Quentin Tarantino Takes Swings at John Ford and Whiffs

Quentin Tarantino/John Ford
It's uncommon for the post-modern auteur to be overly critical of the old stand-bys. 

In Quentin Tarantino's latest wonderfully written piece for the New Beverly blog, he covers the legacy of Peter Bogdanovich, the influence of John Ford, the impact of films like Paper Moon, The Grapes of Wrath, and Last Picture Show. Along the way, he takes a few shots at Ford. 

But does he land the punches? 

We'll get to that... 

But first off:

This is the fun part of film theory and analysis!

It's like getting to see LeBron James pick apart Michael Jordan's game. Or watch Mike Tyson get in the ring with Muhammad Ali.

If QT wants to take it to the old man, I am here for it!

Let's take a look at this analysis from Mr. Tarantino, and see what punches he lands...and which ones he didn't. 

John Ford: the Grumpy Auteur

John Ford made a lifelong habit of speaking very little at all about the whys and hows when it came to filmmaking. In fact, he considered it just a way to "pay the rent". The one filmmaking assignment Ford took seriously in life was when he was asked to lead a division in the army that involved filming material during World War 2. If you haven't read Five Came Back: The Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, it's a must for any cinephile or filmmaker. 

John Ford Goes to War

It paints a picture of Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the lives of its biggest directors. It also tells you how they shot and survived the war. 

Ford in particular takes center stage. He routinely didn't show up to the Academy Awards (where he always won) because he was either getting drunk, sailing, or... you know... helping the war effort. 

There couldn't be a more different set of filmmakers than Ford and Tarantino. Here is what Ford said about directing movies:

"Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery. It's not an art."

This well-documented attitude could be why Tarantino, the exact opposite, has some aggression towards him. 

In one corner we have the filmmaker writing lengthy pieces about the history of cinema... in the other corner we have this man:

So, with all that said... 

"Let's get ready to RUUUUMMMBLLEEE." 

Tarantino's Argument

First off... this is a huge subject, tackled by one of the great students of film and filmmakersTarantino.

Ford is considered one of the early and purest of auteurs. Peter Bogdanovich, prior to making his own beloved films, sought out Ford and learned from him on set, wrote a book about him, as he did with many others. 

Bogs and Ford

Tarantino's thesis? 

That Ford really didn't impact Bogdanovich's films. 

It's a great read. It's a fair point, and I wouldn't argue against it. 

While the overall thesis here works, the specifics are hit and miss.

First... the hits. 

What Tarantino Gets Right

It's true that most of Bogdanovich's films feel more like a direct product of Howard Hawks than of John Ford. Even if we're just talking about themes and genre. Bogdanovich wasn't a guy who made westerns about tough men and women... he mostly made movies about romance, usually with a comedic element. 

From a visual standpoint, Tarantino makes a great point in almost painterly prose, recreating for us the way George Lucas' American Graffiti used the canvas to portray the same exact era as The Last Picture Show to such completely different thematic ends. 

American Graffiti

Last Picture Show

It's an amazing observation that I've never seen anywhere else. The movies literally are about the same concept, taking place during the same time, but the treatment of the images create entirely different worlds and entirely different meaning. 

Tarantino thinks of time and place in terms of mediums and media. That's part of why he is the true post-modern auteur. He points out how The Last Picture Show was shot more like a film from the era it takes place in. Stylistic choices, to him, have as much to do with creating a period as anything else. 

The choice to keep a camera still, at eye level, for example, might be more impactful when trying to convey a time period than a costume does. 

Hawks of course made movies about EVERYTHING in every genre. This is part of why he's an auteur in the first place... according to the strictest of definitions. 

The influence of Ford's themes and styles feel pretty absent from Bogdanovich movies. It feels like a stretch to find them at all. There is no denying that this, Tarantino's main point, seems entirely correct. 

But... along the way, he stumbles into some weird territory. 

What Tarantino Got Wrong

It does seem that, on some level, QT flat out doesn't like John Ford. There is no rule anywhere that I can find about filmmakers loving John Ford.

