John Ford and the First Battlefront of World War II

John Ford’s War

Mention John Ford’s name today, and most people think of Westerns. Stagecoach, Fort Apache, or The Searchers might come to mind. But Ford actually directed a lot of films that weren’t Westerns, not the least of which were made while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. While no one would compare Ford’s military films to Stagecoach, they may have had a greater impact on the nation than anything he had made before. In fact, when Fox Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck tasked Ford with his first project, the venereal disease education film Sex Hygiene (Local Identifier: 111-TF-154), in early 1941, he was assigning him an instrumental role on the front line of the United States’ first major battle of the war.

By 1940, John Ford had made dozens of films in Hollywood and won an Oscar for one of them. He was known for a unique combination of technical expertise, efficient shooting, and cinematic artistry. In addition to being a master of film, Ford was highly patriotic and eager to serve his country in the war he felt was imminent. Ford was too old to fight, but he saw an opportunity to use what he knew best to help the United States military. In early 1940, Ford signed on to set up the Navy’s Field Photo Unit.

America Prepares for Battle

The United States’ official declaration of war was December 8th, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course, the United States had already been quietly preparing for involvement in a number of ways despite its isolationist policies. The nation’s first peace-time draft began in September of 1940 and the defense budget increased dramatically. The American government had also aided Allied efforts since March of 1941, providing supplies and materiel under the “Act to Promote Defense of the United States” (known more commonly as Lend-Lease).

There were other, less apparent ways that officials made sure that the armed forces would be battle-ready, like the ramp up in film production to train the nation’s soldiers. John Ford’s Field Photo Unit is one example. In addition, the Army Signal Corps scheduled nearly 200 training films for the year prior to the United States’ entry into World War II. In 1936, they had barely made twenty.

But before the military could worry about training soldiers, they needed to make sure they had healthy men to serve. That’s why, long before American forces were fighting Japan and Germany overseas, the United States military began the fight against syphilis and gonorrhea at home. Officials had learned during the First World War that untreated venereal diseases rendered a significant number of potential recruits unfit for service, and infection rates tended to climb during conflict.

It hardly seems like a coincidence then, that AR 40-235, the Army’s policy on preventing venereal disease, was updated in October of 1939, only a month after Germany invaded Poland and sparked the war in Europe. Next, the Army hashed out a joint plan of attack with the United States Public Health Service and the American Social Hygiene Association, defining the roles of each to make sure that the nation would be ready to fight. The plan, known as the Eight-Point Agreement, was formalized in May of 1940 and issued as a directive by the Army on September 19, 1940 just three days after the draft began. Education was a major component of both of the documents. By April of 1941, Ford completed Sex Hygiene, and AR 40-235 was updated to indicate that screenings of Sex Hygiene would satisfy the educational component of the policy. The film was shown to every inductee throughout the war, usually multiple times.

Seeing the Fordian in Sex Hygiene

Most of Sex Hygiene is exactly what one might expect from a film designed to scare millions of young men away from risky behavior: It is informative and graphic. (John Ford famously told Peter Bogdanovich that he threw up when he saw the clinical footage.) We won’t be sharing the entire film here. We can, however take a look at a few visual elements that bear John Ford’s fingerprints.

In the opening sequence of the film, two soldiers play pool in the recreation hall. (The actors are George Reeves, TV’s Superman and Robert Lowery, who played Batman in a 1949 serial.) When Pete passes by, obviously dressed to go out on the town, the two men know he is about to make a bad decision. The film cuts to a close-up shot of the cue ball coming up behind the eight ball, an obvious visual reference to Pete’s choice. Ominous music plays over the shot.

The second part is more subtle, yet extremely efficient and clever. A close-up shows a still-burning cigar resting on a banister at the top of a staircase. Multiple burn marks on the banister indicate that this cigar is not the first to be left here. A hand reaches down to pick up the cigar and the shot zooms out to show a disheveled Pete. He buckles his belt and goes on his way. In just fifteen wordless seconds, the viewer knows that Pete has likely visited a brothel and will suffer unsavory consequences.

The film continues with a posted notice to report to a screening of Sex Hygiene. What follows is a screening of a filmed lecture by a stern military doctor, complete with horrified reaction shots from the audience. Ford intentionally films the actor from below and employs dark shadows so that the doctor is both authoritative and a little frightening.

Stills from Sex Hygiene (Local Identifier: 111-TF-154) show Fordian touches.

Sex Hygiene was just the first of many films that John Ford made for the military, but it was likely burned into the brains of those who saw it like no film he made before or after, mostly because of its graphic nature, but also because of Ford’s visual choices. Sex Hygiene is also the most enduring of John Ford’s wartime career: The film served as one of the main pillars in the military’s fight to keep soldiers free from disease, and maintained this role for over twenty years.

A Note on Sources:

There is no production file for Sex Hygiene, but some references to the film were found in the textual holdings and allowed us to better understand the historical context. This material included copies of Army Regulations and data regarding venereal disease infection rates in the military. These records can be found in: Statistical materials, studies, and publications, 1941-1945, Records of the Social Protection Division, Record Group 215, Records of the Office of Community War Services.

Links in the text direct to publications from the U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History.

Other general information about John Ford and Sex Hygiene can be found in Five Came Back by Mark Harris and Sex Ed by Robert Eberwein.

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