John Ford, the Masterpieces of the Western

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John Ford was one of the most famous directors, among the few filmmakers to win 4 Oscars for directing. A director since the era of silent cinema, John Ford is one of the greatest most important directors in the history of films, recognized as a master by colleagues such as Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, and François Truffaut . Their films were influenced by John Ford’s cinematic style. According to Orson Welles, John Ford was the greatest director ever. Great film critics have dealt with his long and complex filmography, from Truffaut to Jean-Luc Godard.

The popularity of John Ford, master of westerns, is also linked to the collaboration with famous actors . The face that John Ford’s films immediately evoke is that of John Wayne , with whom he made 21 films, but also Victor McLaglen, Henry Fonda, John Carradine and Lee Marvin .

Who Was John Ford


John Ford was born into a family of Irish immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1872. The family settled in the State of Maine and John was born in Cape Elizabeth on February 1, 1894. After having attended schools and an Academy without much conviction. Navale worked briefly in a shoe factory. Then he decides to join his brother Francis Ford who had become an actor and director of b-movies at Universal. John Ford began signing himself with his name in 1923 after having already directed a dozen films. The name he was previously credited with was Jack Ford.

John Ford has never revealed too much about the beginnings of his film career. His first films were declared lost by Fox for many years, until the 1960s and 1970s, in which some of John Ford’s early works were found. In them are already present the fundamental themes of his filmography: the values ​​of everyday life, family, country and immigration.

At the beginning of his career in the world of cinema, John Ford does the humblest jobs in big studios as a property master, assistant director, extra, stunt double, actor in small roles. The most formative experience of him, as he himself tells, was that of the appearance in Birth of a nation of David Griffith . John Ford was just a kid but on set he befriended the legendary American director who also found him a new job when he was fired from his job as a property finder. Over the following decades, the two directors became close friends and dated until late in life.

The First Movies


John Ford managed to direct his first short film in 1917. It was a film called The Tornado , produced by Universal. It was a script that had been rejected by many directors and that no one wanted to make. John Ford not only directed the film, but also played the lead actor, demonstrating great physical prowess. As a stuntman and cowboy he shot dangerous scenes, even jumping from a horse onto a moving train.

The collaboration with actor Harry Carey, a theatrical performer who loved the adventures of the west, dates back to this period. John Ford and Carey developed a winning artistic collaboration. Together they wrote dozens of scripts using series B western novels as a starting point. They were films that in some cases were shot with the same narrative plot in different versions, set in different locations, in a few days.

It is therefore understandable that John Ford was gifted with a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit and a great desire to work. On the contrary, he has never considered himself an artist or an intellectual, but rather a simple craftsman. Throughout his career he has always collaborated with the same people with whom he developed a solid professional relationship, a clan that in Hollywood was nicknamed the Ford stock company .

The first feature he managed to direct was called Centro! and was shot in 1917 along with Harry Carey. The film tells the clash between farmers and cattle ranchers. In it is already present the figurative sensitivity of the shots and the style of direction that will lead John Ford to create masterpieces such as The Searchers years later.

In 1920 Ford ends his collaboration with Universal, with which he had made about thirty films, and signs a contract with Fox , with which he will work for 10 years. In these subsequent films he will refine his taste for extremely figurative framing, almost of moving pictures. Often these are long shots where the spaces and characters are well organized and ordered in typical settings of the Western landscape.

The first film made for Fox was titled Just Pals and was the story of an outcast who survives on petty theft and redeems himself through friendship with an orphaned child. The film tells the existence of two marginalized individuals who are mocked and humiliated by society. The plot is vaguely reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin . In 1923 he made a more convincing film with famous actors . It is Cameo Kirby, set in the southern United States, between river boats and colonial houses painted in white. The protagonist is John Gilbert. It is in this film that Jack Ford decides to sign himself up for the first time as John Ford and make a qualitative leap.

John Ford and the Western


The most famous phrase was this: “My name is John Ford and I do westerns”. This sentence is very hasty and meaningful. The director has a strong awareness of being just a tradesman at the service of an industry, who classifies his products into specific categories and genres. Hollywood creates genres and, together with genres, seeks the most suitable actors and directors to make them. 

John Ford had no artistic claim to be a filmmaker, author of his own films like many European directors. John Ford and other directors like him participated in the wealth creation of the dream machine and was at the service of the public, ready to meet its demands.

Hollywood had created and consolidated narrative cinema and had given it certain strict rules in which films were made. It is forbidden to discover and point out to the public the technical means of the set, the actors are forbidden to look directly into the camera, the continuity errors that endanger the verisimilitude of the film universe are forbidden. The classic narrative seeks the total verisimilitude of the filmic universe. The Western evolved together with narrative cinema and there were few cases, at its birth, of western films made by independent productions. 

