John Martin Feeney seemed born ready for a fight. He didn’t start out wanting to direct films but to join the United States Navy, and upon graduation from Portland High School in Maine he applied to the Naval Academy. When Feeney was rejected, he went to Hollywood and worked as an apprentice to his older brother, Frank, changing his name to John Ford probably because his brother had changed his name to Francis Ford.
Ford started out by doing a little bit of everything. He was an extra on Birth of A Nation. He and Francis collaborated on an armload of films together, even starring in their own version of A Study In Scarlet, which is, unfortunately, lost.
Once he moved into directing, Ford ‘s primary output was westerns, and he cranked them out at an incredible rate, making twelve features and shorts in 1919 alone and most frequently working with Harry Carey. Ford is famous for symmetry and order in his films, as well as personal touches such as allowing actors’ emotions to play out in closeups, and there’s a vigor to his directing style. He also loved characters who were loners. When audible dialogue came in Ford kept going without a break, although his schedule slowed down slightly.
Ford was also quite famously known as a huge contrarian and could be a major jerk, thinking nothing of ripping into his cast and crew. Yet the same people kept working with him, even Ford’s most famous punching bag John Wayne, so happiness and goodwill must have existed somewhere. Numerous classic movies were turned out, such as The Informer, Stagecoach, and The Grapes of Wrath.
Despite his new direction in life, Ford’s sights remained set on the Navy. Unfortunately, due to bad eyesight, dental issues, and chronic kidney inflammation, he was automatically disqualified from serving, but as the saying goes, “It’s all who you know.” According to the United States Naval Institute, Ford’s wife, Mary McBride Smith, was the niece of Rear Admiral Victor Blue, and Ford took full advantage of her connections.
In 1934, after numerous letters of recommendation, Ford won a commission as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve. He also bought a 106-foot yacht, which not only became his floating retreat, but was reportedly used to carry out secret reconnaisance missions for the Navy, trying to gage whether the Japanese were establishing themselves in or around Baja California.
Pearl Harbor was still in the future when Ford was ordered to report for duty in September of 1941, and he specifically campaigned for a new division under the Office of Strategic Services, known as Field Photographic Branch. Most of the films Ford made for the Navy were for military eyes only, such as Undercover Training, and there was also a short about Pearl Harbor starring Walter Huston and Henry Davenport, but The Battle of Midway was the leviathan. Even Ford didn’t know how significant his work would be.
Midway was cinema fodder, from the local birds to the planes, to, well, everything else. Ford stood on a raised platform to film the battle, which left him dangerously exposed but able to see literally everything, and it shows in the film.
Naturally, Ford didn’t come out unscathed, as a blast from a falling shell knocked him off his feet and filled his shoulder and elbow with shrapnel. Ford was initially knocked unconscious, but when he came to he kept filming.
Ford didn’t want the top brass to get a hold of the film until he could have it edited, and he turned the raw footage over to one of his men, Robert Parrish, telling him to keep the film secret and live at his mother’s house in California while he cut the film down the way Ford wanted. Parrish had worked with Ford for many years, starting as an actor and then as an assistant editor. He would eventually move up to feature film editor, winning an Oscar for the 1947 Robert Rossen film, Body and Soul.
Anyway, Ford had Parrish very carefully add in certain bits at certain times, just in case the Navy “came snooping around,” and right before the film was shown at the White House, Ford told Parrish to stick in a shot of Franklin Roosevelt’s son, Jimmy, who was also in the Navy. When FDR saw his son, the room went dead silent, and the President directed that the film should be as widely seen as possible. Seventy-five percent of all movie theaters in America exhibited The Battle of Midway.
As Paul Greengrass said in Five Came Back, a big part of the film’s success was how personal it was. It looks messy, the narration is in first-person, and during the war people would have seen their husbands, sons, friends, and lovers in those young faces. And after months of bad news, seeing the American flag hoisted in victory was tremendously encouraging. The film would go on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary, one victor in a four-way tie.
Ford might have been hemmed in by Navy regulations, but he still had a rebellious streak. When he met up with Darryl F. Zanuck in North Africa, Ford tried to give him as wide a berth as possible even though Zanuck outranked him. For the rest of the war he would work with William Donovan, filming the D-day landing for the Navy.
After the war, Ford went back to directing westerns for the most part, although he would also direct such exceptions as Mogambo, Mister Roberts and The Quiet Man, but he found it troubling that people were too quick to forget the war. In December of 1945 he released They Were Expendable, starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne, about the PT squadrons in the Philippines. Montgomery had been a PT captain and Ford had met other PT captains during the war, and they were able to bring in a lot of authenticity.
Ford would continue his Naval career into the 1950s, finally retiring in 1951 as a rear admiral. At his funeral in 1973, the American flag that was flown at Midway was draped over his coffin.
Terence’s Ninth Annual Favourite TV Episode Blogathon is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all, and have a good week…
The Informer (DVD), The Grapes of Wrath (DVD and Blu-ray), How Green Was My Valley (Blu-ray), They Were Expendable (DVD and Blu-ray), The Quiet Man (DVD and Blu-ray), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (DVD and Blu-ray) are available to own from Amazon.
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2 thoughts on “During World War Two: John Ford”
This is a great little overview of Ford’s career! I had no idea that the flag that flew over Midway was draped over his casket when he died — that is so fitting and special.
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Thanks so much, Rachel! Yeah, I thought that was really cool, too.