Hollywood film director John Ford was born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine on February 1st 1894 and died on August 31st 1973, at the age of 79. He is best remembered as one of the best directors of all time, an icon of cinema history, whose films managed to mythologized the Old West and along the way made actor John Wayne famous!
It wasn’t by accident that he fell into the motion picture industry. He followed his older brother to Hollywood, where he assisted his successful brother as a stagehand, prop man and as an occasional actor. Servicing his apprenticeship under his brother, he soon realized his real talents lay behind the camera. Therefore, it wasn’t long before he was making a name for himself, as a silent film director, many of which were Westerns.
Interestingly, Hollywood Westerns were a dim a dozen in those early days, especially in the 1930’s and most of them forgettable B movies, until John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) arguably began a resurgence in ‘quality’ Western films. Today we consider it a landmark film, and a career-defining picture for one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. He went on to make a treasure trove of classic westerns, which included the likes of Fort Apache (1949), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
It is probably fitting that if we are to remember Ford as a famous Western films director, we cannot go by without mentioning his favourite western location, Utah’s Monument Valley. His commanding use of this particular location (Utah) forever defined what audiences think of when they imagine the American West.
Yet, despite the fact that he is best known for his Westerns, he was versatile enough to explore and film adaptations of classic 20th century novels and short stories such as, The Informer (1935), a drama about the underbelly of the Irish War of Independence; and The Quite Man (1952), a romantic comedy-drama about the homecoming of an Irish-American, who travels back to Ireland to claim back his family’s farm. Interestingly, it was with these types of films that Ford made away from the western genre, that he was decorated with a record four Academy Awards for Best Director.
For students of cinema, film buffs and readers in general, here below is what I believe are five essential films that say something about John Ford as a moviemaker. I hope that you agree with my choices, but I am always happy for you to persuade me otherwise.
John Ford bought the rights to Stagecoach from Colliers magazine in 1937 (an adaptation of a short story called The Stage to Lordsburg) and made a pitch to almost every studio in Hollywood to have it made. Unfortunately, no one was interested in doing another forgettable western, especially with a B movie actor by the name of John Wayne, as the films main protagonist. Ford eventually found an ally in Walter Wanger, an independent producer, at United Artist, who agreed to finance the film on a tight budget and have Wayne as its star.
Most of the picture was filmed on a studio backlot, except for four days on location in Monument Valley, on the border between Utah and Arizona. Notably it would be the first time in film history that Monument Valley would appear on screen with its picturesque landscape of towering sandstone buttes. It is here that we are treated to some of the most stunning cinematography ever filmed. His trademark long shot and ability to turn the inhospitable, rugged and vast Utah valley into something beautiful, is Ford’s genius.
The film’s plot deals with an eclectic group of travellers, adventure bound for Lordsburg through hostile territory. The interaction between the strangers on the stagecoach, intercut with some amazing action scenes, in particular its infamous ‘Indian attack’ chase sequence, allows us to see many of travelling party for who they really are. In short, a strong performance from John Wayne, as the fugitive Ringo Kid, out for revenge for the murder of his father and brother, leaves no doubt that Wayne had cemented his place as an ‘A’ list actor.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
John Ford’s own understanding and fondness of the American people and their history is no more evident than in his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. It is one of the important motion pictures ever that dealt with the physical and psychological hardship and social dislocation caused by the Great Depression. Based on the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (first published in 1939) by John Steinbeck, it follows the story of the Joad family, who get kicked off their land in Oklahoma, and are forced to search for a better life in California.
Everyone, including Ford realized they were making an important motion picture and it came as no surprise that Ford made every scene count no matter how important or insignificant. As a filmmaker he certainly knew what he wanted his pictures to look like and used his directorial style to get the best out of his film crew, actors and actresses.Typically, though he clashed with many individuals on set, but no one could begrudge his vision and work ethic to make The Grapes of Wrath a truly remarkable picture. In short, it is said that Ford’s clever appointment of cinematographer Gregg Toland, who gives the film its almost documentary look, was godsend to the artistic success of the film.
For his own efforts, John Ford was awarded an Academy Award for Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath, while actress, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, also won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Although, Henry Fonda missed out on an Oscar, he is fondly remembered for his role as Tom Joad, the films antihero.
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
If you have read the novel How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, you will instantly realise what a grim story it is about life in a Wales mining town. What you might not be aware of is that, much of it was supposed to be based on the authors own memories as a Welsh miner’s son, born in St. David’s (Wales). Among other things Llewellyn also claimed to have worked as a coal miner (for research purpose), but none of this was true. In 1999, it was revealed that Richard Llewellyn’s real name was Richard David Vivian Llewellyn Lloyd and he was in fact English with Welsh ancestry. Furthermore, the book is also apparently full of historical inaccuracies, which is a bone of contention with many Welsh historians. I’m not sure how this might have affected John Ford’s film’s adaptation of the novel, if he had known the real truth? Ford may not have given it a second thought anyway, because I suppose he might have surmised that the film was really about Welshness rather than any real historical truth? (Ford famously set aside historical truth by romanticising Wyatt Earps’ story in My Darling Clementine.)
Anyway, despite this modern day revelation, John Ford brought to life his adaption of the novel How Green Was My Valley, only a year after his triumph with The Grapes of Wrath. It is a story set in the Welsh coal-mining valleys about the Morgan family. The film is narrated by an older Huw Morgan, who reflects on his childhood memories of his father and four brothers, as they manage to drag themselves up the towns hill everyday to work in the pit. He also recalls the loss of his childhood innocence, a town divided by wage cuts and strikes and ultimately family loss.
Today, the film How Green was My Valley endure as a classic. It won an Academy Award for Best Picture and earned Ford his third Oscar for Best Director.
My Darling Clementine (1946)
My inclusion of My Darling Clementine in this essential John Ford film list is more nostalgic in choice than anything else. I remember fondly my father singing My Darling Clementine often when I was a young and how much he loved watching reruns of old Westerns. It wasn’t until I watched My Darling Clementine with him one day, that I realized that hypnotic tune was actually part of the opening credits of the movie. Interestingly, Linda Darnell as Clementine was everything I thought she would be, as I sat awestruck by her beauty. I smile these days when I recall Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in the movie, jump to his feet after seeing the graceful Clementine make her stage entrance. I guess I wasn’t the only one who felt the same way!
Far from being historically accurate, in the retelling of the legend of the gunfight at the OK Corral, it is nonetheless an entertaining film in a good-hearted way. John Ford’s uncanny way of creating a mythical world that appeals to audience is impressive to say the least.
The film itself follows the story of Wyatt Earp, as he takes on the position of town marshal, after his brother’s murder by the Clanton clan. Making a vow to stay in Tombstone, until his brother’s killers are found, he soon runs into the hard-drinking Doc Holliday and a young woman named Clementine. It is here that Ford explores their relationships with each other, before we eventually build to Wyatt Earps’ long-awaited revenge against the Clanton clan at the OK Corral.
The Searchers (1956)
John Ford’s The Searchers has been described as one of the greatest Westerns of all time. It is brave and bold, but also unapologetic in its racist attitudes to Native Americans, something that we would all probably today express an inward shiver of embarrassment. (I personally believe The Searchers was made that way to shock us.) That said, we are unable to escape its marvelous score, its astonishing use of landscape (Monument Valley) and its underlining story about a man out for revenge for the murder of his brother and sister-in-law, and the capture of his nieces by Native American Indians.
Even though we are made to feel sympathetic towards actor John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards plight, crisscrossing the West in search for his nieces, it doesn’t sit well with me knowing that he is an unforgiving racist. The scene where he desecrates the burial of a Comanche warrior by shooting out his eyes is quite startling and brutal. But that is the genius of John Ford’s compelling story. We don’t have to like the main protagonist in order to be moved or aroused by a good story. Though, I must say, you almost don’t want Wayne’s character to find his missing niece, especially after he finds out that she is happy living amongst her captors. “Livin’ with Comanches ain’t being alive”, a vile Ethan Edwards retorts. At that moment, rather than bringing her back home, he plans instead to kill his niece for her underlining sympathies to the ‘enemy’.
I will not spoil the ending for those readers who haven’t seen The Searchers, but I will leave you instead to ponder whether one man’s lifetime of prejudices can be redeemed with one act of kindness? To find out I sincerely recommend you watch The Searchers.
Photo Credit: The header image is a promotional still from the motion picture Stagecoach (1939). It is in the public domain. I am not the uploader of the You Tubes clips embedded here.