John Ford


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How John Ford's West was Won

The heroes of John Ford's films are the frontiersman, pioneers and peacemakers who dedicated themselves to the founding of the homes and communities that make up America. Ford's vision is a folk vision: a celebration of the ideals that sent wagon trains of settlers westwards in search of freedom and opportunity, but couched in the homeliest of terms - where a dance or a gathering round a graveside speaks volumes more than the dramatic battles and gunfights that were also waged in the Winning of the West.

By the end of the thirties John Ford already had a hundred films to his name. Whereas a lesser director would have probably burned himself out, the best years for Ford were yet to come. His 'Golden-Age' spanned nearly three decades. It began in 1939 with two films, Stagecoach and Young Mr Lincoln, and encompassed along the way such milestones as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagonmaster(1950) and The Searchers (1956). These films were packed with unforgettable sequences and images: the young Lincoln (Henry Fonda) climbing a hill in a storm; Nathan Brittles (John Wayne), the old cavalry captain in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, riding out of the fort for a final mission and furtively shielding his face from the sun, or Brittles going to his wife's grave in the evening to 'talk' to her. There is the moment where the Showgirl Denver (Joanne Dru) flashes a mysterious look at the Wagon Train leader Travis (Ben Johnson) in Wagonmaster; or when Ethan (Wayne) lifts up and cradles the niece (Natalie Wood) he has sought to kill in The Searchers, understanding in those few instances the uselessness of his hatred; or Frank Seffington (Spencer Tracy) returning home alone after failing to be re-elected as mayor in The Last Hurrah (1958). These sublime moments in Ford's films reveal more than a thousand critical post-mortems that his art is above all meditative - one might even say symphonic.

Film Director John Ford
The contemplative nature in Ford has rarely been understood. In France, for example, his Westerns have been promoted with pompous phrases like 'heroic charge', 'hellish pursuit' and 'fantastic journey' which suggest that the films somehow belong to the 'epic' genre. Nothing is further from the essence of these fundamentally peaceful works of art. And although Voltaire's assertion that 'Epic authors had to choose a hero whose name alone would impress itself on the reader' can be applied to certain Ford films like Young Mr Lincoln (a splendid evocation of the youth of the American president), it is certainly not applicable to most of his work, including the Westerns. In My Darling Clementine (1946), that legendary hero Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) is reduced to everyday dimensions; he has no exalted status.

A Man's Gotta Do...

It is interesting to compare the socially minded motivation of the typical Ford hero with the personal motivation of the classic Western hero. The classic Western is chiefly built around a ruggedly individualistic vision of the world: Allan Dwan's Silver Lode (1954), with John Payne as a man trying to clear his name, and King Vidor's Man Without a Star (1955), with Kirk Douglas as a rifter motivated by revenge, are perhaps the most extreme examples of this. Strong feelings, often of physical or psychological violence, predominate; there is hatred, vengeance, rebellion, and conquest. A cowboy is usually out to avenge his brother, his friend or his honour; an outlaw tries to escape from his past; a gunfighter follows his will to kill; a man needs to prove he is not a coward or has to overcome the devil within himself. In short, the genre draws its dramatic force from a few powerful ideas: a confrontation, an opposition, a tearing away. From the films of Raoul Walsh to those of Delmer Daves, Western heroes pitch themselves into a battle by their own free choice. And it is a battle that will allow them to accomplish their purpose - but from which, if they survive, they will emerge permanently scarred. Even if there are no horseback chases or bloody shootouts, the dramaturgy of the classic Western is precisely structured and depends on a number of climactic moments.

