No filmmaker better understood America than John Ford. Bully, genius, liar, myth-maker, Irishman and American, staunch conservative and lifelong Roosevelt Democrat, Ford explored in his movies the contradictions of the American experience and in turn helped define our understanding and imagining of Abraham Lincoln, the Old West, the Depression and the immigrant experience.
America's sense of itself, writes Scott Eyman in his epic biography of the man and the legend, "[a]s far as the movies are concerned, derive[s] from two people: Frank Capra and John Ford. Of these two men, it was John Ford who told the truth that doing the right thing can and probably will get you killed, that defeat may be man's natural state, but that honor can and must be earned."
Ford may well be the most written about of American filmmakers, but nearly all of what's available falls into the category of critical study or memoir, including Peter Bogdanovich's "John Ford" (1978) and Lindsay Anderson's "About John Ford" (1981). Even Tag Gallagher's formidable "John Ford: The Man and His Films" (1986) has much more on the films than the man and, like all previous books on Ford is highly tainted with layers of myths, lies and legends, a good many of them propagated by Ford himself.
"Print the Legend" makes all previous books on Ford, and most books on any other filmmaker, seem undernourished. Eyman, who has written a highly regarded biography of Ernst Lubitsch and a ground-breaking history of the talkies, "The Speed of Sound," has given us a 600-plus-page book without an ounce of fat. In fact, considering the size and scope of his subject, "Print the Legend" almost seems pared down. If this statement seems excessive, consider that Ford's career began before World War I and ended with his death as the Vietnam War was heating up. He directed, among scores of other films, "The Lost Patrol," "The Informer," "Stagecoach," "Young Mr. Lincoln," "Drums Along the Mohawk," "The Grapes of Wrath," "How Green Was My Valley," "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Rio Grande," "The Quiet Man," "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Much of Henry Fonda's career might never have happened; John Wayne's career might never have happened were it not for Ford.
John Martin Feeney--he later claimed to have been named Sean Aloysius O'Fearna in order to seem more Irish, as if that was really necessary--was born in Maine in 1895. A liar of colossal proportions, he padded his bio with college educations from several schools when, in fact, beyond high school he was entirely self-taught. Ford broke into films in the silent era, at a time when many directors (William Desmond, Allan Dwan, William Wellman, Raoul Walsh) were Irish, though Ford, as Eyman puts it, was "the only one to consistently play the professional Irishman." The others kept their real names and made films about mainstream Protestant America; Ford anglicized his and put his Irishness at the center of his work. Pre-Colonial pioneers, Welsh miners--even Abe Lincoln himself--faced grim circumstances with the same stoic sense of duty, love of family and dark Christian fatalism.
Eyman pores through the silent films, reassessing some (such as "The Iron Horse") and unearthing a small gem or two, always looking out for the strands that reveal a career and a personality. Early on, Ford began to exhibit the self-conscious lack of style that defined his craft. Ford despised "director's touches" and tried "to make people forget they're in a theater." ("Not too many camera moves," he advised a colleague, "All the young kids who are starting out want to do crazy things with the camera.") He also began to display the fierce independence toward his work summed up in his dictum, "Give me the script and leave me alone." In 1938, he began an astonishing run of films--beginning with "Stagecoach" and ending (most critics would agree) with "The Searchers" (1956)--that represented, as Eyman writes, "America's vision of itself, and the world's [vision of America]."
Who was the man behind the work? "He was an S.O.B.," said an actress who worked with him early in his career, "a demonic man. Part of his mercurial personality was to do something he knew was mean or mischievous, then try to justify it." To his son, Pat, he was "a lousy father, but . . . a good movie director and a good American." Even his friends openly acknowledged his meanness. During the filming of "The Searchers" in Monument Valley, Ariz., a scorpion stung him. A few minutes later John Wayne reported to the producer, "It's O.K. John's fine, it's the scorpion that died."