I feel about John Ford something like the way Armond White feels about Steven Spielberg, although hopefully I can be a bit more flexible in my thinking. If someone has a looming directorial presence writ large--larger in magnitude than anyone else--over their psychic geography of Hollywood, I suspect the choice of that presence says a lot about the person's view of Hollywood cinema (and its most positive potential) in general. For more people than any other figure, this single presence is doubtless Hitchcock, which is why there is so much written about him--and because Hitchcock deals with elements that happen to be ripe for analysis at the tools readily available for the academic and critical fields, he's had his lease on the pantheon slot renewed several times over.
This isn't quite the case with Ford, whose body of work is no more or less complex than Hitchcock's, but whose body of work is also hard to dissect and make sense of through the tools given us in film studies and film criticism from structuralism, from psychoanalysis, from "genre studies" and "star studies." Ford doesn't navigate these paths as much as Hitchcock. He does deal a lot with race, gender, and ethnicity. But the fact that his films constantly present culturally conservative stereotypes of such things--and sometimes, quite arguably, do so uncritically--tends to stifle analysis in depth of these elements, as scholars skim the surface of the work in order to decide how to best condemn Ford for his racist complicity or celebrate him for his heartfelt tolerance. Even so, as it stands Ford is still a great mystery to us, or at least he should be if we're paying close attention to his work.
In a film like The Long Gray Line--a masterpiece that left me humbled--we can see the huge swaths of material left unexamined if we limit our analysis (and our evaluation) to the matrix of race/class/gender, Mulveyan voyeurship, and bourgeois aesthetics. A textured ode to military life (and by extension, as most such odes are, to governmental military policy and abstract concepts like patriotism, sacrifice, and duty), The Long Gray Line, a "true story," focuses on the 50-year-career of an Irish immigrant who comes to West Point and spends his life there as an enlisted man and instructor (played by Tyrone Power). He sees his cadets grow up, learns some die in both World Wars, and along the way he marries a fine Irish immigrant girl herself (played by--who else!?--Maureen O'Hara). It could well be a recruitment film, especially story alone, but the important thing to keep in mind is that in the experience of a Ford film--for me at least, and for many others, I know--one doesn't take away any new or renewed faith in the often-conservative institutions and ideologies he depicts. One takes away, instead, an understanding of the working of these systems, the dynamics of them that have an impact on the characters' (and thus our) inner lives. This is something like the Straub-recognized "objectivity" they bestow upon their hero Ford, which I always hear about. Likewise one feels the effects of time, sees in it the spectral visage of our dead loved ones, our cherished outmoded traditions. Ford's cinema is a profound reminder of the eternal and preordained victory of unbeing, and the absoluteness of existence's transience.
Time and again Ford presents us above all with the private or social rituals people perform while they await collective death. (Though this collective death is often not the diegetic subject of the storylines, it is the implicit and palpable "untranscendable horizon" of the artworks.) The passage of time is crueler in Ford's work than anyone else's I can call to mind. The barely-retained veneer that Ford's reputation has as something of a sentimentalist (whose alleged sentimentalism we might excuse due to his "aesthetic greatness" and/or "historical importance") is misguided, I think. A lot of filmmakers who deal with death, pain, transgression, violence are in fact great celebrators of life and vitality: Imamura, Miike, Buñuel, others. Not to put too Eurocentric a spin on all this, but for shorthand we might say that these are the figures whose Nietzschean "fullness of pessimism" makes their cup runneth over. They throw into sharper relief their main concerns by concentrating on its constant negation. (A fleeting quote I remember reading or hearing somewhere: 'Pain lets you know you're alive.') Inversely Ford's parades and picnics, dances and broguish pub tussles, all work in counterpoint to their imminent destruction, their eventual total loss to unbeing itself, relieved only finitely by memories (individual and social) in the minds of the characters who inhabit Ford's world. Which is why Ford's traditions, and his institutions & ideologies that are in fact conservative to our progressive, enlightened laserbeam eyesight, speak not of complicity with the System, but as testament to its recurring processes of construction and destruction through the march of time.
And so when the System--when institutions of patriarchy or what have you--come in, through Ford's work, it is as an object of people rather than nature, progressively enough. And empathy and sympathy for the characters in these films (who in The Long Gray Line follow with human pathos the strict, traditional militarism of West Point) do not equate to our mutual complicity with their agendas, because it is Ford who so singularly lays bare the workings of all such agendas.