John Ford is the four-time Oscar-winning director who made over 140 films in his long career, spanning the silent era through the 1960s. Yet how many of those titles are classics? Let’s take a look back at 20 of Ford’s greatest movies, ranked worst to best.
To this day, Ford holds the all-time Oscar record for Best Director victories with four: “The Informer” (1935), “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), “How Green Was My Valley” (1941), and “The Quiet Man” (1952). Of those, only “How Green Was My Valley” also won Best Picture (Ford also competed as a producer on “The Quiet Man.”).
Interestingly enough, the one Best Director nomination he lost was for the film that had perhaps the most profound impact on his career: “Stagecoach” (1939). The first of many westerns Ford shot in his beloved Monument Valley, it was also the beginning of a long and iconic career with leading man John Wayne, with whom he made more than a dozen films. It also single-handedly revolutionized the spurs-and-saddles genre, which until then was little more than B-level entertainment meant to show on the second half of a double-bill.
In addition to his directing victories, Ford was also honored for his groundbreaking WWII documentaries “The Battle of Midway” (1942) and “December 7th” (1943) (those prizes technically went to the studios). He was the first person to receive the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1973, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year.
Tour our photo gallery of John Ford’s 20 best films, including a few for which he should’ve won Oscars (as if he didn’t have enough already!).
20. JUDGE PRIEST (1934)
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, based on the character created by Irvin S. Cobb. Starring Will Rogers, Tom Brown, Henry B. Walthall, Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fechit.
Ford teamed up with Will Rogers on three films, the best of which is this charming slice of Americana. Based on a character created by Irvin S. Cobb, “Judge Priest” centers on an eccentric, widowed magistrate (Rogers) in Postbellum Kentucky. Though a proud Confederate veteran, his best friend is the African American Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit). Admittedly, it’s jarring to watch Fetchit and costar Hattie McDaniel lean into the negative stereotypes of the time, but their characters are given more nuance than expected. The director later remade this film as “The Sun Shines Bright.”
19. WAGON MASTER (1950)
Written by Frank S. Nugent and Patrick Ford. Starring Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Jane Darwell.
Though you don’t often hear it talked about today, Ford cited this 1950 western adventure as one of his personal favorites (along with “The Sun Shines Bright” and “The Fugitive”). “Wagon Master” centers on a group of Mormon settlers who hire a pair of drifters (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) to serve as guides through treacherous terrain. Like Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the story unfolds in a series of entertaining and thrilling episodes, including encounters with the Navajo Indians and a traveling medicine show.
18. THE LAST HURRAH (1958)
Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor. Starring Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O’Brien, Basil Rathbone, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Frank McHugh, Edward Brophy, Richard Cortez, Wallace Ford.
Ford teamed up with Spencer Tracy for this electrifying adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s political novel. “The Last Hurrah” centers on Frank Skeffington (Tracy), longtime mayor of a New England city with a large Irish-American constituency. As he mounts his last campaign for office, he faces accusations of corruption and opposition from a wide variety of supporting players. Jeffrey Hunter co-stars as his starry-eyed nephew, a journalist who observes the drama while writing for a rival newspaper.
17. THE LOST PATROL (1934)
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Garrett Ford, based on the story ‘Patrol’ by Philip MacDonald. Starring Victor McLaglen, Boris Karloff, Wallace Ford, Reginald Denny, J. M. Kerrigan, Billy Bevan, Alan Hale.
“The Lost Patrol” was one of Ford’s earliest masterworks, a taut, tightly-wound thriller about a group of British soldiers lost in the Mesopotamian desert during WWI. When their commanding officer is killed by an unseen sniper, it’s up to Victor McLaglen to take charge and protect the rest of the platoon from the enemy. But the elements may kill them before a bullet does. Boris Karloff makes a striking impression as a religious fanatic driven mad by the desert. The film earned an Oscar nomination for Max Steiner’s score.
