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What Makes John Ford an Auteur?
Welcome to the latest edition of Print the Legend! This week, we’ll continue our focus on John Ford and consider one of the most controversial issues facing movie buffs everywhere. The below article is adapted from my honors thesis on Ford.
What Makes John Ford an Auteur?
This blog explores great movies and the men and women behind them. As a history major at Indiana University, I became intrigued by John Ford, one of the most influential American filmmakers of the 20th century, whose personal papers are conveniently held at the Lilly Library at the Bloomington campus of IU. I have found that despite his important place in film history, Ford is not as well known as Alfred Hitchcock or Charlie Chaplin, for example. Nonetheless, many Fordian scholars and critics consider Ford to be an “auteur.” That may sound like some pretentious French thing, but it is simply a way of saying that Ford movies are special because he directed them and are as such his artistic creations. When discussing my thesis paper about Ford with my adviser, I was interested to learn that auteur theory has fallen out of fashion today with academics. That sparked my interest. I do not pretend to be an academic, but that has never stopped me from asserting my opinion before (hence, this blog), so I wish to push back against that trend in the below article and provide a starting point for re-appreciating Ford as an auteur.
John Ford won four Academy Awards as “Best Director” for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). He is probably best known for his westerns including Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Pioneering the American Western genre, he influenced not only future film directors but also arguably how the public at large mythologized the old west.1 Regardless of the genre however, he made films of great depth and thematic complexity that engaged audiences at the level of serious art.
As famous as Ford may be as a director, can he be considered the author - or at least the primary author of his films? If he isn’t, is it right to refer to a film directed by John Ford as a “John Ford film” or should we find another way of classifying such movies? The same question could go for many other directors. Compounding the confusion is that Ford himself did not like to be thought of as an “auteur” and professed disdain for “director’s touches.” In a 1965 interview, Ford was asked how he thought he would “achieve” when he first began directing films. “I thought I would achieve a check for money. That’s all I thought about,” he replied. The interviewer pressed, “and when did you start thinking that there was something more than checks behind it?” Ford shook off the question, replying that, “this is my business, my profession. It’s the way I support my family.”2 Joseph McBride argues that Ford strategically presented himself as someone just doing a “job of work” since it allowed him to get away with a level of authorial control he might not otherwise have had.3 Half the time, Ford was full of baloney anyway (just one example: Maureen O’Hara wrote that Ford capitalized on his Irish heritage by pretending he could speak Gaelic with her in front of his crew, even though it was mostly gibberish), so it helps to take anything he ever said about himself or his work with a grain of salt.4
Auteur theory holds, “that the director, who oversees all audio and visual elements of the motion picture, is more to be considered the ‘author’ of the movie than is the writer of the screenplay. In other words, such fundamental visual elements as camera placement, blocking, lighting, and pacing, rather than plot line, convey the message of the film.”5 In The American Cinema, the first American auteur theory proponent, Andrew Sarris, writes that “the art of cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much what but how. The what is some aspect of reality rendered mechanically by the camera. The how is what French critics designate somewhat mystically as mise-en-scene.”6 In other words, the camera lens, a dictionary of camera angles, lighting techniques and more when added together with the staging create an artistic product in and of itself. Sarris writes that, “the whole point of a meaningful style is that it unifies the what and the how into a personal statement. Even the pacing of a movie can be emotionally expressive when it is understood as a figure of style. Of course, the best directors are usually fortunate enough to exercise control over their films so that there need be no glaring disparity between the what and the how.”7 Director and critic Lindsay Anderson agrees that the infusion of personal style as something essential to the artistic character of a film and in doing so illustrates the resolution of the dichotomy between the what and how that Sarris identified. Anderson wrote, “poetry is created when the way of saying something becomes the thing said. In the cinema, the only artist with the power to affect this fusion is the director.”8 In a film, the way of saying something is combining moving pictures. That’s the essential nature of film.
