Ford's cinematic universe is built around a repertory of themes, notably family, community, justice, duty, tradition, self-sacrifice, and redemption. The director favors three archetypical narratives, with strong symbolic components: journeys of ascension toward home, or a promised land; journeys of descent from lost paradises, which can be regained through redemption; and isolated communities or individuals facing dangers of a physical or spiritual nature.
The filmmaker sets his characters in a moral universe where right and wrong, good and evil, have an objective existence. The tragic moment in a Ford film is the crisis of an individual conscience, the moment when a character takes stock of who he or she is, a moment that "allows them to define themselves," as Ford remarked. "It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face-to-face with something bigger than themselves. The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace."
These moral epiphanies are always subtly staged, blended into the action. In The Prisoner of Shark Island, Dr. Mudd, unjustly condemned as a part of the Lincoln assassination plot, honors his medical vows and saves his jailers from the plague. Mary Stuart will face death rather than give up her Catholic faith in Mary of Scotland. In Stagecoach and Sergeant Rutledge, the outlaw Ringo Kid and the brave black soldier, charged with crimes they did not commit, choose to stay and help the Stagecoach passengers and fellow soldiers fend off Apache attacks. Ethan Edwards breaks away from a cycle of rage and revenge by not killing his "contaminated" young niece, brought up as a Comanche in The Searchers. A compassionate doctor forgoes a lucrative practice to help the poor in Arrowsmith. In The Fugitive, a fugitive priest returns to a dangerous country, and martyrdom, for the salvation of a soul.Share
Ford shows undisguised -- for some, overly sentimental -- affection for the poor, the dispossessed, and the humble, in other words, for those blessed by Christ in the "Sermon on the Mount": the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath, thrown off their land during the great Depression; the Mexican peasants who keep the faith in spite of persecution in The Fugitive, a nod to the suffering of Catholics in communist countries; the Mormon pioneers in search of their promised land in Wagon Master; and the blacks and the prostitutes in the beautiful Christian allegory of The Sun Shines Bright.
Ford's particular fondness for sinners translates into the recurring characters of drunkards, fools, and Mary Magdalens endowed with Madonna-like purity: Doc Boone and Dallas, the drunken doctor and saloon girl of Stagecoach, expelled from town by the sanctimonious ladies of the law-and-order league; Maria Dolores, the fallen woman who helps the priest in The Fugitive; and the drunken but wise physicians of The Hurricane and My Darling Clementine.