John Ford: 10 essential films

In his 50-year career, John Ford made some 140 feature films, including Oscar winners and some of the greatest westerns ever made. Here’s a rundown of his finest achievements.

David Parkinson
Updated:

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

Entertainer Fanny Brice dismissed swimmer-turned-actor Esther Williams by declaring, “Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.” Curiously, contemporary American critics were equally ambivalent about John Ford, as he was only considered an artist when he steered clear of the old west. The director himself was proud of the bluff epitaph: “My name’s John Ford. I make westerns.” But none of his five Academy Awards was awarded for one. Indeed, the only time he failed to convert a nomination was for Stagecoach (1939). But, even though the various Hollywood genres have since earned critical respectability, the jury is still out on Ford. David Thomson declared him “bigoted, grandiloquent and maudlin”, while even the enthusiastic Robin Wood suggested his masterpieces were happy accidents blessed by his alchemic touch. Orson Welles had no such reservations, however. When asked about his influences, he replied: “The old masters… By which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”

The Iron Horse (1924)

The Iron Horse (1924)

The Iron Horse (1924)

Having debuted by directing himself as the stunt-riding hero of The Tornado (1917) and forged a 26-film partnership with cowboy star Harry Carey (1917-20), John Ford reached western maturity with this epic account of the building of the transcontinental railway. Ford always averred that progress honoured those who had gone before, and George O’Brien risks all to realise the dream of the father who had perished in a tribal ambush. But, while the awe-inspiring location imagery imposes a sense of epochal spectacle, Ford was essentially a populist, and he is much happier in the company of common folk than historical icons.

The Informer (1935)

The Informer (1935)

The Informer (1935)

Born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna, Ford was fiercely proud of his Irish roots and spent five years trying to persuade RKO to adapt Liam O’Flaherty’s tale of lunkheaded treachery set in 1920s Dublin. Scripted by Dudley Nichols and played with heartbreaking vulnerability by Victor McLaglen (both of whom would win Oscars and become Ford’s frequent collaborators), the action is shamelessly sentimental and has dated considerably. But Ford was feted by critics and peers for championing such an uncommercial project and was rewarded with his first best director prize. However, his lauded poetic realism owed much to Van Nest Polglase’s atmospheric sets and Joseph H. August’s expressionist lighting.

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939)

Given that so many of its tropes became generic conventions, it’s difficult to imagine the transformation that this adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s short story ‘Stage to Lordsburg’ wrought on the Hollywood western. Returning to the genre for the first time in 13 years, Ford introduced a greater narrative maturity and psychological depth, while also establishing a new balance between frontier mythology, landscape and character. In addition to shooting in Monument Valley for the first time, he also embarked upon his long working relationship with John Wayne, who came to embody Ford’s archetypal action hero, while in other films Henry Fonda personified his man of conscience.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Seventy-five years after Ford adapted John Steinbeck’s divisive Dust Bowl novel, the theme of economic migrancy remains contentiously current. The conservative Ford coaxed screenwriter Nunnally Johnson into replacing angry radicalism with compassionate humanism, while Ford’s poetic empathy with the Okies meant that he couldn’t resist idealising the Joads, as they travelled to California at the height of the Depression in search of work and shelter. But Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell lead a fine ensemble with a restrained distinction that also informs cinematographer Gregg Toland’s moody realism. Ford won consecutive Oscars for this and the much more mawkishly sentimental How Green Was My Valley (1941).  

My Darling Clementine (1946)

My Darling Clementine (1946)

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Ford understood the potency of frontier mythology and left little room for fact in this noirish fantasy on the gunfight at the OK Corral. Using Henry Fonda’s principled Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature’s louche Doc Holliday to explore the tensions between the wilderness and civilisation, Ford placed more emphasis on communal life in Tombstone than on the seething feud with the Clantons, in order to make the contrast between the hoedown in the roofless church and the climactic shootout more striking. Indeed, Ford so refined generic cliché and caricature that Lindsay Anderson declared that if Stagecoach was very good prose, My Darling Clementine was poetry.

Fort Apache (1948)

Fort Apache (1948)

Fort Apache (1948)

Needing a hit after the failure of The Fugitive (1947), Ford viewed this take on James Warner Bellah’s story ‘Massacre’ as a potboiler. However, it would form part of the celebrated ‘cavalry trilogy’ with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), which combined bluff humour, folksy sentimentality and rugged action to convey the hardships endured by serving soldiers and their families. Collaborating with screenwriter (and future son-in-law) Frank S. Nugent, Ford cast Henry Fonda against type alongside John Wayne to revisit the tensions between the plains and civilisation and the individual and the community in what some have identified as a Cold War allegory.

The Quiet Man (1952)

The Quiet Man (1952)

The Quiet Man (1952)

Nostalgia tinged Ford’s postwar output and it was never more unrepentantly apparent than in this adaptation of a Maurice Walsh story that Ford had been trying to make since acquiring the rights for $10 in 1936. Eventually, the Poverty Row studio Republic stumped up the meagre budget and, even though Innisfree was as authentic as Brigadoon, Ford insisted on shooting in Ireland. His perseverance paid dividends during the rousing donnybrook between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen. Moreover, Winton Hoch won the Oscar for his verdant Technicolor photography. But what’s most noteworthy is Maureen O’Hara’s feisty colleen Mary Kate, whose independence and sensuality stand in stark contrast to Ford’s usually coy female ciphers. 

Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts (1955)

Lieutenant Commander John Ford USNR won his fourth Oscar for the documentary short The Battle of Midway (1942), which was narrated by Henry Fonda. However, fists flew when the pair returned to the Pacific base for this wartime saga. Having played the title character on Broadway some 1,100 times, Fonda felt he knew him better than Ford, who sought solace in booze after having his authority and artistic integrity challenged. He was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy after suffering a gallbladder attack, but it’s still possible to see this as Fort Apache afloat, as the mischievous humour that earned Jack Lemmon his Oscar as Ensign Pulver has a distinctly Fordian feel.

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

Adapted from an Alan Le May bestseller, Ford’s 125th feature is widely held to be his best. It’s certainly his most ambitious, as it goes much further than other psychological westerns of the period in presenting a revisionist view of frontier existence. As the Confederate sergeant returning to Texas after a presumed spell as a renegade, John Wayne is not just morally compromised, but he also seethes with racial hatred, sexual repression and a loathing for the civilisation imposed by the victorious northern states. The Comanche attack on the family homestead only fuels Wayne’s fury and, for all the film’s melancholic lyricism, Ford unflinchingly reveals that his protagonist is equally as capable of savagery as his quarry.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Filmed in monochrome on backlots and soundstages, Ford’s adaptation of Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story was as much a lament for the passing of the Hollywood studio system and the traditional western genre as an elegy for the lost frontier. Dismissed by many critics on its release, this has since been claimed as a twilight masterpiece that sums up Ford’s changing attitudes since My Darling Clementine to the central themes of his career. The picture will always be remembered for newspaper editor Edmond O’Brien’s line: “This is the west, sir. When the legend conflicts with the facts, print the legend.” But Ford knew that by killing the malevolent Lee Marvin, John Wayne’s good bad man made himself an irrelevance and enabled James Stewart to civilise Shinbone and sap its vitality and optimism. The legend died, therefore, with Liberty Valance.

The next 10…

  1. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
  2. Drums along the Mohawk (1939)
  3. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
  4. Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
  5. Rio Grande (1950)
  6. They Were Expendable (1945)
  7. The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)
  8. Four Sons (1928)
  9. The Long Voyage Home (1940)
  10. The Fugitive (1947)

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