John Ford (I) (1894–1973)Director | Producer | Writer

Date of Birth 1 February 1894, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, USA
Date of Death 31 August 1973, Palm Desert, California, USA  (stomach cancer)
Birth Name John Martin Feeney
Nicknames Pappy
Uncle Jack
The Admiral
The Liberal Democrat at Republic
Height 6' (1.83 m)

John Ford came to Hollywood following one of his brothers, an actor. Asked what brought him to Hollywood, he replied "The train". He became one of the most respected directors in the business, in spite of being known for his westerns, which were not considered "serious" film. He won six Oscars, counting (he always did) the two that he won for his WWII documentary work. He had one wife; a son and daughter; and a grandson, Dan Ford who wrote a biography on his famous grandfather.

John Ford is, arguably, The Great American Director. When Orson Welles, who repeatedly screened Ford's Stagecoach (1939) as a crash course in filmmaking before helming his first film, Citizen Kane (1941), was asked who his three favorite directors were, he answered, "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." Along with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, the first-generation pioneers who created the narrative film in America, if not the world, Ford -- who came of age when movie production began shifting from its New York-New Jersey base to California in the second decade of the 20th Century -- ranks with William Wyler, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks as not only being among the greatest of American directors, but as an artist who helped define what America was on the silver screen. Ford's cinematic art is as much a part of Americana as a Frederic Remington painting of the Old West, a subject both lovingly portrayed in their respective media. (Ford was said to have possessed a painterly gift as a filmmaker.) Such was the respect he was held by his peers in the industry, he won four Academy Awards as Best Director, a record that still stands.

The legend known as John Ford was born John Martin Feeney on February 1, 1894 (many sources say 1895 and that is the date that is chiseled into his tombstone) in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, which is just south of Portland, the northeastern seaport where his parents had settled. His parents were Irish immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1872. They had 11 children in all, six of whom lived to adulthood. John was their tenth child, born between a girl and a boy who both died as infants. A saloon-keeper and an alderman, the Feeney family pater familias was a stereotypical Irish American, dabbling in both booze and politics in Portland, where John attended high school.

John Feeney followed his older brother Frank, who had renamed himself Francis Ford, to Hollywood. Frank, who was 13 years John's senior, had started out as a movie actor in 1909 and eventually appeared in about 500 films. He also established himself as a movie director, helming almost 200 films beginning in 1912, when he shot Western shorts for Thomas H. Ince at Bison Motion Pictures. Renaming himself Jack Ford, John Feeney acted in 15 of his brother's pictures from 1914 through 1916. He also appeared as a member of the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffith's 1915 blockbuster The Birth of a Nation (1915), the American cinema's first certifiable blockbuster, a movie as controversial during the Woodrow Wilson administration as it is now. (The film was banned in Boston to forestall the possibility of its inciting racial violence.) He directed himself as the leading man in a Western.

Young Jack Ford began to exit his brother's orbit and establish himself on his own when he moved from Bison to Universal as a director. It was directing films from behind the camera instead of acting in them before the camera that he made his reputation, starting in the late teens, helming Westerns starring Harry Carey, one of the superstars of silent screen horse operas.

In 1923, Jack Ford renamed himself John Ford and was one year away from his first masterpiece, The Iron Horse (1924), a Western. It was while working for production chief Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox in the 1930s, and over at R.K.O. (where the married Ford romanced a young Katharine Hepburn, herself the winner of a record four Oscars in her category, Best Actress), that he began to create the body of work that established his greatness. At Fox, Ford worked with the studio's two superstars, Shirley Temple and Will Rogers, the #1 and #2 draws at the box office. He won three Academy Awards as Best Director while toiling at R.K.O. and Fox, his first for R.K.O.'s The Informer (1935), which also won an Academy Award nomination as Best Picture and garnered a Best Actor Oscar for long-time Ford collaborator Victor McLaglen.

Winner of the Best Picture Award from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle (which also named Ford Best Director), "The Informer" was once considered, before the Citizen Kane cult was firmly established by 1960, a leading contender as the best American film ever made. The film's prestige diminished rapidly after the '60s, because the reputation of the film depended on the memory of aging film critics and movie-goers who typically had not seen the film in years. Films like The Power and the Glory (1933), the Preston Sturges-written epic known to have been a major influence on "Citizen Kane," but which was "lost" for decades (a complete print was not found until half-a-century after the film was released) had higher reputations than they deserved, as it had been a longtime since they had been viewed.

