Directed by John Ford: 35 Movies, and a Lifetime, in One Weekend

When asked which directors he liked best, Orson Welles famously said, “I like the old masters … by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” The comment continued: “With Ford at his best, you get a sense of what the earth is made of–even if the script is by Mother Machree.” I read all this to Ford and he said, “Where is Orson now?” I told him Welles was at the Beverly Hills Hotel and he grunted. A couple of days later, Welles called me: “Did you tell Ford that quote of mine?” Yes; why? “I just got a telegram from him that reads: ‘Dear Orson, Thanks for the compliment. Signed, Mother Machree.’” Laughing, Welles said, “He went right for the one negative!”

Of course, Orson’s “one negative” is not unique in Ford criticism. Ford is often referred to as oversentimental, which is true at times, but more often the work is filled with legitimate and powerful sentiment, quite a different thing. I’ve also been noticing that things which seemed only sentimental when you were younger, turn out to feel pretty real as you get older. Anyway, Welles felt that Ford, whom he also defined as “poet and comedian,” was certainly the best American director.

In the new American Movie Classics subscriber’s magazine–the cable channel is running the 35-film Ford tribute this weekend (see below)–Andrew Sarris floats Ford as America’s greatest director, and American Heritage recently ran a long piece calling Ford’s The Searchers “The Movie of the Century.”

He is still the Academy’s most frequently honored filmmaker, with six Oscars for direction–four for features, two for war documentaries (see below)–as well as the New York Film Critics record holder, with four as best director. He was the first director to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award.

Personally, Ford was the first filmmaker I ever knew of and with whose work I connected immediately. When I was 10 and Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) was new, I saw it several times; I would name it at age 11 or 12 as one of my three favorite movies.

Beginning with 1952, during which I turned 13, living with my parents on West 67th Street in Manhattan, I started to keep track of every film I saw, typing a 4-by-6 index card with comments on it for each one. If I saw a film again, I would often make new comments. This continued faithfully until the end of 1970, when I was 30 and had just finished shooting The Last Picture Show . Looking at the staggering AMC run of films, I realized there were quite a few I hadn’t seen in years, and I started looking up my old cards on some of the more arcane titles, thinking perhaps to quote from them. What appears here are the cards, exactly as I typed them between 1952 and 1970, with a current opinion, if necessary.

Between 1952 and 1966, I saw every new Ford movie–over 15 of them–during their initial release. I kept a separate list of all Ford movies I saw, in order of their viewing (85 entries, more than any of the other 56 directors I kept track of). In 1963, when I first met Ford while on assignment for an Esquire piece about him, until his death in 1973, I was in constant touch; I ended up buying a house literally across the street from him in 1972. Besides the lengthy Esquire article, I expanded this with a series of taped interviews with Ford, and published the whole thing as a little book in London and New York in 1967-8, just around the time we started filming a feature-length documentary salute to Ford commissioned by the American Film Institute. Directed by John Ford (1971) opened at the Venice Film Festival and at the ninth New York Film Festival, the same one that had begun with The Last Picture Show , a film in many ways inspired by Ford perhaps more than anybody.

AMC is running our rarely seen tribute (see below)–which features filmed interviews I did with John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Ford himself in Monument Valley, Calif., with Orson Welles’ voice narrating–as part of their current fund-raising activities for the Film Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by Martin Scorsese to save our film heritage from further deterioration. Of all films produced between 1895 and 1928, only about 10 percent have survived; from 1929 to the present (the sound era), only about 50 percent are still with us. So this three-day Ford binge is not only culturally healthy, but also a culturally crucial effort to save older films from extinction.

On the cards: The date at the top right of the single card reproduced below is the year I first saw the film. The numbers at the left are the cumulative index-card total at that point; each viewing rates another number. The six possible rankings are: Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Exceptional, though each of these often has a plus (*) or minus (-) valuation to aid precision.

Friday, 6 A.M.

Straight Shooting (1917;Butterfly-Universal).

Seen: Manhattan (1968).

Good- (Ford’s first feature; a fascinating work in its early mastery of composition and pacing, in its unmistakably Fordian qualities and the strong influence of Griffith. A homesteaders vs. cattlemen story, with Harry Carey, it is certainly dated by modern standards, but its freshness and vigor is still most apparent, and much of the photography–the striking long shots, the interior-to-exterior compositions–remains vivid and evocative.)

This is a good example for film preservation: Of the more than 20 features and shorts Jack (before the billing became John) Ford made with Harry Carey, 1917-1920, only one or two more have survived. Indeed, comparatively few Ford silents exist, and this was his most prolific era, making over 60 films.

