John Ford

John Ford and the evolution of the American Western

Lindsay Anderson, Never Apologise: The Collected Writings (London: Plexus, 2004) (republication of “Meeting in Dublin with John Ford: The Quiet Man,” Sequence 14, 1952); About John Ford (London: Plexus, 1981; 1999 edition).

Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967; revised 1978).

Peter Cowie, John Ford and the American West (New York: Harry Abrams Inc., 2004).

Jean Mitry, John Ford (Paris, 1954).

Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford: A Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001).

Pippin, Robert B. Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy (Yale University Press, 2010) 208 pp.

Stagecoach (1939) → An adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif.

Jim Kitses, “John Ford: Founding Father” in Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood (London: BFI Publishing, 2004), 27-137.

“Criticism of Ford has often made the feminist charge that his men are actors in history, autonomous agents of action, while his women occupy traditional roles defined in relation to the male. The classic comparison has been with Hawks, who is preferred for his independent-minded heroines…who changed and threaten the jaundiced Hawks’ hero. What such a view obscures is that the illusion of autonomy flaunted by Hawks’s women is less a sign of maturity than an imitation of the male, the highest form of flattery. Hawks’s characters exist in pre-social or tribal situations dominated by the male group. Women are defined in relation to its style and values; in all of Hawks is there a single scene of childbirth?…Ford is clearly interested in the actual lived domestic life of the family…Ford’s films are sometimes discussed as if they represent a mainstream America, prisoners of a blinkered patriotism and romantic chauvinism. In fact, inspired by his own immigrant roots, Ford’s perspective is invariably critical of higher authority ad the change of command. In all the films, heroes typically are at odds with Washington or West Point, the struggle suggesting a perennial disrespect from above for the lower orders or local authorities…Indeed, Ford was guiltier than move in lifting the material to epic and heroic levels, an aesthetic that had its problems. Resisting the genre’s masculine bias, his innate respect for the feminine has insisted on woman–from Dallas [in Stagecoach] to Hallie [in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance]–as heroic partners at the drama’s center, their leadership in the personal sphere underlying and shaping the political. However, the needs of the mythic aesthetic trapped Ford in an ambiguous vision of the Indian too often as antagonist located outside and hostile to the emerging nation…Ford’s underdog mentality gave him a complex, often sympathetic attitude towards the Indians’ plight” (30-33).

“His main theme was the birth of America, the establishing of nationhood…; yet he is also the poet of American’s decline, the melancholy chronicler of defeat and loss. Peter Bogdanovish suggested a key motif–‘the glory in defeat’–that Ford acknowledged fitted his work” (33).

Ford’s early commitment to honoring ordinary people for their extraordinary and historic sacrifices (43) and monumentalizing the mundane (44) → Ford delving deeper into the search for solutions to American challenges somewhere in between history and myth.

Two films that mark a turning point in Ford’s career–The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “Inevitably, Ford was an ambivalent dreamer of Fredrick Turner’s vision of the ideal pioneer community, the bright future of American democracy, equality and justice, forged on the anvil of the frontier. As time went on, as both he and the society aged, losing the early innocence and faith, his historical mirror blurred and darkened. [Yet his career cannot be reduced to a linear process of progressive disillusionment. While his skepticism can be noticed as early as in Stagecoach, his search for hope is clearly recognizable in the last moments of his filmmaking career. What had been persistent throughout the entire period of his works is his will to] serve the needs of American imagination both in providing a bright romantic vision as well as to debunk it, to intoxicate the audience with dreams of a lost heroic frontier and to sober them with its violence and savagery…That Ford inevitably fails at times in this balancing act provides a final paradox: the dualities and flaws are intrinsic to his distinguished achievement as the greatest and most American of American filmmakers” (41).  

The Searchers centers on the obsessed dark hero Ethan, the ultimate example of Ford’s alienated and self-destructive character, “the ultimate plight of the genre’s tragic hero as defined by Robert Warshow, the Westerner facing the closing of the frontier whose actions contribute to a social order that will render his special skills anachronistic” (34).

Liberty Valance foregrounds the inevitable conflict between incompatible values on the Frontier: individual freedom and communal life, subjectivity and objectivity, aristocratic violence and democratic order, the ideal and the real, and myth and history. “There the myth of the triumph of legal authority over the West’s anarchy and violence is both exploded and reaffirmed: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’…This is a self-conscious Ford, looking deeply at himself as well, providing a second look at the myths he played a key role in constructing” (39).

