John Ford is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I’ve argued in the past that his epic western The Searchers is the best movie ever made, and I haven’t really changed my mind yet. The man had a long and fascinating career, peppered with many classics, and he lived a life worthy of a movie itself.
Back in the late 60s and early 70s, when Peter Bogdanovich was making the transition from movie buff to movie maker, he filmed a documentary about Ford. It’s been hard to find for the last thirty years, but now Bogdanovich has updated it, and Directed By John Ford will air on Turner Classic Movies tonight.
Narrated by Orson Welles, the film is famous for its candid interviews with three famed Ford leading men – John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. The new version includes interviews with Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, and an apparently revealing audio tape of a deathbed conversation between Ford and longtime love Kate Hepburn. I can’t wait.
TCM is showing the movie twice tonight, at 8 and 11:30, and they’re squeezing some John Ford movies in there as well, including the phenomenal Stagecoach, the movie that made John Wayne a star. Stagecoach is notable because the movie just works, even 70 years after it was made. It’s the kind of movie that would also work in almost any setting, but there’s something magical about the Old West. TCM is also playing They Were Expendable, a fantastically gritty WWII movie about PT boat commanders in the Pacific, featuring some great battle scenes, and The Wings of Eagles, a not terribly successful movie about a real Hollywood screenwriter who got his start after being injured in the war. That film is most notable because the character John Wayne plays, Frank “Spig” Wead, really worked with John Ford, and Ford cast regular Ward Bond plays a caricature of the director named John Dodge (get it – Ford, Dodge?).
A couple of weeks back I flew to Lake Tahoe, and on the way I was able to see Monument Valley out of my window. John Ford didn’t discover Monument Valley, but he defined it in his movies as the landscape of the West. I have always wanted to see the Valley for myself and haven’t yet had a chance to get out there, so it was an incredibly moment to see it from the air, and to recognize the various landmarks that I had seen in so many Ford films – the Mittens, the Three Sisters. I actually got a little choked up at 36,000 feet.
I know that a lot of CHUD readers specialize in movies made after 1980, and that old black and white films might not be what some of you are in to. Do yourself a favor – get to know John Ford and his work. No one else has made movies as beautiful as his. Ever. A Ford film is worth watching just because of the amazing way he uses the land and the seeming ease with which he frames a shot to perfection. Plus most of his movies are genuinely entertaining, rousing affairs. Watch Directed By John Ford and I bet you’ll discover a new favorite director.