The largest body of work I’ve done so far, John Ford’s filmography spans nearly fifty years. Also, nearly a third of the entire output is considered lost, mostly films from the 1910s and 1920s. I would have watched them too if they still existed.
What’s remarkable about Ford’s work is twofold. First is the sheer number of films. It’s not the largest body of work from a director I know of (Michael Curtiz has about 180 credits to Ford’s 147), but it still comes out to about three films a year for nearly fifty years. The second is the sheer number of good films. You could put all the Ford films you’ve never seen on a dart board, throw a dart blindfolded, and hit a movie that’s probably pretty good with much greater frequency than otherwise. His highs were ridiculously high, but his lows were few and far between. Mostly, he was making solidly good entertainment in a wide variety of genres.
It’s interesting, but contrasting Ford’s work with someone like Stanley Kubrick who made far fewer films and obsessed over every little detail while Ford blew through one production after another, they each came out with about the same number of great films per decade of work.
So, anyway, here is the whole list. 76 films ranked definitively. Be sure to check out all of the other definitive lists. None are nearly this imposing. At least not yet. I could always watch Michael Curtiz’s body of work.
Don’t forget to check out the other definitive rankings to bask in the definitiveness.
Unranked due to incompleteness: Mother Machree
76. Kentucky Pride
“The movie’s too broken up into tiny pieces to get a real grasp of the story, it’s often hard to tell where our main character is in a scene, especially during the races, and nothing really connects emotionally. This was not a good movie.”
75. Tobacco Road
“This was dreary, but at least it was short. I suppose it could work for people who like the easiest of comedy and don’t demand much more than swelling music to create their catharsis, but for everyone else I couldn’t imagine enjoying this.”
“All in all, this really does feel like the kind of movie Ford made out of obligation. He seems to have tried to save it, but that effort might have simply made things worse.”
73. The Blue Eagle
“Well, this was disappointing. Coming off of his strongest silent entry, John Ford makes an overstuffed and barely coherent little issue film that just simply doesn’t work in The Blue Eagle.”
72. Born Reckless
“There’s a technical polish obviously present in terms of the production, but ultimately it’s a poorly written and rushed affair that doesn’t really highlight Ford’s strengths all that well. This is a disappointment considering the strength of the films that have come before it, warts and all. This is mostly just warts.”
71. Cameo Kirby
“This is one of those silent films that suffers due to its silence. The lack of dialogue makes characters thinner in the same amount of time as you would get in a talkie.”
70. The Black Watch
“So, the performances are largely awful (Ford’s fault), but it’s otherwise a thinly engaging adventure film that often looks great. This is kind of what I expected from an established director’s first talkie. There’s craft still there, but Ford was well within the learning curve of the new technology in a way that made the film hard to watch at times. Still, I’ve seen worse.”
“However, the story as a whole feels a bit random, the two major action sequences are lackluster, the romance simply doesn’t work, and the professional rivalry between the two main male characters ends up feeling like something from a satire rather than a straight war picture.”
“It feels like a production that kind of went awry. There was a lot of drama behind the scenes, and it seems like Ford took a liking to Ava Gardner (after his initial and stock meanness to her) which, considering his penchant for not sticking to scripts, might be why her role ended up so big in the film because it doesn’t seem to fit the story all that well. It’s a middling picture, and a bit of a disappointment from Ford at this point in his career.”
67. Doctor Bull
“The movie’s not bad, but just wanes away. If the first two-thirds were funnier, the loose structure would have been less of a concern, but it’s just an easy going bit of amusement until a finale that probably goes too far into melodrama for the film’s own good. Will Rogers does his best, being affable and charming through his challenges, but for all his charisma, the film around him is just too waifishly thin.”
66. Mary of Scotland
“It’s handsome and fairly dull. Never digging deeply enough into characters or events to elicit much interest, led by a woman who seems to feel like acting is beneath her. This is far from John Ford’s finest work in the 30s, but it’s ultimately passable. Barely, though.”
