John Ford (February 1, 1894 – August 31, 1973) was an American film director. He is renowned both for Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), as well as adaptations of classic 20th-century American novels such as the film The Grapes of Wrath (1940). His four Academy Awards for Best Director (in 1935, 1940, 1941, and 1952) remain a record. One of the films for which he won the award, How Green Was My Valley, also won Best Picture.
In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Ford directed more than 140 films (although most of his silent films are now lost) and he is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential film-makers of his generation. Ford’s work was held in high regard by his colleagues, with Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman among those who have named him one of the greatest directors of all time.
Stagecoach (1939) was Ford’s first western since 3 Bad Men in 1926, and it was his first with sound. Reputedly Orson Welles watched Stagecoach forty times in preparation for making Citizen Kane. It remains one of the most admired and imitated of all Hollywood movies, not least for its climactic stagecoach chase and the hair-raising horse-jumping scene, performed by the stuntman Yakima Canutt.
The Dudley Nichols–Ben Hecht screenplay was based on an Ernest Haycox story that Ford had spotted in Collier’s magazine and he purchased the screen rights for just $2500. Production chief Walter Wanger urged Ford to hire Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich for the lead roles, but eventually accepted Ford’s decision to cast Claire Trevor as Dallas and a virtual unknown, his friend John Wayne, as Ringo; Wanger reportedly had little further influence over the production.
In making Stagecoach, Ford faced entrenched industry prejudice about the now-hackneyed genre which, ironically, he had helped to make so popular. Although low-budget western features and serials were still being churned out in large numbers by “Poverty Row” studios, the genre had fallen out of favor with the big studios during the 1930s and they were regarded as B-grade “pulp” movies at best. As a result, Ford shopped the project around Hollywood for almost a year, offering it unsuccessfully to both Joseph Kennedy and David O. Selznick before finally linking with Walter Wanger, an independent producer working through United Artists.
Stagecoach is significant for several reasons—it exploded industry prejudices by becoming both a critical and commercial hit, grossing over US$1 million in its first year (against a budget of just under $400,000), and its success (along with the 1939 Westerns Destry Rides Again with Dietrich and Michael Curtiz’s Dodge City with Erroll Flynn) revitalized the moribund genre, showing that Westerns could be “intelligent, artful, great entertainment—and profitable”. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won two Oscars, for Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell) and Best Score. Stagecoach became the first in the series of seven classic Ford Westerns filmed on location in Monument Valley, with additional footage shot at another of Ford’s favorite filming locations, the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, Calif., where he had filmed much of Wee Willie Winkie two years earlier. Ford skillfully blended Iverson and Monument Valley to create the movie’s iconic images of the American West.
John Wayne had good reason to be grateful for Ford’s support; Stagecoach provided the actor with the career breakthrough that elevated him to international stardom. Over 35 years Wayne appeared in 24 of Ford’s films and three television episodes. Ford is credited with playing a major role in shaping Wayne’s screen image. Cast member Louise Platt, in a letter recounting the experience of the film’s production, quoted Ford saying of Wayne’s future in film: “He’ll be the biggest star ever because he is the perfect ‘everyman.'”
Stagecoach marked the beginning of the most consistently successful phase of Ford’s career—in just two years between 1939 and 1941 he created a string of classics films that won numerous Academy Awards. Ford’s next film, the biopic Young Mr Lincoln (1939) starring Henry Fonda, was less successful than Stagecoach, attracting little critical attention and winning no awards. It was not a major box-office hit although it had a respectable domestic first-year gross of $750,000, but Ford scholar Tag Gallagher describes it as “a deeper, more multi-leveled work than Stagecoach … (which) seems in retrospect one of the finest prewar pictures”.
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) was a lavish frontier drama co-starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert; it was also Ford’s first movie in color and included uncredited script contributions by William Faulkner. It was a big box-office success, grossing $1.25 million in its first year in the US and earning Edna May Oliver a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance.
Despite its uncompromising humanist and political stance, Ford’s screen adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath (scripted by Nunnally Johnson and photographed by Gregg Toland) was both a big box office hit and a major critical success, and it is still widely regarded as one of the best Hollywood films of the era. Noted critic Andrew Sarris described it as the movie that transformed Ford from “a storyteller of the screen into America’s cinematic poet laureate”. Ford’s third movie in a year and his third consecutive film with Fonda, it grossed $1.1 million in the USA in its first year and won two Academy Awards—Ford’s second ‘Best Director’ Oscar, and ‘Best Supporting Actress’ for Jane Darwell‘s tour-de-force portrayal of Ma Joad. During production, Ford returned to the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, Calif., to film a number of key shots, including the pivotal image depicting the migrant family’s first full view of the fertile farmland of California, which was represented by the San Fernando Valley as seen from the Iverson Ranch.
