Tuesday, June 15, 2010

#23: John Ford

-“My name is John Ford and I make Westerns.”

I almost feel guilty at placing John Ford at this point in the countdown, as his shadow looms large over so many areas of film history. Nearly every post-1930s director has cited Ford as a major influence on their work – titans such as Kurosawa, Welles and Scorsese have at various times basically declared him to be their favorite director. Bergman declared him the greatest director to ever live. There are even moments when I feel like I should do the same. Why then is he #22 and not closer to the top? In going back through as much of his catalog as I could in preparation for this entry, I came to realize that my passion for his films has much variation. When I watch what I consider to be Ford at his best – The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Grapes of Wrath to name a few – that feeling of watching a master craftsman comes over me. It really does seem like I am witnessing a director without peers. At other times, though, I honestly get a bit listless toward some of his output. It’s not that I think he has made many bad films – quite the contrary, I don’t think any in my list below would be classified as “bad.” Still, a number of them do not necessarily move me one way or the other.

But I don’t want people to think that I am being negative toward Ford. Obviously I am not or he wouldn’t even be in a countdown of this nature. I’m just giving something of an explanation as to why a man who has made multiple films that are of the 10/10 variety for me isn’t in the upper half of this series. Ultimately though, as I said in a past thread here, I tend not to get bogged down in the number of misses a director or artist puts out. I am primarily interested in seeing how high someone can reach with their best output. And as I remarked earlier, Ford at his best is nearly incomparable, particularly in his most famous of genres. Anyone championing The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as the best western ever made wouldn’t get an argument from me. I might personally place a few before them, but I completely understand the sentiment. As quickly as everyone identifies Ford with the western, though, there is much more to his overall body of work. What stands out to me most, in examining the entire length of his career, is the love that Ford had with the idea of America. He exhibits a fascination with the building of the nation, the myths and fables that developed in the process, and putting his own stamp on the retelling of American history. You can nearly trace the course of American history through his films – from the Revolutionary era of Drums Along the Mohawk, to the early days of President Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln, through his triumphs in the American West, all the way through the two World Wars. Historical accuracy is oftentimes dubious at best, but that is not the point. Ford works as a storyteller, not a documentarian, and the results speak for themselves. What makes his version of American history so irresistible is the visual beauty that he gives it all. To this day, no one has shot the expanses of the West as magnificently as did Ford. And it’s not just in the sweeping vista shots that Ford shows his genius. His more subtle touches are equally as impressive. Just watch the first appearance of John Wayne in Stagecoach. It is a simple, yet utterly spectacular introduction of one of the most iconic figures in movie history.

I suppose the finest compliment that could be given to Ford’s work – and one that the old curmudgeon would have appreciated – is how embedded in the American fabric are his films. To many, John Ford and his movies ARE the Wild West.

And before anyone faints at seeing it that low, I'll just say now that I have always had problems with My Darling Clementine. Normally I can get past most any historical inaccuracies - after all, how else can something like JFK or The New World be all-time favorite films? - but with Clementine I never can. They get to me every time, with my viewing last week being no exception. Is this a result of being too familiar with the Earp and Holiday stories? Perhaps, but I'm not really sure. In the end, it looks great but outside of that it doesn't do much for me.

1. The Searchers (1956)
2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
3. Stagecoach (1939)
4. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
5. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
6. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
7. Fort Apache (1948)
8. They Were Expendable (1945)
9. Wagon Master (1950)
10. The Informer (1935)
11. The Long Voyage Home (1940)
12. The Quiet Man (1952)
13. How Green Was My Valley (1941)
14. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
15. Mister Roberts (1955)
16. Rio Grande (1950)
17. My Darling Clementine (1946)
18. Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
19. The Lost Patrol (1934)

The next entry deals with a man that some consider to be the greatest director of all time: Stanley Kubrick.


  1. No argument with number one, Dave. I'm ambivalent about Ford, too. The Irishness can get oppressive in some films, his commitment to comedy relief is often grotesquely misplaced (Cheyenne Autumn), and some of his films are just duds. But he brings a tragic power to his best work that entitles the entire career to high consideration. Here's my top ten:

    1. The Searchers
    2. The Grapes of Wrath
    3. They Were Expendable
    4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    5. Stagecoach
    6. Young Mr. Lincoln
    7. 3 Godfathers
    8. The Long Voyage Home
    9. Fort Apache
    10.She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

  2. Dave.

    Since I caught up with few of his films, I'll be writing something on Ford shortly. So I'll reserve my comments for now. The biggest surprise for me in this post was the last line. I expected Kubrick to land somewhere near... No.1.

