John Ford's approach to actors differs considerably from his contemporaries such as Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway, both of whom were more interested in creating a greater elasticity or character arc in their actors' performances. John Ford had more limited expectations of performance. To understand Ford's approach to directing actors, it is difficult to underestimate his reliance on casting. Essentially, Ford tended to cast for type. For leads, he gravitated to an actor with a particular persona—the strength and decency of Henry Fonda, the determination and passion of John Wayne. It is not surprising that these two actor/stars formed their principal screen persona in their work with John Ford. Notable and not unimportant is the fact that neither of these actors had an especially modern persona, which made them suitable for roles in Ford's films, which so often took place in the past. Other more modern actors such as William Holden, Richard Widmark, and Sal Mineo worked less effectively with Ford. Ford's actors had to have a look that transcended time.
A second quality of Ford's casting was that he always focused on particular types of men — rugged, outdoor types who either had a taste for drink or at least looked as if they did. It is notable that Ford rarely focused on women in his films (although his last film was "Seven Women"). Maureen O'Hara is one of the only actresses to make a recurring appearance in his films. She was also the only actress to have multidimensional characters in his films. Ford's focus on men was inescapable.
Over time Ford developed in effect a stock company that he used repeatedly in his films. Victor McLaughlin, John Carradine, George O'Brian, Andy Devine, Ben Johnson, and Harry Carey, Jr., 142 made multiple appearances in Ford's films. Although each was used in key secondary roles, as often as not they were used to introduce humor into the narrative; for example, in Ford's cavalry trilogy, McLaughlin played the role of a functional alcoholic whose purpose was entirely to add an element of humor.
In addition to his casting, a second notable characteristic of Ford's work with actors is that he was primarily interested in presenting them as feeling or passionate characters—whether working with an artist (Alan Mowbray, as the actor in "My Darling Clementine") or an intellectual (James Stewart in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). As a result, Ford's characters did not have conventional character arcs. They are not transformed characters so much as they are revealed characters. Although John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) is a commander, a leader who always obeys the chain of command without dissent, Ford made a point of establishing Brickley as a man who also feels deeply. He is the character who gives voice to feelings for the others—for the passionate Rusty who wants to get on with the war, for the deeply feeling nurse Sandy who is clearly in love with the men she tends to, for the crew as fellow humans whose loss is the cost of war. As these moments occur in the film, Brickley is revealed to be a fine commander who cares but suffers the losses silently to hold onto his dignity.
The brevity of the character arc makes Ford's characters less realistic compared to Elia Kazan's characters, who are psychologically realistic. The characters seem to transcend realism to become icons—the decent lawman Wyatt Earp in "My Darling Clementine" and the passionate Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers," who was just the kind of man to tame Texas for future generations.
Performance, then, is based on feelings within a very narrow range. John Wayne's Ringo in "Stagecoach" (1939) is very different from Gregory Peck's portrayal of Ringo in Henry King's "The Gunfighter" (1951). The latter role is psychologically complex and realistic in the range of feelings Ringo expresses. The former version is simply passionate enough to hate and kill and passionate enough to fall in love. Ford's character is impulsive and compelling, while King's character is soulful and utterly recognizable. Ford's Ringo becomes an archetype while King's Ringo becomes a case study, albeit an interesting one.
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