With Ford however,the essential motivation is looser, more attenuated, and rarely drawn around an individual emotion or a negative destructive driving force like vengeance. What predominates at the heart of his Westerns are journeys and wanderings: the slow odyssey of a Wagon train, the patrolling of a group of cavalrymen, the crossing of a desert by a stagecoach, or by a group of bandits on the run. Ultimately his films are all odysseys of groups - the stage passengers in Stagecoach (1939), farmers and their families escaping from the Oklahoma dust bowl in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), cavalrymen out on missions in Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande (1950) and The Horse Soldiers(1959), the Mormon settlers in Wagonmaster, Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) searching for Debbie in The Searchers. Each group of people consists of several people who either belong to the same walk of life, or are brought together and bound by the same collective purpose. Ford is only interested personal problems in so far as they overlap those of society at large; whereas in Howard Hawk's westerns, for example, adventure remains the right of the individual and only concerns society by chance or accident. In Hawks' Rio Bravo the sheriff (John Wayne) refuses the help offered to him : Ford's Wyatt Earp, however, accepts it immediately. It is a fundamental difference: the first sheriff seeks to fulfil himself through his duty, the second thinks primarily about helping those around him.

...what a man's gotta do

At the same time Ford frequently shows us the dissensions and disagreements that divide communities, and his heroes act only in relation to the envrionment they live in. It is that environment that provides their task - a duty to fulfil for the good of the community; any personal vendettas are usually subjugated to the communal cause. The notion of having a task or a mission takes precedence over all personal considerations. This is especially true of Rio Grande in which Captain Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) puts his duty as a soldier before his marriage and family; and in The Sun Shines Bright(1953), in which an old Southern judge (Charles Winninger) risks his reputation in order to rescue a black boy from being lynched. In My Darling Clementine Wyatt Earp's vengeance on the Clantons for the killing of his brother is given much less importance than the dance in front of the church and the Shakespearian monologues of the travelling showman (Alan Mowbray). Earp is a supremely calm figure, not someone driven by a nameless hatred (as is the case of the Western heroes in the films of Anthony Mann).

Indeed violence linked to the notion of a personal quest hardly exists at all in Ford's films. Killings, even woundings are rare. Not a single Indian is seen to be killed or wounded in She wore a Yellow Ribbon. InTwo Rode Together,(1961), Sheriff McCabe (James Stewart) fires only two revolver shots - the only gunshots in the film. Ford could never conceive a scene like the one in Anthony Mann's film The Man from Laramie where Stewart's hand is maimed. Violence is never a goal in Ford's films or a means of self fulfillment, but a duty or a last resort. When violence is inescapable, Ford evokes it briefly and objectively, without any indulgence or lyricism; the swift shoot-out at the OK Corral in My Darling Clementine and the killing of the outlaws who threaten the settlers in Wagonmaster are good examples.

Even the adventures themselves are non-violent in the way they progress; they unfolded for us in a rhythm that is at once casual yet majestic. In telling a story Ford takes his time and works like a painter rather than a strategist or a theoretician.

The true Ford hero has no need to use violence to prove himself. He simply does it, carried along by the collective ideal that leaves no space in his mind for doubt. Perhaps Ford's real heroes are the communities themselves: the unknown soldiers bringing peace to the West; the pioneers who are crossing the country to build new states; the inhabitants of a township whose chief aim is to establish a society of law and order - all those people who, whether consciously or not, have helped to build the United States and whose names and faces have been forgotten. And so it is their work that the films celebrate. This work may not be exalting; it is often thankless, seldom on a big scale, but it is stamped with a day to day heroism.

The Homing Instinct

Most of Ford's pictures are based on and perpetuate a theme that seems to haunt his last Western, Cheyenne Autumn(1964) - his elegy on the dispossessed Indians who seek to reclaim their ancestral lands - and that is the need not simply to build or see something through to its conclusion, but to arrive at the possession of a piece of land, a home, a hearth, or perhaps simply a rocking chair, which is exactly what is sought by Mose (Hank Worden) in The Searchers. There is also a need to fight against enemies and elements to keep possessions in order to understand their complete value.

The story of Ford's films is a great saga of agrarian life: claiming or reclaimimng, cultivating and enlarging territorial possessions.

