American filmmaker John Ford directed over 140 films in his lifetime, including many lost silent films. Thus, Ford will go down in cinematic history as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, introducing us to what we know as the Western movie. This may all be down to his older brother Francis Ford, a well-respected actor and director for Universal, who was a major influence on John. He gave his brother a job as assistant on his films, before handing him his first acting role in 1914 for the film The Mysterious Rose.
However, in a few years, John had become his brother’s chief assistant and camera operator, leading Universal to offer him the chance to direct his own film in 1917, The Tornado, which is now lost. By 1930, Ford had made over 30 films, transitioning to ‘the talkies’ in 1928 with the short film Napoleon’s Barber, before his first feature length talkie entitled The Black Watch (1929).
His 1935 output The Informer led to his first Academy Award for Best Director, one of four he received in his career, making him the most awarded director in this category. After the release of Stagecoach in 1939, which propelled John Wayne into stardom, Ford was also recognised for his astounding filmmaking ability. Orson Welles claims to have watched the film over forty times in preparation for the making of Citizen Kane (1941), and it has also been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.
Ford’s influence has spanned genres and cultures, with directors from Akira Kurosawa to Steven Spielberg to Ingmar Bergman citing the prolific filmmaker as a major influence over their work. Ford’s films raise many questions about the America he depicts, particularly concerning his portrayal of race and gender. However, his influence on legions of filmmakers is undeniable, and his talent for creating cinema was immeasurable, so this list compiles his most compelling and influential works from his impressively long filmography.
The 10 greatest John Ford movies:
10. Mister Roberts (1955)
Although not a Western, Mister Roberts earned Ford three Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, which Jack Lemmon won for his role as Ensign Pulver, a morale and laundry officer. The film also features Henry Fonda, one of seven films the actor worked on with Ford.
The film revels in the comedy genre, centring around Lieutenant Douglas Roberts, played by Fonda, who desperately wants a more active role fighting, however continuously clashes with his captain, played by James Cagney. The film perfectly balances comedy and drama, exploring the relationships between the crew. There was even a sequel entitled Ensign Pulver released nine years later, however, that was not directed by Ford, but Joshua Logan instead.
9. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Another Henry Fonda collaboration, Young Mr. Lincoln, centres around the early life of the American president, back in his days as a struggling lawyer. The biographical account is not the most accurate depiction of Lincoln’s life, but if you come searching for accuracy in this film, you’ve missed the point.
Young Mr. Lincoln is a less popular Ford flick, however, its portrait of a tense America in the lead up to civil war is striking and impactful on all that watch it. It was nominated for Best Writing/Original Story at the 1939 Academy Awards but lost to Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Regardless of this failure, Young Mr. Lincoln remains an integral slice of Americana.
8. Fort Apache (1948)
In this 1948 Western that became the first in the ‘cavalry trilogy’ – which also featured She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) – Ford cast Henry Fonda yet again, however, this time casting him against type, instead playing the parochial Lieutenant Col. Owen Thursday.
In comparison to many of Ford’s earlier films, alongside the Western genre as a whole, Fort Apache is one of the first Westerns to depict Native Americans in a positive and sympathetic light. The film’s respectful portrayal of Native Americans is in line with the complexity of the movie, making it one of Ford’s most accomplished works, depicting the relation between the individual versus the community.
7. The Quiet Man (1952)
Ford’s take on the romantic-comedy-drama earned him his fourth Academy Award for Best Director, alongside Winton Hoch who won Best Cinematography for his work on the movie. The film was out of the ordinary realms of production for Ford and the film’s star John Wayne, who were used to Westerns, as well as the distribution company, Republic Pictures, who were known for producing B-movies. The Quiet Man became the company’s only Oscar-nominated film.
The film is known for its particularly gorgeous cinematography that depicts bright Irish countryside landscapes. A Quiet Man also marked a positive progression in Ford’s depiction of female characters, with Maureen O’Hara’s character Mary Kate portrayed as independent and headstrong, a distinct move forward from the usual Fordian women who appeared as more simpering.
6. How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Another non-Western, How Green Was My Valley became well-known for its Academy Award triumphs. Nominated for ten, the film won Best Picture, famously beating Citizen Kane, and four other awards, including Best Director and Best Cinematography for Arthur Miller.
Based on the novel of the same name written by Richard Llewellyn in 1939, the film follows the Welsh mining Morgan family, explored from the perspective of youngest child Huw, played by a young Roddy McDowell, as they face many troubles in a period of increasing change. The film is a heart-breaking showcase of the late Victorian period when the development of industry threatened to tear communities apart.
5. My Darling Clementine (1946)
Not only can Ford’s 1946 film My Darling Clementine be considered one of the greatest Westerns from his vast catalogue, but one of the greatest Westerns of all time. The film features Henry Fonda starring as real-life lawman Wyatt Earp, who was part of the O.K. Corral gunfight that took place in 1881.
The film satisfies in many ways: thrilling gunfights and gorgeous black and white cinematography featuring striking chiaroscuro, well-developed characters, even a buddy – movie quality emanating from the relationship between Wyatt and Doc Holliday, played by Victor Mature. The film was declared “poetry” by British director Lindsey Anderson and has even been named as a favourite film by President Harry Truman.
4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Ford’s 1962 Western, starring John Wayne and James Stewart is another adaptation, based on a 1952 short story by Dorothy M. Johnson. Reverting back to black and white and soundstages, the film seems nostalgic for the changing landscape of Hollywood. Despite appearing later in Ford’s career, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance shows that Ford hadn’t lost his filmmaking abilities despite the weakening interest for black-and-white Westerns that he was so renowned for.
With stellar storytelling and gloomy black and white cinematography, the film has become known as one of the greatest in Ford’s illustrious career, labelled by the New Yorker as the “greatest American political movie” of all time.
3. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by John Steinbeck, Ford’s adaptation won him yet another Best Director award at the Oscars, alongside six further nominations for the film, with Jane Darwell winning Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ma Joad. The film depicts the effects of the Great Depression on a family after losing their farm, leading them to travel from Oklahoma to California in search of new opportunities.
The gloomy black-and-white realist cinematography carried out by Gregg Toland makes the film look hauntingly beautiful, frequently using deep focus to show the expansive landscapes of a struggling America. The significance of the story in relation to American audiences, paired with the maturity and technically astounding production of the film, make it one of Ford’s greatest.
2. Stagecoach (1939)
Stagecoach became one of John Wayne’s most well-known films, and the one that saw him first work with John Ford, which he went on to do thirteen more times over the course of his career. The film depicts a group of strangers that must traverse Apache land, including a prostitute, a pregnant woman, and a drunk.
The film is hugely influential, birthing many Western and action tropes that can be seen in films such as High Noon (1952) to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The excellent performances from the cast who make a perfect ensemble pair well with the film’s technical brilliance that includes engaging editing and pacing and striking cinematography of American landscapes.
1. The Searchers (1956)
Yet another collaboration with John Wayne, The Searchers is another of Ford’s films that is not just considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time, but one of the greatest films ever. Based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, the film chronicles the years Wayne’s civil war veteran Ethan Edwards searches for his niece – Natalie Wood’s Debbie, and the Comanche who murdered his brother’s family.
The film is a more nuanced look at Western Americana, focusing on themes of race, myth, and violence, showing Ford at his darkest. The Searchers influence is tenfold, ranging from the Star Wars franchise to Paris, Texas (1984), and even the final episode of popular TV series Breaking Bad.