He was in many ways the archetype of the Great American Filmmaker: his output prodigious, his work bearing a distinctive stamp, his temperament mercurial, his larger-than-life persona as much a part of his legend as were his blockbuster creations. Detractors deride his approach to our national myths as simplistic and sentimentalist; devotees praise his brilliant cinematic eye and the humanism that underscores his celluloid Americana. But foes, fans, and those in between all recognize the name John Ford.
And when most hear it, the images it conjures are those of the American West—the West of history and the West of the imagination. Ford’s West is so ingrained in the public’s psyche that if you visit Monument Valley, you are stricken not only by its beauty but also by a sense that you’ve been there, many times before. It is so instantly familiar because it is the backdrop of the American frontier in our collective subconscious—a landscape placed there by the moviemaking magic of Ford.
But for all that, he was more a man of the sea than a man of the interior wilderness. Ford felt more at home on his yacht than home on the range. And a failed attempt to get into the U.S. Naval Academy seems to have forged in him at a tender age a determination to somehow, someday be part of the Navy team. If you didn’t know otherwise, you could be forgiven for assuming the silver screen’s seminal chronicler of pioneers and gunmen, of cavalry and Indians, would have spent his free time on a big, sprawling ranch, à la Gene Autry or Ronald Reagan. But the reality was that Ford loved the open waves and bled Navy blue, rising eventually to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Traveling to all corners of the globe, he cranked out dozens of documentaries for the Department of the Navy and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. Ford’s wartime output as a cameraman-in-uniform ranges from the perfunctory (Sex Hygiene, anyone?) to the historically valuable: His Academy Award-winning 1942 documentary The Battle of Midway features frontline footage—in color—of that pivotal clash. Ford took a shoulderful of shrapnel wielding his camera in the thick of battle and was commended for his actions. From Midway to D-Day, he had a front-row seat to history during its largest conflict.
His affiliation with the Navy would go beyond that, to similar documentarian duty in the Korean War. And the ties had been established before World War II as well when, as an officer in the Reserve, Ford employed his yacht for spying missions—gathering West Coast and Pacific shipping-lane intelligence. His naval side-career, and his reverence for the service’s traditions, would manifest itself in his Hollywood output, including one of the finest World War II Navy movies, They Were Expendable.
But even when contemplating Ford’s more high-profile career as maker of Westerns, the sea is never too far removed. Stagecoach, the movie project that finally turned his protégé and most famous actor-collaborator John Wayne into a big star, gelled at sea on board Ford’s yacht. And for all the timeless Western classics Ford and Wayne made together, from Stagecoach to the Cavalry Trilogy to The Searchers to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, what was to be the final screen collaboration between these two cinematic giants?
A 1963 movie about a couple of rowdy old World War II Navy buddies living it up in a South Seas island paradise. They actually used Ford’s yacht on-screen in Donovan’s Reef.
Born to the Sound of Waves
The sea was right there at the edge of his life from the get-go. John “Jack” Martin Feeney was born at Cape Elizabeth, Maine, in 1894 (a year he would later fudge as 1895). His parents had emigrated from Galway Bay on the raw and rocky west coast of Ireland. Jack—10th of 11 children—grew up in the seaside city of Portland, Maine, where his father engaged in bootlegging, saloon-keeping, and politics. In 1914, the year he graduated from Portland High School, Jack Feeney failed the entrance examination for the U.S. Naval Academy. Thwarted in his first choice of a naval career, he had the fallback of attending the University of Maine on a football and track scholarship. But he soon dropped that idea to follow his older brother Francis out to Hollywood, California, and the burgeoning motion-picture industry. He also followed Francis in adopting the professional surname “Ford.” If the Navy wouldn’t have Jack, maybe the movies would. He acted briefly before finding his natural home behind the camera. By 1923, Jack Ford had become John Ford and was churning out silent-screen Westerns at an amazing pace. His breakout hit, The Iron Horse, came in 1924.
As the silent era gave way to the talkies, Ford was on a roll, but the saddle-sagas that had been his training ground had fallen out of favor with the Hollywood suits. A-list Westerns would come roaring back with a new respectability in 1939 with the smash success of Ford’s Stagecoach. But in the meantime, the prolific Ford directed everything from comedies to tearjerkers to war stories—and sea stories. One of his collaborators during this period was the legendary naval aviator-turned-screenwriter Frank “Spig” Wead; they formed a bond that would last, and Ford would later memorialize his friend in the 1957 biopic The Wings of Eagles.
