(Credit: Allan warren)

Six definitive films: A beginner’s guide to John Ford’s directorial genius

You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart.”

Born in County Galway, Ireland, on February 1, 1894, as John Martin ‘Jack’ Feeney, John Ford moved to California in 1914 to assist his brother who was already established as a vaudeville actor, taking up the opportunity to dive feet first into the film industry and follow in the footsteps of his sibling.

Ford, who usually liked working with the same stock actors and directed over 140 films during his career, many of which are lost, and some have been restored. Sadly, a large proportion of his silent films no longer exist; silent films marked the commencement of his directorial career. Known for impeccable directorial skills as well as impactful scripts, his films often reflected his thoughts of witnessing the Great Depression firsthand. He would serve in the photographic unit during the war years, often making documentaries. It is, however, post-war that Ford’s brilliance as a director shone through via various films that consecutively won him awards and accolades.

Reducing John Ford’s oeuvre to that of a quintessential western director is reductive and insulting to the legend. Known for deconstructing quintessential myths about the westerns and the heroes that featured in the films, Ford arguably produced some of the best westerns to date which saved the genre from slipping into a dark abyss of flops. An incredible storyteller with a wonderful and poetic sense of visuals, cinematography and setting, he was famous for upholding his strong and opinionated conscious regarding politics, family, society and the changing American premise due to industrialisation and more. 

As he has always proclaimed, Ford has often been quoted saying, “I like, as a director and a spectator, simple, direct, frank films.” Well-known for his working-class dramas, Ford’s career spanned for a whopping five decades wherein he earned the status of being one of the most influential and significant filmmakers of all time. Regarded as one of the best by auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles, Ford’s narrative and visual perfection coupled with his trademark use of long shots and brilliant locations which posited his characters against the vastness of (usually) the rugged West, won him six Academy Awards; four being Best Director Awards, making him the one director with so many Academy Awards to his name. 

Erudite and sensitive, Ford was someone who could not handle criticism. A solitary drunkard and a social recluse, he hated attending Awards although he loved displaying his accolades at his swanky home. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, who used extensive storyboards to map a story, Ford rarely did so. Instead, he mapped out the entire story in his head, rarely rewriting his screenplays. His characters had extensive backstories and evoked empathy with their predicament. Notorious for being a perfectionist and being extremely hard on his actors, Ford, however, had a few favourites and John Wayne was one of them (although Wayne had been addressed as a “big idiot” at times). 

Ford had a relatively long-lasting marriage although he was involved in various alleged affairs. His unhealthy lifestyle took a toll on his health and affected his vision as well. Impatient, he tore off the bandage after a few days of operation which caused him to lose sight in one eye permanently. Ford died at the age of 78, yet his excellence is felt years after his death. A quintessential classic film director with a distinct directorial style, Ford’s last film reflects his disillusionment and cynicism which is palpable in certain earlier films as well. 

One of the greatest of all time, John Ford reigns supreme in the hearts of cinephiles who cannot seem to get enough of his genius. On his 127th birth anniversary, we decided to fondly reminisce the artistry and greatness of this director by taking a look at six of his definitive films that are a must-watch for all.  

“In everything, I want realism.” 

John Ford’s six definitive films:

6. The Quiet Man (1952)

John Ford earned an Academy Award as a Best Director for an unexpected rom-com, a film that reflected the sublime Irish countryside which was a perfect setting for The Quiet Man‘s jaunty and romantic story. John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara have a blissful camaraderie which complement’s Ford’s love poem for his home. Delightful, with wonderful cinematography, the film reflects the breezy and light-hearted melodramatic Irish village life which is heightened by the skilled and incredible performances. 

John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, a retired boxer, who is attempting to purchase a farm which is incidentally his family home. His continuous efforts are upstaged by a malicious landowner Will Danaher who is also the brother of Mary Kate Danaher, a hot-headed and spirited woman, whom John plans to woo over and marry. 

