Biography of John Ford, Four-Time Oscar-Winning Film Director

John Ford
Director John Ford holding cigar and wearing the eye patch he needed late in life, on set of Civil War scene, the Battle of Shiloh, fr. his film How the West Was Won.

John Bryson / Getty Images

John Ford (February 1, 1894 - August 31, 1973) was one of the greatest film directors of all time. He won four Best Director Academy Awards, more than any other director. He is best known for his Westerns, but multiple of his novel adaptations stand among the best films of all time.

Fast Facts: John Ford

  • Full Name: Sean Aloysius Feeney
  • Occupation: Film director
  • Born: February 1, 1894 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine
  • Died: August 31, 1973 in Palm Desert, California
  • Spouse: Mary McBride Smith
  • Selected Films: Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956)
  • Key Achievements: 4 Academy Awards for Best Director and the Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Notable Quote: "It is easier to get an actor to be a cowboy than to get a cowboy to be an actor."

Early Life and Education

Born into an Irish immigrant family in Maine, John Ford (born Sean Aloysius Feeney) grew up in a moderately prosperous environment. His father owned saloons in Portland, Maine's largest city. Ford was one of eleven children. Many of John Ford's subsequent film projects related to his Irish heritage.

The young John Ford played football in high school. He earned the nickname "Bull" for his habit of lowering his helmet as he charged the line. Ford's older brother, Francis, left Portland to seek a career in New York in the theater around the year 1900. He was successful and took the stage name Francis Ford. By 1910, Francis moved to California to seek a movie career. After high school graduation, in 1914, Francis' younger brother, John, moved to California with the hope of launching his own career.

Silent Films

John Ford got his start in Hollywood as an assistant in the production of his older brother's movies. He served as a stuntman, handyman, double for his brother, and occasional actor. Despite a contentious relationship between the two, within three years, John was his brother's primary assistant and often operated the camera.

By the time John Ford made his debut as a director in 1917, Francis Ford's career was on the decline. Between 1917 and 1928, the younger Ford worked on more than 60 silent films. However, only ten of them survive fully intact. For his entire career, John Ford was one of the busiest directors in Hollywood, but the silent years were unusually productive even by his standard.

john ford the lottery man
The Lottery Man (1919). Corbis Historical / Getty Images

John Ford had his first significant success as a director with the 1924 epic The Iron Horse, about the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. He filmed it on location in the Sierra Nevada mountains with 5,000 extras, 2,000 horses, and a cavalry regiment. Among the props used were an original stagecoach used by newspaper publisher Horace Greeley and Wild Bill Hickok's pistol. The movie earned an estimated $2 million on a budget of $280,000.

Westerns

John Ford is best remembered for his Westerns. From the 1930s through the 1960s, he helped design the look and feel of classic Western film. One of his favorite actors, John Wayne, appeared in more than 20 of his films as a featured actor. Wayne was in countless more projects near the beginning of his career performing as an extra.

john ford stagecoach
Stagecoach (1939). Moviepix / Getty Images

Despite his early success with The Iron Horse, Ford didn't direct any Westerns between 1926 and 1939. However, when he once again returned to the frontier, Ford created what many critics consider one of the best films of all time. Stagecoach appeared in 1939, and the story of mismatched strangers thrown together in the vast emptiness of the West while riding through dangerous Apache territory thrilled audiences. It earned seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. Thomas Mitchell won for Best Supporting Actor. Orson Welles reportedly studied Stagecoach in his preparations for making Citizen Kane.

During World War II, John Ford served in the U.S. Navy Reserve creating wartime documentaries. He won Oscars for two of his films. He was with the U.S. military on D-Day and filmed the beach landing. He was recognized for his bravery during the war after suffering injuries while documenting attacks.

Rear Admiral John Ford
American film director John Ford (1894 - 1973) in uniform as a Rear Admiral in the United States Naval Reserve, circa, 1957.  Pictorial Parade / Getty Images

John Ford's first movie after his service in World War II was 1946's My Darling Clementine, a Western featuring another of the director's favorite actors, Henry Fonda. He followed it with the so-called cavalry trilogy of movies starring John Wayne. They included 1948's Fort Apache, 1949's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and 1950's Rio Grande.

Ford's next Western didn't appear until 1956. Starring Jeffrey Hunter and rising star Natalie Wood, The Searchers quickly became a classic. In 2008, the American Film Institute named it the Greatest Western of All Time.

In 1962, John Ford released The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starring James Stewart and John Wayne. Many observers consider it the last great Ford film. It was a major success and one of the top 20 moneymaking films of the year. Cheyenne Autumn, the final John Ford Western, appeared in 1964. Unfortunately, it was not a success at the box office and was the most expensive film of the legendary director's career.

john ford my darling clementine
John Ford directing My Darling Clementine (1946). Bettmann / Getty Images

Classic Novel Adaptations

Despite his association with Westerns, John Ford didn't win any of his Best Picture Oscars for them. Three of the four awards came with novel adaptations. The fourth wove the feature-length film The Quiet Man out of a short story.

The first John Ford film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture was the 1931 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's novel Arrowsmith. Ford won his first Oscar for Best Director adapting Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer in 1935, a tale of the Irish War of Independence.

In 1940, Ford took on John Steinbeck's Great Depression novel The Grapes of Wrath. It was the director's third consecutive film working with the young actor Henry Fonda. Coming shortly after the end of the Great Depression, the movie was a huge success. It earned Ford his second Best Picture Oscar, and The Grapes of Wrath is often included on lists of the best films of all time.

John Ford's third Best Director Oscar came a year later with his adaptation of the Welsh mining saga How Green Was My Valley. It famously beat out Citizen Kane for the 1941 Best Picture Academy Award. The movie is a classic working-class drama in the spirit of Ford's previous Oscar-winning efforts.

john ford how green was my valley
How Green Was My Valley (1941). Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Ford's final Academy Award for Best Director came with a film that his movie company didn't want to make. With pressure from Ford, they funded 1952's The Quiet Man, a short story adaptation set in Ireland starring John Wayne. The worry was unfounded. In addition to winning John Ford an unprecedented fourth Best Director nod, it was one of the top ten moneymaking films of the year.

Later Career

Despite being dogged by ill health and declining eyesight, John Ford worked well into the 1960s. He completed Donovan's Reef, his last film with John Wayne, in 1963. It was Ford's final major commercial success, earning over $3 million at the box office. His last feature film, 7 Women, appeared in 1966. It was a story about missionary women in China trying to protect themselves from a Mongolian warlord. Unfortunately, the movie was a commercial flop.

john ford the man who shot liberty valance
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Corbis Historical / Getty Images

John Ford's final completed project was a documentary on the most decorated U.S. marine titled Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend. It featured narration by John Wayne. Though filmed in 1970, it wasn't released until 1976. Ford died in August 1973.

Legacy

John Ford continues to hold the record for the most Best Director Academy Awards won with four. He also earned Oscars for two wartime documentaries. In 1973, he was the first recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. In the same year, Ford received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He wasn't the only person winning awards for his films. John Ford directed a total of four Academy Award-winning acting performances, and ten appearances in his movies earned nominations.

Source

  • Eyman, Scott. Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. Simon & Schuster, 2012.