Yesterday was the birthday of the great director John Ford (February 1, 1894 – August 31, 1973). In fact, he is probably the greatest of all film directors. Even Bergman and Kurosawa looked up to him.
When I was watching Red River (1948) the other day, which is directed by the great Howard Hawks, I kept thinking, “This is good, but it would have looked so much better had John Ford directed.” There are some good shots in this movie–notably of the swarming cattle herd–but he never gets the huge vistas that Ford would have had. You never get the sense of the size of Texas or the sky in Kansas. Most of it looks like it was filmed on a soundstage with bad lighting. John Ford would have opened it up.
The iconic approaching storm scene in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” 1949
“The Searchers” 1956
A lot of Ford’s success is due to his close association with two great cinematographers, with whom he worked on many of his greatest films: Winton C. Hoch (3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956); and Bert Glennon: Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Rio Grande (1950), Wagon Master (1950), Sergeant Rutledge (1960).
He knew how to pick ’em. And he knew how to cast. His ensemble casts are second to none.
“The Long Voyage Home” 1940
He won four Best Director Oscars–for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1942), and The Quiet Man (1952).
“How Green Was My Valley” 1942
He won two more Academy Awards for best Documentary–The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943). Of course, not one of them was for a western. There are so many for which he should have at least been nominated–The Searchers (1956) and My Darling Clementine (1946) chief among them.
I’m not saying that all his films are great. In fact, they are quite inconsistent. He can succumb to a weepy Irish sentimentality which is unfortunate and can be embarrassing. Any movie involving James Cagney, Tyrone Power, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy, and/or English history (yes, I’m thinking Mary of Scotland) should be avoided. But even these can be entertaining and worth watching.
John Wayne and Henry Fonda were never better than under the direction of John Ford. And John Ford had the good sense to use them often. He famously cast the relatively unknown John Wayne in Stagecoach when the producer wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich. The result using the big stars would have been a good movie, but Marlene would have taken over and Gary would have been all aw shucks and adorable–standard fare.
Directors who copied his style have made a lot of standard movies. His never were.
John Wayne gave the eulogy at his funeral.
So a toast tonight to the great John Ford!
Sgt. Beaufort in Fort Apache (1948)