The Directors: John Ford & Howard Hawks

Next in a series about film directors.

John Ford and Howard Hawks are two of the greatest film directors of all time.  Certainly, the best directors of Westerns, and talented enough to helm any genre of film.  Ford and Hawks were contemporaries; they entered the film business during the silent era, directed some of the greatest films ever, and set the professional bar high for those who followed.  The successful directors of today are standing the shoulders of directors who stood on the shoulders of Ford and Hawks.  Every action film made should pay a residual to Ford and Hawks.

Ford and Hawks made many similar films, and made many films that were dissimilar in nature.  Ford did not invent the Western but even his black & white films were grand like Technicolor, rich in tones of meaning.  Ford has a way of connecting audiences with a deep appreciation of culture, family and the American spirit. Ford rarely made comedies, but Hawks did.  They both made John Wayne a cultural icon.  Hawks did not drill as deep as Ford for meaning in the American lexicon, but he painted much broader stories across a wider variety of genres.

There is not space to adequately present the careers of Ford and Hawks, so I will do so using a few films of each.

John Ford is forever associated with Monument Valley, ground zero for the Western genre.  Even thought the West is huge cinematic landscape, incorporating anything from John_Ford_1946the Midwestern prairie to the arid Southwest, to the Rio Grande, to the far south to the mountains of the Northwest; virtually anything west of the Mississippi was fair game.  If you think of the stagecoach, you probably think of Ford’s film Stagecoach, the story of Ringo the Kid (John Wayne) and a group of travelers each with a story, trying to make it alive through Indian territory. Ford also used Monument Valley for his cavalry films, his soldiers on the outskirts of civilization.


Stagecoach inspired countless films of desperate people thrown together on a journey and a small hope of survival.  Ford used the theme of desperation and struggle, people running from something or toward something, as the spine of numerous films.  He used the collision of people, and of ideals, like fire and iron, either making them stronger or breaking them into pieces.

The Grapes of Wrath is one such film of struggle, based on the John Steinbeck novel.  Ford could capture a thread of the American spirit and wove it into a story of sacrifice, struggle, loss, redemption and survival.  The key, and something Ford excelled, at was creating characters you cared about and compelling stories that kept you enthralled until the final credits.  The two filmmakers that best captured America in the first half of the twentieth century were John Ford and Frank Capra.  Capra is be the subject of a later blog.

Ford has been called an expressionist filmmaker.  Expressionism seeks to evoke an emotional response, something deeper than an initial reaction, drawing on more complex internal processing of events unfolding on the screen.  Hitchcock was more obvious about drilling into your subconscious, reaching deep into your psyche;  Ford was just as visual, but his cues were painted with more traditional action sequences and Western images.

Ford’s best films include: How Green Was My Valley, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Searchers, The Quiet Man, My Darling Clementine, Mr. Roberts, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 3 Godfathers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, They Were Expendable, Donovan’s Reef.

Two of Ford’s later films, though not generally held to be his best, serve to help understand the man.  He directed more than 140 films in his long career and has been studied by academics and filmmakers for a century; these two film are typical Ford.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) for me, was one of Ford’s most iconic Westerns.  John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin, how could it get any better than that?  This was not a Monument Valley location, in fact, it mostly seems to be shot in the studio.  Western films were already changing and Ford would direct only one more Western, so he was beginning to close his book on the genre.  In this film, the characters are mostly two-dimensional, but there is character depth not explored.  It is a film about a love triangle and a territory with growing pains that is headed toward a more civilized statehood.  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Donovan’s Reef (1963) was the comedy Ford usually shied away from.  John Wayne, already past middle age, was cast as a romantic lead.  It is corny, filled with south seas music, and very sentimental.  Ford could be highly sentimental but usually not so obvious.   The film is beautiful to look at, in rich color, very different than the magical black & white tones of many of his iconic Westerns.   If you wanted to move to a south seas paradise, somewhere that doesn’t really exist, this might be it.  Just a year earlier, John Wayne and Lee Marvin were on opposite sides of the picket wire; here, they are pals holding off an invasion of Australian bar customers.

Howard Hawks is often associated with his Westerns or tough guy films but he directed gangster films (Scarface), screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), Westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo), adventure (Hatari, To Have and Have Not), detective (The Big Sleep), musicals (Gentleman Prefer Blondes), war (Sergeant York) and horror (The Thing) films.  For my money, he was the most versatile director in the history of American film.


While John Ford understood how to fill his camera lens with meaning, Hawks knew how to fill it with entertainment.  Hawks even said that he was less concerned about film structure and more about connecting good scenes.

Hawks, like Ford, came to film in the early days and worked his way up to getting a chance to direct when the director of a film he was working on was hungover from the night before.  He offered to step in and this began his directing career. He would go on to produce films before becoming a fulltime director.  Hawks had a colorful life of racing cars and being a flight instructor in World War I, so he was quite comfortable directing action sequences.

Hawks first big film was Scarface (1932) starring Paul Muni and George Raft.  Hawks didn’t stick to action films, in 1934, he directed the screwball comedy Twentieth Century and in 1938, Bringing Up Baby, both classics.

The 1940s was arguably Hawks most successful decade.  He directed Sergeant York, Ball of Fire, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, I Was a Male War Bride, and perhaps his best film of the decade, Red River.  Many people think Ford directed Red River because of it was Ford’s kind of film, and it starred John Wayne in one of his best performances.

In the 1950s, Hawks directed the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a film that showed his ability to use color and big studio sets, and allowed him to temporarily leave the world of predominantly male-oriented films.  In 1959, Hawks again worked with John Wayne in another classic Western, Rio Bravo, but in a much lighter vein.  Hawks was at his best when he allowed humor to live inside his dramas.  Hawks and Wayne would remake this film in the 1960s as El Dorado, keeping the same loose mixture of action and comedy.

In addition to El Dorado, Hawks scored with Hatari!, another film with Wayne, this time set in Africa capturing wild animals for zoos, and Man’s Favorite Sport, a comedy with Rock Hudson.  Hawks make one more film, Rio Lobo (1970), more remembered for the cameo by writer George Plimpton.

In his career, Hawks was nominated for an Academy Award only once, for Sergeant York, but did not win.  Hawk’s films were not only successful but many became classics.  Actors enjoyed working with him, in part because he did not require a lot of takes.  His films were efficiently made, not just in speed but the viewer quickly found the film’s pulse.  Like Ford, Hawks produced most of his films and he was a writer, early in his film career.  Hawks knew good material and he inspired his actors to do their best work.

In To Have and Have Not, there is a scene where Lauren Bacall is instructing Humphrey Bogart in whistling.  It is a famous scene, which even Hawks admitted had really nothing to do with the story, but it was just a great scene.  How can you argue with that?  When you film a great scene, print it!

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