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John Ford's finest

The From Fort Apache to The Searchers, Graeme Ross selects the 10 greatest films of the legendary filmmaker


Western grandeur: John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers

Western grandeur: John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers

My Darling Clementine

My Darling Clementine

Fort Apache

Fort Apache

Hollywood classics: Stagecoach

Hollywood classics: Stagecoach

John Ford (centre) with James Stewart and John Wayne on the set of Liberty Valance

John Ford (centre) with James Stewart and John Wayne on the set of Liberty Valance

John Ford

John Ford


Western grandeur: John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers

On January 24, 1940, John Ford's film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, set during America's great depression, was released to universal acclaim.

Eighty years on, the film still stands up as an enduring American classic, a film that more than any other dispels the myth that Ford was just a director of westerns. Ford did in fact film some of the greatest westerns ever made and you will find them on this list; after all, he was John Ford and he made westerns. But there is so much more to his oeuvre.

Ford was first and foremost a great storyteller and a poetic visual artist. Famous for his trademark long shots, he knew exactly where to place the camera and his actors. He had a gift, too, for filming landscapes, particularly the vast terrains of the American West, creating many unforgettable images - think of the coach travelling through Monument Valley in Stagecoach, dwarfed by the grandeur of its surroundings.

He idealised family, community and the working class and his best films contained many moral complexities and dilemmas. Exerting an auteur-like influence on much of his work, he belongs in an elite group of directors from cinema's golden age that numbers Hawks, Wilder and Hitchcock among its alumni. With four Best Director Oscars to his name, Ford is perhaps the greatest filmmaker of all. Here are his 10 best films.

10. Young Mr Lincoln (1939)

Henry Fonda and Ford worked together on seven films beginning with this highly fictionalised biography of the early life of Abraham Lincoln. Fonda was apprehensive about taking on the role but he excelled in this beautifully shot slice of Fordian Americana, which traces Lincoln's journey from poor country boy to fledgling lawyer fighting his first case. It contains many indelible Ford moments such as the hero's monologue at the grave of his loved one - a trope that Ford often used- and the film's closing sequence with Lincoln striding up a hill and into history as a storm rages.

9. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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In the second of Ford's cavalry trilogy, the only one filmed in colour, John Wayne aged 20 years for his sensitive performance as the career soldier who manages to help avert a war with the Indians just before his retiral. Winston Hoch's Oscar-winning cinematography evokes the paintings of the American West by Frederic Remington and gives an elegiac quality to the picture. Ford's beloved Monument Valley is breathtakingly photographed in all its contrasting glories - mostly unforgettable earth hues and sunsets, but also, as in the scene where a defeated troop trudges wearily through a thunderstorm, dark and foreboding atmospherics.

8. How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Ford's enduring themes of family and community inform his moving adaptation of Richard Llewellyn's novel of a close-knit Welsh mining family torn apart by gossip and labour disputes. The story is told through 12-year-old Huw, played beautifully by Roddy McDowell, and concentrates on the family's harsh and dangerous life down the pit. As you would expect from a Ford film, it is lovingly shot, with the mining village sets so authentic that the viewer would never know that filming took place near Malibu, California. The winner of five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

7. Fort Apache (1948)

Martinet commanding officer Henry Fonda is sidelined to a post he considers beneath him. In an attempt to revive his career, the vainglorious Colonel Thursday breaks the peace with local Apaches but dies with his entire command in a disastrous defeat. Second-in-command John Wayne covers up Thursday's folly, painting him as a hero and in doing so restores the glory of the regiment. The first and best of Ford's cavalry trilogy is notable as the first example of him questioning the myth of the West and of taking a more sympathetic view on the plight of the Indians.

6. The Quiet Man (1952)

This famous film, shot in Ireland in vibrant technicolour, was a love letter to Ford's spiritual home. John Wayne is the retired boxer who returns to the old country to reclaim his family home and win the hand of fiery, spirited Maureen O'Hara. Wayne finds himself frustrated by local customs and it all climaxes in the mother of all Donnybrooks between Wayne and Victor McLaglen. The Quiet Man is a beloved piece of blarney to many; to others, it's a rose-tinted "Oirish" version of Brigadoon set in an Ireland that never existed. Either way, it's great fun.

5. My Darling Clementine (1946)

With Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Ford's typically romanticised take on events at the OK Corral is lyrical, poetic and full of iconic scenes that linger long in the memory - such as Fonda's awkward dance with his "lady fair" at Tombstone's new church's dedication. At its heart, My Darling Clementine is about good versus evil and the civilisation of the West, with Ford turning history into myth, but as we should all know by now, Hollywood has never let the facts interfere with a good story.

4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Self sacrifice, loneliness and loss permeate this dark, disillusioned work torn between myth and reality. Panned and misunderstood on release but now fully rehabilitated, this is the film in which Ford fully deconstructs the mythology of the American West, telling the story of the politician who builds a successful career built on a lie. This artistic volte-face from the idealism of Ford's earlier westerns is summed up by the film's most famous line, delivered by the newspaperman who learns of the deception, but chooses to continue the myth. "This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

3. Stagecoach (1939)

A landmark film in the history of the western. Part character study, part action film, Stagecoach made John Wayne a star and introduced many of the tropes that became part and parcel of the genre, such as the cavalry riding to the rescue. However, the movie's most memorable and influential aspect is Ford's use of Monument Valley, the single most recognisable location in western movies. Stagecoach reinvigorated and defined a genre that was in danger of sliding into B-movie oblivion, and eight decades on is still many people's idea of the classic western.

2. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Ford's unforgettable portrayal of migrants' struggle to escape Oklahoma's dust bowl and reach California's promised land still resonates today. The film is a justifiably angry condemnation of the social and economical failings and inhumane treatment that led to so much misery for so many people. It was a brave decision to film Steinbeck's controversial book and the author himself was pleased with the adaptation. Ford, a socially conscious filmmaker, put his own unique stamp on a highly regarded and topical book and created an instant thought-provoking classic full of realism and emotion. Eighty years later, its classic status remains unimpeachable.

1. The Searchers (1956)

The saga of racist outsider Ethan Edward's relentless five-year search for his niece abducted by Comanches still astounds in its dark power, beauty and all round magnificence. Complex, full of subtexts and moral ambiguities, with a monumental performance from John Wayne as the embittered anti-hero, The Searchers is a film that repays repeated viewing and remains infinitely influential, although for many years it was dismissed as just another western. Now, however, Ford's greatest film is considered by many critics and directors to be the finest western ever made.

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