Ford, however, already had formed a far more important bond that had a Navy tie-in. In 1920 he had married Mary McBryde Smith, the niece of Rear Admiral Victor Blue. Ford milked her family’s naval connections for years, cultivating relationships in the hopes of eventually being able to join the club he had failed to get into his first go-round. But when he applied for a commission in the Naval Reserve on 10 July 1934—20 years after he had been unable to storm the gates of Annapolis—physical factors meant that the odds were against him once more. It is a sad irony that one of golden-age cinema’s most celebrated visionaries had always suffered from terrible eyesight. In addition he was plagued by chronic inflammation of the kidneys and had dental issues. His condition yielded a disqualifying Navy medical report. But as biographer Joseph McBride noted, Ford’s “desire to serve his country, to prove that he truly belonged to its inner circles, was so important to him that he managed to prevail over the medical examiners. Strings were pulled, and his disqualification was waived.”
Ford had things going for him in 1934 that had not been there in 1914. Influential letters of recommendation poured in to the office of the secretary of the Navy. Captain Herbert Jones, Naval Reserve director for the San Diego–based 11th Naval District, wrote glowingly of Ford’s “general Navy mindedness,” while Rear Admiral Frank Schofield pointed out his “experience in the handling of men, interest in the Navy, and [being] related by marriage to the Navy.” By October, the filmmaker had landed his commission as a lieutenant commander. The Ford of 1934 had connections, fame, pull, and—not insignificantly—a yacht.
Pleasure Craft = Spycraft?
The same summer he had applied for his Naval Reserve commission, Ford met one of the great and lasting loves of his life. He would spend more time with her and lavish more money on her than any of the Katharine Hepburns of the world with whom he allegedly had extramarital affairs. This great love that outshone those other flashes-in-the-pan was the 106-foot Massachusetts-built ketch Faith. After purchasing her—a steal at $16,500—Ford renamed her the Araner in honor of the Aran Islands, ancestral home of his mother’s family. He painted her green and white, and the luxuriously appointed craft became the director’s home away from home. She also became his satellite office; Ford would immerse himself in research literature for upcoming projects while afloat, far from the madding Hollywood crowd. Or, with creative colleagues on board, scripts would be hammered out, actors paired with parts, deals sealed.
Ultimately, though, the Araner became more famous (or infamous) as a floating frat party. Stone-cold sober, tyrannical, and obsessed when shooting a picture, when between projects Ford liked to clear his mind by ingesting copious amounts of alcohol. Stars from his unofficial stock company—John Wayne, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, et al.—along with sundry assistant directors, screenwriters, agents, and other hard-drinking Tinseltown types, would set sail with Ford to play poker, go sport-fishing, and get rip-roaring drunk. They stormed ashore at such Mexican port towns as Mazatlan, barhopping in a tequila fog while a Ford-hired mariachi band followed them everywhere. As the log of the Araner records, Ford, Wayne, Bond, and Fonda got themselves arrested on New Year’s Eve 1934 in Mazatlan—twice. The second time they were bailed out, town officials “invited” them to leave.
But all that south-of-the-border debauchery provided cover for a more purposeful aspect of Ford’s yacht excursions. From 1935 to 1939 he filed intelligence reports for the U.S. Navy, secretly photographing shipping-lane activity from on board the Araner and snooping along the U.S.-Mexican border coastal area to scope out possible Japanese efforts to establish a presence in Baja California. (Some have contended that Ford had been recruited even earlier by Naval Intelligence and had carried out recon missions in Asia, but this is less substantiated by military records.) Ford received a letter of commendation in 1940 from the 11th Naval District commandant for “initiative in securing valuable information on California.”
“Ford in fact was deadly serious about his spying,” biographer McBride asserts. “He fully recognized the grave implications of the rise of fascism in Germany and Japan during the 1930s and was prescient in his understanding that war was becoming inevitable.”
On the eve of that inevitable war, Ford’s film career was at its apex. He was in the midst of a string of incredible hits—Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk in 1939; The Grapes of Wrath in 1940; and the soon-to-be acclaimed masterpiece How Green Was My Valley in 1941. He was just wrapping up work on the latter picture in September 1941 when he was ordered to report to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C. Ford’s 25-year Hollywood career was about to go on hold. He would continue wielding a camera, but now in the service of the U.S. government—and, sometimes, in harm’s way.
And while Ford went to war, so too did his beloved yacht—he loaned her to the Navy and she served as the USS Araner (IX-57), a patrol and general-auxiliary craft, from 1942 to 1944.
On the Front Lines, Camera in Hand
Promoted to commander on 7 October 1941, Ford headed a documentary film unit and embarked on assignments that whisked him from the Canal Zone to Hawaii, the European theater, and places in between. What’s available from his output during the war years is a fascinating mixed bag. Even the puerile, now-campy Sex Hygiene offers the bizarre surreality of seeing future “Superman” George Reeves, sporting a pencil-thin mustache as he headlines a cheesy cautionary tale that soon devolves into a droning lecture by a medical officer standing before graphic diagrams of the male anatomy. It’s like a Reefer Madness version of the films that were laughed at during seventh-grade physiology class.