65. The Brat
“It’s not good, it’s not really bad. It’s kind of milquetoast and bland, too short for its own good, but Ford is able to stretch himself cinematically, which is a bit of surprise. The camera is far more active here than it had been since the silent era, and it even happens during dialogue with the camera moving in on people as they speak. It’s more of a curio than something to seek out for entertainment value, though.”
64. Gideon’s Day
“I’m not sure what attracted Ford to this film. It doesn’t feel like a Ford film in about any way other than his basic visual filmmaking language. Maybe he was just trying something different, a film that had a lot of plotting in a new location.”
“The movie ends on a heartwarming note, but the adventure up to that point has been so confused, repetitive, and weirdly built that it doesn’t really register. The loose structure allows for some nice moments here and there, but it’s far from enough to make the overall film worthwhile.”
62. What Price Glory
“Its opening is too nice, and its second half is too handsome to dismiss the film out of hand. However, it’s really not any kind of lost gem.”
61. Hell Bent
“The movie’s not really bad, but it largely just sits there with little to offer an audience.”
60. Cheyenne Autumn
“The end result, the movie I actually have instead of the one I imagine in my head, is a mixed bag of half-formed and abandoned ideas with beautiful cinematography, largely solid acting, and a couple of exciting action sequences. Also, for how starkly the Wyatt Earp sequence clashes with the more serious film around it, it is pretty amusing.”
“Ford made the best overall segment in The Civil War, leaving more mundane work to be had between his co-directors Henry Hathaway (The Rivers, The Plains, The Outlaws) and George Marshall (The Railroad), though they get all of the spectacle while Ford reused footage from other movies for his battle sequences. Overall, though, How the West Was Won is a frustrating experience that simply cannot use its spectacle to elevate the actual story.”
58. Air Mail
“A lot of Ford’s hallmarks are on display here, for both good and ill, and it ends up a mixed end product that could have used a bit more time in the screenwriting stage. But, this was the era of Ford making an average of 3 movies a year. There was no time for rewrites.”
57. Just Pals
“It’s light, action and adventure fare that would entertain enough if the final act didn’t feel so random because certain elements were introduced too late to feel natural. It feeds into the idea that Ford really did know how to put on a show within an individual sequence but never quite understood all the different pieces that needed to go into it beforehand to make it feel right.”
56. Up the River
“It’s not really good. It’s fine. As a curiosity, the only film Tracy and Bogart made together and directed by John Ford no less, it’s entertaining enough to sustain its running time. Slightly amusing but fractured, there are worse ways to spend your time.”
“Still, I have some affection for this little film from Ford’s early career. It’s mostly a nice and earnestly felt bit of comedy, and that’s hard to hold against it.”
“No, I don’t think it works overall. The last minute love triangle along with the muddled first half hour makes this less than what it could have been. However, it’s almost there with an obvious technical talent working with archetype and action in ways that he would only refine later.”
“It’s a small effort from Ford towards the end of the silent era (really his last fully silent film before he started using soundtracks of any kind). It’s entertaining enough for a small distraction, but little else.”
52. Donovan’s Reef
“I kind of wish that they had gone for a more straight forward romantic comedy. The elements are there for a The Quiet Man in Hawaii, but it was just too loosely built with a dramatic element that didn’t really fit. Its ending does a bit to save the film, but not quite enough to elevate it to goodness. As it stands, it’s nice in fits, but little else.”
“It’s a step up from Kentucky Pride, but The Shamrock Handicap isn’t quite the whole film experience that Ford was capable of. It’s got some entertainment to it, but ultimately it’s a bit too fractured overall.”
“The overtly naïve ending as well feels nice in the moment but ultimately feels kind of unrealistic upon reflection, but that’s not what Shirley Temple movies were really for. They were for light entertainment starring a precocious and talented child.
In that vein, it’s a moderate and slightly diverting effort.”
“Ford manages the interesting production well, but the depth is never there and the entertainment value somewhat limited. It’s nice.”
