It was how he said he wanted to be remembered, and typically understated.
When asked what artists he studied, Akira Kurosawa replied, “I study John Ford.”
Steven Spielberg says that before he makes a movie, he has to watch Ford’s 1956 classic Western The Searchers for inspiration.
In the documentary The American West of John Ford (1971), John Wayne says, “He doesn’t just point the camera, he paints a picture with it.”
The pictures he painted were often at odds with history. “Jack used history,” says Henry Fonda. “He didn’t feel he was married to it.”
A six-time Academy Award winner, Ford never won an Oscar for a Western. He made his first Western in 1917 at the age of twenty-two, a two-reeler starring himself. Notable among the 145 films he eventually directed, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and My Darling Clementine (1946), all starring Henry Fonda. But it was his choice to give a young assistant prop man a chance on screen that changed history, for better or worse.
John Wayne (real name Marion Morrison) starred in his first Ford picture with Stagecoach (1939). This was Ford’s first talkie Western, and his first shot in Monument Valley. Located on the Arizona-Utah state line near Four Corners, the mesa-rich region is also called John Ford Country for the nine films he shot there.
The problem with Ford’s Westerns is the totally inaccurate and terrible depiction of Native Americans. It’s easier to appreciate Ford’s films because they’re more accessible than the overtly racist works of filmmaking pioneer D.W. Griffith, but the accessibility also eases the racism along. In later years he dismissed concerns with his films by saying, “But my best friend is Woody Strode.”
What would help is if we could all watch films sitting next to Martin Scorsese. For example, of The Searchers, Scorsese sees Ethan Edwards, the character played by John Wayne, as a “poet of hate” who “acts out the worst aspects of racism” when he shoots the eyes of a dead man so that, in accordance with the beliefs of his people, the man will never find paradise in the after-life. John Wayne liked the character so much, he named one of his kids after him.
According to Jimmy Stewart, who starred with John Wayne and Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), “For John Ford, there was no need for dialogue. The music said it all.”
“Ford had the best eye,” says director John Milius. “The visuals in John Ford movies have never been surpassed.”
To see why John Ford ranks with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock as one of the most beloved and studied directors, check out She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), or The Quiet Man (1952).
Stewart Kirby writes for