But such a training film as Sex Hygiene was produced, obviously, for a very finite target audience—all in uniform and required to watch it. Some of Ford’s other wartime efforts were intended to have a bigger footprint. You can see why his quasi-documentary December 7th resonated with 1943 audiences; it presents a dramatization of the Pearl Harbor tragedy fully amped-up to the highest wartime-propaganda levels, and it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject. Today it seems less compelling than “The Pacific Boils Over,” the equivalent episode from television’s Victory at Sea (which itself used a mixture of real and staged footage). In Ford’s re-creation, U.S. Dauntless bombers stand in for Japanese planes, and in a moving, but also somewhat creepy, part, the ghosts of dead servicemen speak in voice-over while images of their families back home are shown. (The ghosts’ voices are all performed by the same narrator.)
Of more historical interest is the footage that Ford managed to capture while bombs were dropping and shrapnel was flying all around him. “I was called by Admiral [Chester W.] Nimitz to the phone,” Ford recounted in a 1943 interview with the Navy. “I knew him quite well. He said, ‘Throw a bag together and come out here and see me.’ So I left immediately and went out to Pearl Harbor, saw him.” After receiving his orders, Ford “went down to the Harbor, got into the speedboat and caught a destroyer that was leaving. Got on board while it was in motion, while she was underway. Hadn’t the slightest idea what I was doing, where I was going. I found out when I got on board the destination was Midway.”
En route to the remote Central Pacific station gearing up for the greatest battle in U.S. naval history, “we picked up a flotilla of PT boats,” Ford recalled. “It was the first time I had seen the PT boys. And that, gentlemen or ladies, whoever is listening, that is really an outfit; that is really a wonderful group of boys. I have nothing but the utmost admiration for them.” So impressed was he, in fact, that he would make PT boatmen the focus of his first movie when he returned to Hollywood.
At Midway Ford filmed footage of everything from indigenous gooney birds to Marines disembarking to the immense preparations afoot. He was moved by the overall sense of calm pervading the proceedings. On 4 June 1942, he was stationed atop the island’s powerhouse, both photographing for the record and acting as an observer. He was, in other words, in a position that stuck out like a sore thumb. “About 60 miles off . . . through a rift in the clouds . . . we suddenly saw a couple of cruiser planes coming for us. Taking a quick look, we realized they were Japanese.”
Ford watched their approach through his high-powered binoculars. “The first flight I saw there were about 12 planes. They were coming at about 10,000 feet, so I reported this to the command post, told them that the attack was about to begin. . . . You know everybody sort of took to the line of duty as though they had been living through this sort of thing all their lives.”
He was a celebrity civilian/reservist in a precariously exposed position just then, but considering his talents, it made sense for him to be there. As he put it, “they figured I was a motion picture man and naturally should have a photographic eye so I made a pretty good choice, because I knew what I had to do and that was to count planes. . . . One of the Marines stood by me and checked and we double-checked, and so I think that my count of the planes was official.”
The weird sense of calm that had marked the opening of battle quickly dissolved in the smoke and din. “By this time the attack had started in earnest. There was some dive-bombing at some objectives like water towers . . . I was close to the hangar and I was lined up on it with my camera, figuring it would be one of the first things they got.” Ford was right: “A Zero flew about 50 feet over it and dropped a bomb and hit it. Evidently he made a very lucky hit, he must have hit some explosives in it, the whole thing went up.”
As the bomb scored a bull’s-eye right before him, Ford kept filming until the blast blew him back. “I was knocked unconscious. I had my elbow and shoulder full of shrapnel from that. Just knocked me goofy for a bit, and I pulled myself out of it.”
Ever the trouper, he noted: “I did manage to get the picture. You may have seen it in The Battle of Midway. It’s where the plane flies over the hangar and everything goes up in smoke and debris, you can see one big chunk coming for the camera.”
Ford received a Purple Heart for his wounds, as well as a letter of commendation from the 14th Naval District commandant:
For distinguished service in the line of his profession when on June 4, 1942, the Naval Air Station, Midway Island, was severely bombed and strafed by Japanese aircraft. Despite his exposed position he remained at his station and reported to the Navy Command Center an accurate accounting of the attack, thereby aiding the Commanding Officer in determining his employment of the defending forces. His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval service.
For Jack Feeney, the Irish immigrants’ son who had failed to get accepted into the Naval Academy, those words had to have sounded pretty good. But in his grizzled, tough-guy John Ford persona, he was breezily self-effacing: “As far as the citation was concerned I think it was more for being wounded in an exposed position and not leaving my post. Well, hell, you couldn’t leave your post, there was no place to go.”
