Print the Legend
When asked to name his three favorite directors, Orson Welles answered, "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." Ingmar Bergman dubbed Ford the greatest director who ever lived. The only director to win four Best Director Academy Awards, Ford was also the first recipient of the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, both in 1973, the year he died.
Ford claimed to be a practicing Catholic all his life, though his bouts with alcoholism caused his devotion to waver. But his faith evident as late as the 1960s when he gave his rosary beads to an interviewer who described himself as an atheist and communist. Ford's grandson and biographer Dan Ford states that Ford's "simple faith in Jesus Christ was a comfort to him in his last days."
But when it came to making films, Ford was no Bresson ascetic, but wholeheartedly a man of the flesh, depicting with relish feasts, saloons, barroom brawls, dancing, and music. Especially music. Music inspired him. He played period music as he wrote and planned his films, and even played some songs on the set to capture the tone; many of the songs wound up on his soundtracks and even in the titles of the films.
Born John Martin Feeney in 1894 in Maine, symbols of Ford's Irish heritage and Catholic religious tradition manifest themselves often in his films, as does his devotion to the foremost of American historical Christ figures: Abraham Lincoln. In Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Ford chose to film Lincoln's early days, making him more human than most other portraits on film of our nation's great President.
Go West, Young Ford
Ford was an average student, but an avid reader with a vivid imagination. Throughout his life, he made up stories about himself and changed his name frequently until he became famous. In the early days of the silents, his older brother Francis ran off and hit it big in Hollywood, changing his last name to Ford.
John soon followed suit and apprenticed with brother, first acting, then directing scores of films. He even had a bit part in D.W. Griffith's landmark 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, as a Klansman who, ironically, has to lift his hood to be able to see.
Griffith was a huge influence on Ford, as was legendary actor Harry Carey. Ford had John Wayne—who played in 24 of Ford's movies—imitate a lot of Carey's gestures, including holding his elbow and leaning on one hip, and his broken rhythms of speech and frequent pauses.
Ford had a stable of actors, like a stock company, that he worked with, including John Wayne, Will Rogers, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. Though he could be a bullying director, he did not give much direction as far as how to act a scene. He cast actors more for their physicality and gesture than their delivery. He shot them as moving statues in fluid architecture and monumental landscape. Ford often only took one take, and shot in sequence, cutting in the camera, reducing the re-cutting the studios could perform; restricting them to his creative vision alone.
In 1920, Ford married Mary McBryde Smith, a non-Catholic divorcee. They remained married for life, but the union was troubled by alcoholism and arguments, as well as Ford's five-year affair with Katharine Hepburn after Ford cast her in Mary of Scotland (1936).
After being impressed by Murnau's watershed film Sunrise (1927), eschewing close-ups and the moving camera, Ford focused on camera placement and formal composition of the geometric space to frame, even trap, his characters—free-willed agents in a fated universe.