John Ford: Life Before the Director’s Chair

| | November 30, 2023

John Ford is one of the most highly acclaimed film directors of all time. Working prolifically within the constraints of the Hollywood studio system for over half a decade, the director established a reputation as a filmmaker comfortable within almost any genre of film.

He still holds the record for having won more Academy Awards for Best Picture than any other director, four to be exact, for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952). He is known mainly, of course, for his Westerns, working with actors such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Stewart in such classics of the genre as Fort Apache (1948), The Searchers (1956() and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

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This article, however, is intended to provide an overview of Ford’s pre-directing career, and in the process detail the circumstances under which he would eventually emerge as one of the most lauded and prolific film directors of the Twentieth-Century.

John Ford told Peter Bogdanovich that ‘his screen career began as a laborer and then as a third assistant director’ (in Bogdanovich, 1978, p.113). According to biographer Joseph McBride, ‘he was especially proud of his ability as a cameraman […]. Ford developed his brilliant eye for composition and his knack for capturing action with documentary-style authenticity’ (McBride, 2003, p.81).

Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify with any certainty the films on which Ford was employed as a cinematographer so this article will, therefore, concentrate more on Ford’s time as an actor, with emphasis on the genres that he was exposed to prior to becoming a director in his own right. 

There are numerous biographical accounts, along with John Ford’s own version, of how he found himself in Hollywood and the circumstances that eventually led to him being given the opportunity to direct. As the newspaper editor, Maxwell Scott famously remarked in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. Seemingly taking this sentiment to heart, Ford embellished his own legend a number of times over the years, occasionally varying the story in which, in 1914, at the age of 20, he made his way across America to California from Portland, Maine, his place of birth, to join his older brother, Frank, in Hollywood.

According to Ford biographer Joseph McBride,  ‘Ford wanted people to believe that he hopped freights all the way to California, or that he made his way there working as a cowboy’ (McBride, 2003, p.75).

In 1914 Ford’s older brother, who by this time had changed his name from Frank Feeney to Francis Ford, was under contract to Universal and established as a successful actor and director in his own right. Following in his brother’s footsteps, Ford changed his name from John Martin Feeney to Jack Ford and went to work for Francis ‘as a carpenter, prop man, editor, assistant cameraman, assistant director or stunt man. He was whatever Frank wanted him to be’ (Eyman and Duncan, 2004, p.23). 

According to Anthony Slide, Ford was at one point a prop boy for female director Lois Weber, ‘America’s first native-born woman filmmaker, [and] the most important female director to have worked in the film industry’ (Slide, 1996, pp.29-30).

Slide maintains that ‘Ford never mentioned the Weber connection, and none of the countless writers who have glorified his career have chosen to note the Lois Weber relationship’ (Slide, 1996, p.38). This is not strictly the case, as Joseph McBride refers to Weber in his biography on Ford, stating that the director ‘would have had the chance to watch, if not work with, the pioneer feminist filmmaker Lois Weber’ (McBride, 2003, p.80).

Although Ford never alluded to the time he spent with Weber, it is quite possible that she, along with the director’s mother, serves as a basis for the numerous strong female characters that permeate his films.

McBride states that ‘Ford was an actor or stuntman in no fewer than sixteen silent films’ (McBride, 2003, p.82). Both McBride and Bogdanovich credit Ford’s first official involvement with movies in the Francis Ford directed serial, Lucille Love – Girl of Mystery(1914), Bogdanovich suggesting that Ford ‘probably played bits in various chapters’ (Bogdanovich, 1978, p.113). However, I.G. Edmonds claims that ‘old stills, such as The Battle of Bull Run (Francis Ford, 1913), show that he was playing bit parts from the beginning’ (Edmonds, 1977, p.51). 

Joseph McBride also writes that Ford ‘told Gavin Lambert in the early 60s that the Civil War was his major interest in life, with movies secondary’ (McBride, 2003, p.595).

Ford’s rumored participation in The Battle of Bull Run (1913) therefore indicates exposure to the Civil War genre before he became a director, and must have undoubtedly influenced, and possibly even encouraged, his lifelong obsession with the subject.

As indicated throughout Ford’s work, elements of the American Civil War movie pervade many of his later films, either as a major part of the narrative, as in The Scarlet Drop (1918), or as a minor reference, in the guise of the Union veteran in The Blue Eagle (1926). 

After a bit part in another further serial for his brother, Lucille, The Waitress (Francis Ford,1914), Ford played a character, according to Joseph McBride, called Dopey (McBride, 2003, p.80), in a detective thriller entitled The Mysterious Rose (Francis Ford, 1914).

The theme of family and Ford’s habit of keeping company on set with those he socialized with away from the studio has its beginnings during his pre-directing period when he worked with his own relatives in Hollywood and adopted known pseudonyms when in the employ of his brother. Ironically, The Mysterious Rose (1914) was also the first film in which he is credited as Jack Ford, a name he would continue to use for the next nine years.

