John Ford may be the most "American"director of them all, in that he made a lot of movies that helped create & perpetuate the myth of the American West & the rugged frontierism that helped shape it. The time between when Stagecoach was released in 1939 & The Searchers came out in 1957 was a period of great artistic achievement for Ford. Not only did he win 5 of his 6 Best Director Academy Awards (Grapes of Wrath '40, How Green Was My Valley '41, Battle of Midway (docu) '42, December 7th: The Movie (Docu short subj) '43, The Quiet Man '52), but he helped shape the iconography of the Western, made John Wayne the archetypal hero/vilain of those westerns & brought the vast topography of the American West to whole new group of people. Now to the films:
I have The Searchers #1 because it & Liberty Valance are capstones for Ford's Western pictures. The hero archetype that Wayne & Ford created in Stagecoach and built upon in countless other pictures is destroyed by the vengeful Ethan Edwards. His single minded struggle to rescue his niece destroyed his humanity and set him apart from society, so much so that he cannot even enter the house of the woman he loves. The visual beauty, coupled with the ugly violence, make The Searchers different from any other Western and better because of it. Similarly, Liberty Valance also alters the image of the traditional hero by showing that heroism isn't always reflected in reality or appearance. Wayne's Tom Doniphon & Jimmy Stewart's Ransom Stoddard are 2 sides of the same coin, in love with the same woman, but only one is able to claim the ground of hero. And Lee Marvin plays one of the greatest Western bad guys as the menacing Liberty Valance. Keeping with the Westerns, Stagecoach coalesced many of the Western motifs & iconography that would be played out over the next 15 years. The hooker with a heart of gold, the reluctant hero with a mysterious past, the drunken doctor, the card sharp, as well as the journey of strangers, bound to a common goal are all brought together here in crystal clarity. The performances are wonderful and Ford does a fantastic job of balancing the broud action sequences with the quieter interior scenes (thinking mostly of the oasis where the group stops to change horses & the physical space & camera placement says so much about character).
#2 is The Informer for several reasons, foremost that the imagery is unlike any other Ford film, with it's emphasis on expressionistic interplay of light and dark, shadow and light. What highlights The Informer, however, is Victor McLaglen's pained performance of the tormented Gypo Nolan. The sense of doom, pressing down from the the shadows cast by the claustrophobic sets, literally weighs on Gypo as he struggles with conscience throughout the night.
Grapes of Wrath & How Green was My Valley go together for 2 reasons and belong on this list for many more . First, In different ways they both illustrate the pressures that resistance to change can bring upon families. The Joads and the Morgans are not that different; they rely on the familial bonds in times of trouble and constantly look for a better way for those who come after them. Second, these films represent the back to back Best Director Academy Awards that Ford won in '40 & '41;one of only 3 directors to have done so (Inarritu & Mankiewicz). Ford was often credited with editing his films in the camera to avoid studio interference, but with Grapes of Wrath one of i'ts most poignant scenes, with Ma & Pa Joad in the front seat of the truck where she delivers the "...we're the people" line , was shot by Darryl Zanuck, after Ford has left the country on his yacht, satisfied with his ending.
The Quiet Man reflects Ford's great love for his family's homeland of Ireland. The idyllic small Irish town, with quaint townsfolk, largely living in a not too distant past that evokes all is good about memory. While shot in black & white you can practically see the red of Maureen O'Hara's hair & the emerald green of the fields that surround the town, but more importantly you can see the love Ford felt for all that made his Irish roots so dear to him.
The 2 other Henry Fonda pictures aside from Grapes of Wrath, Drums Along the Mohawk & Young Mr. Lincoln share a similar sense of America on the brink of something great, led by ambitious young men. Shot in quick succession Drums, Mr Lincoln and Grapes all capture times just before important wars in American history. In the case of Young Mr Lincoln, it is some time before the Civil War, but the idealism that Ford/Fonda imbue in their version of Lincoln certainly cast forward to the man he becomes and his impact on the country.
Finally, The Iron Horse represents the best of Ford's silent work and illustrates the his reliance on vast panoramic vistas to capture the magnificence of America. Several scenes are vintage Ford, such as the attack on the train by the natives, and clearly show a filmmaker feeling his way towards greatness.
I think what solidifies Ford's greatness in my mind is the variety of films he made,. Sure there are the Westerns, and some of the very best, but the non-Westerns are what really set him apart. While he was also criticized for being a product of the studio system, I would point to the consistency of vision that is pervasive throughout his work. As was noted above, he was widely believed to have printed very little extra footage, ensuring the the picture that hit theatres was largely what he envisioned. Aside from his movies about his beloved Ireland, Ford really captured the history, his history, of America as he believed it was or should have been.