John Ford was born John Martin Feeney, February 1, 1894, at his father’s farm in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, the child of Irish immigrants. The Irish were a ghettoised minority, then, and it was only toward the end of his life, Ford said, when Kennedy was elected president, that he felt like a first-class citizen. He grew up in Portland, where his father had a bar.
He sailed a boat, played football, and read history. At 20 he took the train to California, to make movies with his brother Frank, going West across a continent as his father had gone West across an ocean.
Frank was older by 13 years. He had run away from home when Jack was five, to join a circus, and after hundreds of pictures for Centaur, Edison, Melies, and Ince, in New Jersey, Texas, and California, now he was “Francis Ford”, a top star-director-writer with his own company at Universal. He had come home to Portland driving a Stutz with Grace Cunard, his red-haired, green-eyed co-star and lover.
Jack Ford, as he now became, spent the next three years in a rigorous, all-encompassing apprenticeship under his brother. “He was a great cameraman”, Jack recalled in 1966. “There’s nothing they’re doing today – all these things that are supposed to be so new – that he hadn’t done; he was really a good artist, a wonderful musician, a hell of a good actor, a good director – Johnny of all trades – and master of all; he just couldn’t concentrate on one thing too long. But he was the only influence I ever had, working in pictures.” (1)
“Jack was no good”, Frank remarked, “until he was given something to do on his own where he could let himself go – and he proved himself then.” (2) What set Jack apart was his persistence. The essentials of John Ford’s acting style can be found in Frank’s pictures: relaxed relating. There is the same love for vigorous action, painterly compositions, an underlying stream of oxymoronic humour, and warmth: a sense of communal sharing. Films in those days were made in community, as well, by the same troupe of players, writer, cameraman, director month after month – and both brothers found ways to continue this mode of production long after it ceased being an industry norm. It is difficult to imagine either Ford manipulating an actor the way D.W. Griffith did – for instance, Mae Marsh (in the courtroom of Intolerance ) or Lillian Gish (in the closet of Broken Blossoms ) – or “staring” at them with a brutality in cutting and framing that seems often to aim, like sometimes in Hitchcock, for the maximum in sensationalism. And Griffith had a fondness for formal exposition, lordly distance, high angles and sudden close-ups that make him seem rapacious alongside the Fords’ low or level angles, gentler cutting, and more respectful distance.
Jack Ford’s first film, The Tornado (1917) (lost) was made with his brother’s troupe, a satiric action picture with a sentimental twist: the hero (Jack Ford) needs money to buy his mother a home in Ireland. His fourth film, The Soul Herder (1917) (lost) was “a little gem”, according to Francis. And it started a four-year, 25-film association with Harry Carey. Carey was 39, the son of a White Plains special sessions judge, and a seasoned veteran of Griffith’s Biograph troupe. Ford was only 21. But they were both about six feet, 170 pounds, and they liked riding out to location on horseback, camping in bedrolls, and fleshing out stories as they went along. Later they would let George Hively write up the stories and get screen credit. They all lived together on Carey’s farm. Ford slept in the alfalfa patch. He was “adorable”, Harry’s wife Olive recalled. “He had a beautiful walk, not too argumentative, a good listener.” (3). Years later, we find Olive tending the house we see at the beginning and end of The Searchers (1956).
Their movies were successful because of Carey’s relaxed, receptive humility. He never seemed superior to his audience or his roles. In contrast to Western heroes like Tom Mix or William S. Hart, “Cheyenne Harry” was a bum, a saddle tramp – a good badman, like so many of Ford’s heroes. Universal advertised their second picture, Straight Shooting (1917), as “The Greatest Western Ever Made.”
Like the river, that serves as arbitrary barrier between feuding settlers, the division between outlaw and respected citizen is fluid in Straight Shooting; Ford’s people drift between ranch and farm, with the saloon as neutral territory. The man Carey plans to kill one day becomes his father-in-law the next day; another man, a drinking buddy now, is a mortal enemy tomorrow. Life is fragile, relationships shifting, society amorphous. Straight Shooting records a period of transition in the land’s history and the characters’ lives; like most later Fords, it stresses “passage” over “permanence.” Already Ford can maintain an energetic story, even though pausing constantly for tangential moments of reflection. At one point, he even pauses to watch the ranchers listening to a phonograph record – in a silent movie. Impressively deft are the seemingly crude reaction shots – Vester Pegg quivering in fright before the duel’s final moment, or Molly Malone gazing out her door after Harry, or the kinetic representation of terror as a static crowd suddenly flees the frame in all directions at the news of the coming duel. Ford already mythifies everything in a Western – as indeed everyone had been doing at least since Chateaubriand’s Atala in 1801.
Universal finagled a happy ending onto the film. Originally, Carey walks away alone at the end, which is what he and dozens of later Ford heroes patterned on Carey will do during the next 50 years. In The Searchers, John Wayne even imitates Carey’s signal gesture, squeezing his elbow. “Duke”, Ford had told him once, “take a look over at Harry Carey and watch him work. Stand like he does, if you can, and play your roles so that people can look upon you as a friend.” “That’s what I’ve always done”, Wayne later said (4) And he got his broken speech patterns from Carey as well: e.g., “Take your…[pause]…stuff and run down to the…[pause]…creek.”
The techniques of locating an actor’s eccentric traits, amplifying them into a screen personage, and getting the actor to relate relaxedly with other players were ones Ford pursued all his life.
In 1920 Jack Ford married Mary McBride Smith, 27, a blue-blooded Scotch-Irish Presbyterian nurse from New Jersey. They bought a house on a hill for $14,000 where they stayed for 34 years, and had two children, Patrick and Barbara. Ford never let his wife onto his set. He made a trip to Ireland, smuggled food to some IRA cousins hiding in the hills, and was roughed up and deported by the British.
By 1921 he had made 39 pictures at Universal (of which two survive), all but two of them Westerns. Now he signed with William Fox at $600 a week, made movies set in the London theatre, New York’s Jewish ghetto, rural New England, Maine fishing towns, and Mississippi riverboats, and changed his billing to John Ford. He would make 50 films at Fox (but of his 21 Fox titles up to 1927, only seven survive almost complete).
