John Ford

By: Brian Berger
February 1, 2015

john ford

If, as the famously gruff and evasive director intended, the real JOHN FORD (1894–1973) is unknowable, such is the vastness of his art that, for many, to not ponder its probable meanings is absurd. Yes, entertainment abounds — dances, chase scenes, fights; humor bluff and sardonic; sexual passions, however sublimated; and cinema’s nonpareil assemblage of recurring character actors, the John Ford Stock Company, priceless Ward Bond included. Visually, Ford was likewise brilliant and this too brings pleasure: grand landscapes, careful interiors, an understated yet often astonishing gift for montage. The troubles — and in Ford’s best pictures, they are immense — are dialectical: public/private, image/reality, history/myth. Take Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), where some dubious facts assay greater truth; How Green Is My Valley (1941), Ford’s boldest, most nuanced literary adaptation; and Fort Apache (1947), a proto-revisionist western that uniquely credits a research editor, Katherine Clifton. Forsaken for its use of 19th-century black caricatures, the comic gentility of The Sun Shines Bright (May 1953 — a year before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision made racial segregation illegal) disguises Ford’s radical critique of American intolerance and hypocrisy; despite their appearances, the film’s black characters function is satirical, disruptive, never static. “Like Ulysses being reunited with Telemachus” wrote Jean-Luc Godard of The Searchers (1956) ending. As for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), the elegiac and enraged apotheosis of multiple intentions and intensities, I recall another self-invented Ford, he who began The Good Soldier (1915) like so: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

How Green Is My Valley

Young Mr. Lincoln

Fort Apache


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Joe Carstairs, Gilbert Hernandez, Langston Hughes, Exene Cervenka, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Muriel Spark, S.J. Perelman.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Modernist (1884–93) and Hardboiled (1894-1903) Generations.


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