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In 1915, Ford found himself involved in the filming of another Civil War drama, The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915). Ford’s grandson, Dan Ford, stated that ‘he always claimed he was a [K]lansman in Birth of a Nation […] don’t know if that’s true but ‘‘Print the Legend’’. Hell, everybody in Hollywood was probably an extra in that film’ (email to author, 05/04/2011).

One of Griffith’s biographers, Richard Schickel, questioned Ford on his appearance in the film, with Ford claiming that he ‘was one of the extras that rode with the [K]lan, and his bed sheet twisted and blinded him as he pounded along. He failed to see an overhanging tree branch, which swept him from the saddle and plunged him, unconscious, to the ground. He came to, with no less than Griffith kneeling over him, offering a brandy flask’ (Schickel, 1996, p.231).

Eyman writes that the connection between Ford and Griffith ‘was independently confirmed by [actress] Mae Marsh [who claimed that] he was a little extra boy […], riding as a [K]lansman in the Ku Klux Klan’ (Eyman, 1999, p.50).

Eyman and Duncan further suggest that the figure in the image from The Birth of a Nation (1915) could actually be Ford, stating that he was ‘constantly holding up his hood so that he could see with his glasses, much like the rider on the right’ (Eyman and Duncan, 2004, p.23). 

Coincidentally, Ford would later use certain narrative aspects of The Birth of a Nation (1915), in particular the gathering of the Klans, in Straight Shooting (1917), his first full-length feature film and one of the twenty-five known titles Ford would direct for Universal Studios that starred the famous silent cowboy star, Harry Carey Senior.

He also adopted the practice of referencing real-life characters in much the same way as Griffith uses Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation (1915), adding authenticity to the drama. Ford uses this device in films such as The Iron Horse (1924), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), and They Were Expendable (1946), in which well-known figures such as Buffalo Bill, Abraham Lincoln and General MacArthur respectively appear.

I.G. Edmonds writes of Ford’s acting career that ‘some of the old reviews credit him with considerable riding ability in his Westerns’ (Edmonds, 1977, p.51). One of those Westerns, again directed by Francis Ford, was entitled Three Bad Men and a Girl (1915).

Essentially a comedy of mistaken identity, the narrative device of three characters as the main protagonists is a theme Ford would employ a number of times later on in Three Mounted Men (1918), Marked Men (1919), and 3 Bad Men (1926), Ford’s last silent Western. Another thirteen years would lapse before he returned to the genre with Stagecoach (1939), the success of which helped re-establish the Western to the status of ‘A’ films. It also initiated a partnership with actor John Wayne that was to continue for another twenty-four years until their last film together in 1963, Donovan’s Reef.

The Doorway of Destruction (Francis Ford, 1915), a drama based around the Sepoy Rebellion in colonial India, is an extremely significant film as far as Ford’s eventual directing career is concerned. It is the first recorded example of his involvement in a title dealing with Irish culture and identity, a topic he dealt with frequently.

Ford played Frank Feeney, a character named after his older brother. In the film, ‘the British send the Irish on a suicide mission to break through the gates of a besieged city’ (Bogdanovich, 1978, p.114). 

In between the production of The Broken Coin (Francis Ford, 1915), in which Ford took on the dual roles of both actor and assistant director and Peg O’ the Ring (Francis Ford, 1916), he and his brother Frank returned to their home town of Portland in Maine to make two one-reel films. According to McBride, ‘with Jack’s assistance, Frank directed and starred in a sea story, The Yellow Streak (1916), later renamed as Chicken-Hearted Jim, and a crime drama, The Lumber Yard Gang (1916), released as The Strong Arm Squad’ (McBride, 2003, p.87). Both films are presumed lost. 

A local newspaper published two articles on the arrival of the Ford brothers back in their home town in 1915, reinforcing the suggestion that the films were a true family affair.

On the subject of Chicken-Hearted Jim (1916) and the involvement of the Ford family, the article states that Francis Ford assigned [himself] the leading role, and save for his brother, Jack Ford, assistant director for the Universal Film Co., and locally known as ‘Bill’ [sic; actually ‘Bull’] Feeney, there were no professional performers selected [. . .], Miss Cecil McLean, the pretty niece of Francis Ford, was named for the leading feminine role, and other relatives of Feeney, alias Ford, included (sic) his father and mother, were given parts [. . .], sisters Miss Josephine Feeney and Mrs. Mary McLean, the 6-year-old niece, little Mary McLean, and a score of friends of the Feeney family embraced in the cast, all amateurs, appearing for the first time before the camera. (The Portland Sunday Press and Portland Sunday Times, 1915) These ‘home movies’ (McBride, 2003, p.87) emphasize the sense of family that imbue Ford’s work.

Footage from one of the last films Ford appeared in with his brother, The Bandit’s Wager (Francis Ford, 1916), underlines once more the influence Francis Ford’s mode of expression had on the younger Ford’s eventual cinematic style. A plotline, described as that in which ‘a Westerner teaches his Eastern sister caution by pretending to be a notorious masked bandit’ (Bogdanovich, 1978, p.115), implies that the narrative at the very least touches upon the perennial Fordian theme of East versus West.

