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John Ford: An American Director

A look back at the work of the legendary director on his passing at 78

John Ford

American director John Ford, wearing a suit, a tie and a hat, portrayed on a water taxi while smoking a cigarette, St Mark's Square in the background, Venice, Italy, 1971

Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty

As a child I loved John Ford movies before I knew who John Ford was. They weren’t merely fun: They pulled me into a world infinitely preferable to the real one. I didn’t identify with just his people, but with his reconstruction of places, events and entire societies. When Drums Along the Mohawk played for a week on a local TV series, I watched it every night and have never forgotten the sight of Henry Fonda eluding three Indian pursuers while silhouetted against the sky, nor that of starchy old Edna May Oliver ordering marauding Indians to remove her from her house before they burned it down, nor the terrifying amputation of General Hekimer’s leg. And I remember Henry Fonda quelling a lynch mob, then later taking his solitary walk up a lonesome mountainside and into history at the end of Young Mr. Lincoln; a drunken Donald Crisp, father of a Welsh mining family, singing a song while trying to walk a straight line to prove he was sober at the warmest party I ever attended in How Green Was My Valley; and mad, dispossessed Muley, bending into his own shadow, pounding the raw earth, and half crying, half screaming at the banker driving away with his land that, “. . .… we were born here, we worked here, some of us died here and some of us may die here still . . . …” in The Grapes of Wrath.

When my growing interest in film replaced my obsession with rock & roll a few years ago, I only then realized just how many of my favorite movies had been directed by this one man. The connections I had made in childhood proved to be merely the tip of the iceberg, in both the films themselves and my capacity and desire to respond to them.

I was surprised that his death at 78 did not particularly sadden me. But his work was long since completed and, unlike Orson Welles, Josef von Sternberg, Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, he usually got to do what he wanted, remained active for as long as he wished, and maintained more control over his work than most others in Hollywood. In his last years his conservative politics became something of an issue – although he had been typecast in the Thirties as a Hollywood liberal for making such socially conscious films as The Grapes of Wrath and The Informer. Partly because of his close identification with his leading man, John Wayne, many thought him a simple reactionary in the Sixties, a notion no doubt reinforced by his grateful receipt of the Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon last spring.

Whatever his personal politics, one knows that in any John Ford film a man of Richard Nixon’s character would have never been more than a melodramatic villain (John Mitchell would have been perfect as the crooked bank president in Stagecoach), and one searches his post-1930 work in vain for a good, let alone heroic, man of wealth or spokesman for the privileged. He was not concerned with politics per se but with values, codes, character, society and tradition. He grappled with the problem of integrating the human spirit into the strait jacket of a stable social order.

John Ford’s legacy is in his art and to do it justice requires nothing less than a book-length study. Happily, there are two promising works on the way, one by the excellent film scholar Joseph McBride and the other by critic-historian Andrew Sarris. And Peter Bogdanovich’s John Ford is a delight to read, although it is only an introduction. For my part, I only offer a few observations about Ford’s importance to a single viewer, and hope the charitable will indulge my necessary omissions, compressions, generalizations and arrogance in trying to write of someone I admired so much, but whose artistry still remains largely a mystery to me. 

Breadth of vision

In comparison to that of contemporary filmmakers, John Ford’s work is distinguished above all by its breadth. A modern director is considered prolific if he makes a film every year and a half. Between 1917 and 1966 Ford directed close to 140 films, many of them commissioned assignments, but all of them bearing some sign of his personality. Unlike modern moviemakers, he filled even his smallest films with societies that covered all classes, roles and races, to say nothing of the endless detailing of everyday life. For example, in How Green Was My Valley (1941), the existence of the Welsh mining family centered around the home (which itself centered around the dining room), the mines and the church. In addition, there was a school, an offscreen bar and an isolated and lonely mansion on a hill, all defining the parameters of a small, self-contained world. In My Darling Clementine (1946), we witness the actual completion of the building of the town as the people celebrate the raising of the church at a community dance that marks their acceptance of civilization in the midst of the wilderness.

Locations and institutions take on nearly human characteristics, varying in meaning from film to film, but always important in and of themselves. Similarly, his films contain inevitable rituals – a ceremonial dance, party or wake – functions of a growing communal spirit that draw a line between those able to accept the restraints of society and those who cannot. There are countless scenes of children learning the alphabet – a culture being transmitted. And there are always the funerals, through which the living draw strength from the sacrifices of the dead, even as they experience both a sense of loss and heightened consciousness of their own mortality. If, as has often been said, Ford was really a poet, he was most often a poet of death, his most lyrical scenes taking place in front of gravestones.

Against this vibrant institutional background, Ford’s characters were affected but not dominated by the communal sensibility. The dramatic core of his work often rested in an individual’s testing himself against a society in transition – Lincoln rocking the complacency of the townsfolk by preventing a lynching, Judge Priest exposing the hypocrisy of an entire community on the day before an election in The Sun Shines Bright (1953), a young preacher challenging orthodoxy in How Green Was My Valley, and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) refusing to turn his sword into a ploughshare in the aftermath of the Civil War, in what is now often regarded as Ford’s best film, The Searchers (1956).

