John Ford: A Biography

I wrote this biography of John Ford for TCM’s DVD box set John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection (2013)

ford columbia

In 1967 Kenneth Tynan asked Orson Welles which directors he most admired. Welles responded: “The old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” In the short history of moving images, John Ford occupies a uniquely revered position. He won a record four Best Director Oscars while remaining as popular with moviegoers as critics. His films were rousing entertainments that also picked at the contradictions of American life, of individual freedom vs. community, civilization vs. wilderness. These contradictions settle in the person of John Wayne, who forges a new society in Stagecoach (1939), violently holds it together in The Searchers (1956), and exposes the lies of its construction in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Ford’s films are as American as apple pie and armed aggression, and Ford is a great enough artist to encompass both.

John Martin Feeney was born in 1894 in a two-story farmhouse in Cape Elizabeth, Maine to his mother Barbara and father John. He was their tenth child, but only the sixth to survive. Both of his parents had emigrated to the United States from Spiddal, Ireland. John Sr. worked for the gas company, and made extra cash by selling bootleg whiskey to sailors and dockworkers. He eventually saved up enough money to purchase what would become Feeney’s Saloon, the new family business. John Jr. was a poor student but a devotee of the Nickelodeon theaters, and found his way into the movies when he discovered his wayward brother Francis had changed his surname to “Ford” and become a successful actor and director. After graduating high school, he briefly attended the University of Maine in the school of agriculture. He quickly decided dredging pig slop wasn’t for him, and sent his brother a wire asking for a job at Universal. He left for Southern California by train in July 1914.

His first job was as a studio ditchdigger, but he pitched in wherever he could. He was a stuntman, prop wrangler, camera operator, assistant director and actor, learning the whole business from the ground up. He even nabbed a bit part in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) as a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan. He made his directorial debut on the two-reel Western The Tornado (1917), credited with his nickname, “Jack Ford”. The majority of the 40-plus films he directed for Universal have been lost. The greatest losses were the 24 films he made with Harry Carey, only one of which survives (Straight Shooting (1917)). Carey was known as the “Bronx Cowboy”, a rough-and-ready hero more realistic than the spic-and-span Tom Mix. Ford described the Carey persona as, “sort of a bum, a saddle tramp, instead of a great bold gunfighting hero.” The director would look back fondly on these films, dedicating 3 Godfathers (1948) to Harry Carey, and making Carey’s son Harry Carey, Jr. part of his stock company of actors. John Wayne would pay his own homage at the end of The Searchers (1956), by mimicking Carey’s famed gesture of gripping his right elbow with his left hand.

In 1920 Universal agreed to lend Ford’s services to Fox, the studio for whom he would make more than 50 features over 30 years. In another milestone that year, he would wed Mary McBryde Smith, a North Carolina native of Scottish and Irish descent. Their marriage was a rocky one, but like a good Catholic he never divorced. Together they had two children, Barbara and Patrick.

Ford’s first film for Fox was the lyrical small town comedy Just Pals (1920), and the last the WWI comedy What Price Glory (1952). As Harry Carey’s star waned in 1921, Ford left Universal for good and signed a long-term contract with Fox. The Iron Horse (1924) was his first big-budget spectacular, an epic  re-telling of the construction of the transcontinental railroad that movingly conveys the immigrant experience (it was inspired by John’s Irish uncle Mike). 3 Bad Men (1926) is a less triumphal version of American expansionism, an intimate tragicomedy about three outlaws who escort a grieving daughter to her land claim. Darkened with chiaroscuro lighting by DP George Schneiderman, it reckons with the price paid in blood by the push Westward. As the popularity of the genre sunk, Ford wouldn’t make another Western until Stagecoach (1939).

