No filmmaker has been more sensitive to the American landscape than John Ford. Though he is often associated with stories of the Old West, Ford’s work shows an impressive range. He received five Academy Award nominations for directing, winning four times—for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). His fifth nomination was for Stagecoach (1939), lauded by critic Pauline Kael as a “movie that has just about everything.”
The son of Irish immigrants, Ford was born on February 1, 1894, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He went to Hollywood as a young man, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Francis, who had gone there to work in the fledgling movie industry. He learned his craft by acting in bit parts and by assisting his older brother. He directed dozens of pictures—many with silent film actor Harry Carey—before he had a major success with The Iron Horse (1924), a feature film about the building of the transcontinental railroad.
The Informer, an adaptation of a prizewinning novel by Liam O’Flaherty, is set during the Irish War of Independence. It centers on a man torn by a guilty conscience after he reports a friend’s involvement in the Irish Republican Army to the police.
Stagecoach showcased John Wayne in his breakthrough role as the Ringo Kid, a fugitive traveling by stagecoach with a diverse group that included Thomas Mitchell as an alcoholic doctor and Claire Trevor as a goodhearted prostitute. It was shot on location in Monument Valley, a distinctive area on the Arizona/Utah border where Ford made several films.
The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel, starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a poor farmer from Oklahoma who travels to California with his family in search of a better life during the Great Depression. Widely regarded as a classic, The Grapes of Wrath is considered one of the greatest expressions of sympathy for the poor in American cinema.
How Green Was My Valley, an elegiac look at the passing of a way of life in a Welsh mining community, won several Academy Awards, including one for best picture, in addition to Ford’s for direction.
The Quiet Man is a boisterous romantic comedy starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. It was a pet project that Ford struggled for years to make, earned him another Oscar, and remains an audience favorite.
During World War II, Ford was chief of a U.S. Navy film unit that produced several documentaries. One of them, The Battle of Midway (1942), won an Academy Award “for the historical value of its achievement….” A year later, December 7th earned an Oscar for best documentary short subject. Ford played an active role in the production of films documenting the North African invasion, the campaign in Burma, the Normandy invasion, and—when the war was over—the Nuremberg Trials.
After the war, Ford’s films included several Westerns, among them My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). One of his most influential works, The Searchers (1956), starred John Wayne as a man bent on vengeance after the deaths of his family members.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) stars John Wayne as a taciturn man of action and James Stewart as a lawyer and politician; it suggests that “civilization” is maintained by hidden acts of violence. It contains one of the most famous lines in Ford’s movies, spoken by a newspaperman: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
A recurring theme in Ford’s work is the struggle of order (represented, for example, by towns, railroads, or the military) against disorder (nature, outlaws, etc.). His heroes were inexpressive, masculine archetypes, who dramatized the tension between individualism and law and order. Another characteristic theme is the competing attractions of adventure and domesticity.
Some of Ford’s other films include What Price Glory (1952), Mogambo (1953), and The Last Hurrah (1958). He employed many of the same crew members from picture to picture and repeatedly cast many of the same performers, chief among them John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, his older brother Francis Ford, and the son of his old friend and early associate, Harry Carey, Jr. Members of Ford’s “company” sometimes referred to him as “Pappy.” He died on August 31, 1973.
Three of Ford’s works—The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, and The Searchers—are included on a list of 100 greatest movies compiled by the American Film Institute (AFI). Ford’s other honors include the Medal of Freedom, presented by President Richard Nixon on March 31, 1973. That same year, the AFI gave Ford its lifetime achievement award.