In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Ford

  • Introduction
  • Key Critical Studies
  • General Critical Studies
  • Anthologies and Special Issues
  • Biographical Studies
  • Bibliographies and Archives
  • Profiles
  • Ford on Ford
  • Collaborators
  • John Wayne, Protégé to Star
  • Landscape
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Religion
  • Music and Song
  • Documentaries on Ford
  • DVD Commentaries on Ford
  • The Silent Films
  • John Ford’s West: General Studies
  • The Non-western Films: General Studies
  • John Ford’s War Documentaries
  • Influence

Cinema and Media Studies John Ford
Ross Schnioffsky, Richard Thompson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0197


John Ford’s film career began with the earliest days of Hollywood silent filmmaking c. 1914 and continued until 1968, spanning the rise of the studio system, the coming of sound and color, the postwar restructuring of the studio system in the face of the antitrust decision, television, and rapid expansion of independent production. The industry awarded him four Academy Awards for direction and two for documentaries, an unsurpassed record. In 1935, his film The Informer was influentially seen as an example that the US film industry could produce film art to equal the Europeans. At this time he was actively involved in the formation of the Directors Guild of America. In 1939, Stagecoach elevated the western genre to A-picture respectability (and made John Wayne a major star). During the same remarkable two-year period (1939–1941), Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941). In following years, his work attracted serious attention from Andre Bazin, Sergei Eisenstein, Lindsay Anderson, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, and others. Ford’s worldview and subject matter were beginning to be seen as deeply concerned with American history and myth. Ford is now regarded by many as a major American storyteller. During World War II, he headed a documentary film unit for the US government, seeing frontline active service in Europe and the Pacific. Following the war, his Hollywood films took on a darker, elegiac tone, notably—but not limited to—the cavalry trilogy, The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and 7 Women (1966). As Ford’s thinking changed during this period, so did thinking about Ford: particularly in France, then Britain and the United States, a serious film study culture was developing, annexing critical methods and analytic concepts from older established disciplines and arts. From this rose auteurism—authorship theory—and mise-en-scène analysis. Ford was quickly inducted into the pantheon of major film directors (not, of course, without some controversy). Social and political wings of film thought examined Ford’s changing representation of Native Americans and other races and ethnics; gender (women, masculinity, sexuality); class differences; character types and construction; his populism and its attendant irony and comedy; and increasingly, visual style. Since the 1960s, the development of serious film studies can be measured by the development and changes in their presentation of the case of John Ford. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of filmmakers, critics, and scholars removed Citizen Kane (1941) from its long-held, solitary position as The Great American Film, giving The Searchers equal status.

Key Critical Studies

The popularity of Ford’s films, and his Academy Awards, had won him a public status by the 1950s. By the end of that decade, a new wave of serous film writing/criticism had begun in France and quickly spread; the 1960s marked the beginning of a major, serious critical/academic/historical literature devoted to Ford’s work. The following eight basic works of Ford scholarship are a chronology of key moments in thinking/rethinking Ford and his films. Bogdanovich 1967 builds his study on interviews with Ford. McBride and Wilmington 1975 is a milestone in auteur criticism, arguing for a unified personal vision, as does Sarris 1975 from a different perspective. Luhr and Lehman 1977 extends and amplifies the earlier accounts and provides a detailed career overview. Gallagher 1986 covers Ford’s career film by film, with sharp narrative analysis. Joseph McBride is considered by many as Ford’s definitive biographer; his monumental biography McBride 2001 is the result of a lifetime of research and analysis and includes an excellent bibliography. Kitses 2004, a lengthy essay (112 pages), is an expansion of his groundbreaking Horizons West: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah: Studies of Authorship within the Western (1969). Routt 2008 is an extremely detailed study of Ford’s key years at 20th Century Fox studios.

  • Bogdanovich, Peter. John Ford. London: Studio Vista, 1967.

    Bogdanovich was a leader of the first wave of US auteur critics. As much a portrait of Ford and a critical essay, this interview (some of which takes place on set during filming) cracks through the filmmaker’s considerable defenses. The second edition features a new opening and a final obituary note. Revised and enlarged edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

  • Gallagher, Tag. John Ford: The Man and His Films. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1986.

    Much industrial and production information, including Ford’s early silent career and its relation to later work. Divides the films into four periods (Introspection; Idealism; Myth; Mortality). Detailed analysis of each film, often revaluing otherwise-overlooked films. Deep attention to the construction and function of characters—major and minor—within a continuing consideration of the Realism/Expressionism spectrum.

  • Kitses, Jim. “John Ford: Founding Father.” In Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood. By Jim Kitses, 27–137. New ed. London: BFI, 2004.

    Complex structural and developmental analysis of Ford’s westerns. Particular attention to the fundamental importance of social relationships: the family, the community, and within that the domesticating role of women. Presents Ford’s vision as “contrarian”—comprised of paradoxes, dualities, multiple rather than monolithic: a double vision at once immediate and of memory and history.

  • Luhr, William, and Peter Lehman. Authorship and Narrative in the Cinema: Issues in Contemporary Aesthetics and Criticism. New York: Putnam’s, 1977.

    The first half of the book (pp. 45–169) is adapted from Lehman’s PhD dissertation on Ford, the bulk of which is an extensive in-depth analysis of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Searchers (1956); it concludes with a Ford career overview. A fine example of academic mise-en-scène and narrative scholarship.

  • McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001.

    Covers Ford’s industrial, social, and cultural history; his development as an artist (and his increasing refusal to be seen as such); his skill at collaboration; extensive and acute narrative, thematic, and visual analysis of his films; a comprehensive overview of the extant critical thinking about Ford (seventy-six fine-print pages of reference sources); and the complexity of the man himself.

  • McBride, Joseph, and Michael Wilmington. John Ford. 1st American ed. New York: Da Capo, 1975.

    Studies fifteen Ford films in six categories. Aware of the narrative/historical/cultural structuralist analysis based on dichotomies and oppositions, the authors eschew academic theory and instead provide a highly scholarly critical account of Ford’s work, presenting the development of his worldview as one embracing contradictions and developing them. Excellent detailed mise-en-scène work. First published as part of Cinema Two series (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974).

  • Routt, Bill. “Feature Review: Ford at Fox.” Screening The Past 23 (December 2008)

    The first of an epic serial (eight-installment) review of Fox’s 2007 archival DVD set release of twenty-four films Ford made at that studio, Routt’s book-length study began publication in 2008 and concluded in 2013. The range and quality of research are remarkable, as is the quality of historical and critical analysis, much of it devoted to Ford films rarely discussed in depth. Available online. Continues in Screening the Past 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 34, 37 (2008–2013).

  • Sarris, Andrew. The John Ford Movie Mystery. Cinema One. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.

    An early landmark of auteur critical analysis, Sarris’s quest for Ford’s full meaning as a filmmaker examines his entire career as director. This quest begins with an extremely useful questioning and evaluation of the various critical positions, methodologies, and theories current in 1976 and continues this theme as a background to Sarris’ assessment of Ford’s work.

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