Friday, 7:30 A.M.

The Iron Horse (1924; Fox).

Seen: Manhattan (1959).

(Pretty fair epic silent film of the building of the first transcontinental railroad and of one man’s search for the murderer of his father.)

Seen: West Los Angeles (1969).

Good- (Generally well done, but still very much under Griffith’s influence–though the atmosphere and the attention to detail as well as the compositions are unmistakably Ford’s; the story is pretty weak, and the humor is still undeveloped, still crude. But … with some absolutely breathtaking photography; it seems that Ford had his eye from the moment he stepped behind a camera.)

Friday, 3:15 P.M.

The Battle of Midway (1942; U.S. Navy-Fox).

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1965).

Very good* (The first American war documentary, a stirring, patriotic and typically Fordian twenty-minute account of the battle of Midway in the Second World War; done with narration and the voices of mothers and sons, played by Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell …. Ford was there and we see it all from his distinctive point of view.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1965).

(The raising of the flag in the midst of the battle–”Yes, this really happened”–is one of the great film moments, fact or fiction …)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1969).

(… it is a poetic and touching document, and entirely the work of an artist.)

Friday, 3:45 P.M.

December 7th (1943; U.S. Navy).

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1968).

Very good (Strikingly photographed and beautifully edited wartime document of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath; excellent and all but indistinguishable combination of actual footage and recreated scenes …. Some fine Ford touches–such as the dead boys speaking from their graves about their lives and parents …)

Friday, 6 P.M., and Saturday, 2:05 A.M.

What Price Glory? (1952; Fox).

Seen: Manhattan (1962).

Good* (Delightful, exciting, often moving version of the famous World War I stage play and film, very well played by James Cagney and Dan Dailey, directed with gusto and humor in typical Ford style …)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1966).

(The old dialogue is a trifle stilted at times and there’s a certain awkwardness in some of it, as though Ford’s heart wasn’t in it all; but there are also marvelous things–especially the humor–that could only be Ford.)

Friday, 8 P.M. and midnight.

How Green Was My Valley (1941; Fox).

Seen: Manhattan (1959).

Exceptional* (Among Ford’s most popular pictures, and deservedly so, for this is an unbearably moving, superb epic about a Welsh mining town and the changes in the lives of one family during a generation. Tender, compassionate, brilliantly acted and directed, beautifully photographed and written. One of Ford’s most affecting works, filled with pathos and warm humor.)

Seen: Manhattan (1962).

(Unquestionably one of the most tragic, moving films ever made; Ford is among the top four directors in world cinema.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1968).

(Greater than ever, the film’s majesty and depth, humanity and scope is not diminished in the least; it is a glorious movie, and one that never fails to make you cry at the tragedy and also the bravery of life.)

Friday, Aug. 6, 10:05 P.M.; Sunday, Aug. 8, 3:40 P.M.; Monday, Aug. 9, 1:15 A.M .

Directed by John Ford (my A.F.I. documentary as described above).

Saturday, Aug. 7, 4:05 A.M.

Mother Machree (1928)

A part of the 1928 Ford silent, found since 1970, which I have never seen. Welles’ metaphoric comment on “scripts by Mother Machree” (see above) was also a concrete reference to this as among the most notoriously sentimental of Ford’s silent films.

Saturday, 7:15 A.M.

The Shamrock Handicap (1926; Fox).

Seen: West Los Angeles (1969).

Fair* (Likable, decidedly minor Ford silent, set in Ireland and America … a nice example of the bread-and-butter days of Ford and Hollywood, when movies still dared to be just a movie …)

Saturday, noon.

Seas Beneath (1931; Fox).

Seen: West Los Angeles (1966).

Good (Early Ford talkie with all the great Fordian elements in embryo form … striking photography at sea, careless story plotting held together by a vigorous and dynamic sense of pictures…. The acting … leaves much to be desired…. The Ford personality is so unmistakable in many moments …)

Saturday, 1:30 P.M.

Doctor Bull (1933; Fox).

Seen: West Hollywood, Calif.

Very good – (Ford’s Arrowsmith –a charming small-town comedy-drama, with Will Rogers in the title role; not one of Ford’s best…. but Ford’s handling … and Rogers’ personality make up for the awkwardness of…the other players …. dated … shows an interesting trend in Ford’s work–his personality best expressed in the little picture.)

Saturday, 3 P.M.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936; Fox).

Seen: Manhattan (1962).

