Great Director Profile – John Ford

By: D.G. McCabe

With the Oscars behind us, it’s as good of a time as any to reflect on the man considered by many to be the greatest American director (at least according to Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, and Frank Capra among others) – John Ford (1894-1973) .  After all, Ford won four Best Director Oscars, the most in history.  Besides the obvious influence of this career on the art of filmmaking, Ford’s story is a striking example of the creation, and subsequent destruction, of mythology, in this case the Myth of the American West.

John Ford began his career as a studio assembly line director of silent films, and in the 1930’s came to prominence as one of the Hollywood’s top directors with films such as The Informers (1935) and Stagecoach (1939).  While The Informers, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941) are still among the most influential American films, Stagecoach was Ford’s first Western with sound and where we will start our discussion.  Although he had experimented with the genre during his silent film days, Stagecoach is notable as the first film Ford shot on location in Monument Valley, Utah.  It would be here, among the towering granite rock formations, that the story of the American West would be built up, and torn down, during Ford’s career.

Stagecoach is, at its heart, an adventure story that contains most of the Western’s character archetypes.  The resourceful “good” outlaw is of course played by John Wayne, but also present are the drunk doctor, the damsel, the showgirl/prostitute, the upright lawman, the rampaging “bad outlaw,” and the warlike, dangerous Indian.  Ford’s legacy is, for better or worse, tied to the first and last of these archetypes, in his deconstruction of the “good outlaw” Western hero and his failure to re-construct an archetype born of racism and misunderstanding.

It is in Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers (1956) where the deconstruction of the good outlaw character is brought into focus.  Partially based on an actual incident, Ethan (John Wayne) travels obsessively to find his niece who has been kidnapped by the Comanche Chief Scar (Henry Brandon).  While the Comanche raid shown early in the film is brutal, Ethan gradually reveals himself to be capable of equal cruelty, destruction, and violence.

When he finally does meet Scar, he finds a man equally consumed with vengeance against the settlers who murdered his sons. Among the towering edifices of Monument Valley, we learn that the two men are equals in their thirst for vengeance.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance brings the John Wayne character full circle.  When an Eastern lawyer named Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) heads out west, he encounters a chaotic land ruled by violent outlaws like Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and hard men like Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).  Stoddard brings with him the rule of law and education, and is credited with killing Valance in a shootout.  He eventually becomes governor and senator of the state where he settles. Ford makes a statement, however, when he reveals at the end of the film that Doniphon, not Stoddard, killed Valance.  Stoddard therefore “civilized” the lawless West of Ford’s films, but through only peaceful means.  Tom, on the other hand, fades away – the destiny of all of the “good outlaws” of Ford’s world.

Ford’s career has a major flaw.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance reveals the “good outlaw” to be a impersonal brute, completing the deconstruction of the archetype Ford first introduced in Stagecoach.  Unfortunately, the offensive Native American characters in his early films do not receive the reverse treatment by the end of his career.  To Ford’s credit,  he did attempt in 1964’s “Cheyenne Autumn” to rectify, what by his own admission was an unfair portrayal of Native Americans in Westerns (including his own).  Considering that Cheyenne Autumn is one of Ford’s last films, one can assume that, if he could, he would have spent as much time building up his “Indian” character as he spent tearing down his “Cowboy” character. Unfortunately, Cheyenne Autumn itself was not well received and by most accounts is about an hour too long.

The epic breadth of Ford’s career reveals the “good outlaw” hero to be a loathsome misanthrope at best and a cruel monster at worst.  The Native Americans, in contrast, are the tragic heroes of the American Western Myth, but are left as one-dimensional villains until the very end of Ford’s career.  Perhaps one day a director will return to Monument Valley and complete the epic tragedy of the American West that Ford left unfinished.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe