On the comprehensive movie list site, They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, John Ford currently ranks #4 on the list of the all-time 100 greatest film directors (with Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini ahead of him), though he has placed more films than anyone else, 18, on the list of the all-time top 1000. I think the reason he doesn't rank higher is that he was one of the few great film directors to be fully appreciated in his own time. He won the Best Director Oscar four times -- still a record -- and took home an additional two Oscars for his wartime documentaries.
Welles was once asked whose films he studied when he made Citizen Kane in 1941, and he replied: "the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford." Of course, even by the time he was an "old master," Ford would continue to make films like They Were Expendable, My Darling Clementine, The Quiet Man, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It's no fun, when making lists, to mention people who are already so well covered.
One Ford film in particular finally makes its DVD debut this week -- from Warner Home Video -- and it's a title that Ford often cited as his own personal favorite of his 140-odd films. It's Wagon Master (1950), and, ironically, it is an underrated masterpiece. It's a Western, but it's one of the few Westerns Ford ever made in the sound era that does not star either John Wayne or Henry Fonda (or Jimmy Stewart). It was produced quickly, on a low budget, and it never made much of a splash, but today it feels positively refreshing. It tells an ensemble story, rather than one about a lone heroic figure; a band of Mormons are hoping to cross the Utah desert to start their new lives.
They are led by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), a burly man with a shady past who (hilariously) can't always control his tongue. Elder Wiggs decides to hire a pair of horse traders (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) to guide them. Before long, the crew has stumbled across the stranded players in a traveling medicine show and reluctantly agrees to help them. They also encounter a tribe of semi-friendly Navajo and a sinister family of runaway bank robbers, the Cleggs.
These various shadings of morality drive the film. They come together to create Ford's parable: that blinding, rigid religious (and political) righteousness will lead to the demise of the settlers, but learning to accept shades of gray will be the way to survive, and ultimately live. Thankfully, this message is well buried in the sheer, easy entertainment of the film. Ford and his screenwriters Frank S. Nugent and Patrick Ford (John's son) tell the story mainly in segments rather than a driving plot, and it allows for plenty of places to rest and reflect, and for Ford to photograph some of his most breathtaking outdoor scenery. The entire film seems perfectly in harmony, totally relaxed, and yet effortlessly exciting.
It's great to have Wagon Master available at last, but it's only a drop in the ocean. Film fans that only know Stagecoach and The Searchers would be surprised at the depth, range, mastery and quality if they could just dig a bit deeper into Ford's filmography. There are relatively few of Ford's 140 films available on video; even that giant "Ford at Fox" DVD box set from 2007 contained only 24 films out of the daunting 140. Many classics are not available, like The Fugitive (1947), The Sun Shines Bright (1953) and Seven Women (1966), or have gone out of print, like The Hurricane (1937) and Mogambo (1953). This doesn't seem appropriate treatment for a master of Ford's status.
This contradictory nature -- that fact that Ford is simultaneously celebrated and with so many unsung films -- more closely defines Ford than one would think. Throughout his career, Ford was described as a cinema poet, which he denied, preferring to describe himself as a workaday craftsman. "My name is John Ford and I make Westerns," he once famously introduced himself at a crucial Director's Guild meeting. And of course, he was a poet, but within the boundaries of genre films: Westerns, war films and the occasional action film, adventure film or melodrama. I think it's important to remember both sides of Ford's work. Watching Wagon Master this week, I was simultaneously awed by what a majestic work of art it was, while thoroughly enjoying myself.