Very good* (Beautifully directed piece of Americana, about Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man wrongly accused of conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln: with a particularly impressive opening sequence … a haunting still-frame of Lincoln’s head blurring into immortality … has not the greatness of Young Mr. Lincoln …)

Saturday, 6 P.M. and midnight.

Donovan’s Reef (1963; Ford-Paramount).

Seen: Manhattan (1963).

Excellent* … a semi-nostalgic … rowdy comedy set on a South Seas island–beautifully color-filmed … strikingly personal in its direction; with a story of little consequence, Ford has constructed a thoroughly delightful romantic farce about a couple of former Navy men who have retired and spend most of their time now brawling and raising hell.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1969).

(A vacation movie–lots of fun–and uniquely Ford.)

(1999): I’ve overrated this; the film is amazingly personal to Ford, but also formally at times way over the top.

Saturday, 8 P.M.; Sunday, Aug. 8, 2 A.M.; Tuesday, Aug. 10, 9 P.M.; Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2 A.M.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962; Ford-Paramount).

Seen: Manhattan (1962).

Exceptional* (A Ford masterpiece: perhaps his final word on the West in the era when the gun was the law. A complete tragedy about an Eastern lawyer, a tough horse trader, the girl they both love, and the killer whose death destroys one and creates a career for the other. Sad, melancholy, sometimes very funny, deeply felt and beautifully directed, acted, photographed and written, this is among Ford’s most personal achievements, and one of the best pictures he has made.)

Seen: Manhattan (1962).

(Without doubt, a beautiful, tragic movie: Wayne, Stewart, Vera Miles are superb in their simplicity, and Ford’s direction is a masterpiece of understatement and economy; among the classic westerns.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1967)

(The depth of irony and humanity in this picture is remarkable, and the simplicity, the purity with which it is achieved shows Ford’s true genius. It is one of the saddest movies ever made, by a man who may well be the greatest American director.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1968).

(… filled with grace and poetry, from the depths of Ford’s heart and mind. Among the great westerns.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1970).

(The depth of Ford’s emotional involvement in this story is remarkable and deeply moving on every level; its reverberations echoing through the years and shadows of his other work; a great masterpiece of personal cinema.)

Saturday, 10:15 P.M., and Sunday, 4:05 A.M.

My Darling Clementine (1946; Fox).

Seen: Manhattan (1959).

Exceptional* (Among Ford’s most memorable, perfect works: a masterpiece of the Old West, set in Tombstone, about Wyatt Earp and his brothers … and Earp’s relationship with the tragic Doc Holliday-culminating in the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. Brilliantly, personally directed … strikingly photographed, excellently acted.)

Seen: Manhattan (1962).

(In every way a great film; one of the best westerns; a high point in Ford’s staggering career.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1966).

(A great and beautiful film by a great director.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1968).

(… The simplicity of the telling, the perfection of the construction and playing, the majesty of the photography and composition–all conspire to make it among Ford’s most classically beautiful achievements.)

(1999): Only more precious. Newest released version has five minutes of Ford’s material restored, plus his much preferred “no-kiss” ending, in which Henry Fonda shakes hands with his darling Clementine rather than kissing her on the cheek. As Ford told Fonda during The Grapes of Wrath (see below): “Country people don’t kiss [in public].”

Sunday, Aug. 8, 6 A.M.

Three Bad Men (1926; Fox).

Seen: West Los Angeles, Calif. (1966).

Good* (A somewhat contrived and occasionally haphazard story that has, however, many of the classic Ford gambits in immature form … There is a Dakota land rush at the end that is extremely exciting and beautifully orchestrated, and a rescue of people in a burning church that is clearly influenced by a similar sequence in The Birth of a Nation , but which does not pale by comparison. The exteriors are beautiful and typically Ford in all their aspects: the riders on the horizon, the epic long shots … the brilliant interior-to-exterior photography, the vivid black and white contrasts. The story … has the Fordian concept of the glory in defeat, but is still rudely stated, not always naturally played … with a flair for the movies both unmistakable and totally unique.)

Sunday, 1:30 P.M., and Monday, 3:45 A.M.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940; Fox).

Seen: Manhattan (with Tobacco Road )(1956).

(Certainly one of the finest novel-to-film adaptations ever made, a powerful and tragic, brilliantly acted, written, directed and photographed version of Steinbeck’s story of Oklahoma migrant workers forced off their land by the Government and obliged to flee westward with their families looking for work where there is none. A deeply moving piece of Americana, poignantly told.)

Seen: Manhattan (1962).

