The Great Director John Ford Reminds Us To Think of Your Audience – (Ford’s “Torpedo Squadron 8”)

Years ago, I heard a radio person say that when you are on the radio, you have to picture one person listening — a specific person.  An audience of “one.”  Speak to that specific person…

Five Came BackYesterday, I heard a part of a terrific interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  She interviewed Mark Harris, about his new book “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.” Harris focuses on five directors who made movies for the War Department: John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra.

John Ford won four oscars, including Oscars for Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath.

But as Lt. Cmdr. John Ford U.S.N.R., he made a film for the “masses” called The Battle of Midway.  And, he also made a short film. For this film, his audience was practically “an audience of one.”  In this case, his audience was family members of some men who died in the battle: Torpedo Squadron 8, it was named..  Their family members – and only their family members – were the intended audience of this film.  This is as touching, as caring, as “human” as it gets.  Read it carefully.  (From the transcript of her program/interview).

GROSS: I think this is very moving: He made a separate short film about the loss of a torpedo squadron, a squadron that was lost in that battle, and he made it on eight millimeter film. And he, if I understand it correctly, it was made for the families of the men who were lost, and he gave them copies. Do I have that right?

HARRIS: Yes. Before the Battle of Midway started, just in the days before the Battle of Midway started, Ford for a while, did not know what he was there to shoot. He shot some fun nature footage about Midway. He thought that maybe what he was being asked to do was depict, you know, Navy life on a remote Pacific island. And he shot some of the men of this torpedo squadron, who were just laughing and joshing and proud of their planes.

And he shot them, like, standing next to their planes and pointing to what they had painted on their planes and hanging out on the deck. It turned out that one of the squadrons he shot sustained the worst losses in the battle, and all but one of the 30 young men in the squadron were killed.

That for Ford was his immediate experience of the battle. The news that it was a major American military victory drifted back to Midway Island slowly in the days after the war, but the first thing they understood was this terrible loss. And so after making “The Battle of Midway,” Ford compiled the footage of these young men that he had shot into a kind of memorial reel for the families.

And he put it on film that would be accommodated by the kind of inexpensive home movie projectors that were available at the time. He really wanted the families to be able to see it. And he had it hand-delivered to each family.

GROSS: That’s such a beautiful gesture.

HARRIS: And by the way, it was not made public for decades. That little film, “Torpedo Squadron 8,” was not seen until long after Ford was dead.

There are plenty of lessons in this short story.  Pay attention to human need.  Remember the specific, individual members of your audience in your attempts to communicate.  Always have a personal touch.  (He had the films “hand-delivered to each family”).  Be user friendly.  (He put it on film that could be shown on “inexpensive home movie projectors”).

Here's a photo of Major Frank Capra, one of the five Directors from the book
Here’s a photo of Major Frank Capra, one of the five Directors profiled in the book

Great communication lessons.  But, mainly, just a great story!


I just found, and watched, Torpedo Squadron 8.  It is just under eight minutes in length (Embedded from YouTube, just over 8 minutes).  Here it is.  Such a touching tribute…

Note:  I can’t get the video to embed from the site.  So, click over to the site to hear what I think must be the original soundtrack with the video.  The youtube soundtrack is different).

John Ford made this memorial film for the families of members of Torpedeo Squadron 8. All but one of the members of the squadron perished in its first combat mission in the Battle of Midway.


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