John Ford (1894-1973)

John Ford
John Ford

John Ford was an American film director who is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most important filmmakers in the history of Hollywood. Starting in the Silent movie era he enjoyed a long career of over 50 years during which he made more than 140 films although many of his early, silent, movies are now lost.

He is best known for his Westerns, such as the iconic 'Stagecoach' in 1939, but he also successfully worked in other genres including comedy, drama, adaptations of classic 20th-century novels and nostalgic, Celtic themed romances. He won a record four Best Director Academy Awards in 1935, 1940, 1941 and 1952 and also Best Picture Oscar for 'How Green Was My Valley' in 1941. He was the first director to win consecutive Best Director Oscars (in 1940 and 1941).

In 1973, John Ford received the first Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Film Institute. President Richard Nixon and California Governor Ronald Reagan were present at the event and Nixon also later presented Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S.

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John Ford was born John Martin Feeney on February 1, 1894 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. His parents had immigrated from Ireland in 1872 and John was the tenth of eleven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. He attended High School in Portland, Maine where he had a good reputation as a combative defensive tackle on the state championship football team, earning the nickname "Bull". His entry into the world of Hollywood movie-making was almost entirely due to his elder brother, Francis.

Francis Ford and Hollywood

Frank Ford was 12 years older than John and had drifted into moviemaking, directing and appearing in, mainly, westerns for the Thomas Ince Bison studios in Hollywood. He changed his name from Feeney to Ford after the car manufacturer, and when young brother John followed him to Los Angeles in 1914, he changed his name to "Jack Ford" and began learning the craft and art of filmmaking by working as an apprentice, handyman, stuntman and occasional actor, frequently doubling for his Francis, to whom he bore a close resemblance.

Jack Ford was a fast learner. Francis gave him his first acting role in 'The Mysterious Rose' in late 1914 and he appeared in several early Silent movies, mainly Westerns, directed by his brother. Jack also made an uncredited appearance as a Klansman in D.W. Griffith's 1915 classic, 'The Birth of a Nation'. Within three years, despite the brothers having an often stormy relationship, Jack had become Francis's chief assistant and often worked as his cameraman.

Early Directing Career

Jack soon realised his forte was in directing rather than performing and in 1917 he began producing and directing films, making his early reputation mainly with 'B' Westerns such as 'The Fighting Gringo ' in 1917. His first feature film was 'Straight Shooting', also in 1917, starring one of the early top Western film stars, Harry Carey. He continued to direct Carey as in a total of 25 movies such as 'Thieves Gold' and 'Three Mounted Men' in 1918, 'Riders of Vengeance ' and 'Ace of the Saddle' in 1919 as well as many other short Westerns. As Jack's profile increased, so Francis's declined and he soon left the directing to the younger brother.

Jack's first few years as director were very busy indeed and he actually made a total of 33 films in his first three years from 1917, although some of them were uncredited.

Jack joined Fox Studios in 1921 and two years later formally changed his name from Jack to John Ford. He continued to gain experience and knowledge by directing several films each year until 1924 when he made his first big budget movie, another Western, 'The Iron Horse', a long, epic account of the building of the Transcontinental railroad across America. It became a classic, used as a model for future epic Westerns, and was one of the top-grossing films of the decade, taking over $2 million worldwide, against a budget of $280,000. Even at this early stage, Ford was acquiring a formidable reputation.

As the public began to lose its enthusiasm for Westerns, the studios gradually phased them out during the late 1920's. Ford made his last silent Western '3 Bad Men' in 1926. His next Western venture would be the Talkie 'Stagecoach' in 1939.

A sign of Ford's growing influence was his period as president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, the association which became the Directors Guild of America.


During the early 1930's Ford showed his versatility in non-Western genres, directing Fox's comedy superstar, Will Rogers, in 'Doctor Bull' in 1933, 'Judge Priest' the following year and 'Steamboat 'Round the Bend' in 1935. Also in 1935 he won the first of his four Academy Awards for Best Director for 'The Informer' which also won a Best Actor Oscar for Victor McLaglen and a nomination from the Academy for Best Picture. 'The Informer' has not dated well and today seems stodgy and slow but at the time it was praised lavishly and referred to as the best American film ever made.

Ford continued exploring non-Western genres with 'The Prisoner of Shark Island' in 1936 about a physician imprisoned for giving treatment to the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. The following year he made a South Seas melodrama 'The Hurricane' and in 1937 he directed one of the biggest stars of the day, Shirley Temple, in 'Wee Willie Winkie'. During this run of successes, Ford, a married man, was engaged in an intense six month affair with Katharine Hepburn, whom he directed in the Elizabethan costume drama 'Mary of Scotland' in 1936.

