impact on Ford’s career was James W. Bellah (1899–1976), who wrote the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as well as three short stories and one novel that inspired Ford’s U.S. Cavalry films.
Ford also worked with many actors and actresses again and again. He knew what he could get out of them. Harry Carey Sr. starred in 26 of Ford’s silent films, all of them Westerns, and had a supporting role in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). They were not officially a stock company, but they have been collectively labeled the John Ford Stock Company. Some of these people were his friends or relatives, but not all of them were members of his social circle. They included Francis Ford, John Ford’s elder brother and mentor; Henry Fonda; General James “Jimmy” Stewart; John Wayne; Spencer Tracy; Harry Carey Jr.; Will Rogers; Tom Mix; Victor McLaglen; Richard Widmark; Jeffery Hunter; Woody Strode; Lee Marvin; John Wayne’s son Patrick; Gloria Stuart; Shirley Temple; Maureen O’Hara; Ward Bond; Pedro Armendáriz; Mae Marsh, with whom Ford attended D. W. Griffith’s wake; John Carradine; Wallace Ford, who was not related to John Ford; Stepin Fetchit; and Donald Crisp, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the narrator’s father in How Green Was My Valley.
John Ford was born under the name John Augustine Feeney Jr. in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, to Irish immigrants on February 1, 1895. He would later tell people his birth name was Sean Aloysius O’Fearna, which he had anglicized as John Ford and his parents were named Sean O’Fearna and Barbara “Abbey” Curran O’Fearna. Some biographers take this at face value.
His father was a saloon keeper. Both his parents were from Galloway in far western Ireland, the part of the country he would romanticize in The Quiet Man. Some biographers say his parents changed the family name from O’Fearna to O’Feeney. Ford’s grandson Dan Ford tells a different story. According to him, the family was already known as Feeney in Ireland, John Ford was born under the name John Ford, and Ford’s brother Eddie O’Fearna, who worked for Ford as an assistant, starting at Universal in 1917, changed his surname to the Gaelic spelling of Feeney to distinguish himself from Francis Ford and John Ford.
On July 3, 1920, Ford married Mary McBryde Smith, a former officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. It was a successful marriage in that the couple had two children, but Mrs. Ford was treated as an interloper by the Fords and Hollywood alike. Ford’s family did not care for her and the feeling was mutual. She was a Protestant from the Deep South and they did not approve of a wedding performed by someone other than a Catholic priest. Also, while his parents were emigrants from Ireland, she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so she had much deeper roots in the United States. The Fords considered her a snob. In Hollywood, she was an outsider, because she was neither in the moviemaking business herself nor was she the daughter or sister of one of Ford’s peers.
Ford could often be seen on the set of his films with a cigar in one hand and possibly an alcoholic drink in the other. The Fords never separated, much less divorced, but his binge drinking and infidelities took a toll on the marriage.
In 1921, he made his first trip to Galway, Ireland. He spent six months there.
Fox had intended to actually film How Green Was My Valley in Wales, but the outbreak of World War II had made that impossible, so Ford built a Welsh coalmining town set at what became Century Ranch in Malibu Canyon. Ford won his second Academy Award for Best Director in a row for this picture, his third overall, the first time a director won the award two years in a row.
On September 11, 1941, Ford was commissioned into the U.S. Navy with the rank of commander. He headed the Field Photographic Branch of the OSS. His 15 film crews made training films for military use and documentaries for the public. They were responsible for aerial reconnaissance. After the war, his crews collected photographic evidence of Nazi atrocities for later use at the Nuremburg trials.
In 1953, Ford went to Africa to film Mogambo. He also had cataracts removed from both his eyes. His right eye became sensitive to light and he took to wearing an eye patch.
Ford’s last two commercial films, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), a Western from the point of view of American Indians, and Seven Women (1966), which concerned American missionaries in China, bombed at the box office. His reputation was as a director of Westerns at a time when the Western genre was still going strong on television but not the cinema, and as a conservative in an era that was leftist. In the 1970s, he made two military-themed documentaries that went unreleased. Ford’s reputation among American film critics improved due to the influence of French film theorists who espoused the auteur theory of filmmaking.
On December 5, 1971, CBS broadcast the documentary The American West of John Ford, narrated by John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart. Fonda and Stewart had each played Wyatt Earp for Ford, Fonda in My Darling Clementine and Stewart in Cheyenne Autumn.
A few months before Ford died, President Richard M. Nixon awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the American Film Institute presented him with its first Life Achievement Award in a ceremony later broadcast on CBS. Ford died on August 31, 1973, at his home in Palm Desert, California. In 2011, three of Ford’s films were screened at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film: The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, and How Green Was My Valley.
During the filming of Citizen Kane, when Orson Welles was asked who his three favorite directors were, he replied, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, often himself regarded as the greatest film director, called Ford “the best director in the world.”
—Sean M. O’Connor
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