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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Killing Patton – The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General: My Review

Killing Patton Book CoverHaving recently reviewed Killing the SS (see my post dated August 23, 2019) I was asked by a friend whether I had read Killing Patton, another entry in the series by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. I had not, so I was given his copy to read.

From the title you might think that the book focuses solely on Patton’s death in December 1945. It does not. In fact, only the last few chapters are devoted to the “accident” that initially left him paralyzed and took his life less than two weeks later. There’s a definite reason for this which I’ll address in a moment.

Most of the book is an account of the waning days of World War II. The Nazis are defeated but the Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler, clings to the delusion that he can somehow turn the tide of war and yet claim victory. He mounts an all out counterattack in the Ardennes Forest that is so unexpected that it nearly succeeds before the Wehrmacht and the SS Panzer Divisions simply run out of petrol and can advance no further.

The Battle of the Bulge, as it is known to history, sets the stage for General George Patton’s Third Army to rush to the relief of the 101st Airborne Division trapped in the town of Bastogne, Belgium. It will be his greatest moment in a career of amazing accomplishments.

Forever the warrior, Patton doesn’t believe that World War II is the war to end all wars. He sees the Soviet Union as the next big threat even as the Soviet Army is given the honor of taking Berlin. He is outspoken in his characterization of Soviet forces as Mongol hordes, and the ruthless slaughter and rape that occurs as they liberate previously held German territories is proof of Stalin’s brutal push for Soviet hegemony in postwar Europe.

Patton’s outspokenness has got him in trouble before. A casual remark to women at the opening of a “Welcome Club” for American soldiers in Knutsford, England causes an uproar when Patton slights the Soviets by telling the gathering that the Americans and British will rule a postwar world. The well-intentioned words make headlines around the world and he becomes a political liability. “His hopes of assuming a major postwar command in a world divided between the United States and the Soviet Union had all but vanished.”

“Old Blood & Guts” also has no tolerance for cowardice. While visiting with soldiers that have been wounded in battle he encounters two men suffering from what we refer to today as PTSD. There’s no such diagnosis at the time and when he sees no visible wounds, he not only berates the soldiers in question but orders them back to the front, and on two separate occasions strikes the afflicted servicemen. In the latter instance, he even pulls out his pistol and threatens to shoot the individual on the spot. Such actions almost lead to his relief from command and reduction in rank, but his skills as a battlefield commander are yet sorely needed. Patton is forced to issue a public apology and his standing and influence in a postwar world are further marginalized.

All of these accounts are well known, covered by the press and captured on celluloid in the 1970 Academy Award winning film “Patton” starring George C. Scott. Where O’Reilly and Dugard really standout, however, is in little known background information and insights involving world leaders such as Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and Truman, and both the Allied and German military commanders; Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, Zhukov, Rommel, Peiper and their personalities, ambitions, strategies and tactics that determined victory or defeat. No other historical writers offer these kind of anecdotes and details about World War II.

Ironically and through no fault of their own, these are exactly the type of details lacking in the story of Patton’s death. The official accident report no longer exists. The driver of the 2.5 ton vehicle that struck Patton’s jeep, Tech Sergeant Robert L. Thompson, was never investigated for driving a stolen vehicle or operating it under the influence and simply vanishes from the historical record. The only report is that of PFC Horace Woodring, Patton’s driver, who claims he never made or signed any such report.

Even more interesting is the initial diagnosis that, in spite of his paralysis, Patton will recover from his injuries and regain some mobility. Two weeks later he is dead and no autopsy to determine the cause of death is ever performed. And, still more damning is a confession on September 25,1979 by OSS operative Douglas Bazata that he was part of a hit team that assassinated the general. Bazata claims to have fired a projectile into Patton’s neck that snapped it, but when he didn’t immediately die, Soviet NKVD intelligence operatives poisoned him while he was recovering at the U.S. Army 130th Station Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany.

In the Afterword to their book, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard call for a re-examination of the case in the belief that technological advances might resolve the mystery. Regardless of whether the many unanswered questions are ever resolved, this is another fascinating entry into the Killing series.

 

 

 

Broken Treaties

National Historic Trail

History records countless instances of broken treaties and forced relocation of Native Americans as the result of westward expansion. My novel of the Southern Plains Indian Wars, Palo Duro, begins with the negotiations at Medicine Lodge Creek whereat the U.S. government altered the terms of the Little Arkansas Treaty signed just two years prior.

Under the provisions of the new treaties (there would be three in all) the Kiowa, the Apache and the Comanche were required to give up more than 60,000 square miles of their land in the Texas Panhandle in exchange for a reservation in Indian Territory, and the parts of Kansas and Indian Territory previously set aside for the Southern Cheyenne and the Arapahoe were also cut in half. 

Earlier in the 1830s the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee (known collectively as the Five Civilized Tribes) had also been forced from their ancestral lands in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida, and relocated west of the Mississippi to Indian Territory. Thousands died along the way, and the journey became known as the Trail of Tears.