Very good- (Fine and sensitive as the acting and the direction is, this is not in any way as great or as personal as many of Ford’s other works, such as The Searchers , The Quiet Man , She Wore A Yellow Ribbon or The Wings of Eagles , none of which is flawed by the dated social consciousness and unconvincing, rather confused propaganda of the script, particularly its latter scenes. But there is no denying the mastery of Ford’s treatment, nor the vitality and beauty of its scenes and performances …)

(1999): It remains an extraordinarily dark work to come from a major American studio. I showed it once to River Phoenix, and remember River being struck repeatedly by the brilliance and beauty of Henry Fonda’s remarkable performance as Tom Joad. Though flawed, an important picture.

Sunday, 5:35 P.M.

The Long Gray Line (1955; Rota-Columbia).

Seen: Manhattan (1955).

(Sentimental, tearful story of 50 years in the life of Irishman Marty Maher, and his beloved West Point. Well directed and shot; some of the film is humorous, much is maudlin and boring.)

Seen: Manhattan (1962).

Excellent (A superb piece of work, among Ford’s most deeply moving: sentimental, yes, but as only Ford could be–from the depths of his heart. Unqualifiably a beautiful movie.)

Seen: West Hollywood, Calif. (1968).

(As strong a picture of the importance and glory of tradition as Fort Apache –and as personal to Ford perhaps; wonderful performances and magnificent direction.)

(1999): The best performance of Tyrone Power’s career, and a most unmistakably Fordian picture of the glory inherent in defeat. Fine use of wide screen, though Ford was said to keep wandering into the frame because he misjudged it’s width.

Sunday, 8 P.M.

The Searchers (1956; Whitney-Warner Brothers.)

Seen: Manhattan (1956).

Exceptional*(Stunningly color-photographed, superbly directed and acted, exciting, deeply stirring western drama about two men and their agonizing 10-year search for a little girl kidnapped by Comanches; a vivid and beautiful piece of Americana.)

Seen: Manhattan (1963).

(Perhaps Ford’s purest film and certainly one of his most personal; truly a masterpiece by one of the four greatest directors in cinema history.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1969).

(It really is a remarkable film, so complex in its effect, so deep in its emotions; it is certainly among Ford’s greatest achievements on any level–as entertainment, as art, as personal filmmaking; it is continually engrossing and always fresh. An unqualified masterpiece.)

Seen: Van Nuys, Calif. (1970).

(Richer and more moving with each viewing; one of Ford’s greatest achievements, on any level.)

(1999): As highly recommended here recently ( The Observer , July 26, 1999).

Sunday, 10:35 P.M.

Cheyenne Autumn (1964; Ford-Smith-Warner Brothers).

Seen: West Hollywood, Calif. (1964).

Excellent- (An epic Ford achievement: the harrowing story of the flight of 300 Cheyenne men, women and children 1,800 miles to their native Yellowstone country. Strikingly photographed, acted with dignity and conviction, filled with incident, detail, humor … masterful Americana …)

Seen: Canoga Park, Calif. (with Emil and the Detectives (1965).

(Cut by Warner, the picture has lost the important touch of humor, an ingredient too absent from this to start with; always a flawed film it has been damaged even worse. But nothing can destroy the majesty of Ford, and it shines through every frame.)

Seen: Beverly Hills, Calif. (1970).

(Decidedly Ford’s weakest film of the 50′s and 60′s, it still contains some memorable sequences, and marvelous ideas, but it is nonetheless a deeply flawed work.)

(1999): Cheyenne Autumn was the first film I extensively watched being made–for three weeks; a few hours had been my limit before that–and so it is impossible for me really to be objective about the overall work. Being there in Monument Valley with Ford for over 21 days, having lunches and dinners with him daily, getting to know all the actors, learning an enormous amount watching a frail and skinny 69-year-old man easily command a cast and crew of over 600, a large trailer town in the midst of the desert. I remember thinking to myself, Well, I guess getting to be that age wouldn’t be so bad, after all–at least, you don’t have to worry about how you look or what you say, as Ford clearly didn’t.

From here on through to the end of Ford’s life in 1973, up to right now, it is not entirely possible for me to be objective about Ford, and I often enjoy being in his company even with a film from one of his lesser days. What I like best, of course, are those pictures in which his humor, his humanity and his sense of history most eloquently prevail. Naturally, feeling a personal affection for the man I knew, and knowing the current plight of film preservation, it is painful to think of losing any single one of those movies, even the poorest one. They all are some portion of the singular life work of one of the precious few poets in the art form of the 20th century. Saving films, then, is like saving parts of lives.