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The John Ford File: Part 1

The John Ford File: Part 1

T H E   J O H N   F O R D   F I L E
(P A R T  1)
When asked which directors he liked best, Orson Welles famously said, “I like the old masters…by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”  The comment continued:  “With Ford at his best, you get a sense of what the earth is made of—-even if the script is by Mother Machree.”  I read all this to Ford and he said, “Where is Orson now?”  I told him Welles was at the Beverly Hills Hotel and he grunted.  A couple of days later, Welles called me:  “Did you tell Ford that quote of mine?”  Yes; why?  “I just got a telegram from him that reads:  ‘Dear Orson, Thanks for the compliment.  Signed, Mother Machree.’”  Laughing, Welles said, “He went right for the one negative!”
Of course, Orson’s “one negative” is not unique in Ford criticism.  Ford is often referred to as over-sentimental, which is true at times, but more often the work is filled with legitimate and powerful sentiment, quite a different thing.  I’ve also been noticing that things which seemed only sentimental when you were younger, turn out to feel pretty real as you get older.  Anyway, Welles felt that Ford, whom he also defined as a “poet and comedian,” was certainly the best American director.
He is not alone: the late Andrew Sarris has floated Ford as America’s greatest director, and a decade ago, AmericanHeritage ran a long piece calling Ford’s The Searchers (1956) “The Movie of the Century.”  He is still the Academy’s most frequently honored filmmaker, with 6 Oscars for direction—-four for features, two for war documentaries —as well as the New York Film Critics’ record holder, with four as director of the year.  He was the first director honored by the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the first filmmaker to receive the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award.
Personally, Ford was the first director I ever knew of, as Marty Scorsese told me he was too, and with whose work I connected immediately.  When I was ten and Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) had just out, I saw it several times; I would name it at age eleven or twelve as one of my three favorite movies.
Beginning with January, 1952, the year during which I turned thirteen, living with my parents on West 67th in Manhattan, I started to keep track of every film I saw, as I have written of before, typing a 4×6 index card with comments on it for each one.  If I saw a film again, I would often make new comments.  This continued faithfully until the end of 1970, when I was 31 and had just finished shooting The Last Picture Show. Confronted only recently with 20th Century Fox’s stupendous DVD package called Ford at Fox (still readily available), I realized there were quite a few of Ford’s films that I hadn’t seen in years and, to refresh my memory, I started looking up my old cards on some of the more arcane titles, and then all of them.
Between 1952 and 1966, the year Ford’s last film was released–the much maligned and forgotten, but actually quite brilliant, 7 Women–I saw every new Ford movie, over fifteen of them, during their initial release. I kept a separate number of cards listing all the Ford movies I saw, in order of their viewing (85 entries, more than any of the other 56 directors on whom I kept cards).
From 1963 when I first met Ford while on assignment for an Esquire piece about him, until his death in 1973, I was in constant touch, having moved to California in mid-1964, and ending up buying a house literally across the street from him in 1972.  Besides the lengthy Esquire article, I expanded this with a series of taped interviews with Ford, and published the whole thing as a little book in London and New York in 1967-8, just around the time we started filming a feature-length documentary salute to Ford commissioned by the American Film Institute—-their first in a proposed series that never materialized. Directed by John Ford (1971) opened at the Venice Film Festival and at the 9th New York Film Festival, the same one that had begun with The Last Picture Show, a film in many ways inspired by Ford perhaps more than anybody.
The little book, by the way, titled simply John Ford, has been in print continuously since it came out; in 1978, five years after Ford’s death, I enlarged and amended the work, mainly with a chapter about his passing called “Taps;” and this edition is still in print (and available here).
In 2006, we brought out on TCM and also on DVD a new and radically different version of Directed by John Ford which, of course, still features the 35mm color-filmed interviews I did with John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Ford himself in Monument Valley, with Orson Welles’ voice narrating. These have been augmented by contemporary interviews I conducted with Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Walter Hill, and HarryCarey, Jr., as well as interviews with Maureen O’Hara taken from another documentary, directed by Lindsay Anderson, and some filmed comments from me as well. There are also some priceless and very touching taped exchanges (some without their knowledge) of Ford speaking with his great love, Katharine Hepburn. This new version also has numerous clips from many Ford pictures, far more than the original pass at this material, and much better clips too. It was warmly received, the New York Times TV review summing it up pretty well (and is still available thanks to Warner Home Video).
Some years ago, the old version was shown on Public Television as part of fund-raising activities for The Film Foundation, a non-profit group founded by Martin Scorsese with numerous other picture luminaries (like Clint Eastwood) to save our film heritage from further deterioration.  At one of their public auctions for funds, I was among those taped to convey over the tube two terrible facts:  Of all films produced between 1895 and 1928 (the silent era), only about 10% have survived; and from 1929 to the present (the sound era), only about 50% are still with us.
The vast and comprehensive Fox DVD collection, Ford at Fox, contains a very rare chance to see 24 Ford pictures, some quite obscure, but all possessing golden moments. In my next two film blogs, I’ll be going through their list, and giving you my first reactions as noted in my old card files.

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looking forward to it.