48. When Willie Comes Marching Home
“It’s a fine little movie, mostly lost amidst the years of the Cavalry Trilogy, and it’s easy to see why. In the middle of three John Wayne westerns, a little movie about a guy who can’t get into World War II just feels wane.”
“I kind of feel bad that I don’t get into this film, but I don’t. I mostly see a saccharine mess that leads towards a well-executed conclusion. The conclusion isn’t enough to lift the rest of the movie in my eyes.”
“It’s respectable, really well-made, and pretty solid, but I end up feeling like it’s kind of empty at the same time.”
45. 7 Women
“I’ve felt a certain fatigue in Ford’s work as his career came to an end, but despite that exhaustion he still manages a solid little tale with his final narrative feature film. It may take until the final moments to push it to that level, but it does get there in the end.”
“Still, I liked the film overall. It’s imperfect, but solid enough.”
43. Judge Priest
“There’s a lot to really like about this film. Rogers was just a fun personality that gave each character he played a humanity and warm patriarchal air that is kind of infectious when combined with his plain-talking sort of way. His aw-shucks attitude is endearing, and he uses his wits and whiles to win small moral victories along the way. Cleanly filmed by Ford, it’s a nice film that deserves some reappraisal.”
“A staccato opening and sterilized ending don’t help the film, but in between there’s a solid look at a scientist who develops an ideal and must referee the fight between the ideal and reality. Well filmed and well acted, it’s a good film in Ford’s very busy 1930s output.”
41. 3 Godfathers
“And it mostly works. It’s fine. It’s entertaining and amusing. It just could have been more.”
“Incomplete, the movie’s got some silliness but also some of Ford’s great command of action and thrilling sequences. It’s a fine little example of his ability in the nascent film medium, and it’s only forty minutes long, too.”
“Overall, the film is pretty good. A condensed saga that really could have either used more time to tell its full story or an earlier end point at the conclusion of the part of the film about the war. It’s solidly made (even though Ford seemingly wanted nothing to do with the film during production) and acted. It could have been much more than it ended up being, but what it is ends up good enough to entertain.”
38. The Prisoner of Shark Island
“It’s all heightened drama, and Ford manages the production well. With solid actors doing good work, especially Baxter who’s in almost every scene, giving a dedicated performance, the film is a good piece of entertainment that touches on real life and a subject obviously near and dear to John Ford’s heart.”
37. Bucking Broadway
“Bucking Broadway is a simple tale of how country folk are better than city folk told with a wonderful sense of propulsive and almost anarchic energy from John Ford. It’s a small gem from his earliest days, and a very fun little movie.”
“It’s a nice film with a very warm heart, a tribute to a good man who served his country as best as he could, helping generations of Army officers.”
“It’s a simpler, more crowd-pleasing picture that decides to go on tangents here and there, though. It’s a nice film, never falling into dullness, but it’s kind of oddly built, especially in the second half when it settles down instead of ramps up. I enjoy watching the film from time to time, but it’s definitely not at the heights of Ford’s body of work.”
34. Riley the Cop
“It’s really quite amusing. It may not be Keaton levels of hilarity, but Riley the Cop is a solidly amusing and often quite funny little film from Ford outside of his wheelhouse. Winningly performed, especially by MacDonald in the titular role, there’s a fair amount of joy to be had from it.”
“I don’t think Ford set out to make this film to win awards, but it’s the same kind of safe film, sort of ripped from the pages of history and centered around a central performance based on a real person, that the Oscars would become known for. That’s not to say that this is bad at all, it’s just less than what it seems to be from the outside. It’s a John Ford movie that tackles Abraham Lincoln head on! Except it’s really just a minor film with enough entertainment to sustain its 100 minutes and not a whole lot else.”
32. The Hurricane
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a solid entertainment with a surprising amount on its mind. Ford, as always, manages the production really well and the actors equally professionally. Hall is largely a non-entity, but that’s mostly because of the underwritten nature of his character. It’s Massey and Mitchell who carry the film, both very good character actors who can make almost any scene interesting by their mere presence.”
