John Ford is one of those directors who had a profound impact in the industry.

“The best director in the world” – Ingmar Bergman

The “king of directors” – Frank Capra

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“A John Ford film was a visual gratification” – Alfred Hitchcock

“I have respected John Ford from the beginning. Needless to say, I pay close attention to his productions, and I think I am influenced by them.” – Akira Kurosawa

“I like the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” – Orson Welles
“…a son of a bitch who happens to be a genius.” – Henry Fonda

Early career

John Ford started out as a jack-of-all-trades filmmaker working for his older brother Francis. The year was 1914, thirteen years before the first “talkie” film. John started out as an assistant, handyman, stuntman and occasional actor for his brother, twelve years John’s senior. John worked hard, eventually becoming his brother’s chief assistant and cameraman, until his first directorial debut in 1917.

In a career that spanned over 50 years, John Ford won six Oscars, though it is notable that none were for his Westerns. He was the first recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1973 and president Nixon bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor on Ford, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A visit to IMDb or Wikipedia will show a long list of accolades from around the world. But what made a John Ford film?

John Ford Stock Company

Ford famously used a “Stock Company” of actors and crew, a large collection of professionals used in film which included household names such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Will Rogers, Maureen O’Hara and James Stewart, to name a few. Knowing his cast and crew well helped Ford to become known as one of the busiest directors in Hollywood, churning out at least one film per year –many years multiple films — between 1913 and 1971.

Film director John Sayles said, “Ford proved able to satisfy the expectations of producers and audiences alike while adding small touches, whether gritty or sentimental, that gave his films an extra human dimension often lacking in the generic programmers of the day. He gambled with his reputation as an efficient, no-nonsense helmer-for-hire in the production of “The Iron Horse” (1924), his over-budget schedule-busting epic about the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. Ford was pressured by the studio but allowed to finish, and the film became a huge financial and critical success.”

“The secret is to make films that please the public and that also allow the director to reveal his personality,” Ford once said.

Directing is not an art

Ford believed his directing to be a job as opposed to an art form or some arcane skill. “Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it’s not an art,” Ford said in a rare interview. Another time he exclaimed, “It’s no use talking to me about art, I make pictures to pay the rent.“

“The Informer” (1935) – Image courtesy – Turner Classic Movies

Character moments

Characters often enter a Ford film as stereotypical caricatures but their humanity soon peaks through as richly detailed characters discovered between gunfights and horse chases.

“In between the chases and seemingly life threatening action sequences, sit character moments that advance plot and narrative…” Adam Scovell of CelluloidWickerMan.com states. Adam continues, “While enjoying any number of his films, it’s almost as if Ford is happily smuggling in complex relationships and ideas under the guise of cowboys and Indians or other exciting visuals and narratives.”

Starting in the silent film era, Ford learned how to communicate without words and he brought this skill into the talkie film era. Seemingly simple facial expressions or glances would convey emotions that most directors would need dialog to communicate.

“It’s what is between the lines, so often, that makes Ford films Ford films… And Ford purposely would go out and seize these moments, these director moments, because he understood that that was the essence of what separated motion pictures from other forms,” said director, screenwriter, and producer Walter Hill.

“He’d always said, “If you don’t need all of those lines, throw them out,” said actor Harry Carey Jr. about Ford hating dialog.

Blocking

“Nobody ever staged better. Nobody ever staged actors to camera better. But at the same time it seems organic,” said Walter Hill.

“The way he frames things and the way he stages and blocks his people, often keeping the camera static while the people give you the illusion that there’s a lot more kinetic movement occurring when there’s not. In that sense, he’s a classic painter. He celebrates the frame, not just what happens inside of it,” remembered Steven Spielberg. 

Although Ford preferred not to move the camera during a scene, one technique Ford used was to have the camera mirror the movement of a character. Director David Fincher emulated this technique in films such as Fight Club and Gone Girl.

“Essentially what he tries to do is have the camera exactly match the velocity and direction of the moving character in the frame. When the character stops the camera stops to, and starts again when the person starts to move again. Matching movement here isn’t close, it’s perfect,” notices Nerdwriter in his excellent YouTube video “How David Fincher Hijacks Your Eyes.”

Efficient filmmaker

John Ford often shot only one take of a scene believing that the first take usually has the best emotion. In addition, he often shot his scenes in order and “edited in the camera” in order to keep control of the story from an editor or a producer

Ford once said, “I don’t give ’em a lot of film to play with. In fact, Eastman used to complain that I exposed so little film. I do cut in the camera. Otherwise, if you give them a lot of film, ‘the committee’ takes over. They start juggling scenes around and taking out this and putting in that. They can’t do it with my pictures. I cut in the camera and that’s it. There’s not a lot of film left on the floor when I’m finished.”

“Stagecoach” (1939) – Image courtesy – World Magazine

While many directors shooting film stock have a shooting ratio of 6:1, 10:1 or more, Ford focused on the 4:1 neighborhood, meaning for every minute of film the movie-goer sees, four minutes of film was actually shot.

Another well-known filmmaker who had low shooting ratios was Ford’s contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock. But their similarities in film production may not have stretched further than this. Hitchcock was well known for his extensive storyboarding and planning while Ford seemed to compose his films straight from his head, mostly shunning written or graphic outlines such as storyboards and even scripts at times.

