How did you come to the movie business?
What did you want to achieve when you began to make movies?
A check. Money.
John Ford, answering an interview for French television
Although he always posed as a craftsman, for whom making films was only a job, John Ford was one of the best American filmmakers, shooting movies that were definitely something more that mere money makers. In a time when Hollywood movies were churned out industrially, with every trace of personnality cautiously polished away from them, his movies are immediately recognised.
Sean Aloysius Feeney was born in Maine, youngest son of a family of Irish immigrants. His older brother Francis was already in Hollywood, under the name of Ford ; after he graduated from high school, Sean joined his brother at the Universal studios, changing his name too and taking the first name of John, an allusion to an Elizabethan playwright of the same name. He started as a prop man, then acted in his brother's movies, and finally directed his own two reelers, in 1917.
It was the era of silent film, and the genre of the times was Western. His first feature, Straight Shooting, was one, as were most of his first movies ; many of them starred Harry Carey, who would become his friend. His first big hits where The Iron Horse, in 1924, an epic about the building of the transcontinental railroad, and Three Bad Men, in 1926, about the Oklahoma land rush.
The coming of the talkies was the end of the westerns as prestigious productions ; and John Ford made films in the other genres, alternating between commercial successes and films the critics liked. It is during that time that he created his "stock company", a group of actors that would play in most of his movies, which included John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Harry Carey, John Carradine, Henry Fonda, Ben Johnson, Ward Bond and many others... He was also becoming one of the most considered directors in Hollywood, with such films as The Informer (1935), which was about the Irish Revolution, or The Whole Town's Talking.
1939 would be a major year for his career : he shot Young Mister Lincoln, which starred Henry Fonda, and Stagecoach, the first important western in ten years. It made the genre a major one again. It made a star of John Wayne, who would play the main part in most of Ford's later movies ; and with that movie he discovered Monument Valley, a landscape which would eventually become synonymous with John Ford's westerns.
He then went on to make two critically-acclaimed Oscar winners, The Grapes of Wrath, about dust bowlers journeying to California, and How Green was my Valley, about an Welsh family struggling in the face of adversity. During WWII, he shot a few documentaries in support of the war effort ; later, he made his "cavalry trilogy", with Fort Apache, She wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande, three westerns starring John Wayne and telling the heroism of the military in the West. The Quiet Man, in which he told about his Irish heritage, won him his fourth Oscar.
In the fifties, the quality of his movies was variable ; though his masterpiece was made in 1956 : The Searchers, a western as subtle as one can be, where John Wayne's character has to come to terms with his own racism. He went on to make other fine films, such as The Man who shot Liberty Valance, Donovan's Reef, or Cheyenne Autumn, but his craft wasn't as good as at its peak. He died in 1973, having received the first American Film Institute Life Achievment Award.
John Ford has written a large part of the history of the West ; he had met Wyatt Earp in his youth, but the image that remains for the world is that of John Wayne, seen through a closing door at the end of The Searchers : the lone man of the West. Although he always pretended to be but a craftsman, he was one of the greatest artists of cinema. His westerns are much more subtle than it is usually thought : the Indians are shown as people with motivations quite similar to those of the white men ; the heroes played by John Wayne or Henry Fonda are complex, not wholly "good" characters.
He was able to get the best out of the actors of his stock company, and filmed them with a great mastery of the techniques of cinema ; he usually made long, still shots, but when the camera finally moved it was unforgettable. His pictures were usually "cut in the camera" : he kept the first shot, and began or halted the shooting by putting his hand in front of the camera.
Notably, most of his movies have a scene of a funeral, or in a cemetary. This shows how a few themes run through the whole of his work, how he was able to show the humanity of his characters, thanks to the constraints of a genre he had created.