John Ford 1895–1973
(Born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna) American director, screenwriter, producer, and actor.
Ford is regarded as the master of the western film and an American cinema titan whose career spans the entire history of the film. Several characteristics distinguish Ford's work: among them a single strong situation, unity of time and space, and vivid characterization.
Ford's career began in 1913 when he moved from Maine to Hollywood, where his brother worked for Universal Studios. He changed his name to John, and began work as a prop boy and bit actor. He appeared in Birth of a Nation, and was influenced by its director, D. W. Griffith. These influences would surface in Ford's films, particularly in his attention to detail.
The Tornado, made in 1917, marked Ford's debut as a writer/director. A series starring the actor Harry Carey brought Ford critical approval, and the ensuing contract with Fox enabled him to make The Iron Horse, a story of the American transcontinental railroad. This film established him as a leading director. Themes that were to recur in later works appeared in The Iron Horse: the spirit of the pioneers and the strong bond of familial ties. Ford's films of the thirties signalled the advent of his collaboration with Dudley Nichols, who wrote for some of Ford's most admired films.
The success of The Lost Patrol, a saga of a British cavalry patrol, allowed Ford to fulfill a project he had long wanted to do: directing his version of Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer. Nineteen thirty-nine was Ford's most prolific year, during which he produced Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and The Grapes of Wrath. These films exemplify Ford's affection for the family and the legends of America.
When World War II broke out, Ford made several documentaries for the U.S. Marines, winning an Oscar for The Battle of Midway, the first U.S. war documentary. However, with the release of They Were Expendable in 1945, many critics questioned Ford's nostalgic attitude. Of the film, which dealt with the U.S. defeat in the Philippines, Andrew Sarris has written: "What could have seemed more perverse than Ford's celebration of gallant defeat in the aftermath of glorious victory?" Ford's popularity was reaffirmed with a string of Westerns, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and My Darling Clementine. His love of Ireland surfaced in The Quiet Man, a sensitive tale of an Irish-American returning to his motherland. The film is generally believed to be one of Ford's more significant works.
Most critics agree that Ford's work for the last twenty-five years of his life was not as important as that which preceded it. His films of the fifties were regarded as old-fashioned and unsophisticated. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance served as the finest example of Ford's work in the sixties, and a nostalgic view of things past. His output diminished after this film, although he directed a documentary on Vietnam in 1971. His last film, Seven Women, while altering Ford's traditional view of women as subservient creatures, did not receive critical acclaim. Many critics found it indicative of Ford's failure to have a hold on the American public's interests.
Opponents of Ford have labeled him a bigot, claiming his philosophy is a mask for ignorance and bias; that he glorifies a nonexistent world. However, Ford's lengthy cinematic career and diversity of achievement is a milestone in the film world. Ford himself said of his work, "The secret is to make films that please the public and that also allow the director to reveal his personality." (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 45-48.)
[The Iron Horse," an] ambitious production, dwelt trenchantly upon the indomitable energy, resourcefulness and courage of those who spanned the continent with steel….
In this picture is shown with true dramatic emphasis the welding together of two great points with steel….
Yet with all their discomforts amid the great risk, it is shown, and truthfully, in this picture that these pioneers had a keen sense of humor. They were sports, and as sports they had to settle disputes even among themselves. For no chapter of history in a film can be told without a heroine, a hero and a villain, and the chances are that this is a more or less accurate description.
As scene after scene passes in shadows and lights upon the screen one cannot help thinking of that remarkable production, "The Covered Wagon," to which "The Iron Horse" is a sort of sequel….
John Ford, the director of this film, has done his share of the work with thoroughness and with pleasing imagination. There are certain stretches in the production that are long and at times tedious, but this is due to the cutting and is a fault which can be remedied….
This is an instructive and inspiring film….
"The Railroad Pioneers," in The New York Times (© 1924 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 29, 1924, p. 6.