Print the Legend – The Life and Times of John Ford: My Review

Print the Legend Book CoverI do not often read biographies. In fact, I can only think of two in recent years, this book and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, both given to me by my son Sean, who knows of my love of history and my admiration for John Ford’s movies. Both are detailed accounts; Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a daunting 995 pages, while Scot Eyman’s Print the Legend runs 660 pages. I guess he also understands my love of reading!

Print the legend has its origin in Ford’s last great western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the film Jimmy Stewart’s character, Senator Ransom Stoddard, returns to the town where his political career began to bury his old friend, Tom Doniphan (played by actor John Wayne.) The senator’s fame as the man who shot and killed the stagecoach robber Liberty Valance is a lie, and Stoddard comes back not only to pay tribute to his friend but to finally reveal the truth that it was Doniphan who killed Valance (portrayed on screen by the actor Lee Marvin,) not him. However, the truth is never printed. The newspaper editor interviewing the senator kills the story, with the now famous line, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Just as the myth of the Old West is what people want to remember, it is the myth that surrounds John Ford that moviegoers most want to associate with one of cinema’s greatest directors.

After this motion picture, John Ford was no longer the master  of his craft; age and infirmity had taken its toll. With illness (cancer) overwhelming him, he no longer had the energy to direct movies that so vividly depicted early American life. He had created the mythology of westward expansion and the transition from wilderness to civilization using beautiful landscapes and richly drawn characters who embodied the spirit of the new nation; so much so that Ford became known as “the man that invented America.”

His genius lay in his ability to visualize the scene in his head, positioning the camera in the right spot (never moving it) to recreate that scene, minimizing dialogue, and manipulating actors to achieve the desired performance in one take. He could be a tyrant, humiliating even the biggest names in show business to get the performance that he desired.

Ford also demanded total loyalty from his cast and in return used the same actors in multiple movies often carrying them on the payroll for an entire shoot regardless of how small or even non-existent their role was in the finished film. Contradict or question him on set, however, and though he would outwardly remain your friend, you might never again work in another one of his projects.

Scott Leyman doesn’t spare the reader the many inconsistencies between the man and the legend. Ford was an alcoholic who would go on binges that left him totally incoherent. He was stereo typically Irish, subject to melancholy and self-doubt.  The son of a bartender from Maine, he never felt at ease in society, and created a persona that didn’t care about anyone’s opinion but his own. He could be cruel, crude, arrogant and snobbish, but underneath that facade was a very private sentimental old man that simply didn’t know how to relate to the people he most loved. A Roman Catholic, Ford never considered divorce from his wife of over fifty years, Mary, though he apparently had both flings and affairs with other women, most notably Katherine Hepburn. He was estranged from his son Pat and would later disinherit him, while he indulged his daughter Barbara in spite of her alcoholism. Politically he was thought to be a die-hard conservative, while in fact he was a life-long Democrat and liberal. He filmed many of his movies in Monument Valley using Navajo Indians to portray Apache, Comanche, and Cheyenne. It didn’t matter. He saw the plight of the Navajo Nation and tried to assist it economically by using the locale over and over casting the same people each time. He argued against racism in his masterpiece, The Searchers, and strongly advocated equality and dignity towards the black race in the film Sergeant Rutledge.

In many regards these films reflect the political realities of Vietnam and the changing attitudes and tastes of his viewing audience in the 1960s. The public desire for movies that glorified the Old West had been replaced by the demand for a more nuanced portrayal of the events and those involved in them. Ironically, it led John Ford to dismantle the very mythology that he had created in his earlier movies.

There is absolutely no way that I can capture the essence of John Ford in this post. His career and filmography spanned several decades, 1914-1971. He remains the most decorated film director of all time, winning six Academy Awards. He received the Purple Heart Medal for wounds suffered during the Battle of Midway in WWII, and rose to the rank of Admiral in the Navy. Prior to his death August 31, 1973, he became the first recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the President of the United States.

I wrote previously of his influence on my decision to write my western novel, Palo Duro:

The western genre no longer holds the public’s attention as it once did in cinema and published media. But I grew up in the age of Director John Ford and his rousing tributes to the U.S. cavalry in the film trilogy “Fort Apache,” She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and “Rio Grande,” as well as his homage to one of the most recognized icons of the Old West, Wyatt Earp, in the classic film “My Darling Clementine.”