The first big success of Ford’s career came with The Iron Horse in 1924. While stranded by blizzards for ten weeks in the Sierra Nevadas, Ford and his troupe produced an epic around the building of the transcontinental railroad.
3 Bad Men was even better, with its spectacular land rush, but Westerns were no longer box office and 3 Bad Men was severely cut after previewing.
Ford, after making 43 Westerns, would not make another for 13 years, until Stagecoach (1939). Two Irish horse comedies, The Shamrock Handicap (1925) and Kentucky Pride, have the breezy pacing and wacky invention typical of Ford. A doctor tells a laid-up patient he’s done what he can, then walks out with a golf bag; another character shrugs off adversity by biting a banana.
What makes such gags work is Ford’s skill at cameo characterisation: the first time we see new characters, Ford presents them as types, with a pose and costume and action that defines them. Like in commedia dell’arte or vaudeville, each shot becomes a “turn” – a cameo in action. What makes someone a type is their striking difference from other people. Thus we “know” each character, even in a large cast, and the interaction between different types, classes and races becomes part of our “conspiracy” with the movie. “The secret”, said Ford of moviemaking, “is people’s faces, their eye expression, their movements.” (5)
Nonetheless Ford’s congenial films during his first 10 years were less movies than titles with illustrations.
Depth came when he married his cameo technique to Murnau’s stylised enrichment of atmosphere. Not until then did Ford realise cinema could be art. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau had come to Hollywood from Germany (where he had made Nosferatu  and The Last Laugh ) at the invitation of William Fox, who was expanding his exhibition chain from less than twenty to more than a thousand theatres and wanted a genuine masterpiece to distinguish the Fox logo. He got Sunrise (1927) the most influential movie in history.
So impressed was Ford that he set out, with Four Sons (1928), to relearn how to make cinema by doing a complete imitation of Murnau – rather like Mozart who learned to write fugues by imitating Bach.
What Ford learned was how to intensify a character’s relation to the space containing and surrounding her or him: the way her emotions permeate the entire screen, and the way milieu – customs, culture and tradition, duty and ritual – operate determiningly upon her. An actor’s movements become sculpture-in-motion, modelling the light and geometry of the frame. The fundamental Ford composition is a person acting freely within a geometric space –
a formalisation of a central mystery of Christianity, our terrifying freedom within a deterministic world. “Tout le monde a ses raisons”, says Renoir famously in La Règle du jeu (1939). Ford makes the same point visually cutting from one cameo to another.
Along with Sunrise came sound. At last characters were freed from enslavement to intertitles and could communicate directly to the audience. At last filmmakers could dictate precisely the music and sound effects they wished. The emotional experience of a movie became immeasurably more intense.
Thus, although Ford had made more than 60 pictures before Four Sons, it is only in 1928 that his mature work begins.
First Period (1927–1935): The Age of Introspection
In contrast to the patent imitation of Four Sons, Murnau’s influence is increasingly absorbed into Ford’s own personality in the gorgeous Irish mists and Gothic grandeur of Hangman’s House (1928); in the romp through Europe in the wonderful Riley the Cop (1928); in the jangle of sounds and cultures and music drama of The Black Watch (1929); and above all in Salute (1929), where ethos pervades the sunny air of the Naval Academy.
“Duty & Tradition” is a theme in nearly all Ford films. It was a tenet of the social realism of the 1920s that milieu determines our character. Now Ford’s Murnau-like music dramas intensify the social structures by which an individual is formed and of which he becomes a perpetuating instrument. Yet the structures that sustain society – duty and tradition, rituals and myths – also destroy its individuals. Their weight can be felt in Ford’s heavy chiaroscuro, and in his geometric compositions that crush people between layers of depth of field. Almost invariably Ford places characters in the middle field, surrounded by foreground objects and background.
Little surpasses, for lovely ingenuousness, the Navy girl in Salute teaching Paul on her windowsill the Navy song, “Anchors Aweigh”. Their gentle voices blend sweetly, and explain in one magic moment all the wars ever fought. For wars are not caused, says Ford, by “bad” people, but by “innocent” people, for whom war becomes an extension of every fine impulse. It is the wonder of Ford’s art that he allows us to love and value Duty & Tradition with the same noble folly as its victims, while at the same time subjecting these values to satire. That the Navy is a matriarchy is parodied by Smokescreen, Paul’s ancestral black servant, who shows up in a purloined admiral’s uniform (sword, tails, mammoth hat) and proclaims to Paul, “I’se yer Mammy!” The famous black actor, Stepin Fetchit, in keeping with the theatrical traditions of the “original Negro” and other “fool” characters in Ford, is ridiculing establishment values.
In effect, it is only through alienation from his society that the Fordian hero, a sacrificial celibate, emerges to moderate the worst ravages of intolerant tradition.
Ford’s villains are usually simple. In contrast, his heroes are paragons of anguished complexity. A Scotsman (Black Watch) is transported to Pakistan and begins to feel guilt and self-questioning. Even Cheyenne Harry (Straight Shooting) undergoes such traumas of alienation on his way toward moral responsibility that he turns completely against everything he formerly stood for and ends (in Ford’s original cut) by exiling himself even from the love that initially ignited his alienation.
The second half of this period (“Depression”: 1931–35) contains a series of five-star masterpieces. In the worst years of the economic Depression, Ford defines horror not by the 33-percent unemployment but by the moral meanness corrupting social bonds at every level. Contemporary America, in eight of nine films, is insular, static, misanthropic and oppressive; every individual victim to determinist forces. Cultural values no longer provide surety. Duty seems full of contradictions; heroes find themselves ridiculous and destructive, and turn introspective. Their alienation symbolises the common woe. Happiness belongs only to simpletons – often played by Francis Ford.
