The Catholic Imagination of John Ford

The richness of any religion is that it is more than a set of doctrines, beliefs, and practices; it also provides a cultural framework by which we can view and make sense of the world.  How we make this sense manifests itself in a variety of ways, including through art.  In fact, the cultural influence of religion can remain even when one decides to leave its practice or reject its tenants.  Scholars refer to it as the religious imagination.  In American Catholic Arts and Fictions Paul Giles writes that this imagination serves “as a residual cultural determinant and one aspect of the social context within which various … artists … have been working” (1).  Thus, in the 1990s American film director John Sayles listed his religion as “Catholic atheist” in his entry in Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television.  By this he meant, “We were raised Catholic, which is definitely an influence.  We went to church every Sunday.  It’s a belief system, a mythology that you’re given. . . . I still think of myself as a Catholic, as an ethnicity” (Sayles on Sayles, 1).  In Sayles’ case, he is referring to what Fr. Andrew Greely called the Catholic imagination: the contention that Catholicism has provided identifiable culture patterns that have shaped artists and their works, sometimes in spite of their personal relationship to the faith.  

Among Catholicism’s several cultural legacies is an affinity for visual culture as a form of storytelling.  Thus, we can appreciate one of the many purposes of stained glass windows in cathedrals and churches.  They were the world’s first movie theaters.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the great American film directors are products of his theo-visual heritage: among them are Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcok, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, and one other very important figure.  In 1912, when the Sisters of Mercy founded Saint Joseph’s College in Portland, Maine, John Martin Feeney, the son of staunch Irish Catholic immigrants living in the working-class neighborhood of Munjoy Hill in Portland, was likely attending Mass at his home parish of Saint Dominic’s.  In 1914 young John left Portland for Southern California to seek a career in the movies.   We know him better as John Ford, arguably, America’s greatest filmmaker.   

Between 1917 and 1970 he directed over 130 films, and he won the academy award four times for best director: the most of any director in film history.  Yet, were we to survey his films for overt expressions of his Catholic upbringing (e.g., portrayals of priests, images of statues, etc.), we would be hard-pressed to find them (although 3 Godfathers is a fun Western retelling of the biblical magi story).  Rather, is it in their recurrent themes, regardless of genre, that we encounter his Irish Catholic imagination.   

The Irish immigrant experience in America was one of feeling in exile due to circumstances beyond one’s control (e.g., the potato famine).  Consequently, for Ford’s parents and his generation there was a strong longing of returning to or finding a sense of home and belonging.  For Irish American Catholics, the neighborhood parish provided that sense of home as well as protection from what they felt were hostile Protestant forces that viewed them with suspicion (fittingly, Ford’s own parish now houses the Maine Irish Heritage Center).  It is no surprise then that Ford’s films are filled with characters who restlessly wander seeking security and a place to settle.  This theme manifests itself in nearly every one of his Westerns.  Moreover, it is explicit in Ford’s most popular film, The Quiet Man, where an American son of Irish immigrants returns to his ancestral land to escape his past and forge connections with this heritage.  What he finds is a community willing to welcome him and provide him the peace he seeks if he is willing to accept their customs and relinquish his destructive self-reliance.

It is the theme of community that also betrays Ford’s Catholic imagination.  As Fr. Richard Blake writes in Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers, “The notion of belonging to a community is crucial to one’s salvation in Catholic thought.” Redemption “is not worked out through a solitary search for God, but in collaboration with others” (14).  The “Cavalry Trilogy” (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) illustrates this value well by presenting the military as more than a collection of soldiers.  It is also a family that provides larger purpose for its members, and those who find themselves apart from it and on their own lose direction and meaning.  As the American-born son of Catholic immigrants, Ford would certainly have been sensitive to the tensions between his religion’s focus on community and his country’s emphasis on individualism.  Few films in his oeuvre portray this existential struggle better than The Searchers.  In it Ethan Edwards’ (John Wayne) racist thirst for vengeance prevents him from ever fully joining the community he seeks to protect.  In the film’s famous final shot, Ethan stands alone with the dark frame of a doorway around him metaphorically (Catholics are also attracted to analogies) emphasizing his isolation from others and, therefore, his inability to be fully human.  He turns and walks away into the harsh landscape as the door closes and the scene fades to black.