In the 1960s, film appreciation societies began to bloom, and many old classics and regular programmers alike were unspooled again on the silver screen, many in 16-mm non-theatrical prints. This movement, centered around college campuses and film archives in major cities, gave rise to the Humphrey Bogart cult and confirmed Citizen Kane (1941)'s reputation as a supreme masterpiece of cinema. When the videotape revolution of the late 1970s made old movies more readily available, the reputation of some old masterpieces faded while other forgotten films, like William Wyler's 1936 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth (1936) and nearly forgotten actors like Walter Huston were rediscovered, and their reputations waxed anew. "The Informer" was not one of those old films that aged well, and a contemporary cineaste would consider absurd the idea of it being the greatest American film of all time, as it had been by many for a generation after it first won four Oscars. Interestingly, John Ford's reputation has not suffered in the ensuing years of the videotape revolution, which brought his work to the modern audience unmediated by commercial television, which mercilessly cut up movies to conform to an advertising schedule, thus ruining them aesthetically. Increased exposure to Ford's oeuvre has burnished his reputation, and he still ranks supreme among American directors.

Now known to posterity primarily for his Westerns, Ford at Fox was a master of many genres, and even directed comedies such as Will Rogers Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), though unlike his contemporary Howard Hawks, he never really displayed a deft handling of that genre. Ford helmed contemporary dramas, in the same vein as William Wyler, and historical epics, like Warner Bros.' Michael Curtiz, but strangely, he stayed away from the Western, except for an occasional foray into an oater like Stagecoach (1939). "Stagecoach" is a classic that created the cliché of the drunken doctor in an action film, a role that brought Thomas Mitchell the 1940 Best Supporting Actor Oscar, not Mitchell's turn as Scarlett O'Hara's father in Gone with the Wind (1939), the biggest blockbuster of all time, which was released the same year as "Stagecoach."

In the 1940s, Ford won-back-to-back Best Director Oscars for two more classics he made at Fox, the screen adaptations of future Nobel laureate John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning classic The Grapes of Wrath (1940) in 1941, and of Richard Llewellyn's memoir of his youth in the coal-mining region of Wales, How Green Was My Valley (1941) in 1942. "The Grapes of Wrath" is a far better contender for the appellation "Greatest American Movie Ever" than is the dated "The Informer," while "How Green Was My Valley" has suffered unfairly due to the slings and arrows and assorted brickbats thrown at it by the "Citizen Kane" cult (which it beat out at the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Cinematography, in addition to Best Director), but a classic it is, beautifully shot, acted and directed.

He had sat out the First World War, the War to End All Wars, but in the 1930s, John Ford had joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as the country once again moved towards participation in a European war that seemed inevitable with the rise of Hitler in Germany. When the U.S. entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ford went on active duty and headed a documentary film unit. For his Navy documentaries, he won back-to-back Academy Awards for The Battle of Midway (1942) in 1943 and for December 7th: The Movie (1943) in 1944. Thus, from 1941 through 1944, John Ford won an Oscar each year for directing two feature films and two documentaries, a feat which was -- and remains -- unprecedented. (In 1953, John Ford won his record fourth Best Director Oscar for his paean to the Ireland of parents, The Quiet Man (1952). It also is a feat that remains unequaled.)

In the mid-1940s, after working in many genres, Ford began to focus on Westerns again, beginning with My Darling Clementine (1946), one of the classics of the genre. Many of his Westerns featured John Wayne, whom he had first worked with on Stagecoach (1939) and who became a superstar in Howard Hawks' classic oater Red River (1948). Wayne appeared in Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), the famous "Cavalry Trilogy." Along with "My Darling Clementine," Ford was plumbing the nature of American myth-making, and the creation of history as an historical narrative, that is, the re-creation of history, after the fact, i.e., history as something man-made, thus fallible. He had found the perfect correlative for Hollywood myth-making. This strain of John Ford's canon would reach its apotheosis a dozen years later, with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which took on these issues with a literalness that caused many contemporary critics to dismiss the film.

