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.”