By Chris Hughes
The American born son of Irish immigrants who became one of Hollywood’s most celebrated, and feared, film directors.
When asked who were his three favourite film directors, Orson Welles said: “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Other giants of the cinema industry that revere the creator of such greats as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Quiet Man include Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
Even cineastes who criticise his representations of women and Native Americans praise the visual beauty and narrative drive of his movies. Despite much acclaim, he said of himself: “I make pictures for money, to pay the rent. There are some great artists in the business. I am not one of them.” This comment, suggestive of an uncomplicated and modest soul, belies the true nature of the man who made it.
John (Jack) Ford was born John Martin Feeny in 1894 in Maine, USA. Both of his parents were Irish immigrants; his mother from Kilronan, Inis Mór and his father from Spiddal, County Galway. He enjoyed calling himself by the Gaelic version of his birth name, Séan Aloysius Kilmartin O’Feeney.
One of eleven children, the family lived in the Irish quarter of Portland, Maine. Ford grew up there with a perception of the Irish viewed as a marginalised minority. It was only when John F. Kennedy was elected as president that he said he felt like a first-class citizen. That sense of relegation bonded him with the community of his childhood, forging a love of his ancestry which informed and fuelled his later career.
In 1914, Ford relocated to California joining his brother, Francis, a former vaudeville performer, who had his own film production company. Francis employed him as a stuntman, handyman and occasionally as an actor. It was at this time that he adopted the name of John Ford, in line with Francis who had assumed the surname Ford as a stage name. He learned the movie business quickly and eventually began directing.
After helming thirty-six films in three years he moved to the William Fox Studio. He had his first big hit with The Iron Horse (1924). An epic western, it established him as an A list director and exemplified the type of movie with which he was to be most identified.
In 1935, The Informer was another success. Drawing from his roots, he had been keen to adapt Liam O’ Flaherty’s powerful novel set in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War. It won four Oscars including one for him as best director.
In the years that followed he was to win a further three in that capacity – more to date than any other director. His seminal classic, Stagecoach, considered to be the first adult western, was released in 1939. It propelled John Wayne, who Ford had fought to cast in it, to major stardom. Wayne would become part of an unofficial repertory company that he liked to enlist to appear in his productions. Others included James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Dublin born, Maureen O’Hara.
Ford’s cinematic skills were utilised by The Office Of Strategic Services during World War II making documentaries for the Navy Department. He also served as a commander in the US Navy Reserve. The forties and fifties were peppered with critical and commercial smashes such as The Grapes Of Wrath, The Searchers and his love letter to Ireland, The Quiet Man. Increasing ill-health, mainly due to years of heavy drinking and smoking, lessened his output in the sixties as he went on to make the likes of Donovan’s Reef and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He filmed his last completed feature, Seven Women in 1965.
Throughout his career, Ford always shot his films in such a way that little editing was required, unlike other directors. Maureen O’Hara explained why: “He didn’t want any extra footage. He made certain that no other versions of the picture could be made by anyone else. There was only enough film shot to make John Ford’s version of the movie.” Creative control was paramount to Ford. Nobody was to interfere with his vision of the film he wanted to make.
That desire for control was often expressed autocratically and without mercy. Idiosyncratic and temperamental, tales of his tyranny along with stories of charitable acts were legion in Hollywood. Derision of actors was customary, his tactics ranging from bawling them out on the set to resorting to mind games. He once even went so far as to punch Henry Fonda. John Wayne was not immune from his wrath being habitually admonished viciously. The actor, Henry Brandon, who appeared in The Searchers called Ford: “The only man who could make John Wayne cry.” Regardless of that, and possibly mindful of the part that Ford had played in his success, Wayne said of him: “Nobody could handle actors and crew like Jack.”
Although his directorial methods alienated many, his quest for perfection inspired loyalty in others. The actor, Harry Carey Jr., who was another of his stock company said: “He had a quality that made everyone almost kill themselves to please him. Upon arriving on the set, you would feel right away that something special was going to happen. You would feel spiritually awakened all of a sudden.”
Ford’s health deteriorated even more in the early seventies. A broken hip forced him into a wheelchair in 1970 and he later suffered stomach cancer. He died in 1973. His legacy is celebrated by The Irish Film And Television Academy which, in 2011, established John Ford Ireland. The project aims to honour, examine and learn from his outstanding body of work.
It is perhaps appropriate that despite constant analysis, efforts to fully understand the complex and contradictory man behind the formidable facade have proved futile. It would probably have amused him to know that his ability to confound would remain intact long after his death. What is certain is that time has not diminished John Ford’s status as one of cinema’s greatest and most influential creative forces.