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.

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