John Ford’s cavalry trilogy in the wake of WWIIFort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1950), Rio Grande (1950).

From Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 328-343.

“The reformist agenda of the New Deal was not merely postponed by the war; it was fundamentally transformed. The original principle of New Deal ideology was the belief that the Depression had permanently discredited the regime of ‘big business’ capitalism. Government regulation, based on scientific planning, was seen as necessary not only to relieve the immediate distress caused by the contraction of business but to effect a redistribution of power and wealth. The goal of these policies was to restore the productive power and expansiveness of the economy…It was the war that ended the Depression and inaugurated a colossal economic expansion underwritten at first by government spending but sustained by dramatic increases in domestic consumption” (329).

“The wealth of this new frontier was to be enjoyed by all. But it was not to be achieved by ‘populist’ (or in Johnson’s term ‘collectivist’) means, which would require government regulation of big business to support the claims of small entrepreneurs, farmers, and organized labor. The wartime expansion that opened this new frontier was the work of big business–one-third of all war orders had gone to ten large corporations–and its success had give corporate capitalism a higher ideological standing that it had enjoyed since the days of Calvin Coolidge…[An outcome emerging from the context was the conflict] between those individuals and groups who were committed to completing the New Deal’s social and political agenda and those who believed the New Deal reforms had gone for enough and that further ‘leftward’ movement had to be stopped” (331).

The rightward shift and the establishment of Communist regimes across the world → “In the spring of 1947 [Year One of the Cold War] the Truman administration responded with the articulation of the ‘Truman Doctrine’ and the establishment of the Marshall Plan. The conservative drift of economic policy was not linked with a policy of containing Communism in Europe, and perhaps in the whole world” (333).

The noir Western (the Western of darker style): The Fabulous Texan (Edward Ludwig, 1947), The Man from Colorado (Henry Levin, 1948), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948; Hawk’s first Western), Silver River (Raoul Walsh, 1948), The Furies (Anthony Mann, 1950), The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950).

  • Critiques of postwar militarism and the advantages gained by corporate war profiteers.
  • The use of mythical tropes drawn from movie genres to pose questions about the meaning of America’s victory in the war. (334)

Despite his own experience of the real war as a filmmaker for the navy and Naval Intelligence which was more extensive than that of most of his HW contemporaries, John Ford was the most reluctant to make films about combat. His unwillingness to fictionalize the war was “a reaction against wartime censorship, which forbade him telling the truth about combat or his criticizing American tactics and policies. He may also have needed to distance himself from painful memories of war experiences before he could treat those memories in the terms of his art. On the other hand, the Indian-fighting cavalry offered a setting that naturally lent itself to the consideration of military issues in Western guise” (335).

Fort Apache, a film about the problem of memory

“The film’s last stand is less a glorification of Western civilization than the culmination of a subtle critique of American democratic pretenses. The undoing of this particular genre-ideology is achieved by applying to the romantic formula the ‘gritty realism’ of the combat film…By building his story around a ‘Last Stand’…he extends his critique…to the mythological roots of that ideology in the Myth of the Frontier” (335).

Asked about Thursday’s legendary charge, which is the subject of a heroic painting in Washington, York defends Thursday by saying that the legend is “true in every detail,” which is because the myth has been good for the regiment. “He thus affirms Thursday’s dictum that right or wrong the commander is the final ad supreme embodiment of authority to whom obedience is as central to the health of the Fort as any of its other sacred signs and democratic ceremonies [as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) where faced with a choice between truth and legend, people opt for printing the legend]…But the irony in this epilogue does not entirely discredit its polemic intent and effect. Through York, Ford makes a plea for the willed retention of patriotic belief in the teeth of our knowledge that such belief has been the refugee of scoundrels and the mast of terrible death-dealing follies” (342).

Fort Apache is a seminal work of mythography. It signals the completion of one cultural transformation and the beginning of another. In Ford’s film, the problematic world of the combat film…is reconciled with the traditions of our national myth. But this return to the mythic ground of the Frontier is not only a way of coming to terms with memory; it also provides us with the mythic basis for a new ideology, designed to build national solidarity in the face of the threatening advance of Soviet Communism” (343).

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