31. Four Sons
“However, the heart of the film is Mother Bernle, and by the end, it’s easy to forgive some of the film’s earlier issues and just be happy to see Mother Bernle find some peace after the ravage of war tore her family apart.”
“Did he see a kindred spirit in the man he knew who died in the late 1940s? It’s possible, and that could be the source of his desire to tell Spig’s story in the handsome and somewhat thin manner in which he does.”
“The film doesn’t really have much of a plot, but it does have an endearing story of two brothers on opposite sides of a historic rivalry, developing their own rivalry, and then finding the common ground in the end. It’s far from challenging, but it is amusing and a fun watch.”
“Overall, it’s a fine fictionalized telling of the famous gunfight that seems a bit hobbled by some structural choices that kept the film from fully dedicated to the one of two types of stories at play. It’s enjoyable for what it is, but what it is could have really been smoothed out.”
“The first half is loose and sometimes hard to follow. The second half is clear-eyed and comes to a great conclusion. The health of the existing print means that we’ll never see it as originally released in America, but I think it’s good enough on its own. It’s a solid story of men in the military, a favorite subject of Ford’s, and I think it ends up working quite well.”
“It really could have used a rewrite in its middle section, a section that dragged the film down a good bit, but that ending is really something else, a madcap race with real stakes and cut quickly for an all around good time. It really won me over by the end.”
25. Seas Beneath
“This is a strong film, a story of men at war and their loyalty to each other. Ford uses his established working relationship with O’Brien to come up with a solid emotional anchor point while finding ways to make the interesting side characters help in good support instead of stealing the spotlight.”
“As a whole, this is a great movie inside an unfortunate one. I’d rather just watch the great movie next time.”
“Fun, technically polished, crisply edited, and confidently directed, The Whole Town’s Talking is another hidden gem from John Ford’s 30s output. An enjoyable comedy with amusing performances, the film is something really worth rediscovering.”
“Anchored mostly by Stanwyck, this is a good little film that really deserves some reappraisal.”
“The story is more cohesive, comes to a nicer conclusion that’s not as steeped in Confederate rose-colored glasses, and is more emotionally resonant. It’s a very nice movie.”
20. Wagon Master
“If this has stuck the landing like the earlier film I would probably have fallen in line with the overall reappraisal of the film’s status as a forgotten masterpiece, but the ending is just too weird and borderline incoherent. Everything up to that point, though, is kind of wonderful. Heartfelt, masculine, and grand visually, Wagon Master is four-fifths of a great film.”
19. Rio Grande
“This is probably the middle ground of the Cavalry Trilogy. Fort Apache was so close to greatness while She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was firmly good. Rio Grande is helped by a strong thematic focus that it mostly keeps to while hampered by an action ending that doesn’t quite fit, unlike the pretty much perfect ending action sequence of Fort Apache.”
“Outside of that, this is a surprisingly strong film. Confidently and quietly directed with a wonderful central performance and an ending that elegantly brings together everything in one place, Flesh is a completely forgotten film in Ford’s output from the 30s that really does deserve some revisitation and re-evaluation.”
17. The Lost Patrol
“There’s real sadness there as they get left behind in the middle of nowhere forever.”
“Handsomely produced, surprisingly affecting, and well-acted from a troupe of actors, most of whom were familiar with Ford at that point, Drums Along the Mohawk was a very nice discovery in this trek through the man’s body of work.”
15. Hangman’s House
“Every character is there supporting the central story of justice being visited upon those who have escaped it. Every action is in support of it. And, more importantly, the characters and their motivations feel real, avoiding sensations of contrivance. It’s a very good movie, a real hidden gem.”
“It may not be one of Ford’s best films, but The Long Voyage Home is definitely worth not ignoring. There’s a surprising gentleness to the affair as men live the reality of a life at sea, the trials and inexorable return to the open ocean through danger. Wonderful to look at and filled with fine performances, it’s a Ford that should never have been forgotten.”
