Print the Legend:
The Life and Times of John Ford

by Scott Eyman

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Simon & Schuster: New York, 1999
656 pages
March 2005

A life for the movies

Scott Eyman's encapsulization of the movies' Wild West could be a trailer for John Ford's career:

In The Searchers, as well as [The Man Who Shot] Liberty Valance, the kind of men needed to master the wilderness are the kind of men that can only function in wilderness; they are men who civilization must expel. If society is to benefit from someone's sacrifice, legend must take precedence over truth. Ford may celebrate America's history and values, but he also articulates the contradictions that can easily lead to a mournful pessimism. Ford is too complex an artist to assert that the modern world is a 180-degree betrayal of the past; rather, he believes that history is organic and the present is the logical extension of the past. ...

The true story of Liberty Valance is never printed, for the newspaper editor kills the story. "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

I believe Mark Twain's eye would twinkle at that editor's statement; as would that of Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill Cody, and —. John Ford filled his own life with major roles for both fact and legend, and strove to commingle them thoroughly. In Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, film historian Scott Eyman describes both the life and the cinematic evolution of the great director, untangling and clarifying facts and legends of Ford's long career.

John Ford lived from 1894 to 1973, making movies for virtually all his life. We may feel that classic films like Stagecoach or Young Mr. Lincoln (both 1939) put him on the map, but already he'd been directing for over twenty years, acting and then directing silent movies and later talkies. He kept the movies coming, from The Grapes of Wrath (1940) through The Quiet Man (1952) and Donovan's Reef (1963) and ...

But they didn't come easy. A driven life, a film-whipped Queen Mab's ride.

A determined friction of personalities

In a field many of whose famous names have infamously difficult personalities, one wonders if Ford didn't feel that a basic way to strengthen his control was to demonstrate the most difficult personality of them all. Even when sober he deliberately would humiliate famous actors: dangling offers to play in the next movie but then rejecting them, and so on.

Ford's alcoholism was better sequenced with his working life than, for instance, Buster Keaton's drinking was with his. Keaton's drinking crescendoed as silent movie-making painfully switched to talkies, while his family life was a mess. Ford generally managed his own alcoholic binges between films, by choice out aboard his yacht Araner; but drunkenly starting a fight with Henry Fonda during the filming of Mister Roberts on Midway Island in 1954 brought an end to their long working relationship. After this,

privately Fonda would usually call him something along the lines of a "son of a bitch who happens to be a genius."

In sometimes painful detail, Eyman records how the people who worked with John Ford had to put up with his emotional abuse as part of the price for being in his films, but they also frequently testify to his sensitivity as a person as well as director. John Wayne had his dust-up with Ford very early in his own acting career, and the memory of that surely helped Wayne keep the balance during decades of successful film-making together.

Fine history with plenty of sidelights

Scott Eyman provides short but integrated discussions of dozens of Ford's films. There are too many films for him to give much detail, from 1914 (acting only) through 1971, but Eyman manages a page or three or five on the more significant. He provides a filmography; even in sparse chronological outline, this runs seven pages.

Print the Legend fascinates on several levels: a biography of a complex and creative man; a film history of Ford's long career and what it means for America's self-perception; and a marvelous set of movie anecdotes and film-makers' comments. It is a big book but never dull. It is well-written, based on lots of interviews, with nuggets of humor among the history and analysis.

Interesting sidelights keep turning up, such as Ford's long involvement with the Navaho Indians of Monument Valley, a distinctive setting for his epics of the American West. And Ford's desire to be part of the U.S. Navy during World War II led to his work as a wartime cinematographer, wounded while filming the defense of Midway Island against the Japanese attack in June 1942. They Were Expendable (1945) tells the PT boat angle of the Navy's losing struggle to defend the Philippines early in the war, fictional but there is a lot of real Navy in it.

Quite a script, John Ford's life and times. Even out of Hollywood, a unique legend.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

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