With Print the Legend I have now read five different biographies of John Ford, the auteur director best known for his Westerns between the 1930s and the 1960s. This is by far the best of those biographies so far. John Ford was one of the greatest directors ever to work in Hollywood, and his career spanned the golden age of cinema in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. He made films about American history—especially Westerns and war movies—and he worked with some of greatest stars in film. John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Shirley Temple, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond, and Lee Marvin all acceded to his will, and those collaborations made the resulting films all the better.
Some of his more than 140 feature films include some of the greatest ever: The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, the so-called cavalry trilogy, The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Mister Roberts, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Informer, and many others. His work with the Navy in World War II on a series of propaganda films in the “Why We Fight” series are examples of his power to use film to move audiences.
Scott Eyman’s Ford is an eccentric, witty, sentimental, domineering, stubborn, contradictory, and obnoxious genius who could be equally insufferable and lovable. This hid a deeply conflicted individual, fearful he would be discovered as a fraud, a drunkard, and a depressive personality. This lengthy book, 656 pages altogether, tells his biography in stark detail. Based on extensive research in personal papers, government records, and through oral histories, Eyman reconstructs a gifted/tragic figure who powerfully shaped American culture for more than half a century.
Eyman shows how Ford masterfully employed a new medium to create art every bit as powerful as more traditional two- and three-dimensional art. For better or worse Ford shaped his culture and changed American perspectives of its past through those efforts. Eyman explores in depth how he worked with actors and crew to realize his vision of a particular film. As often as not he was tyrannical, certainly not an actor’s director, but he got the best from his cast. Over time, he came to trust those he had been successful with previously, and used them repeatedly; hence the longstanding collaborations with John Wayne, Ward Bond, and others. When he felt wronged by any of them, however, he could exile them from his presence for years, such as what he did with Henry Fonda. This book does a fine job of relating both Ford’s life and his career—the two really were inseparable despite the fact that most previous books on Ford have been unable to balance these twin elements—and this is the reason this book is superior to all other works I have read on Ford.
Finally, the main title comes from one of the Ford’s classic Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. At its end, Jimmy Stewart tells the story about how his rise to be a senator was based on the falsehood that he had killed the notable highwayman, Liberty Valance, in a gunfight. Instead Stewart tells how Tom Doniphan, played by John Wayne in the film, killed him in cold blood from a shadows that fateful night many years earlier. The newspaper editor to whom Stewart tells this story replies, “When the legend become fact, print the legend.” Ford never wavered in his belief that legends are necessary to live by; they might be more important than actual events. He spent his career creating them. Perhaps America is better for his having done so; but that is a discussion for another time.