But what's interesting about it that Tarantino is a direct cinematic descendant of Ford... 

Ford was a huge influence on Akira Kurosawa, "Yet the seminal influence on [Yojimbo], for me, was a hard-drinking Irishman from Maine named John Ford, who made Westerns." - Charles Silver, curator of the department of film at the Museum of Modern Art.

Later in the same piece on the film, Silver would mention the times Kurosawa and Ford visited with one another, "What Kurosawa admired and tried to emulate were the Ford Westerns

Kurosawa and John Ford
Akira Kurosawa and John Ford on set together

Kurosawa and Ford were friends and had a deep mutual admiration for one another. There is this quote from Kurosawa himself, "John Ford is really great…. When I’m old, that’s the kind of director I want to be.”

So what does Kurosawa being inflicted by Ford have to do with Tarantino? 

Well, Yojimbo, like many of Kurosawa's samurai films, was remade as a western

The remake of Yojimbo was unauthorized, titled Per Un Pugno Di Dollari or A Fist Full of Dollars and directed by Sergio Leone. That film launched his career making Spaghetti Westerns, which had more than just a passing influence on... 

Quentin Tarantino. 

"The movie that made me consider filmmaking, the movie that showed me how a director does what he does, how a director can control a movie through his camera, is Once Upon a Time in the West." - Quentin Tarantino. 

Interesting side fact: Kurosawa wrote a letter to Leone about the film saying "It's a very fine film. But it is my film." A lawsuit was settled between them that led to Kurosawa receiving 15% of the film's worldwide box office. 

Great artists may steal... in this case the artist also had to pay a fine. 

But it doesn't even end there. Yojimbo is also the source material for another Spaghetti Western remake titled Django



Ok, so there are no two ways about it, right? Ford to Kurosawa to Leone to Tarantino. 

Ford is Tarantino's cinematic great-great-grandpa. 

But why then is Tarantino so harsh on the old man here:

"And for all the critics (and a jealous Orson Welles) who tried to tie Paper Moon’s attributes to The Grapes of Wrath, in every instance, Bogdanovich betters his elder. The beauty attached to László Kovács’ black and white photography was somehow linked to Ford. Now Ford’s photography has always been overrated in my estimation. But I think it’s pretty obvious his color films look better than his black and white films."

Tarantino is just flat out wrong here. Ford's photography is overrated in his opinion, but it's not obvious that his color films look better than his black and white films. 

John Ford's black and white visuals aren't just some of the foundational pieces to the entire art form... but he took them to new heights in The Grapes of Wrath.

I don't want to call out Tarantino... but this line makes me wonder if he's seen the movie. The images speak for themselves, and don't even do the film itself justice:

Grapes of Wrath cinematography

Grapes of Wrath cinematography 2
Grapes of Wrath cinematography
The director of photography for The Grapes of Wrath was Gregg Toland, truly a legend in the field. He lensed Citizen Kane.

But you wanna know why? 

Because there was one filmmaker who wrote the book on black and white photography, and Orson Welles himself knew it that man was John Ford. Citizen Kane is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. When asked about the inspiration of its visuals what did Welles say? 

"John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."

Welles wanted the man who shot Ford's recent films, not only The Grapes of Wrath but also, The Long Voyage Home. Both of which were released in 1940 and lensed by Toland. The DP lost "best cinematography" that year to George Barnes for Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. Hey... no shame in that. 

But the point remains, how can any cinephile discount the impact, or value, of John Ford's black and white visuals? Let alone one who is so influenced by the filmmaker's Ford influenced!

It's possible that Tarantino meant the later films because he follows with this line: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has all the artistry of watching a Technicolor western on black and white television." The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a seminal film for many reasons. The photography is definitely not one of them. So I'll agree with Tarantino there. 

But the early Ford black and white movies? Are you kidding me???

My Darling Clementine Cinematography

The Voyage Home Cinematography

How Green Was My Valley Cinematogprahy

Stagecoach Cinematography

Quentin Tarantino... what the hell are you smoking? 

