Thursday, May 15, 2014

Film History Student Final Paper #1 - John Ford

Once again I am publishing online final papers on auteur directors written by three of my students from my Film History class at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL, spring 2014 semester.  Part of my requirements is that the piece should be in a conversational tone.  Here's the first one!

By Jim Cook

John Ford was one of the greatest filmmakers of early film history. Active from the silent era all the way to the 1960’s, Ford had a fantastic career of over 140 films. He had his own unique style that has led to him being known as an auteur director.

John Ford was born in 1894 to Irish parents in America. Not much is known before Ford moved to California, but he moved there to start acting in 1914 to help out his brother (John Ford, Wikipedia). He began acting under the stage name Jack Ford and had roles in some of the first short silent films he directed. Having cut his teeth on 10 silent shorts in 1917, he went on to direct 52 other silent films between 1918 and 1927 (John Ford’s Filmography, Wikipedia). Unfortunately, many of these films were lost to time, and thus much of John Ford’s early influence with them. Ford then went on to start directing “Talkies” as they were called when they first debuted, because many people thought it would just be a fad, which is totally and completely crazy. The first “Talkie” he directed was called Napoleon’s Barber (John Ford, It came out sometime late in 1928 and is now a lost film, as no surviving full copy is in existence. Ford received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Picture for his 1931 film Arrowsmith. Ford’s first film to gain major critical praise, which also happened to net him a nomination again for Best Picture and the win for Best Director, was called The Informer, released in 1935. 

He continued his run of making great movies until he made one of the most influential films of all time, Stagecoach, in 1939. It is said to be one of the most imitated films in history, most notably for its dramatic stagecoach chase and horse jumping scene (John Ford, Wikipedia). It is also said Orson Welles used it as a major inspiration in preparation for making Citizen Kane. Stagecoach is also the Western that brought the genre back into popularity with the major studios of the time. This was the movie that first featured John Wayne as a lead in a western, launching him into stardom as well as being the first Ford movie shot on location in Monument Valley, marking the beginning of 7 westerns Ford would make in that locale (John Ford, Wikipedia). 

After Stagecoach had great success, Ford continued the trend of making great movies for the next little while. Drums Along the Mohawk, the first color film he directed, and Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath were both successful box office hits, each one netting over one million dollars in their first years, respectively. Then Ford was tapped to direct the on screen adaptation of How Green Was My Valley. Although not popularly known today as a great John Ford film, it may have been the most critically successful of his movies at the time. The film was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards and it ended up winning 5 of those categories. Ford got the Oscar for Best Director for his work on the movie, and it was able to gross more than double its budget, becoming very popular with the movie-going audience of the time. After this, World War II began and Ford joined the Navy to serve his country the best way he could. He mostly made propaganda documentaries, but is noted as a veteran of the Battle of Midway because he was hit with shrapnel while filming parts of the Japanese attack (John Ford, The footage from that would eventually be used in a wartime documentary called The Battle of Midway. 

After the war, Ford went back to the western genre. He made My Darling Clementine, a movie about Wyatt Earp. While it didn’t win any awards, it was a commercial success making over two million in its first year. Ford then went on to start the three part “Cavalry Trilogy” which included the films: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. While not as successful as Stagecoach, these 3 movies are John Ford classics, echoing his auteur style in nearly every way (The Directing Style of John Ford, Ryan at the Movies). After a few other movies, and a small stint in television, Ford directed the movie widely said to be his best, The Searchers. Starring John Wayne, the movie was shot once again in Ford’s favorite location for westerns, Monument Valley. Noted for its beautiful scale of on location sets, and the complicated character that was Ethan Edwards, it is widely regarded as the best western of all time, as well as one of the best movies in the history of cinema (John Ford, Wikipedia). Most of Ford’s auteuristic traits can be found in this movie. There is very little camera movement throughout the film, and all the actors in each scene tend to be in the scene through the shot so that camera movement is not necessary. He also likes to tie the beginning and end of the film together, this time using two very similar shots in order to accomplish this. They are both taken from doorways contrasting bright light with dark indoors. This was perhaps Ford’s last great film, but he continued directing until 1966. After a bout with cancer, John Ford passed away in August 1973, leaving behind him a legacy of being one of the great auteurs in the history of film.

