Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, John Ford

John Ford 1895-1973

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]


Can I believe my friends all gone,
when their voices are still a glory in my ears?
No, and I will stand to say no, and no again.
For they remain a living truth within my mind.

—from Philip Dunne’s screenplay of How Green Was My Valley

“…What Ford had been evolving all through his career was a style flexible enough to establish priorities of expression. He could dispose of a plot quickly and efficiently when he had to, but he could always spare a shot or two for a mood that belonged to him and not to the plot.” —Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

• The aftermath of the shootout in Ford’s first feature: Harry Carey stands behind his horse looking offscreen at the man he killed and reflectively cleaning his hand on the horse’s tail—Straight Shooting
• Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) trying to smooth his awkward bulk and uncouth presence into the lineaments of innocence and communal grief at the wake of Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford)—The Informer…
• Ben Johnson’s glorious rides in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, Rio Grande, Cheyenne Autumn…
• The Lost Patrol: Mackay and Cook (Brandon Hurst and Alan Hale) set off across the desert to bring help; in longshot they disappear, the sands seeming to ripple in the moonlight, until a shadow engulfs all….
• Dinner with Sandy (Donna Reed): a moment out of war in They Were Expendable
• Drisc (Thomas Mitchell) pacing the deck and turning abruptly for a last look after the corpse of Yank (Ward Bond) has been buried at sea—The Long Voyage Home
• Granville Thorndyke’s (Alan Mowbray) farewell to the old stationmaster (Francis Ford) before skipping out of Tombstone: “Good night, sweet prince!”—My Darling Clementine
• Barry Fitzgerald’s reverential observation of the broken honeymoon bed in The Quiet Man: “Impetuous! … Homeric!”…
• The look on the face of Gwyllym Morgan (Donald Crisp) in How Green Was My Valley when his scholar son Huw (Roddy McDowall) elects to go down to the mines: love, gratitude, fulfillment, and a heartrending despair commingle there…
• Rio Grande: Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) sees her husband again after fifteen years’ willful separation; preparing for dinner, she opens the silver chest and hears it play “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”—and Ford’s focus ebbs delicately away….
• The death of Hatfield (John Carradine) in Stagecoach: Ringo (John Wayne), having run to the coach door in exultation over their rescue, looks bewildered on the other young man whose youth was blighted; beyond Ringo, a bugler blows Recall….
• Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda) and Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) in their one scene together, Young Mr. Lincoln: behind Ann, a tree bough seems to grow right out of her and curve to shelter and bless—but not quite to touch—the gangling frame of one of Ford’s most evocatively disprized heroes….

Young Mr. Lincoln

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, quoted in John Ford by Peter Bogdanovich:
“I was President of the Directors Guild in the Fifties, during the McCarthy Era, and a faction of the Guild, headed by DeMille, tried to make it mandatory for every member to sign a loyalty oath. I was in Europe when the thing started, but as soon as they notified me I sent word that, as President, I was very much against anything like that. Well, pretty soon, these little items about me started appearing in the gossip columns. ‘Isn’t it a pity about Joe Mankiewicz? We didn’t know he was a pinko.’ In those days, you know, an insinuation was almost as good as a proven fact. Well, it really got serious—I began to realize my career was on the block. They called a meeting of the entire Guild, finally, and I flew back for it. The entire membership showed up. It was harrowing—DeMille’s group made speeches—four hours it went on. And all during this, I was wondering, and I knew quite a few others were wondering, what John Ford thought. He was kind of the Grand Old Man of the Guild and people would be influenced by him. But he just sat there on the aisle wearing his baseball cap and sneakers, didn’t say a word. Then after DeMille had made his big speech, there was silence for a moment and Ford raised his hand. We had a court stenographer there to take it all down and everybody had to identify themselves for the record. So Ford stood up. ‘My name’s John Ford,’ he said. ‘I make Westerns.’ He praised DeMille’s pictures and DeMille as a director. ‘I don’t think there’s anyone in this room,’ he said, ‘who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille—and he certainly knows how to give it to them.’ Then be looked right at DeMille, who was across the hall from him. ‘But I don’t like you, C.B.,’ he said. ‘And I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight. Now I move we give Joe a vote of confidence—and let’s all go home and get some sleep.’ And that’s what they did.”

• The mother (Henrietta Crosman) reluctantly receiving the bouquet from her unacknowledged, illegitimate grandson before beginning her Pilgrimage to her son’s European grave: the flowers are extended up toward that rigid arm lying along the train window; after a moment, it awkwardly reaches down and accepts them; the train begins to move and draws the arm and the window out of frame. The camera never moves; the mother’s face is never seen….
• Judge Priest: Juror No. 12 (Francis Ford) making a round-the-corner shot into the spittoon that the sheriff (Louis Mason) has done his utmost to conceal; he describes the trajectory with an eloquent hand and then gestures proudly at his Confederate sharpshooter medal….
• Ditto (Edward Brophy) stomping desperately at his hat as if it were the candidate who has just defeated Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) at the polls in The Last Hurrah: His Honor quietly molds both “the hamburger” and Ditto back into shape….
• Those emotionally luminous shots of men observing heroic women: Ringo and Dallas (Claire Trevor) in Stagecoach, Rusty (John Wayne) and Sandy in They Were Expendable, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Clementine (Cathy Downs) in My Darling Clementine…
• Barry Fitzgerald dumping a hatful of ale on his head when he sees the preacher has joined the party—How Green Was My Valley..
Young Mr. Lincoln: Lincoln and Efe Tyler (Eddie Collins) riding on muleback along the river Abe identifies with Ann: lost in reverie, Abe picks a tune on his Jew’s-harp that turns out to be “Dixie”—of which he and Efe wholeheartedly approve….
• Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) in Rio Grande returning wearily to his tent after a sortie, lighting a lamp to find Kathleen keeping watch on the night: in one powerfully self-contained motion he sets down the lamp and embraces her….
• The face of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne ) in The Searchers: before he shakes his brother’s hand; when he first sees Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter); when he parries with Capt. Rev. Clayton (Ward Bond); when he sees the burning ranchhouse; when he hears the captive white women crying out for Debbie’s doll; when he meets Chief Scar (Henry Brandon); when he says, “Let’s go home, Debbie”…
• Zeb Rawlins (George Peppard) marching off to “The Civil War” in How the West Was Won: he sends back the farm dog that tries to follow him down a road between split-rail fences, full of shadows and mystery and death, as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” sounds softly over all….

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: The funeral of Rome Clay

Frank Capra, The Name above the Title:
“Academy haters said it was not seismic waves that caused the disastrous earthquake of 1933. It was the roof falling in on the producer-controlled Academy. At any rate, it was just before a meeting of the Academy-Company committees that the earthquake hit. I was having my hair cut in the basement barbershop of the Hollywood Athletic Club, when the building rumbled and rolled. In two seconds I was outside with dozens of others, watching its tall tower swaying and cracking. Swallowing my heart I went back in for a steam bath to calm my jittery nerves. In the foggy steam room I found a lone occupant, calmly reading a paper: a tall, dour-looking bloke with a black patch over one eye. I looked at his legs to see if he had a peg leg, à la Long John Silver. No peg leg.
“Then I recognized him—my idol! The fabulous John Ford. To start a conversation, I remarked, ‘Some earthquake, huh, Mr. Ford?’ ‘What earthquake?’ he muttered sourly without looking up from his paper. To ease into introducing myself, I said, ‘You’ve heard about the big pay-cut meeting the Academy’s holding with the—’ Still reading he cut me short: ‘That’s all a lot of horseshit.’ On that neat appraisal I sneaked out.”