This time... it's personal?

I have to wonder if the reason for the slight, and the statement of feeling the visuals of Ford are 'overrated' has something to do with the fact that Ford was notoriously negative about talking film"I love making pictures but I don't like talking about them,"where Tarantino is one of the best film-talking filmmakers who ever lived.

There is room for both to thrive and be beloved by all. There is no question they are two of the greatest, and they bookend a legacy of great filmmaking. Their approaches differ in fascinating ways, and their themes and visual grammar intersect in unique places. 

There are some other interesting things Tarantino seems to misread about Ford and The Last Picture Show author Larry McMurtry, which leads to deeper conclusions. 

"The reverence that the Communities of John Ford pictures have towards ritual is not championed by Bogdanovich (or novelist Larry McMurtry) but subverted. Both Bogdanovich and McMurtry even poke fun at the Texas characters’ obsession with high school football."

The joke of the character's obsession with high school football has more to do with bigger themes... a younger generation that has failed the older one... a shift in priorities... a sense that something once important has become a second thought. There is a sense of sadness though, and the joke is not that characters care about football... but that everyone is mutually depressed about it for different reasons. It's a theme connected to the whole story. 

There isn't any poking fun at the characters in the work of novelist Larry McMurtry. He has distant compassion for his characters, watching them struggle with issues large and small. Some characters mock others for being bad at football, but the artists don't seem to be commenting on the characters caring about it. 

If anything, The Last Picture Show is the kind of older style of filmmaking where the artists aren't injecting themselves or their sensibility into the work. The kind of directing Ford did. 

Maybe the film is actually more similar to Ford's than Tarantino is suggesting. Consider those stills shared earlier. Aren't the long empty black and white eye-level compositions in The Last Picture Show reminiscent of the ones from Ford's films?

Community ritual in the Ford sense comes into play throughout the film, maybe in a revisionist Western sad way, which is distinct to the tone of McMurtry's work. The high school dance/event is one loaded with a somber melancholy. Both for what it is... and what it isn't. 

McMurtry's work, and The Last Picture Show, in particular, mourn the present. The characters long for the past they are currently living. Like we are seeing it all as their faded memory. It's a powerful kind of time-travel, an immediate and haunting version of nostalgia. 

Tarantino's take on the near-miss of Bogdanovich's epic western Lonesome Dove, written by McMurtry, was mainly geared towards the casting. Notably, McMurtry was writing a script for Bogdanovich about a cattle drive. Bogdanovich wanted a trio of Ford's greatest leading men: John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. But they were all old and passed on the project, and it ended up becoming a prize-winning novel, and an 80s miniseries event. But forget the miniseries. Just read the book.

Tarantino suggests alternate casting for the would-be film. His filmmaking eye always seems to drift to cast. Another way in which he couldn't be more different from great-great-grandpa Ford who saw John Wayne in Red River after constantly casting him in his own films and finally said, "I didn't know that son of a bitch could act."

Ford thought about as little of his performers as one could. He wanted actual cowboys, not actors pretending to be them. Ben Johnson was among these; he barely spoke 5 lines in most Ford films, but he was cast by Bogdanovich in The Last Picture Show and suddenly had tons to say... and said it beautifully. 

Tarantino notes in his piece that this led to the casting of Johnson in many roles, and he came to embody a new side of the mythology. 

But all of this points to where the two filmmakers land on this spectrum. Ford started his career making one-reel silents at a time when Wyatt Earpthe actual guy who shot people in the street in western townswas an advisor to Hollywood. 

There were still real cowboys when John Ford started. The types of men and women he was making movies about were in the world. The Grapes of Wrath is about the dustbowl, which hadn't happened that long before the movie was made. 

Tarantino is brilliant in his own right, but he's not making movies about things that happened recently. Or things that ever happen.

He's making movies about pieces of movies, and ideas from movies. He's riffing with the instruments Ford was building. They are part of the same continuum, pieces of the same narrative. Movies about tough guys and gals and their heroic deeds. One closer to the idea of the deeds when they were done, another closer to the interpretation of them through cinema itself.      

