By Steve Fuller
ELLSWORTH — Can you name the early 20th-century Maine high school football star who went on to win more Academy Awards for Best Director than any other filmmaker?
If not, you’re probably in good company — but odds are you have heard of his work. Though his record four Oscar statues for directing make him the most honored director in Hollywood history, John Ford’s name likely does not appear on many people’s mental lists of famous Mainers. Ford, who directed more than 140 films before he died in 1973, might have found that unsurprising.
“I love Portland,” Ford once told a friend, speaking of the city where he grew up, “but I don’t even know if they like me.”
The Pine Tree State will show its famed filmmaking son some appreciation, however, in the form of “John Ford | 125 Years,” a statewide film festival running Feb. 1-10 in locations around Maine. The festival, which features two film screenings in Hancock County, draws its title from the fact that this Feb. 1 marks the 125th anniversary of Ford’s birth in Cape Elizabeth. The event is organized by the Waterville-based Maine Film Center (MFC).
“Ford’s a towering Maine figure so we all agreed this milestone shouldn’t pass without recognition from his home state,” said MFC’s Executive Director Mike Perreault.
Among Ford’s best-known movies are “The Grapes of Wrath,” “How Green Was My Valley” and the iconic John Wayne western “The Searchers.” All will be shown as part of “John Ford | 125 Years.”
Local screenings in Hancock County will be 1939’s “Stagecoach” at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 3, at The 1932 Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor and 1945’s “They Were Expendable” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7 at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport.
The Colonial Theatre in Belfast will show “How Green Was My Valley,” which in 1941 won both an Academy Award for Best Picture and Ford his third Oscar for Best Director, at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 8.
A first-generation American — his parents were both born in Ireland — Ford was born John Martin Feeney in 1894 in Cape Elizabeth but grew up in Portland, mostly in the city’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood. On paper, Ford’s father ran a grocery store, but modern reports agree that was a cover for selling alcohol in a city and a state where the temperance movement was strong.
“[Ford] grew up in Portland, where he came to understand what it felt like to be an ethnic minority,” Dublin writer Michael Connolly, author of the Maine-based mystery series featuring investigator Charlie Parker, told Maine Magazine in 2015. “I think that really influenced his stories because his films are from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in.”
At Portland High School, Ford found success on the football field. As a fullback and defensive tackle, he earned the nickname that a Portland pub would take as its own decades later: “Bull” Feeney. As the website for the present-day Bull Feeney’s explains, Ford “earned the nickname ‘Bull’ because he would lower his leather helmet like a bull and charge through the line.”
In 1914, Ford headed out West like his older brother Francis to Hollywood. Following Francis’s lead, it was there that younger brother John changed his last name to Ford. His first directing credit came in 1917 with “The Tornado,” beginning a directing career that would span nearly half a century (“7 Women” was the last feature film he directed, in 1966).
Ford always loved the Navy — he reportedly wanted to go to the Naval Academy after high school but failed the entrance exam — and in 1934 secured a commission as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve. In World War II, he made documentaries for the Navy. He did his job not at an editing desk but on the front lines: earning a Purple Heart after being wounded by shrapnel while filming during the Battle of Midway and going ashore at Omaha Beach in Normandy with a film crew on D-Day.
Ford drew on his military experience for his first feature film at war’s end, “They Were Expendable.” The film tells the story of patrol torpedo boats (better known as PT boats, the kind future President John F. Kennedy served on) in the Battle of the Philippines, as the Japanese invaded the island nation in 1941-1942.
As the title suggests, it is not a stirring story of an American victory but rather “the story of PT boats facing a relentless foe as the Philippines fell.” Critics called the movie one of Ford’s finest.
“There’s an underlying sense of war’s tragic toll throughout,” wrote Eric Mills in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval History Magazine. “Comrades-in-arms never make it back; wartime romances don’t necessarily lead to happy Hollywood endings.”
When “They Were Expendable” shows at the Alamo in Bucksport at 7 p.m. on Feb. 7, it will be introduced by Joe Mosier, Navy master chief (ret.) and maritime historian.
The genre for which Ford is best known, however, is the western. Although “Stagecoach” was not the director’s first film in that category, it was his first blockbuster and has been described as the first modern western. It also was his first western featuring frequent leading man John Wayne and the first of many that Ford shot in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border.
Though the film is hailed as a classic, it also is one of Ford’s films that raise the issue of racism for the way Native Americans are portrayed. Director Quentin Tarantino said he hates Ford because he “kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity.”
To that end, when “Stagecoach” is shown from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 3, at The Criterion in Bar Harbor, there will be a post-screening discussion hosted by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, CEO of the Abbe Museum. The discussion will center on “media reinforcement of ethnic stereotypes and why enduring public fascination with the Wild West continues impacting Native peoples.”
Though not without flaws, Ford’s legacy nevertheless looms large over the American filmmaking landscape. Other directors from Frank Capra to Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles to Steven Spielberg have cited Ford’s influence on their own work, a point echoed by “John Ford | 125 Years” event organizers.
“Consciously or not, many filmmakers today have been influenced by Ford; his westerns in particular are touchstones for cinematic language and storytelling,” said MFC’s Perreault.
As for Ford’s worry whether people in the place where he grew up still like or remember him? An awareness and appreciation has been building in recent decades, as it turns out. In 1998, a 10-foot-high bronze statue of Ford was unveiled in a part of Portland once home to many Irish immigrants. Bull Feeney’s pub opened its doors in 2001, and in 2013 — 40 years after Ford’s death — the city of Portland observed John Ford Day.