John Ford created so many classic Westerns that he began to be associated with the genre. It's interesting to note that from 1950 through 1959, he made only one Western, the classic The Searchers (1956), one of the greatest examples of the genre. Starting with The Horse Soldiers (1959) which he made for the Mirisch Co. at the end of the decade, six of his last eight completed movies were Westerns, including his last masterpiece, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

As befitted his status as America's premier director, in 1973, John Ford was the recipient of the first Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Film Institute. President Richard Nixon attended the event, presenting Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S.

Spouse (1)

Mary Ford (3 July 1920 - 31 August 1973) (his death) (2 children)

Regardless of where his westerns were set, filming exteriors at Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah, USA.
Funeral goers in his movies usually sing the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River."
If a doomed character plays poker, the last hand he plays before going to his death will be the "death hand" (two aces, one of them the ace of spades, and two 8s; so-called because Wild Bill Hickok held this hand when he was murdered). The hand will be shown in close-up.
Frequently cast John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara, Ward Bond, and James Stewart.
Rarely used camera movements in his films, reserving them only for very specific moments. Also avoided close-ups as much as possible.
Westerns and war movies
His characters are often morally grey individuals trying to survive a harsh world
Rarely shot a scene with more than two takes

There was a group of actors, known informally as the John Ford Stock Company (John Wayne, Harry Carey, John Carradine, Henry Fonda, etc.) that turned up regularly in Ford's films. They knew how to work with Ford and each other, which suited Ford's directing style: "I tell the actors what I want and they give it to me, usually on the first take.".
Father of Barbara Ford, grandfather of Dan Ford.
John Wayne usually called him by the nickname "Coach" or "Pappy" in private, but several times publicly, including during Wayne's acceptance speech for the 1970 Oscar for Best Actor, Wayne called him "Admiral John Ford", in reference to Ford's rank at retirement from the U.S. Naval Reserves.
In 1973 he was the first recipient of the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.
Younger brother of actor-director Francis Ford.
Supporting members of Ford's "Stock Company" include Ward Bond, Ken Curtis, Jane Darwell, Francis Ford, Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen, Mae Marsh, Mildred Natwick, John Qualen, Woody Strode, Tom Tyler and Patrick Wayne.
The character John Dodge in Ford's movie The Wings of Eagles (1957) is a spoof of Ford.
He often used members of his family (including his two brothers, Francis Ford and Edward O'Fearna) in his films, but only in subordinate roles. Patrick Ford recalled, "My conversations with him, as his only son--that I know of--were always 'Yessir', until one day I said 'no sir', and then I was no longer around. Our family life was pretty much that of a ship master and his crew, or a wagon master and his people. He gave the orders, and we carried them out".
His gravestone is marked "Admiral John Ford".
Godfather of actress Anna Massey.
Has referred to Northern Irish director Brian Desmond Hurst as his "cousin".
He was an infamously prickly personality, having constantly mocked John Wayne as a "big idiot" and having punched an unsuspecting Henry Fonda during the shooting of Mister Roberts (1955).
Was voted the 3rd Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly, right after Orson Welles, who himself considered Ford to be the best director of all time.
Embarrassed Jean-Luc Godard, then a young journalist for "Les Cahiers du Cinema", during an interview. When Godard asked the famous question, "What brought you to Hollywood?" Ford replied, "A train".
Biography in: John Wakeman, editor. "World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890- 1945". Pages 360-369. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987.
May be the most influential director of sound films on other directors. Many of the greatest directors of all time point directly to him as their favorite or one of their favorite filmmakers: Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone (and his own star, Clint Eastwood), Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Bernardo Bertolucci and many members of the French New Wave or their disciples, from Jean-Luc Godard to François Truffaut.
His apparently madcap affair with Katharine Hepburn, when both were married, inspired his friend Dudley Nichols to write the script for Bringing Up Baby (1938). When (after Hepburn broke off her relationship with Ford) she began her lifelong affair with Spencer Tracy, Ford was allegedly incensed and, after the two had had a fruitful collaboration early on in their careers, he neither spoke with or worked with Tracy for about 20 years.
When his western Hell Bent (1918) for Universal was released, "Motion Picture News" praised Ford's direction, writing, "Few directors put such sustained punch in their pictures as does this Mr. Ford." It was the ninth in a series of films featuring Harry Carey as "Cheyenne Harry", who was more of a saddle tramp than a conventional western hero.