Arrowsmith (1931) is Ford’s first prestigious triumph, and a box-office one as well. The book had just made Sinclair Lewis the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis satirises America’s barrenness, hypocrisies, insipidities and myopia by playing on characters’ unlikeable qualities. Ford makes these people likeable nonetheless, and Ford’s satire, by its lack of condescension, increases our empathy along with our distance. Martin Arrowsmith is Ford’s first real attempt at a profound character, and a confusedly complex one. His quest for glory (or is it his sense of Duty?) kills his wife Leora. Death comes Murnau-like: in a gradual crescendo of rain and off-camera sobbing, elaborate demonstrations of depth-of-field compositions, pools of light and chiaroscuro, and the paranoiac desperation of “duty” and “science” in face of disease. “To make such a conflict of ideas and levels of knowledge the heart of a film drama was unheard of in 1931”, wrote Richard Griffith (6).
In Airmail (1932), Flesh (1932), Pilgrimage (1933) and Doctor Bull (1933), the very air is suffused with palpable weight of lonely, God-bereft existence. In Airmail, Irene’s feelings extend to the dappling chiaroscuro of rain on her window. Lora in Flesh is even more displaced, victimised and alienated. People live and breathe and feel within décor, Ford learned from Murnau. Into Airmail‘s misanthropic murk intrudes Duke (Pat O’Brien), scornful of propriety or danger, a figure of liberation, chaos and nature, frolicking recklessly in his plane beneath a (for once) sunny sky – a typically Fordian disruption of which Tunga Khan in 7 Women (1965) will be the ultimate representation, and Wallace Beery in Flesh an occasionally comic one.
Pilgrimage and Doctor Bull offset hard-souled individuals and repressive communities with dreary comedy verging on insanity: a mayor (Francis Ford) tries to stop a train with his cane. Ford’s cinema is a tapestry of excommunicants – blacks, half-castes, fallen women, illegitimate children, impolitic doctors, sons, and blacksmiths. In Pilgrimage objects become testimonials casting into perspective people enshrouded in private myopia and self-deception. Fiery blackness, a lamp witnesses a drunken father, fenceposts the anger of a grandmother. Gazing down a road, the pointed tops of a zig-zaggy fence tell us the sleigh is bringing Hannah news of Jim’s death. A foreground table and lamp witness the long-shot scene when Hannah learns Jim is dead; their steadfast presence reminds us that time can neither be turned back nor halted: Hannah has to live every second. Like many Fords, the chrome-dark Pilgrimage pleads for harmony between myth and human needs. Hannah herself was the war that killed her son, just as comparable intolerance in rival patriotic communities killed so many others.
Flowers mark Hannah’s passage. Ford’s most constant symbol, they mark most heroes’ loves – Lincoln from and to Ann Rutledge; Sean to Mary Kate; Nathan Brittles (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon ) and Frank Skeffington (Last Hurrah ), to their dead wives;
Tom Doniphon, to and from Hallie (Liberty Valance ) and so on. Hannah’s flowers signify not only conscious intention (to honour the dead) and reversal (Hannah’s initial refusal to honour her dead), but also their ultimate power: Hannah succumbs. Objects may do more than witness and judge. We so infuse the world with our feelings and thoughts, that eventually the world infuses us in return.
Hannah reunites a family, then walks away. This little old lady is the first “Fordian hero”, a figure we shall encounter in most subsequent Ford pictures in the guise of Will Rogers, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne, among others. The hero, of whom Abraham Lincoln will be typical, has a priestly quality: both of and above the people, he (or she) is a mediator, a lonely soul, continent but tragic. He alone brings light to an otherwise intolerably bleak existence. He is a pilgrim and Christ figure in the Augustinian scheme of history, a hero in the Hegelian: he is one whose knowledge of right and wrong transcends ordinary human limits and elevates his community out of its sloughs of intolerance and onto a higher moral plane. Outside normal human history, he or she is generally celibate. Ford’s communities are often isolated, and always he emphasises the link with the outside world – train, plane, steamboat, stagecoach, mule – by which the hero arrives and begins a via crucis (e.g., The Searchers and 7 Women).
Yet Ford’s finest movies are as much comedy as tragedy. Is there a movie more convivial and charismatic than Judge Priest? Will Rogers is Harry Carey times 10: congenial, relaxed, conspiratorial with everyone. And here as well is Henry B. Walthall, “a personality that just leaped from the screen”, as Ford described him (7). And in fact character is what it’s all about. Gillis is put on trial, but is not required to mention “facts” to establish his innocence. Having shown his character during the war, Gillis would certainly have acted properly in his dealings with Flem Tally; further justification would be superfluous. Trials in Bull, Lincoln, Rutledge are argued similarly. Character is fate in Ford. People do not change. They undergo fortune and awake to destiny. As in Balzac, Dickens and Greek tragedy, there is a stripping bare of character, a concern for ideal “truths” rather than the shifting surfaces of reality. Judge Priest stares constantly at the Sartrian voids of mortality and freedom, and he learned long ago that freedom is meaningless save as means to fulfilment – which was not a meaningless message in the middle of the Great Depression.
For Ford the Depression was a violent repression of character and freedom. The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) also a comedy, is aflame with the lava of rebellion against the tyrannies of the era – gangsters and politicians, businessmen and police, workplaces and prisons – that thrive (then as now) by shifting reality’s surfaces. The reluctant hero’s pets are not named Abelard and Heloise fortuitously. Abelard (1079–1142), a clerk (like Jones) inspired by reckless Heloise (like Miss Clark), was condemned for opposing the notion (personified in dutiful Jones) that freedom is unquestioning acceptance of “God’s” plan. He suspected that each person is unique, that appearances may be deceiving. He held we must employ our intellect freely to discern the true nature of things. These are Ford’s themes.