Of the confluence of the individual, society and tradition in Ford’s films, writer and director of the film program at the New York Cultural Center Martin Rubin has eloquently written that “John Ford’s films . . .… find the point at which tradition had meaning and meaning had tradition. The darkness of his vision arises from the fact that when he finds values they are always in transition, on the verge of dying out, and his films often treat the complex phenomenon of the significance of loss and the glory in defeat. Ford’s heroes are caught between a meaningful past which is dying and a future that appears corrupt, unappetizing, or simply blank. These characters pass out of shadow and then in again, but the moment in between is the significant one in which the individual is measured.”

The typical Fordian conflicts have been defined by Peter Wollen in terms of shifting pairs of antinomies, most notably the struggles between the notion of the West as a wilderness or a garden, the competing ways of the settler and nomad, European and native, white man and Indian, the lawbook and the gun, the ploughshare and the sword, the family and the loner, and East and West. Ford not only dealt with all of these at the same time and within the same pictures but continually reworked, revised and reinterpreted them in his lifetime of filmmaking.

Mythologizing history

During the Twenties, he was an unabashed optimist, seeing every advance in society’s march across the continent as a sign of inevitable end and righteous progress. In the Thirties, with the nation reeling from the Depression, he proceeded with greater caution, making films about good – indeed, benign – leaders, men like Judge Priest and Abe Lincoln, who knew when things had gone wrong, and possessed nearly superhuman wisdom and strength of character, setting a moral example that would bring out the best rather than the basest in their fellow citizens. His faith in progress reached a low ebb in the early Forties when, in How Green Was My Valley, he offered his most pessimistic film to date. Set in Wales, it avoided the immediate implications for the United States, but showed a once-idyllic community ravaged by unfettered industrialization and unchecked social change. By structuring it as the reminiscence of a boy now grown to manhood, he emphasized society’s failure to replace its faltering old institutions with new ones of comparable value.

The second World War appears to have renewed Ford’s faith in many of those old values, and his optimism reasserted itself with a passion in his well-known cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) and culminated in Wagonmaster (1950). In that film he conceived of the Mormon movement to Utah as a sacred mission, their grain more valuable than any worldly goods, their purpose higher than any secular calling, their will to succeed greater than any force that tried to stop them. Their triumph proved to be Ford’s last unequivocal endorsement of the values embodied in the conquest of the wilderness, for he spent the next 15 years making films that offered ever more potent challenges to the underlying assumptions of Wagonmaster and American optimism in general. In the sluggishly acted, poorly paced, but nonetheless beautiful Cheyenne Autumn (1964), it is the Indian who is seeking his homeland and the white man who is oppressing him. The celebration of the cavalry’s courage in the face of the Indians’ attack in Fort Apache has now turned into Washington’s shameful genocide against the red man (“… . . . a blot on our shield,” he once called it).

A turning inward

Following Wagonmaster, Ford’s films become distinctly more psychological, and in The Searchers he takes as his subject the American’s struggle between self-destruction and life affirmation, as measured by the dual purpose of two men who spend years trying to retrieve an Indian captive: Ethan Edwards, intent on killing to prevent her from becoming a Commanche, and Martin Pauley, intent on stopping him. The complexities, ambiguities and interpretations of this magisterial movie should fill a book in itself. But its ending is crucial to the meaning of all of Ford’s work for, when Ethan’s mission is done and he has reaccepted the girl, he is left as we found him: homeless, without family or roots, shut out from any human contact and condemned as a fugitive (he had earlier killed a man) to wander the wilderness, this time in search of whatever solace without purpose he can find there.

But then Ford’s heroes were always lonely men with egos so big they could make the superhuman sacrifices on which the lives and futures of lesser characters depended. Thus his sub-theme of unrequited love: Ethan long ago gave up his passion for his brother’s wife because it would consume them all; John Wayne, the cowboy, gives up the girl to James Stewart, the lawyer, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, because he knows he has no future to offer her, and Doc Holliday, Ford’s personal hero in My Darling Clementine, sacrifices his girl and life to the comparatively stodgy Wyatt Earp and the building of Tombstone. Ford accepts the inevitability of the sacrifice but his heart and camera linger over the man whom history has deserted, his time come and gone, left irrevocably alone.

In contrast to those of modern directors, and in common with such other great classical, so-called “action” directors as D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, Ford’s women are central to the life of both his films and his community. They earn their self-respect in the same way men do – by what they contribute. He worshipped the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold, the woman scorned by middle-class snobs only to show more courage and dignity than those in higher places during times of crisis. Portraits of frontier women were often profiles in courage. Ford knew men couldn’t settle the land alone because they were too much in love with their own power. Thus the men are often caught between the extremes of the lure of the wilderness and the force of women who represent the strength needed to build a community. Unlike the novel, in the movie it is an old woman schoolteacher, not Ethan, who offers the memorable words, “A Texan ain’t nothing but a human way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country will be a good, fine place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”


Anyone can tell they are watching a Ford film five minutes into it, but no two people tell in quite the same way. His basic techniques remain relatively fixed: limited use of close-up, preference for the stationary camera, photographing large scenes at a diagonal (often interpreted as the horizon line of history), expressionist use of lighting and shadow, simple shots of people doing simple things, and the exceptionally sharp contrasting of foreground and background movement and action. But he ties their specific use so closely to the immediate story that his formal style seems as elusive as Jean Renoir’s.

