If there is a name that stands out bright in the history of American cinema, it is that of director John Ford (1894-1973). A complex and talented artist, working in a popular medium based on the collaborative efforts of writers, actors, craftsmen, and producers, Ford achieved in fifty years of filmmaking a unique stature in American culture as a poetic chronicler of the nation’s history.
His artistic accomplishments have long been recognized, and his large body of work—more than 130 films between 1917 and 1970—has entertained many generations of filmgoers and continues to inspire filmmakers to this day. Critics, biographers, and scholars have covered the life and films of Ford from every angle—attracted by the paradoxes of the man who delighted in hiding behind masks—and his views about the American experience from the Revolution to the Cold War.
Masterpieces like Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to name just a few, still generate passionate discussion about the role of history and myth in the formation of the United States; the social, moral, and religious values needed to sustain democracy; the tensions between the individual’s desires and the common good. Closely involved in the writing of his films, whether assigned studio projects or more personal work, the director brought a distinctive Catholic vision to the screen.
More than Irish
The world created by Ford cannot fully be appreciated without grasping that his art was shaped by a Catholic understanding of the human condition. A first-generation Irish American, Ford was a man of faith and deeply held convictions. His biographers—beginning with grandson Dan Ford in Pappy: The Life of John Ford (1979)— attest to this fact but fall short of exploring the full implications of this lifelong fidelity to the Church—which resulted, for example, in the conversion of his Protestant wife. They tend to dwell, sometimes rather negatively in the case of the latest biography by Ronald L. Davis, on what they perceive as the Irish qualities of Ford’s religious beliefs, like superstition, childishness, and an adoration of the Virgin Mary.
Since Ford worked in a highly commercial form of popular art, the sum of his films cannot be read as an autobiography. But the filmmaker’s style of work—the use of a loyal stock company, which included not only actors like John Wayne, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, Victor McLaglen, Maureen O’Hara, Jane Darwell, and many others, but cinematographers, writers, and assorted craftsmen—allows the tracing of consistent themes, narratives, and visual styles throughout his long career.
A man of many paradoxes and a voracious reader, Ford refused to call himself an artist, humorously contending that he was a “traffic cop in front of the camera.” Reluctant to grant interviews and discuss his work on aesthetic terms, he would simply comment “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.” In light of all this, it seems presumptuous of a Ford lover like myself, who has reviewed more than forty of his films in the last month, to discuss the Catholic vision that shapes his work.
Ford’s cinematic universe is built around a repertory of themes, notably family, community, justice, duty, tradition, self-sacrifice, and redemption. The director favors three archetypical narratives, with strong symbolic components: journeys of ascension toward home, or a promised land; journeys of descent from lost paradises, which can be regained through redemption; and isolated communities or individuals facing dangers of a physical or spiritual nature.
The filmmaker sets his characters in a moral universe where right and wrong, good and evil, have an objective existence. The tragic moment in a Ford film is the crisis of an individual conscience, the moment when a character takes stock of who he or she is, a moment that “allows them to define themselves,” as Ford remarked. “It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face-to-face with something bigger than themselves. The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace.”
These moral epiphanies are always subtly staged, blended into the action. In The Prisoner of Shark Island, Dr. Mudd, unjustly condemned as a part of the Lincoln assassination plot, honors his medical vows and saves his jailers from the plague. Mary Stuart will face death rather than give up her Catholic faith in Mary of Scotland. In Stagecoach and Sergeant Rutledge, the outlaw Ringo Kid and the brave black soldier, charged with crimes they did not commit, choose to stay and help the stagecoach passengers and fellow soldiers fend off Apache attacks. Ethan Edwards breaks away from a cycle of rage and revenge by not killing his “contaminated” young niece, brought up as a Comanche in The Searchers. A compassionate doctor forgoes a lucrative practice to help the poor in Arrowsmith. In The Fugitive, a fugitive priest returns to a dangerous country, and martyrdom, for the salvation of a soul.
Ford shows undisguised—for some, overly sentimental—affection for the poor, the dispossessed, and the humble, in other words, for those blessed by Christ in the “Sermon on the Mount”: the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath, thrown off their land during the great Depression; the Mexican peasants who keep the faith in spite of persecution in The Fugitive, a nod to the suffering of Catholics in communist countries; the Mormon pioneers in search of their promised land in Wagon Master; and the blacks and the prostitutes in the beautiful Christian allegory of The Sun Shines Bright.