Ford’s characters may seem “types” at first, when they present themselves and do their “turns”, but Ford prepared full biographies for each of them – with tastes, opinions and eccentricities – and then would slip in these tidbits. His actors become their roles. Part of his legend as a director was that he gave only basic directions and refused to discuss anything, yet on screen seems to have moulded every tic. Perhaps this was because everyone was so afraid of missing a signal that attention was riveted on him and his sets were quiet (like a church, said Harry Carey, Jr.). “This man directs less than any man in the business”, remarked photographer Arthur C. Miller. “As a matter of fact, he doesn’t direct – he doesn’t want any actor to give an imitation of him playing the part. He wants the actor to create the part – that’s why he hired him, because he saw him in the part. You’d sit at a big coffee table in the morning – everybody was there, whether you worked that day or not. You’d drink coffee until you couldn’t swig it down any more.” (8) According to Katherine Hepburn, it was Ford’s sensitivity that made him a great director of actors. He could always sense what people were feeling – even across a room (and if he sensed hostility he would get up, go over, and find out why). Philip Dunne contends that “Jack’s courtesy to any individual was always in inverse proportion to his affection. I knew Jack liked me, because in all the years I knew him intimately he never said a polite word to me, not one.” (9) He never looked at the script or consulted his script girl, Meta Sterne; even the most elaborate montages were never put onto paper; he kept everything in his head, and no one but he knew what he was doing. He seldom shot a second take. But in scenes with lots of people, he would pay attention to every movement and gesture, just as if he was staging a ballet.
Ford’s personal depression was moral, externalised in constant (losing) bouts with liquor as soon as a film ended, two wandering voyages to the South Seas (one with George O’Brien, below right), a perilous romance with Katharine Hepburn, and above all the two-masted 106-foot ketch he purchased in June 1934 and christened Araner after the Irish island where his mother was born. Here Ford retreated to prepare pictures, rest after them, and every chance he got. Here the Fords spent half their lives, cruising winters to Baja and Mexico or to Hawaii, where their children were going to high school. As the image of America in Ford’s pictures grew increasingly bitter and alien, Araner more and more became his refuge.
Second Period (1935–1947): The Age of Idealism
“Who am I? What kind of a person am to be?” These questions are posed constantly during these dozen years of disintegration and chaotic flux when names deceive and things are never what they seem. People are introverted, egocentric, obsessed. In The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) Dr Mudd defines himself by his duty, not by his character. But in The Hurricane (1937) duty brings cosmic disaster. Hollywood, subject since 1935 to rigid repression by its creditors (Morgans and Rockefellers) and production codes (the churches), ceases to confront contemporary America. Ford retreats into the past, introspection, and allegory, into historical romances set in Scotland, Ireland, India, and Samoa, or during the Civil War or frontier eras.
The great masterpiece of the first part of this period (“Exotica”: 1935–38) is Steamboat round the Bend (1935), a gentle morality fable in the style of showboat melodrama. The horrors of the American South are detailed lovingly – the rigidity of racial segregation; the capitulation to established order; the ossification of intellect. It is difficult to know which is more horrifyingly tragicomic: the casual friendliness with which the sheriff tells Duke (whom everyone knows is innocent) that he’ll hang him as soon as they see who wins the steamboat race, or Duke’s own lack of protest. On one hand, Ford’s portraits are so loving that we can virtually share such exotic mindsets toward life and can comprehend their attractions. At the same time, his satire is horrific. The myths that sustain society are ossified. Dr. John (Will Rogers) is a professional huckster who knows a sap when he sees one. He preserves tradition by changing names. He sells a wax figure of Grant by calling him “Lee.” He sells Demon Rum by calling it “Pocahontas Remedy.” And at times too Ford fools us into confusing wax people and real ones. But by the same process, innocent Duke has become “guilty.” Only names count. Here is the nugget of intolerance. The myths that sustain society are ripe for revolution. Dr. John burns all the myths in his steamboat’s furnace to save Duke. What is wonderful is the simplicity and openness of these people, their frank sexuality, ingenuous passion, the way every emotion gets clear play, physically. “There ain’t nothin’ nicer than goin’ up and down the river”, Duke declares. It’s Ford’s recurring moral.
It is also the theme of Wee Willie Winkie (1937). Priscilla Williams (Shirley Temple) emerges into India from a smoky gorge. People who arrive in Ford movies generally end up fulfilling rather awesome purposes and, as it happens, Priscilla will in her first few weeks in India sow flowers where’er she walks, humanise her grandfather, comfort the dying, win a boyfriend, marry off her widowed mother, and prevent a war. In effect, she is a true Fordian hero, celibate, mediating between repression and chaos (Britain and the Pethans), and reuniting a family. Indeed, she is Ford’s most affirmative hero, for her higher wisdom derives not from tragic experience or innate arrogance, but from an innocence reflecting humanity’s innate virtue. Priscilla’s innocent eye regards the world as her teddy bear, and therein lies her strength – for who dares disillusion such stubborn innocence?
Yet Winkie is also a study of a British military community in India, like Ford’s postwar portraits of American cavalry outposts. Hence it is frightening that Priscilla is made the regiment’s mascot, given a uniform, and trained in ordnance. For ordnance will regulate her spirit and merge her into that pleasant pageantry that is the arrogant, racist, and resented position of the British, which we can find in almost every scene (if we look) in the barriers of rank (and race) that seem constantly to terrify even the soldiers themselves. “But this is home”, mother says, and here is a line with reverberation in an oeuvre in which the search for home is a constant theme. An old life, husband, and national identity are dead; new beginnings must be made. There is no choice.
Wee Willie Winkie is among Ford’s most seminal prewar films not only because like virtually every postwar picture it studies militarist ethos, but also because it grasps the paradox that one must grow up, one must go on, one must belong, and that this is good, even though thereby one’s conscience is arrogated and one is inculpated in collective evil. The future is to be entered into willingly.
Judge Priest, Steamboat and Winkie were popular and profitable movies. And only a grump could fail to enjoy the allegretto virtuosity, deft cameos, variegated moods and sheer inventiveness of Submarine Patrol (1938). But the art of these movies was totally ignored for decades. Instead, critics anointed Ford for a series of situation dramas, pretentious and theatrically formulaic, notably The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935). The more simple-minded the project, the more critics hailed its genius. Those who raved over The Informer‘s “innovative” use of subjectivity (e.g., the materialising poster; the “tap-tap” cane sound representing Gypo’s conscience; Frankie’s voice in Gypo’s mind; the point-of-view camera techniques) failed to note subtler and more resonant subjectivity in Pilgrimage, The Black Watch, Salute, or How Green Was My Valley (1941). Critics approved of Gypo Nolan, because in Victor McLagIen’s performance Gypo was a hulking stupid beast of a man, wandering in a friendless foggy night, and thus representative of the proletarian Everyman whom liberal critics felt Hollywood neglected. The Informer was an uncommercial experiment that required courage for Ford to make. He was so distraught by its negative reception by its first preview audience that he vomited.
More to the point, The Informer incessantly reiterates a single mood. Ford’s richest work, in contrast, tends to be variegated in mode, often at the same moment – “polymodal.” Much as Ford might be praised for the “simple Fordian characters” in The Prisoner of Shark Island, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Tobacco Road (1941), these are Nunnally Johnson’s, not Ford’s, whose people are complex, ambivalent and contradictory. The look of Murnau in these movies is more stunning that ever, and endlessly inventive, particularly in Shark Island, Mary of Scotland (1936) and the park scenes in The Plough and the Stars (1936). But RKO grossly re-edited Mary and Plough, and even Fox deleted a lynching from Judge Priest and comedy from Steamboat, and compelled him to endure Warner Baxter in the otherwise magnificent Shark – an actor whose overprojecting is as contrary to laid-back Carey or Rogers as could be found.
What is wonderful in Mary of Scotland – aside from every amazing shot in the first 20 minutes – is the way Katharine Hepburn, for once in her long career, seems truly to bare her soul (and body – though only hands and head are uncovered) while falling in love with John Ford (off-camera). Nothing in cinema tops this for eroticism (on the inside).
Much that was contentious in the first years of this period is assured in its second phase (“Pre-War Prestige”, 1939–41). Themes of survival replace helplessness. Duty is destiny. Characters gain strength in class consciousness. Moods are vigorously mixed together, every shot an adventure in dynamic form. These seven movies captured ten Oscars and thirty-four nominations, and in each of these three years the New York Film Critics chose Ford best director. Darryl F. Zanuck, from the vantage of 1972, concluded that Ford was “the best director in the history of motion pictures” because “his placement of the camera almost had the effect of making even good dialogue unnecessary or secondary.” (10)
A new magnitude enters cinema with Monument Valley in Stagecoach. Not bigger physically, like the ocean or sky, but bigger in feeling. Civilisation is corrupt, Stagecoach tells us over and over again. But each of the coach’s passengers makes a pilgrimage of self discovery and redemption, and this vastness is their aspiration. Space becomes subjective; ideas become space. Ideas are real. The valley = consciousness = our own interiority. It’s not simply a valley, but a valley turned into melodrama, like a consciousness expanding as it stares at the world’s immensity – in 1939, as the world turned toward war. It’s the reality of this gaze that’s important, of how things are looked at – not the reality of the rocks. Stagecoach is like a painting, with music – and a world of people. Each of them presents themself (with a “turn”), each of them is initially as basic as adventures in a dreamworld – but in such profusion, in such continuous revelation, in such global contradiction, that Stagecoach sprawls, a dozen stories, three movies not one, a climax per character. Finally, in black night, John Wayne will stalk Plummer with timpani roars as his foot steps. If a single quality stands out in this movie, call it audacity.
So too Young Mr. Lincoln is painting. This “portrait” of Ann Rutledge is seen from Lincoln’s point of view.
Each element of the portrait is more an idea than a tracing of reality – the river, trees, Ann’s clothing and pose, her flowers, her greeting, the fence. Ford’s tastes in sexuality are maybe not so fashionable as Hawks’ (with his preternaturally rutting mannequins), but to me the outline of Ann’s breasts, the simple way she stands and her forthright directness make a strong statement. Also to Ford obviously. His pluckish ingenues resemble each other, perhaps with Hepburn their ideal (e.g., Lucy in Stagecoach, Clementine in My Darling Clementine , etc.).
The purity of aspiration in Lincoln’s vision of Ann resembles the way we looked at Monument Valley. Lincoln, in the Rousseau-like purity of nature, discovers law is nothing but right and wrong, and at the same instant is startled by this apparition of womanhood – whom, however, the fence demarks as belonging to another sphere. Momentarily he jumps the fence, but it’s there again at scene’s end. Ann appears as an angel above him, incarnates nature and law, gives him her flowers to hold while she tells him what he is to do in life, then disappears. Ford is full of magical apparitions – of characters staring at visions (Stagecoach: Hatfield at Lucy; How Green: Huw at Angharad; My Darling: Wyatt at Clementine; Quiet Man (1952): Sean Thornton at Mary Kate; Searchers: Debbie at Scar). Lincoln, in his mind’s eye, never stops staring at Ann, the river, his beckoning destiny.
Everything has the aura of “And so it happened…” Lincoln, like Christ, cannot be separated from his myths and iconography. The thrust is passage (from youth to manhood, innocence to wisdom, human to monument). But history, like God’s omniscience, puts everything outside time, into the static determined; life is pilgrimage. Lincoln, like Christ, seems haunted by his pilgrimage. We all know what must happen. The pilgrimage is a struggle between free will and a deterministic cosmos, between Lincoln as man and as agent of history. If sometimes he is cocky, chases ambition, often cheats and threatens violence, at other times he seems frightened and led by his icons (the tall hat dominating in the foreground Lincoln’s actions in the background).
Here is the Fordian hero: solitary, celibate, come like Christ from outside history to mediate intolerance and reunite a family. He even pulls from his magic hat the stars themselves to win his trial. Yet as Brecht said, “Unhappy the land that needs a hero.” Already intolerance is ossifying the frontier societies in Stagecoach, Lincoln and Drums along the Mohawk. Ringo and Dallas ride into the rising sun and escape civilisation; for us, this is fairyland. In The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home, Tobacco Road and How Green Was My Valley, people are suffocated by social structures and traditions.