Narratively, there is a vaguely Shakespearean quality to his synthesis of tragedy and comedy – a combination that has all but vanished from contemporary film. Entire films are based on the expansion and contraction of alternatingly happy and melancholy moments, with each swing of the pendulum pushing our conflicting emotions further and further apart until we are left completely exposed.

More easily recognizable than a mere shooting style or a way with a story is the endless recurrence of certain favorite motifs and characteristically Fordian moments. For example, his favorite expressive device is the use of an object from a character’s past to put both their feelings and ours into focus at crucial moments: Thus, Judge Priest has conversations with a picture of his dead wife hanging on the wall and sits up on cemetery hill reading aloud to her; the mother in The Grapes of Wrath looks through a few pieces of memorabilia as the truck awaits to carry the Okies to their unknown destination, then throws them into the fire, stands up straight and strong, ready to lead her family onto their new life; Doc Holliday stares drunkenly at his reflection in the frame of his Dental School Degree and brutally smashes it with a shot glass, in acknowledgment of his shame and sense of failure, and, in The Last Hurrah, Mayor Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) places a flower in a vase in front of an enormous portrait of his dead wife each morning.

In such privileged moments, Ford allows us to briefly invade the privacy of a character to allow us a glimpse of their view of themselves. Perhaps the most beautiful example comes in The Sun Shines Bright. Judge Priest and his friends are sitting on the porch of a temperance hall dance, imbibing and making small talk. One of his friends is an Austrian emigrant and as he overhears the strains of a Viennese waltz he gravitates towards the hall. As the conversation of the men continues, the camera casually glances towards a window where the man is peering through the glass, dancing by himself, transported by some reverie back to childhood memories of home – all accomplished in a half a minute’s screen time and without a word of dialogue.

There is a broader sequence in The Grapes of Wrath that reveals the irreducible Fordian style. The government has caught up with Tom Joad and he awakens his mother to tell her he is leaving. In one shot we see them saying goodbye in front of a now-empty dance floor; in a second, we see the mother watching as her boy walks across the floor and continues until he is enveloped by the shadows of the night; in a third we see her standing alone, now enshrouded in her own shadows; finally, we see the classic long shot of Tom climbing a hill, his small figure resting between the heaven and earth. In a mere instant we have seen the two together, the two permanently separated, the mother’s sense of loss and the boy’s sense of determination to find his place in the universe.

Privileged moments

I wish it were easier for me to approach Ford’s work in a more immediately personal way, rather than by defining the components of his movie-making, but it is precisely the uniqueness of those elements that so strongly attract me to him. But the more I think about him the more my mind wanders back to the images themselves, ones I doubt I will forget, ones that I began this piece with. So I can only end where I began, by noting a few of my favorite moments as a token of my appreciation of what his films have given to me and in the hopes that they might inspire others to seek them out, and the hundreds of others to be found in his art.

To Ford, Frank Skeffington, (in The Last Hurrah) mayor of Boston, is a latter-day benign leader in the Judge Priest mold. When he is defeated by a pompous young lawyer, representative of a new, arid, unemotional politics, he makes his last walk home alone. As he strolls through a tranquil and deserted park in the foreground, his opponent’s victory parade is proceeding in the background. The two separate forces pass, oblivious of each other’s existence – and Skeffington walks through the shadow of the murky future, off the screen and, like Lincoln, into his rightful place in history.

When he returns to his house he starts up the stairs, suffers a heart attack, looks up at the ever-present portrait of his missing wife, and then cries out for his hopelessly misguided son, “Junior.” In that instant we experience the man’s public triumphs, personal failures and lonely grandeur at the end of a saddening but significant life, and we see it through the eyes of an artist whose sense of compassion is so deep that we know each of his character studies is inevitably a piece of his own autobiography.

I expect Ford might prefer to be remembered for the smaller moments with which his films are so overflowing, than one of such greatness. My favorite comes in How Green Was My Valley. At the film’s end Donald Crisp is caught in the collapse of the mine and the preacher calls for volunteers to dig him out. It is dangerous work and no man will go until the lovable, nearly blind boxer Dai Bando shouts out, “I will, for he’s of the blood of my heart.” Silently the men in the background spit out their tobacco and take their places. But Dai Bando holds back waiting for his life-long friend, the roguish, tiny Barry Fitzgerald to join him. Finally alone, the little pixie musters up his most elegant brogue and says, “Ah, Dai Bando, ’tis a coward I am… . . . But I’ll hold your coat.” And through Ford’s vision we share in his immutable sense of compassion for these two, held together through the years by mutual weakness, one physical, the other psychological, now separated at a time of testing, but joined even then by some transcendent communion of their souls.


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