Welcome to the first in a series of beginner’s guides to some of my favourite people in movies.
First up is John Ford. If you don’t recognise the name, then this article is for you (don’t worry, there will be jokes). If you do, then why not read on and see if we agree on his high-spots, low marks and career oddities?
The great American director. Asked which filmmaker had most influenced him, Orson Welles once replied: “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Ford’s career – which sprawled across more than 50 years – produced more cast-iron masterpieces than any other, and covered almost every genre conceivable, though he remains best-known for his Westerns. As a person, he was a ludicrous caricature of the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, prone to acts of remarkable humanity – like filling a funeral with his own friends after the death of a lonely acquaintance, to comfort the widow – but in everyday terms was prickly, awkward and really liked to tell lies.
Lies? What like?
He claimed to have been born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna, in Ireland. Actually he was a second-generation immigrant, whose birth name was John Martin Feeney. Such myth-making was intrinsic to Ford’s persona and to his nostalgic films, which – if not the way things really were – were perhaps the way they should have been. Except for the bits where all the white guys shot all the Native Americans.
How can I spot a Ford film?
His movies are characterised by effective sentiment, folksy humour and distinctive visual motifs – like extreme long shots, graveside chats and photography that focuses on the eyes – as well as an obsession with the family unit, the outsider hero and the lot of the immigrant. They’re also chock-full of boozing, brawling and bawling (like I said, his parents were Irish). And if everyone suddenly starts singing Shall We Gather at the River?, it’s almost certainly one of his.
Talk us through Ford’s career, Troy McClure-style.
A pleasure. You may remember him from such Westerns as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and The Searchers (pic above), a staggering odyssey of revenge and redemption that marked the high-point of his many collaborations with John Wayne.
Mates with John Wayne, eh? Was he also a massive racist?
No. His earlier Westerns were as guilty as any of perpetuating that “manifest destiny” bollocks, but one of his last – and worst – films, Cheyenne Autumn, was a noble but boring attempt to right those wrongs, by sympathetically depicting the Native American experience. The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge – whilst each complex and contradictory – argue that the people of the West can only be free when they let go of their racism.
“Not a racist.” I’m nearly convinced. Anything else?
Even The Prisoner of Shark Island, which houses arguably the most troubling views of any Ford film (apparently anti-slavery campaigners are the real bigots), focuses on the growing respect between hero Warner Baxter and his former slave (Ernest Whitman). After the pair return home following years away, Ford saves the last shot of the picture for the reunion of the African-American family: a gesture you’re unlikely to find in many US films of the ‘30s.
That should do it. Sorry, I seemed to touch a nerve there.
Well, Ford being a racist – or just a right-winger – is a common misconception, probably due to the company he kept and the fact he made Westerns. In his personal life, he did veer to the right as the years passed, but in the ‘30s he described himself as a “socialistic democrat – always left”, and he made the most radical movie ever to come out of classic Hollywood, The Grapes of Wrath (pic below), ably assisted by the brilliant, union-bashing producer Daryll F. Zanuck. Biographer Joseph McBride argues that Ford also cast friend, red-hunter and all-round objectionable idiot Ward Bond in aggressively progressive roles as punishment for the actor’s more unpleasant behaviour.
Aside from Wayne and Bond, who else did he hang out with?
The John Ford Stock Company comprised more than two dozen performers, who turned up time and again in his films, from Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr to Jack Pennick, Mae Marsh and his own brother Francis. In terms of leading men, Ford worked first with Harry Carey, Sr (the star of his debut feature, Straight Shooting), then Will Rogers, and later enjoyed a remarkable, oft-overlooked collaboration with Henry Fonda, before his shifting priorities saw him forge an unforgettable working relationship with Wayne. Ford himself claimed that it took seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks’ Red River to realise that the “big son-of-a-bitch” could actually act.
Some would disagree.
And they would be wrong.
I place unnecessary weight on gold statuettes. I don’t suppose John Ford ever won any of those?
Yes. Four Best Director Oscars for starters. And none of them for Westerns.
