When asked about who his favourite American directors were, Orson Welles replied: “I prefer the old masters; by which I mean: John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Ford is often painted as a contradictory fellow, hard to pin down. But his body of cinematic work – and to him, directing movies was a “job of work” – tells a different story. His films present a cohesive whole, a clear vision of the world with each new film in dialogue with the ones that came before.
But to talk of a vision of the world is maybe too broad; what Ford really did was chronicle the founding of America and the progression of its society. Locating his characters within the context of American history at all times, Ford gave every story he told an extra dimension. His characters weren’t mere individuals as in the films of his fellow studio directors likeHoward Hawks, their destinies were tied inextricably to the forward march of an entire nation.
This allowed Ford to explore endless oppositions. Whether it be European vs Indian, brute force vs book learning, East vs West or savagery vs civilisation, a nation-making opposition is at the heart of almost every Ford film. These vying positions overlap and become blurred, but one side will always turn out to be on the right side of history. But to lose in a John Ford film is a noble thing indeed, allowing the director to, at times, directly critique the progression of American society.
The Western genre is the one in which Ford saw the chance to play out these battles and remain commercially viable at the same time. As he so succinctly put it: “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.” Most of his films – and some of his very best – were not Westerns though. It didn’t really matter what genre he chose, the themes, ideas and style were consistent. So, let’s start at the beginning.