“John Ford is really great…When I’m old, that’s the kind of director I want to be.”
“Ford – I esteem him, I admire him and I love him.”
“He is the essence of classical American cinema. Any serious person making films today, whether they know it or not, is affected by Ford.”
“I like the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”
A couple of years ago, someone in the comments was growing tired of my attention paid to European arthouse directors (I think it was on the Fellini thread) and asked me if I’d ever consider doing John Ford. I laughed because whomever it was (I honestly don’t remember who) didn’t really know what they were asking. John Ford’s body of work isn’t a couple of dozen films, half of which star John Wayne. He has 146 directing credits listed on the IMDb. Remove shorts and documentaries, and you’re down to about 120. Remove the 40 or so that are outright lost, and you have about 80 films to go through to get as complete a picture of Ford’s work as you can. I imagine the person was thinking that I would just go through the classics, but limiting myself to what is generally considered “great” in a director’s body of work keeps me from discovering things on my own. The example I like to use is Howard Hawks’ Today We Live, a WWI romance starring Gary Cooper and Joan Collins. Never mentioned by film historians except in passing, and always with a certain level of derision, I found it wonderfully involving. If I had limited myself to just the classics of Hawks, I would have missed it.
And yet, about five months ago, I just decided to do it. Starting with Ford’s first feature film, Straight Shooting (which miraculously still exists) and ending with 7 Women, I watched them all. Most of the lost films are from the 1910s and 1920s when Ford was working for Fox. Fox had a large vault fire in 1937 that destroyed large parts of their library (including most of Theda Bara’s filmography), so there were gaps in that period that I regret missing, including his first sound film (a thirty-minute short titled Napoleon’s Barber).
With such a large body of work, and insisting on writing reviews for all of them, I’ve already written a short novel’s worth on Ford and his work, and yet I could just keep going. There’s so much to dig into, his filmography being both very wide and very deep. I usually like to try and come up with a grand unified theory on a director’s body of work, a single common thread that goes through at least the vast majority of their films that helps to explain what the person was saying across their career, but that’s harder to do with Ford’s work.
John Ford was very much a studio director. His first few years were with Universal. Almost the next decade was with Fox. After 1930 he worked for a variety of production companies, most usually Fox and RKO, and, from 1917 to 1966 he averaged about three films per year…for nearly fifty years. The only real break in his career is from 1941-1945 when he stopped making commercial films to work for the OSS and the Navy during the Second World War.
That creates a lot of variety. Howard Hawks was well known for repeating a lot in his professional life (Only Angels Have Wings is effectively a remake of Ceiling Zero, for instance), but the examples of repetition in Ford’s work are significantly fewer in occurrence. Repetition tends to be in genre, casting, and thematic ideas, similar to many other directors, rather than actual plots. What Ford did was explore ideas that were interesting to him in a wide variety of stories. People think of him making westerns, but he made comedies (including one where Edward G. Robinson plays two characters in the same scene against each other in the same shot), romances, family sagas, war films, historical dramas, Oscar bait, and even a couple of art house films.
With the sheer size of his body of work, you can’t find that singular idea through them all because it’s simply not there. There are, however, a handful of ideas that collectively run through the vast majority of his work. Those would be, according to how I’ve viewed the films, duty, male camaraderie, and the Irish identity.
This is the idea most prevalent in his military films. From the World War II drama about the temporal nature of life in war They Were Expendable to the look at life in the United States cavalry that was Rio Grande, John Ford had his male characters exploring the idea of duty. There was duty to their nation, duty to the military, duty to the unit, and duty to each other as men. This, especially at the lowest level, gets intermingled with the idea of male camaraderie a bit, but there’s definitely enough distinctive enough to separate them out as different ideas.
The one film that probably deals with this concept of duty to nation, military, unit, and fellow soldiers most directly is The Wings of Eagles, a biographical film about Frank “Spig” Wead, a naval aviator who broke his neck in an accident between the wars, became a scriptwriter (writing the Howard Hawks movie Ceiling Zero based on his own play as well as They Were Expendable), and re-enlisted into the navy, barely able to walk, at the outbreak of World War II where he helped devise a system to keep aircraft carriers supplied with fresh aircraft in the middle of battle. Spig’s duty to his nation ends up in conflict with his duty to his wife, played by Maureen O’Hara, and Spig always chooses his greater duty.
It’s easy to see this appear in films throughout his career like Men Without Women and Seas Beneath. I’ll also make special mention of Submarine Patrol, one of my favorite Ford films that most people have forgotten even exists.
This is the idea that you can find in almost every single Ford film, from military adventures to the westerns to his movies about the immigrant experience. Male camaraderie is present in most of his best movies and many of his least. From The Searchers to Two Rode Together, from Hell Bent in 1918 to Donovan’s Reef in 1963, how men interact with each other is a key building block to most of the stories he told.
What does that mean? In the early days of going through his body of work, I was getting a very similar impression to how Howard Hawks dealt with male characters, but there developed a key difference. Most of Hawks’ work involved love triangles, stories of two men competing over the same woman. In Ford’s work, the women were often present but also often incidental to the actual relationship between the men. The male bond isn’t reliant on women, it’s independent of them. Men can be friends and have close relationships with other men, and these relationships are important. They offer a special kind of support, uniquely tied to the experiences of men, but they also contain certain antagonisms.
The Lost Patrol, a story of a group of British soldiers lost in the desert during World War I, shows both the degradation and resilience of that kind of relationship amongst a military unit in the face of privation, harsh climate, enemy action, and death. 3 Bad Men shows how three, well, bad men can band together in the service of something greater than themselves (a young woman with a future), sacrificing their own brotherhood of three for her by giving up their lives to protect her. The Long Voyage Home is about a group of men on a steamer from South America to Britain in the very earliest days of World War II, and they have to navigate their own fears of each other, brought on by the outside world. Their brotherhood ends up being the most important thing to them, and their bond, when it does end up breaking, is a tragic thing.
I could go on with more examples. The idea appears in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the Cavalry Trilogy, Sergeant Rutledge, Up the River, Air Mail, 3 Godfathers, Four Sons, and more. If there’s one idea that’s most prevalent in Ford’s filmography, it’s this. His films are about men in masculine professions and dangerous settings. They are about the bond between men living on the edges of civilization, finding solace in what they do have, each other. John Ford was a big softie at heart.
The Irish Identity
John Ford was born in Maine as John Martin Feeney in 1894 to Irish immigrants John Augustine and Barbara Curran. It’s obvious that his Irish heritage was immensely important to him even in his silent film days. Movies like The Shamrock Handicap detail the experience of a family of Irish immigrants making it to America and finding a community that helps them accomplish the American dream. He extended that immigrant experience portrayal to include Bavarians as well in movies like Flesh and Four Sons, but his focus, obvious as he gained power and was able to more pointedly choose his own stories, was on the Irish first and foremost.
Most of these stories, especially in his earlier period, were about the Irish coming to America. Movies like the partially lost Mother Machree and The Informer use the dream of coming to America as a plot point and character motivation. The idea of America as a haven for those in the old country is important because it animates the characters in a place beset by the oppression of the English crown. America is an ideal, a place where men and women can find new beginnings. In The Informer, the main character lives in Dublin and has burned his bridges with his neighbors by first refusing to kill an English officer and then by giving up a member of the IRA, leading to his death. Having no where to go, he takes the reward money with the idea of paying for passage to America for himself and his girl. His guilt leads him on a self-destructive path, though.
The later Ford got into his career, the direction of the Irish movement changed. He became known for westerns mainly, but he still managed to make the occasional Irish themed movie. The most prominent is The Quiet Man, about an Irish born American who returns home to the small community of Inisfree. He also made an anthology film titled The Rising of the Moon, a trilogy of Irish stories set in Ireland with nary a word of coming to the New World. Ford’s affection for the Irish experience morphed from the immigrant experience to a more wistful and nostalgic ideal of Ireland itself.
The John Ford Movie?
John Ford’s filmography is far too wide and varied to be boiled down to a single set of ideas that can be filtered down into one prime example. When it came to Martin Scorsese’s filmography, it ended up relatively easy because he made far fewer films and didn’t operate in the studio system while meeting with enough commercial success to allow him great latitude in telling stories that spoke to him. Ford was making three movies a year for decades, getting assignments, pushing them into something that interested him as much as possible, and then moving on.
So, in the grand unifying equation of John Ford films, there’s no one answer, but the film that I think gets closest to capturing most of what makes John Ford’s films recognizably his is The Quiet Man. You have some obvious stuff like Ireland, the presence of John Wayne (his most prominent leading man) and Maureen O’Hara (the one leading lady he seemed to take a real shine to), and most of his regular supporting cast like Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen. However, there’s more. There are horses and horse racing, obvious in films like his westerns but also dating back to a pair of horse racing silent films Kentucky Pride and The Shamrock Handicap while also being present in films like The Hangman’s House. There’s also an interesting portrayal of male camaraderie in the form of how the main character, played by John Wayne, and his wife’s brother, played by McLaglen, bond over a long boxing match that ends the film.