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Your Comment


This was a great read! I would like to see more of this content!

May 29, 2020 at 2:29PM, Edited May 29, 2:29PM

Robbie Patton

nice work

May 30, 2020 at 9:23AM

Hút Bể Phốt Tại Phú Thọ
Hút bể phốt tại Phú Thọ | Dịch vụ hút bể phốt chuyên nghiệp

The Kurosawa-Ford relationship has very deep roots. Seven Samurai was made as propaganda and copied parts of three JF films: Drums Along The Mohawk, My Darling Clementine, and Fort Apache. More at

May 31, 2020 at 10:26AM



June 1, 2020 at 4:39AM

Trung tâm đào tạo lái xe
Trung Tâm Đào Tạo Lái Xe | Uy tín - Nhanh Chóng - Chất Lượng

What a refreshing read! Strongly opinionated, well researched, unafraid to challenge the current shibboleths. Would there were more pieces like this, but that would require a very different website, one dedicated to critical thinking rather than gushy fandom.

June 4, 2020 at 9:01AM

Bob Byars

I am sorry (and I know the sacrilegious ground on which I tread), but no. No, no, no. Quentin Tarantino, for all his commercial success and occasional flashes of brilliance and auteurism (confined mostly to his earliest films), has no standing being mentioned in the same discussion as John Ford. Or Kurosawa for that matter. (I am willing to call Bogdanovich-adjacent references a draw.) Mr. Tarantino's comments on the black and white photography of early-Ford is but one, albeit glaring, example as to why.

One key difference that is the irreparable fork in the road for me is that John Ford never saw himself or his work as part of some sacred, Mount Olympus-set pantheon of filmic art, and as such, his work product routinely worked to glorify the characters and story therein, rather than the auteur. That is the proper place for an auteur. Mr. Tarantio's films, however, consistently have as a purpose, typically front and center, the presentation of the self-anointed majesty of Mr. Tarantino's skills. (I have had the opportunity to be in a room where Mr. Tarantino was talking film and his own work, and little was said that could be seen as refutation of my assertions here).

Mr. Ford (and Mr. Kurosawa) felt that the work — their films — were the connective tissue between audience and artist. Mr. Tarantino feels that the artist — the auteur — is the connection between audience and the work. I will favor the former, each and every time, over the latter.

June 4, 2020 at 9:09AM

Greg Anderson
Director | Producer | Writer

Yeah you should be sorry for being so dumb.
QT has far surpassed Ford at this point.
Hope it bugs you.

Also, his later filmas are far more successful than is first, but hey let's not let facts get in the way of your dumb opinion, right ;)

October 11, 2021 at 6:13PM

Joe Sand
Actor, Writer, Director, Editor

John Ford came to Hollywood and began directing one-reel shorts in 1917. It was the end of the west and the beginnings of movies as a commercial venture. (Ford was born in 1894, the year movies began to be made by Edison, the Lumiere Brothers and George Melies.) Ford and the movies grew up together. Ford's film drew from life itself; he had no precedents, other than reading history, literature, art, and having a fondness for Shakespeare. Like many Hollywood actors and directors who served in WWII, Ford's post-war films reflected what he saw during those years, sometimes in close combat. (He filmed the raid on Midway Island, using a 16mm camera. He just happened to be there, waiting to be transferred to another naval base.)

Not only was Kurosawa influenced by Ford, so was Leone. It is obvious in "Once Upon a Time in the West." Just before the family is massacred by Fonda's gang, the husband goes outside to shoot some quail. Ethan's brother in "The Searchers" says to his wife he's going out to hunt some quail, though what he is really doing is to get his rifle ready for the impending Comanche raid. When Claudia Cardinale takes the buckboard to her husband's ranch, the camera pans with it, revealing Monument Valley. When I saw the film at a revival house in 1982, the audience burst into applause, some even standing. Using Henry Fonda was also a nod to Ford, even though he wanted Fonda to play against type. The Sergio Leone exhibit at the Autry Museum had examples of Ford's influence on Leone, and Christopher Frayling writes about Ford's influence on Leone's westerns.