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The Birth of the Western


From The Great Train Robbery of 1903, by Edwin Porter, from Griffith’s westerns such as The Massacre of 1912 and by Thomas H. Ince The Heart of an Indian, from 1912, the Western genre asserts itself as the main genre that enhances the codes of narrative cinema. Western films are based on linear editing and classic decoupage, of the stereotypical division between good and bad. 

It also makes use of narrative leitmotifs that recur in many stories, such as the railway, the contrast between nature and society, between white man and red man. The western tells of the mythical conquest of the Western territories and the birth of the American nation. Wild territories populated by barbaric characters who must be civilized. The scenario of the boundless deserts is opposed to that of the small towns. 

In the beginning, the Indian is always seen as a dangerous individual and negative. Over the years, this conception will fade until it is completely reversed in the 70s, when the white man appears as a negative on the screen. Western cinema of the 1930s and 1940s will be accused of imperialism and racism. In 1924 John Ford directed his first film The Steel Horse. John Wayne made his debut in the sound western The Big Trail of 1930. 

Cecil B. Demille makes a film that blends several legends, stories and heroes of the west with The Plainsman, from 1936. The Western genre explodes thanks to John Ford in 1939 who created the masterpiece Stagecoach

John Ford’s First Masterpiece: Stagecoach


Stagecoach, inspired by Boule de Suif, a short story by Guy de Maupassant, is the story of a traveling stagecoach threatened by Indians against the backdrop of Monument Valley, a landscape from that moment on will become very frequent in Western movies. In the film, two universal archetypes are confronted. that of the microcosm and of the closed place both in a physical and moral, social and psychological sense, and that of travel and boundless spaces. 

Monument Valley is the perfect setting for the dramas of nine characters in search of a new awareness of their lives: Ringo, Dallas, drunk doctor Dr Boone, a mysterious gamer, an officer’s pregnant wife, a alcohol salesman, a thieving banker and the two driving the stagecoach, Sheriff Wilcox and his aide Buck. The forced intimacy of these characters in the diligence and then in the inn explodes the conflicts that John Ford’s direction shows flawlessly. The seats in the diligence, the meeting of seductive gazes, the decisions to be made on the journey, the sharing of meals in which conflicting views on racism emerge.

Claustrophobic shots indoors and depth of field outdoors, music that changes rapidly with the changes in the action. Mythical scene of the assault on the stagecoach with a cameracar at a speed of over 60 km per hour and the use of stuntman, where the acrobatic jump of an Indian on the stagecoach will be mentioned many years later by Steven Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Civilization and Wild Nature


The diligence is a closed world, the world of civilization is populated by heterogeneous characters, and crosses the barbarism, a piece of civilization traveling in the wild nature of the Valley, constantly threatened by the onslaught of the Indians. At the same time, the different personalities within the diligence also come into conflict with each other. Each of these characters represents a way of life, a stereotype, a type of morality.

Military, criminal and bankers who reflect morality and immorality, corruption and loyalty. Some represent the values ​​recognized by the community and its aspirations; others the independent demands of the individual. The depth of Red Ombre lies precisely in the evolution of these characters from one world view to another and in their inner change. 

Red Shadows is a great epic about the immense spaces of the West and the mission of creating a legal world that triumphs over wild instincts. The film is imbued with values ​​such as honor and loyalty of the individual and the community, populated by the archetypes and stereotypes that will give life and inspire subsequent western films.

While retaining all the canons of classic Hollywood cinema, the film brings a broader and deeper gaze, the moral gaze that uses depth of field to describe the feelings and emotions of the characters, managing to become a universal myth. 

The Searchers


In 1956 John Ford signed another masterpiece of the western genre, The searchers. After the end of the Civil War, Ethan returns home to his family. One day Reverend Clayton arrives at the farm and convinces Ethan to join their group to fight the Indians who steal livestock. A fight begins between whites and Indians, with repeated assaults by the Indians on the farm until the massacre of Ethan’s parents and the kidnapping of their daughters Lucy and Debbie. The search for the girls to bring them home will take years.

Considered by American film institutions as one of the most beautiful films in the history of cinema, the film is based on a novel by Alan Le May and on real-life Indian kidnapping events. The strength of the film lies, as in other John Ford films, in the spectacular natural settings, in the tragic symbolism evoked by deserts and boundless spaces. The film is a tragedy that explores in depth all the themes of the myth of the West and American cultural archetypes: the conflict between rules and morals, violence and freedom, the need to build a community and individualistic tensions, the mixing of races, village and nature. wild, desire to wander aimlessly and the value of family.

