“Directing is easy, just shoot the eyes.”
These days, even the most amateurish filmmakers want to be considered artists. It’s funny then just how reluctant John Ford was to embrace that label. One time, at a Director’s Guild meeting, Ford famously introduced himself to his colleagues, many of whom already respected and admired him, by saying: “I’m John Ford, and I make Westerns.” Of course, any knowledgeable film student understands that despite downplaying his storied sagebrush collaborations with John Wayne, his films were anything but mere Westerns. Born on the coast of Maine to Irish immigrant parents, Ford moved to Hollywood during the silent era to work with his brother. He would spend the next half century as a journeyman directing in various genres: action/adventure (The Hurricane), historical (Mary Queen of Scots), war (They Were Expendable), literary adaptation (How Green Was My Valley), and even comedy (The Whole Town’s Talking). Later on Ford would find himself pigeonholed, but even his out-and-out Westerns were not the commercial and artless potboilers many still associate with the genre. It took French critics in the Sixties to recognize the singular lyricism coursing through his work, that his “prosaic” hat-and-horse spectacles were in reality exploring America’s mental, physical and spiritual landscape. From his favorite location, Monument Valley, Utah, the director navigated his way through America’s captivating yet morally hazy mythology, dramatizing such fabled events as Ok Coral (My Darling Clementine), Custer’s last stand (Fort Apache), Brigham Young’s caravan (Wagon Master), and Abe Lincoln’s law career (Young Mr. Lincoln). More broadly, he investigated heavy themes like Manifest Destiny, Indian Wars, racism, sacrifice and a frontier existence once the wilderness is overridden inch-by-inch with the comforts and conformity of civilization. That concept was never better expressed than in the closing moments of The Searchers, when John Wayne’s anti-hero stands alienated outside the literal doorway to society. Considering Ford’s purported Catholicism, it’s felicitous to interpret that scene as an allegory for the Book of Exodus, wherein Moses, having led the Jews across the desert to the Promised Land, is forbidden by God from entering himself. As a stylist Ford was a master of both the wide-shot (again, The Searchers) and the close-up, notably during Henry Fonda’s climactic monologue in The Grapes of Wrath. He’s often accused of mythmaking, even though The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance strongly criticized that practice, and has been called an alcoholic, a philanderer, a military fetishist and a bully who ordered his cast and crew around as a drill sergeant might new recruits. His films, however, suggest something different, that his sensibility was one of a modest virtuoso whose gentle, painterly visions affect the soul like fine poetry. Perhaps Ford preferred the accusations. He once told a reporter, “I love making pictures, but I hate talking about them.” His tacit personality and its cinematic reflections have ironically gifted us viewers with so much to discuss.
Before you take that trip to the big movie-theater in the sky, watch: The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Fort Apache.