John Ford is regarded as one of the most influential and important filmmakers in history of cinema. In a career that spanned over 50 years, the legendary American director made 142 theatrical films and won 4 academy awards for his direction, more than any other director.

Many of Ford’s films are considered classics including Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Ford also helped propel several careers, including John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda.

In this article, we will be sharing over 40 of our favorite John Ford quotes covering everything from directing movies to working with actors and much more.

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John Ford Quotes

My name is John Ford and I make Westerns.

I love making pictures but I don’t like talking about them.

It’s no use talking to me about art, I make pictures to pay the rent.

I didn’t show up at the ceremony to collect any of my first three Oscars. Once I went fishing, another time there was a war on, and on another occasion, I remember, I was suddenly taken drunk.

[on Native American Indians] We’ve treated them badly, it’s a blot on our shield; we’ve robbed, cheated, murdered and massacred them, but they kill one white man and God, out come the troops.

[on the CinemaScope anamorphic aspect ratio] I hated it. You’ve never seen a painter use that kind of composition – even the great murals, it still wasn’t this huge tennis court. Your eyes pop back and forth, and it’s very difficult to get a close-up.

None of my so-called better pictures are westerns.

[on early cinema] None of us thought we were making anything but entertainment for the moment. Only Ernst Lubitsch knew we were making art.

In everything, I want realism.

John Ford

I simply direct pictures, and if I had my way, every morning of my life I’d be behind that camera at nine o’clock waiting for the boys to roll ’em, because that’s the only thing I really like to do.

film staging scene
John Ford stages a fight between James Stewart and John Wayne for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

John Ford Filmmaking Quotes

For a director there are commercial rules that it is necessary to obey. In our profession, an artistic failure is nothing; a commercial failure is a sentence. The secret is to make films that please the public and also allow the director to reveal his personality.

I like, as a director and a spectator, simple, direct, frank films. Nothing disgusts me more than snobbism, mannerism, technical gratuity… and most of all, intellectualism.

A script is a skeleton that you can work on. If it’s a good script, you do it verbatim. If it’s not, then you get a script that you can do verbatim.

Louse up your hero. Get him thrown in jail if possible. Have him arrested for stealing a horse or something. Heroes shouldn’t be holier-than-thou and namby-pamby. Heroes shouldn’t be clay statues, but they should have feet of clay

Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it’s not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eyes.

John Ford

Occasionally you get some luck in pictures, more occasion you get bad luck. If something happens that wasn’t pre-meditated, if it happens, photograph it. Like the scene in She wore a Yellow Ribbon, a terrific thunderstorm came up, lightning flashing all over the sky and all the tourists broke for their cars… I said lets shoot it. We had a very pedantic cameraman on it, very slow and he said we shot this under protest. So we had the cavalry riding into the thunderstorm, lightning flashing and thunder rolling and everything else and it made an interesting shot. Then we finished it up in the studio. He put under protest on it and won the academy award.

I fear the art of telling stories by motion picture is becoming lost [said shortly after the introduction of sound]. It is too simple to take the easier way of telling the story through dialogue, and thus lose the most vital factor of the motion picture, the motion.

A good picture is long on action and short on dialogue.

[On talk in pictures] It’s necessary and people expect it now. It helps as long as the dialogue is crisp and cryptic, as long as there’s not long soliloquy’s, I like talking in pictures, they’re much easier to make than silent pictures. Silent pictures were hard work, it was very difficult to get a point over, you had to move the camera round so much.

If you can’t do it without relying on the spoken word, you’re not doing it visually, and that’s what I intend to do.

John Ford

I like outdoor dramas best. On the stage, there is the voice to carry a large share of the drama. In pictures there is no opportunity for the tonal gradations that convey such meaning on the stage. The compensating thrill comes in what the stage lacks – the ‘long shots’ that bring in a herd of cattle, massive mountain peaks, a chain of waterfalls, a huge mob of men and women.