"The Last Picture Show" was sort of an anti-Ford look at family. Ford's films always emphasized the importance of the family unit, including his war films and westerns. Ford did have a hand in "Last Picture Show," helping Bogdanovich get Ben Johnson to play Sam. ("Do it, Ben. You can't play the Duke's sidekick the rest of your life!" Johnson later called Bogdanovich and said, "You sicced the old man on me, didn't you?") It was Orson Welles who insisted the movie be shot in black and white. "Paper Moon" also looked great but didn't have that stark Dorthea Lang look that "The Grapes of Wrath" did. Ford had always preferred black and white to color. He felt it was more of an artistic challenge to shoot black and white. (Ford studied art, was a good sketch artist and painter, and was going to major in Art at the University of Maine, but dropped out to join his brother Francis in Hollywood.) Ford did insist on "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" be shot in Technicolor, because he wanted the look of Frederic Remington's paintings in the film. But Ford was otherwise a traditionalist. He preferred the standard 1.37 Academy Ratio to wide screen. ("I like to see people. When you shoot them in wide screen you end up with a lot of real estate on either side.") Ford always liked to make the small budgeted personal films over the studio product, which he could do because of his standing in Hollywood (e.g., "Wagonmaster," "The Sun Shines Bright," "The Three Godfathers"). His one big error was "The Fugitive," a Christian allegory shot in Mexico in black and white (by Gabriel Figueroa), and it was about as artsy as one could get, revealing much of Ford's Irish Catholic upbringing. It also lost money (produced by his newly formed Argosy Pictures), so in order to save his company his next film was "Fort Apache," a huge hit. (It was a film that impressed Douglas MacArthur, who complimented Ford, saying it showed an authentic view of cavalry life. MacArthur spent his childhood in cavalry posts; his father was an army officer and Medal of Honor winner during the Battle of Shiloh.)

There are numerous books available on John Ford that are worth reading. Besides Bogdanovich's book (and his documentary), there is one by John Baxter, which also examines the recurring themes in Ford's films. There are also studies by Tag Gallagher, Scott Eyman, Lindsay Anderson, Joseph McBride and J.A. Place, to name a few. Ford's grandson, Dan Ford, wrote a biography that is insightful with a lot of humorous anecdotes.

I don't know if the photo showing Kurosawa with Ford is at the same time Ford met Kurosawa at Cannes. Probably not. But after seeing "Rashomon," Ford shook hands with Kurosawa and said, "You really like rain, don't you?" It was intended to break the ice. Ford always played down talks of art, either about his own films or with others. He brushed off his own films by saying, "It's a job of work." He knew who he was, he just didn't want to wear it on his sleeve. He preferred to have his films speak for themselves. He took in the praise with a gruff modesty (more gruff than modest, perhaps), and said about those who didn't care for his films, "If they don't like it, we'll give 'em their nickel back!"

June 4, 2020 at 12:33PM

Robb Wilson
Director/Owner Miller's Tale Productions

Obscure and chilling anecdote: When 25-year-old rising star Robert Francis died in a
tragic plane crash in early August of 1955 after appearing in John Ford's "The Long Grey Line", 24-year old rising star James Dean was overheard to say "I'll be next". That came true in a tragic automobile crash in late September of 1955, a mere 7 weeks later.

August 19, 2020 at 6:13AM


The number of good films QT has made, can be counted on one hand.
The number of great films, 2 fingers.
The number of truly great LOOKING films, maybe 3.

He needs to sit down, and STFU about one of the truly initial greats.

December 28, 2021 at 8:21AM, Edited December 28, 8:21AM


I love John Ford films as well as Kurosawa. I knew that they were good friends. But didn't know that Kurosawa sued for "A Fistful of Dollars" and won a global percentage. The geneaology of film and filmmakers interests does not surprise me once revealed and well-considered. A good column for insight and reflection.

December 28, 2021 at 9:04AM

Michael Mandaville