• Sunday morning in Tombstone, My Darling Clementine: the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor; “the scent of the desert flowers”; the street full of people, flowing like a river; the walk to church; “…Oblige me, ma’am?”…
• The mother’s arrival, by riverboat, in the middle of the night, The Sun Shines Bright: a dark figure, alone and desperate, at the bottom of the frame, as above her the river rolls with the boat’s departing surge…
• Axel’s (John Qualen) crazy skidding run along the deck as the airplane strafes the Glencairn in The Long Voyage Home
• The Nativity in the desert, in 3 Godfathers
• The horse trade between Travis (Ben Johnson) and Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) in Wagon Master, after which, Travis declares, “Me ‘n’ Sandy figure on settin’ ‘n’ playin’ a little high-low-jick-jack-jinny-an’-the-bean-gun” (“Hold low or claim it?” “Claim it!”)…
• Mose Harper (Hank Worden) sliding into a war dance as he turns to unsaddle his horse—The Searchers
• Young Mr. Lincoln: the conventional flirtatiousness of Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver) receding into the background of balcony and mind as Lincoln leans forward toward the river and memories of another woman…
• In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Drums along the Mohawk, Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) and Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree) assuring: “Hallelujah! I am a Christian!”…
• A hat held out to shield a dying man’s eyes from the sun, in They Were Expendable and 3 Godfathers
• The Christmas pageant in Donovan’s Reef, with the Three Wise Men including Boats Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) as the King of the United States of America…
• The leavetaking of Ianto (John Loder) and Davy (Richard Fraser) in How Green Was My Valley: a last nudge of the mother’s rockingchair, and the click of the latch as the Father reads “a chapter”: “My cup runneth over”…
• Rio Grande: Kirby Yorke formally interviewing the son from whom he has been estranged, covertly using the shadow of a tree branch on the tent roof to measure the boy’s height and compare it to his own…
• The feel of evening as Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) meets Preacher Casy (John Carradine) atop the hill—The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Peter Bogdanovich: “How long after you started making pictures did you come to feel that what you were doing was something important?”
John Ford: “Well, that’s a presumption I can’t accept. I never felt that way about it. I’ve always enjoyed making pictures—it’s been my whole life. I like the people I’m around—I don’t mean the higher echelons, I mean the actors, the actresses, the grips, the electricians. I like those people. I like to be on the set and, regardless of what the story is, I like to work in pictures—it’s fun.
“Harry Carey tutored me in the early years, sort of brought me along, and the only thing I always had was an eye for composition—I don’t know where I got it—and that’s all I did have. As a kid, I thought I was going to be an artist; I used to sketch and paint a great deal and I think, for a kid, I did pretty good work—at least I received a lot of compliments about it. But I have never thought about what I was doing in terms of art, or ‘this is great,’ or ‘world-shaking,’ or anything like that. To me, it was always a job of work—which I enjoyed immensely—and that’s it.”

—from John Ford by Peter Bogdanovich

• The Grapes of Wrath: Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) burning her keepsakes in the predawn…
• The Sun Shines Bright: the reflection of the Flag approaching in the window at the end of the G.A.R. hall, some seconds before its bearers actually appear in the shot…
• The mythic juxtaposition of Edwards family gravestones and the timeless buttes of Monument Valley, The Searchers: a yapping dog calls Ethan’s, and our, attention to the “shot”—a characteristically canny undercutting of the shot’s poetic force that makes it work the more unobtrusively…
• Steamboat Round the Bend: history getting rewritten in best Fordian style when Dr. John (Will Rogers), taking over a riverboat wax museum, rechristens Cleopatra as Little Egypt and Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee…
• They Were Expendable: Russell Simpson, The Grapes of Wrath‘s Pa Joad, sitting down on his stoop in the Philippines with a rifle and a jug and the grim determination that the Japs are going to fight to get his land. Leaping across years and films to underscore the rightness of his cause, “Red River Valley” settles over the scene….
• Ford’s graveside scenes wherein his heroes address the dead but not departed: Pilgrimage, Judge Priest, Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Brittles “making his report”)…
• How Green Was My Valley: Iestyn Evans impatiently but unemotionally subduing Angharad’s (Maureen O’Hara) wedding veil as it soars in the wind—Ford’s unbeatably succinct assessment of the marriage that has just been made…
• The archetypal imagery of Revolutionary America in Drums along the Mohawk
• The marches in the snow in Cheyenne Autumn
• Editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien, in the clothes of Doc Boone and one of the alternate names of Peacock the whiskey drummer) reeling drunkenly about his newspaper office in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: advising the ghost of Horace Greeley to “go west, old man, and grow young with the country,” he blows out the lamp and lurches offscreen to become a shadow, as, from somewhere, a girl sings sweetly in a language he does not know….