    I've seen almost none of Ford's non-Westerns. Here's my list:

    01. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
    02. The Searchers (1956)
    03. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
    04. 3 Bad Men (1926)
    05. My Darling Clementine (1946)
    06. Stagecoach (1939)
    07. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
    08. Straight Shooting (1917)
    09. Rio Grande (1950)
    10. Wagon Master (1950)
    11. Bucking Broadway (1917)
    12. Just Pals (1920)
    13. Two Rode Together (1961)
    14. Fort Apache (1948)
    15. The Iron Horse (1924)
    16. The Horse Soldiers (1959)
    17. Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
    18. Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
    19. How the West Was Won (1962)
    20. 3 Godfathers (1948)
    21. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

  3. Samuel - Yes, we're on the same page on this one. At his best, there are few directors I would rather watch. This sentence pretty much sums it up: "But he brings a tragic power to his best work that entitles the entire career to high consideration."

    JAFB - I'll be interested to read what you write on Ford. Are you writing on any particular films or just overall on Ford? I thought that the Kubrick placement would surprise some people. I love his work, but it's hard to separate greats like these. Reactions to my Kubrick rankings should be even more interesting!

  4. Agreed. This is what I was me and Sam were talking at the Allen post.

    I guess I'd be writing on "The Westerns of John Ford", covering all the westerns of Ford that I've seen...

  5. I'm surprised like everyone else that Kubrick will be next. I didn't expect to see him until we reached single digits. My top ten Fords....

    1. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    2. Stagecoach
    3. My Darling Clementine
    4. How Green Was My Valley (I rank this one higher than most)
    5. The Grapes Of Wrath
    6. The Searchers (I like it but feel its slightly overrated)
    7. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
    8. The Long Voyage Home
    9. Young Mr Lincoln
    10. They Were Expendable

    There are a bunch Ford films I haven't seen yet. Before 1939 I have only seen The Informer. From the 40's on there are about 20 (not counting documentaries) that have eluded me. The man had a long prolific career. While I admire him like everyone else I must admit that he has never been one of my favorite directors. For whatever reason I only really consider my number one as a "favorite movie of all time " selection. Regardless, he was a major talent and American film is better for it.....M.Roca

  6. Well, Dave, Ford would probably make my Top Five, and he makes a strong claim for the #1 spot among American directors. His output is astonishly prolific, and no less thana half dozen or more are bonafide masterpieces of the cinema. He has more than a fair claim on directing the greatest Western of all-time, and the most successful literature-to-film adaptation ever made. His calvalry trilogy is a cinematic landmark, his expressionistic IRA film a staple of art house cinema, and his Lincoln film one of the best biographically-themed films of them all. His story of a Welch coal mining family is one of the most beloved and enduring Hollywood classics, and his stagecoach saga is one of the most influential of all films. But that's really only a small part of the equation, as he is an icon of American culture, and now a larger than life symbol. I have seen over 50 of his films, many over and over again throughout my life.

    I greatly respect your sentimets and placements, and look forward to how everything comes down.

    I'll go with a Top 30:

    1 The Grapes of Wrath
    2 The Searchers
    3 How Green Was My Valley
    4 Stagecoach
    5 The Informer
    6 Young Mr. Lincoln
    7 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
    8 Wagonmaster
    9 Rio Grande
    10 My Darling Celementine
    11 Fort Apache
    12 She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
    13 The Fugitive
    14 The Long Voyage Home
    15 The Iron Horse
    16 Drums Along the Mohawk
    17 The Quiet Man
    18 Cheyenne Autumn
    19 The Sun Shines Bright
    20 The Hurricane
    21 Tobacco Road
    22 Three Godfathers
    23 The Lost Patrol
    24 The Prisoner of Shark Island
    25 The Plough and the Stars
    26 Just Pals
    27 3 Bad Men
    28 Mister Roberts
    29 Sergeant Rutledge
    30 They Were Expendable

  7. Sam, your placing of Grapes reminded me about one thing that I forgot to mention. Though a seemingly simple and aged work, what a masterpiece that film is! This is a film that seems to grow with multiple viewings.

    I was seeing some scenes from it the other day again and, my god, I was crying like a baby (like I did during the opening scene of The Searchers). Could there be a more devastating scene in Hollywood cinema than the dance scene at the camp when Ma looks at up her son so innocently? It is especially heartbreaking if you know what happens at the end. To steal from what Girish Shambu said about Balthazar:

    "If [this film]leaves you unmoved, all I can do is borrow from jazz writer Richard Cook: "Tear up your organ donor card--they can't transplant hearts of stone.""

  8. JAFB, I completely agree with you on that scene in The Grapes Of Wrath, although I don't think the rest of the movie lives up to it, and I definitely think it's one of Ford's lesser movies.