Ford’s stylistic imprint is not necessarily obvious, especially to contemporary viewers. In an age in which independent filmmaking thrives on the currency of overt stylistic choices, at first appearance, classical filmmaking may seem simpler, less embellished, and more functional in camera placement and editing. Ford authored his films through pacing, camera placement, lighting and the staging of the action, all of which together create a unique style that can simply be called “Fordian.” In a career that began during the silent era, Ford never veered from more functional filmmaking that sought not to draw attention to itself. Ford said, “I try to make people forget they’re in a theatre...I don’t want them to be conscious of a camera or a screen.”9 Moreover, Lindsay Anderson conceded that unlike writers/directors Charlie Chaplin or Sergei Eisenstein, Ford was always shooting someone else’s script. The screenplay is no doubt a critical part of a film, so maybe the question to ask is that if a director does not write his screenplays by himself, is his imprint still sizable enough to make the film his own? The answer is maybe. Lindsay Anderson notes that unlike writer-directors Charlie Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein and others:
Ford’s films all had to be written before they were directed: this truth is too elementary to deserve stating. Working with him in varying degrees of collaboration - sometimes very closely, sometimes hardly at all - his writers deserve their credit. But it remains nonetheless fundamental that the peculiar distinction of these films, their greatness, where the word is applicable - rests in their style.10
Again, we get to this idea of style. Sarris writes that Ford “could dispose of a plot quickly and efficiently when he had to, but he could always spare a shot or two for a mood that belonged to him and not the plot. A Ford film, particularly a late Ford film, is more than its story and characterizations; it is also the director’s attitude toward his milieu and its codes of conduct.”11 To Anderson’s point, even though Ford was not a writer-director, he was involved in the early aspects of the film's production, which is something you would expect of an auteur. Screenwriter Frank Nugent, a frequent collaborator of Ford’s on films like The Searchers, wrote that,
Ford works very, very closely with the writer or writers. I don’t think it would be entirely true to say that he sees his story in its entirety when he begins - although he sometimes pretends to. Sometimes he is groping, like a musician who has a theme but doesn’t know how to develop it. I’ve had the feeling often - in story conferences - that he’s like a kid whistling a bar of music, and flattering; then if I come up with the next notes and they’re what he wanted, he beams and says that’s right, that’s what he was trying to get over. He has a wonderful ear for dialogue and a lot of it is his own - Barry Fitzgerald’s wonderful line in The Quiet Man: “It’s a fine soft night so I think I’ll go and talk a little treason with me comrades.12
It would be one thing to suggest that Ford was taking a script someone else had written without his involvement and simply adding his own “spin” or his own “take” on the material, overlaying his stylistic preferences over the body of another writer’s work. The addition of style without a hand in crafting the substance is mere ornamentation. It is quite another in the way we can see Ford nurture some of his projects from the start, guide them along based on his vision, much like a CEO might do to run a business. In a valuable comparison of the shooting script and the release version of The Searchers, Eckstein showed how Ford made the character of Ethan a darker, more disturbing, more racially charged character during the course of the film’s production and post-production period in his demonstration of authorship at work.13 Lea Jacobs wrote in detail how Ford put his stamp on How Green Was My Valley despite having come into pre-production late after William Wyler backed out.14 Even if he did not write the scripts, films such as these were conceived based on Ford’s artistic intent and the scripts and final film reflect that.
According to Nugent, not only was Ford involved in the process, but he frequently selected the source material. He wrote that,
The Informer, Stagecoach (Stage to Lordsburg), The Fugitive, The Quiet Man, his current The Sun Shines Bright from three Irwin S. Cobb short stories - all these, I know were stories he read, loved, brooded over for years and years. He incubates them...He was talking of the Cobb stories to Laurence Stallings and me when we were working on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”15
The contributions of Nugent and his other collaborators shouldn’t be downplayed or dismissed; Ford no doubt respected their considerable talents, even if he departed from their work somewhat during productions like Wagon Master, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers.16
Attributing authorship for film is a tricky thing to do, because the work is spread out across so many different arts. What does become apparent is that Ford certainly left his stylistic unique imprint in important ways. This article is only a starting point for exploring or beginning to think about the ways in which Ford was an auteur. If this is indeed the case, then Ford and other directors' work should continue to be appreciated as artists, or auteurs. Without diminishing the vital contributions, skills and artistry of the myriad of other creative heads to make films come to life, it is simply easier to categorize films by directors and certain directors deserve the recognition afforded to them by auteur theory.
John Ford, Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Ford-American-director, accessed March 3, 2020
“John Ford interview 1965.” YouTube,
. Accessed December 2, 2019.
Joseph McBride, “Searching for John Ford” (University of Mississippi Press, 1999), 101.
Maureen O’Hara, “‘Tis Herself: An Autobiography” (2004, Simon and Schuster), 59-62.
Auteur Theory, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/art/auteur-theory. Accessed July 21, 2021.
Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, (Da Capo, 1968), 36.
Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford (Plexus, 1999), 85.
Arthur M. Eckstein, “Darkening Ethan: John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956) from Novel to Screenplay to Screen,” Cinema Journal, Autumn, 1998, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 3-24, UT Austin Press, JSTOR,. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1225733?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed April 30, 2021.
Lea Jacobs, “Making John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley,” Film History, IU Press, Vol. 28, No. 2, Film History and the Individual Film (2016), pp. 32-80. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/filmhistory.28.2.03#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed July 22, 2021.