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,
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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