I have watched John Ford’s movies countless times in my youth and into my adult life, and there is no doubt that they have left a lasting legacy not only on me, but on the motion picture industry. After reading Scott Eyman’s book, I now know many details about Ford’s private life that are contradictory to my image of him, but while it has often been said that “familiarity breeds contempt,” I prefer to remember his towering achievements.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”








The Whole Damn Cheese: Character Interview

Genre: Biography / Texana 
Publisher: Texas Christian University Press 
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Publication Date: October 12, 2018
Number of Pages: 160 pages with B&W photos
Anecdotes about Maggie Smith abound, but Bill Wright’s The Whole Damn Cheese is the first book devoted entirely to the woman whose life in Big Bend country has become the stuff of legend. For more than twenty years, Maggie Smith served folks on both sides of the border as doctor, lawyer, midwife, herbalist, banker, self-appointed justice of the peace, and coroner. As she put it, she was “the whole damn cheese” in Hot Springs, Texas. A beloved figure serving the needs of scores of people in Big Bend country, she was also an accomplished smuggler with a touch of romance as well as larceny in her heart. Maggie’s family history is a history of the Texas frontier, and her story outlines the beginnings and early development of Big Bend National Park. Her travels between Boquillas, San Vincente, Alpine, and Hot Springs define Maggie’s career and illustrate her unique relationships with the people of the border. Vividly capturing the rough individualism and warm character of Maggie Smith, author Bill Wright demonstrates why this remarkable frontier woman has become an indelible figure in the history of Texas.


Character Interview

Inside Maggie Smith’s Mind:

An Imaginary Interview with the Whole Damn Cheese


Click to read part one featured 10/18/18 with Lone Star Book Blog Tours

Q: Now tell us about one of the weddings you attended and how you conducted that wedding.

A: Well here’s a story that combines a wedding and birth. I was invited to a wedding in Mexico. I was asked to be the “madrina” which is like a best man, except in Mexico, they have a best woman. And well, when we got to the little ranch for the wedding we were told that there was a woman who was real sick. She had rode twelve miles to come to the wedding, and she was expectin’ a child. So I went into this room where they had her and they had her tied up into the ceiling with a goat hide underneath her.

Q: Standing up?!

A: Yes. That’s some belief—I don’t know what—in Mexico. So, I had ‘em cut her down and I delivered a baby boy they named Henry after our 12-year-old Henry who was there that night. Well, the family took the baby home after the party that night. The woman rode the horse twelve miles home with that baby, back to Mexico!

Q: There’s a story about some cattle you saved. Tell us about that.

A: That was at Paisano Pass—a gap in the mountains in Presidio County. I stopped there during a blizzard while moving cattle. It was real bad weather and it took us five months to move the cattle from a ranch below Sierra Blanca, down on the river, to a ranch at Carrizo Springs. I was in my early 20s when I made that trip.

Q: You believe that you have the BEST treatment for a rattlesnake bite because it saved the life of your son-in-law, Madge’s husband, twice. Tell us how that story goes.

A: Well he and my younger daughter, Leila, were getting’ a boat out of the river and he stepped on a cottonmouth water moccasin that bit him twice on the foot—he was barefooted. There was no car—we had taken a part of our cart and sent it to town to have it replaced. So I took powdered alum and kerosene and put it in a five gallon can and packed his foot in that. I kept the mixture ‘til it would turn green, and then emptied it and put more in there. Of course, I had a LARGE sack of powdered alum! It was three days before the pickup came from town and we could git help. He went to the doctor in Alpine and the doctor said that it was perfect—that his foot was all right! He took a blood sample and most of the blood was clear. I guess that saved his life, because they said cottonmouth water moccasins have a deadly bite.

Another time I didn’t have anything like that, and they brought this Mexican in—he had been bitten by a rattlesnake on the back of the leg. They brought him from across the river at Boquillas. That time I took a live chicken and slit it down through the breast—I don’t have a queasy stomach—and wrapped this chicken around his leg. I believe the beating heart pulled the poison out. Anyhow, it worked!

Q: As you said yourself, you were “the whole damn cheese” in Hot Springs, Texas. You were also known to be an accomplished smuggler. What did you smuggle?

A: I prefer not to answer. And by the way, I really don’t like talking about myself. Can’t we talk about the country instead?

For thirty-five years Bill Wright owned and managed a wholesale and retail petroleum marketing company. In 1987 he sold his company to his employees and since then has carved out a remarkable career as an author, fine art photographer, and ethnologist. He has written or contributed to seven books, and his photographs appear in Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
Character Interview
Character Interview
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