13. Fort Apache
“This is a complex portrait of a man sent to the furthest outskirts of civilization with a chip on his shoulder and desire for glory.”
12. The Iron Horse
“Still, this is an imperfect but wonderful entertainment that I found a joy to watch.”
“There’s obviously a lot of love in this film for the men that served in the navy and an implicit understanding of the temporary nature of life in a war zone that creates a deep sense of melancholy that’s really affecting.”
10. Mister Roberts
“The film works as a collection of amusing events until its conclusion when it pulls it all together in a complex set of emotions that works really well, elevating the movie that came before into something rather special.”
9. 3 Bad Men
“I ended up completely loving this film. It’s a wonderful early work from Ford that shows all of his strengths as a director in a rough and tumble form.”
“Looking back over a lifetime of successes and failures, friends and enemies, good times and bad, Spencer Tracy’s Frank Skeffington feels like a John Ford placeholder saying goodbye to the world that he loved but seems to be rejecting him. It’s ultimately a touching film, a real winner of a picture from an old master.”
“This is really something special, and I highly encourage others to discover it for themselves.”
“It’s also a bit of a crowd pleaser with high quality action and likeable, not just interesting, characters. There’s a reason it helped kick off the Golden Age of the Western in Hollywood.”
5. The Informer
“The Informer is a brilliant film. A great work from a practiced hand, using an extremely strong script by Dudley Nichols and great performances from everyone involved, John Ford made a small masterpiece.”
“This probably is the easiest film to love in Ford’s large filmography. Bright and colorful while consistently entertaining from beginning to end with delightful performances from the leads on down, The Quiet Man is old school Hollywood filmmaking at its best.”
3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
“In a body of work as long, varied, and wonderful as John Ford’s, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is near the top. It’s interesting that it’s so different from his other masterpiece of a western, The Searchers, focusing on small, indoor spaces instead of the wide outdoors of Monument Valley, telling a largely confined story of personal drama matched with wonderful subtext. It truly is, much like The Right Stuff, one of the great American movies.”
2. The Fugitive
“This movie is pretty much a masterpiece in a genre that John Ford was not known for. He used his increased power from successes like Stagecoach to adapt a book he liked about a subject near and dear to him in a way that was within his power but was unusual. That the movie failed at the box office is not a real surprise, but that it continues to be dismissed decades later is frustrating. Yeah, Ford’s fans tend to be a more general audience kind of crowd expecting grand adventures with John Wayne, but they’re not the only ones who can see this. This is one of my favorite Ford films.”
“This movie is amazing. It’s one of the pinnacles of American cinema. It’s a great entertainment first and foremost with an incredible amount of depth while also bearing an amazing amount of aesthetic beauty. I adore this movie.”
23 thoughts on “John Ford: The Definitive Ranking”
That was quite the epic survey, well done. I’ve always been a Ford fan, but this makes me realize that’s based on having seen a pretty small number of his films compared to his total filmography, didn’t know of maybe half of these, and have seen even fewer. I can’t really even argue with your rankings because I have too many gaps in what I’ve seen. Well, one disagreement – They Were Expendable should rank above Mister Roberts, but that’s ok, you are entitled to a miss every now and then.
Here is a genius idea – the definitive ranking of the directors. Except that’s not really possible I bet, comparing apples to oranges to tomatoes. Might be an interesting exercise.
That Curtiz fellow is interesting, never got the auteur lable as Ford and Hawk did, or at least I think they did, we do think of a Hawks or Ford movie, but not a Curtiz movie. He did crank out quite a few very good movies, including one of the best ever (Casablanca). I think you’d need to filter that somehow, by IMDB ranking maybe, a cutoff level.
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Not every film was a gem, but there was so much solidly good stuff. For a man who was pumping out so much work for so long, that rather consistent goodness is rather remarkable. And then there are the highs on top of all that.
Yeah…I don’t like rankings at all. I do them because they’re easy content and people like them, but this sort of stuff is the limits of what I’m gonna do. This is already reductionist and limiting enough. I don’t need to add to that by trying to determine whether Nights of Cabiria is better or worse than The Searchers.