Although the sovereignty of the Indian nations would be affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Worcester vs. Georgia (1832), the demand for more land by white settlers led to the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830. The Act required the U.S. government to negotiate with the tribes in good faith. However the spirit of the law was frequently ignored, and by the 1840s thousands of Native Americans had been driven off their land in the Southeastern United States and force marched to present-day Oklahoma. The Choctaw became the first nation to be forcibly expelled. This tribe was followed by the Creeks. The last to go were the Cherokee.

By 1838 only about 2,000 of the estimated 16,000 Cherokee had “voluntarily” left their homeland. The U.S. Army under General Winfield Scott was authorized to expedite the removal of the holdouts. It is estimated that somewhere between 5,000-8,000  perished from disease and starvation as they made their way westward.

The promises of an unmolested new home for those that survived also failed to materialize. Indian Territory shrank as more and more white settlers encroached on these lands, and when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 the guarantee of this new homeland was gone for good.

Over a hundred years later, on August 23rd 2019, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation announced that the tribe would appoint its first delegate to the House of Representatives. The prospect of a sitting congressional representative is historic. While the tribe’s delegate will lack a chamber vote, for the very first time a Cherokee will sit on House committees (e.g., Appropriations, Ways and Means, etc.) which will provide the Cherokee Nation with direct access to members of Congress who do possess voting power.

What remains uncertain is whether the United States government will honor long standing treaty rights. The provision authorizing representation is contained in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. Only now has the Cherokee Nation obtained sufficient economic and political clout to move forward, but it remains to be seen whether the treaty will be contested. Treaties negotiated with sovereign nations do not expire, but if history is any indication, those applying to Native Americans can certainly be ignored.

The last chapter in the Southern Plains Indians’ struggle ended much as the first chapter began – in broken promises.

Hopefully the Cherokee Nation and its new delegate to the House of Representatives will write not just a new chapter in Native American history, but one that expresses hope for their future.

Labor Day Weekend

Labor Day Blog

2019 marks the 125th anniversary of Labor Day as a national holiday. Although Oregon was the first state to recognize it as an official public holiday in 1887, it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1894.

Dedicated to the social and economic achievements of the American worker, two men have been credited with proposing the observance – Matthew Maguire, the Secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York, and Peter J. McGuire, Vice President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in Columbus, Ohio. Both organizations would later merge to become the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States.

The manner of observance has changed over the years. The initial proposal did specify that the first Monday in September be set aside for the celebration, and recommended that it begin with a street parade to show the public “the strength and espirit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” The parade was to be followed by a festival “for the recreation and amusement of workers and their families.”

Today, mass displays and parades have given way to emphasis on individual leisure time. The holiday marks the “unofficial end of summer.” School and sports activities begin at this time. Labor Day Weekend is the first three-day holiday of the school calendar year, and the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) typically plays their first games throughout the three-day weekend. In the world of fashion, Labor Day has long been considered the last acceptable day to wear white, beaches and barbecues are synonymous with the holiday, and shoppers flock to department stores or shop online for items (especially back-to-school supplies, clothing, and shoes for school age children) at discounted prices.

What we tend to forget or take for granted, however, are the advances in workers’ rights… eight hour workdays, two-day weekends, paid holidays, minimum wages, the elimination of child labor, and the duty of the state to regulate labor conditions.

None of these advances would have been possible without the efforts of those who organized and championed better working conditions beginning in the latter part of the 19th century and continuing into the present time.

Killing the SS – The Hunt for the Worst War Criminals in History: My Review

Killing the SS Book CoverThis is the eighth book in the Killing Series by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Regardless of whether you are an avid history buff or simply interested in a particular era, circumstance, or individual from history, each entry into the series has been both educational and insightful. It also should not matter whether you are a fan of the famous journalist and cable news personality or agree with his political opinions, his historical perspective and writing style provide rare insights into each place, person, and event.

Most readers will be all too familiar with the Holocaust and the scale of man’s inhumanity to man; the barbarity of Hitler’s Final Solution is well documented. What the reader may not realize is the complicity of the U.S. Government, the International Red Cross, and the Catholic Church in spiriting known war criminals out of Germany after the war, hiding their atrocities, and settling them in the United States and South America. In 1947 alone, an estimated eight thousand members of the SS safely travel to Canada and the United States using false documents. Secret German support groups such as the Kamaradenwerk, ODESSA, and Die Spinne also smuggle eight-to-ten thousand Nazi fugitives into Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay.

Killing the SS focuses on the hunt for the four most wanted Nazis –  Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind behind the deportation of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps in Eastern Europe, Joseph Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” who carried out horrific experiments on detainees at Auschwitz, Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” who tortured and killed countless victims in German-occupied France, and Martin Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary, who signed the decree condemning all Jews to death.

It also looks at those dedicated to bringing these war criminals to justice – Zvi Aharoni, who led the Mossad team that kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, Serge and Beate Karsfeld, who relentlessly led the quest to bring Klaus Barbie to trial, and Simon Wiesenthal, the most famous of all the investigators who dedicated his life to solving the disappearance of Nazi fugitives, most notably Joseph Mengele and Martin Bormann.