Fox at that time was under the spell of German master F.W. Murnau, who had come stateside to film Sunrise (1927). His mobile camera and expressionistic lighting deeply affected Ford, whose works in this period bear Murnau’s influence. It is most evident in Four Sons (1928), a WWI melodrama about a Bavarian widow whose children all enlist in the war, and it re-emerges in Pilgrimage (1933) and The Informer (1935). With the Western in eclipse and the emergence of sound, Ford experimented in a variety of genres, including gangster films (Born Reckless, 1930), underwater action (Men Without Women, 1930) and jailhouse comedies (Up the River, 1930). The last featured the debuts of Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.

His films of the mid-1930s can be split into the “serious” works he made for RKO, like the IRA drama The Informer and WWI morality play The Lost Patrol (1934), and his more commercial films for Fox, like his trilogy of bucolic small town comedies with Will Rogers: Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935). He netted his first Best Director Oscar for The Informer, but today the Rogers films seem more personal. They are visions of troubled melting pot communities held together by the folksy, open-minded progressiveness of Will Rogers, the kind of society that might have sprung up after the church raising in My Darling Clementine (1946). Ford later re-made Judge Priest as The Sun Shines Bright (1953), and named it the favorite of his films.

John Ford became the John Ford of legend with the release of Stagecoach in 1939. While the number of Westerns being produced was again on an uptick after over a decade of decline, the vast majority were cheap B-pictures. So when Ford started shopping his adaptation of the Ernest Haycox short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” it took him a year and a half to land the picture with Walter Wanger for distribution through United Artists. John Wayne, a former bit player for Ford who was making B-Westerns for Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures, was tapped for the lead. It was the first film that Ford shot at Monument Valley in Utah, the pockmarked moonscape that would become the testing ground of his Western protagonists for decades to come. A swiftly paced adventure that also pokes holes in classist bourgeois values, it helped to kickstart a new cycle of Western films and launched Wayne into the stratosphere. Orson Welles screened it repeatedly to learn film form before making Citizen Kane (1941).

The film’s success led to an astonishing burst of creativity, leading to what is informally known as Ford’s “Americana Trilogy”: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). A mix of Popular Front politics and Ford’s brand of populist patriotism, they span the era from the Revolutionary War to the Dust Bowl, and etch Henry Ford as a symbol of American decency, which, in Drums and Grapes, has revolutionary implications. Ford would go back to his roots for How Green Was My Valley (1941), his melancholy portrait of industrial progress, as a Welsh mining family declines along with the ascent of mechanization. Famous for beating Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar, it is one of Ford’s most emotionally wrenching works, and introduces a skepticism towards “progress” that he returned to throughout his career.

It was his last feature before the onset of WWII, during which he served as a Commander in the U.S. Navy, and led the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, for whom he directed a number of propaganda films, from the syphilis scare flick Sex Hygiene (1942) to the harrowing battle footage of The Battle of Midway (1942). Midway and December 7th (1943) would win Best Documentary Feature and Short awards, respectively, but the bulk of his work for the OSS was secret, filming “guerillas, saboteurs, Resistance outfits.” After being discharged, he built the Field Photo Farm, a decked-out retreat where his Navy pals gathered every Memorial Day, and which had as its centerpiece a chapel in which the names of their deceased colleagues were etched. It remained in use until the end of his life.

His first feature after the war was They Were Expendable (1945), a downbeat portrait of a stretched-thin PT boat crew defending the Philippines from Japanese attack. The elegiac script was written by Ford’s Navy pal Frank “Spig” Wead, whose tragic life he captured in the bio-pic The Wings of Eagles (1957). After Ford’s immersion in the present, the rest of the 1940s find him grappling with the myths of the American West, beginning with Wyatt Earp and My Darling Clementine (1946). Henry Fonda, that paragon of virtue, turns the Earp role into that of a civilizing figure, clearing a path for community to rise in the violent go-it-alone ethos of the frontier. In the “Cavalry Trilogy” that begins with Fort Apache (1948), Fonda plays against type as an uptight martinet who leads his troops into a slaughter. Similar to the “print the legend” decision in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which covers up the real identity of the title’s shooter, Fonda’s folly is hidden and he is recast as a hero. John Wayne plays the scout who buries the truth and prints the legend. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), Wayne is an aging officerat peace with the moral compromises of the job. He is headed for retirement but is wary of the generation that will follow him, clashing with his subordinates and his children. Here again Ford is a skeptic of progress.

