Conclusion – John Ford: An Auteur Theorist of the Western Genre.

Over the past several weeks, I have been looking in depth at the Western Genre as a whole, with particular focus on director John Ford.

During this time, I have become more aware of the certain directing style of John Ford, and his relationships with certain actors which led him to become so successful. This has led me to believe, that John Ford can be considered an Auteur, according Andrew Sarris and François Truffaut, who explained that directors who differ greatly from others and show evidence of having their own, unique directing styles are known as Auteur Theorists.

Bert Glennon (left) and John Ford (right) on the set of "Stagecoach" (1939)

 After investigating Ford in more depth, it became clear that he was unique from other directors, because of many things. For example, he frequently used the beautiful ‘Monument Valley’, Utah, USA as a backdrop and location for numerous films which he directed; the popular Stagecoach (1939) being one of many. He has been frequently recalled as a domineering director, who showed little friendship towards his actors, as well as using a ‘stock company’ for his actors; with many of his films often featuring the same actors, including: Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara, Vera Miles and of course, John Wayne. I have explored Ford’s special relationship with Wayne, and how the two first came about meeting and working together. Over the years, Ford decided to frequently cast Wayne in over 17 of his Western films; clearly indicating that he had faith in Wayne to portray characters as he had originally intended.

 As I explored in my last blog entry, there were many factors which I believe made John Ford an Auteur. But is it accurate and acceptable to class him as an Auteur Theorist?

I believe it is; simply because he was so unique in everything he did and with every film that he made, so much so that each of his films were almost similar to previous ones and ones to follow. Whether this be because of the actors he used, the locations or the types of directing styles, it is clear that John Ford had his own unique ways of directing which made him different from previous Western directors and directors to follow. John Ford’s individual styles of directing meant that he was able to stand out more from the other directors around him, yet manage to positively influence their work, for example Italian director, Sergio Leone. Ford’s ability to stand alone from the rest, may have also contributed to his successful career which spanned from 1917 to 1966, and resulted in him winning 4 Oscar awards, alongside another 27 wins and 13 nominations for other various awards.

John Ford (in chair on left) on the set of "Stagecoach" (1939)

 When I first began writing this blog, I was interested in the changes of the Western genre over time, and how John Wayne had influenced the Western Genre. When researching this however, it became clear to me that it wasn’t necessarily John Wayne alone who influenced the Western genre and made it highly popular; but it was also John Ford, who was an iconic directing figure of the Western genre at the time. Ford’s own ability to create unique and highly successful films, revitalised the Western genre and film industry, especially in the United States, where Ford was able to reflect the true meaning of the ‘Wild West’ in his films.

I have also looked at John Ford’s ability to conform to what is expected from a Western genre, from the audience’s own perspective, and his ability to put his own twist on this was, again, something which influenced his career greatly and made him highly successful.   

 To conclude, I believe that from widely looking at John Ford, his films, John Wayne, the Western genre and taking into account Andrew Sarris and François Truffaut’s ‘Auteur Theory’, I believe that I am able to conclude that John Ford can be considered an Auteur Theorist of the Western Genre.

                                                                                                                                                                  

Online References

Feeney. J. M ‘John Ford’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ford

Ford. J. ‘John Ford’. Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000406/

Leone. S. ‘Sergio Leone.’ Wikipedia.org. Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergio_Leone

Filmography

Stagecoach (1939). Directed by John Ford. United States. United Artists.

The Western Genre According to John Ford

John Ford made many Western films during his time as a director from 1917 to 1971. During this time, he created many of the best known and most appreciated western films ever made, including Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the latter being one which is widely known to have greatly influenced Italian film director, Sergio Leone, who went on to direct many of his own Western films, the most famous of which being the Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)). Clearly, John Ford was a very successful film director, not only because he had the ability to create his own films with his own unique style, but because he had a great impact on other film directors who wanted to be just like him.

Clint Eastwood as 'The Man with No Name' in Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy" (1964-1966)

Over his career, Ford won a total of six Academy Awards, as well as being nominated for best director for Stagecoach (1939). To this day, John Ford holds the highest total of nominees and wins for the best director Oscar award, having won the award on four separate occasions.

Earlier, I have explored what makes the Western Genre. I believe that many factors for a film must apply for it to be put into the Western Genre category. These can be minor things, such as the mise en scené of the film, perhaps the horses, men in Stetson hats, vast landscapes, etc; but they must also contain the underlying themes of the Western Genre; perhaps disputes over land, money etc (see my earlier blog post: What Makes the Western Genre?). From sampling many of Ford’s Westerns, I believe that his popularity and successful career span, may be due to the fact that he incorporated many, if not all, of these factors within his films. However, I have also been exploring the fact the John Ford can be considered to be an Auteur.

