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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Femme Fatale

The origins of the sexually attractive woman who sets out to seduce men for her own purposes can be found in ancient biblical and historical texts as well as in classical literature. The temptress Delilah is cited in the 16th chapter of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament as the means by which the Philistines discovered the source of the Israelite Sampson’s strength. The first century historian Josephus writes of Salome, the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter in exchange for an erotic dance on Herod’s birthday. Even Greek mythology speaks of half-birds, half-maidens whose “siren song” lured sailors to a rocky shore and certain death. In Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of his ship so that he can experience the allure of the Sirens without succumbing to their temptations.

However, that sultry allure, sex or the promise of sex, characteristically results in either a lifetime of regret or self-destruction. Deliberate seduction is a weapon that draws some men into compromising and even dangerous situations leading to their downfall or death. There’s a price to pay for the pleasures of the flesh – loss of one’s manhood,  manipulation and commission of acts on the woman’s behalf that can result in blackmail or even murder, and choices that compromise or even endanger the lives of others.

The seductress has existed throughout history and has often been used as a plot device in literature. In my latest book, a novella of the Salvadoran civil war, the fictional character Diana Montego (an urban guerrilla) serves that purpose.

She was exposed to training like any other recruit, learning weaponry, explosives, tactics, and strategic objectives under Nidia’s tutelage. These were all secondary, however, to her sexuality, and she was soon given her mission. Use her looks and wiles to find and seduce an American staying at the Hotel Presidente. The endgame, of course, would not be this one individual. Her task was to get inside, become totally familiar with the layout of the hotel, and specifically identify the rooms where the American advisers were lodged. To be successful, she would need to use all her womanly skills. That it proved so easy was a surprise both to Diana and the FMLN leadership. — Excerpt from Tarnished Brass.

Follow Diana’s story and learn more about American involvement in the war and the repercussions that continue to affect the United States and this small Central American country.

 

 

The Soccer War

SoccerSoccer arrived in Latin America in the 1800s. In the beginning it was primarily played by affluent Europeans, but was soon adopted by people from all socio-economic classes bridging the divide between the ruling elites and the indigenous population.

As a cultural institution, it quickly became synonymous with national identity and disputes on the field of play frequently resulted in violence between players, fans, and in extreme cases even countries.

The visible displays of nationalism include flag waving, national anthems, even colorful clothing. They are an expression of the emotional attachment that individuals feel for their teams. So when deliberate physical injury to a player or perceived bias by referees alter the outcome of games, fan violence is inevitable. Add to that political tensions between the governments of the competing teams, and international competitions have even led to war. Such was the case in 1969 between the neighboring Central American countries of El Salvador and Honduras.

The Soccer War (sometimes referred to as the 100 Hours War) was fueled by extreme national pride. Violence erupted between fans during the first two 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. The teams split the first two contests spawning yet greater tumult between the two fan bases as the third and deciding match approached.

Tensions had been building for months between the two governments over new immigration laws in Honduras that stripped land ownership from Salvadoran citizens settling in that country. The expulsion of over eleven thousand such immigrants and migrant workers just happened to coincide with the timing between the first and second games. Citing Honduran nationalism and fan violence as the reason for its action, El Salvador severed all diplomatic ties with its neighbor and deployed soldiers onto Honduran soil.

The war was brief, beginning on July 14, 1969, and ending on July 20, 1969, with a cease-fire negotiated by the Organization of American States (OAS). El Salvador initially demanded that Honduras agree to reparations for those Salvadorans who had been displaced and assurances of fair treatment for those settlers who chose to remain. It finally withdrew its forces on August 2, 1969, after promises of protection for its citizens on Honduran soil.

The dispute simmered long after the Salvadoran soccer team defeated Honduras 3-2 in the final qualifying match in Mexico City and long after cessation of hostilities between the two armies. A final peace treaty would not be signed until October 30, 1980. — Excerpt from Tarnished Brass.

 

 

 

New Year’s Eve: History and Current Celebrations

Most of us in the United States associate the Ball Drop in New York’s Times Square, fireworks, champagne toasts, kisses at midnight, and personal resolutions with bringing in the new year. Few of us, however, are aware of when these traditions began or how the rest of the world celebrates New Year’s Eve.

The earliest recorded celebrations go back 4,000 years to the Babylonians who made sacrifices and promises to their gods that, if kept, were believed to ensure a good harvest. The rituals were tied to the vernal equinox that occurs in March and heralds the advent of spring.

In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar was the first to establish January 1st as the beginning of the new year in honor of the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings, endings, and transitions. He is depicted with two faces, one looking to the future and the other looking to the past.  However, the Roman celebrations were hardly religious in nature. The Romans engaged in drunken orgies that represented the chaos that existed before their gods and the Roman legions brought order to the world.

The beginnings of Christianity again altered the official beginning of the new year with early Christians celebrating either March 25th, Annunciation Day (also known as Lady Day) when the Virgin Mary received word from the archangel Gabriel that she would give birth to the Son of God, or December 25th, the date that Jesus Christ was born. It would not be until the papacy of Pope Gregory the XIII and the introduction of the Gregorian calendar that January 1st would again be recognized as the start of the new year.

Today, New Year’s Eve celebrations are mainly secular although in Chile church services are held in cemeteries to include deceased family members in the New Year’s festivities, which brings us to other cultures and other practices. There is no way to cover them all, but here are a few from around the world.