Dissolves, wipes and fade to blacks

Another famous Ford technique — something mostly out of fashion these days — is the dissolve as a transition or his use of fade to black. Film director Akira Kurosawa might have been inspired to use wipes the way Ford used dissolves and George Lucas, who has been influenced by both Ford and Kurosawa, uses all three: dissolves, wipes and fades to blacks. Any of the Star Wars films are good examples.

Ford the historian

“His films had a powerful influence on Americans’ conception of their own history and values,” said John Sayles. 

The critic and film historian Joseph McBride said, “[Ford] chronicled our national history on-screen with an epic vision that spanned nearly two centuries, from the Revolutionary War to the Vietnam War. While Ford’s vision of America is intensely patriotic, it does not flinch from confronting the country’s tragic failures, the times when we did not live up to our ideals. Whatever the events he depicts, Ford’s natural allegiance is always with the spirit of the American common people.”

“His movies celebrated the striving, pioneering spirit of America, and the key virtues that defined the national character: freedom, integrity, courage, perseverance. He gloried in our country’s majestic, untamed open spaces,” said John Farr of BestMoviesByFarr.com.

“Ford has chronicled the story of the United States in no small detail, ranging in over 180 years from before the revolution into the 1950s. And throughout his work… the personal story is always shown in perspective with the flow of history behind.”  said filmmaker, critic and film historian Peter Bogdanovich.

“Ford always insisted that these heroic myths — as untrue as they might be — are necessary for the society to function,” wrote cinephile Ryan Gumbley.

Influence

Orson Welles reportedly watched Ford’s masterpiece Stagecoach 40 times in preparation for making Citizen Kane.

“I try to rent a John Ford film, one or two, before I start every movie. Simply because he inspires me and I’m very sensitive to the way he uses his camera to paint his pictures,” Steven Spielberg once said.

“Ford has been such an extraordinary influence on my life and my cinematic enjoyment of art and life, really. And he has been such a heavy influence on me and still is,” explains Martin Scorsese.

Someone asked Akira Kurosawa, “How did you learn? Did you study particular painters? Were they Japanese painters or European painters?” Kurosawa replied, “I studied John Ford,” Swapnil Dhruv Bose writes in Far Out magazine.

Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa watched Ford’s Westerns as a child and became immensly influenced. The most obvious example is the use of an anti-hero who goes up against innumerable enemies as exemplified by Kambei in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ringo Kid in Ford’s Stagecoach. 

Like Ford, Kurosawa used epic wide shots, often with a character moving across the screen on the horizon as can be seen in many of Ford’s Westerns. 

Many modern-day directors revel in drawn-out confrontations and violence but not Ford or Kurosawa. Ford once said, “My pictures do not always show violence. Very, very few of them do. And if they do show violence, it’s over very quickly. I suggest it more than anything else…I do it quickly or I do it by suggestion.”

“The compositional habits of Ford and Kurosawa were also similar, focusing on the chiaroscuro of light and shadows [think Caravaggio] and the framing of actors through doorways,” Swapnil Dhruv Bose points out. 

Finally, Kurosawa, like Ford, amplified natural aural elements such as wind, fire, rain and horses. 

Criticism

John Ford took a lot of flak for his depiction of women and anybody who was not white.

“One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity…” Quentin Tarantino told Henry Louis Gates in the online magazine The Root.

Many articles and even books discuss the “toxic culture of Cold War machismo” as Stephen Metcalf wrote of John Wayne and John Ford in The Atlantic. Metcalf explained how Ford, afraid of his own femininity, created macho characters portrayed by actors such as John Wayne. 

“The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) – Image courtesy – Film at Lincoln Center

“Ford helped create an archetypical code of masculine ethics and behavior that has profoundly affected the American psyche,” said John Sayles. “His films, whether Westerns or in other genres, are notable for a turn-of-the-20th-century ideal of American masculinity—loyal, self-deprecating yet competent, dependable in a scrap, bound by duty, courtly if somewhat tongue-tied with the ladies, with a winking fondness for alcohol but no patience for foul language or sloppy behavior.”

“How do you describe someone you really admired and loved, and yet he had so many aggravating traits? He was an instinctive con-man, it was impossible to know when to believe him or when to disbelieve him. Everything he said or did was for effect. That is why he was so difficult to interview; he would deliberately say the opposite of what he knew you wanted to hear. He could be kind, gracious and gentle, with a wonderful sense of humor. But he could also be vindictive and mean. All one can do with John Ford is accept him with all of his faults and virtues, and love him,” Maureen O’Hara said.

Conclusion

John Farr summarized John Ford this way, “Ford the man was a mass of contradictions: on set, he was autocratic and extremely tough on his actors, frequently humiliating them publicly. Yet he was also intensely loyal, building his own stock company of players and technicians who’d come back and endure his abuse time and again because they knew they were working with a genius and creating something special.”

Morgan Paar
Morgan Paar is a multiple award-winning filmmaker and photographer who specializes in travel video, stills and articles. Paar has been location independent for over three years producing video, teaching filmmaking and consulting around the world. www.NomadicFrames.com