"My name is John Ford and I make Westerns."
No name in the history of American filmmaking shines as bright as that of John Ford, the Irish-American film director rightfully regarded as the most influential and important filmmaker of his generation.
Born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, USA, on February 1, 1895, Ford’s career spanned more than 50 years and took in more than 140 films, including numerous classics such as ‘The Searchers’, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘The Quiet Man’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley’.
The success of his work at the box-office was matched by his standing amongst his critics and peers. Ford received a record of four Academy Awards for directing, the first coming in 1935 for his Irish drama ‘The Informer’. He would later pick up his fourth, and final, Oscar for another Irish drama, ‘The Quiet Man’, in 1952, and throughout his life Ireland and his own sense of Irishness remained pivotal in understanding his complex genius.
Born John Martin ‘Jack’ Feeney to Irish immigrants John A. Feeney and Barbara “Abbey” Curran, Ford grew up in Portland, Maine, as the second youngest of 11 children. His father hailed from Spiddal, Co Galway, while his mother was raised in the town of Kilronan on the island of Inis Mór, just off Ireland’s west-coast.
A student of Portland High School, the young John Ford moved to California and began acting and working in film production for his older brother Francis in 1914, taking Jack Ford as a stage name.
By March 1917 he had begun his directing career with the silent short ‘The Tornado’ before following up with his first feature-length film, ‘Straight Shooting’, in August of the same year. Honing his craft on dozens of silent features, Ford’s ferocious work-rate saw the young filmmaker helm 10 films in his first year alone as a director.
In 1948 he released ‘Fort Apache’, the first part of Ford's so-called Cavalry Trilogy. This was followed by ‘3 Godfathers’, a remake of a 1916 silent film, and ‘She Wore A Yellow Ribbon’. Again filmed on location in Monument Valley, it was widely acclaimed for its stunning Technicolor cinematography.
‘Wagon Master’ followed in 1950, a work which Ford later cited as his personal favorite of all his films, telling director and documentary-maker Peter Bogdanovich that it “came closest to what I had hoped to achieve”, as did ‘Rio Grande’, which was made at the insistence of Republic Pictures. They had demanded that Ford make them a profitable Western as the condition of backing his next project, ‘The Quiet Man’.
Republic's anxiety was erased by the massive success of ‘The Quiet Man’, which Ford shot in Ireland in 1952. A pet project he had wanted to make since the 1930s, it became his biggest grossing picture to date, taking nearly $4million in the US alone in its first year. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won Ford his fourth Oscar for Best Director.
Ford continued to make features at a consistently high rate, most notably ‘Mogambo’ (1953), before shooting ‘The Searchers’ in 1956, a film now widely regarded as the greatest western ever made.
By the 1960s, the great director was plagued by declining health, with his vision, in particular, beginning to deteriorate rapidly. This, however, did not affect the quality of his work as he produced such classics as ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, starring James Stewart, Lee Marvin and John Wayne, and ‘Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Ford's last completed feature film was ‘7 Women’ in 1966 starring Anne Bancroft. His last completed work was ‘Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend,’ a documentary on the most decorated US Marine, General Lewis B Puller, which was made in 1970 but not released until 1976.
Ford died on 31 August 1973 at Palm Desert, California, and his funeral was held on September 5 at Hollywood's Church of the Blessed Sacrament. He was interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, and was survived by his wife Mary McBryde Smith, whom he married on July 3, 1920. They had two children.
This work-rate continued in the period up to his transition to “talkies” in 1928, with Ford’s silent-era work culminating in more than 60 silent films including such noted works as 1927’s ‘Upstream’ and 1924’s ‘The Iron Horse’.
A pioneer of sound films, Ford shot 20th Century Fox’s first song sung on screen, for his 1928 film ‘Mother Machree’. In the same year he also directed the studio’s first all-talking dramatic feature ‘Napoleon’s Barber’, which is now lost.
Maintaining a consistent output of work up to the start of the Second World War, Ford made five features in 1928 and then made either two or three films every year from 1929–1942 inclusive. By 1931, he began to hit a creative streak and was rewarded with his first taste of Academy Award recognition. ‘Arrowsmith’, an adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel, was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, while his 1934 First World War desert drama ‘The Lost Patrol’ also sparked the attention of the Academy and was one of Ford's first big hits of the sound era.
By 1935, Ford began to solidify his standing as one of the era’s most important filmmakers with his IRA drama ‘The Informer’ starring Victor McLaglen, which earned massive critical praise, was nominated for Best Picture, won Ford his first Oscar for Best Director, and was hailed at the time as one of the best films ever made.
Perhaps now best known for his Westerns, it was not until 1939 that Ford returned to the genre with ‘Stagecoach’, his first Western since 1926’s ‘3 Bad Men’ and his first to feature sound. Hollywood rumour has it that the great Orson Welles watched ‘Stagecoach’ forty times in preparation for making ‘Citizen Kane’ and it remains one of the most admired and imitated of all Ford’s Hollywood movies. ‘Stagecoach’ was also notable for featuring the then virtually unknown John Wayne in the lead role. Wayne would go on to star in 24 of Ford’s films over 35 years.
Singlehandedly revitalizing the Western genre, ‘Stagecoach’ 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. It became the first in the series of seven classic Ford Westerns filmed on location in Monument Valley.
The following year, Ford again returned to the Oscars with his screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, earning him another box-office success and a second Best Director Oscar.
Ford’s last feature before America entered the Second World War was his screen adaptation of the Robert Llewellyn novel ‘How Green Was My Valley’, which became one of the biggest films of 1940 and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.
During the Second World War, Ford served as a commander with the United States Navy and as head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services. He won two more Academy Awards during this time, one for the semi-documentary ‘The Battle of Midway’ (1942) and a second for ‘December 7’ (1943).
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 and filmed the battle from behind the beach obstacles.
Ford completed his first post-war movie ‘My Darling Clementine’ in 1946 before leaving 20th Century Fox to launch himself as an independent director-producer and going on to make many of his subsequent films with Argosy Productions, a partnership between Ford and his colleague Merian C. Cooper.