John Ford earned acclaim for movies filmed in landscapes that were vast, severe and rugged, like his personality. He also directed films considered sensitive and compassionate, and so was he. Winner of four Academy Awards for Best Director, John Ford was one of the most influential filmmakers ever.
John Ford was born John ‘Jack’ Martin Feeney on Feb. 1, 1894 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. His father, John Augustine Feeney, arrived in Boston days before the June 1872 arrival of his mother, Barbara Curran, in Portland. Both were from Ireland. They married in 1875 and had 11 children. The family lived in the Irish-American Munjoy Hill neighborhood of Portland, where John Augustine ran a saloon, served as an alderman, farmed, fished and worked for the gas company.
Drunks, boxers and roustabouts in the tough Munjoy Hill neighborhood gave Ford his ideals of masculinity, later embodied in his friend John Wayne.
Ford’s oldest brother Francis had drifted into film acting after serving in the Spanish American War. Francis took the stage name Ford from the automobile and moved to San Antonio, Texas. There he directed and appeared in Westerns for Newport movie mogul Thomas Ince, who died mysteriously on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht.
John Feeney followed his older brother to Hollywood, taking the name John Ford and working as his assistant. He would eventually eclipse his older brother’s considerable fame. He did it by directing such films as The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, The Quiet Man, Stagecoach and How Green Was My Valley. Ford was best known for Westerns starring John Wayne, though Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond also appeared frequently in his films.
Over his career, Ford directed 140 films and won six Academy Awards. Famously tough on actors, he was described as the only man who could make John Wayne cry and once punched Henry Fonda.
His breakthrough film, Stagecoach, launched John Wayne’s career in 1939. The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley followed in 1940 and 1941, respectively. He won Academy Awards for Best Director for both.
Then during World War II, he made documentaries for the Navy, which won two Academy Awards. He was wounded in the arm filming the Japanese attack on Midway, and he also filmed the invasion of Omaha Beach. The latter never saw the light of day because the government didn’t want to show so many American casualties on screen.
After the war, he became an independent producer and directed The Fugitive and Fort Apache, both starring Henry Fonda.
He finished out the decade with another acclaimed film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, starring John Wayne.
Ford directed several films with Irish themes. His most famous, The Quiet Man, featured John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in a lush Irish setting. It included a famous fight scene and a score that O’Hara listened to during her final hours. Ford won an Academy Award as best director for the 1952 film.
Ford shot another film in Ireland in 1957, The Rising of the Moon, based on three Irish short stories. Then in 1958, he directed The Last Hurrah, starring Spencer Tracy, based on a fictionalized biography of Boston Mayor James Michael Curley.
Ford called his 1950 film Wagon Master his all-time favorite because it came closest to what he hoped to accomplish. It inspired the television series Wagon Train.
Others consider his 1956 Western The Searchers, starring John Wayne, one of his best films. In 2008 the American Film Institute named it “The Greatest Western of All Time.” It featured the signature line, “That’ll be the day,” which inspired a song of the same name by Buddy Holly.
Critics consider The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, shot in 1962, the last great film of John Ford’s career. Again it starred John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Then in their 50s, they played cowboys in their 20s, but moviegoers didn’t mind and made it a box office success.
Ford’s health declined and he finished his last feature film, 7 Women, in 1966.
John Ford On the Set
He was famously irascible on the set. Described as a ‘tough, two-fisted, hard-drinking Irish son-of-a-bitch,’ he taunted and berated performers. He didn’t drink while filming, but afterwards would lock himself in his study, wrapped only in a sheet and go on a drinking binge for days — then vow never to drink again.
Those who knew him well said his rough exterior hid a soft heart.
During the Depression, when Ford was already a wealthy man, an unemployed Universal actor came to the studio and asked him for $200 to pay for an operation for his wife. An enraged Ford shouted, “How dare you come here like this? Who do think you are to talk to me this way?” He stormed out, but not before telling his business manager to give the man a check for $1,000 and sending him home in his own chauffeured car. Then an ambulance was waiting at the man’s home and a specialist flown in at Ford’s expense to perform the operation. The operations was a success, and Ford bought a house for the couple and pensioned them for life.
Ford died on August 31, 1973.
In 1998, a 10-foot bronze statue of Ford seated in a director’s chair was installed at Gorham’s Corner in Portland. Inscribed in the base are the words, ‘DIRECTOR “I MAKE WESTERNS.”’ The statue is part of Maine’s Irish Heritage Trail.
This story was updated in 2023. Image of John Ford, 1973, By Allan warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16706120.