Accordingly Ford's heroes take their characters from the peasant, whatever their social origins. Heroes may be Irish peasants, farmers, Welsh miners, soldiers, whatever. In Ford's eyes the soldiers who run a territory in She wore a Yellow Ribbon are involved in the same struggle as the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. And although the different communities in Ford's films are closed communities governed by their own rules, they are similar in that they share not only the struggle of life but its simple pleasures, too, like a dance as in Fort Apache and My Darling Clementine.

The notion of possession accounts for Ford's passion for ceremonies. Celebrations, drunken festivities, dances, even funerals are the tangible proof of the need to affirm publicly the ownership of a place, especially since it could be taken away at any time - as Lars Jorgensen remarks in The Searchers.

The same motivation underlines Ford's fondness for landscapes that are immutable, notably the desert and rocky outcrops of Monument Valley, his favourite location. It is almost as if the film maker shares with his characters the desire to possess these vast terrains in order to gain a profund appreciation of stability.

Even that antithesis of the Ford hero, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, who can find no place for himself in stable society, is concerned with its continuation. In this fragmented, poignant film - the only one of Fords's based on a notion of individualism - Ethan sets himself against the ordered life and is seemingly involved in a desperate struggle to remain a loner, a rebel. After a hopeless search for his niece that lasts ten years, Ethan finally understands the uselessness of his revolt. He cannot bring himself to kill the girl when he finds her, tainted though she may be by living with an Indian 'buck' and therefore a threat to white society. Because he is so concerned to preserve the wholeness of the homestead, he does not realise that the people who made it what it was, and thus its very nature, have changed. There is no place for him and after returning Debbie to the community he disappears leaving the new generation presented by Martin Pawley to take over.

Exiles and Nomads

Ethan is just one of scores of exiles that struggle to preserve society in Ford's films. Others include Irish and European immigrants who dream of gaining some sort of new birthright in America. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), restaurant owner Peter Ericson (John Qualen) actually leaps for joy on hearing that he has gained his American citizenship.Ford's universe is also inhabited by rootless characters who wander aimlessly - like the sailors in The Long Voyage Home (1940). Among these exiles there is even a tribe of Indians: the Comanches of The Searchers are Indians who have no territory; they are constantly on the move. There is also the immigrant prizefighter (John Wayne) rturning to his hometown after killikng a man in the ring in The Quiet Man (1952), and families put on the road by the effects of the dust bowl to look for new work in The Grapes of Wrath.

Other characters are exiled in different ways; the crazed white children and women in the searchers who are refused recognition in The Searchers by their kinsfolk as they have been defiled by Indians. There are also the soldiers for whom the bugle song of retreat She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Wings of Eagles (1957) or disgrace in Fort Apache, sounds a little like exile.

In Ford's films it is not only characters that may be uprooted, but entire nations and historical periods. The director has often returned to moments when a social class, or indeed a whole race - in Cheyenne Autumn the whole Indian community is oppressed and exiled - is on the brink of extinction. Cheyenne autumn, Welsh twilight - these are both situations from which men and women are forced away to find new means of survival. In How Green Was My Valley (1941), industrial strife disrupts the working community and the idyllic family life of the Morgan's in the Welsh village where they live at the turn of the century. The youngest son, Huw (Roddy McDowall), whose childhood provides the basis of the story, must finally follow his brothers and move on to pastures new.

Ford portrays people trying to remain faithful to themselves, and to their way of thinking, even when threatened by great historical upheavals. In this respect he may be a spiritual relative of the Great Soviet Director Donskoi, whose films were usually set in a period of social change or revolution. Generally the protagonists do adapt and overcome the crisis they face in Ford's films, but they are often required to make costly sacrifices. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) kills the outlaw Liberty (Lee Marvin) but makes it seem as though Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) has done so. For this noble act Doniphon sacrifices the personal glory of the deed and the girl he loves to Stoddard, lives a lonely life and dies alone.