Wounded but conscious again, he continued to record the battle raging around him. “The planes started falling, some of ours, a lot of Jap planes. It seems when you hit a Zero plane, it almost immediately goes into flames.” Ford spoke admiringly of the performance of the American servicemen that day. “The Marine gunners and our Navy gunners were really excellent. I have never seen a greater exhibition of courage and coolness under fire. . . . Those kids were really remarkable.”
His related observation was tinged with pride and awe: “The Marines with me—I took one look at them and said, ‘Well, this war was won.’ They were kids, oh, I would say from 18 to 22, none of them were older. They were the calmest people I have ever seen. . . . I figured then, ‘Well, if these kids are American kids, I mean this war is practically won.’”
Ford took his footage and added a voice-over script and a music score. The finished product was released by the War Activities Committee as The Battle of Midway in 1942. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. That Oscar, plus the one garnered by December 7th the following year, came on the heels of back-to-back Best Director Oscars he received for The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. So for four years in a row, from 1941 to 1944, Ford’s work netted an Oscar each year; it’s a winning streak that no other filmmaker has ever come close to touching.
Another film that came out of Ford’s Midway experience is very short, spare, and simple, yet chillingly effective: Torpedo Squadron, also known as Torpedo Squadron 8. As the director photographed the young men of VT-8 posing in pairs before their aircraft, beaming with the enthusiasm and confidence of youth, no one could know these were the last images anyone would ever see of them. Soaring off into Navy legend, the doomed squadron lost 29 of its 30 fliers at Midway.
From D-Day to Hollywood to Korea
From June 1943 to the end of the war, Commander Ford went to work for fellow Irish-American William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, as chief of the OSS Field Photographic Division. In addition to producing documentaries, Ford also advanced the art of aerial photo-reconnaissance for the OSS. When the Normandy invasion was afoot, Ford oversaw the filming of the Omaha Beach landings. (His D-Day footage was thought to have been lost forever, but in 1998 some of it was discovered in film canisters buried in National Archives vaults.)
Ford’s shipmate during his filming of the D-Day landings was Medal of Honor recipient Lieutenant Commander John D. Bulkeley—the PT skipper who had evacuated General Douglas MacArthur out of the Philippines. Bulkeley’s wartime heroics would serve as the inspiration for Ford’s next Hollywood feature, the first he directed as the war wound down. They Were Expendable (1945), one of the best of World War II cinema’s first wave, is Ford’s stirring ode to the U.S. Navy. The story of PT boats facing a relentless foe as the Philippines fell, the film was hailed by critics as one of the director’s finest. There’s an underlying sense of war’s tragic toll throughout; comrades-in-arms never make it back; wartime romances don’t necessarily lead to happy Hollywood endings.
Ford had been promoted to captain in 1945, and his director’s credit proudly proclaims his Naval Reserve rank. Leading man Robert Montgomery actually had served as a PT skipper during the war, and you can’t match that kind of real-life experience for adding credibility to his world-weary acting job.
It’s a little amusing to see the iconic John Wayne receiving second billing behind the less-remembered Montgomery; both stars turn in solid, low-key performances. The story goes that Ford relentlessly gave Wayne a hard time during the film shoot. Wayne had opted out of the war, and Ford never let him forget it. Finally Montgomery took the director aside and told him to stop. Hearing the actor who had served stick up for the one who hadn’t caused Ford to break down in tears; he quit bothering Wayne after that.
Back in the director’s chair in postwar Hollywood, Ford would be recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He went in-theater and in 1951 filmed This is Korea! for the Navy Department. Like his World War II productions, its propagandistic packaging makes it a bit of a dated curio—but the you-are-there color footage is a valuable archive, and with the film Ford completed his service in admirable fashion. He was promoted to rear admiral on his retirement from the Naval Reserve in 1951.
John Ford would be promoted one more time. On 31 March 1973, five months before his death, the legendary director was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Richard Nixon, invoking his powers as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, declared, “For the remainder of this evening, John Ford is a full admiral.”
Many words of praise were spoken during that ceremony, but that fleeting honorary promotion probably sat as well with Ford as anything else.
He once had famously said, “My name is John Ford and I make Westerns.”
At the end, however, his coffin was draped with the tattered U.S. flag that had been hoisted by the U.S. Marines at the Battle of Midway. And his tombstone offers his final and ultimate descriptor:
ADMIRAL JOHN FORD
“Narrative by Cmdr. John Ford, U.S.N.R. Photographic Experiences from Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941,” National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
Naval History and Heritage Command, “Biographies in Naval History: Rear Admiral John Ford, U.S. Naval Reserve,” www.history.navy.mil/bios/ford_john.htm.
Douglas Brinkley, “Eyewitnesses to War,” Time, 4 June 2000, www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,46456,00.html.
Bill Levy, John Ford: A Bio-Bibliography (New Haven, CT: Greenwood, 1998).
Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford: A Life (New York: St. Martin’s, 2001).