Lesser known Nazis, Mossad intelligence agents, investigators and lawyers are woven into the narrative to illuminate the scope of the atrocities committed by the SS, the Gestapo, and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and just how difficult it was to hold these criminal organizations accountable. Of the 9,600,000 Jews who lived in Nazi-dominated Europe, 60 percent are authoritatively estimated to have perished. Five million seven hundred thousand Jews are missing from countries in which they formally lived, and over 4,500,000 cannot be accounted for by the normal death rate nor by immigration; nor are they included among displaced persons. 

The term coined for these atrocities is genocide. Yet few receive justice and none ever express remorse for their actions. Benjamin Ferencz, chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, best sums up the frustration felt by both the survivors and their advocates. I had 3,000 Einsatzgruppen members who everyday went out and shot as many Jews as they could and Gypsies as well. I tried twenty-two, I convicted twenty-two, thirteen were sentenced to death, four were actually executed, the rest of them got out after a few years. The other 3,000 – nothing ever happened to them.

Killing the SS is an important addition to the volume of work documenting the Holocaust and a chilling reminder of the consequences of  anti-Semitism and extreme right-wing ideology, both of which are once again on the ascendancy today. It is also one of the more readable accounts of this horrific period in history.

 

 

 

 

June 6, 1944

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

The 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France will be observed today on the beaches in Normandy, at Pointe du Hoc, at the nearby town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, and at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. These will be solemn tributes to the thousands of men who gave their lives to begin the reclamation of Europe from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The Nazis had suppressed freedom for four long years and the fate of the world hung in the balance as the largest seaborne invasion in history landed troops on a fifty mile-wide stretch of beach on the coast of France.

None of the Allied objectives were achieved on that first day at the staggering cost of over 10,000 lives in the first twenty-four hours. Alone, 2,400 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing) occurred at “Bloody Omaha Beach.” It took tremendous courage, sacrifice, perseverance and determination to finally break through the coastal defenses and begin movement inland. The liberation of Paris would follow in August 1944, but the unconditional  surrender of all German forces would not come until May 7, 1945. Neither would have been possible without the success of “Operation Overlord.”

Dignitaries from the United States, Britain, France, and Canada will honor the dead as well as the veterans still living today. Due to the passage of time, only a handful remain. They’re in their 90’s now and this will be the last major celebration for those that survived the chaos and carnage of that day. They should be honored for their bravery and certainly world leaders will speak to their heroism. The Press will cover the speeches and most Americans will take pride in their words, but that remembrance will be fleeting. Less than 1% of our country’s population serves in the military. Few have any personal knowledge of the sacrifices made by our military members and their families, and they go about their lives without much reflection on wars past or present.

So, how will you observe D-Day?

I would be in France if I could to be a part of this last great celebration. I’d like to meet face-to-face with the veterans and hear their stories. Their numbers are dwindling and their first-hand recollections are all but gone. Their pride in being a member of the Greatest Generation and their pain over the loss of their friends and comrades will recede from public consciousness. Soon, their recollections will be just words in a history book.

I can’t be there, so I’ll watch the news. I’ll read the paper. I’ll put on my two favorite movies about D-Day, The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. These are insufficient gestures at best, but at least I’ll be remembering. For me it is a very emotional journey back in time. We face a far different world today thanks to their sacrifices. However, it is one no less dangerous. Threats evolve and echoes of the past remain. The 9,388 crosses and Stars of David at Colleville-sur-Mer remind us of the cost of the Normandy landings, while ongoing burials at all our National Cemeteries attest to the price in human lives of ongoing wars. I hope that we will always remember. We owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

So, how will you observe D-Day?

 

American Heritage History of the Civil War: My Review

History of the Civil War Book CoverAnyone who follows this blog realizes that periodically I read yet another book on America’s Civil War in an attempt to understand the complexities of that monumental struggle. For all practical purposes the war ended April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. That was over one hundred sixty years ago yet the cultural, economic, and demographic differences that divided the nation still remain. Today, the discord that resulted in five years of bloody conflict still resonates in the debates over reparations to the ancestors of former slaves and the removal of Confederate monuments.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Bruce Catton first released his book in 1960 complete with photos, maps, illustrations, captions, and an introduction by James M. McPherson, Professor Emeritus of U.S. History at Princeton University. This Kindle version (which I downloaded for free) contains none of the amplifying material, retaining only the original text. However, for anyone trying to understand the underlying causes of the war; the attitudes, desires, and fears from both sides, as well as the major events, places, or key military and political figures involved, there is no better reference material. There are certainly voluminous works by many noted historians on the subject, and for those who want detailed analysis of the politics, military campaigns, battles, strategies and tactics, they should most certainly be read.

Catton synopsizes this information in a manner that is deeply insightful, easy to read and understand. It isn’t so bogged down in details that it becomes a challenge to comprehend and a labor to complete. It is a concise overview of the social, political, and military forces that propelled the nation to war, tore it apart, and despite decades of efforts to heal those wounds, left a legacy of racial division and cultural misunderstanding that continues to impact our politics and our interaction with one another.

I highly recommend the book regardless of where you are in your study of America’s Civil War. It can serve as an introduction to your reading or a very important companion piece to the books you’ve already read on the subject.