'Mary of Scotland' was a relatively weak film but shows Ford's consummate professionalism and his ability to make something interesting out of a bad script and a poorly chosen cast. At his best, Ford made some of the most memorable films Hollywood ever released. 'Young Mr. Lincoln' in 1939 shows Ford's sense of visual beauty at its most impressive, transforming a somewhat pedestrian script into a memorable hagiography.

Also in 1939, 'Stagecoach' resurrected the Western from B-programme status. The movie has become a classic and provides a memorable gallery of stereotypes, transforming John Wayne's good/bad guy into a national myth that Ford later exploited in a series of other Westerns, such as 'Rio Grande' in 1950. Ford received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and the movie was nominated for Best Picture. In an outstanding year, both nominations lost to 'Gone With The Wind'. Orson Welles is reputed to have watched 'Stagecoach' forty times as preparation for making 'Citizen Kane' and it remains one of the most admired and imitated of all Hollywood movies.

Ford's next film, the biopic 'Young Mr Lincoln' in 1939, starring Henry Fonda, attracted less plaudits than 'Stagecoach' although it is is now regarded as a Ford classic. He made 'Drums Along the Mohawk' in the same year, again starring Henry Fonda with Claudette Colbert. It was Ford's first color movie and was a major box-office success.


In the early 1940's Ford won consecutive Best Director Academy Awards for two more classics: 'The Grapes of Wrath' in 1940, and 'How Green Was My Valley' in 1941, the latter film gaining a total of ten Oscar nominations and winning the Best Picture and Best Cinematography Awards at the expense of 'Citizen Kane'. Ford incredibly won two further consecutive Best Director Awards for two Navy documentaries he made when America entered the Second World War: 'The Battle of Midway' in 1942 and 'December 7th' in 1943. Thus he won four consecutive Best Director awards for two feature films and two documentaries - an unprecedented feat and one unlikely to be equalled. Ford, who was a serving officer in the Navy's photographic unit was himself wounded by shrapnel whilst filming the Japanese attack at the Battle of Midway.

In 1945 Ford directed the convincingly realistic 'They Were Expendable', his last wartime movie. It traces the fates of Patrol Torpedo boat crews asked to slow the tide of Japanese advance in the Phillipines without hope of reinforcement or rescue. It is an unforgettable hymn to bravery, and its understated performances are indirectly evocative of deep emotion. Ford always claimed he did not like it but it was a commercial success. His first movie after the war saw him return to the Western genre with 'My Darling Clementine' in 1946 another solid commercial success and regarded as a classic of the genre.

Argosy Productions 1945

After this success Ford began to make movie as an independent, through his own production company, Argosy Productions. His first film for Argosy was 'The Fugitive' in 1946, again starring Henry Fonda and he continued with his famous "Cavalry Trilogy" of 'Fort Apache' in 1948, 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon' the following year, and 'Rio Grande' in 1950, all of which starred John Wayne. 'Rio Grande' was made for Republic Pictures in return for their backing for Ford's next movie, 'The Quiet Man' in 1952, which became Ford's biggest success up to that time, being nominated for seven Academy Awards and winning Ford his fourth Oscar for Best Director.

In 1953 Ford made The Sun Shines Bright' which became his first entry in the Cannes Film Festival. It was a western comedy but it fared badly at the box-office and was one of the contributory factors to the eventual failure of Argosy Productions. Ford's next film was 'Mogambo' for MGM, starring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. The film earned Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for Gardner and Kelly respectively and was one of Ford's biggest commercial successes.

Ford made only one Western between 1951 and 1958, but it became a classic: 'The Searchers' in 1956, starring John Wayne once again. Ford then reverted to the Western genre with a vengeance and from 1959 with 'The Horse Soldiers' six of his last eight completed movies were Westerns including his last classic, 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' in 1962.

Ford's last film starring John Wayne was 'Donovan's Reef' in 1963, filmed on location on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. It was also Ford's last major box-office success.

'Cheyenne Autumn' in 1964 takes the viewpoint of Native Americans pushed to desperation by the threat of extinction. It was Ford's last Western and also his longest running and biggest budgeted movie with an all-star cast headed by Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Dolores del Río, Ricardo Montalbán, and James Stewart. It was one of Ford's few films to lose money on release. Ford's last completed feature film was '7 Women' in 1966 and this also flopped at the box-office.


Ford married Mary McBryde Smith in 1920, and the marriage lasted until his death although Ford was known to have had many extramarital affairs.