Ford's desire to celebrate collective effort in his later films was tainted with the cynicism of advancing years, and there are hints of bitterness. Between the winning simplicity of Drums along The Mohawk(1939) - Ford's tribute to the spirit of pioneer America on the eve of the Revolutionary War - and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, there is a great difference in oulook. In the latter Nathan Brittles reconsiders his existence as a cavalry officer and also doubts the validity of his current mission to subdue the Indians even though he continues to pursue it.

Monuments to America

Ford's heroes age with his work. The last shot of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is of the elderly Ransom Stoddard crying: doubt and uncertainty are bound up with the sadness. Perhaps by the early Sixties, the time of Liberty Valance, Cheyenne Autumn and Donovans Reef (1963) - a kind of melancholic, sometimes comic, reflection on the past, set in the mythical paradise of a Pacific Island - Ford had become aware of his own uprootedness and of his own peculiar state of being an exile within American cinema. Perhaps he also realized that the nature of his own work would ultimately remain as unchangeable as his own Monument Valley, but that everything around him was crumbling and disappearing. But when he ceased making pictures John Ford left behind him several of his own enduring monuments to the building of a country: a few massive rocks left in the middle of a vast desert.




As Jack Ford
1914 Lucille Love - The Girl of Mystery(serial) (prop man:possible credits for act;stunts;ass.dir)
1914 Lucile/Lucille, the Waitress (series of four films):
1914 She Wins a Prize and has Her Troubles
1914 Exaggeration gets her into all kinds of trouble
1914 She Gets Mixed Up In A Regular 'Kid Kalamity'
1914 Her Near Proposal (credited as dir. in some sources)
1914 The Mysterious Rose (act only)
1915 The Birth Of A Nation (act only)
1915 Three Bad Men and A Girl (act only)
1915 The Hidden City (act only)
1915 The Doorway of Destruction (act+ass dir.)
1915 The Broken Coin (serial)(act + ass dir.)
1916 The Lumber Yard Gang (act only)
1916 Peg o' The Ring (act only)
1916 Chicken Hearted Jim (act only)
1916 The Bandit's Wager (act only)
1917 The Purple Mask (serial) (ass. dir.)
1917 The Tornado (+act+sc)
1917 The Trail of Hate (dir. copyrighted to Ford, no screen credit; +act+sc)
1917 The Scrapper (+act;+sc)
1917 The Soul Herder (reissued as short in 1922)
1917 Cheyenne's Pal
1917 Straight Shooting (reissued as short Straight Shootin',1925)
1917 The Secret Man
1917 A Marked Man
1917 Bucking Broadway
1918 The Phantom Riders
1918 The Wild Women
1918 Thieves' Gold
1918 The Scarlet Drop (GB: HillBilly)
1918 Delirium (co.dir)
1918 HellBent (+co-sc)
1918 A Woman's Fool
1918 Three Mounted Men
1919 Roped
1919 A Fight For Love
1919 The Fighting Brother's
1919 Bare Fists
1919 By Indian Post
1919 The Rustlers
1919 Gun Law
1919 The Gun Pusher (reissued as short 1924)
1919 Riders of Vengeance
1919 The Last Outlaw
1919 The Outcasts of Poker Flats
1919 The Ace of The Saddle
1919 The Rider of The Law
1919 A Gun Fightin' Gentleman: untitled one-reel promotional film for personal appearance tour by actor Harry Carey
1920 Marked Men
1920 The Prince of Avenue 'A'
1920 The Girl in No.29
1920 Hitchin'Posts
1920 Just Pals
1921 The Big Punch (+co-sc)
1921 The Freeze Out
1921 The Wallop
1921 Desperate Trails
1921 Action
1921 Sure Fire
1921 Jackie
1922 Little Miss Smiles
1922 Nero (uncredited add.dir)
1922 Silver Wings (prologue dir.only)
1922 The Village Blacksmith
1922 The Face on The Barroom Floor (GB:The Love Image)