“It’s a mirage brought on by a terrible thirst.”

5. How Green Was My Valley (1941)

With whopping ten nominations at the Academy, this moving adaptation of Richard Llewyn’s novel won John Ford the Best Director award at the Academy, among four other awards. Poignant and heartbreaking, this film, in a true Ford fashion, depicts the ill-effects of industrialisation and how it tears a family and community apart. With the well-portrayed mining village as the setting, the film is one of Ford’s greatest ever creations as a working-class drama. 

One of Clint Eastwood’s favourite films, this film unfurls via the eyes of Roddy McDowell’s 12-year-old Huw who elucidates the conditions of abject misery and anguish of a Welsh family living in coalfields. It is quite surprising to note that the film was actually shot in Malibu. It records the harsh and miserable conditions of the family in a vivid and striking fashion.  

Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still — real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.”

4. Stagecoach (1939)

While 1939 was a brutal year for the world in general, witnessing the commencement of the Second World War, it was a great one for the film industry due to the abundance of brilliant films that were released that year. This film put the spotlight on John Wayne’s nascent career and highlighted his excellence. While shooting this film, cast members have often recollected John Ford’s premonitions about John Wayne’s successful career. He was quoted saying that John Wayne would be “the biggest star ever because he is the perfect ‘everyman’”. 

The wonderful setting of the film as well as the sheer brilliance in Ford’s execution is a landmark western which revived and restored the genre, preventing it from vanishing into the oblivion. John Wayne plays Ringo Kid whose compatriots travel through a tumultuous landscape of Apache in a stagecoach. This film earned Thomas Mitchell an Academy Award for his role as Doc Boone in the supporting cast. 

“If there’s anything I don’t like, it’s driving a stagecoach through Apache country.”

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Nearly 81 years later, this film still remains a classic masterpiece and one of John Ford’s very best. Adapted from John Steinbeck’s adaptation, Ford’s marvellous and cynical film is an understandably angry commentary on the lives of impoverished migrants who escaped to the promised land of America in hopes of a better future in a Great Depression-ridden time. 

John Ford’s wonderful adaptation was praised by the author himself. Reeking of realistic problems and an emotional yet cynical tone, this film earned Ford one of his four Academy Awards. Reflective of Ford’s political and social consciousness, the sheer excellence of the film made people, who were tired of the controversial novel’s tone, re-read it once again to live through the anguish and misery portrayed in the film.  

“Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.”

2. The Searchers (1956) 

With an interplay of emotions accentuating themes of violence, racism, oppression and anger which deconstructed the sheer myth of a quintessential hero in American Westerns, this film, which was directed nearly four decades after Ford commenced his career, with its dark and brooding tone, is considered one of the best westerns this filmmaker has produced. Mature in his narration and neat in his craft, Ford brings forward a near-masterpiece with his favourite John Wayne playing the lead. 

John Wayne plays the anti-hero Ethan Edwards subverts the western concept of a hero. His relentless search for his niece who has been abducted by Comanches continues for five years. The premise adds to the sheer beauty and magnificence of this film. Read and re-read by critics and the audience for the abundance of subtexts and connotations in the film, it is a must-watch to understand the gradual maturity and perfection of a great filmmaker such as John Ford. 

That’ll be the day.”

1. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

A highlight of John Ford’s career and one of the best westerns ever made, this film was shot nearly towards the end of his career and was testimony to this director’s undying talent and love for films. In this delightful westerner based in the quaint Shinbone, animosity is on the high when Senator Stoddard and Tom Doniphone clash against the terrifying leader of the outlaws, Liberty Vallance. 

Casting John Wayne as Tom Doniphon and James Stewart as Ranse Steward seems to be a conscious decision on Ford’s part. With this film being Ford’s last major work, it reeks of the dark and disillusionment one faces at the end of his life with a strong emphasis on themes like loss and isolation. Deception and lies blur lines between the real and the myth thus raising questions and intrinsically deconstructing the myths of the West. 

This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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