Ford had a loyal band of acting and film making professionals who became known as the "John Ford Stock Company". These included John Wayne, Ward Bond, John Carradine, Harry Carey, Jr., Frank Baker and Mae Marsh. He also enjoyed loyal, long-term working relationships with his production team, many of whom worked with him for many years. He made many films with the producer Merian C. Cooper and with scriptwriters Nunnally Johnson and Dudley Nichols.

Ford suffered many years of declining health, caused in part by years of smoking and heavy drinking. He died on 31 August 1973 at Palm king Desert, California. He was interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. He was aged 79 years.


There is no doubt that John Ford was a movie-making master and hugely influential and important in the history of film. He was a consummate professional, largely indifferent to the critical acclaim he began to receive late in his career. Critics have celebrated Ford for his intense pictorialism - not just of the beautiful landscapes his films made characteristic through evocative reuse (notable Arizona's Monument Valley) - but also for grouped human figures, especially posed statically and iconically. Also much praised has been Ford's ability to communicate through images rather than relying on the script, which he insisted be reduced to a bare minimum. He had such a firm idea of the way his films should look that he often needed no more than one take and rarely bothered visiting the editing room.

When Orson Welles was asked to name the directors who most appealed to him, he replied: "I like the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."

John Ford Academy Awards

Four Wins:
Best Director ... The Informer (1935)
Best Director ... The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Best Director ... How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Best Director ... The Quiet Man (1952)
1 Unsuccessful Nomination::
Best Director ... Stagecoach (1939)


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John Ford Filmography (as Director)

The Tornado (short) (as Jack Ford)
The Fighting Gringo
The Trail of Hate (short)
The Scrapper (short) (as Jack Ford)
The Soul Herder (short) (as Jack Ford)
Cheyenne's Pal (short) (as Jack Ford)
Straight Shooting (as Jack Ford)
The Secret Man (as Jack Ford)
A Marked Man (as Jack Ford)
Slumbering Fires (as Jack Ford)
The Phantom Riders (as Jack Ford)
Wild Women (as Jack Ford)
Thieves' Gold (as Jack Ford)
The Scarlet Drop (as Jack Ford)
Hell Bent (as Jack Ford)
A Woman's Fool (as Jack Ford)
The Craving
Three Mounted Men (as Jack Ford)
Roped (as Jack Ford)
The Fighting Brothers (short) (as Jack Ford)
A Fight for Love (as Jack Ford)
Rustlers (short) (as Jack Ford)
Bare Fists (as Jack Ford)
Gun Law (short) (as Jack Ford)
By Indian Post (short) (as Jack Ford)
The Gun Packer (short) (as Jack Ford)
Riders of Vengeance (as Jack Ford)
The Last Outlaw (short)
The Outcasts of Poker Flat (as Jack Ford)
Ace of the Saddle (as Jack Ford)
Rider of the Law (as Jack Ford)
A Gun Fightin' Gentleman (as Jack Ford)
Marked Men (as Jack Ford)
The Prince of Avenue A (as Jack Ford)
The Girl in Number 29 (as Jack Ford)
The Land of Promise (as Jack Ford)
Just Pals (as Jack Ford)
The Big Punch (as Jack Ford)
The Freeze-Out (as Jack Ford)
The Wallop (as Jack Ford)
Desperate Trails (as Jack Ford)
Action (as Jack Ford)
Sure Fire (as Jack Ford)
Jackie (as Jack Ford)
Little Miss Smiles (as Jack Ford)
Silver Wings (as Jack Ford / prologue only)
The Village Blacksmith (as Jack Ford)
The Love Image (as Jack Ford)
Three Jumps Ahead (as Jack Ford)
Cameo Kirby
North of the Yukon (as Jack Ford)
Hoodman Blind
The Iron Horse (uncredited)
Hearts of Oak
Kentucky Pride
Thank You
Once to Every Man
The Shamrock Handicap
3 Bad Men
The Blue Eagle (uncredited)
Footlight Glamour
Mother Machree (uncredited)
Four Sons
Hangman's House (uncredited)
Hangman's House (uncredited)
Napoleon's Barber (short)
Riley the Cop (uncredited)
Strong Boy
King of the Khyber Rifles
Salute (uncredited)
Men Without Women
Born Reckless
Up the River
Seas Beneath
The Brat
Air Mail
Flesh (uncredited)
Doctor Bull
The Lost Patrol
The World Moves On
Judge Priest
Passport to Fame
The Informer
Steamboat Round the Bend
The Prisoner of Shark Island
Mary of Scotland
The Plough and the Stars
Wee Willie Winkie
The Hurricane
The Adventures of Marco Polo (uncredited)
Four Men and a Prayer
Submarine Patrol
Young Mr. Lincoln
Drums Along the Mohawk