Frank Nugent, in The New York Times, placed Grapes on the “one small uncrowded shelf devoted to the cinema’s masterworks” (11). It was difficult to recall (since no one remembered Ford’s earlier work) a movie from a major studio whose tone was so “aware”. Even today, few films appear so seditious, bitter, damning, so primed so spark the revolution. It is curious how Ford gets us to adopt class solidarity with the Okies, with “Our People” (as Ma Joad calls them) and to feel alienated from the actual “our people” (the people just like us who regard the Okies as sub-human). Ford concentrates here on the effects and victims of intolerance (whereas his subsequent movies will investigate the causes and perpetrators). Grapes climaxes with the family destroyed and the Fordian hero (Henry Fonda, as in Lincoln) going up into the hills to continue the struggle. But this trumpet of revolution is muted by an epilogue, a sort of happy ending added by the studio after Ford left. Even so, the studio and Ford came under savage attack by right-wingers.
Takes are long in Grapes, and cutting slow, nonetheless inspiring some commentators to define Ford’s style by this untypical example. Another anomaly, The Long Voyage Home (1940) drawn from short plays by Eugene O’Neill, was adored by critics (and Ford and O’Neill) for its long-day’s-journey-into-night style visualisations of O’Neill’s words (most of them newly composed by Dudley Nichols) which, like The Informer, incessantly evoke cosmic malevolence.
Quite other is How Green Was My Valley, one of the finest things in our world, where cinematic form becomes spatial music, and memory strives tragically to suppress reality. “Who shall say what is real and what is not?” argues Huw (Roddy McDowall).
Huw sustains his mind’s-eye narration over almost the entire movie, repressing the awakening awareness that Grapes chronicled in Tom Joad (Fonda). Scenes frame Huw at their focal point, echo his mood in lighting and composition, and everything is choreographed, for life is ritual for Huw, a flowing geometric motion in which people talk, move, gesture with noble care. Life is a succession of sacramental moments. Huw, like Ford, grasps people in cameo: we shall, for example, always think of Bronwyn as Huw does, coming round the corner with basket and bonnet, when he falls in love with her and retains forever these vivid, tactile impressions of knowing her in that magic second.
“I was 12 years old”, recalled Roddy McDowall. “I had already made about 20 films in England, and I wasn’t naive. I knew what was going on. What stands out in my mind is that I never remember being directed. It all just happened. Ford played me like a harp. I remember him as very dear and very gentle… He forged a unique sense of family with all of us.” (12)
A plethora of wonder-filled incidents spin the spectator far out of the duration of normal life. While Bronwyn reads to Huw in his window-bed, Ford’s camera draws back to include the miniature drama enacted by Angharad (out of Huw’s sight) as she waits excitedly inside her door for Mr. Gruffydd coming to call. Typically Ford puts a table lamp in the foreground, absorbing a quarter of the composition. Such contrapuntal use of depth-of-field, typical of Ford (and no other moviemaker so often), displays the disparity between events and Huw’s awareness of them.
His hero Gruffydd is a Fordian hero manqué: celibate, solitary, claiming truth and authority, even posed at the end like Christ on the cross, but a figure of impotence, who watches families being destroyed while his vampiric congregation sit in their pews like soldiers in formation. It’s a nasty place, this green valley. Even Huw’s family is a failure, disintegrating in its own intolerance. All the more reason that Huw will not fail, will not leave the valley, will not abandon the mine to become a doctor or lawyer. Like everyone in his valley, he clings to tradition to protect him from change – and death. “Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears? No!… They remain a living truth within my mind.” Consecrating his life to purity, he rejects growth, as tradition itself becomes, unrecognised, the malignant slag that destroys the valley. At the end, when the colliery lift reaches light, Huw stares into nothingness, his eyes fixed inward, not outward, into a desolate soul without a thing to look at.
And so he closes his eyes. And there it is: the whole movie running by in flashback, as it has for Huw for fifty years now. Huw abolishes change and dwells in mine and memory. We may not wish, in the cold light of day, to share Huw’s choices, but Ford lets us feel their power and attraction as Huw himself does.
The afternoon of December 7th, 1941, Ford, Mary, and their daughter Barbara were dining at the Alexandria, Virginia, home of Admiral William Pickens, navy chief of navigation. “The phone rang”, Mary recalled,
and the maid brought the telephone to the admiral, and she called him “animal”, and she said, “It’s for you, animal.” He said, “I’ve told you not to disturb me while I’m at dinner.” “It’s the war department.” We all bristled up. And he said, “Yes, yes, yes”, and he hung up. And he said “Gentlemen, Pearl Harbor has just been attacked by the Japanese. We are now at war.” Everyone at that table, their lives changed that minute. We all walked out of the dining room. Then Mrs. Pickens said, “It’s no use getting excited. This is the seventh war that’s been announced in this dining room.” (13)
At the time he was making How Green Was My Valley, Ford had been anticipating America’s entry into World War II. It was time to leave the valley. Could Huw-like purity be maintained in war?
On his own initiative Ford had gotten together dozens of Hollywood film technicians to drill weekly under ex-marine Jack Pennick (a bit player in almost every Ford movie). Eventually Ford got Colonel “Wild Bill” Donovan to accept his group into the foreign intelligence agency that Roosevelt had ordered Donovan to set up. Ford became chief of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, later the CIA); his only superior was Donovan, whose only superior was Roosevelt. “Our job”, explained Ford, “was to photograph both for the Records and for our intelligence assessment, the work of guerrillas, saboteurs, Resistance outfits [and aerial mapping].… Besides this, there were special assignments.” (14)
Most of them, said Mary Ford, were “over age and rich – people who could never have been drafted. But when Jack said, ‘Let’s go’, they obeyed him.” (15) Their first project, with Zanuck at Fox, was Sex Hygiene (1941), a short designed to terrify young men.
