Ford. Ford’s case is both the depth of the filmography (his 29 archiveable films trail only Hitchcock and Woody Allen) and The Searchers– the best film of all-time.  14 of those films end up in their respective decades top 100 and that’s second to only Hitchcock. For all practical purposes Ford invented both the western genre (made roughly 4 of the best 8 of all-time) and John Wayne (14 films together). His work is remarkably consistent, there are multiple masterpieces (across four decades). There are even those who ride for How Green Was My Valley over Kane and as misguided as that may be—it shows just the great quality throughout the depth of Ford’s body of work (I wouldn’t use a word as fancy as oeuvre to talk about Ford—he’d hate that- haha).

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a perfectly composed wall-art shot in The Searchers

Best film:  The Searchers is the easy choice here as good as Stagecoach is. The Searchers is a meditation on wilderness and civilization. It’s an update of Melville—John Wayne is Ahab here, obsession—monomaniacal. It is one of the greatest examples of architecture as character in photography and film—these characters are swallowed up by the rugged uncivilized world. It’s both beautiful and unforgivably harsh. The door as a frame is Ozu—it’s brilliant and Ford emphasizes shadow. It happens again and again not just at the beginning and end which are two of the greatest moments in cinema history acting as bookends…. There’s the scene where Wayne finds Martha’s body, shadow, arriving at the Jorgensen’s, inside the cave escaping Scar towards the end and again chasing after Debbie—it’s brilliant visual film form.

doorways in John Ford’s work- not just during the greatest final shot/scene of all-time but throughout the film in The Searchers
The beginning of The Searchers– man vs wilderness, silhouette photograph beauty, tracking shot

total archiveable films: 29

top 100 films: 2 (The Searchers, Stagecoach)

the flying tracking shot in on John Wayne in Stagecoach – my vote for best shot of the 1930’s

top 500 films: : 8 (The Searchers, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, My Darling Clementine, The Grapes of Wrath, The Quiet Man, Fort Apache, How Green Was My Valley)

a devastatingly beautiful shot in Grapes of Wrath

top 100 films of the decade: 14 (The Iron Horse, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Informer, The Hurricane, The Lost Patrol, My Darling Clementine, The Grapes of Wrath, Fort Apache, How Green Was My Valley, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)

framing in How Green Was My Valley

most overrated:  Wagon Master. I’m overdue for a revisit but currently it sits at8th for Ford and #515 on TSPDT. I can’t find a spot for it in my top 15 Ford films and I would easily get to 800-900 maybe even 1000 films without getting to it. I’m excited to revisit and see if I’m wrong.

most underrated :  Fort Apache – I have it as #396 and Ford’s 7th best and TSPDT has it as #740 and Ford’s 10th. Great performances from both Fonda and Wayne. It takes a little to get going but has a devastating last half hour and is an easy MS film for me from a great master.

gem I want to spotlight:  The Quiet Man. I assume most film buffs have seen his best four films- all westerns. But I watch this one almost every year around St. Patrick’s Day. I have it as Ford’s 6th best film. It’s a gorgeous bluray (wonderful use of color) and it’s a funny and accessible film that I think has aged well (and homages galore inspired from this film including in E.T.).  It’s known for its location shooting in Ireland and it shows. It’s absolutely gorgeous exterior photography. It’s amongst the best work of all of the 4 leads- Maureen O’Hara, John Wayne, Barry Fitzgerald (pretty sure this is his single best role) and Victor McLaglen. Honestly the only other guy I could see pulling off the McLaglen role to have that sort of size and screen presence to battle with Wayne would be Bond himself (who is good as narrator and smaller role in the film itself. I’m not saying it rivals the technical/artistic impact of in cold blood but there’s a great shot of O’Hara crying in the rain in the window.  Written by Frank Nugent who also wrote The Searchers– the comedic elements might work even better here than in the 1956 all-time masterpiece. Also rightfully well known for Victor Young’s rolling musical score. There’s some fine film form going on here with bad weather in intimate scenes- first, the famous wind scene and later there’s a thunder storm when they kiss again.

the iconic wind kiss scene in The Quiet Man

stylistic innovations/traits:

the tracking shot in on Wayne to announce his arrival is the best in Stagecoach but the best single image is this doorway shot

You could pick either or focus on some of his shot compositions including the framing, blocking and camera movement in the opening and closing bookends of The Searchers. I think other films are close to The Searchers but when I think of that ending I can’t put anything else ahead of it on my all-time list. According to the great Roger Ebert: “Ford had an unrivaled eye for landscape, and famously used Monument Valley as the location for his Westerns. Ford’s eye for composition was bold and sure.” His work with and usage of Fonda and Wayne would make a great paper/book/article paired with Hitchcock’s usage of Stewart and Cary Grant. As good as Stewart is in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance surely that role would’ve gone to Fonda if Ford and him hadn’t got into a big fight in 1955 making Mister Roberts which resulted in Ford punching Fonda in the face.  Back to those landscapes, Ford uses Monument valley in at least 8 films (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Searchers, Sergeant Rutledge, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and How the West Was Won, Cheyanne Autumn). Ford’s narratives are often folk tales or yarns focusing on Americana, broader humor (This is from Ebert- he compared the low-brow humor which is a running trait in Ford’s oeuvre- to Shakespeare’s clowns- I like that), ritual (weddings, funerals) community.

wide landscape shots in Ford’s work- stunning
not only a perfectly symmetrical mise-en-scene but connects thematically– community is so important in Ford’s universe

top 10

  1. The Searchers
  2. Stagecoach
  3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
  4. My Darling Clementine
  5. The Grapes of Wrath
  6. The Quiet Man
  7. Fort Apache
  8. How Green Was My Valley
  9. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
  10. Young Mr. Lincoln
the best image from My Darling Clementine

By year and grades

doorways again with Ford in Liberty Valance– depth of field here
1924- The Iron Horse R
1934- Judge Priest R/HR
1934- The Lost Patrol R/HR
1935- The Informer HR
1937- The Hurricane HR
1937- Wee Willie Winkie R
1939- Drums Along the Mohawk R
1939- Stagecoach MP
1939- Young Mr. Lincoln HR
1940- The Grapes of Wrath MP
1940- The Long Voyage Home R
1941- How Green Was My Valley MS
1941- Tobacco Road R
1945- They Were Expendable R
1946- My Darling Clementine MP
1947- The Fugitive R
1948- Fort Apache MS
1948- The Three Godfathers R
1949- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon HR
1950- Rio Grande R
1950- Wagon Master R
1952- The Quiet Man MP
1953- Mogambo R
1956- The Searchers MP
1959- The Horse Solders R
1960- Sergeant Rutledge R
1962- How the West Was Won HR
1962-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance MP
1966- Seven Women HR


*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives