(llustration by Edward Kinsella)
(llustration by Edward Kinsella)
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The Maine Film Center (MFC) is holding a statewide celebration of the 125th birthday of acclaimed Hollywood director John Ford with 10 days of films, panel discussions and educational programming from February 1 through February 10 at venues throughout the state.

During his extremely prolific career, Ford, who grew up in Portland, directed more than 140 films between 1917 and 1964, receiving 72 Oscar nominations and winning 23 Academy Awards. With such films as “The Informer” (1935), “Stagecoach” (1939), “The Grapes of Wrath” (1941), and “The Quiet Man” (1952), Ford is widely regarded in the movie industry as one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time.

“Consciously or not, most filmmakers today have been influenced by Ford,” said MFC Executive Director Mike Perreault. “His westerns in particular are cultural touchstones.... Ford’s a towering Maine cultural figure so we all agreed this milestone shouldn’t pass without recognition from his home state.”

The Free Press will be sponsoring a panel discussion on Irish history prior to the screening of Ford’s classic Irish film “The Quiet Man,” starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, at the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta on Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. Historians Michael Connolly and Matthew Jude Barker, who contributed to the book “John Ford in Focus,” will discuss Ford’s childhood in Portland, the historical significance of “The Quiet Man” and the history of Irish immigrants in Maine.

On Saturday, Feb. 2, Ford’s 1956 western “The Searchers” will be shown at 5:30 p.m. at the Strand Theatre in Rockland, and the Oscar-winning “How Green Was My Valley,” a 1941 film about a hard-working Welsh coal-mining family, will be screened at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre in Belfast. Other Ford films will be shown in Bar Harbor, Brunswick, Lewiston, Bucksport and Waterville.

The son of Irish immigrants, John Feeney was born in Cape Elizabeth in 1894 and grew up on Munjoy Hill in Portland. His father, John A. Feeney, operated a saloon on Fore Street and would occasionally get hauled into court for violating the state liquor prohibition laws. He is said to have even used a grocery store as a false front for his bar. Known as “Bull Feeney,” the younger John played fullback and defensive tackle on the Portland High School championship football team and got his first taste of the cinema while working as an usher at the Gem Theater on Peaks Island. Then in 1914, at the age of 20, he headed out to California to join his older brother Francis, who had changed his last name to Ford, to work in the movie business as a stuntman, actor and assistant director on westerns and adventure films. One of his earliest gigs was as an extra in D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” Soon John also changed his last name to Ford.

Essays in the book “John Ford in Focus,” edited by Michael Connolly and Kevin L. Stoehr, describe Ford as “notoriously cantankerous” and “mistrustful of intellectuals,” but it may have just been his “Mainer” coming out.

“The man who was born John Feeney, who became John Ford, always emphasized his Irishness, so commentators and critics followed his lead,” writes Ford’s biographer Scott Eyman in “John Ford in Focus.” “But Ford was also the staunchest of New Englanders, a Maine man, with an abiding memory of a New England town, that is to say an ideal community of enduring values. From the town of Portland, Maine, John Ford learned the value of the common people, the beauty of the natural world and the powerful symmetry that results when the two are joined…. Beyond that, his Maine upbringing had given him a valuable lesson in modesty, for you do not put on airs if you live in Maine; the worst thing a Yankee can be is a snob. In short, from Portland Ford learned the emotional dynamic that would inform practically every film he would ever make.”

In 1917, Ford began directing silent films, completing 10 in the first year alone, followed by another eight in 1918 and 15 in 1919, although few of those movies still exist. He would go on to win countless awards and recognitions for his work. During World War II, Ford entered the Naval Reserves to serve as a lieutenant commander in the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where he was wounded while filming the Battle of Midway. He later received a Purple Heart and Presidential Medal of Freedom. The next film Ford made was “They Were Expendable,” starring John Wayne, about the U.S. defeat in the Philippines.

Later in life, Ford was considered to be a bit of a reactionary, as opposition to the Vietnam War and the social movements of the 1960s challenged the American mythology that his nostalgic films about men in uniform represented. But as the cultural critic Stanley Crouch wrote in a 2006 essay in Slate, Ford’s work is more complex than that.

“Ford was surely patriotic but not in a simple way; his best work always contains a celebration of the nation and its mythologies as well as its inherent troubles,” wrote Crouch. “Ford understood that America’s essential anti-aristocratic attitude was good as long as it was heroic and possessed of a sacrificial sense of duty. But he also knew that the common man was not above submitting to anarchy. Perhaps worst of all, as Ford tells us, is that the sheer weight of a man’s pain and loss can transform him in despicable ways.”

And as Martin Scorsese points out in the documentary “Directed by John Ford,” the curmudgeonly old Irish director from Maine continues to have a profound influence on filmmaking today. “He is the essence of classical American cinema,” said Scorsese, “and any serious person making films today, whether they know it or not, is affected by Ford.”

For more information, along with dates and times of film screenings, visit mainefilmcenter.org/john-ford-125-years-screenings.