Ford himself had been rejected by the navy during World War I for his poor eyesight. This grated, because of Mary, who came from a “war-fighting family”, whose admiral uncle was Chief of Naval Operations, and who regarded movies as relatively trivial. Through her connection in the Pacific fleet, Ford obtained a reserve commission as a lieutenant commander in September 1934 and occasionally submitted reports of Japanese activity off the Mexican coast. What Ford adored about the military was its panoply. He went off to war carrying not a gun but a camera, trading shots of film for shots of bullets.
He was strongly disapproved of. He acted as unmilitary as possible, and most of his men probably did not know how to execute a right-face. He would skip important meetings, was seldom in uniform, and his slept-in clothes were stained with a week’s worth of chocolate and tobacco. To win friends, he would invite officers to screenings of his movies, where he would deliver a stock speech: “I’ve been wanting to see this picture myself. I never saw it after it was all put together.” Afterward, he would pull out his big white handkerchief, wipe away a tear, and croak, “I’m glad I waited until I could see it with you. I didn’t realise it was so moving.” (16)
Mary would see almost nothing of Jack or Pat (their son in the navy) during the next three and a half years. She took over the kitchens at the famous Hollywood Canteen, a free club where celebrities entertained 6,000 servicemen a night.
Ford’s headquarters were in Washington, D.C. He flew to Iceland and the Panama canal to film defence reports, got onto the carrier from which Doolittle launched his raid on Tokyo, and managed to film Japanese planes attacking him, him personally, in the middle of the biggest naval battle in history. It was the turning point of the Pacific war, the moment when the United States became the dominant power on Earth, and the poet laureate was there. “The image jumps a lot because the grenades were exploding right next to me.…A blast of shrapnel…knocked me out. I was wounded pretty badly.”
The Battle of Midway (1942) was a type of film virtually lacking formal precedent, one for which Ford had to invent something new. Rarely is an artist given so vast a subject for his canvas, and rarely does his personal experience receive the interested attention of so vast an audience. Whatever else war might be, Ford tells us, it is regardless an ultimate sort of experience of one’s life. What is life, or love, or death compared to it? He makes us think constantly of what it is to kill, to be killed, to be in deadly peril, to be a mechanic fuelling death. Is it heroism? How scared are they? Voices from the film speak directly to us – ”You!” Like it or not, we are forced to respond. There is a dialectic to this film. What is most significant is its authenticity. “Yes, this really happened.” But Ford is filming philosophy along with experience. War-propaganda films after this one would not terrify Americans or worry them about Christian ideals. And it is all put together like Beethoven’s “Battle” symphony.
Because of interservice rivalry, Ford needed FDR’s support to release his movie. After inserting a close-up of the president’s son, marine major James Roosevelt, he took the print to the White House. The president chatted all through, then froze into silence when his son appeared. At the end Eleanor was crying, and the president proclaimed: “I want every mother in America to see this picture!” Most of them did. Ford’s editor, Robert Parrish, attended the Radio City Music Hall premiere. “It was a stunning, amazing thing to see. Women screamed, people cried, and the ushers had to take them out.…The people, they just went crazy.” (17)
Field Photo productions won best-documentary Oscars two years in a row, Midway and December 7th (1943). The latter, mostly directed by Gregg Toland, initially followed White House directives and made a case for interning the 160,000 Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii, as was being done with the 110,000 Japanese-Americans living on the west coast.
Instead it was decided to leave the Hawaiians alone, after the military governor, General Delos Emmons, supported by the community, resisted Washington’s orders. Accordingly, some 50 minutes of December 7th were deleted, now Japanese-American loyalty is stressed, and the portion that remained was exhibited not in theatres but in factories. Virtually all the footage of the Pearl Harbor attack was staged at Fox. (All prior accounts of December 7th’s history, including my own, have missed this story completely. Hawaii’s successful defiance of Roosevelt is a deeply forgotten event in American history – not surprisingly.)
Ford’s war took him to North Africa, India, China, Tibet. He parachuted into Burma to film guerrilla tribesman and was on a destroyer during the first landings on D-Day. Thirteen men of Field Photo, out of about 200, were killed in action. When MGM wanted him to make They Were Expendable (1945) Ford exacted a $100,000 contribution toward acquisition of “The Field Photo Farm”, in the San Fernando valley, where any of his unit could live free of charge, and where for the next 20 years Ford presided over rituals of weddings, funerals, Christmas parties and Memorial Day ceremonies.
Symbols and myths seem brighter and trustier in Ford’s World War II documentaries, compared to the despair of his ’30s fictions. But with the end of the war a sense of ruin returns; Ford’s worlds are blacker than ever. From being servants of myths, heroes become puppets, overwhelmed by absurdity, groping for faith.
In They Were Expendable, the GIs in the Phillipines are defeated, abandoned, betrayed; their sacrifice is meaningless. In My Darling Clementine, morality is so muddled, that the question “to be or not to be” makes little sense. In The Fugitive (1948), the hero can hope for substance only in death.
My Darling Clementine approaches allegory. Wyatt Earp (the U.S.) gives up marshalling in Dodge City (World War I), but takes up arms again to combat the Clantons (World War II) to make the world “safe.” Victory is horrible, and Wyatt must return to the wilderness, to his father (confession; reconstruction), leaving innocence, hope, and civilisation (Clementine) behind, “lost and gone forever”, a distant memory (the long road) in Tombstone (the world of 1946).
Wyatt (Henry Fonda) combines the godhood of Lincoln, the passion of Tom Joad, the directness of the Ringo Kid. Like many another Fordian hero, he comes out of the wilderness, rights wrongs, and goes on his way. Wyatt embodies the Fordian hero’s traditional urge to squat with his traditional obligation to wander. And he casts himself as an angel of order. What is worrisome is his identification of justice and vengeance, of legal form and wilderness morality. Thus he rejects official help in confronting his brother’s killers, because it’s “strictly a family affair”, and ends up only with more death. The movie is a series of skits and turns illustrating attempts at community, most of them abortive. As if looking for answers, the camera stares at the sky after the battle and down the long road at the finish, “lost and gone forever…”
In March 1946, Ford, seeking independence as numerous filmmakers were doing, incorporated his own production company, Argosy Pictures. William Donovan, Ole Doering (a member of Donovan’s Wall Street law firm), David Bruce (married to a Mellon and variously ambassador to England, France, Germany, and China), and William Vanderbilt were his principal backers. Almost as important to Argosy Pictures as Ford was Merian C. Cooper who handled production chores. Cooper was a fighter pilot turned journalist turned documentary filmmaker (Grass, ) turned producer-director (King Kong [Merian. C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) and promoter of Technical and Cinerama.
