Constructing Virtue: John Ford and the Mythic American West

Uploaded by bostonbakedbeans28 on 13.12.2009

A nation’s history is known through the stories that are told about it. At first these
stories were told orally. As time went on these stories were written down, and eventually
books were published. But at the turn of the 20th century a new medium of communication
was created -- film. Film was different from earlier modes of storytelling not only because
it used both sound and moving images, but because it had the capacity to seem so real.
Directors could lead the audience into the direction they wanted more strongly than this
could be done in the past.
One of these directors was John Ford. Ford is often praised as being one of America’s
greatest filmmakers. Two of his movies hold spots on the American Film Institute’s top
ten westerns. The number nine spot for Stagecoach and the number one spot for The Searchers.
He was born in Maine in 1894 as John Feeney. In the nineteen teens he headed to California
to act, and changed his last name to Ford. Soon after this he moved behind the camera
and began directing. Over his lifetime he directed 145 movies, many of these were westerns.
He died in 1973.
In this video I will explore how John Ford was able to influence the way Americans view
their history. Of course, Ford wasn’t the only filmmaker shaping our understanding of
history, but he is one of the most prominent and is at least a good representative of the
mid-20th century western director. There are many aspects of our historical view that were
shaped by films, but I will explore how the individuals in Ford’s movies affect how
we view America and the American individual. As Professor, Robert Burgoyne said, “In
the 20th Century U.S., the narrative forms that have molded national identity profoundly
are arguably the western and the war film.”
The majority of John Ford’s westerns deal with the 19th century and the expanding frontier,
creating a sense of openness. His westerns were set in different locations but he often
filmed in Utah’s Monument Valley because it was so vast and remote.
Ford made a virtue of his characters who ventured out into the west to start a new home out
of the emptiness of the land. To him it was virtuous for these adventurers to be able
and willing to live outside of civilization. This American virtue is seen in the past when
the colonists crossed the sea to come to America; and in the present as we move towards the
frontiers of space.
In addition to the pioneer spirit Ford focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of his characters.
A central part of his stories are that the protagonists are men and women who are strong,
and bound by a code of duty and honor, and dignity. The villains do not live by this
code and therefore the protagonists must throw themselves in front of the villains and stop
them. What makes the good character strong is that he will not stop until that job is
In My Darling Clementine, Wyatt Earp’s way of taking down the villain at any cost was
to become the marshal of Tombstone until he could avenge his brother’s death. Before
he came in no one had tried to take the job because they were too afraid. It took the
bravery of a hero to risk his life and clean up the corrupt town.
What made Ford different from many other directors was that he showed the dark side of the protagonists.
For example in the movie The Searchers, the protagonist, Ethan Edwards, is, in many ways,
a good person and does heroic actions, but he is driven by racism.
generation that watched these films went through the Cold War Era, a time when many the U.S.
marched into Korea and Vietnam like the marshal coming in to clean up a town. Many believed
this was our honorable duty, while others believed our habit of entering wars and not
backing out was America’s dark side.
In Ford’s films the hero is often reluctant to use violence but will if necessary. It
often is necessary because of the violence surrounded in the mythic west In The Man Who
Shot Liberty Valence Ransom Stoddard desperately tries to find a way to fight Liberty Valence
with the law instead of using violence, but in the end he is forced to enter a gun duel.
These same characteristics can be seen in American history. There have been several
occasions in which America has attempted to avoid war by either remaining neutral or using
diplomacy to settle a conflict, but in the end go to war.
John Ford’s films also depict an image of home and how one can be carved out of the
landscape. Ford also showed the outsider and the inability to call a place home. There
was conflict here, however, because the purpose of the pioneer spirit was to bring civilization.
For many of the heroes this was hard to do because the reason they left the east was
they were unable to function in a permanent home. They often ended up being forced to
move on. At the end of the Searchers, Ethan Edwards stays outside while the rest of the
family goes inside their home. This is the often how we view the spirit of
America as well. Throughout history America has expanded the land it owns yet we are never
content with what we have and end up continuing to occupy more and more land.
Over time our national identity has become one of the cowboy riding out to battle, one
of the marshal protecting justice, and one of the never-stopping soldier. The cowboy
in Ford’s films doesn’t just represent the American individual, he represents America