The Grapes of Wrath was followed by two less successful and lesser known films. The Long Voyage Home (1940) was, like Stagecoach, made with Walter Wanger through United Artists. Adapted from four plays by Eugene O’Neill, it was scripted by Dudley Nichols and Ford, in consultation with O’Neill. Although not a significant box-office success (it grossed only $600,000 in its first year), it was critically praised and was nominated for seven Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Screenplay, (Nichols), Best Music (Best Photography (Gregg Toland), Best Editing (Sherman Todd), Best Effects (Ray Binger & R.T. Layton), and Best Sound (Robert Parrish). It was one of Ford’s personal favorites; stills from it decorated his home and O’Neill also reportedly loved the film and screened it periodically.
Tobacco Road (1941) was a rural comedy scripted by Nunnally Johnson, adapted from the long-running Jack Kirkland stage version of the novel by Erskine Caldwell. It starred veteran actor Charley Grapewin and the supporting cast included Ford regulars Ward Bond and Mae Marsh, with Francis Ford in an uncredited bit part; it is also notable for early screen appearances by future stars Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. Although not highly regarded by some critics—Tag Gallagher devotes only one short paragraph to it in his book on Ford—it was fairly successful at the box office, grossing $900,000 in its first year. According to IMDb, the film was banned in Australia for unspecified reasons.
Ford’s last feature before America entered World War II was his screen adaptation of How Green Was My Valley (1941), starring Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara and Roddy McDowell in his career-making role as Huw. The script was written by Philip Dunne from the best-selling novel by Richard Llewellyn. It was originally planned as a four-hour epic to rival Gone with the Wind—the screen rights alone cost Fox $300,000—and was to have been filmed on location in Wales, but this was abandoned due to the heavy German bombing of Britain. A search of Southern California locations resulted in the set for the village being built on the grounds of the Crags Country Club (later the Fox ranch, now the core of Malibu Creek State Park). Another reported factor was the nervousness of Fox executives about the pro-union tone of the story. William Wyler was originally engaged to direct, but he left the project when Fox decided to film it in California; Ford was hired in his place and production was postponed for several months until he became available. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck had a strong influence over the movie and made several key decisions, including the idea of having the character of Huw narrate the film in voice-over (then a novel concept), and the decision that Huw’s character should not age (Tyrone Power was originally slated to play the adult Huw).
How Green Was My Valley became one of the biggest films of 1941. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actress (Sara Allgood), Best Editing, Best Script, Best Music and Best Sound and it won five Oscars—Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp), Best B&W Cinematography (Arthur C. Miller) and Best Art Direction/Interior Decoration. It was a huge hit with audiences, coming in behind Sergeant York as the second-highest-grossing film of the year in the USA and taking almost $3 million against its sizable budget of $1,250,000. Ford was also named Best Director by the New York Film Critics, and this was one of the few awards of his career that he collected in person (he generally shunned the Oscar ceremony).
During World War II, Commander John Ford, USNR, served in the United States Navy and as head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services, made documentaries for the Navy Department. He won two more Academy Awards during this time, one for the semi-documentary The Battle of Midway (1942), and a second for the propaganda film December 7th: The Movie (1943). Commander Ford was a veteran of the Battle of Midway, where he was wounded in the arm by shrapnel while filming the Japanese attack from the power plant of Sand Island on Midway.
Ford was also present on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He crossed the English Channel on the USS Plunkett (DD-431), anchored off Omaha Beach at 0600 where he observed the first wave land on the beach from the ship, landing on the beach himself later with a team of US Coast Guard cameramen who filmed the battle from behind the beach obstacles, with Ford directing operations. The film was edited in London, but very little was released to the public. Ford explained in a 1964 interview that the US Government was “afraid to show so many American casualties on the screen”, adding that all of the D-Day film “still exists in color in storage in Anacostia near Washington, D.C.” Thirty years later, historian Stephen E. Ambrose reported that the Eisenhower Center had been unable to find the film. Ford eventually rose to become a top adviser to OSS head William Joseph Donovan. According to records released in 2008, Ford was cited by his superiors for bravery, taking a position to film one mission that was “an obvious and clear target”. He survived “continuous attack and was wounded” while he continued filming, one commendation in his file states.