This is easily demonstrated by simply noting the things that he specifically did in nearly every film he ever directed, but most notably in his westerns. All of Ford’s movies were conceived visually in his head, never on a storyboard. The heroes in Ford’s movies often felt like outsiders to the established society and they often spoke louder with their actions than with their words (John Ford, Wikipedia). Ford didn’t like camera movement much, opting for static shots, most of which were long or medium shots, he avoided close-ups if possible (The Directing Style of John Ford, Ryan at the Movies). The only times he used tracking shots were during exciting moments in his movies. He liked to tie movies together at the beginning and end by using a vehicle of some sort, often a train or wagon arriving and then leaving. If in his movies a player was playing poker and had a hand of 2 eights and 2 aces, one of the aces being the ace of spades, this character was most certainly going to perish shortly because that hand was known as the “Death Hand.” He defined his westerns by shooting in Utah’s Monument Valley, even if it may not have been the appropriate setting for where the story was said to take place. His use of the Valley to shoot his westerns defined America’s vision of what the American Wild West was like, and many directors refuse to shoot there to this day for fear of ruining the vision Ford set with his beautiful static long shots of the area (John Ford, One of his most powerful shots from Monument Valley comes from the movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon when the cavalry is shown riding away from an oncoming storm. Ford was also famous for his sparse use of film and his ability to cut within the camera so the production company was not able to ruin his vision of the film; at that time, the director was normally not present for the editing of the footage. John Ford also was not often ultra-specific to his actors on what to do with the scene; he often liked to let them play and act how they thought the scene should play out. Every now and then though, Ford would be very specific as to what he wanted, often showing actors the exact movements and subtle changes he wanted them to do. When this happened he would even do up to 30 takes if it took that long to get the scene shot the way he wanted. He was also known to be very tough and unforgiving to his actors, often publicly berating them in front of the crew. While many actors would have probably left the production, it is said that Ford had the unique ability to get the best out of every actor he had on set, often inspiring them just by being in their presence. John Ford is said to have influenced many directors. There is Ingmar Bergman, Frank Capra, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Orson Welles just to name a few, but the list goes on and on (John Ford, Wikipedia).

Since I’ve already told you a bit about Stagecoach and The Searchers, let’s talk about another western movie John Ford directed in 1962. I’m of course referring to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The movie featured Ford’s star western actor, John Wayne, along with another major star of the time, James Stewart. It was the first time Jimmy had worked with Ford and was somehow able to avoid conflict or berating from Ford for quite a while. This is another of Ford’s distinctive traits, always publicly berating his actors so that they would not get a big head, and so that they would remember they were just a part of what would help to make the movie. The movie was produced on a fairly small budget for its time, but made the money back almost three fold, in large part due to the fact that it was a John Ford film starring John Wayne and James Stewart. Many critics have noted it as Ford’s most thought-provoking western, and it is still gorgeous looking, even though it was shot completely on set in California to save money. It is also completely in black and white, even though color was fairly standard by 1962. It is said that Ford did this because he didn’t want his sets to look extra fake, and the lack of color helped to sell this (John Ford, Wikipedia).

John Ford is definitely up there with the best of them, and his contribution to film cannot be ignored in the slightest. He was able to work in any genre and apply his specific style to the movies he directed. He was also a man with a clear vision of how we wanted things and was not afraid to be mean to get that out of the people working around him. He was one of the best directors there ever was, and will remain one of the best there ever will be for a long time to come.

Works Cited
“The Directing Style of John Ford.” Ryan and the Movies. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2014
“John Ford.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 May 2014
“John Ford Filmography.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 May 2014
“John Ford.” 2014. The website. 01 May 2014.

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