During his long career Irish-American director John Ford (1895-1973) made over 125 feature films including a whole batch of westerns during the Silent era and it is for Westerns that he has achieved iconic status. Especially in movies such as The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Ford eschewed artistic pretensions saying about directing movies “anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it’s not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eyes.”
Ford, like many directors also had his favorite actors who appeared in many of his movies, these included John Wayne, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen.
Here then is our pick of five of his best movies.
The Informer (1935)
A hard-hitting Academy Award winning drama directed by Ford. Set during the 1922 Irish Sinn Fein Rebellion, the film follows the downward spiral of a hard-drinking Dubliner (McLaglen) who informs on a fellow IRA fighter for 20 pounds that he hopes will give him passage to America. After his friend dies in custody, he drinks the reward money away and the IRA exacts its revenge. Ford had wanted to make The Informer for five years, and promised RKO studio heads he would work with a small budget. The film was written in six days and shot in two and a half weeks. Based on a novel by Liam O’Flaherty. Academy Award Nominations: 6, including Best Picture.
Cast: Victor McLaglen, Wallace Ford, Preston Foster
This film is the greatest Western entry in Hollywood’s annus mirabilis of 1939, and Ford’s prototype for the Western genre he dignified. This also marked Wayne’s commercial breakthrough and a new level of maturity in his performances. A motley crowd – a loose woman, a gambler, a banker with a mysterious satchel, an expectant young bride, a whiskey salesman, and a drunk doctor – set out from a dusty New Mexico town with Devine at the reins and Bancroft riding shotgun and with eye out for the escaped outlaw, the Ringo Kid (Wayne). They pick up Wayne soon enough, and alliances and suspicions are forged in the tension of anticipating an Indian attack. The first of many Westerns filmed in the forbidding majesty of Monument Valley. Academy Award Nominations: 7, including Best Picture; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Best Editing.
Cast: George Bancroft, John Carradine, Andy Devine, Tim Holt, Donald Meek, Thomas Mitchell, Claire Trevor, John Wayne
The Quiet Man (1952)
One of Ford’s greatest and most loved films is at once a rollicking, robust comedy, a passionate love story, and a misty-eyed ode to Ford’s Irish homeland. Wayne, a boxer returned to his birthplace in the small village of Innisfree, stumbles on the local customs and the resentment and suspicions of the townspeople, particularly a despised bully played by Ford favorite Victor McLaglen. He also loses his heart to McLaglen’s beautiful sister (O’Hara, who was never lovelier). Their rivalry comes to an explosive, hilarious climax when O’Hara refuses to consider herself married until Wayne receives her dowry from McLaglen. The secretive American finally unleashses his fists and earns his wife’s love and respect. Ford’s brother Francis, a silent-era actor and director, appears in a funny cameo as an old man who refuses to expire until he witnesses the battle royal. This is a rewarding look directly into Ford’s heart. Academy Award Nominations: 7, including Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor: Victor McLaglen; Best Screenplay.
Cast: Maureen O’Hara, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Eileen Crowe, Barry Fitzgerald, Francis Ford, Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick,
The Searchers (1956)
Arguably the finest Western in the Ford and Wayne canon, this appears perennially on every list of the greatest American films of all time. After Comanches kill his brother’s family and kidnap their daughters, bitter Confederate veteran Wayne sets forth on a hate-ridden quest to find his nieces (one of whom is Natalie Wood) and save them from the “savages.” He reluctantly brings along young Jeffrey Hunter, the adopted son of a family also killed by Indians. Their quest leads them hundreds of miles over seven agonizing years of dead ends and double crosses. As it becomes clear that Wood has accepted her life among the Comanches, Wayne resolves not to rescue her but to save her from disgrace by killing her, a resolve that comes to a heart-stopping, emotional climax. Ford’s story of moral ambiguity lives in Wayne’s dense, richly layered characterization of a man whose brutal tendencies, hardened by his experiences of war and the frontier, balance with a tender, forlorn longing for home and family, expressed in his words to the frightened girl as he holds her life in his hands: “Let’s go home, Debbie.” The character dramatically upends Wayne’s heroic archetype; it’s rumored that after shooting the film, Ford, who had directed Wayne many times before, exclaimed, “I didn’t know he could act!” Highly influential to a generation of filmmakers.
Cast: John Wayne, Henry Brandon, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, John Qualen,
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
In Ford’s swan song for the conventional frontier Western, he answers the Death Valley panorama of his classical frontier films with the demise of the archetypal gunfighter-hero, with John Wayne and James Stewart representing wilderness vs. civilization. Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a law-school graduate from the East who tries to bring peace to the burgeoning town of Shinbone, which suffers under the tyranny of Valance (Marvin). After a series of run-ins and a hopeless attempt by Tom Doniphon (Wayne), a gritty Western hero, to teach him to shoot, Stoddard agrees to a showdown with Valance, but the real shooter–and savior–of Shinbone is his friendly rival, Doniphon. As peace comes to Shinbone, Stoddard wins an election and the hand of Doniphon’s girl (Miles), while Doniphon never tells the townspeople the truth about the killing. A wonderfully realized film, which is both an elegy to a dying way of life and a wise commentary on the fragility of modern society. A keystone in Ford’s career.
Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, John Carradine, Andy Devine, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen,