World War II Veteran and Director John Ford Is the Next Subject of TCM's 'Plot Thickens' Podcast

Rear Admiral John Ford in 1952. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

John Ford is arguably the greatest American movie director of all time. Best known for the films "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Informer," "How Green Was My Valley" and "The Quiet Man," he took home an Academy Award for each of them and still holds the record for having the most Oscars for Best Director.

But in 1940, he took a hiatus from Hollywood and joined the U.S. Navy Reserve to make films for the Navy, creating the Naval Field Photographic Unit which eventually became known as "John Ford's Navy."

Ford filmed combat from the front lines of World War II, on any front to which he could send cameramen. He also worked for the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the modern-day CIA. His career was not unblemished, however: He was also known for hard drinking and an irate temperament, impatience and perfectionism. He also never showed up to receive any of his awards.

Ford's career, good and bad, in war and peace, is the subject of "Decoding John Ford," the next installment of TCM's "The Plot Thickens" podcast, premiering June 6, 2024.

Like many Hollywood elites who joined the military during World War II, Ford didn't shy away from combat; in fact, his unit's entire purpose was to film it. He recorded the 1942 Battle of Midway from a power plant on the atoll's Sand Island, taking a machine gun bullet in the arm for his trouble. He and his team also arrived in North Africa just after the U.S. Army did in 1943, documenting the fighting there from foxholes and tank formations. At Midway, he's so close to the action, his film actually jumped in the camera.

Director John Ford would take home another Academy Award for his documentary about the Battle of Midway.

But one detail about Ford's service during World War II that remains unclear is his involvement in the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. The director claimed to have watched the first wave of U.S. troops land on Omaha Beach from the Navy destroyer USS Plunkett, and then led a camera crew to the beach where they filmed the battle. But the film, "literally millions of feet long," he claimed, was locked away at an unknown location in Anacostia, Virginia, has never been found, and his biographers say he couldn't have landed on Omaha Beach that day.

"My memories of D-Day come in disconnected takes like unassembled shots to be spliced together afterward in a film," he said in a 1964 interview with American Legion Magazine. "I can't remember seeing anybody get wounded or fall down or get shot. I passed men who had just been hit. I saw one group get out of a landing craft and make a rush to their assigned positions. As they rushed they passed two men on seeing... my staff and I had the job of 'seeing' the whole invasion for the world, but all any one of us saw was his own little area."

Whether the reason for his claim is a lapse of memory or the weeklong bender he is said to have engaged in not long after D-Day is anyone's guess. What is certain is that Ford, for his wartime service, received the Legion of Merit, an Air Medal and the Purple Heart. He would also remain an officer in the Naval Reserve until his death in 1973, at the rank of rear admiral.

As the subject of the fifth season of "The Plot Thickens," Ford's career goes under the microscope with host Ben Mankiewicz, a journalist, film critic and "CBS Sunday Morning" contributor. TCM even sent Mankiewicz to Europe to try to track down the film, find out whether it ever existed and, if so, where it is.

In celebration of the director's career, TCM will air four of Ford's movies on June 5, 2024, while World War II-inspired movies will air throughout the next day, the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

"Decoding John Ford," a seven-part series from TCM's "The Plot Thickens" podcast, will premiere on June 6, 2024. Viewers can listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and elsewhere.

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