The Fugitive, Argosy’s first production, was an indulgent triumph and a commercial disaster The Fugitive belongs to the underground and avant-garde, but also to religious art – the passion play. It may be the most formally inventive movie ever made.
The characters are abstract, depersonalised in a cold, fractured, shadowed world. The hero (Fonda again) cannot separate his subjective colourings from “actual” reality; he lives outside of himself.
To save Argosy, Ford went back to making Westerns (Fort Apache , etc.). And he changed to a brighter style. But he was unrepentant about The Fugitive. “I just enjoy looking at it”, said Ford. “To me, it was perfect.” (18)
Ford conjured up his movies while listening to period music. “He works something like a painter”, explained scenarist Frank Nugent, “selecting his colours and doing a palette – blues, greens, yellows, he lays them all out in his mind. Then, putting his thumb in here with a broad splash of colour, then a little touch on the other side. He goes home at night after a day’s talk and reads books, or listens to records. And, listening to the music, pictures, colours, or moods come into his mind. He has a great feeling for characters, some from his own imagination. These series of impressions, images, moods – music moods, character moods, atmosphere – become in effect his raw material.” (19)
Ford’s space, in contrast, is almost always structured; he is obsessed with lines, planes, interior angles, depth-of-field alleys, which take on force in relation to defined space (the frame), and even this he emphasises, by angling his stage slightly to his focal plane. The result of so much style is that Ford’s movies are self-reflexive and transparent in their workings. Some critics have promoted a contrary notion, that the “classical” cinema of Hollywood sought to mask its “codes”. But to watch a Ford movie without feeling – physically, emotionally, intellectually – his cutting is like listening to music while being oblivious to rhythm and harmony, or like looking at Renaissance painting while being oblivious to composition.
When Will Rogers had died in an air crash in 1935, Ford had gone to pieces; and for the next couple of decades he wore a hat with a funny hole in it Rogers had given him. When Harry Carey died, Olive went and stood on the porch. “And I remember Jack came out and he took hold of me and put his head on my breast and cried, and the whole front of my sweater was sopping wet. For at least 15 or 20 minutes he cried, just solid sobbing, solid sobbing, and the more he cried, the stronger I’d get. It was very good for me, it was wonderful. Oh, God, he shook and cried. I thought, it’s chilly here and here I am sopping wet all the way down.” (20).
His pathological attitude toward Frank, which so infuriated Harry Carey and other old-timers, continued. Frank, after years making cheap Westerns as part of a co-op, had abandoned directing in 1927. He played violin, sculpted, and painted huge canvases in his garage – and would impulsively cut out sections as gifts. He survived as a bit player, usually as a drunk. He was marvelous at comedy, and comedy was the only thing John allowed Frank to do. Once John was sitting back acting nonchalant as a procession of people admired a camera setup he had arranged. Then Billy Ford, Frank’s son, took a look. “Whadya think?” asked John. “Well, it’s great but it looks just like something my father once…” John threw Billy off the set right then and there (21).
Toward women Ford could be utterly tender, but men he loved combatively – and how much more so Frank, who was probably the person in his life he held most in awe.
* * *
Maureen O’Hara’s memoirs ‘Tis Herself, just published, are the best things written about John Ford himself in decades. She theorises that his professed loves for her, Katharine Hepburn, Anna Lee and “Murph Doyle” (who she?) were with the fictional characters he created his movies around, and that he hoped they would save him from his repressed homosexuality. She quotes letters he wrote her, finds him as labyrinthine as a pyramid, feels his cruelties came from this repression. She has him doing much nastier things than even Eyman and McBride portray. But the difference in her tone and maturity of understanding is vast. Her portrait ends up being extremely moving and impressive.
- Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford, 2nd ed., University of California Press, Berkeley, 1978, p. 40.
- James L. Wilkinson, “An Introduction to the Career and Films of John Ford”, unpublished M.A. thesis, UCLA, August 1960 (at Library and Museum of the Performing Arts, Lincoln Centre, New York), p. 186. It is to Wilkinson that we owe the “discovery” of Ford’s true name and birthdate – confirmed by his birth certificate and Baptismal records in Maine.
- Olive Carey, interview with the author, March 1979.
- Arthur H. Lewis, It Was Fun While It Lasted (New York: Trident Press, 1973), p. 313.
- Reminiscences of Barbara Ford, with John Ford, in the John Ford Papers (at Lilly Library, Indiana University).
- Richard Griffith, Samuel Goldwyn: The Producer and His Film, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1956, p. 21.
- Bogdanovich, 1978, p. 47.
- Quoted in Leonard Maltin, The Art of the Cinematographer, Dover, New York, 1978, p. 70.
- Philip Dunne, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1980, p. 92.
- Quoted in Mel Gussow, Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking, Pocket Books, New York, 1972, p. 150.
- The New York Times, January 25, 1940, p. 17.
- Quoted in Dan Ford, Pappy: The Life of John Ford, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1979, p. 158.
- Anthony Slide and June Banker, unpublished interview with Mary Ford, 1970, unpaginated.
- Quoted in Los Angeles Evening Herald Examiner, February 28,1944, p. B4.
- Slide and Banker, 1970.
- Robert Parrish, Growing Up in Hollywood, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1976, p. 142.
- Parrish, 1976, p. 151.
- Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford, Plexus, London,1981, p. 22. Bogdanovich, 1978, p. 85.
- Wilkinson, 1960.
- Reminiscences of Olive Carey, John Ford Papers.
- Frank Baker, interview with the author.