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Discovering John Ford

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I can't help but marvel at how my perceptions have changed as I've grown older. The way I view the world, and the people in it, the way I feel about the food I eat, or the music I once enjoyed so much but now can't bear. And the films I once ignored.

And, if I'm honest, ignored is accurate – isn't it? I knew this body of work existed. As I'll come on to in a moment, it's played an important part in my life. And yet, for example, until a few days ago the name Victor McLaglen meant nothing to me.

My Grandad – no pretentious renaming to Grandfather here, thank you very much, he was and always will be Grandad – was a huge fan of John Wayne. When I was a child, he became utterly synonymous with the man. In my mind, he would move like John Wayne, look like John Wayne. And, yes, if I'm honest, talk like John Wayne. But he didn't – not really – that's all just a product of a child's imagination and capacity for molding ideas in crazy ways. But the image persisted. I must have passed the image on to my wife, because the same thought occurred to her upon meeting him for the first time.

He had an enormous collection of books and videos featuring Wayne. His love of films, Wayne, and the western as a genre, is undoubtedly responsible for his three son's love of film. Which, in turn, is unquestionably responsible for mine.

And so I find myself, almost 28 years old, in a position to review Warner Home Video's new John Ford and John Wayne / John Ford boxed sets. And, I realize, I don't actually know any of the films that either box contains.

I'm aware of them. Who isn't? She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, Stagecoach – these are all iconic westerns. John Ford is an iconic director. So why am I so ignorant?

I love film. All shapes and sizes, all genres and themes. I've always held a preference for horror – and I think I know why, but that's something to analyse another day – but I've never been monogamous. Why have I ignored Ford, and if I'm honest, the western?

The answer is: I don't know. And I'm genuinely ashamed. I can't excuse myself by claiming to have not had time, or for them to have been unavailable. I consider myself to be a 'film buff'. I'd even claim to go beyond that. But how can I stake such a claim if I'm ignorant of such an important part of cinema history? I can't.

What follows are my reviews of 13 of John Ford's films. Some of them may not be considered to be his greatest, but they are the films in the boxed sets. My journey may well extend further than these 13 films, but for now my planned route is: The Lost Patrol, The Informer, Mary of Scotland, Sergeant Rutledge, Cheyenne Autumn, Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and The Wings of Eagles.

I'm seeing most of these films for the first time. Those few that I have watched haven't been viewed in my adult life, and haven't been given the attention they deserve. My perceptions have changed: I might as well be seeing them afresh. The only Wayne films that I have watched properly are his later ones: True Grit, Big Jake, El Dorado, et al.

If my views seem to be naïve, ignorant, or are in any way offensive to you, I encourage you to comment. I'm trying to do this with an open mind, free from the preconceptions imposed by Ford's reputation.

Ultimately, I'm doing this for my Grandad. To my shame, these works aren't something I was ever able to discuss with him while he was alive. But at least I'll appreciate and understand his passion as a result. I'm also doing this for his three sons – my Dad: Antony, Ian, and Andrew. Ian and Andrew have opened my eyes to many films over the years that I may have otherwise ignored (The Incredible Shrinking Man comes to mind). But it's my Dad that has had, and continues to have, more of an impact on who I am than anything else in my life.

The 13 reviews, which you'll find grouped together on BlogCritics under the title 'Discovering John Ford', are my tribute to my Grandad. I hope he, his sons, and you, enjoy them.

In loving memory of Ernest Arthur Woolstencroft: 1929 – 2004. 

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  • Some additional suggestions: From 1939-1941, Ford had an incredible run. You already have Stagecoach (1939), which I have yet to see, but which is supposed to have saved the Western as a serious (as opposed to “B” picture) genre, and made John Wayne a star, on your list. Ford followed up on that, in 1940, by helming the masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, based on the John Steinbeck novel. Grapes stars Hank Fonda, earned Ford his second Best Director Oscar, and Fonda his first Best Actor nod. And in 1941, Ford made the masterpiece, How Green was My Valley, which was every bit as good as Grapes, and which won for Best Picture and Best Director (in both cases over Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane), among other Oscars. (Valley was based on Richard Llewellyn’s Welsh-set novel.)

    In 1952, Ford made another masterpiece, that bit of Irish whimsy, The Quiet Man, which showcases one of John Wayne’s best performances, the unforgettable pairing of Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, marvelously ornery work by Victor McLaglen, and a perfectly splendid fight scene. Oh, and if you’ve ever seen E.T., the clips of Wayne and O’Hara spliced into the Liberation of the Frogs set-piece, are from The Quiet Man.

    When I was 17-18 years old, my favorite picture was Mr. Roberts (1955), also starring Hank Fonda. (I haven’t seen it in about thirty years.) Ford started the picture, but got fired, probably more than halfway through, and was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. Usually, when a director is fired, even at the last possible moment, he gets no screen credit (see Robert Pirosh and Hell is for Heroes), but I guess owing to Ford’s legendary status, the picture lists him and LeRoy as co-directors.

    I’m guessing that Ford’s having suckerpunched Henry Fonda while making Mr. Roberts may have had something to do with his getting fired. Ford apparently thought this was a big joke. Fonda probably said he’d walk, if the stuido didn’t replace Ford.

    Note that at that point, Ford had made as many movies — seven — with Fonda as he had with Wayne (both became big stars with Ford the same year, 1939), and Ford and Fonda were supposedly very good friends. But although John Ford was the greatest director who ever got behind a megaphone, he was something less of a man, and may not have even understood the concept of friendship.

    In any event, I look forward to hearing, sometime down the line, what you think of the four above-mentioned pictures.

  • Also worth noting is “The Informer” which Ford made in 1935 with Victor McLaglen. It’s the film which really established McLaglen’s image as a “drunken Irishman” on screen but it won the British born son of a Bishop an Oscar as Best Actor.

  • Scott Butki

    There was a recent great piece in the New York Times by A.O. Scott about John Ford and specifically about the Searchers. I’m going to watch that movie again with that essay in mind.

    If you want I can try to google it for you. Just let me know.

  • Ian Woolstencroft

    I don’t think it’s fair to say Ford didn’t understand the concept of friendship, his relationship with John Wayne lasted from 1928 until his death in 1973. But one thing is for sure – on a Ford film set Ford was God and you do not question God. Fonda was not the only one to find that out. Ben Johnson (who, like Wayne was given his big break by Ford) found himself in the doghouse for 14 years after a bust-up on the set of Rio Grande.Even Wayne had problems with him on the set of The Alamo.

    And while it’s true that early on Fonda was Ford’s leading man of choice (between 1939 and 1941 they made four films together) I think that had more to do with him waiting for Wayne to mature as an actor. Ford only used Wayne twice between Stagecoach in 1939 and 3 Godfathers in 1948 and neither were lead roles (The Long Voyage Home and They Were Expendable) but between 1948 and 1952 they made five films together, although there finest film (and in my opinion the best film ever made) didn’t come until 1956 with The Searchers.

    No trip through Ford’s career would be complete without also seeing (on top of those already mentioned by others) My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) his last great film.

    And yes, in case you were, wondering, I am the Ian mentioned in the article. I’m sure my Dad would be pleased that he’s fostered an interest in John Wayne in still another generation. I know I am.

  • I don’t think it’s fair to say Ford didn’t understand the concept of friendship, his relationship with John Wayne lasted from 1928 until his death in 1973. But one thing is for sure – on a Ford film set Ford was God and you do not question God. Fonda was not the only one to find that out. Ben Johnson (who, like Wayne was given his big break by Ford) found himself in the doghouse for 14 years after a bust-up on the set of Rio Grande.Even Wayne had problems with him on the set of The Alamo.

    Thanks for the story about Ben Johnson, an actor, may he rest in peace, whom I have come to greatly admire.

    I’m sticking to my guns, regarding Ford and friendship. Friendship is supposed to be based on equality (among other characteristics), while Ford’s relationship to John Wayne was that of a surrogate father. There was great affection between the two, but no friendship.

    Ford also had a surrogate father relationship to Woody Strode, may he rest in peace, though that came much later in Ford’s life. (I’m basing this on Strode’s memoir, Goal Dust.)

    Strode claimed that during the filming of
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    , Ford set his two surrogate sons one against the other, and Strode and Wayne almost came to blows. Strode said he didn’t blame Wayne, that it was all Ford’s fault. I can’t say with certainty that Strode’s story is the true one, but all the time I read his bvook, my b.s. detector never went off. So, maybe I’m a fool, or maybe Strode is a great b.s. artist, but for now, I’m buying his story.

  • I didn’t realise Woody Strode had written a book, I must try and find a copy. Thanks for that Nicholas.

    As for the friendship issue, I just find it hard to believe so many people would continually work with and hold in such regard a man who didn’t understand the concept. I recently watched ‘The American West of John Ford’ and not only Wayne, but also James Stewart and even Henry Fonda, talk about the man with obvious affection. And it’s not only stars – Harry Carey Jr, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick etc.
    Going back to the Johnson (and Fonda) disagreements for a moment, he may not have used them on film after on set arguments but he still stayed on good terms with both of them. His idea of a joke was certainly, at times, mean spirited but that was just part of who he was.

    He was certainly a strange man whose idea of friendship may have been different to most but I think he understood it. How do you portray a concept on film that you can’t understand?