Where to begin with John Ford

On the 127th anniversary of his birth, we pick a beginner’s path through the mammoth filmography of Hollywood’s poet of the American west, John Ford.

1 February 2021

By Matthew Thrift

The Searchers (1956)

Why this might not seem so easy

Asked for a list of his favourite filmmakers, Orson Welles once replied, “I prefer the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford… He’s a poet and a comedian. With Ford at his best you get a sense of what the earth is made of.”

Born on 1 February 1894, in the dying days of the old west he’d soon become synonymous with chronicling on screen, Ford was the pre-eminent popular artist of 20th-century American cinema, with a career that ranged from the silent era of the mid-1910s through to his final masterpiece, 7 Women, in 1966.

The sheer size of Ford’s filmography – more than 135 known films bear his name as director – means finding an entry point can be a daunting proposition. Given only 10 of the 60-odd pictures he directed pre-1927 survive, starting from the beginning isn’t really an option.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

These days, Ford is reasonably well-served on home video, with most of his major features easy enough to come by. It certainly wasn’t always the case for a filmmaker so susceptible to the waves of critical fashion. He saw his popular peak in the early 1940s – winning the best director Oscar 2 years in a row with The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941), having already won for The Informer (1935). But by the late-1950s (following a fourth Oscar win for 1952’s The Quiet Man), Ford’s brand of mythopoetic romanticism – however cynical it proves on closer inspection – was decidedly out of favour, his critical reputation kept alive almost single-handedly by the British critic-turned-filmmaker Lindsay Anderson.

While a handful of Ford’s pictures were contemporary, he generally preferred the refuge of the past – all the better to allegorise modern concerns. Any one of his films will give an immediate impression of his pictorial mastery and the peerless balance in his compositions. But digesting his films en masse allows the weight of his reputation, and the indisputable authorship of his filmography, to emerge out of his recurring preoccupations: social justice, community, order, ritual and myth.

His work also reveals an unwavering empathy for the everyman and the underdog, as embodied in the revolving cast of familiar faces drawn from his stock company of recurring players.

The best place to start – Stagecoach

1939 was a banner year for John Ford. He was already an industry veteran, with some 2 decades experience and 25 sound features behind him. Stagecoach certainly wasn’t his first western – his apprenticeship period saw dozens of silents made with star Harry Carey – but it was a film that saw him reach a major peak, reinvigorating a genre that had largely fallen from favour.

Stagecoach (1939)

It’s the film that introduced Monument Valley to his cinema, its monolithic buttes dwarfing – or perhaps ennobling – the squabbles of the ragtag bunch of morally mismatched protagonists on a journey through Apache country. It’s the film that gave birth to the psychological western, its silent-era effects (of close-up, gesture, glances) serving a humanist study in community and social prejudice. It’s the film that made a star – in a single, rifle-twirling dolly shot – of John Wayne, whose Ringo Kid carves the Fordian archetype of the ‘good bad man’ in stone. As Ford scholar Tag Gallagher puts it: “Ford westerns tend to be epitomes of the genre, rather than variations upon it.”

What begins with an outward encircling of the coach as all the characters are drawn into its orbit soon takes on a relentless forward charge, climaxing with an Apache attack on the vehicle (more complex representations of Native Americans would come later). The relationship between people and the landscape they traverse is writ large across Stagecoach, but its most commanding effect is that of movement – epitomised in a chase sequence that breaks the 180-degree rules of cutting with abandon in a showcase for stunt man (and Wayne double) Yakima Canutt. 

Orson Welles ran Stagecoach 40-odd times before making Citizen Kane (1941). Those ceiling shots Welles ‘pioneered’ with Kane? Audiences saw them 2 years earlier, in the first of 3 masterpieces to bear Ford’s name in 1939.

What to watch next

“My name’s John Ford. I make westerns,” is the most famous quote attributed to the filmmaker, said to Cecil B. DeMille at a meeting of the Director’s Guild of America, and one which best embodies his position in the public consciousness. If you want to go back as far as you can, Straight Shooting (1917) and Hell Bent (1918), 2 of his earliest 5-reelers with Harry Carey are newly restored and due for release in 2021 on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema imprint; they serve as fascinating embryonic examples from Ford’s apprentice period. 

For a defining example, head to the postwar triumph My Darling Clementine (1946), which sees Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, reluctant marshal of the town of Tombstone, and Ford’s expressionist tendencies edging towards the psychological territory of noir as he casts the west’s most famous lawman deeper into the realm of myth.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Three westerns – Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) – make up what is collectively known as Ford’s cavalry trilogy, in many respects the quintessential pictures for examining the director’s key thematic motifs. “Two of the most beautiful things in the world are a horse running and a couple waltzing,” Ford once said, and the social occasions nestled amid the action of the cavalry films use celebration as a means of resolving dramatic tension. Ford finds comfort in the uniform, order and ritual of social structures, but it would be a mistake to focus solely on his romantic and nostalgic effects and miss the critical eye.

Ford’s best-known westerns already under your belt? Try Wagon Master (1950) for Ford at his most lyrical – an exquisitely modulated marriage of music and movement that follows a Mormon caravan headed west.

Ford didn’t just make oaters though. “My most beautiful pictures are not westerns; they’re little stories without big stars about communities of very simple people,” he said, and it’s true that some of Ford’s greatest films have nary a six-shooter in sight. 

The Quiet Man (1952)

If you took to the ritualistic strictures of the cavalry films, try the military academy epic The Long Gray Line (1955). Want something more exotic? Ford’s got your back with the jungle adventure Mogambo (1953), starring Clark Gable and Grace Kelly, or the rum-swilling fisticuffs of the magnificent Donovan’s Reef (1963), which sees John Wayne and Lee Marvin punching up a storm in the South Pacific. Want something closer to home? Try Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958) or any of Ford’s Irish yarns, epitomised by the ravishing Technicolor fantasia of The Quiet Man (1952).

Only interested in the out-and-out masterpieces? Ford’s myth-making finds its peak in 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln, while How Green Was My Valley (1941) is a heartbreaking study in memory and cultural stagnation set in a Welsh mining town; it remains one of the best films ever to take the Oscar for best picture. From the early years, try Pilgrimage (1933), a melodrama that, in Henrietta Crosman’s central performance, gives short shrift to any lingering notion that Ford has little interest in women.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Yet for the most acute sense of everything Ford and his cinema stands for, the diptych of Judge Priest (1934) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953) are unbeatable. Starring Will Rogers (in 1934) and Charles Winninger (in the later film) as the same character – a judge in a small southern town just after the civil war – the 2 films speak to Ford’s passion for community, ritual, honour and justice with a humour and tenderness that touch the sublime.

Where not to start

It may seem odd to put Ford’s most famous pictures way down here. It’s certainly no mark on their character, as The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) stand among Ford’s finest achievements as a filmmaker. Yet both films serve to problematise and poison the myths and icons of the west that Ford played such a significant role in establishing, and their startling psychological effects – particularly in the case of the hugely influential (on New Hollywood, especially) The Searchers – are perhaps better appreciated with Ford’s rich record behind them. This duo speaks to what Tag Gallagher puts so succinctly: “The ultimate truth of the Fordian western is its own extinction.”

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