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The Essentials: The 10 Greatest John Ford Films

The Essentials: The 10 Greatest John Ford Films

There are few figures in cinema history (perhaps only C.B. DeMille is a credible challenger) who have come to define the popular conception of the film director as wholly as John Ford. The notoriously irascible eyepatch-sporting monolith who essentially created the film Western as we know it, and made John Wayne the ultimate icon of twentieth century American masculinity along the way, is as central to Hollywood’s historical landscape as the sandstone buttes are to the vista of his beloved Monument Valley. So in light of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York running a retrospective of his films, we’ve used that as our overdue cue to take a look through this vast filmography.

It’s an unenviable task: Ford’s catalogue is almost 150 films long, and even if many are now lost (very few of his early silents are still in circulation), the frenetic pace of his work during his most productive years means that isolating just 10 films is daunting. That’s partly down to the inevitable questions that any modern examination of Ford raises: about the nature of his own politics, about the validity of the vision of the Old West that he mythologized, and about the retroactive criticism of his oeuvre in terms of gender and race. But even in the most heated debates, Ford’s skill as a filmmaker simply cannot be denied, not even by his fiercest detractors. Whether he was a good man or not, he was a truly great director; here are the 10 films we feel most persuasively present that case.

“The Informer” (1935)
There are timeless classics in Ford’s resume, and there are also titles that feel their age. Unlike, say, ‘Liberty Valance,’ it’s hard to watch “The Informer” with a modern eye and not see overplayed sentimentality where contemporary reviewers saw “sensitivity,” and to feel its thematic heavyhandedness throughout. But we’d contend that it’s still central to an understanding of Ford’s oeuvre —attitudes may have changed since the film’s premiere, but outside the questionable politics and heightened style of acting, the film still offers numerous riches. An adaptation of the novel by Irishman Liam O’Flaherty, reportedly a cousin of Ford’s, the story had already been made into a film in 1929, right during the changeover to sound (the earlier version is in fact half silent and half talkie). But Ford’s film is a much more polished affair, shot in luscious black and white and using arresting compositions that owe as much to German Expressionism as to classical Hollywood tradition. But what is most striking today is how oddly un-commercial and atypical a story it is, and how determinedly brave a position it takes in making the informer of the title —the “rat,” so to speak— the most sympathetic character among a rogue’s gallery of rebels, prostitutes and political manipulators angling for advantage. A lot of that sympathy is due to actor Victor McLaglen, who despite the role’s bluster and theatricality (at the film’s famous conclusion, he clutches at his heart, cries out in an ecstasy of redemption and falls down dead at the feet of a statue of Christ —subtle it is not) still invests the doomed Gypo character with a wounded-animal quality as he struggles to comprehend the nature of his own treachery. The lunkish Gypo betrays the very code of masculinity-amid-conflict that Ford would return to thematically time and again, and yet it is him we feel for, and the thwarting of his simpleton goodness that the film most mourns. McLaglen earns his Best Actor Oscar in every frame, with “The Informer” also netting Ford the first of his four directing Oscars, along with Best Screenplay and Best Score.

“Stagecoach” (1939)
A landmark film, a defining Western, a career-reinvigorating title for Ford and a star-making one for John Wayne —if “Stagecoach” is not Ford’s most complex or challenging film, it may well be his most complete. A 96-minute long film school, if you choose to take it that way (and among others Orson Welles certainly did, reportedly watching it 40 times over in preparation for “Citizen Kane“), it’s simply peerless in the nuts-and-bolts of its construction. The staging of the action is clear and thrilling, the choreography is deceptively clever —considering Ford is often contending with a single, enclosed location— and the editing is fluid and graceful but also relentlessly engaging: aside from all the other superlatives, this is a film of perfect pacing. And within all this technical excellence, it feels like the ensemble cast truly rise to the occasion —of course, it’s a lot due to Dudley Nichols‘ crackling script, but it’s astonishing to witness the sublimation of so many character archetypes, from Dallas, the hooker with the heart of gold (Claire Trevor, in arguably the best female performance Ford ever elicited), to the Ringo Kid, the unexpectedly noble bad guy hero (Wayne) to the best of Ford’s many drunken Irish sidekicks, Doc (Thomas Mitchell, who incidentally had a hell of a 1939, also appearing in “Gone With The Wind,” “Only Angels Have Wings,” “Mr Smith Goes to Washington,” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”). It’s helped by the egalitarian tendencies of the screenplay, in which each of the stagecoach’s occupants gets their own story, even the travelling salesman in his deerstalker (Donald Meek), and the untrustworthy gambler (John Carradine) who has a perverse code that sees him shun Dallas but instinctively try to protect the “respectable” pregnant colonel’s wife (Louise Platt). Somehow this ensemble approach, as well as increasing the stakes as the stagecoach inevitably comes under attack by Indians (Ford’s humanism does not extend to them), gives “Stagecoach” a modern edge —it feels almost subversive of the standard classical Hollywood approach where there are leads and supporting characters, and never the twain shall meet. The casting of Wayne against all advice is the element that assures “Stagecoach”‘s place in cinema history, but as a complete package, which garnered seven Oscar nominations and two wins, it’s the rare anointed classic that is also an unalloyed joy to rewatch seven and a half decades after its release.

“The Grapes of Wrath” (1940)
Considering the vast impact it had on the nation’s development, there are surprisingly few films that take America’s Great Depression as their overt subject matter —certainly compared to, for example, the plethora of movies that detail U.S. involvement in World War II. That’s largely because of the nature of the narratives: the winning of the war is easily cast as an inspiring story of comprehensible heroes and villains, where the Depression was a morass of misery and degradation that had no single architect one could, cinematically speaking, sock in the jaw. But it might also partly be because Ford’s Oscar-winning, monumental “The Grapes of Wrath,” was for a long time considered pretty much the last word on the subject. It’s an almost indecently beautiful, yet stylistically realist picture (genius cinematographer Gregg Toland would go on to shoot “Citizen Kane” the following year  —the film that only gradually came to supplant ‘Wrath’ as the canonical Greatest Movie Ever Made) and that is not an idle observation: it’s key to what makes the film move fluidly, compelling us to keep watching despite the inevitable downward trajectory of what is after all a portrait of human dignity under unceasing attack. But it also boasts one of Henry Fonda‘s best performances, for Ford or any other filmmaker, as the fractured but idealistic ex-con Tom Joad. Indeed, with Ford seemingly not interested in presenting the Joad clan as anything other than a kind of misty-eyed idealization of the fundamentally decent American family united against adversity, it’s a small miracle that Fonda’s performance is as nuanced and human as it is. But if elsewhere Ford’s handle on his characters sometimes falters so that they become less living individuals than representatives of whole classes of people, it’s only because he has bigger fish to fry: perhaps no other American director could have told this story on the same scale as John Steinbeck‘s epic, quasi-biblical novel (though the film’s ending differs considerably from the thunderclap finale of the book). The subsequent waning of its reputation, due a lot to the overt socialism of its message (ironic seeing as Ford is often considered, erroneously, as the most right-wing of directors) means that it’s relatively less seen than many of his other films. But even for those of us allergic to the kind of theatrical speechifying it sometimes lapses into, there is a magnificence to “The Grapes of Wrath” in the breadth of its ambition, which still makes it the definitive cinematic take on one of America’s most defining epochs.

“They Were Expendable” (1945)
Aside from its actual content, which is a fascinatingly verité-style look at WWII small boat crews tasked with taking down Japanese vessels in the Pacific Ocean around the Philippines, “They Were Expendable” occupies a nearly unique place in the annals of film history because of timing. Developed and rapidly shot at a point in time when the war in the Pacific was certainly not going the U.S.’ way, the film was released in December 1945, by which stage, of course, the war was over, with the U.S. definitively on the winning side. So with the film’s distinctly Fordian themes of the nobility of sacrifice and the heroism of the (probably doomed) ordinary serviceman, it arrived distinctly out of step with the general elation of the immediate post-war period —it’s in many ways an elegy for a noble retreat that could well have been a famous turning point had the war subsequently gone differently and had events immediately, to use a tasteless pun, not blown it out of the water. Perhaps in some ways that makes the film even more valuable a document —the role of small boats in the Pacific theater is an aspect of the U.S. war that is little known. But historical relativism aside, ‘Expendable’ still occupies a prime slot in Ford’s pantheon for the film it inherently is —coupling grainy realism with a trio of strong performances from Robert Montgomery, John Wayne and Donna Reed, it feels like a excellent marriage of Ford’s classical impulses and his documentary instincts (“The Battle of Midway” being the most famous, Oscar-winning example of the 87 non-fiction films the wartime field photography unit made on Ford’s watch). It’s also a great example of Wayne’s wartime persona, and the contradictory nature of that image: he attained his lasting stardom during the war and came to personify the everyday heroism of the all-American patriot serving his country on screen, but Wayne himself never served. In fact, the story goes that Ford, notorious for on-set arguments due to his dictatorial style (he’d later clash with Henry Fonda, also at sea, during the production of “Mister Roberts“) had a rare falling out with Wayne over just that issue, and even now it’s somewhat pointed that the film’s credits list Ford’s and Montgomery’s military rankings, whereas Wayne’s name appears unadorned.

