John Wayne (foreground) as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s classic western Stagecoach (1939). Despite the fact that the studio moguls ran their empires like medieval kingdoms, using equal measures of fear, flattery, blandishments, and threats, some of the greatest directors in the history of cinema flourished under the Hollywood studio system. John Ford rapidly established himself as one of the industry’s leading lights, specializing in westerns but working across a wide variety of genres. After many years in silent films beginning with The Tornado (1917), he scored his first sound success with a brilliant adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Arrowsmith in 1931, about an idealistic doctor whose work leads him to question conventional medical ethics.
In 1935, Ford directed the classic story of the IRA, The Informer, with Victor McLaglen, which again won him numerous plaudits. And yet Ford could direct a Shirley Temple feature such as Wee Willie Winkie (1937) with equal assurance, as well as the routine action picture Submarine Patrol (1938). In 1939, he directed the classic western Stagecoach, which made a star out of John Wayne. Wayne had been kicking around in films since the late 1920s; he and Ford struck up a friendship, and Ford subsequently recommended him for the leading role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), but the film failed to click at the box office.
Wayne was then too inexperienced to command the audience’s attention, and for the next nine years he struggled to make a living in a series of forgettable low-budget westerns, at one point even being pressed into service as a singing cowboy in the mold of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as “Singin’ Sandy Saunders.” Ford recognized that with a solid property and skillful direction, Wayne, older and wiser in 1939, would be ideal for the role of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, and the gamble paid off. As Wayne famously observed, Ford taught him not “how to act, but to react” to the other performers, to keep his gestures to a minimum, and to use his words sparingly.
Ford then went on to what many consider his finest film, The Grapes of Wrath (1940), based on John Steinbeck’s novel about migrant farmers during the Depression. Henry Fonda, another of Ford’s favorite actors, gives an understated and convincing portrayal of Tom Joad, forced with his family to search for a new beginning in a hostile landscape. When World War II came, Ford created several documentaries for the U.S. Navy before returning to civilian life with a string of classic westerns: My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and the masterful work The Searchers (1956), often cited, despite its often inherently racist depiction of Native Americans, as the perfect film.
Ford was one of the consummate studio directors, infusing simple material with his core values of duty, honor, and service to one’s country. As a visual stylist, he preferred a rigidly stationary camera, known as the “information booth” style of direction, in which the actors enter a scene, play it out, and then exit, all in one take. His coverage of a scene is often simple, but his compositions are striking in their use of depth, light and shadow, and strategic camera placement. For many years, he shot most of his westerns in Monument Valley, Utah, using al-
John Wayne, John Ford, and Ben Johnson on the set of Ford’s elegiac western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter in John Ford’s masterly western The Searchers (1956).
most the same location, so that a Ford western is instantly recognizable; fellow directors stayed away from Monument Valley as a sign of respect to him.