16. MOGAMBO (1953)
Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on the play ‘Red Dust’ by Wilson Collison. Starring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Donald Sinden, Philip Stainton, Eric Pohlmann, Laurence Naismith, Denis O’Dea.
Ford directed this remake of the 1932 adventure yarn “Red Dust,” with Clark Gable reprising his role as a raffish safari hunter who starts an affair with a socialite (Ava Gardner) and an anthropologist’s unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly). Whereas the previous version was filmed on the MGM backlot, the director insisted on location shooting in Africa in glorious Technicolor, giving this reimagining an extra bit of scope and authenticity. Gardner and Kelly earned Oscar nominations in lead and supporting, respectively.
15. DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939)
Screenplay by Sonya Levien and Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Walter D. Edmonds. Starring Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Edna May Oliver, John Carradine, Ward Bond.
“Drums Along the Mohawk” was Ford’s first Technicolor feature, and it’s fascinating to watch him work with a vibrant color pallet for the first time. Set in the early pioneer days, it centers on a newlywed couple (Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert) who try to settle down in New York’s Mohawk Valley. But repeated Indian attacks and the impeding Revolutionary War upend their peaceful lives. Edna May Oliver earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting turn as a wealthy widow who invites the couple to live on her farm, as did the cinematography. This was one of three films Ford helmed in 1939, along with “Stagecoach” and “Young Mr. Lincoln.”
14. MISTER ROBERTS (1955)
Directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Joshua Logan, based on the novel by Thomas Heggen and the stage play by Heggen and Joshua Logan. Starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Jack Lemmon, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond.
“Mister Roberts” wasn’t exactly a happy experience for Ford. He was fired midway through production following difficulties with Henry Fonda, later to be replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. (Stage director and screenwriter Joshua Logan directed reshoots.) So while it’s hard to say how much of this is a “John Ford movie,” it’s certainly an entertaining one. Fonda reprises his Tony Award-winning role as a Navy lieutenant desperate to join the action in WWII, yet can’t get his tyrannical captain (James Cagney) to sign his transfer papers. Jack Lemmon won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as an Ensign desperate to avoid work. The film also earned a Best Picture nomination, while Ford and LeRoy jointly competed at the DGA.
13. FORT APACHE (1948)
Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the short story ‘Massacre’ by James Warner Bellah. Starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Victor McLaglen, Pedro Armendariz, John Agar.
The first of Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” (followed by “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande”), “Fort Apache” creates such an authentic portrait of frontier life, you’d think you were transported back to the 1860s. Henry Fonda gives one of his best performances playing against type as Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, who is placed in charge of a U.S. cavalry post over the honorable veteran Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne). York soon finds himself at odds with Thursday, who thirsts for glory and despises the local Native American tribe. Though the film gives the director an opportunity to explore some of the western’s darker themes, he still finds time for some laughter and romance in carefully observed vignettes.
12. THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (1940)
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on four ‘Sea Plays’ by Eugene O’Neill. Starring John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter, Barry Fitzgerald, Wilfrid Lawson, John Qualen, Mildred Natwick, Ward Bond.
Ford long dreamed of being a sailor, serving in the Navy during WWII and often taking his friends out to sea on his boat, the USS Araner, for some alcohol-fueled fun. So it’s not surprising that this adaptation of four Eugene O’Neill “Sea Plays” feels so personal to him. “The Long Voyage Home” centers on the ragtag crew of a British tramp steamer who embark on a perilous journey from the West Indies to Boston and finally to England. The story unfolds in a series of beautifully contained scenes exploring the camaraderie of the men, shot in moody black-and-white by cinematographer Gregg Toland. Ford pulled off the rare feat of earning two Best Picture nominations in one year: one for this, the other for “The Grapes of Wrath.”
11. YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939)
Written by Lamar Trotti. Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Arleen Whelan, Eddie Collins, Pauline Moore, Richard Cromwell, Donald Meek, Judith Dickens, Eddie Quillan.
