I once saw a conversation on the IMDb message boards of what the “Mt. Rushmore” of American cinema would look like. I remember names like Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese, Howard Hawks, Michal Curtiz, and others being thrown around, but I distinctly remember one name remaining all the while: John Ford.
His name remained soundly set as the director which absolutely, no matter what, had to be on there. He is clearly a landmark filmmaker and has earned his position as one of the greatest directors of all time. At times he seemed to regard directing and filmmaking as his greatest pleasure, and other times he treated his craft very flippantly and seemed to not think very much of it. His films are very much the same as they tend to move back and forth between so-folksy-its-backward and so-beautiful-it-hurts. For every The Grapes of Wrath there are six Judge Priests. Francois Truffaut, the great filmmaker and film critic, had the following to say regarding Ford and his films:
“Originally, I didn’t like [John Ford]–because of his material: for example, the comic secondary characters, the brutality, the male-female relationships typified by the man’s slapping the woman on the backside. But eventually I came to understand that he had achieved an absolute uniformity of technical expertise. And his technique is the more admirable for being unobtrusive: His camera is invisible; his staging is perfect; he maintains a smoothness of surface in which no one scene is allowed to become more important than any other. Such mastery is possible only after one has made an enormous number of films. Questions of quality aside, John Ford is the Georges Simenon of directors.” – Francois Truffaut
A certain number of his films rank among some of my favorites of all time. The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley, Stagecoach, and many others are some of not only my most watched film but some of my favorites. A few years ago I was asked to write a piece about The Searchers for another film blog (which I cannot seem to locate at the present), and decided to take the opportunity to gush a bit about the movie and its world.
That is really the key thing that should be praised regarding John Ford. Whether or not you like his stories, you cannot deny that they take place in worlds and realms which feel extremely real while you are experiencing them. His westerns, typically shot in Monument Valley, look and smell like sunbaked dirt and his cowboys always feel like they belong there. John Wayne, the ultimate cowboy, was a frequent collaborator on films with Ford, and together they created much of the mythos of the American west and its heroic (and not so heroic) figures.
Ford was known as a rough and difficult man; hard to work with and harder to interview. He always tried to present himself as being completely devoid of any pretense by diverting any attempts to label him as an artist. Filmmaking was for the paycheck, he would say, and art was just a byproduct. If anyone wished to question him regarding art, he would do everything within his wit and wisdom to make sure the interviewer lost all control. John Ford was, above all things, probably a control freak. He was the boss and he made sure everyone knew it.
John Ford was a difficult man, but even more so he was a difficult artist. His movies seem to lack all pretense and “arty” qualities, and yet in their technical brilliance they shine forth. His movies may not stand as “high art,” and yet they are wonderful pieces of humanist, Americana cinema. Whether or not Ford actually did consider himself an artist is a question for different folks. What matters here is this: John Ford was a painter of the west, and he left us with stunning images and stories about our past.
John Ford was an artist among men, and of that there can be no question.