Film journalist, Ephraim Katz wrote:

“Ford’s films, particularly the Westerns, express a deep aesthetic sensibility for the American past and the spirit of the frontier … his compositions have a classic strength in which masses of people and their natural surroundings are beautifully juxtaposed, often in breathtaking long shots. The movement of men and horses in his Westerns has rarely been surpassed for regal serenity and evocative power. The musical score, often variations on folk themes, plays a more important part than dialogue in many Ford films.” 

(cited from John Ford – Directing Styles [Wikipedia.org] see references below.)

Within many of his films, Ford liked to use certain locations. One location which immediately stands out and springs to mind, is ‘Monument Valley’, Utah, USA. This is possibly one of the most beautiful and breath-taking landscapes seen in films, and was clearly one of Ford’s most favourite locations. He used Monument Valley in Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), as well as others such as, Fort Apache (1948).

Monument Valley, Utah, USA as it appears in "The Searchers" (1956).

Although Monument Valley wasn’t geographically accurate for the Western films which Ford was making, it enabled him to portray his own vision of the American West which he wanted the world to realise and see with their own eyes. Monument Valley became a place where Ford would also go alone, to think of new ideas and develop his already existing ones. Orson Welles (1915-1985) was remembered as once saying that other film directors never shot anything in Monument Valley, out of the fear of Ford acting on plagiarism rights to the location. Clearly, Monument Valley was a very important place for Ford.

Monument Valley, Utah, USA again, as it appears in "Fort Apache" (1948).

Other things which I believe make John Ford an Auteur, are the smaller methods of film production which he undertook. For example, Ford never storyboarded his film ideas, neither did he write down or record any graphic communication or cinematography ideas for his crew to work with. He always used what he had composed inside his head as a reference; possibly believing that it was only he, who needed to see these ideas. This may be true also, as his films were rarely re-written or re-released after production. Instead, Ford was well known for vigorously scripting his ideas, and was recorded on many occasions tearing pages out of scripts to cut down the dialogue.

Finally, it is again clear, that John Ford was a very unique film director. He had his own style of creating films, from the beginning planning stages, to the final edits; but he was possibly most well-known for his frequent use of breath-taking landscapes and one actor in particular. I believe that John Ford’s relationship with actor John Wayne was something which allowed him to become so successful. By using Wayne, Ford created an actor who had been well developed around the Western Genre and also become someone who audiences expected to see in Western films. The use of the famous Monument Valley location, allowed Ford to show his own vision of his film, as well as portraying the stereotypical imagery of how a Western film should have looked.

It is for these reasons that I believe John Ford can, most definitely, be considered an Auteur.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Online References

Feeney. J. M ‘John Ford’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ford

Morrison. M. R. ‘John Wayne’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wayne

Leone. S. ‘Sergio Leone.’ Wikipedia.org. Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergio_Leone

Welles. G. O. ‘Orson Welles.’ Wikipedia.org. Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orson_Welles

Filmography

Stagecoach (1939). Directed by John Ford. United States. United Artists.

Fort Apache (1948). Directed by John Ford. United States. RKO.

The Searchers (1956). Directed by John Ford. United States. Warner Bros.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Directed by John Ford. United States. Paramount Pictures.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Directed by Sergio Leone. Italy. Unidis.

For a Few Dollars More (1965). Directed by Sergio Leone. Italy. Unidis.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Directed by Sergio Leone. Italy. Unidis.

Pappy and The Duke – The Brief History of a Successful Friendship

I have looked at, in an earlier blog post, the types of factors which make up the Western genre. However, since I have been looking at the ‘Auteur’ and ‘Auteur Theory’, I believe that not all of these factors appeal to the same directors. John Ford, for example, had a certain friendship with John Wayne, which spanned over 50 years, both personally and professionally, and effected the way in which Ford began to make films.

John Wayne (left) and John Ford (right). A friendship which lasted more than 50 years.

