I 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.”