In Russia that traditional glass of champagne has ashes in it! Wishes for the coming year are written down, the paper is then burned, and the ashes are ingested along with the sparkling wine. In Spain twelve grapes are eaten, one at a time as the bells toll twelve times at midnight. Their consumption is said to bring about good fortune and prosperity. In Germany “Bleigieben” is celebrated by melting a small amount of lead or tin which is then poured into a glass or bowl of cold water. The shape formed is said to reveal a person’s fate in the coming year. The Scots celebrate “Hogmanay,” which holds that if a dark-haired man is the first to cross a home’s threshold after midnight good luck is guaranteed. The dark hair is significant because the tradition hearkens back to the days when light-haired Vikings raided Scotland. The last thing anyone wanted to find at their door was a Viking raider! In the Netherlands the Dutch eat “oliebollen,” doughnut like balls, the fat of which is said to cause the sword of the ancient Germanic goddess Pertcha to slide off your belly if she attempts to cut it open for failing to sufficiently partake in yuletide cheer!

Readers intrigued by these traditions and countless others will need to do a little research on their own. I’ll be bringing in the new year with a dinner out with friends followed by that champagne toast… without the ashes, of course! And I’ll probably watch the Ball Drop on TV which, by the way, didn’t become a tradition until 1907. It has occurred every year since then with the exception of 1942 and 1943 when lighting restrictions were in place during World War II.

However you choose to celebrate, have a very Happy New Year!

 

 

Honoring Their Legacy

Published Book CoverAlthough Tarnished Brass is a work of fiction, it is based on my memories of the brutal civil war fought in the small Central American country of El Salvador from 1980-1992.

United States involvement in that conflict was principally focused on training support to the Salvadoran military. In a departure from US policy in Vietnam, American military advisers were prohibited from accompanying Salvadoran forces during combat operations. Their role was solely to train the ESAF [El Salvador Armed Forces] and change the way it prosecuted the war. Of course, in spite of these restrictions, the Operations and Training Teams (OPATTs) assigned to Salvadoran Infantry Battalions often found themselves in harms way.

Reports of fighting involving US troops, however, was a closely guarded secret. It would not be until 1996, four years after the peace accords were signed, that the twenty-one American service members killed in El Salvador were finally recognized.

Their headstone in Arlington National Cemetery does not contain their names. It simply states… El Salvador 1981-1992. Blessed are the peacemakers. In sacred memory of those who died to bring hope and peace.

Of course, I was not acquainted with everyone who died in the war, but I did have a personal and professional relationship with one of the deceased. Lieutenant Colonel James M. Basile, US Air Force, served as deputy commander of the US MilGroup, San Salvador. He was killed in a helicopter crash on July 16, 1987, at age forty-three.

Official recognition of his service to country and that of the other twenty individuals helps to heal old wounds. William G. Walker, the former US Ambassador to El Salvador (1988-1992), best phrased that sentiment when he spoke to those assembled at the cemetery — For too long, we have failed to recognize the contributions, the sacrifices, of those who served with distinction under the most dangerous of conditions.

May they all rest in eternal peace.

 

 

 

Tarnished Brass: Giveaway

Giveaway Tarnished BrassToday is the final day of the Giveaway. If you haven’t yet registered at Rafflecopter for a signed copy of Tarnished Brass and a $25.00 Amazon gift card, be sure to do so by midnight CDT. You could be the winner!

I also recommend that you check out Lone Star Literary Life, the go-to website for all things “bookish” in the State of Texas. Sign up for free to receive the latest literary news. You’ll be introduced to a range of Texas authors and their works, and you’re sure to find your next great read.

Finally, in support of my book or any book that you’ve read and enjoyed, write a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews are the lifeblood that affect not just book sales, but the craft of writing. Feedback is essential in honing craftsmanship for future projects and authors welcome your comments. I know I do!

 

Tarnished Brass: Giveaway

Giveaway Tarnished BrassYou have one more day to register at Rafflecopter for the Tarnished Brass Giveaway. The sign-up period closes tomorrow at midnight CDT, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to win a signed copy of the novella and a $25.00 Amazon gift card!

Looking to find out more about the book? For reviews and special features check out the link at Lone Star Literary Life, and while you’re at it subscribe to LSLL for all the literary happenings in the State of Texas. It’s free!

Finally, I’ve been posting the LSBBT reviews in their entirety. Here is the review from Ruthie Jones:

Four Stars

Tarnished Brass by Max L. Knight is a quick novella about the war in El Salvador during the 1980s and early 1990s; however, the bloodshed and brutality continue, even with the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992. Through his extensive research and personal experience in this country during such a volatile time, Max Knight has crafted a unique story that reads more like an informative documentary than a work of fiction. Real-life events and people form a solid foundation for Tarnished Brass, causing readers to either reflect back on their own memories of this time in history or search the internet for more information, including about the scandalous Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan Administration.

In Tarnished Brass, fictional retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Moynihan remembers his time as a US Army Major during the civil war in El Salvador. Everything is different now, yet nothing has changed. Gang violence is still prevalent, and the poor and displaced are still struggling to find a voice and the means and will to survive.

While Tarnished Brass has several fictional characters, the primary focus  is more about the cause and effects of the twelve-year war in El Salvador and its continuing aftermath. Even though these events are delegated to the past, this story is timely in the current political and societal landscape in both Central America and the United States. In only about 100 pages, Max Knight does one amazing job outlining the advent of MS-13 and other gangs during the 1980s and the frightening rise in violence, murder, and civil unrest in El Salvador. For a work of fiction, Tarnished Brass is light on dialogue, but the storytelling is compact, illuminating, and provocative.

Thank you, Max Knight, for shedding some valuable light on a past event that should not be forgotten, ignored, or glossed over. This short work of fiction offers valuable insights on the human condition, the heavy price of greed and power, the disparity and inequality in a beautiful country ravaged by constant war, and the gangs and violence that continue to transition and flourish to this day.