I don’t give ’em a lot of film to play with… I do cut in the camera. Otherwise, if you give them a lot of film ‘the committee’ takes over. They start juggling scenes around and taking out this and putting in that. They can’t do it with my pictures. I cut in the camera and that’s it. There’s not a lot of film left on the floor when I’m finished.

One of the troubles of directors universally is that they’ll make a big picture, it might be a hit and then they try to top it and usually fall flat on their face. I try to make it a rule, that if you make a big picture that is a hit, the next one do a cheap picture – relax for three or four weeks while you’re preparing for another story. And usually of course to my mind, the little picture is always better… some people keep on trying to top themselves and they can’t.

john ford stagecoach
Ford on location in Monument Valley shooting Stagecoach (1939)

Ford on Working with Actors

It is easier to get an actor to be a cowboy than to get a cowboy to be an actor.

[On first takes] The actor’s fresher and he’s up and he’s more enthused. The more takes you take, if somebody misses a line on me, the scene goes down and down and down and it gets tiresome. There’s an element of chance but I don’t think there’s any nervousness with it. It always came off. Actors afterall are good and they’re pros, and they’ll take advantage of any accident that happens.

As a beauty, Dolores del Rio is in a class with [Greta Garbo]. Then she opens her mouth and becomes Minnie Mouse.

Maureen O’Hara is one of the actresses I most dislike. Everybody thought I was her lover. Actually, I hated her and she hated me, but she was right for the parts.

[on John Wayne] Duke is the best actor in Hollywood.

john ford quotes

Others on John Ford

I’ve heard him say that mostly good things in movies happen by accident.

Jimmy Stewart

I really admired the way he would stage and block his characters and often he would hold shots where everybody would be in a full shot, composed in a painterly fashion, not as archly operatic as Cecile B DeMille but they still looked like beautiful poses and yet he’d find some naturalistic way to get your mind off the frame, and get you in to the story.

Steven Spielberg

He starts the day with everybody being there on time at 9 o’clock in the morning, then he calls you over to the set. Usually he says, you come in this door and you come in this door over there and you’re sitting on the couch, just run through the lines. Now he lets you run through the lines and lets you develop your actions, you physical actions to the lines in those rehearsals. He doesn’t say, I want you to come through the door and stand over there by that plant or something, he doesn’t, there’s no you must, you must. He just rehearses the scene quietly.

John Wayne

He has a long table, before a scene we read the scene, but I’ve never really felt that Ford used this as a rehearsal, I always felt he used it because he wasn’t sure he liked some of the dialogue.

Jimmy Stewart

He has such an analytical mind, he knew the difference between the trivia and the meat of a scene like no one I’d ever worked with. He would have Dudley Nicholls rewrite scene after scene after scene, this was before the picture started and reach down and pick a line out of this and a line out of this one, and then three lines out of all this wonderful writing but flowery language, he’d just go right to the valuable thoughts.

John Wayne

Actually he has the capacity for making those silent scenes, one of the things you must learn whilst working for him is to relax and look. On some occasions you’ve naturally been given enough of the story before and after, you know how the person is thinking but it really doesn’t matter. He plays a little soft music on the set and you just look, and the audience will put the thoughts that they want to put in to that scene and they’ll give it the heart that the scene needs.

John Wayne

I think when he’s working on a script to begin with, he goes back in the life of each of his characters and that’s how he usually explains the character to the fellow who’s going to play it, he never tells them how to play it. He explains the background, so he has studied the character enough to know what his reaction will be in certain type of situation.

John Wayne

He said, he’d rather hear good music than bad dialogue.

Jimmy Stewart

In working with John Ford it’s pretty hard not to pick up a few facts about making pictures, one of his rules is to not pack too many ideas in one scene and the second, don’t talk too much. And the third rule, lots of action.

John Wayne

To keep the suspense going he would create crisis within crisis, action within action.

John Wayne
John Ford Searchers
John Ford on the set of The Searchers (1956).

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John Ford, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Peter Bogdanovich, 1978
Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, 2015
John Ford: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series), 2001

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