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Reviewed by:
  • The Lost Worlds of John Ford: Beyond the Western by Jeffrey Richards
  • Arthur M. Eckstein
Jeffrey Richards
The Lost Worlds of John Ford: Beyond the Western
Bloomsbury Academic, London/New York, 2020

John Ford (John Martin Feeney, 1894–1973) was the most decorated director in the history of Hollywood. He is best known for his westerns, where he employed a visual style—with its sweeping desert landscapes and lone riders—that has left a lasting impact on the genre. For instance, look at the recent films of Ron Howard in The Missing (2003) or Walter Hill’s Dead for a Dollar (2022). Ford’s western masterpieces include Stagecoach (1939), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956). Yet Ford never won an Oscar for any of his iconic westerns. Ford’s Academy Awards came in other genres—where he was equally at home.

Ford won directorial Oscars for an urban crime drama (The Informer, 1935); a drama about rural poverty (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940); a sentimental drama set in a Welsh mining town, seen from the point of view of a child (How Green was My Valley, 1941); and an Irish comedy (The Quiet Man, 1952). In addition, two Academy Awards were for World War II documentaries (The Battle of Midway, 1942, and December 7, 1943). And not only were none of Ford’s Academy Awards for a western; but none was in the same genre as any others.

Jeffrey Richards subtitles his new study “The Lost Worlds of John Ford.” But while Ford nowadays remains famous for his westerns, his non-western films are not exactly a lost world. Janice Place wrote a good book on all the non-western films of Ford back in 1974. Further, the standard biographies of Ford—Tag Gallagher, Scott Eyman, Joseph McBride—all cover the important nonwesterns in analytical detail. Some of the Ford films discussed by Richards have whole books devoted to them. Still, Janice Place’s good book is now almost 50 years old. So, it is certainly time for another study.

Assembling all of Ford’s work in genres-other-than-westerns into one large “non-westerns” category is artificial, even awkward. Ford successfully worked in diverse genres, but Jeffrey Richards has developed a good conceptual framework to enable discussion. Ford did create “other worlds” besides the world in his westerns. And it is how Ford constructed these “other worlds” (even if they are not exactly lost) that Richards analytically explores to good effect.

Richards rightly emphasizes that these were complete worlds. In a superb introductory chapter on Ford’s techniques, Richards describes Ford’s profound talents in taking scripts—mere words on a page—look and feel real. Ford employed two main methods. First, he filled out the scripts with filmed gestures and “business” with minor characters, so we never look at the main actors reciting lines. With Ford, there is always “a Shakespearean wealth of characters”. Second, he preferred incident to narrative thrust. These scenes filled out the world he depicted on the screen, creating a wholeness. For some producers, these scenes did nothing to advance the main story. Ford is known for his great economy in filming, “cutting in the camera.” Still, a producer such as Daryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, who focused on plot rather than incident, cut major scenes of community life from How Green was My Valley to propel the main plot forward. MGM cut some of Ford’s favorite scenes from his masterpiece They Were Expendable (1945) for the same reason.

Here are two examples of Ford’s “bits of business” from The Quiet Man. Barry Fitzgerald as little Michaeleen Oge Flynn enters the foyer of Cohan’s Bar and sees his old IRA commandants lounging there; he comes to attention and stiffly salutes; they say, “There’s no need, we’re at peace now”; Michaeleen replies, “Sure but I have my hopes.” This scene deepens our understanding of Michaeleen’s character: behind all the smiles and laughs, blarney, and heavy drinking, he’s a serious political extremist who doesn’t think the revolution is complete. He’s a three-dimensional character. But the scene...