They Were Expendable

• Young Mr. Lincoln: the fight in the clearing; a shot; the family huddled at the right, the man lying at the left, as a cloud of gunsmoke rises in the moonlight…
• Francis Ford wordlessly supporting the varied eloquence of Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach), Alan Mowbray (My Darling Clementine), Ward Bond (Wagon Master)…
• Earp and Mac (J. Farrell MacDonald) in My Darling Clementine: “Mac, you ever been in love?” “Nooooo-ooo-ooo, I been a bartender all me life!”…
• Fort Apache: the Apaches, having ridden over Thursday’s command, roll on toward the ridge; Yorke strides out to meet them; the great cloud of dust catches up and shrouds everything as we hear a lance sink in—what?… There is a rumble of the Indians riding away, and the dust thins to reveal Yorke standing beside the war lance buried in the ground….
• The return to the ship at the end of The Long Voyage Home, the dock adrift in wind-tossed war news and the reflections from the water flickering over all…
• They Were Expendable: the explosion of Ryan’s PT boat in the surf and the artificial “rainfall” that lashes at the men on the beach; Ryan sits down heavily in the sand, staring, and Ensign Gardner (Marshall Thompson) wishfully retrieves the radio antenna, which becomes an accidental Cross….
• Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) completing Granville Thorndyke’s Hamlet soliloquy—My Darling Clementine
• Judge Priest: the judge (Will Rogers) and Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit) setting off down a sun-dappled road to go fishing, conversing in a language all their own…
• A colt springing up on the westward bank of the river midway through Wagon Master: Ford will reprise the shot at the end and that colt will carry the emblematic weight of a new nation on its spindly legs….
• Life goes on in Tombstone, My Darling Clementine: the arrival of the morning stage becomes a key event in the gunfight at the OK Corral, as Earp steps around a wagon, hoists his foot onto the tongue, lifts his gun by the drum and says, “Let’s talk a while”….
• Young Mr. Lincoln: a hallway lined with key characters in Lincoln’s life; a hitherto-unknown doorway that opens, and then opens wide, to let in a devastating light; a voice that calls “Abe—they’re waitin’!”; and the roar of an unseen nation…
• Quirt (Dan Dailey) marching an insubordinate enlisted man off a bridge—What Price Glory
• Ethan Edwards refusing to tell that he has found Lucy’s body—The Searchers
• All the horses and ponies that just won’t stand still for posing and parlays…
• The ending of Ford’s personal favorite film, The Sun Shines Bright: Judge Priest (Charles Winninger) goes into the house “to get my heart started”; Jeff (Stepin Fetchit) stays on the porch to play his mouth organ as the light in the hall goes out—for reasons that have nothing to do with realism—and an inner light beams forth….
• The ending of 7 Women, Ford’s last film: Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) hears the poisoned Khan (Mike Mazurki) fall dead behind her; smiling bitterly at the tragic fulfillment she has won for herself, she tosses off her own cup, as the camera recedes and—for reasons that have nothing to do with realism—darkness engulfs the screen….

Men like my father cannot die.
They are with me still
—real in memory as they were real in flesh—
loving and beloved forever.
How green was my valley then!

This tribute to John Ford shortly after his death was a collaboration by Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and András Fürèsz. The pictures chosen are a big part of it; check out the pdf.
Erratum, but not really: For decades, and certainly at the time of Ford’s death, 1895 was understood to be the year of his birth—hence the subtitle on this feature. Subsequently it was determined that he was born a year earlier, in 1894. John Ford resisted definition any way you look at it.

Rio Grande