Print the Legend

The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman

by Wayne Brown


Print the Legend Does Just That

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962)

cover art

Print the Legend

Scott Eyman

The Life and Times of John Ford

(Johns Hopkins University Press)

Our vision of the American West is of flat, lonely mesas standing tall amidst arid desert painted with blood-red sandstone and sharp, green saquaro cacti straining for an azure sky, with the hint of storm just over a ridge occupied by a solitary Apache warrior, painted by Frederick Remington, lionized by Zane Grey, and filmed by John Ford.

John Wayne, hiking his belt and nodding “Pilgrim” to a dusty cowhand, spitting chaw on a plank walkway, spanning horse manure, up to the swinging doors of an 1880’s saloon, from which a honky-tonk piano player tickles “Camptown Races” from untuned keys, barely audible over the raucous overtures of drunken cow-pokes a-whistlin’ and a-caterwaulin’ at the good-natured showgirls, who tease them with promises of love or at least a kiss. And Ford is there.

Dirty, unshaven everymen, painted in U.S. Cavalry blue, with yellow stripes down blue woolen trousers tucked haphazardly into muddy black boots, astride sweating horses galloping to their destiny, with the sound of a bugle screaming its cry of Charge!, through the roiling sands and fury of battle. Sabers clashing, pistols blasting, and the cry of the Arapahoe freezing the blood in an Irishman’s soul. But not John Ford’s.

From The Grapes of Wrath to My Darling Clementine to Fort Apache to The Quiet Man to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and 140 and more films, John Ford has carved his totem into the American character, and no one has ever captured Ford as well before as Scott Eyman. This is a marvelous book. Eyman has done his homework with this meticulous chronicle of the life and times of the legendary director. Carefully researched and filled with anecdotes from friends, family, co-workers, and even competitors, Print the Legend gives the curious reader a bird’s-eye view of the man who helped shape the world of cinema and the way we perceive the history of his beloved United States.

Sean Aloysius O’Fearna, or Jack Feeney, or John Ford as he is more commonly known, was one hell of a man. Forget Hemingway. Forget London. This is the man who lived it all. Born in 1894 to Irish immigrant parents living in Maine, Ford would later tell compatriots he was himself an Irish immigrant. Ford loved to embellish the facts of his life, but Eyman manages to sort out the wheat from the chaff despite Ford’s tall tales about his own derring-do.

Tracing Ford’s involvement in the film industry, from production assistant and occasional actor in 1914 to (arguably) America’s most significant director, Eyman leaves no stone unturned. Ford’s climb to respected status in the Hollywood community came from an ability to bring in a picture on time and below budget. Resourceful, creative, and visionary, his ability to precisely visualize a film as a whole enabled him to photograph most scenes in a few takes. His adaptability and love of the medium enabled him to make the leap from the silents to the “talkies” with ease. Early contemporaries of Ford’s, including his brother Frank, who was also his first employer, would later work for him or disappear into movie oblivion.

In a world of deal-making, back-biting, and nepotism, the irascible, eccentric, moody, and inspired Ford would eventually become a force to be reckoned with. Trademark handkerchief in hand, he would grumble and nod to his expert crew, trained to recognize and respond to every expression and gesture. He was known to psychologically manipulate his cast, often humiliating actors before a scene to garner a particular emotion. He was also not above getting an actor drunk to give the man a particular attitude during the next day’s filming. But although Ford was known for his dictatorial hold over his casts, he was also remarkable for his patient and compassionate treatment of the working stiffs in his crew during production. Participation in a Ford film could be hard work, even uncomfortable, but most of his casts and crews would later speak fondly of him.

A notorious drinker, Ford often got plastered on his beloved Araner, a large boat which was an integral part of the man’s life, for weeks at a time, though drinking on the set was normally taboo. In his later years, Ford’s alcoholism was partially to blame for his failing memory and health.

Eyman’s chronicle of Ford’s work for the U.S. Navy and OSS founder William “Wild Bill” Donovan reads like an early James Bond novel. Ford traversed the South Seas on the Araner, reporting Japanese activity to the powers that be. After Pearl Harbor he directed films as a Lieutenant Commander for the Navy, actually in harm’s way while filming the Battle of Midway. He was later given the honorary rank of Rear Admiral and was not averse to using it to lever a favor here and there.

Sadly, Ford’s later years were filled with anger, frustration, and loneliness. Much like another Hollywood legend, Howard Hughes, Ford decayed before the eyes of his friends and family like nitrate in a can, his body withering and his brain struggling vainly with a fading memory.

A myriad of tales related to and about Ford’s many friends in the film world grace the pages of this lengthy bio: Merriam Cooper, George O’Brian, Harry Carey Jr. and Sr., John Wayne, Victor McLachlen, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Maureen O’Hara, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracey, James Wong Howe, and Ford’s loving, patient, and tolerant wife,Mary. They’re all here, and diverse more. Intimate b&w photos bring “intermission” and perspective to the reader, and an excellent and extensive filmography and bibliography round out the volume.

Scott Eyman is not just a biographer but a fine writer as well. He has turned a tale worthy of Homer for those of us yearning to know the man behind the myth. He did indeed print the legend.

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