“My Darling Clementine” (1946)
A decade and a half before ‘Liberty Valance’ and its most famous quote, Ford would himself “print the legend”: indeed the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral only became truly legendary after his film. Deviating wildly from historical fact (the female characters are either wholly fictional or amalgams; the Earps were never cowboys; Old Man Clanton died before the shootout; Doc Holliday survived, etc etc), the film remains to this day the most rewarding telling of this often retold tale, which Ford insisted he had heard first-hand from Wyatt Earp himself when Earp used to visit cowboy friends on the sets of their movies. Even John Wayne credited a lot of his inspiration for the lawman roles he’d go on to play to conversations with the real-life Earp. But tellingly, though Ford would film the character twice, neither time did he cast Wayne —”Cheyenne Autumn” has James Stewart in the role, while in “My Darling Clementine” it’s Henry Fonda. Fonda may have “only” appeared in 7 of Ford’s films (compared to Wayne’s whopping 24), but if Wayne is analogous to Ford’s id —his action-man side, his instinct, his plain-spoken manliness— then Fonda was perhaps his ego, and it’s certainly a thoughtful, soulful, considered performance he delivers here. In fact, it’s one of the movie’s great strengths that while it builds to a terrific climax and is a functioning tale of Western revenge, it is also a detail-oriented and surprisingly light-hearted character study, as well as an early precursor of the buddy movie in the evolving dynamic between Earp and Doc Holliday (Victor Mature, in his best-ever role). Not since “Stagecoach” had Ford made a Western that so thoroughly delivered on all fronts: as a portrait of a frontier community, a romance, a revenge film (with a brilliant against-type Walter Brennan performance) and an action movie. Yet despite performing on all these genre levels, ‘Clementine’ has a unique lyricism, even a quietude at times —Earp rocking on his chair on the porch, Doc reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. There is a broad streak of sentimentality to Ford that detractors are quick to point out, but “My Darling Clementine” is the ultimate counterpoint argument: if there’s a line where warmth and sweetness pass into manipulation and mawkishness, here Ford does not just walk that line, like Earp in the film’s church-raising scene, but throws his hat off and dances on it.

“Fort Apache” (1948)
The first and, in story terms, probably best of Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy,” even if it lacks the eye-popping pictorialism of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon“‘s Technicolor, or the pre-“The Quiet Man” team of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in “Rio Grande,” “Fort Apache” is a taut, complex and resonant Western that holds water as a parable for clashing military tactics even today. Within Ford’s canon, it’s particularly of note for embodying the two sides of the debate in the two actors who were his most frequent stars: Wayne and Henry Fonda. Wayne’s popular Captain York represents the instinctive tactician who relies on on-the-ground knowledge and personal experience to inform his decisions. Fonda plays Lt. Colonel Thursday, who is assigned the promotion that the men believe to be York’s by right, and who represents a rigidly intellectual approach, whereby strict rules of military conduct and theoretical strategy must be applied no matter the changing circumstances. It’s essentially a battle between a kind of dogmatic hubris and a more malleable military pragmatism, but Ford’s skill and his fluid, organic filmmaking style, coupled with perfectly attuned performances from both his regular leading men, never let this film become overly doctrinal. On the contrary: by working in a familiar Fordian generational subplot about a younger officer (John Agar) who falls for Thursday’s daughter (a 20-year-old Shirley Temple in a sparkling turn), as well as his usual-suspects roundup of bawdy comic relief, Ford gives himself plenty of options for keeping the pace up and not allowing the weight of any one strand of the story to overwhelm the film’s general momentum. That’s not to say he doesn’t pick sides: his, and therefore our, sympathies are clearly with Wayne’s York and the very ending, wherein York endorses the official version of Thursday’s foolish and doomed final offensive as the brave sacrifice of a wise soldier, feels like a salutory admonition to all of us (before he’d make a whole film about this with “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”) to not always take a legend at its face value. In this age of spin and obfuscation, that conclusion seems wiser than ever; coupled with a central dilemma that has had echoes in almost every U.S. conflict since, from Vietnam to the Iraq wars, it may be that “Fort Apache” is Ford’s most lastingly relevant film.