The conflict between the past and modernity is highlighted through the differing methods of transportation associated with the male characters in the film. Whilst the bandit of the title, played by Francis Ford, is free to roam at will on his horse, the ability of the brother, played by John Ford, to travel, is severely compromised when his car runs out of petrol. One sequence towards the end of the footage shows John Ford framed within the doorway of a house, pre-figuring a signature visual motif that would regularly feature in his own films.

As with the differing versions of Ford’s trip to Hollywood, the story as to how he eventually came to direct is also clouded in mystery. According to McBride, ‘the key part of John Ford’s creation myth – how he became a director – was a drastically reshaped version of what actually happened’ (McBride, 2003, p.88). The legend, propagated by Ford himself when interviewed by Bogdanovich, is that he was promoted to direct The Tornado (1917) – now presumed lost – after deputising for ‘the director of a Western […] who failed to show up for work because he was suffering from a hangover’ (2003, p.89).

Ford directed a group of cowboy extras to ride up and down the street on the Universal backlot to impress the visiting head of the studio, Carl Laemmle. Not long after, Laemmle recalled Ford’s efforts and gave him the opportunity to direct and star in the two-reeler production of The Tornado. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

1 McBride also quotes a story told by Ford himself in which he worked as a cowboy on a ranch whereupon ‘the boss’s daughter, believe it or not, fell in love with me. She was six-foot-two and weighed about 210 pounds, so I stole a horse and rode away […] and came to California’ (in McBride, 2003, p.75).2 ‘Lois Weber (1879-1939) was one of the most renowned directors- screenwriters in early Hollywood and at the time considered one of the “three great minds”, along with Griffith and DeMille […]. Weber’s career spanned three decades of extraordinary change in the US industry. She entered the industry at a time when women’s presence was valued and played an important role in legitimating Hollywood. Whether she was making films on social issues like poverty, drug addiction, and capital punishment or on contraception, marriage, and sexuality, Weber’s films consistently featured complex female characters in central roles.’(Programme notes for the 2012 Bologna Film Festival retrospective of Lois Weber.)3 A young Ford also worked for another well-known director at Universal, Allan Dwan. According to Dwan, ‘His brother Francis was working for me as an actor, and he asked me to give Jack a job. Jack was cutting his teeth in those days, just starting, and he became a property man. I remember him as a good, efficient one, too.’ (in Bogdanovich, 1997, p.66).4 In 2010, the University of South Carolina’s Newsfilm Library posted news of the discovery of surviving footage of this early Francis Ford film. According to the library, ‘Newsfilm was given a small collection of nitrate films that had been stored in a shed (the proverbial chicken coop) in Columbia, SC for untold decades. Of the films that survived one was a “lost” silent film about the Civil War, The Battle of Bull Run (1913), which features John Ford’s first-ever appearance on film.’ The University of South Carolina confirms that ‘The Battle of Bull Run (1913) was preserved by the gracious support of the American Film Institute.  Our library still holds the nitrate print (tinted) as well as preservation elements’ (email to author from Greg Wilsbacher, Curator, Newsfilm Collections, 04/04/2011).

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5 Despite a close viewing of the remaining footage of The Battle of Bull Run (1913), however, it is extremely difficult to confirm with any conviction the appearance of John Ford in the film.6 The filmography in the Peter Bogdanovich book on Ford, however, states that Ford’s character is called ‘Bull’ Feeney (Bogdanovich, 1978, p.114), a name Ford was christened with when he played football at college. Eyman writes that ‘he must have been a bruiser; he soon won the nickname of Bull Feeney’ (Eyman, 1999, p.39).7 Another of John Ford’s older brothers, Edward, ‘worked for many years as one of his assistant directors [and] adopted the name of O’Fearna, partly to distinguish himself from his more successful younger brother’ (McBride, 2003, p.21).8 Wayne worked as a member of the crew on Mother Machree (1928 and Four Sons (1928), and had bit parts in both Hangman’s House (1928) and Salute (1929).9 Approximately fifteen minutes of film from The Bandit’s Wager (1916) was discovered in the BFI archive by archivist John Oliver. The surviving footage was premiered at the Bologna Silent Film Festival in July 2009.

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Bogdanovich, P. (1978) John Ford. 2nd Edition. California: University of California Press.
Bogdanovich, P. (1997) Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group.

Edmonds, I.G. (1977) Big U: Universal in the Silent Days. London: Thomas Yoseloff Ltd.

Eyman, S. (1999) Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Eyman, S. and Duncan, P. (eds) (2004) John Ford: The Complete Films. Koln: Taschen.
McBride, J. (2003) Searching for John Ford. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Schickel, R. (1996) D.W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Proscenium Publishers.

Slide, A. (1996) The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors. Maryland: Scarecrow Press

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