On February 26, 1973, the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute voted to initiate an annual award to honor a single individual for his or her lifetime contribution to the enrichment of American culture through motion pictures and television.
The Trustees specified that the yearly recipient must be one whose talent has, in a fundamental way, advance the film art, and whose accomplishments have been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public. The Trustees specified that the recipient must be one whose work has stood the test of time.
The Trustees voted unanimously that the first award would go to a man who clearly stands preeminent in the history of motion pictures — John Ford.
Altogether, John Ford’s films are a creative tapestry representing over 50 years of work. No individual has more fully explored on film the American experience. What Ma Joad says of her life in THE GRAPES OF WRATH is true of Ford’s work, “…it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on.”