John Ford: America’s Greatest Director

By David Raether

Peter Bogdanovich once asked Orson Welles who were his favorite American film directors.

“Well, I prefer the old masters: John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

John Ford had one of the greatest careers of just about any person in American film. Over a nearly 50-year career, he made more than 140 pictures, including several that are among the finest works in American film: The Searchers (1956), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952).

Ford won the Academy Award for Best Director an unprecedented four times. Beyond that, his influence on several generations of film directors is nearly immeasurable. The director Walter Hill said that Ford is comparable to the 19th-century British novelist Charles Dickens in terms of the scope and quality of his work.

He is most associated with his Westerns. In fact, one of his aphorisms about directing was: “When in doubt, make a Western.” It’s hard for me to imagine, however, that John Ford was ever in doubt about much of anything. He was one of those types you meet from time to time — self-confident, cranky, supremely talented, and just impeccably good at what they do. Kind of like Michael Jordan at basketball or Franklin Delano Roosevelt at being President.

John Ford was born on February 1, 1894, as John Martin Freeney, one of eleven (!) Children of Irish immigrants. His father, John Augustine, was from County Galway in Ireland, and his mother was from a village on one of the Aran Islands, Inishmore. His father’s family were reportedly descendants of impoverished Irish nobility. Which seems to be true, but I’m also fairly certain that there was no shortage of impoverished Irish noblemen in those days.

His parents met in Boston and settled in Portland, Maine. He grew up there and graduated from Portland High School. After graduation, he followed his older brother, Francis, to Los Angeles, where he was working to establish himself as an actor and director in the nascent film industry. John changed his last name from Feeney to match his older brother’s choice of new name: Ford. Francis worked regularly as an actor, and John entered the film industry working as a jack-of-all-trades on film sets and occasionally doubling for his brother in stunts.

In 1914, Ford directed his first film, and over the course of the next 13 years, directed more than 60 silent films. Most of these have been lost. He was extraordinarily busy in his first years as a director. He directed ten films in 1917, eight in 1918, and fifteen in 1919. You get the feeling that his early years as a director were probably similar to the years the Beatles spent grinding out hours-long performances in seedy nightclubs in Hamburg, Germany.

His first big success as a director was The Iron Horse (1924), an epic drama about the construction of the transcontinental railroad. It was filmed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern California and required the construction of two fake villages. There were 5,000 extras, 100 cooks, 2,000 rail layers, a cavalry regiment, 800 Indians, 1,300 buffaloes, 2,000 horses, 10,000 cattle and 50,000 properties. Of course, the production went over budget and over schedule.

Get this story: Ford’s brother Eddie was a crew member, and the two brothers fought constantly. At one point, Eddie went after John with an ax handle. Executives at Fox sent telegrams expressing their dismay and concern. In reply, Ford would photograph these telegrams being torn apart or shot up. The production was nearly shut down by Fox executives on several occasions, but finally, they relented and he finished the picture. The Iron Horse became an enormous hit for the studio — their biggest picture of the decade.

Ford was well-known for his cantankerous, flinty character. In interviews I’ve watched of him, he comes across like the cranky old neighbors I had when I lived in New England. Legendary studio executive Carl Laemmle hired Ford as a director early on because “he yells good.”

John Wayne, with whom he had a long partnership, tells the story of the first time he worked with Ford. Wayne was a student at USC and a member of the football team. Ford asked him to demonstrate the position he took on the line and as soon as Wayne got into the position, Ford knocked him over from behind. Try it again, Ford told Wayne, who got back down into the position and when Ford got behind him again Wayne kicked him. Hard. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership that produced some of the best American films.

Ford’s output was astonishingly high. He made five sound pictures in 1928 and then averaged two or three films a year after that until 1942. He won Best Director Oscars for The Informer (1935), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941). He was also nominated for Best Director in 1939 for Stagecoach (1939). Take a look at that sequence of films right there; it’s almost breathtaking how significant his output was in those years.

At the height of World War II, Ford turned his focus to making films to support the war effort. He was head of the photographic unit of the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner to the CIA), and filmed the Japanese aerial assault during the Battle of Midway. He was wounded during that shoot. He was at Omaha Beach for D-Day, filming the initial assault on the beach from a US Navy ship, and then later that day went ashore on Omaha Beach. Very little of the footage he shot that day was released to the public because of the horrific and widespread casualties the US suffered that day. He won two more Academy Awards for Best Documentary for films he made during the war: The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th. (1943). He also filmed concentration camps to document the horrors of the Holocaust. His unswerving bravery in filming war scenes resulted in a few wounds as well as a citation from the US Navy.

After the war, he remained in the US Naval Reserve but returned to Hollywood. In the decade that followed the war, he made dozens more films, including Fort Apache (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), Mogambo (1953), Mr. Roberts (1955), and what many consider one of the best American films of all time, The Searchers (1956). He won his fourth Best Director for The Quiet Man.

As he entered the 1960s, his health was beginning to falter. He was going blind and his memory was starting to fade, although his crankiness did not. His interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1968 is worth watching just to see how uncooperative he could be. He was seated in a director’s chair, with an LA Dodgers baseball cap low over his eyes, one of which was covered by a black eye patch. At one point, Bogdanovich asked him how he shot a huge cattle rush in the 1926 silent movie Three Bad Men. His response: “With a camera.”

He had always lived hard, as my grandmother would say. He constantly smoked cigars, stayed up late, and drank heavily.

In 1962, he made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with James Stewart. Many consider it his last great film. He followed that next year with How The West Was Won (1963). I also admire Cheyenne Autumn (1964), an elegiac and epic tribute to Native Americans. It was his longest and most expensive film. It was also his last Western.

Ailing with stomach cancer and confined to a wheelchair from a broken hip, he moved out of his rambling mansion in Bel Air to a single-floor house in Palm Desert, CA. He died in 1973 and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, CA. I had a meeting once at the Sony Studios in Culver City but was late because I went to visit his grave. He is listed on his grave as Admiral John Ford, a rank he was granted during his years in the Naval Reserve. He is buried next to his wife of 59 years, Mary Ford, who died in 1979.

It was an immense career and an immense life.

Here are my favorite John Ford movies.

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