“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
Of all the many partnerships that characterize Ford’s long career, “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” the middle film in his so-called “Cavalry trilogy” (“Fort Apache” and “Rio Grande” being the others), might boast the apex of a more esoteric connection: it’s perhaps the greatest use ever made by Ford of Monument Valley, Arizona, his backdrop of choice for shooting the Old West. And while the red rocks and vast skies of that landscape are now familiar to the point of banality within a Western context, here, couched in Winston C. Hoch‘s Oscar-winning vivid Technicolor photography (you’d never guess he and Ford clashed throughout filming, especially during the famous thunderstorm scene which led to Hoch later filing suit against the studio), it all looks fresh and new: it is that gorgeous. Narratively, however, this is as close to wheel-spinning as “good” Ford gets, turning in a much more episodic and less focused story than usual, as Captain Brittles (John Wayne playing 20 years older than his actual age), rankling from the defeat at Little Bighorn, faces retirement at the same time as a new Indian war threatens. Matters come to a head when he leads a mission against a nearby Cheyenne encampment at the same time as he must escort his superior officer’s wife and comely daughter to the stagecoach, but the film is oddly anti-climactic in its Indian war aspects and rather soapy in how it dwells on the rivalry for the colonel’s daughter’s favor. But perhaps because of this uncharacteristic looseness in terms of plot and pacing, the film does feature a tremendous, unusually introspective performance from Wayne  —reportedly his own favorite role out of the 180-odd that he played over his long career. Brittles is concerned about encroaching obsolescence and the nature of his tarnished legacy and must contend with a generation gap, personified especially by Ben Johnson as one of his men. So given all that, ‘Ribbon’ is more a character piece and a gentle redemption story than the rip-roaring entertainment Ford delivered elsewhere, but it also shows the new textures and rhythms that Ford could find within the genre he mastered —so much more than a set of conventions and archetypes, in his hands the Western was robust and iconic, but also eternally elastic.

“The Quiet Man” (1952)
Never let it be said we approach these Essentials pieces lightly —and if there is a battleground in this one, it is undoubtedly over Ford’s iconic slice of Irish blarney, “The Quiet Man.” As a film, it can be contended that it’s an example of all the worst tendencies of Ford’s more sentimental side —here, his inclination toward maudlin exaggeration is applied to a whole nation and not just a character or two. The film is a hopelessly romanticized view of Ireland as a land of flame-haired strong-willed colleens, loquacious incorrigible locals and roustabouting drunkards (most memorably Victor McLaglen, putting his boxing background to good use for Ford again). On the other hand, if you ignore any connection it might claim to have to reality and instead consider it as a sort of “Brigadoon“-style fantasy, it’s an almost irresistible dose of whimsy and sparking chemistry, featuring an atypical role for John Wayne in a genre far outside Ford’s comfort zone —it’s essentially a romantic comedy. The story is pure hokum: Sean, an American ex-boxer who’d vowed never to fight again, visits the Old Country and falls for local girl Mary Kate. They marry, but due to disputes over land ownership, her brother refuses to hand over the money for her dowry, which incenses Mary Kate, who is even more enraged that Sean refuses to fight her brother and threatens to leave him. Now, one has to be suspicious of any film in which the moral is that there’s no problem so intractable that dragging your wife along by the hair and instigating a good old barney can’t fix it, but when that particular donnybrook goes on for nearly ten minutes, and includes comedic hiatuses, an ever-growing crowd of spectators and, of course, a trip to the pub, it’s hard to stay mad. And in a career not garlanded with too many great female roles, Ford’s casting of a stunning Maureen O’Hara here is a masterstroke —not only is she all flashing eyes and touchpaper temper, but she brings a genuine jolt of raw sensuality to the film. In fact, an unassailable argument for including “The Quiet Man” on any list of essential Ford films, aside from it being a fascinating glimpse at this most American of directors’ take on the Irish heritage that he held so dear, is that it also contains the single sexiest scene that Ford ever shot. To witness Mary Kate and Sean canoodling in the rain in that old graveyard, especially the way Mary Kate, the brazen thing, goes back for a second kiss as Sean’s shirt is plastered to transparency against his body, is a reminder once again that Ford’s reputation as bastion of man’s-man cinema diminishes the true range of his talents.