Well, i'll be waitin' too :)

Blake Lucas

Count me as one more who is looking forward to it. I remember how much I enjoyed reading those first cards you shared on Ford earlier and have hoped there would be more.


Can't hardly wait for the cards! Ford was and remains my first, best idea of what an Director was supposed to be. "What the earth is made of"! There's a moment in "The Searchers" where the mounted calvary are coming back into winter camp, and they thunder in, across a frigid stream and pummulled snow, and the noise of it and the steam and breath coming off the horses is what the earth was made of then. The anecdote from the Times' review of "Directed by John Ford" is funny, but also in a curious way as there are many lines of dialog in Ford's films that are masterful and indellible.

Jon O.

"Directed by John Ford" should be required viewing, not just for fans and students of motion pictures, but for every human being. Ford's pictures cumulatively convey the very essence of life, universal truths which, as you say, one becomes more aware and appreciative of with age: some of them obvious, some not so obvious; some sentimental, some hard and cruel; some loving, some hateful; some comic, some tragic; some warlike, some peaceful; some familial, some of outcasts; some of sacrifice, some of the beneficiaries of sacrifice. But all of a piece. Peter, your documentary conveys the essence of Ford. If that were the only thing you had ever achieved, we would all still be indebted to you. We are fortunate that you were not only a Ford aficionado, but a friend of his.

April Lane

I may be biased but "Directed by John Ford" remains the best and most moving documentary about a film maker I've seen. Peter's ability to demonstrate the connection between one Ford film to each successive one is brilliant and critical to understanding why this man's work as a whole is relevant and timeless. I'm looking forward to the future postings.


Guess it's time for me to watch some John Ford films. I obviously know nothing about the movies.
I thought of him simply as a man who made westerns.


Saw the John Ford documentary last night. It was wonderful to watch and gave me a better understanding of the man and his films. I loved the remarks about the artistic framing of a scene and as I looked I was reminded of the photographs of the great Edward Curtis and his pictures documenting the now vanished "old west". I was surprised to note that I've actually seen most of Ford's films and with most of them I feel like I've walked into "Man World". I feel like a foreigner there. He certainly pulled great performances from his actors, but for a few films the women are cardboard creatures. ….and maybe that's okay. I also got a kick out of his casting Katherine Hepburn as Queen of Scots. That was certainly a very creative choice.


Okay Jon O. I'll be looking for "Pilgrimage" with Hannah Jessop.


Last night I saw "Arrowsmith" which I believe is an early Ford film. Perhaps it is a lesser Ford film
but I enjoyed it. Today I received in the mail…" Searching for John Ford" by Joseph McBride. I'm determined to crack this case.

Blake Lucas

Karen, as long as you are working on cracking the case as you say, I'll encourage you to look deeper re women in Ford. It's a false cliche that his world is mostly masculine–instead, it has a beautiful male/female balance that is rare and beautiful, and that's in all aspects, aesthetic and narrative equally. At the same time, he is a master of male/female relationships, especially as seen in the three Wayne/O'Hara movies which taken together show every essential aspect and possibility in mature relationships between men and women. Of course, there are films focused on men–THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, for example; but there the absence of women is keenly felt and they are a kind presence in their absence. There is also at least one film focused almost entirely on women (with the men drawn kind of crudely, except for Eddie Albert), Ford's last one 7 WOMEN, one of the great last films. I'm with Jon O. on PILGRIMAGE and consider that his first masterpiece and 7 WOMEN his last and both are woman centered, and it's also true conspicuously other films in Ford's very last phase, even if not obvious, though I won't argue the specifics of this point here. I have to say loved Jon O's eloquent desciption of Ford's body of work at 6:27, 3:09–very beautiful and so true in every word, Jon, and that's coming from another ardent Fordian, who has written about him and wishes you would write more (say if you have). Also, it should be pointed out that April Lane runs the blog called "Directed by John Ford"–a nice nod to Peter's documentary–and I wish she would write more too. In an interview about the blog that you can find a link to there (I'm not good at this or would do it), she too displays a deep sensibility about Ford and talks quite a lot and very sensitively about women and relationships in Ford, and from a female point of view, so you would be interested in that but I'm recommending it to anyone, and especially anyone who loves Ford. April, if you see this please chime in (and sorry I didn't get to it sooner)–I'm hoping you'll be writing more in depth at your blog as time goes on, because I have a feeling a female Fordian who is so fluent and understanding of his work is just what John Ford most needs now.

Kevin Barry

I received the Ford at Fox box for Father's Day the year it was released and the opportunity to see lesser known Ford films like Tobacco Road, Pilgrimmage and Just Pals was a wonderful thrill. My copy of Mr. Bogdanovich's book John Ford is well worn (although those little Praeger books really hold up!) and I use the wonderfully thorough filmography section to check off a title when I finally see it. I am now introducing my eleven year old grandson to the magic of Ford (as well as Hawks, Hitchcock, Lang, Welles, Keaton and Chaplin) and I recently took him through Monument Valley via horseback – an experience that transformed us both.


Thunder and lighting as the troop rides through the valley with dog following. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Gary Owen!

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