While John Ford is the director's "Hollywood" name, and his American birth name is John Feeney, his Irish name was Sean Aloysius O'Fearna. Allegedly his parents referred to him as "Sean".
Directed ten different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Victor McLaglen, Thomas Mitchell, Edna May Oliver, Jane Darwell, Henry Fonda, Donald Crisp, Sara Allgood, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Jack Lemmon. McLaglen, Mitchell, Darwell, Crisp and Lemmon won Oscars.
In 1973 he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon.
He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1640 Vine St. on February 8, 1960.
Prior to making The Searchers (1956), Ford entered the hospital for the removal of cataracts. While recuperating after the surgery, he became impatient with the bandages covering his eyes and tore them off earlier than his doctors told him to. The result of that rash action was that Ford suffered a total loss of sight in one eye, which is how he came to wear his famous eyepatch.
Has won more directing Oscars than any other director: four, for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). He also won an Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subject for The Battle of Midway (1942) and an Oscar for Best Documentary for December 7th: The Movie (1943).
Because his friends and colleagues John Wayne, James Stewart and Ward Bond were very conservative Republicans, many assumed that Ford was as well. According to his friends, family, and co-workers, nothing could be further from the truth, as he was an activist liberal Democrat. His favorite Presidents were Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Ford once went up to the right-wing Victor McLaglen and Wayne on a film set and said, "You know, all of you guys should stop complaining. You made your money under Roosevelt." Wayne, who hated Roosevelt, said nothing and changed the subject. His respect for Ford meant that politics were rarely discussed.
Ford was disgusted by John Wayne's refusal to enlist in 1941. When Ford filmed They Were Expendable (1945) after World War II he included every actor's former military rank and branch (Ford himself was a Navy officer and combat photographer). Of course, there were no credentials behind Wayne's name, which the actor took as a real slap.
Was the first director to receive back-to-back Best Director Oscars (1941 and 1942).
Enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves in 1934, commissioned as a lieutenant commander. He served on reserve and active status until 1951, when Captain John Ford was retired with the honorary rank of Rear Admiral. While on active duty during World War II he worked with the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA. While he produced a number of documentaries and training films for the OSS, perhaps one of his more notable achievements was a one-hour compilation of films which had been produced by order of Gen. (and future President) Dwight D. Eisenhower, showing liberated concentration camps. The film, Nazi Concentration and Prison Camps (1945), was entered as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crime Trials.
A young would-be director once came to him for advice, and Ford pointed out two landscape photographs in his office. One had the horizon at the top of the picture, and the other had it at the bottom of the picture. Ford said "when you know why the horizon goes at the top of the frame or the bottom of a frame, then you're a director," and threw the kid out of his office. The would-be director was Steven Spielberg.
Was a character in "Short Letter, Long Farewell", a 1974 novel by the innovative Austrian writer and filmmaker Peter Handke.
Profiled in "Through a Catholic Lens: Religious Perspectives of 19 Film Directors from Around the World", ed. by Peter Malone. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.
President Richard Nixon and California Gov. Ronald Reagan were present at the dinner at which Ford received the first American Film Institute dinner Lifetime Achievement Award. Nixon presented Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and declared that, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he was promoting Rear Admiral John Ford to full Admiral for the remainder of the night. (It was 10:37 pm on the night of March 31, 1973, when Nixon began speaking). After the President's remarks, Ford responded with his own speech: "Thank you, sir. As [former POW] Captain Jeremiah Denton said--I hope I get through with this; I am about ready to bust out in crying--as Captain Denton said as he set foot for the first time in many years on continental American soil, 'I am stunned and bewildered at this reception.' He ended with 'God bless America.' I quote his words with feeling. There are some people in this world who don't think that we movie folks have any religion, but a glance around this distinguished audience is living refutation of that nonsense. In a recent telephone conversation with the President, he said, 'What is your reaction to the prisoners coming home?' I said, 'Frankly, sir, I broke down and blubbered and cried like a baby. Then I reached for my rosary and said a few decades of the beads, and I uttered a short fervent prayer, not an original prayer, but one spoken in millions of American homes today. It is a simple prayer, simply, God bless Richard Nixon'.".