A lot of Curtiz’s early work is lost as well. It wouldn’t be almost 200 movies to watch, probably closer to 100. I might do it, but for now…nah. I need some smaller bodies of work first.
You did good work here, way to go. You really put in the time here.
As always, I’m not sure about your list ordering…but I also didn’t want 74 of Ford’s film so I’ll keep my carping to a minimum.
Which was a better time, Hawks or Ford’s output?
Overall, probably Hawks. I think Ford’s heights are higher, but on average, I probably had more consistent fun through Hawks’.
What would you put on top for Ford?
1. Stagecoach – almost a perfect story and star-making for Wayne
2. The Searchers – Great, I just don’t enjoy it
3. The Man who Shot Liberty Valance – again Great but also kinda hate two of the leads
4. They Were Expendable – Feels the most true to life
5. The Quiet Man – a fable but a fun one, and a cautionary tale about redheads
No Drums Along the Mohawk?
I love Drums along the Mohawk, but it doesn’t make the top 5. Henry Fonda knows what he did.
Once Upon a Time in the West?
I don’t like Once Upon A Time in the West and I don’t think it’s great.
It’s…competently shot. But the story is a mess
Thank you for taking the time and putting in the effort to introduce John Ford to me, a rabid movie lover who somehow has never seen a single one of his movies.
Shocking, yes, I hereby tender my Man Card.
Though I’ve never taken the time to get to know John Ford’s works, your exemplary effort here has convinced me that I should, and so I shall.
Again – Thank you for putting this together. It is an excellent resource I will come back to often.
I hope you find some enjoyment discovering Ford. I wouldn’t really suggest the complete journey, though. That’s just for madmen. Unless you are a madman.
David, I always look forward to your Saturday Evening Movie Thread over at AoSHQ, when like as not I’m reminded to come to your website to see what else you’re writing about, movie-wise. That’s why I’m here now, having read your post about John Ford. You wrote about Ford’s three main themes of Duty, Male Camaraderie, and The Irish Identity. I think there’s possibly a fourth theme, that of something along the lines of The Edge Of Civilization, or The Coming Of Civilization, or Clearing The Way For Civilization. I started thinking of it after reading your review on this website of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and then went back to re-read your Ford post at AoSHQ, and was delighted to see that you had actually used that phrase “edge of civilization” in your post there. It doesn’t show up in every movie of course, but I think it’s a theme that shows up often enough that it’s worth considering. You were quite eloquent in discussing the tragedy of Tom Doniphon, which got me thinking about the Sunday morning scene in My Darling Clementine, when the Earp brothers realize that there’s an entire other side to the town of Tombstone that they’ve never experienced. In They Were Expendable and also at least one of the Cavalry movies (working from memory here!), when the woman shows up amidst the men’s rough world, the fellas clean themselves up to provide the woman with a formal dinner event, serenading music and all. And of course, there’s the final scene from The Searchers, one of the most famous endings in Hollywood history.
As I say, it’s not in every Ford picture, but it shows up more than once. Possibly I could argue that the thematic moment is often triggered by the appearance of a woman, who reminds the men that there’s a larger world than the rough and tumble local environment they inhabit. In a Howard Hawks movie, when a woman shows up she’s accepted or rejected based on whether she can adapt to the men’s world. In a John Ford movie, when a woman shows up it’s the *men* who make the accommodations.
I’m rambling now. I’ll stop.
Aaaaand now I see that you’ve dealt with my idea very well in your review of Stagecoach. So nvm, I guess?
It was much more of a prominent idea in the earlier films, getting pushed to the side, but never quite eliminated, the deeper into his work you go. I’d say that in the early days, with movies like Bucking Broadway, it’s prominent enough to be an outright theme, but by the time we get to his later career it’s more of a motif.
It’s probably the single most common idea of any level in all of his work, though. It just became less important to many of the stories than other ideas as his career went along.