Another important attribute of the Catholic imagination to appreciate in Ford’s films is what Fr. Blake calls sacramentality.  It is a distinctively Catholic worldview that sees the potential for a grace-filled encounter with God through the material world just as our liturgical sacraments are rooted in bread, wine, oil, and water.  As Fr. Andrew Greeley writes in The Catholic Imagination, “As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, the events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace” (1).  Indeed, in Catholic tradition both the book of scripture (liber scripturae) and the “great book” of nature (liber naturae) are sources of God’s self-revelation to humanity.  

This proclivity toward the sacramental manifests itself in the ways that Catholic directors place objects in the frame to signify “value and meaning beyond their immediate material surface” (Blake 13).  Thus, the stagecoach in Stagecoach comes to mean more to its occupants (and, thereby, to the viewer) than its convenience as a mode of transportation.  In a particular way, Ford’s sacramental Catholic imagination most clearly expresses itself in his use of landscapes.  They are shot with such careful and loving detail that they serve as characters in their own right.  In Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz captures the weight of the visual beauty of Ford’s landscapes, especially Monument Valley which he features in many of his Westerns.  She writes that “Ford conveys a unique sense of beauty and mystery, establishing a sacramental relationship between man and landscape. Ford turns it into a primordial space where the children of God are faced with the basic issues of life: family, community, justice, solidarity, repentance, forgiveness, and mercy.”

At public events Ford was fond of introducing himself in the following  manner, “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.”  It was his self-deprecating way of claiming that his work amounted to little more than entertainment, and his entire career was directing Hollywood studio films for popular consumption.  However, repeated viewings of his many and various movies reveals a body of work much deeper than what appears at first glance.  In their exploration of the themes of belonging, community, and sacramentality, Ford’s films reveal an artist indebted to his Irish Catholic imagination, and the world of cinema is richer for it.

Christopher Fuller, Ph.D., is the Vice President, Chief Sponsorship and Mission Integration Officer at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.  Prior to coming to Saint Joseph’s, he was an Associate Professor of Theology at Carroll College in Montana for fifteen years.  While there he taught courses in scripture, Catholic Social Teaching, and film, including “American Cinema and the Catholic Imagination.”

Letting God Be Found

Our Faith is rich in examples of God’s presence: in Scripture, in the lives of the Saints, in Creation itself – and most concretely in the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), which are tangible encounters with the living God. Regardless of such riches, we want more. We want proof, whatever that means. Many, many years ago I made my very first retreat, and I was in the midst of a conversion of heart in which my faith was being renewed. Woman after woman at the retreat testified to powerful moments in which the Lord “spoke” to them, (sometimes “leading” them to a particular Scripture verse) and I was amazed, and intimidated. During discussion time, I shared with my small group that I’d never heard from God. Ever. The women smiled and assured me God speaks to me, even as I insisted He doesn’t. Their looks of motherly concern didn’t inspire confidence as one of them said, “I’m sure He will. Someday.” I’m convinced this is a common concern – and complaint – even among the most faithful. We “want God,” and we want Him here and now! The trouble is, we want Him on our terms, and most times we’re not really sure what those terms should look like.

On January 6, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate the Theophany of Our Lord, a wonderful companion to the West’s feast of Epiphany. Through these feasts the Church reminds us that the Child born in Bethlehem became the Man from Nazareth, and was revealed to be the Son of God. He is Emmanuel, God with us, living – and suffering – with us and for us. The Word made flesh not only dwells among us, but is one of us. He is close to us, yet often we don’t recognize Him, don’t acknowledge Him, or don’t look for Him. That’s why these feasts of “revelation” are so important for us.

