John Ford, film director, is born as John Martin Feeney on February 1, 1894 at Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He is the fourth son among five sons and six daughters of Seán Feeney, Roman Catholic farmer and saloon-keeper, and Barbara ‘Abby’ Feeney (née Curran). His father had emigrated to the United States from Spiddal, County Galway, and his mother from Kilronan, Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands.
From an early age Ford has an interest in painting and sailing, and in July 1914 moves to California, where his older brother Francis is an actor with a small film company. Adopting the name ‘Jack Ford,’ he learns his trade as a filmmaker and acts in a number of silent pictures. Reveling in his Irish heritage, he makes his director’s debut with The Tornado (1917) and follows it with more than forty movies over the next six years. On July 3, 1920, he marries Mary McBryde Smith, a former officer in the army medical corps. They meet at a party thrown by the director Rex Ingram and have one son and one daughter.
In 1921 Ford visits Ireland for the first time and later claims to have travelled on the same boat that brought Michael Collins back from the treaty negotiations. He meets his relatives at Spiddal, falls in love with the countryside, and becomes a fervent Irish nationalist. It is later claimed that he brought over funds for his cousin Martin Feeney, a member of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) flying column.
Returning to Hollywood, Ford becomes friends with the retired marshal Wyatt Earp and makes a number of commercially successful films, now as ‘John Ford’. In 1926 he directs The Shamrock Handicap, a horse-racing yarn partly set in Ireland. In 1928 he shoots Mother Machree, a movie about Irish emigration, starring Victor McLaglen, a regular collaborator. McLaglen also stars in Hangman’s House, made the same year, Ford’s first major movie about Ireland.
In 1934 Ford purchases a luxury yacht which he names the Araner after the Aran Islands. He also begins shooting The Informer, a film set in Ireland during the Irish War of Independence, and based on a short novel by Liam O’Flaherty. The picture is a major box office success and wins four Academy Awards, including Best Director. O’Flaherty is so impressed with the film that he dedicates his next book, Famine, to Ford.
In 1934 Ford visits Ireland for the second time, and approaches Seán O’Casey about directing a version of The Plough and the Stars. Released in 1936, the film stars Barry Fitzgerald as Fluther, but it is reedited by the studio, much to Ford’s fury, and is a commercial and critical flop.
Stagecoach, shot in 1938, is one of Ford’s masterpieces. It was a western starring his protégé, John Wayne, and marks the beginning of his golden decade. In 1940 and 1941 he wins Best Director Oscars successively for The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. With American entry into World War II, he serves in the U.S. Navy, and makes important documentaries such as The Battle of Midway (1942).
In 1952 Ford returns to Ireland to film The Quiet Man, starring Wayne, McLaglen, and Maureen O’Hara. Shot at Ashford Castle, County Mayo, the picture becomes one of the most popular Irish films of all time. He is immensely proud of the work and is in tears leaving Ireland. The following year he makes Mogambo, with Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and a young English actor, Donald Sinden, who later recalls that Ford berated him personally for all the problems of Ireland from the time of William of Orange. Ford’s strong sense of Irishness is central to his character and is crucial for any understanding of his work. Back in Ireland in 1956, he shoots The Rising of the Moon, a portmanteau film for which he takes no salary, starring Tyrone Power, Cyril Cusack, and Noel Purcell. A minor film, it makes no impact at the box office.
Two of Ford’s finest movies are made in his later years. The Searchers (1956) is a powerful study of vengeance, while The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is an elegiac revisionist western which concludes with the famous line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Struck with cancer in his final years, Ford dies on August 31, 1973 at his home in Palm Desert, California, and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. His will disinherits his son, Michael Patrick Roper, and leaves everything to his wife, daughter, and grandchildren.
When asked to name the finest American directors, Orson Welles replies simply, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” An alcoholic, Ford is a difficult and often tyrannical director, but he makes films of extraordinary power and vision. He ranks as one of the greatest film-makers of the twentieth century. As Frank Capra concludes, “John is half-tyrant, half-revolutionary; half-saint, half-Satan; half-possible, half-impossible; half-genius, half-Irish.”
(From: “Ford, John,” contributed by Patrick M. Geoghegan, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)