John Ford had been a successful director for more than 10 years before he met Wayne (then known by his birth name of Marion Morrison), a student at the time who had landed himself a summer job at Fox. After speaking to Morrison, Ford noticed something about him, and began to give him minor walk-on roles in the films he was making at the time. Impressed with his acting abilities, Ford recommended Morrison to Raoul Walsh, another director at the time. Within two years of meeting John Ford, Morrison had changed his name to John Wayne.  Sadly, Walsh’s film ‘The Big Trail’ was a flop, and whilst Wayne’s dream career of becoming an actor were in tatters as the cinema world saw him relegated to category C roles, Ford’s reputation as a director soared. Many argue that Ford could have stepped in to help Wayne, after all he was meant to be his mentor. However, Ford argued that he was waiting to see how Wayne would react, whilst also waiting for the right role to emerge for the new actor. Ford and Wayne remained friends however, and whilst on a voyage on Ford’s yacht in 1938, Ford asked Wayne to read the leading role from a script he had been writing. The role was ‘Ringo Kidd’; the film, was ‘Stagecoach’.

This film, besides being one of Ford’s most successful productions of all time, made Wayne a star over night. Many directors and fellow actors began to notice his talent, and started to support him.

Almost two years later however, the war started. John Wayne had finished five films with Ford since ‘Stagecoach’. In this time, John Ford had been called to service by his country, in order to fight for America in the War. Wayne however, wanted Ford to stay behind so they could continue making more films. Ford asked Wayne numerous times to join the forces, and it has been reported that Wayne investigated going into the military, only if he could have been placed in the same regiment as Ford; but by the time of Pearl Harbour, Wayne was 34 years old and therefore exempt from service. Ford’s disappointment in Wayne began to show, which clearly affected their friendship.

By the end of the war and Ford’s death in 1973, Pappy and The Duke (the pair’s nicknames for one another) had made 12 films together.

By the end of the 1950s, John Wayne had become the biggest star in Western cinema. Ford on the other hand, found that he was becoming less successful on his own, as well as becoming increasingly more reliant on Wayne. The pair grew increasingly apart, until 1960 when John Ford was filming his own film ‘The Alamo’. Apparently, Ford arrived on the set of this production, much to Wayne’s delight, who offered him the chance to help shoot some of the production.

Clearly, John Ford and John Wayne had a very memorable career which proved to be extremely important for the American and Western film industry. Together, they created many productions, which made the Western genre popular once again. Ford’s faith to reach out to what he saw in Wayne the first time they met, brought around a promising new actor, who would become highly successful and popular throughout the world.

If it wasn’t for Ford, who knows? Maybe the Western genre wouldn’t have become popular again, perhaps it may have even been forgotten.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Online References

Bowser. K (2006) ‘John Wayne and John Ford – Pappy and The Duke’. Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/john-ford-and-john-wayne/pappy-and-the-duke/594/

Feeney. J. M ‘John Ford’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ford

Morrison. M. R. ‘John Wayne’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: May 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wayne

Filmography

The Alamo (1960). Directed by John Wayne. United States. United Artists.

What Makes the Western Genre?

According to Tim Dirk’s website “FilmSite”, the Western genre can be described as the genre which defined the American film industry. They are considered to be one of the oldest genres, “with very recognisable plots, elements and characters.” One would agree with this, and consider that mise en scené such as horses, stagecoaches, dusty desert towns, as well as the odd Native American tribe, would clearly help define a film of the Western genre. The popular time for Western films ran from the 1930s to the 1960s. However, the 1990s saw a resurrection of the genre, for example ‘Unforgiven’ (1992, Clint Eastwood), which has now been continued into the 2000s.

Some consider the Western genre to be an indigenous form of American art, which focuses on the “Frontier West that existed in North America”. Stereotypically, Western films are usually set between 1865-1900, a time following the Civil War in America. Landscapes are also comprised of deserts, farms, and dusty towns, a saloon, jail and a livery stable; but there are also elements of beauty shown in the American West which help to make the time look very appealing and almost romantic. Locations often contist of certain places in America, most commonly the state of Texas, as well as venturing over the border into South America and Mexico. Something which I can link to an earlier blog post of John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939), in which many of these elements can be seen.

However, Westerns may extend back to the time of America‘s colonial period or forward to the mid-20th century, or as far geographically as Mexico. A number of westerns use the Civil War, the Battle of the Alamo (1836) or the Mexican Revolution (1910) as a backdrop.” – Tim Dirk; ‘FilmSite’.

The stereotypical first thought of a Western genre.

