John Ford: Not a Cowboy in Sight

“My name is John Ford. I make Westerns.”

That’s how veteran director John Ford (1894-1973) would often introduce himself. And it was true as far as it went.

It just didn’t go far enough.

Yes, Ford is best known for making cowboy pictures, often starring his perennial leading man, John Wayne, and set among the iconographic bluffs and buttes of Utah’s Monument Valley.

Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Three Godfathers, the so-called “Cavalry trilogy” – these are among the best “oaters” ever made.

But Ford made more than Westerns. In fact, in the middle years of his career he made very few of them.

But he did cut his filmmaking teeth on horse operas. During the silent era Ford worked almost exclusively in Westerns, making more than 30 cowboy features and a score of shorts between 1917 and 1925. Then, with eight years of ropin’ and wranglin’ under his belt, he graduated to more varied fare – adventure films, romances, comedies.

And by the time sound came roaring in, Ford was viewed as such an accomplished filmmaker that the money men didn’t want to waste him on mere Westerns, which were considered fodder for the kiddie and matinee crowds.

Here’s a hard-to-believe statistic: Between 1930 and 1949 Ford directed 35 features. Of those only five were Westerns: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Three Godfathers and Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

Most of his output consisted of prestige productions like literary adaptations (Arrowsmith, Judge Priest, Drums Along the Mohawk, Tobacco Road), comedies (The Whole Town’s Talking) and adventure (The Lost Patrol, Submarine Patrol). He directed Katharine Hepburn in Mary of Scotland and under his wing old pal Victor McLaglen won a best actor Oscar for The Informer.

It was only in the ‘50s and ‘60s that Ford returned in earnest to cowboy flicks, wrapping up his career by alternating Westerns with other material.

It’s that “other” material that is showcased in John Ford: Not a Cowboy in Sight, the March film series at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. All screenings are free and held at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and 6:30 p.m. Mondays in the Durwood Film Vault.

The lineup:

March 3: The Grapes of Wrath (1940): John Steinbeck’s epic tale of the dispossessed Joad family comes to life through a great cast (Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine) and the documentary-style cinematography of Gregg Toland.

March 5: Wee Willie Winkie (1937): Widely regarded as Shirley Temple’s best film, this Rudyard Kipling-inspired effort finds the cutie living on a British military post in India and facing a native rebellion. With Victor McLaglen, Cesar Romero.

March 10: How Green Was My Valley (1941): The trials and modest triumphs of a Welsh coal-mining family. With Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Roddy McDowall.

March 12: Mogambo (1953): In Africa a three-way romance develops between a safari guide (Clark Gable), a floozy (Ava Gardner), and a vacationing beauty (Grace Kelly).

March 17: They Were Expendable (1945): Just returned from the Pacific (where he shot documentaries for the Navy), Ford directed John Wayne and Robert Montgomery as PT Boat commanders defending the Philippines during WW2.

March 19: The Wings of Eagles (1957): In Ford’s hands this bio of Navy pilot Frank W. “Spig” Wead (John Wayne) became a love letter to the U.S. Navy.

March 24: The Quiet Man (1952): American prizefighter John Wayne returns to his father’s Irish village and weds fiery lass Maureen O’Hara.

March 26: Donovan’s Reef (1963): The hard-brawling lives of an island-dwelling bum (John Wayne) and his boozy nemesis (Lee Marvin) are turned upside down by the arrival of the former’s high-society daughter.

March 31: Mister Roberts (1955): Henry Fonda reprises his Broadway role as an idealistic Navy officer who defies his venal captain (James Cagney). Jack Lemmon became a comedy sensation as Ensign Pulver.


About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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