John Ford’s legacy in the 21st Century

John Ford on location at West Point for ‘The Long Gray Line’ (1955)  produced by Columbia Pictures. ©SPE Archives & Collections

John Ford (1894-1973) was born to parents who arrived in New England in 1872 as migrants from the West of Ireland. ‘Jack’ Feeney was the 10th of 11 children. He moved to Hollywood in 1914 where his older brother Francis was already a successful actor, director and producer. He became first Jack Ford and then John Ford in 1923. He directed his first film in 1917 and his last in 1966. In the intervening years he became the most successful Oscar winner as a director winning 4 times plus two more wins for his wartime documentaries. This is a ‘global film’ blog, so why the interest in Ford? Hollywood is too important to ignore but most of contemporary mainstream Hollywood doesn’t interest me. I am interested in some aspects of American Independent cinema and certainly in African American cinema. I’m also interested in 1940s-1970s Hollywood, especially if it has been influential in global terms.

John Ford made films in Ireland (2), UK (1) the South Pacific (2) Mexico (1) and Kenya (1) as well as numerous territories as required by the US military. He was also one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century with ardent admirers such as Kurosawa Akira in Japan, Xie Jin in China, Satyajit Ray in Bengal, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and many other leading filmmakers worldwide. His impact on global film was considerable.

But I wonder what younger filmmakers and younger audiences make of a director who died over 40 years ago? The Ford film that is arguably the most remembered is The Searchers (1956), a film that was successful at the time with audiences but took much longer to become a critics’ favourite. Younger audiences are most likely to know it because it became an important influence on George Lucas who refers to it in Star Wars (1977) and perhaps also Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) which borrows narrative ideas from it expressed in Paul Schrader’s script. Many younger cinephiles might not have seen The Searchers but they will know the opening and closing shots of the film which have been endlessly re-cycled over the last 40 years. But there is still resistance to The Searchers, exemplified by a recent Guardian piece by a senior film writer who agreed to watch the film having avoided it during his career as a film journalist. In fact, he hadn’t seen any of Ford’s films. Why is that? The answer is that, like several of Ford’s films, this is a Western starring John Wayne. Not only that but Wayne’s character is an embittered racist – or at least that is what is assumed. I’m not criticising anyone who has avoided a Wayne film for that reason – there are several Hollywood stars whose performances I don’t particularly enjoy and therefore whose films I don’t watch (including several of Wayne’s). However, Ford’s relationship with Wayne is complex and The Searchers is, on every level, a remarkable film that does not succumb to straightforward readings.

There are several reasons why John Ford’s films (over 140 of them in all, but a more ‘modest’ 50 or so features since 1929) are still important in 2020:

  • his ideas about African American social history and the Civil War
  • his ideas about Native American history
  • his sense of Irish identity
  • his respect for the US miltary
  • the roles for women in his films
  • his ‘independent’ status throughout the years of the Studio System
  • his status within the industry as a highly-skilled visual technician, editor, director and dialogue writer
  • his position re the concept of ‘film author’

No doubt there are more but that’s quite enough for now. I will attempt over the coming weeks to explore some of those 50 films and their associated discourses. Perhaps Keith will say something about Ford’s silent cinema films about which I have very limited knowledge? At this time of lockdown, it’s worth pointing out that three Ford Westerns are on BBC iPlayer for the next few months. Otherwise it is becoming quite difficult to find the films on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK. Presumably quite a few are available on Amazon Prime and Netflix? Over the years I have worked with several of the films, but few have made it onto the blog from ‘draft’ to ‘published’, mainly because there is so much to say and they never seem to be completed. One you might find interesting is Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960), a landmark film in some ways.

3 comments

  1. keith1942

    I can see Steve Rose’s piece starting a series of articles. David Lodge in ‘Changing Places’ (1975) describes a parlour game among US academics where the players have to guess what is the major work in their field that one person claims not to have seen. The ‘winner’ is a Professor of Drama who claims never to have seen ‘Hamlet’. Rose appears to challenge this for top or bottom player. I have to confess that I am not in contention.
    Still, it will be interesting to read Roy on one of my favourite directors working in Hollywood.

    Like

  2. RMunro

    As one of the – probably – few people of my generation (early 30s) to really love Ford, I’m very much looking forward to this discussion of his work. I’ve just finished rewatching the ‘cavalry trilogy’, which I found far richer than I had remembered.

    I have very little patience for the simplistic disavowal of the western as detailed in the Guardian piece. As you say, Ford’s work is far more complex than that (esp. The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and the Western genre generally is too. Yes, lots of Westerns have a problematic approach to violence, guns and frontier mythology; but so many more are about complicating that (High Noon, Shane, Gunfighter, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Naked Spur, The Man Who Shot… we could go on and on…)

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    • Roy Stafford

      Good to have you interested in discussion. I’m reading and researching films I first saw fifty years ago and it’s a very enjoyable experience. Some thoughts on Fort Apache coming tomorrow.

      Like

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