John Ford's death two weeks ago seems, if not positively to have brought the Hollywood era to a close, at least to mark a caesura in the history of movies.
"My name is John Ford, I make Westerns" is how Ford identified himself when he rose to speak at a meeting of the Director's Guild in the I 950s.
Ford was born Sean Aloysius Feeney, a first generation Irish immigrant, whose father had gone to America to fight in the Civil War, but got there iyhen it was over, Four Ford uncles had foueht in it on one side or the other. or even on both. Ford senior's sympathies were not committed, but the Civil War certainly got into John Ford's blood.
From the long-ago tworeelers with Harry Carey to the last great Western. Cheyenne A unotm, Ford's career manned the whole history of the cinema. He admitted, like all early firm pioneers. that he ...qn-tP tinder the influence of 11 W. Griffith. Ford was nerhens not the isositive original creator that Griffith was.
But in the subsequent sixty years he was to carry his similar vision and basic values so much further towards fulfilment that the sheer scope and magnitude of his opus had put him in the same category as Griffith.
Since The Iron Horse, perhaps his first great silent, or at least since his classic Western, Stagecoach, his mastery won international acceptance for this new form of romantic, "Western" poetry. He was always a hard and unpretentious worker on the job, from his early days as prop man to his brother, Francis.
The "front office", who could cut his pet passages from the film or. when he achieved
the subtle scratching of Wall.
lace tord's nails on the window in The Informer, assured him they could "rub it out on the soundtrack" were the enemy.
But they were also his bosses and although Ford might outwit them. he was too much of a realist to waste time and energy on fighting them. The elder among us remember reverently The Iron Horse and Stagecoach, and watch them every time around, the younger generation of film "buffs" venerate Ford as an Old Master: and last year's National Film Theatre season of his complete works, insofar as available, was packed. I only wish I had found time to see more of them than I did.
Ford's vision of the American West and South and recent past, his virtual adoption of the now familiar Monument Valley as the perfect pictorial geological and archeological setting for his great Westerns seemed to give him almost a monopoly of the genre. But his outlook has never been narrow or parochial.
Before the Second World War his acknowledged masterpiece was Grapes of Wrath, the epic of the Dust Bowl. During the war his job in the Navy as official director of the film unit resulted in remarkable war documentaries like his Battle of Midway. (What a loss that his plans for a film record of the war crimes trials was laid aside!) His film of The Long Voyage Home was Eugene O'Neill's favourite of any of the movies based on his plays.
Nor has he ever cut himself off from his Irish and Catholic roots. So he can say that his own favourite films are The Fugitive — from Graham Greene's great Catholic novel about the whisky priest in Mexico, The Sun Shines Bright, his enchanting mellow version of the "Judge Priest" story, and Wagon Masters. But his early essays in Irish his tory The Informer and The Plough and the Stars contributed to his fame. When he came to this country to direct Richard Llewellyn's story of Welsh mining How Green Was My Valley he made a worldfamous award-winner, and, returning to Ireland in maturity. his Irish high spirits over flowed ebulliently in The Quiet Man.
Peter Bogdanovich, in hi.. illuminating paperback "John Ford" stresses the integrity of Ford's vision; its unbroken continuity in use of locations, actors, even musical themes and crew.
His use over many years of such stars as Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara, Victor MacLaglen and, above all, John Wayne, even of lesser members of the crew, is not just evidence of loyalty (though doubtless that too), it was part of the process by which he established his personal idiom and language on the screen.
His vision was romantic, his standard undeviating. But he was never pretentious. He used to say that when they brought him a script, if he liked it he would do it: "If I say That's all right, I'll do it. If I don't like it I won't do it."
I remember Fred Zinne mann telling me recently that Ford, with a couple of hundred films to his credit, said "If three out of five scoie, 1 think I'm winning." But that perceptive actress. Mary Astor records in "A Life on Film' , tells how, as a young actress in Hurricane, she had the opportunity to see through Ford's attempt to put himself over as just "a hard-nosed director".
Describing the cast of good actors, she adds "and the director the greatest, John Ford." She goes on to describe his technique of direction as laconic. "No big deal about communication with John. Terse, pithy to the point.
"Very Irish, a dark personality, a sensitivity which he did everything to conceal, but once he said to me while I was doing a scene with Ray Massey: 'Make it scan, Mary" And I said to myself, `Aha! I know you now'."
Freda Bruce Lockhart