    Dave, this is about twenty spots too low, but we'll let that slide. He really is an astonishing filmmaker, and one that I suspect we will all continue to grapple with throughout our lives. And, quite seriously, I cannot think of another director who made more great films than Ford. Hitchcock certainly didn't, and I'm not sure Hawks or Powell or Mizoguchi did either. I don't think with any of those filmmakers you could list their ten best and leave off the equivalents of The Quiet Man or Young Mr. Lincoln or How Green Was My Valley. His output is just astounding.

    In his review of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Dave Kehr wrote it was "the only avant-garde film ever made about the importance of tradition," and for me that sums up so much of Ford's best work. Often, he really did not make narrative films, and the image of Ethan Edwards seems so pronounced in so much of his work because he was much more a searcher and a poet than a pure storyteller. And although there's something profoundly sad about all his films, and all of them seem to be informed and unified by a desperate bitterness, watching them in chronological order the effect is even more pronounced. When Leighton tells Bancroft in 7 Women that God wasn't enough, that she was looking for something more she never found, that's Ford right there. He was one of the most personal filmmakers in the world, and one of the best.

    My ten favorites, in preferential order:

    Wagon Master
    The Searchers
    The Sun Shines Bright
    She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
    7 Women
    They Were Expendable
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    The Long Voyage Home
    Fort Apache

  9. Doniphon,

    It was sort of obvious that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Long Voyage Home would make your list! But a shocker of a list nonetheless. Would love to read your review/opinion of Wagon Master.

  10. M.Roca - A solid list... part of me wanted to try and put Liberty Valance on top, but I just couldn't do it.

    Sam - Your passion for The Grapes of Wrath is obvious and I knew that it would be your #1. I can't argue with any of the points you make - they're all true! Just slight personal preference and taste that has him at #23 for me (which still means he's one of my favorites) and not higher in the ranking.

    Doniphon - Just slight preference that has Ford here and not in the Top 5. In terms of greatness and importance in cinema history, you're absolutely right, a case could be made for having Ford at the very top. I still love his work and knew for a fact that you do as well. Very interesting to see Wagon Master at #1!

  11. "JAFB, I completely agree with you on that scene in The Grapes Of Wrath, although I don't think the rest of the movie lives up to it, and I definitely think it's one of Ford's lesser movies."

    Ah Donophon, you really broke my heart with that conviction, as I do regard THE GRAPES OF WRATH one of the greatest American films of all time, a position that the foremost American Ford scholars have argued in incomparable treatments, (although the esteemed Ted Gallagher is a notable exception) No Ford film, with the possible exception of the sentimental HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY holds the viewer in such emotional catharsis, as JAFB and you yourself have testified, and few films have you thinking many months after the latest viewing.

    It eclipses Steinbeck's novel (which is arguably the author's masterpiece) and it combines social realism with expressionism to present a definitive narrative of battered courage and innocence. There is a resonance beyond the frame that exudes a rare strength in the cimena, a textural triumph that includes some stark imagery and a perfect positioning of characters within a frame. the end result in a shattering film that gloriously displays the possibilities of the cinema and tells a story with universal implications.

    With Fonda, Carradine and Qualen, you have three of the greatest performances ever rendered in American cinema, and with Greg Toland's textured work, you have the most perfect blend of reality and art we're ever likely to see. Nunnally Johnson's screenplay, which does alter some of the novel, is one of the greatest ever written.

    To say this film is "lesser" Ford is to say that "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is lesser Huston, that "City Lights" is lesser Chaplin, that "Citizen Kane" is lesser Welles and that "Bringing Up Baby" is lesser Hawks. It's cinematic blasphemy of the highest order. This is not only Ford's greatets film, but in my view it's one of the two or three greatest American films ever, and one of the ten greatest films ever from anywhere.

    Now, I've ranted on, but make no mistake that Donophon is my very good friend, he is remarkably informed and tasteful, he is a proven Ford expert and afficionado, and I greatly respect anything he says. This is just one single instance where I really am willing to go to the mat.

  12. Incidentally, Donophon, I must say that WAGON MASTER is an excellent #1 choice. And quite an original one too.

  13. I haven't seen enough by Ford as yet to make a list, but just wanted to say I'm pleased to see Sam mention 'The Prisoner of Shark Island' which I think is a powerful performance by Warner Baxter and a fine historical prison movie.

    I see 'Mr Roberts' has had a couple of mentions- basically I love the parts with Cagney but feel it goes off the boil whenever he is off-screen. I've also seen another 1950s Ford starring Cagney, 'What Price Glory', which is less good - I find it a bit unsettling how it veers wildly between comedy and drama. Apparently it was originally supposed to be a musical, which is hard to imagine.

