It's high time John Ford took his rightful place in the popular consciousness - next to F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Jasper Johns and Louis Armstrong - among the greatest American artists of the past century.
The release of
Ford at Fox
, a gigantic DVD set of 24 films by Ford, which also includes a hardcover book of rare photos and a terrific new feature-length documentary by Nick Redman about the filmmaker's career, can only help.
Ironically, Ford, who made 130 features and won six Oscars in a career that spanned six decades, was partly responsible for his reputation as a mere journeyman. This quintessentially American of all American filmmakers always insisted he was just a "picture man" and would become virtually apoplectic when his movies were praised as works of art.
"Someone's called me the greatest poet of the western saga. I'm not a poet and I don't know what a western saga is," Ford, then 78, said in his last interview before his death in 1973.
"I'm just a hardworking, run-of-the-mill director," said the creator of such poetic sagas as
How Green Was My Valley, My Darling Clementine
Young Mr. Lincoln.
(Unless noted, all the films mentioned are included in the boxed set.)
Born in Maine as John Martin "Jack" Feeney, Ford moved to Hollywood in 1913 to work for his brother, the successful silent film director Francis Ford. By 1917, he was directing his own films (in his first year alone, he cranked out 10 silents).
Here's a brief look at some personal favorites in the collection:
Ford's breakout film, the 1924 silent
is about the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. It contains a theme which would preoccupy Ford for the rest of his career: how American society is held together through the use of economic and political power and, by contrast, how its ideal myth or image of itself is built up.
The dark anti-war films,
(1933), both adapted from stories by I.A.R. Wylie, were made under the considerable influence of the great German expressionist F.W. Murnau
who made his greatest film,
which used the same sets as
is about a Bavarian mother whose children are variously trapped and destroyed by the horrific events of World War I.
tells of a different kind of mother, a possessive, jealous creature who breaks up her son's romance by sending him off to war.
Prisoner of Shark Island
, from 1936, is a sharp critique of blind patriotism. It follows the authorities as they arrest anyone they believe helped John Wilkes Booth murder President Lincoln. In their zeal, the patriots suspend their prisoners' civil rights by arresting them without warrants or giving them access to lawyers. The parallels to the alleged treatment of accused terrorists by the U.S. government are eerie.
The Steinbeck adaptation,
Grapes of Wrath
(1940), about life during the Depression, contains an equally powerful indictment of how economic and political power can easily corrupt corporations and government agencies.
How Green Was My Valley
(1941), which is considered one of Ford's greatest films, similarly focuses on how a working-class family is destroyed because of the socio-economic forces that prey on them, but this time set in turn-of-the-century Wales.
Set after the Civil War,
(1948), which stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda, is loosely based on the Battle of Little Bighorn and gives one of the first sympathetic portraits of American Indians in westerns.
Other notable films in the boxed set include
Willie Comes Marching Home,
Drums Along the Mohawk,
Wee Willie Winkie.
Ford at Fox
, which is packaged in a rather assuming, heavy black box, would provide the perfect immersion course for Ford newbies. Perhaps it will help more Americans to better appreciate our cinematic heritage.
With John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Margaret Mann, James Hall, Charles Morton, Ralph Bushman, George Meeker.
$299.98 (21 discs)
Some PG; others No MPAA rating
***1/2 New documentary
Becoming John Ford
by Academy Award-nominated documentary maker and Ford historian Nick Redman plus a book with rare, unpublished photographs from Ford's career, lobby card reproductions, production stills and an in-depth look at this maverick's work.