As John Ford

1923 Cameo Kirby
1923 North of Hudson Bay
1923 Hoodman Blind
1924 The Iron Horse
1924 Hearts of Oak
1925 The Fighting Heart (GB: Once to Every Man)
1925 Kentucky Pride
1925 Lightnin'
1925 Thank You
1926 The Shamrock Handicap
1926 Three Bad Men (+sc)
1926 The Blue Eagle
1926 What Price Glory (uncredited add. dir.)
1927 Upstream (GB: Footlight Glamour)
1927 Mother Machree
1928 Four Son's
1928 Hangman's House
1928 Napoleons Barber
1928 Riley The Cop
1929 Strong Boy
1929 Black Watch (GB: King Of The Khyber Rifles) (silent scenes only)
1929 Salute
1929 Men Without Women
1930 Born Reckless (silent scenes only)
1930 Up The River
1931 Sea's Beneath
1931 The Brat;Arrowsmith
1932 Airmail
1932 Flesh
1933 Pilgrimage
1933 Doctor Bull
1934 The Lost Patrol
1934 The World Moves On
1934 Judge Priest
1935 The Whole Town's Talking (GB: Passport To Fame)
1935 The Informer
1935 SteamBoat Around The Bend
1936 The Prisoner Of Shark Island
1936 The Last Outlaw
1936 Mary Of Scotland
1936 The Plough And The Stars
1937 Wee Willie Winkie
1937 The Hurricane
1938 The Adventures Of Marco Polo
1938 Four Men and A Prayer
1938 Submarine Patrol
1939 Stagecoach (+prod)
1939 Young Mr Lincoln
1939 Drums Along The Mohawk
1940 The Grapes Of Wrath
1940 The Long Voyage Home
1941 Tobacco Road
1941 How Green Was My Valley
1942 Sex Hygiene (Army training short)
1942 The Battle Of Midway (doc) (+co-photo)
1942 Torpedo Squadron (private Army film not publicly shown)
1942 How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (Office of Strategic Services Training film for restricted showing)
1943 December 7th (co-dir)(feature version or Navy; short for public)
1943 We Sail at Midnight (doc)(USA-GB: Ford possibly sup. dir. of American version)
1945 They Were Expendable (+prod)
1946 My Darling Clementine
1947 The Fugitive (+co-prod)
1948 Fort Apache
1948 Three Godfathers (+co-prod)
1949 Mighty Joe Young (co-prod only)
1949 She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (+co-prod)
1950 When Willie Comes Marching Home
1950 Wagonmaster (+co-prod)
1950 Rio Grande (+co-prod)
1951 The Bullfighter And The Lady (uncredited ed. only)
1951 This is Korea (doc) (+prod)
1952 The Quiet man (+co-prod)
1952 What Price Glory
1953 The Sun Shines Bright (+co-prod)
1953 Mogambo
1953 Hondo (uncredited 2nd unit co-dir. only)
1955 The Long Gray Line
1955 The Red, White and Blue Line (short with footage from The Long Gray Line)
1955 Mister Roberts (some scenes only)
1956 The Searchers
1957 The Wings Of Eagles
1957 The Rising of The Moon (Eire)
1957 The Growler Story (short)
1958 Gideon's day (GB) (USA: Gideon of Scotland Yard)
1957 The Last Hurrah (+prod)
1959 Korea (doc) (+co-prod)
1959 The Horse Soldiers
1960 Sergeant Rutledge
1961 Two Rode Together
1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
1962 How The West Was Won (ep.only)
1963 Donovan's Reef (+prod)
1963 The Directors (short) (appearance as himself only)
1964 Cheyenne Autumn
1965 Young Cassidy (some scenes only)
1965 Seven Women
1970 Chesty:A Tribute to A Legend (doc)(+interviewer) (shorter version reissued 1976)
1971 Vietnam! Vietnam! (doc) ( only).

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