Ford spent most of his career alternately exploring the fulfillment and the failure of the American dream. He was never so optimistic about the country’s promise than he was in this biographical drama about the 16th U.S. President (Henry Fonda). Yet rather than focus on his time in office, “Young Mr. Lincoln” centers on the soon-to-be-politician’s law career, as he defends two brothers falsely accused of murder. Though the courtroom scenes are a tad hooky (with a last minute reversal straight out of “Law & Order”), there’s a folksiness and sentimentality that speaks to our better angels, thanks in large part to Fonda’s beautiful performance. The film earned an Oscar nomination for Lamar Trotti’s script.
10. THE INFORMER (1935)
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the novel by Liam O’Flaherty. Starring Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame, Wallace Ford, Una O’Connor.
Ford hit a new artistic high with “The Informer,” a moody, expressionistic drama that brought him the first of four Oscars for Best Director. Set in Dublin in 1922, the film centers on an Irishman (Victor McLaglen) who tries to join the IRA but is ousted for not being devoted enough to the cause. Desperate to start a new life with his streetwalker girlfriend (Heather Angel), he turns in a friend (Wallace Ford) with a price on his head. Yet he can’t escape his guilt when the wanted man ends up dead in a police shootout. The film earned additional prizes for McLaglen in Best Actor, Dudley Nichols’ script, and Max Steiner’s score. It lost Best Picture, however, to “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
9. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)
Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings, based on ‘The Saturday Evening Post’ stories ‘The Big Hunt’ and ‘War Party’ by James Warner Bellah. Starring John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, George O’Brien, Arthur Shields.
“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” was the second film in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” — proceeded by “Fort Apache” and followed by “Rio Grande” — and it’s by far the best. John Wayne gives one of his best performances (aided by some heavy makeup) as Nathan Brittles, a retiring US Cavalry Captain tasked with protecting his troops from an impeding Indian attack. Haunted by the defeat of General Custard, Brittles does all he can to prevent a violent confrontation and protect the many women on the base. The film won an Oscar for Winston C. Hoch’s vibrant Technicolor cinematography. Wayne reaped a Best Actor bid that year for “Sands of Iwo Jima,” though he really should’ve competed for this role.
8. THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)
Screenplay by Frank Wead, based on the book by William Lindsay White. Starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed, Jack Holt, Ward Bond.
Ford returned from his WWII service and made one of the most realistic and grim examinations of warfare ever committed to film. “They Were Expendable” recounts the futile efforts of a U.S. Navy PT unit to combat a Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Real life war hero Robert Montgomery stars as the commander, John Wayne as his second-in-command. During shooting, Ford ridiculed Wayne for his lack of actual military service, often pointing to Montgomery as an example of how to act (when Montgomery confronted the director about his behavior, Ford allegedly broke down in tears). On-set tension aside, this trio created an enduring classic that stands above more simplistic combat films of the period.
7. HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)
Screenplay by Philip Dunne, based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn. Starring Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp, Anna Lee, Roddy McDowell.
“How Green Was My Valley” is often remembered rather unfairly as the film that beat “Citizen Kane” at the Oscars. Though that certainly is a fact, it shouldn’t be the enduring legacy of this extraordinarily moving story of a Welsh mining family at the turn of the century. Donald Crisp won Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Mr. Morgan, the larger-than-life patriarch who works to provide his youngest son (Roddy McDowell) with a better life. Walter Pidgeon costars as the town priest, who falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter (Maureen O’Hara). Ford won his third prize for directing, and additional prizes went to Arthur C. Miller’s evocative cinematography and Richard Day and Nathan Juran’s exquisite art direction.
6. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)
Screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson. Starring James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Ken Murray.
With this late-career masterpiece, Ford created his most thoughtful and nuanced examination of the differences between myth and truth. It’s also one of the great American westerns, with John Wayne and James Stewart finding new shades in characters they’ve often played. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” centers on a U.S. Senator (Stewart) who became famous for killing an outlaw (Lee Marvin) returning to his hometown to bury an old friend (Wayne). But as the funeral gets underway, the facts about the legendary event that binds them become clearer. The film earned a lone Oscar nomination for Edith Head’s costumes.