John Wayne gave the eulogy at his funeral.
In the fifth edition of "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" (edited by Steven Schneider), nine of his films are listed: Judge Priest (1934), Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
His filmmaking experience proved valuable to the US Navy during World War II. He photographed the attack on Omaha Beach on D-Day for the OSS.
His favorite actress was Maureen O'Hara and his favorite actor was John Wayne.
Often cast his older brother Francis Ford in very small and uncredited parts in his films. He had followed Francis out to Hollywood. Francis was a silent-era director-actor who helped John establish a career. Allegedly, the employment of Francis was for sadistic purposes, since John seemed to enjoy giving him small, unimportant parts and yelling at him in front of the cast and crew.
Had a great dislike of foul language and would often assault anyone who spoke that way in front of a woman.
During the Depression, Ford--at the time a very wealthy man--was accosted outside his office by a former Universal actor who was destitute and needed $200 for an operation for his wife. As the man related his misfortunes, Ford appeared to become enraged and then, to the horror of onlookers, he launched himself at the man, knocked him to the floor. However, as the shaken old man left the building, Frank Baker saw Ford's business manager Fred Totman meet him at the door, where he handed the man a check for $1,000 and instructed Ford's chauffeur to drive him home. There, an ambulance was waiting to take the man's wife to the hospital where a specialist, flown in from San Francisco at Ford's expense, performed the operation. Some time later, Ford purchased a house for the couple and pensioned them for life.
Following his death, he was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, CA.
Was named the most influential filmmaker of all time by Moviemaker magazine.
Has won more Academy Awards for Best Director than any other director in history.
He was famously untidy and his office was often littered with papers and books.
Honored on a US postage stamp in May 2012 (along with Frank Capra, John Huston and Billy Wilder).
In December 2011 Clint Eastwood received the first John Ford Award from John Ford Ireland Film Symposium.
In June 2012 the 1st John Ford Ireland Film Symposium (organized by the Irish Film & Television Academy [IFTA)] was held in Dublin, Ireland, celebrating the work of John Ford. The festival is set to become an annual event.
Among Ford's favorite of his films are The Sun Shines Bright (1953), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Wagon Master (1950).
He was the godfather for all of John Wayne's children.
Quote from Pat O'Brien: "John Ford, the old master, is the orderly type. Working for him is like being part of a ballet. He hardly ever moves the camera, but composes his shots like a master painter, a Rembrandt or Degas. The actor becomes part of the scene. Ford lets the action swirl past his lens. But the reality of his seamen, miners, dust-bowlers, horse soldiers, or western heroes, when he is at his best, is a literature that the screen rarely gets. Working for him one feels a special pride. Lewis Milestone is a bouncing camera mover. For him the seeing eye is all. He stands the camera on its head, rolls it, rushes it, brings it in on the run. The actors are part of the scenery, and they must fight to survive, come alive while he catches them on the run. Neither men are static directors. They don't care for too much talk in their script, or stage business over meaningless chatter.".
Was the youngest of 13 children of John Augustine Feeney and Barbara Curran.
Three of Ford's films--Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946)--are in the Criterion Collection.
Loved dogs.
There were occasional rumors about his sexuality. In her 2004 autobiography "'Tis Herself", 'Maureen O'Hara' recalled seeing Ford kissing a famous male actor (whom she did not name) in his office at Columbia Studios.
Enjoyed playing a card game called pitch.
He had a flair for languages, which took some people by surprise. Jean Renoir (a close friend), reported in his autobiography that Ford usually spoke to him in French whenever they met in Hollywood, while Henry Brandon--born Heinrich von Kleinbach in Berlin, Germany--and Jane Chang, a Chinese-American actress, separately told Ford's biographer Joseph McBride that he had directed them in German and Chinese, respectively. When making films in Ireland, the land of his forefathers, he would often demonstrate his fluent Gaelic.
Had English and Irish ancestry.
Whenever Ford filmed a scene that dealt with violence, he liked to film it as quickly as possible because he did not like violence.
Funded the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
He liked to watch Henry Fonda dance in scenes from his movies, particularly in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946).
Along with Ernst Lubitsch, Jack Conway, Michael Curtiz, Victor Fleming, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Wood, Francis Ford Coppola, Herbert Ross and Steven Soderbergh, he is one of ten directors to have more than one film nominated for Best Picture in the same year. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Long Voyage Home (1940) were both so nominated at the 13th Academy Awards in 1941.