The Old Corral: The Westerns of Glenn Ford

Glenn Ford was one of the greatest of all Western actors. He appeared in a long series of cowboy films, 26 total, and in all of them, even the ones of uneven quality, he was outstanding, strong and tough. He was ideal in the role of a man who's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Quiet, even taciturn, speaking with measured tones, Ford was the perfect Westerner. He rode supremely well, as if he and the horse were one. He underplayed in an almost Gary Cooper-like way and once said, "Some actors count their lines as soon as they receive a script. I'm the opposite. I try to see how many lines I can whittle down...You can say just as much in 4 as you can in 14." He also said, "If they tried to rush me, I'd always say I've only got one other speed, and it's slower."

"When I was a young actor," Glenn said, "I followed Spencer Tracy's advice, 'Learn your lines, hit your mark, don't bump into the props, and do the scene.' That's all a good actor needs to know in my opinion. 'Doing nothing well' is my definition of a good actor. One of the great misconceptions about this business is that you get in front of a camera and 'act.' That's the very thing an actor should not do. Be yourself--people need to identify with you. If they're not able to, you're in trouble."

Glenn Ford was born in Quebec in 1916. His parents were of British origin and his mother was Welsh. In fact his actual first name was Gwyllyn, not the most Hollywood-friendly of handles (the idea of Glenn Ford came from the Canadian town of Glenford, his father's home). The family moved to California when Gwyllyn was eight and he went to school in Santa Monica. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1939.

Ford was a remarkably handsome man and became one of Hollywood's biggest stars. The high point of his career was the late 1950s; he was voted the number one box office attraction in 1958, though he worked through into the 1990s. More than just good looks propelled him, though. He was a talented actor, best known for playing the part of an ordinary guy tested by extreme circumstance.

He acted in various theater companies in his early twenties before landing a contract at Columbia in 1939 under the astute Harry Cohn. Ford appeared in two light Westerns in 1941, both entertaining, Texas and Go West, Young Lady, the former with his great pal William Holden. Then he interrupted his career to enter the US Marines.

His war service was based in San Diego and related to film, in the Photographic Section, and he did public relations work. After the war, in 1946 he shot to fame with the noir Gilda, appearing opposite the stunning Rita Hayworth, one of the most beautiful women Hollywood ever found. He made 66 dramas and 39 comedies, so Westerns, of which he only made 26, were not what he is necessarily best known for. If you ask many non-Western fans (such people do exist) to name a Glenn Ford film, they might say The Big Heat or Blackboard Jungle, or maybe The Teahouse of the August Moon. But for us, civilized, thinking, intelligent Western buffs, we only have to hear the name Glenn Ford to think immediately of such great pictures as Jubal, The Sheepman, or 3:10 to Yuma.

His first post-war Western was the 1948 psychodrama The Man from Colorado and in many ways this was his first serious Western. The others till then had been lighter pictures, well worth a watch but hardly great films. The following year, 1949, Lust for Gold was the highlight, an unusual movie in which Ford put in a stunning performance. In both of these films he played (with great skill) a man on the edge of madness.

In the early 1950s we would emphasize The Man from the Alamo and The Violent Men, well-made, gripping Westerns of quality. In both he played a man unwilling to turn to violence but determined and resourceful when he had to be. The late '50s, however, was when he was at his peak. Jubal (1956), directed by Delmer Daves, the George Marshall-directed comedy Western The Sheepman (1957) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), also directed by Daves, are outstandingly good and Glenn Ford is magnificent in them. This was the apogee of Glenn's Western career.

In the early 1960s he headlined the Anthony Mann-directed remake of Cimarron (1960), perhaps not a great Western, but popular. Another George Marshall comedy Western, Advance to the Rear, followed in 1964. And then came the charming, almost elegiac The Rounders with Henry Fonda in 1965.

Sadly, you can argue The Rounders was really Ford's last good Western. Frankly, A Time for Killing and The Last Challenge, both in 1967, were B-Westerns, followed by Day of the Evil Gun, rather ordinary, in 1968, and the Disney vehicle Smith! aimed at a younger audience in 1969.

Heaven With a Gun in 1969 was a return to form, quite a good late-'60s Western. Ford played southwestern Sheriff Cade for one season (1971-1972) in a mix of western drama and police mystery in CBS's Cade County. There were also made-for-TV films such as Santee (1973) and The Sacketts (1979) when he was still good -- he was always good -- but he looked slightly overweight and past his prime. His last Western appearance was a small part as a sheriff in Turner's not-great Border Shoot-out (1990) when he was 74. At least he didn't do Italian westerns!

Glenn Ford suffered a series of strokes and died at his Beverly Hills home in 2006 at age 90.

He was credited with being the fastest gun in Hollywood, able to draw and fire in 0.4 seconds, faster even than James Arness.

As for the "what might have been" department, Sam Peckinpah considered him for Robert Ryan's role in The Wild Bunch. But then he considered pretty much everybody. It would have been interesting, though I doubt anyone could have outdone Ryan in that part. He was penciled in for Hondo in 1953 but backed out in favor of John Wayne when he heard John Farrow was directing (they didn't get on). That would have been interesting.

Glenn said, "The Western is a man's world and I love it." It's a woman's world too, of course, and women were among Glenn's most ardent fans. In any case he graced the world of the Western, and if you come across a Western with Glenn Ford in it, you won't be disappointed.

Jeff Arnold is the author of the blog Jeff Arnold's West as well as several Western short stories and novels, researching the subject extensively for many years. A traveler of the American West, Jeff currently resides in France.