Any of them for sentimental dramas about Welsh coal miners, released the same year as Citizen Kane?
Well, it’s funny you should mention it… People make a big fuss about How Green Was Valley landing Best Director and Best Picture the year that Citizen Kane was up for both, but it’s a matchlessly poetic movie, albeit one that doesn’t seem to know much about Wales. And without Ford, Kane wouldn’t exist. Welles watched Stagecoach 40 times while preparing his masterpiece, borrowing several key ideas – including deep focus photography, and ceilinged sets that allowed for outlandish camera angles – and recruiting Ford’s favourite cinematographer, Gregg Toland.
Touched another nerve there, did we? So what were his other gongs for?
Arty IRA flick The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, and that supreme slice of blarney, The Quiet Man. He also landed two documentary Oscars – and a Purple Heart – for his World War Two escapades.
What did he do?
He headed up a photographic unit making propaganda films, and was wounded whilst pointing his camera at the Battle of Midway.
What are his best movies?
How long have you got? Ford’s pre-war filmography alone takes in silent epics 3 Bad Men and The Iron Horse (pic above), exalting, legal-minded Americana like Judge Priest and Young Mr Lincoln, his reinvention of the Western (Stagecoach), two groundbreaking collaborations with the legendary Gregg Toland (The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home), and neglected gems like The Prisoner of Shark Island and Steamboat Round the Bend. He made one of the great WWII movies, They Were Expendable, then focused mainly on the Western for the final 20 years of his career, creating My Darling Clementine, The Cavalry Trilogy (Fort Apache/She Wore a Yellow Ribbon/Rio Grande), the gentle, lyrical Wagon Master, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – close to the last word on the genre – and his masterpiece, The Searchers. He also popped off to Ireland in the middle of all that to shoot The Quiet Man, which it would be fair to say continues to polarise audiences.
Why? Not Irish enough?
Actually, the opposite appears to be true.
That big list of films sounds tiring – where do I start?
With Stagecoach: a subversive skewering of American hypocrisy, dressed up as a slam-bang Western, and featuring some of the coolest stuntwork you’ll ever see. Then try Liberty Valance, The Grapes of Wrath and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Any weird ones in his back catalogue?
A few. In 1928, he tried to emulate then mentor F.W. Murnau by stuffing his sentimental WWI film, Four Sons, full of technical innovations, and keeping his camera in almost perpetual flight. It isn’t very good. The two films he made in 1937 are both a bit odd: a South Seas disaster movie called The Hurricane (which recalls Murnau’s Tabu), and an adaptation of Wee Willie Winkie, starring Shirley Temple. Neither are what you’d expect from him, but both bear his unmistakable stamp, and both are fantastic. Tobacco Road, from 1941, is half transcendent Americana and half baffling, misanthropic filth, but it’s kind of fascinating. McBride calls it The Grapes of Wrath’s “evil twin”. Ford also shot an Army information film entitled Sex Hygiene. I haven’t seen that one.
Which ones should I avoid like gonnorhea?
I’d never tell you not to watch a Ford film – there’s always a set-piece, a scene or just a shot worth discovering – but there are misfires amongst the magic. The Black Watch, an early talkie released in 1929, is notable for some of the most uncomfortable, unwatchable sound sequences in cinema history (many featuring future romantic comedy icon Myrna Loy), though it picks up every now and then. Mary of Scotland is essentially a series of lingering close-ups of star Katharine Hepburn, who was Ford’s girlfriend at the time. Horse Soldiers, The Long Gray Line and Cheyennne Autumn simply aren’t very interesting, aside from the latter’s uproarious take on the Wyatt Earp legend, courtesy of Jimmy Stewart.
That’s all very well, but what does the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, think about John Ford?
By a remarkable coincidence, he loves him. Pickles chose Ford on Radio 4’s Great Lives back in May. To his credit, he displayed an impressive knowledge of the director’s oeuvre. To his discredit, he’s still Eric Pickles.
What to say: “John Ford invented the modern Western.”
What not to say: “Wasn’t he a racist?”
Next week: Janet Gaynor. (It’ll be a bit shorter.)