5. THE QUIET MAN (1952)
Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ story by Maurice Walsh. Starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, Francis Ford.
“The Quiet Man” was a longtime passion project for Ford, a romantic, sentimental journey back to his Irish roots. It was also a major departure for the director and John Wayne, better known for their more macho collaborations. Adapted from a short story by Maurice Walsh, the film centers on an ex-boxer (Wayne) who leaves America and returns to the little village of his birth, where he falls in love with a fiery red head (Maureen O’Hara). Most viewers probably remember this one for the climactic fist-fight between Wayne and Victor McLaglen, who plays O’Hara’s loutish brother. Ford won his fourth Oscar as Best Director, while Winston C. Hoch and Archie Stout were also recognized for their luminous color cinematography.
4. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)
Screenplay by Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller, story by Sam Hellman, based on the novel ‘Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal’ by Stuart N. Lake. Starring Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Cathy Downs.
The story of Wyatt Earp’s legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been told several times cinematically, but never so beautifully than in Ford’s quiet, complex “My Darling Clementine.” Henry Fonda plays the iconic marshal, who tries to bring law and order to the unwieldy town of Tombstone, AZ. While there, he falls in love with the beautiful Clementine (Cathy Downs) and partners up with the drunken, sickly Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) to battle the murderous Clanton gang, led by Walter Brennan. Yet the actual shootout is far from the main focus: instead, Ford creates a tender, romantic vision of the Old West, with Fonda as the steady center of a carefully-observed ensemble drama.
3. STAGECOACH (1939)
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on ‘The Stage to Lordsburg’ by Ernest Haycock. Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine, George Bancroft.
The western exists in two realms: one before “Stagecoach,” the other after. Before, it was simply B-grade entertainment meant to play on the second half of a double bill. After, it was one of the great American genres. It also launched John Wayne from Poverty Row bit player to A-list leading man, kicking off an enduring partnership between him and Ford. For the director, the story of a motley group of people traveling through treacherous terrain via stagecoach firmly established him as the premiere maker of thoughtful, rousing, and artistic entertainments. The film won two Oscar, including Best Supporting Actor for Thomas Mitchell as a drunken doctor. Ford competed for directing, but lost to Victor Fleming (“Gone with the Wind”).
2. THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)
Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by John Steinbeck. Starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Shirley Mills, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan.
In adapting John Steinbeck’s legendary novel, Ford created one of his most striking indictments of America’s failure to live up to its promise. At the same time, “The Grapes of Wrath” is an incredibly moving and sympathetic portrait of a poor Midwest family forced off their land during the Great Depression. They head to California in hopes of a better life, only to end up living in a migrant camp. Cinematographer Gregg Toland shoots in a documentary realism that’s almost startling, while Henry Fonda gives his career-best performance as Tom Joad, the son who goes from reformed murderer to union organizer. Oscars went to Ford and Jane Darwell’s supporting turn as Ma Joad.
1. THE SEARCHERS (1956)
Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Alan Le May. Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Wad Bond, Natalie Wood.
With “The Searchers,” Ford and John Wayne took a long, hard look at the darkness lurking beneath the genre that made them famous, creating perhaps the greatest of all westerns. Wayne gives the performance of a lifetime as Ethan Edwards, a lonely, angry Civil War veteran with a rabid hatred of Native Americans. When a band of Comanches kidnap his niece (Natalie Wood) and burn down her family’s home, he embarks on an obsessive search to find her. But this is not a rescue mission: rather, it’s a quest to kill her because she’s lived with Indians for too long to be pure. Ford’s beloved Monument Valley has never looked more magnificent than it does here, thanks to Winston C. Hoch’s Technicolor, VistaVision cinematography. Yet it’s that moral ambiguity at the center of its hero’s journey that has continued to inspire filmmakers decades later (most notably Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader with “Taxi Driver”).