God reveals Himself in the ordinary: in the midst of family life and all of its attendant joys and worries; in our daily work and its satisfaction and hardships; and in any number of unexpected ways that surprise us in their subtlety. The problem is that we keep looking for God in the booming voice, the Burning Bush and the miraculous appearance. The truth is, He does reveal Himself in those ways, but more often He shows Himself to us in quietly, and in the ordinary. That is what’s so extraordinary about the Incarnation, and why so many people 2,000 years ago (and many today) find it hard to believe that God would enter into His own Creation as a man.  Maybe that’s why the “proofs” we look for of God’s existence in our lives aren’t there – or don’t appear to be there. We’re looking in the wrong places, and we let other voices drown out His. This is what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, especially during Advent and the Nativity, and this current feast of Theophany: where is God, and am I looking and listening for Him?

I love the icon of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in my parish of St. Ann’s Byzantine Catholic Church. In Eastern iconography the Nativity is portrayed differently from the serene, “Christmas carol” scenes in Western art (for more on the icon’s symbolism, read what I wrote in 2014). There is one aspect of the icon I found myself drawn to during this Christmas season, and it’s the two characters at the lower left (closeup left.) The icon portrays a pensive, perhaps anxious Joseph being visited by a strange looking fellow in a cloak that appears to be made of leaves. He holds a walking staff and seems to be speaking to the new father about serious matters. According to the iconographic “language,” the man is actually the Devil come to the cave after Christ’s birth to instill doubt in Joseph’s heart. Of course this part of the scene isn’t Scriptural, but it’s a symbolic way to show how determined the Devil is to introduce doubt in our thoughts: doubts about ourselves, and doubts about God’s love for us. The Devil wants us to believe that God is really far removed from us, and not as close as the Baby in the manger who allowed Himself to become small enough to be held; small enough to be contained in a particle of bread and a cup of wine. It really doesn’t matter what the Old Man is telling Joseph in the icon, because we hear the arguments against God that he presents to each of us. We all have our own anxiety upon which the Devil plays and which he uses try to lead us into sin. As I sat in my pew each week, I thought a lot about that Old Man in the icon, and how often I allow him to highjack my thoughts; how many times I believe his arguments against God’s real presence in my life. It’s that nagging feeling I experienced on retreat many years ago: God doesn’t speak to me.

The icon of the Theophany of Our Lord (right) in my parish covers a portion of the wall immediately to the left of the Nativity as you face it, and I found myself drawn to it many times over these last weeks, as if the Lord were purposely diverting my attention away from the Old Man. This icon is one of my favorites, as is the feast. Theophany is a Greek word that means manifestation of God, and this feast commemorates the revelation of God as a Communion of Persons – the Trinity – and that this Jesus (born in a cave, raised in a family, and now presenting Himself for baptism) is the Son of God. The last thing anyone who was gathered at the Jordan that day expected was for God to enter into their midst. No one expected to hear His voice or witness His Spirit. No one would have believed a small town boy, the carpenter’s son, was the Messiah, let alone God Himself. As He would many times during the life and ministry of Jesus, God offered the people the “proof” they desired with His proclamation, “This is my beloved Son….” Yet such wondrous “proofs” are not greater than the reality: that God is among us, that He loves us more than we can imagine, and that He desires to be close to us.

It turns out the women on my first retreat were right: God would speak to me. In fact, He speaks to me all the time, but sometimes I’m too busy or distracted, or too unimaginative to hear Him. The icons of the Nativity and Theophany remind me again of how important it is to look for God and His word for me in the everyday aspects of my life. He’s there in my family, in my work, and in the simple things. He speaks in Creation, in music and books – and in the words friends and enemies alike. God is with us everyday and in everything. It’s up to us to be still, be humble, and be aware of the unexpected ways He manifests Himself in our lives.

…[T]oday the Uncreated One willingly permits the hands of his creatures to be laid upon him; today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Lord and, standing before him in awe,  witnesses the condescension of God towards us; today through the presence of the Lord, the waters of the river Jordan are changed into remedies; today the whole universe is refreshed with mystical streams; today the sins of the human race are blotted out by the waters of the river Jordan; today paradise has been opened to all, and the Sun of Righteousness has shone upon us; today, at the hands of Moses, the bitter water is changed into sweetness by the presence of the Lord!

~ The Great Blessing of Water, Feast of Theophany

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.