In terms of a main, protagonistic character; it is here that the similarities between Western films and narratives become similar. Many feature a strong, architypal character, often an outlaw who wants to clear his name and become the hero again. Some main characters, focus upon getting revenge on the villain who killed his family, whilst others act more like police detectives, trying to maintain law and order in their town. Some feature the ‘lone ranger’, who returns to a town many years after leaving or being exiled, whilst others show a more family orientated main character.   Some Westerns have more simple character’s, for example those from a farming community who try to re-capture their land (usually from the Native Americans); whilst some protagonists are often faced with their double in the form of their enemy, sometimes being a family member, often a cousin or brother.                      

The appearance of such main character’s usually contrasts greatly to that of the story’s villain. For example, the main character and his gang, usually wear white Stetson hats, whilst the antagonists largely wear black.

Primarily, the Western film focusses on the victory of the West over the East. The confiscation of land a rights from native inhabitants, predominatntly the Native Americans (or ‘Indians’ as they are formerly known) shown to be inhumane savages, where a popular theme throughout the older style Westerns. This genre, to a certain extent, helps to glorify America’s actions towards other people and countries, showing them to be the best and most powerful nation during this difficult time period.

This brings me on to the types of themes which run throughout Westerns. The most popular, being the West’s victory and superior strength over other nations and people. However, when simplified, it appears that the majority of Westerns can be described as having a “simple goal of maintaining law and order on the frontier in a fast-paced action story.” (Tim Dirk, ‘FilmSite’, “Western Films or Westerns”.)

From looking at Dirk’s descriptions and own ideas of what a Western Genre consists of, I have to strongly agree with him. Clearly, Westerns are formed as much from the landscapes as they are the character’s and the background stories of those characters. This is something which can be seen in Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939)  and in many of his other Western’s, including “The Searchers” (1956) which also featured John Wayne as the leading actor.

The type of imagery which creates a romantic/picturesque feel for the Western genre.

 

                                                                                                                                                                          

Printed References

Neale, S. (2000) ‘Genre and Hollywood’. Sight Lines/Routledge: London and New York

Online References

Dirks, T. ‘AMC FilmSite; ‘Western Films or Westerns’. Accessed: May 2010. Avaliable from: http://www.filmsite.org/westernfilms.html

Filmography

Stagecoach (1939) Directed by John Ford. United States: United Artists.

The Searchers (1956) Directed by John Ford. United States: Warner Bros.

Genre Theory & The ‘Auteur’

Christine Gledhill’s ‘The Cinema Book’, notes that it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that articles and academic papers were beginning to be written on individual Hollywood genres. Gledhill also says that it were two main reasons that genre suddenly appeared and became of interest to critics and academics. “One was a desire to engage in a serious and positive way with popular cinema in general and with Hollywood in particular.” (Neale, 2000: 10). Suddenly, people started becoming interested in Film Studies as an academic discipline, and wanted to discover why certain films were put into certain categories. Most popularly, it is thought that these categories arose due to people’s increasing like for film material which focussed around what was culturally popular at the time. American culture in particular, was considered to be very influential towards the film industries and the reasons for wanting to change the way film categories were organised.

This also allowed film directors and writers to focus on creating films which had their own individual traits and qualities; and thus making them an ‘individual’ film of that genre. Directors no longer wanted to be known to create work which was stereotypically expected from their audience; or follow the “ostensibly collective and impersonal nature of film production” (Neale, 2000: 10).

 

French filmmaker, François Truffaut (1932-1984) noticed this and, in his journal ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’, called it “la politique des auteurs’ (Neale, 2000: 10). An idea which US film critic, Andrew Sarris later called “Auteur Theory” in 1968, to which it is still known as in Britain and the US.

This idea explains that “auteurism was founded on three basic premises” (Neale, 2000: 10), explaining that one; film makers were suddenly opened up to a world of art and personal expression in film. Two; the director of a film could be considered to be the equivalent counter-part of a literary author. And three; was that ‘Auteurs’ could be found within all different types of cinema, ranging from international to Hollywood (Hillier, 1985b: 7).

 

‘Auteur Theory’ allowed Hollywood in particular, to expand into the realms of making films which were all very different from each other. Directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, are all considered to be examples of ‘Auteurs’ by Andrew Sarris, due to their individual natures and methods of film making (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Sarris) Wes Anderson, for example, is known for having the unique yet simple, trait of using the same font within his films.

One ‘Auteur’ in particular whom Andrew Sarris mentions; is John Ford (1894-1973), the director of ‘Stagecoach’ (1939).

In my next blog, I plan to look more at the John Ford’s appearance as an ‘Auteur’ in Hollywood, and how he created such a wide fan base for films of the Western Genre; and why this was.

