From Steven Spielberg to Akira Kurosawa: 5 directors influenced by John Ford
“How did I get to Hollywood? By train.”—John Ford
American filmmaker John Ford is famously regarded as the “director’s director”.
Universally acclaimed for his quintessential westerns like The Searchers (1956) and Stagecoach (1939) among others, Ford was one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation and received four Academy Awards for Best Director and two more for his wartime documentary efforts. During an extensive career of more than 50 years, Ford made around 140 films but many of his silent films are lost now.
Top directors who have credited him as a direct influence on their work are Ingmar Bergman (who described him as “the best director in the world”), Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Elia Kazan, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg.
As a tribute to the enduring artistic vision of John Ford, we take a look at some of the other great filmmakers of the past and the present who were influenced by Ford’s film techniques.
5 directors influenced by John Ford:
When he was asked who his favourite American directors were, Welles said, “Well, 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.” Welles screened Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach repeatedly before he made his now-iconic film Citizen Kane.
An interesting phenomenon can be observed in their respective approach to their narratives. Ford presents history as myth whereas Welles reverses that. He incorporates historical progression in his mythopoeia to sustain the sense of authenticity. The epic fall of a man, in the case of Citizen Kane or that of a family, as seen in The Magnificent Ambersons is constructed through plot progression and character development, a cinematic historicity.
On the other hand, history is relegated to the realm of the symbolic in Ford’s films like How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, My Darling Clementine, and Stagecoach. The pastoral themes and the view of the past as the Golden Era are subjected to abstraction and history attains a mythical quality.
Spielberg studied a lot of Ford’s techniques and made them his own. A common one is the recurring motif of reflections in mirrors. Like Ford, Spielberg employs a close up of a face at a dramatic moment. From complex blocking to tracking shots, Ford influenced a lot of Spielberg’s techniques but Spielberg took them to a whole new level.
Many of the action sequences in Spielberg’s films are also directly influenced by Ford’s classic chase sequence in Stagecoach. Another important aspect to pay attention to is the casting of extras. As discussed before, it is this that contributes to the mythical dimension of the history that is presented before us.
“I try to rent a John Ford film, one or two, before I start every movie. Simply because he inspires me and I’m very sensitive to the way he uses his camera to paint his pictures,” Spielberg once said.
He added, “The way he frames things and the way he stages and blocks his people, often keeping the camera static while the people give you the illusion that there’s a lot more kinetic movement occurring when there’s not. In that sense, he’s a classic painter. He celebrates the frame, not just what happens inside of it.”
When Kurosawa was a young boy, his father took him to watch Westerns like the John Ford films as well as silent films, both of which played a huge part in the formation of Akira Kurosawa’s filmmaking style. During that period, Japan had an anti-Western ideology but Kurosawa embraced the Western filmmaking techniques and combined them with Japanese sensibilities to create something truly universal.
The grand visuals that Ford was fond of can also be observed in many of Kurosawa’s samurai based Jidaigeki (Japanese period dramas), including Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and its sequel Sanjuro, Kurosawa incorporates stunning western-influenced visual imagery. The amplification of natural elements like wind, fire, rain and horses can also be seen in both Ford’s and Kurosawa’s works.
In all of Kurosawa’s samurai films, the anti-hero wins against incredible odds, (even if it is with great casualties, as in Seven Samurai), just as John Wayne manages to fight off innumerable Indians in Ford’s The Searchers. The compositional habits of Ford and Kurosawa were also similar, focusing on the chiaroscuro of light and shadows and the framing of actors through doorways.
American screenwriter and director John Milius said, “Ford had the best eye. The visual of Ford’s movies have never been surpassed by anybody, including Kurosawa and David Lean. They said to him, ‘How did you learn? Did you study particular painters? Were they Japanese painters or European painters?’ He said, ‘I studied John Ford.’”
Leone spoke at length about the distinction between himself and Ford, “As Romans, we have a strong sense of the fragility of empires. It is enough to look around us. I admire very much that great optimist, John Ford. His naivete permitted him to make Cinderella – I mean, The Quiet Man. But, as Italians, we see things differently. That is what I have tried to show in my films. The great plains – they are very beautiful, but, when the storm comes, should people bury their heads in the sand of the desert? I believe that people like to be treated as adults from time to time. Because a man is wearing a sombrero and because he rides a horse, does not necessarily mean that he is imbecile…
“Ford, because of his European origins—as a good Irishman—has always seen the problem from a Christian point of view… his characters and protagonists always looks forward to a rosy, fruitful future. Whereas I see the history of the West as really the reign of violence by violence.”
However, Leone did borrow a lot of elements from the films of Ford and Kurosawa but he amplified everything exponentially. He cut down on the dialogues and focused on the gunfights, violence as a beautiful opera where people just stare at each other, waiting to either embrace or deliver death. One of the signature techniques that Ford used was the surprise pan of the camera accompanied by a musical flourish. Leone used the same technique, with actors appearing out of nowhere.
Like Ford, Fincher uses his camera to mirror the movements of the character in the frame. This creates a synergy between the subjectivity of the camera and the philosophical or directional tendencies of the moving character. When the character stops, the camera stops as well. Ford did not like moving the camera unless he had to and Fincher maintains a similar position on this aspect, moving the camera to make the motion of the character appear seamless.
Both Ford and Fincher only conduct a change from shallow depth of field to deep focus when the narrative demands it. They only use closeups to reveal the psychological recesses of the character, employing softer closeups with shallow depth of field.
This is the advice that Fincher gave Robin Wright when she directed her first episode of House of Cards, “Every scene you direct, every scene you act in, it’s the same thing. Behaviour over time. It’s a fraction. So behaviour is the most important thing in every piece of material you read, that you perform in and that you direct. Look at the behaviour.”