The characters in the film are less stereotyped and simplified than in John Ford’s other films, the division between good and evil is not clear-cut. Ethan is an ambiguous man, fragile and dangerous at the same time, torn inside by opposing internal tensions. The Indians are cruel but at the same time they represent a wild world in decay, destined for an end by the advancement of the law and civilization. 

John Ford’s Other Movies


Ford made numerous other films, from My Darling Clementine of 1946 to Rio Grande of 1950. The latest westerns of the 1960s are now twilight westerns such as The Man Who shot Liberty Valance from 1962. 

John Ford’s characters repeat themselves film after film. They are classic heroes who embody values ​​and have a very American way of thinking. If we want to be specific, a very Roosevelt way of thinking. A universal lyric and epic poetry out of time. John Ford creates a simple and rigorous style made up of long shots that enhance the great natural scenographies that become indispensable protagonists of the western. 

The characters are outlined in an extremely simple and stereotyped way, without complexity. John Ford also makes films outside the western genre, but always of an explicitly Rooseveltian matrix. Like The Grapes of Wrath of 1940, Tobacco road of 1941, and How Green was My Valley of 1941.

The director develops a poetics and a personal reflection on the conflict between man and nature, between social community and individual, between individual and collectivity. John Ford thus succeeds within an industrial and impersonal mechanism such as that of the System studio to become an author with his own personality and his own poetics.

War and Documentaries

In 1941 he worked for the army making propaganda documentaries and historical documentaries. In 1942 he participated in the Battle of the Midways. him being wounded in the arm while filming the events. The documentary The Battle of the Midways is an important testimony of the historical event. Then he made the educational documentary Sex Hygiene , also commissioned by the army to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. The documentary was shown in the barracks and at the military bases to train the soldiers.

Then he makes another documentary, December 7th , with stock footage shot during the Pearl Harbor attack. After healing from his war wounds, John Ford devoted himself to finding filmed documents that were used for the Nuremberg Trials.

The Return to the Western


After the war I immediately went back to making westerns with My Darling Clementine , in 1946. Also in this film Ford uses famous popular songs from the West such as Mother’s Song and Bill You’re Big. My Darling Clementine is inspired by the story of Wyatt Earp and the challenge to the OK Corral. It is the story of the legendary sheriff played in the film by Henry Fonda that Ford describes in his daily life without sewing on him the stereotype of the hero. Wyatt Earp has a desire for revenge against those who killed his brother, but he gives up and chooses the path of legality. The violence and the shootings are filmed without rhetoric and spectacle, as inevitably necessary sequences.

The next film, The Fugitive, was shot in 1947 and produced by John Ford himself with the production company he founded with Marian Cooper, Argosy picture. But the film was a failure and Ford decided to return to work for the big production companies.

Another fundamental theme of John Ford’s cinema is travel. His films are real odyssey. Journeys of farmers who leave arid lands in search of a better life, sailors who cross the oceans. Often the events of the personal stories of the protagonists intersect with the changes of an entire community. The characters in John Ford’s films are often aware of their social responsibility and have a strong sense of belonging to a group. On these themes he creates a trilogy that brings him back to success. In 1940 he made The Long Voyage Home, while in 1949 and 1950 he directed the two films She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. John Ford is once again very popular with the public.

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In 1951 he made the documentary This is Korea for the US Navy. In 1952, however, he made The Quiet Man set in Ireland and won a new Oscar for best director. In 1953 he made a remake of one of his films from twenty years earlier, Judge Priest, with the new title The Sun Shines Bright. In 1955 he made his first film with the cinemascope technique: The Long Gray Line. Followed by Mister Roberts, in 1955. Contrary to the ideas of the production Ford wants once again his friend and collaborator Henry Fonda as the protagonist, while Warner would have preferred Marlon Brando. The film was poisoned by a series of conflicts and differences with the production and the actor ended up leaving the set, leaving the role to Mervyn LeRoy.

In 1960 John Wayne made The Alamo as a producer, actor and director. The film is the latest example of a classic western. A new type of western film took hold in the 1960s. John Ford was not caught unprepared. He made with James Stewart Two Rode Together , in 1961, on the theme of racism. Then The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which tells of the violence that takes hold of society. Cheyenne Autumn, from 1964, reflects on the extermination of Native Americans, while the following film, Young Cassidy (1965) was a return to Ireland. After working on its pre-production for three months, Ford left for Ireland to shoot the film. But after only two weeks he was forced to leave the set for health reasons, and the direction was entrusted to Jack Cardiff.

John Ford’s directing career ended in a resounding critical and audience failure in 1966, with 7 Women . Ford could no longer get close to movie sets: the strict rules of the insurance contracts with the Studio forbade it due to his deteriorating health. So John Ford abandoned cinema forever, In 1973 he died of cancer in Palm Springs.

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