                                                                                                                                                                    

Printed References

Neale, S. (2000) ‘Genre and Hollywood’. Sight Lines/Routledge: London and New York

Online References

‘Auteur Theory’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: April 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auteur_theory

‘Cahiers du Cinéma’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: April 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cahiers_du_cin%C3%A9ma

Sarris, A. ‘Andrew Sarris’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: April 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Sarris

Truffaut. F. ‘François Truffaut’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: April 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ois_Truffaut

Filmography

Stagecoach (1939) Directed by John Ford. United States: United Artists.

Creating A Hollywood Classic – “Stagecoach” (1939, John Ford)

According to many film critics, “Stagecoach” (1939, John Ford) was considered to be the film which shot American actor, John Wayne to stardom. The classic tale, follows a group of American people in the classical Western period of the 1880’s (the exact year in which “Stagecoach” takes place is 1880) who all, for many individual reasons of their own, need to travel from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico. On beginning the journey however, the group become aware that the stagecoach in which they are going to travel, follows a war path trail through Apache territory. Being a very typical genre theme of the Western in the 1900’s, this proved to be very popular with audiences. 

On first viewing, it is difficult to accept how significant the film really is, especially due to the old cameras and lenses which create a very old and individual feel to the film. The technological capabilities of the production team of “Stagecoach” can be noted in the panning/zooming shot below, when the camera first zooms onto John Wayne’s character, Ringo Kid. In this particular shot, notice how the camera blur as it zooms into Wayne’s face, due to the camera having no ‘depth of field’ allowance. 

  

“Stagecoach, it may be said, revolutionised the western epic by breaking out of the sterile, artificial confines of the Hollywood sound stage.” (Richard J. Anobile, 1975) 

This, I believe, is a very true and accurate statement. In 1939, filmmaking technologies were beginning to advance rapidly, due to the continuing advances of camera and recording equipment. Film companies were now able to move out of the studio, and begin filming outside in a real life and accurate setting. However, this meant that scenes, such as when we see the characters on the inside of the “Stagecoach”, could be moved into an internal filming setting and controlled more effectively to create a more successful piece of art. In 1939, Hollywood was able to make this possible, due to the discovery of ‘Rear-Screen Projection’, for which a camera crew would film an outdoor location which would then be projected behind the actors indoors as they acted the scene.  

  

Most notably however, 1939 saw the beginning of John Ford’s working relationship with actor John Wayne; a man who had only previously been seen in minor acting roles in less popular films.  

What was it which Ford saw in Wayne, and why did he continue to use him in the vast majority of his productions after 1939?  

What did he believe Wayne brought to the screen, that no one else could; and why was their friendship so successful?  

  

Something which I plan to explore next time. 

John Wayne (left) and John Ford (right)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Online References 

 Ford. J. ‘John Ford (1894-1973)’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: March 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ford

Stagecoach (1939). Wikipedia.org. Accessed: March 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stagecoach_(1939_film)

Wayne. J. ‘John Wayne (1907-1979)’. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: March 2010. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wayne 

Filmography 

Stagecoach (1939) Directed by John Ford. United States: United Artists.

An Introduction to the Western Genre

I hope to use this blog to help me conduct research into the Western Genre, a particular area of film which I have always enjoyed and have always been interested in. One particular Western which has caught my attention, has been “Stagecoach” (1939, John Ford) since this film was considered to be the film which shot actor John Wayne to stardom, 71 years ago. After watching this film for the first time, I noticed that the stereotypical characteristics of Director, John Ford, were clearly visible in this film. John Ford’s passion for filming in vast open landscapes such as ‘Monument Valley’ Utah, USA (the first of seven Ford classics to be filmed in this location), to reflect his character’s own wandering personalities and need to find a sense of community, are clearly shown throughout “Stagecoach”.

“Monument Valley”, Utah, USA – An inspirational location for Director, John Ford

 

I also find Ford’s use of actor, John Wayne throughout his Western films very interesting; and something which I would also be interested in studying as part of my research. In order to study this, I would like to take one John Ford film from each decade; 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s, etc; and then look at each one individually and as a group respectively.

Something which I am particularly interested in however, is the way that the Western Genre appears to have changed over time. A highly successful film such as “Stagecoach” for example, clearly differs from a more modern Western, such as “No Country for Old Men” (2007, Joel & Ethan Coen) and would be something which may interest me when conducting research.