A Look Back ... John Ford: War Movies
The scene opens on a lone rider silhouetted against the backdrop of a vast and harsh wilderness. The contrast between man and nature makes the rider appear small and vulnerable. As he rides off into the distance, it seems that it might take him years to find what he’s searching for…
American film director John Ford is known for his breathtaking shots of man versus wild seen in movies like The Searchers (1956). During World War II, Ford used his gift as a director to aid the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
From Prop Man to Director
Ford was born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna (also known as John Martin “Jack” Feeney) on February 1, 1895 in Capetown, Maine—the 11th and last child of an Irish family. “Jack” attended Portland High School. He then went on to study at the University of Maine for a short time; in 1939, he received an honorary doctorate from his former university.
Jack followed his older brother Francis “Ford” to Hollywood and began his career in the movie industry. He adopted his brother’s last name and Jack Ford became his professional alias.
In 1914, Ford entered the world of filmmaking as a prop man. He quickly secured other assignments, including acting roles. In D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic, The Birth of a Nation, Ford played one of the Klansmen.
Ford then began acting in his brother’s silent films. It wasn’t long before he was writing and directing films as well. In 1917, Ford directed his first film titled The Tornado (1917). After this accomplishment, Ford changed his name to John Ford, which was reflective of an English playwright he admired.
In 1920, Ford married Mary McBryde Smith. He had two children with Mary.
Filming for the OSS
Film had not been used extensively during a war before, but with the beginning of World War II, it became apparent that it could serve a number of purposes:
Boost propaganda and morale,
Train the troops,
Provide intelligence, and
Record historical events.
In 1934, Ford was commissioned as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Six years later in 1940, he began gathering a reserve unit of experienced Hollywood filmmakers. In October 1941 the unit was transferred to the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), the predecessor of the OSS. Ford and 30 of the men from the reserve unit became the Field Photographic Division of the COI. The name of the unit was later changed to the OSS Field Photographic Branch.
Ford’s initial job was to produce documentary films. His first few documentaries focused on the defense preparations in Panama and Iceland, the first Atlantic convoys to Europe, and a historical account of the Pearl Harbor attack.
The unit’s charter was later expanded; they created OSS training films and documented OSS activities in the field. Some of the activities documented include OSS Detachment 101, the paramilitary unit that operated behind Japanese lines in Burma and China, and the landing in Normandy in June 1944.
Ford’s unit also accompanied the Allied advance across Europe during 1944-45. The unit filmed installations, topography, and combat operations. The OSS institutionalized using film in intelligence with the OSS Intelligence Photographic Documentation Project. Its purpose was to establish a worldwide photographic intelligence file of areas of strategic importance.
Ford was discharged with the rank of captain and later continued his service as a rear admiral during the Korean War.
And the Award Goes to…
During the beginning of Ford’s career, the majority of his films were Westerns. Ford worked with many well-known cowboy stars such as Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson and John Wayne. Out of Ford’s 145 films, Wayne appears in 24 of them, including Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Ford developed a distinctive style and a reputation as a brilliant storyteller. One of Ford’s favorite places to film was in the Monument Valley region of Arizona and Utah. He frequented the region so much that his colleagues began to call the area “Ford Country.” Ford’s use of the territory in his films defined the image of the American west in popular culture. He is also known for using his storylines to address social issues, such as the themes of race and integration explored in The Searchers.
Ford’s won his first Academy Award for best director in 1935 for his film The Informer. He went on to win three more best director Academy Awards for his films The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952). Ford was the only director to have won four best director Academy Awards. He also won two more Academy Awards: one for the documentary The Battle of Midway (1942) and another for the propaganda film December 7 (1943).
Recognition for Service
Ford received many awards for his service:
Legion of Merit
Ford’s contributions to the war effort using his talent as a director and filmmaker demonstrate how anyone can aid in the security of a nation. In 1973, Ford died at the age of 79 in Palm Desert, California from stomach cancer.
Ford was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon in 1973. That same year, Ford was the first recipient of the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.
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