John Ford's two favorite actors were John Wayne and Henry Fonda. Essential to being a Ford favorite on screen, was being a Ford favorite off screen as well. Fonda once quipped that the director cast actors based on their card-playing ability! There were practical as well as personal reasons for this. A John Ford film set was a small community, so naturally Ford cast people he would enjoy hanging out with when the cameras weren't rolling. When Ford's stock company headed out to Monument Valley to shoot a picture, away from meddling producers and the bright lights of Hollywood, in many respects they lived a romanticized version of the frontier lifestyle they were bringing to life on screen.
All this is recounted in local author Scott Eyman's indispensable Ford bio Print the Legend. Both Wayne and Fonda fit easily into the director's macho inner circle: a membership that required an appetite for lots of "boys will be boys" carousing, and most importantly, letting Ford win at cards. Below is a poor quality shot of Ford flanked by Wayne and Fonda, with another regular member of the Ford entourage Ward Bond at far right.
Being a friend of Ford's off the set was a mixed blessing, though, since one had to endure Ford's incessant ribbing which often crossed a line into outright cruelty. Duke Wayne was a regular target of the deeply insecure Ford's mania for control over those around him. Perhaps this stemmed from the fact that it was Ford who fashioned Wayne into a movie star...and he was never going to let Duke forget it. Fonda, on the other hand, was already an established star when Ford cast him as Abe Lincoln in 1939, and the relationship between these two men was more like that of one between equals. Young Mr. Lincoln began a run of three films in which Ford and Fonda collaborated -- the other two being Drums Along the Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath -- a trio that went a long way toward raising John Ford to the pinnacle of American filmmaking.
After the war the Ford/Fonda relationship continued to be fruitful in films like My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache. Fonda and Wayne both brought a natural ease to the screen, but the characters they played for Ford were quite different. Eyman explains:
Ford would use Fonda in a very different way than he would John Wayne. Wayne's characters were earthy and warm, brawlers by temperament, capable of love and rage. Fonda's characters burned with a cold fire—they displayed strength, but a removed, abstracted, rather asexual strength, tempered by the actor's instinctive austerity.
This contrast is set in stark relief in Fort Apache (1948): the first installment of Ford's great Cavalry Trilogy. Fonda's Colonel Thursday and Wayne's Captain York display contrasting qualities that Ford admired -- the "by the book" mentality of Thursday that would rather charge headlong into an Apache massacre than admit weakness, and the easy intuitive intelligence of York who is willing to meet the Indians as equals to avoid bloodshed. Ford had room for both kinds of men in his American mythology. He once described Custer as "great" and "stupid"...just like Thursday in Fort Apache.
Eyman writes: "Ford's work embraces deliberate contradictions. . . . Ford is a realist as well as a romantic poet." One could spend hours arguing the relative merits of Wayne and Fonda's performances for John Ford. Recently, I've been immersed in My Darling Clementine (1946). Along with Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath it forms a foundational trilogy of American self-understanding, both real and imagined. Based on his legend and myth-making turns as Honest Abe, Tom Joad and Wyatt Earp, I give Henry Fonda the slight edge over John Wayne. But it doesn't matter. All that needs to be said is that their complementary talents were the perfect tools for an American master to create some of the greatest motion pictures of all time.
Quotes from pp. 211 & 341 of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999)