His last wartime film was They Were Expendable (MGM, 1945), an account of America’s disastrous defeat in The Philippines, told from the viewpoint of a PT boat squadron and its commander. Ford created a part for the recovering Ward Bond, who needed money. Although he was seen throughout the movie, he never walked until they put in a part where he was shot in the leg. For the rest of the picture, he was able to use a crutch on the final march. Ford repeatedly declared that he disliked the film and had never watched it, complaining that he had been forced to make it, although it was strongly championed by filmmaker Lindsay Anderson. Released several months after the end of the war, it was among the year’s top 20 box-office draws, although Tag Gallagher notes that many critics have incorrectly claimed that it lost money.
Personality and directing style
Ford was renowned for his intense personality and his many idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. From the early Thirties onwards, he always wore dark glasses and a patch over his left eye, which was only partly to protect his poor eyesight. He was an inveterate pipe-smoker and while he was shooting he would chew on a linen handkerchief—each morning his wife would give him a dozen fresh handkerchiefs, but by the end of a day’s filming the corners of all of them would be chewed to shreds. He always had music played on the set and would routinely break for tea (Earl Grey) at mid-afternoon every day during filming. He discouraged chatter and disliked bad language on set; its use, especially in front of a woman, would typically result in the offender being thrown off the production. He rarely drank during the making of a film, but when a production wrapped he would often lock himself in his study, wrapped only in a sheet, and go on a solitary drinking binge for several days, followed by routine contrition and a vow never to drink again. He was extremely sensitive to criticism and was always particularly angered by any comparison between his work and that of his older brother Francis. He rarely attended premieres or award ceremonies, although his Oscars and other awards were proudly displayed on the mantle in his home.
There were occasional rumors about his sexual preferences, and in her 2004 autobiography ‘Tis Herself, Maureen O’Hara recalled seeing Ford kissing a famous male actor (whom she did not name) in his office at Columbia Studios.
He was famously untidy, and his study was always littered with books, papers and clothes. He bought a brand new Rolls-Royce in the 1930s, but never rode in it because his wife Mary would not let him smoke in it. His own car, a battered Ford roadster, was so dilapidated and messy that he was once late for a studio meeting because the guard at the studio gate did not believe that the real John Ford would drive such a car, and refused to let him in. He was also notorious for his antipathy towards studio executives: on one early film for Fox he is said to have ordered a guard to keep studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck off the set, and on another occasion he brought an executive in front of the crew, stood him in profile and announced, “This is an associate producer—take a good look because you won’t be seeing him on this picture again”.
His pride and joy was his yacht, Araner, which he bought in 1934 and on which he lavished hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs and improvements over the years; it became his chief retreat between films and a meeting place for his circle of close friends, including John Wayne and Ward Bond.
Ford was highly intelligent, erudite, sensitive and sentimental, but to protect himself in the cutthroat atmosphere of Hollywood he cultivated the image of a “tough, two-fisted, hard-drinking Irish sonofabitch”. One famous event, witnessed by Ford’s friend actor Frank Baker, strikingly illustrates the tension between the public persona and the private man. During the Depression, Ford—by then a very wealthy man—was accosted outside his office by a former Universal actor who was destitute and needed $200 for an operation for his wife. As the man related his misfortunes, Ford appeared to become enraged and then, to the horror of onlookers, he launched himself at the man, knocked him to the floor and shouted “How dare you come here like this? Who do think you are to talk to me this way?” before storming out of the room. However, as the shaken old man left the building, Frank Baker saw Ford’s business manager Fred Totman meet him at the door, where he handed the man a cheque for $1,000 and instructed Ford’s chauffeur to drive him home. There, an ambulance was waiting to take the man’s wife to the hospital where a specialist, flown in from San Francisco at Ford’s expense, performed the operation. Some time later, Ford purchased a house for the couple and pensioned them for life. When Baker related the story to Francis Ford, he declared it the key to his brother’s personality:
Any moment, if that old actor had kept talking, people would have realized what a softy Jack is. He couldn’t have stood through that sad story without breaking down. He’s built this whole legend of toughness around himself to protect his softness.