    Enjoying following this countdown and making note of loads of films to see!

  14. In fact, Sam, we've been to the mat on this film before (at Jeffrey Goodman's blog if I remember correctly). And while you're right that the critical majority position is that The Grapes Of Wrath is a good or great movie (although even there Sarris and Kehr, among others, have expressed reservations about it), the implication that most critics consider it Ford's best film strikes me as somewhat incorrect. Most Ford scholars that I have read are more likely to champion something like The Sun Shines Bright or The Searchers than The Grapes Of Wrath, and at least in auteurist circles it's generally considered to be as dominated by the presence of Zanuck and Toland as it is by Ford's.

    Not that anything of this matters too much, but that scene JAFB cites, and you and I admire equally, is not demonstrative of the film as a whole, and is a Fordian touch in a film with too few of them. Which makes me an auteurist too, I guess, but Ford ha that effect on me. Of course we agree to disagree though.

  15. Angelo D'ArminioJune 15, 2010 at 7:22 PM

    1. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    2. The Searchers
    3. The Grapes of Wrath
    4. My Darling Clementine
    5. The Quiet Man
    6. The Informer
    7. Young Mr. Lincoln
    8. How Green Was My Valley
    9. Horse Soldiers
    10. Fort Apache

  16. Judy - Agreed on Mr. Roberts... not a great film, but enjoyable in spots.

    Angelo - Thanks for stopping by again! That is a formidable list that you submit... a number of great films.

  17. Ford has never been one of my favorite directors, which isn't to say I consider him a bad director...I just don't think he's much more than mediocre most of the time. Of his films, the only ones I've ever watched more than once are The Informer, Grapes Of Wrath, and Lost Patrol. Lost Patrol is interesting mainly for being one of the few times any director has managed to get Boris Karloff to turn in a bad performance.

  18. Dave, I am in a bit of a catch up mode here since I have been off line for a week. Anyway Ford is certainly one of the masters of American cinema with at least five films that are masterpieces. What I always found amazing about Ford is that here is a man known for his conservative politics who could take a book like "The Grapes of Wrath", a novel that in its time was considered in some circles un-American and make such a powerful and strong work of art.

    My list contains every Ford film I have seen.

    The Searchers
    The Grapes of Wrath
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    The Informer
    Young Mr. Lincoln
    Fort Apache
    Rio Grande
    The Horse Soldiers
    The Quiet Man
    She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
    The Battle of Midway
    Drums Along the Mohawk
    My Darling Clementine
    Prisoner of Shark Island
    Three Godfathers
    Cheyenne Autumn
    The Whole Town's Talkin'
    They Were Expendable
    How The West Was Won (segment)
    Two Rode Together
    Mister Roberts
    The Long Grey Line
    Donavan's Reef
    Wee Willie WInkie

  19. 1. Stagecoach
    2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    3. The Quiet Man
    4. Most of the others

  20. Ford's films are so beautiful it hurts.

    Though I love Grapes of Wrath and especially Searchers, I find that by and large the Ford films which most excite me are smaller ones like Drums Along the Mohawk or Young Mr. Lincoln (ok, that's not really a "smaller" one but I don't think it's quite as canonical as the other two have become, or as Stagecoach is for example). Or numerous Westerns like Rio Grande, though there's still a number I haven't seen.

    Incidentally, the one Ford film that really doesn't do it for me is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It seems kind of drab and fusty, which I suppose is supposed to be the point as it's about exposing a myth and kind of burying the West, but I kind of concur with Pauline Kael's sour view of the picture. Ok, not to that extreme - it's still a good movie I'd watch if it were on, but in comparison to the richness of Ford's oeuvre it feels kind of lacking to me. Also, as Doniphon puts it "he didn't really make narrative films" - of course, he did but the point I think is that narrative wasn't the point, that that was a framework on which to hang a mood, a gesture, an image, a moment - Valance seems too plot- and dialogue-heavy to achieve this.

    Speaking of which, I loved Doniphon's comments here and hope he'll take up that Top Westerns task for Sam's blog.

  21. Hi
    John Ford is on my top 5 directors among, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kubrick and Welles. He worked since the silent era until 66. He is without a doubt, one of the great cinema masters.
    I'm short on time so here goes my list:

    1. The Searchers
    2. Stagecoach
    3. Wagon Master
    4. The Grapes of Wrath
    5. The Sun Shines Bright
    6. The Last Hurrah
    7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    8.Seven Women
    9. Young Mr. Lincoln
    10. She Whore a Yellow Ribbon
    and yes, watch all of the others.