Wagon Master (1950) is one of his lesser known Westerns, but perfectly expresses Ford’s vision of community. Starring Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., it follows a wagon train of Mormons and Medicine Show performers as they head west for the promised land. Ejected from every city they land in, together they create an outsider society of their own. In The Quiet Man (1952), John Wayne runs away from a violent past into the Emerald Isle, shot in eye-popping Technicolor by Winston C. Hoch. One of Ford’s passion projects, he had been trying to get it made since 1935, and finally convinced Republic Pictures’ Herbert Yates to back it after getting Wayne and Maureen O’Hara to accept pay cuts. Filled with knockabout Irish comedy and sweeping romance, it became one of Ford’s most popular pictures, and he won his final Best Director Oscar for his efforts. His other personal project for Republic, the Judge Priest remake The Sun Shines Bright (1953), disappeared quickly from theaters. A profoundly moving tale of tolerance, its plainspoken cornpone honesty did not connect with audiences.

Ford soon proved his box office bona fides with Mogambo (1953), an exotic big game hunting adventure with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. On the shoot in Africa he contracted amoebic dysentery, which eventually led to cataract surgery and the donning of his trademark eyepatch. Always a heavy drinker, his alcoholism became chronic in this period, leading to the chaotic Mister Roberts (1955) production, for which Henry Fonda returned to the screen after eight years on Broadway. The two clashed, and the combination of drink and stress led to a ruptured gall bladder. Mervyn Leroy was called in to finish the production. The film was a hit in spite of itself.

Out of the chaos of Mister Roberts came Ford’s supreme masterpiece, The Searchers. Invigorated by his return to the Western genre and Monument Valley, it is an immersive journey into the dark heart of America. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, former Confederate soldier and mercenary gun for hire on a vengeful quest into Comanche territory to recover his kidnapped niece, whose parents were slaughtered. He is a virulent racist set on killing the niece sullied by the Comanche—Westward expansion envisioned as genocide. The ending is a miracle and a wish, a conversion into the communal America of My Darling Clementine and The Sun Shines Bright.

After a detour to Ireland and England with The Rising of the Moon (1957) and Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958), Ford returned to America and continued to feel his age, and make films about the process. The Last Hurrah (1958) tells the last days of a Boston politician, played with warmth by Spencer Tracy, and Two Rode Together (1961) is about an aging gunslinger Jimmy Stewart, exhausted and cynical about a town’s plan to recover their kidnapped children. Stewart returned for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a stately B&W memorial to the Western, in which, like Fort Apache, history is re-written to protect our country’s founding myths.

In his final decade Ford was engaging with the Civil Rights movement, reflecting on his own representation of Black and Native Americans (although personally he drifted toward Conservative Republican politics after WWII). Sergeant Rutledge gave Woody Strode a rare leading role in a chamber courtroom drama, playing a cavalry officer unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Cheyenne Autumn (1964) tells the tale of a Cheyenne tribe starved of resources by U.S. Indian Agents, and how they break through their reservation to take back their ancestral hunting grounds. Ford’s final film, 7 Women (1966), has the verve of a pulp adventure novel as Christian missionaries are besieged by Mongolian warriors, with only secular doctor Anne Bancroft to save them. It is like a feminist version of the Cavalry Trilogy, a siege narrative with nuns instead of soldiers (and with Vietnam the unspoken allegory, instead of WWII).

Ford’s health kept deteriorating, and in October of 1971 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. While battling the disease he stayed in touch with his stock company and watched old Westerns on television. He died on August 31st, 1973, with Woody Strode holding his hand.

–by R. Emmet Sweeney

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