However, it also seems a bit incongruous at the same time. When I think of the visuals of Ford’s film, I most think of black and white photography like in The Informer, The Fugitive, and the two films lensed by Gregg Toland, The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath. Ford was resistant to color photography for a long time, and his cinematographer on The Quiet Man, Winton Hoch, was actually dissatisfied with how the film looked (too green) during production. Sure, the film ended up winning Best Cinematography for a Color Picture at the Oscars, but it feels out of step with the bulk of Ford’s work. At the same time, the element of duty, especially in the form of the military, is largely absent, replaced somewhat by an idea of duty to ones spouse. It’s a minor form of what he had been exploring at best while also embracing a different kind of love triangle, something that wasn’t all that present in his films.
So, it’s a pretty good culmination of his work while also missing some key elements, or modifications into forms that don’t really fit with the rest. It’s not my favorite Ford film (that would be The Searchers), but it does a good job of explaining why Ford was so talented and entertaining.
I had a host of ideas of what to write about as I wrapped up my run of Ford films. One idea that I almost went with was simply recommending some lesser known Ford works. When I realized that I’d pretty much just be rewriting my own reviews for them, I decided against it, but I still want to offer the recommendations to a larger audience just the same. So, here are 5 films that you may not have heard of, made by Ford, all of which I enjoyed and feel deserve more attention.
First is The Fugitive, an adaptation of The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene and starring Henry Fonda as the unnamed priest in a Central American nation overrun by a socialist regime. It’s a self-consciously arty film that I loved completely, so much so that I gave it the #2 spot on my ranking of all of Ford’s films.
The second is Submarine Patrol, made in the interwar period and starring Richard Greene, it’s the story of an American ship out on the seas hunting German U-boats during The Great War with a romance angle that works remarkably well, too. Largely dismissed over time as something forgettable that Ford made immediately before Stagecoach, I think it’s one of Ford’s great films.
The third is Hangman’s House, for those of you happy to dive into a silent film. Its quick 70-minute runtime packs in a lot of material in this Irish set story of an outlaw Irish soldier who comes home to find some justice for his sister. It’s tight and fun.
The fourth is probably a film many of you have heard of, The Informer, but I feel the need to highlight it because it seems to be often forgotten. Victor McLaglen (Ford’s third recurrent leading man after Harry Carey and George O’Brien) gives the performance of his life as a drunken and broken man who, consumed by guilt over his sins, spends his money and gives it away in a series of actions that damn him in the eyes of his fellow Irishmen. Heavily inspired visually by German Expressionism, it’s one of Ford’s best looking films as well.
And lastly is The Plough and the Stars. Another Irish set film, this was a passion project of Ford’s that he grew to hate through production. He objected over the forced casting of two Hollywood stars (Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Foster) over the original Irish cast of the play on which it is based. It’s not a great film, but the contemporary conceit that Stanwyck was miscast seems to only be because she can’t hold an Irish accent for more than a few syllables at a time (it’s true, she can’t). There are some tonal issues here and there as well, but overall, it’s a surprisingly strong little film really anchored by Stanwyck herself. If you can get past her bad attempt at the accent, there’s some good stuff here to check out.
Yes, you’ve heard of The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stagecoach, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, and even Donovan’s Reef. Well, here are five more films that you may enjoy as well from the same man.
I could have written so much more. I could have written about Ford’s rotating supporting cast (I always enjoyed seeing the distinctive mug of Jack Pennick in supporting roles, usually with a Sergeant Major uniform on in military movies). I could have written about religion in his films. I could have written exclusively about his visual style that helped form (probably in almost equal measure with D.W. Griffith) the basic filmic vocabulary of popular film.
This was a fun run. I think I’m going to find a change of pace, though, and watch the work of the husband of Anne Bancroft next. She was the star of 7 Women, you know.
20 thoughts on “John Ford – A Retrospective”
I don’t know who else may have, but I suggested John Ford. Of course, my idea was you cherry pick the most highly rated and popular of his feature films, those still in the rotation on tv, not the whole works, little did I know of your need for thoroughness. I was going to say no more suggestions, but maybe all the movies directed by Charles Laughton, that woulld be manageable…
Well, then I guess I shall credit Patrick Wahl with my sojourn into John Ford’s body of work. Thank you!
*looks up Charles Laughton’s directorial output*
#1 movie: Night of the Hunter
Really great post, good job, man.
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Thank you very much.