Born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna on February 1, 1895, Cape Elizabeth, ME. Also known as Sean Aloysius O'Feeney, Jack Ford, and Sean O'Feeney. One of the greatest American directors who made a name as director of Westerns (56 out of 125 films and TV shows he directed). Began career in Hollywood at Universal Pictures in 1914, contract director by 1917, moved to the Fox studio 1921 for whom he made comedies and films about Irish and American history during 1930s. A film about the Irish Rebellion The Informer (1935) won his first of 4 Academy Awards for Direction.
Even before the US was at war, in 1940 Ford had assembled film crew (a "private army of Hollywood technicians", Sinclair, p. 101) and was lobbying Washington to support his group. When war broke out in December 1941 his film unit was formed into Field Photographic Branch of the US Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner to the CIA). Pioneers documentary filmmaking techniques for intelligence gathering purposes. From 1942-5 serves as Lt. Commander in US Marine Corps, wounded at the Battle of Midway while filming (wins Oscar for best documentary and medals - Legion of Merit and Purple Heart). 1945 begins supervising 8 hour documentary on Nuremberg war crimes trials until project abandoned. Makes wartime film about the fall of the Philipines and its evacuation They Were Expendable (1945). After war becomes officer in Naval Reserve. Made Admiral by President Nixon.
After WWII Ford created some of the greatest Westerns ever made, many of them shot in Mounment Valley, including a trilogy of Cavalry Westerns about the US Cavalry's task of pacifying the Indian tribes who resisted Amercian expansion afte the Civil War: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950). In his other Westerns such as My Darling Clementine (1946);Wagon Master (1950), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) a common theme which he raised to a work of cimatic art was the "shoot out", especially the shoot out at the O.K. Corral between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton familly.
The richness and complexity of his view of the settlement of the West raises his work above that of most of his contemporaries. Although he extols the military for its role in making settlement possible he also shows the darker side of using force to resolve disputes. The Searchers shows an embittered Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who searches for an abducted niece who was taken by Comanches in a raid. His life of violence and racial hatred of the Indians forces him to live outside European society, his hatred of the "defiling" of his neice by the Indians drives him to want to kill her in order to "save" her (compare Vietnam). The picture Ford shows us of the isolation of Western communities, the doomed Indians, and the impact of violence and racial hatred on European men is a very bleak one. One of his last films, Cheyenne Autumn (1964) is an attempt to revise his own earlier attitude towards the conquest and dispossession of the Indians by Europeans by looking at history more from the perspective of the Indians.
Ford had a great interest in the Civil War (a war buff who could name all the generals on both sides of the conflict) but only made one film directly about it, the segment on The Civil War in the 5-part collaborative film How the West Was Won (1962). Focuses on the Battle of Shiloh, significant for the Ford family because his Unlce Mike was tricked into signing up when just off the boat from Ireland. At Shiloh he deserted from the Union Army and served in the Confederate Army. The critic Philippe Haudiquet observes taht:
War, with its sounds and fury, may provide Ford with spectacle - deployment of troops, alignment of artilery pieces, Cavalry charges - but he regards it as nothing less than the most frightful butchery. He is not content with showing troops being decimated, ripped up with machine guns, he takes us into the worst part of the battlefield, the field hospital. he shows operations taking place under bombardment (They Werer Expendable ), young soldiers dying ... in The Civil War ... such scenes, brief, dense, and presented in their logical order, give us the most exact image of war. (quoted in McBride, p. 192).
It is surprising that Ford did not make more Civil War movies, however, the war is ever present in his post-war cavalry films.
The western The Iron Horse (1924) about the progressive role of the railways in settlement of the West; WW1 film The Lost Patrol (1934); about the Irish Rebellion The Informer (1935); the classic Western Stagecoach (1939); Young Mr. Lincoln (1939); about the American Revolution Drums Along the Mohawk (1939); about the Depression The Grapes of Wrath (1940); war documentaries Sex Hygiene (1941), The Battle of Midway (1942), December 7th (1943); They Were Expendable (1945); cavalry trilogy Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) about the tensions between the troopers' duty to the military and their personal lives during the Indian Wars in the South West; Korean war films: the documentary This is Korea (1951) and two war comedies - WW2 comedy When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950) and the WW1 film What Price Glory? (1952); the dreadful comedy about WW1 aviator Wings of Eagles (1957); Civil War film The Horse Soldiers (1959) and Civil War section of How the West Was Won (1962), court martial of black cavalry officer Sgt Routledge (1960); WW2 film about tyrannical captain on cargo ship Mister Roberts (1955); westerns My Darling Clementine (1946) about bringing law and order to the "wild" west; Wagon Master (1950), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); Cheyenne Autumn (1964); documentaryVietnam! Vietnam! (1971).