The Searchers” (1956)
If it’s now almost cliché to regard this discomfiting masterpiece as the beginning of Ford’s attack on the very myth of the American West that he had been so singularly instrumental in establishing, it’s only because it’s so irresistible a reading with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. But even at the time, with Ford at the towering apex of his powers and regular cinematographer Winton C. Hoch scaling similar career-best heights, the story, of Ethan Edwards’ (John Wayne) relentless hunt for the Comanche who murdered his brother’s family and kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood), looked and felt special —the Technicolor vistas and evocative framing (oh, those iconic first and final shots) are certainly extraordinary. However, the torch to the pyre here is Ford’s collaboration with star Wayne, in a subversion of his established persona as the embittered racist bully “hero” of the piece. For him, the inciting tragedy is an injustice not to be righted but to be avenged in blood —his niece’s as well as her captors’— and Wayne never compromises in his portrayal of this deeply unpleasant character. Edwards is anti-heroic, anti-decent, anti-all the roles that Wayne had drawled his way through to reach his unassailable perch as the ultimate mythological American hero —he certainly has a code, but it is an ugly and broken one. Yet that’s not to say this film is truly a revisionist Western —that would come later for Ford (1964’s “Cheyenne Autumn” is a striking example). In fact, “The Searchers” offers nothing so straightforward as a reversal of ingrained genre prejudices (here the Indians are still bloodthirsty “savages”): it is a complication of them, an attempt to work ambiguity and ambivalence and regret into the clean lines of traditional genre Western heroism.

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962)
Without even counting his many lost titles, Ford’s massive filmography is so extensive that our assessment of it changes over time, with some films coming into focus as others lose their gloss: it’s a body of work that almost breathes. Something like “How Green Was My Valley,” a Best Picture/Best Director Oscar winner in 1941, can wane in reputation (indeed, its cloying sentimentality kept the nostalgia-drenched story of a woebegone Welsh mining community off this list), while other films emerge as the more lasting classics within his output. “Stagecoach”‘s status as one such seemed assured as soon as it was released; “The Searchers” took a little longer but has by now earned a regular slot in the all-time lists. But it’s a process that is ongoing, and the latest title of Ford’s to receive this kind of upward re-evaluation is his brilliant, beautiful, thoughtful and thrilling “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” which, round these parts anyway, possibly eclipses even those aforementioned titles as the brightest jewel in Ford’s crown. The story sees James Stewart’s aging senator Stoddard return to the dusty town of Shinbone for the funeral of local nobody Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) so that he can finally tell the truth about the killing of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) for which he had received credit, fame and political popularity. But as intricately as that story is told (and all the principals are excellent, including Vera Miles as a more dimensional love interest than Ford mustered elsewhere), it’s the metaphorical and self-referential levels on which the films also works that have most ongoing resonance. The film’s most famous quote, delivered by newspaper editor Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), “this is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” sums up those themes neatly: sometimes, as Stoddard’s subsequent career proves, the greater good is served by maintaining an inspiring fabrication rather than revealing the less illuminating truth. But it’s also an irresistible reading of Ford’s own approach to filmmaking, especially given his demonstrably shaky allegiance to historical fact  —”The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a tribute to the power of storytelling and mythmaking as well as an argument for the ends justifying the means. A man’s greatness, Ford seems to be saying, is more than worth any eggs broken or milk spilt on his way there —his achievements transcend the methods by which he attained them. Apply that thinking to the craft of filmmaking in the context of any other director, and it might seem a ridiculously bombastic claim. Somehow, with Ford, it doesn’t.

If these ten titles form a fine John Ford 101, the more advanced course might include any of about thirty other titles. But our suggestions for further viewing would probably start with “Wagon Master” which was reported Ford’s own personal favorite of his films, for a time at least. Then, “7 Women” is a fascinating corrective to a career spent mythologizing men and masculinity; “Mister Roberts” was a miserable experience for Ford, who was eventually replaced as director, but none of that shows in the finished film, which also won Jack Lemmon his first Oscar; and those wishing to experience a little of his pre-talkie career should check out “The Iron Horse,” a sprawling account of the building of the first trans-American railway line. Beyond that, there’s still a wealth to explore —is there something in his filmography you can’t believe we haven’t mentioned? Let us know in the comments below.

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