Ford’s particular fondness for sinners translates into the recurring characters of drunkards, fools, and Mary Magdalens endowed with Madonna-like purity: Doc Boone and Dallas, the drunken doctor and saloon girl of Stagecoach, expelled from town by the sanctimonious ladies of the law-and-order league; Maria Dolores, the fallen woman who helps the priest in The Fugitive; and the drunken but wise physicians of The Hurricane and My Darling Clementine.
The possibility of redemption is an omnipresent trait of Ford’s universe. No matter how flawed, weak, proud, or sinful, a character can choose the path of redemption, on many occasions through an act of self-sacrifice: the possessive mother in Pilgrimage; the pathetic Judas figure of Gypo Nolan in The In former; the misguided French governor of a Polynesian island in The Hurricane; the martinet commander in Fort Apache; and the cynical Dr. Cartwright in 7 Women. In 3 Bad Men and 3 Godfathers, two wonderful allegories about the Three Magi, the outlaws represent also the Good Thief of the Gospel in Western attire.
The idea of communion—be it celebration of community life or the union between the living and their dear dead—is a visual hallmark of Ford’s world. Rituals like births, weddings, burials, dances, and meals cement the links among the community and bring to the screen some of Ford’s most memorable moments. The rituals of courtship play a comic role in The Quiet Man.
The dance is an act of thanksgiving for the rugged pioneers of Drums Along the Mohawk. The people of Tombstone celebrate with a folk dance the building of a church in My Darling Clementine. Dances bring solace to the weary farmers of The Grapes of Wrath, and refinement to the frontier outposts of Two Rode Together and the cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande, each a study of leadership in times of crisis. Burials have a moving solemnity in The Lost Patrol, The Battle of Midway, and They Were Expendable, a film where Ford brings his own experience as a naval officer in World War II. Burials matter because these films describe the dignity and courage with which characters face danger and death.
Death, in turn, does not break the union between the living and the dead; and characters often talk to their dead at their graves. The sole survivor of a British patrol in Mesopotamia salutes his dead friends in The Lost Patrol. In Judge Priest, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Sun Shines Bright, husbands share their joys and sorrows with their long-deceased wives as if they were still alive. In other films, the ghosts of the loved ones accompany the living in their journeys as a symbol of unity, as in Three Bad Men, How Green Was My Valley, and Three Godfathers.
The Ford hero is characterized by a secularized Christ-like trait, the willingness to be a mediator—to the point of self-sacrifice—for the good of the family, the community, and even the nation, as in the case of Young Mr. Lincoln, a figure for whom Ford had deep admiration. The hero, a man or woman, or even a child like Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie, strives to moderate intolerance (social prejudice, war, discrimination) by mediating between opposing forces of chaos (the lawlessness of the West, the exploitation of the weak or poor) and repression (the letter of the law, rigid traditions).
Fords Human Scale
What makes Ford’s movie heroes so interesting is their human scale; they are not larger than life; they embody contradictions, complexities, and flaws. They succeed but also fail. They are unique creatures: Tom Joad leaved his family to become a union organizer in The Grapes of Wrath; Nathan Brittles wisely averts war with the Apaches in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon; a compassionate and astute Lincoln defends innocent people from a lynch mob; Hannah Jessop redresses the wrong she has done in Pilgrimage; an idealist pastor confronts prejudice and the weight of rigid traditions in the small Welsh community of How Green Was My Valley; Judge Priest shows how tolerance is possible in a deeply prejudiced southern town in The Sun Shines Bright.
Ford gave John Wayne starring roles in Stagecoach, They Were Expendable and the cavalry trilogy that made him into an All-American icon: a rugged individualist, quiet and resillient. This popular image, however, does not do justice to the complex heroes Wayne portrayed in later Ford masterpieces such as The Searchers. Ethan Edwards is a hero/villian consumed by desires of revenge that remove him from family and friends. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Tom Doniphon is the forgotten hero of the Old West who gives an idealistic lawyer credit for the shooting that made the New West possible. In The Quiet Man and Donovan’s Reef, the hero retreats into the Never-Never Lands of an idealized Irish village and a South Pacific island.
Ford shot nine of his westerns in Monument Valley, the Navajo reservation on the Arizona-Utah border. This magnificent landscape of mesas, buttes, and desert— which Ford was the first to fully exploit—has become through his films a universal symbol of the American West and freedom. The filmmaker developed a profound relationship with the area and its people. In the lingering shots of Monument Valley, Ford conveys a unique sense of beauty and mystery, establishing a sacramental relationship between man and landscape. Ford turns it into a primordial space where the children of God are faced with the basic issues of life: family, community, justice, solidarity, repentance, forgiveness, and mercy.
Classic and modern, deceptively simple and immensely entertaining, the films of John Ford realize the beauty and goodness of a young medium, which is barely one hundred years old.