Based on a short story "Massacre" by James Warner Bellah.
The first in the "Calvary Trilogy" (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande). Set in 1876, Lt. Col. Thursday is an ambitious, class conscious and strict Eastcoast career officer who is bitter at being demoted from Civil War general to peace-time Lt. Col. and then being sent to the frontier to fight Indians instead of serving at a more prestigious post. He is not familiar with the special demands of fighting Indians on the frontier (a form of guerrilla warfare), ignores the advice of his more experienced sergeants (like Wayne/York) who wish to make peace with the Indian tribes led by Cochise, and so sends his men to a disastrous defeat (compare Gen. George Custer at Little Big Horn). Luckily for him, the new commander Wayne/York refuses to disabuse the eastern press representatives who interpret his defeat as a heroic "last stand". After singing the praises of the old commander York leads his men out of the fort to fight Geronimo.
The American film historian and critic Andrew Sarris discusses Ford's career during and immediately after the Second World War:
After How Green Was My Valley Ford went on active duty in the Navy as Chief of the Field Photographic Branch, a unit of the Office of Strategic Services (later glorified on the screen as the O.S.S.) (the OSS was the precursor to the CIA - DMH) with offices in Paris and London... He even picked up an extra Oscar for The Battle of Midway, America's first war documentary, and also a Purple Heart for wounds incurred in the engagement. This was shooting in both senses of the word... He is the only American film director who lent his artistic services to the Government through World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War... (pp. 109-10)
... Fort Apache was released at a time when Hollywood was afflicted with realistic rigor mortis. Critics of the period lacked the language to describe and evaluate myth and romance. Problems and polemics were the order of the day, and Fort Apache seemed to have nothing new to say. The film's attitudes towards Indians, women, and military discipline seemed either convential or conservative. Indeed, the final eulogy of John Wayne's Captain Kirby York for his fallen Custer-like commander, Henry Fonda's Colonel Thursday, tends to glorify command decisions to the point of incompetence and even insanity. Moreover, Ford seemed unduly sentimental in healing old wounds incurred in the Civil War by proud soldiers on both sides. Hence, much of the tension between the Fonda and Wayne characters is generated by a series of Yankee-versus-Reb insult routines in which Fonda's officious nastiness is allowed to play against Wayne's submissive exasperation. What unites them - the Seventh Cavalry rather than the Union - is much stronger than what has divided them in the past largely through an accident of geography... (p.126)
... Ford preferred to accept history and even legend as it was written rather than revise it in a radical or derisive spirit. Why are the Indians on the war path from Fort Apache to Cheyenne Autumn? Not, according to Ford, because of American Imperialism or White Racism or Manifest Destiny, but because of the derelictions of the Indian Ring, 'the most corrupt band of politicians in our nation's history'; graft and corruption on the local level rather than greed and conquest on the national level. Thus, the Indian remains the Other in American history and mythology to the end of Ford's career. (p. 128)
In his oustanding work Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20thC America Richard Slotkin argues that:
In 1948 John Ford added a major variation to the Western genre by uniting the conventions and concerns of the combat film and the Western in a single coherent fable. In his cavalry trilogy - Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1950), and Rio Grande (1950) - Ford used the time and resources of three productions to create and intensively develop a single set of themes, characters, and images. His success was such that he and his many imitators were able to draw on the formulas developed in the sequence to make numerous cavalry Westerns over the next two decades. By transferring the ideological concerns of the World War and its aftermath from the terrain of the combat film to the mythic landscape of the Western, Ford proposed a mythic response to the crisis of postwar ideology that is at once a moral critique of our 'victory" and an affirmation of the importance of the patriotic solidarity that made victory possible. (p. 334)
Andrew Sarris, "1848-1966: The Poet and Rememberer of Things Past," in The John Ford Movie Mystery (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), pp. 124-82.
Dougals Pye, "Genre and History: Fort Apache and Liberty Valance," Movie, Winter 1977-78, no. 25, pp. 1-11.
Andrew Sinclair, John Ford (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979).
Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington, John Ford (London: Secker and Warburg, 1974).
Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993).
They'll keep on living as long as the regiment lives... Their pay is thirteen dollars a month and their diet is beans and hay... and they may be eating horsemeat before this campaign is over... They'll fight over cards or a bottle of rotgut, but they'll share the last drop of their canteens... Their names may change and their faces change... but they're the regiment and the regular army... now and fifty years from now... They're better men than they used to be. Thursday did that. He made it a command to be proud of... and I'm proud to command it. (quoted in Sinclair, p. 144)