This book is like a Christmas basket, full of delicacies. Not only do you get Ford, the man, the drunk, the son-of-a-sea-cook, the genius, but you also get Will Rogers, John Wayne, stuntman Yakima Canutt and a hundred other mini-biographies of people whose lives crossed Ford's and were changed by him. Ford fires up the whole thing like a Roman candle. Just when you think he can't top himself, he tops himself, for better and worse, and writer Eyman manages to keep everything in focus. He really knows films, and can tell you everything, from the to-the-penny budget of "Stagecoach" to the kind of film stock and lenses used to get the rich cloud effects over Monument Valley. This is a fascinating book, and not just for film buffs and scholars. It captures the glamor of Hollywood, the huge egos (Ford's not least!) and the money, jealousy, booze and sexuality that somehow combine to make great, great movies. Again, the character of Ford just drives the thing, like a powerful V-8 engine. I hated to fall asleep each evening while reading it
I was eager to read this biography because I have seen most of the films directed by John Ford and was interested in knowing more about "his life and times." I learned a great deal. Eyman provides a wealth of information. However, given Richard Schickel's observation that Ford was a director who "delighted in incruelty, publicly humiliating his casts and crews, a man who carried petty grudges for punishing decades and someone whose wihdrawals and silences profoundly damaged his family," the title of one of my favorite Ford films -- They Were Expendable -- reveals more about Ford's human relationships than it does about a PT boat squadron during the first year of War War II. Does Eyman agree with Schickel? If so, he fails to explain what Schickel calls "the complicated truth" about John Ford in Print the Legend.
I read Print the Legend before I read Richard Schickel's review in the New York Times Book Review but I couldn't agree with him more. Scott Eyman is very careful in how he chooses to present situations in which John Ford behaved boorishly, which as it turns out happened quite often. The problem is that in not wanting to appear either soft on his subject or too harsh, Eyman ends up explaining away serious character defects as colorful personality quirks. The best parts of the book are, of course, the discussions of the films, but even these are not really as good as they should have been, especially since the one thing no one can deny about John Ford is that he made terrific films. I can't really argue about the merits of discussing all the silent film work, particularly since most of it is lost to posterity. However, films like Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along The Mohawk are barely touched upon which I think does a disservice to Ford's filmography. One of the reasons John Ford was such a great director was because he was not as one-dimensional as some may think. Eyman has not taken advantage of his opportunity to go into more detail on the lesser films instead of focusing on the films we've all seen like Stagecoach or the Grapes of Wrath. Even so, the passages on the filmmaking and the studio politics are worthwhile and the research pays off. One of the things I have noticed about biographies of notable figures who have not had the most endearing traits is that the reader tends to feel unsympathetic with the subject and therefore less inclined to want to know more about them. I think this is the opposite with Print the Legend. The more you come to realize that John Ford was a slightly less-than-reprehensible person with tremendous talent and flashes of humanity, the more you want to discover how he was able to achieve what he did.
Since so many readers of Scott Eyman's wonderful Ford biography have seen fit to review the subject's character as opposed to his work,I will go on record thus---if I had been Robert Wagner during that humiliating pre-"Searchers" office interview,I would have told that damned old man he could go to hell and take his picture with him---but that is,perhaps,the essential difference between movie actors and the rest of us---and the Wagner incident(so beautifully described in Scott's book)goes a long way toward explaining how Ford got away with his abominable behavior.The actors needed the work.Harry Carey Jr. gave a vivid first-hand account of that in "A Company Of Heroes"(essential Ford reading,by the way).When Ford hollered,Harry jumped.It's a lot like the guy that manages the local Winn-Dixie---quaking with fear whenever the district supervisor comes through the door.The movie business was no different from any other corporate hell---then as much as now.The glamour of it's stars and "rebel" directors was pretty much a lie for the yaps in the audience.In the end,there wasn't even that great a distinction between Ford and all the actors he mistreated---they bore his abuse---he knuckled under to producers.Maybe that's why he treated underlings the way he did.It's great to be known as the master director---ripping pages out of scripts and chasing front-office big shots off the set(talk about printing the legend!)---but I suspect the truth is reflected more in the Zanuck memos Eyman excerpts---when Zanuck hollered,FORD jumped.Oh,and speaking of legends,consider how Ford's reputation might have survived without Zanuck---there's a lot of credit coming to Darryl that he'll probably never get.The legend is too strong---there's Ford in all those arresting production stills,chewing his handkerchief and baking under the hot sun of Monument Valley---then there's seedy Zanuck,recalled,if at all,by fuzzy wire photos,hanging from a makeshift trapeze during an otherwise sedate Hollywood gathering,or chasing Juliette Grecco around the continent while his aging wife sat home.Nobody wants to celebrate that kind of a life,and yet Zanuck was brilliant---what would "My Darling Clementine" be without him?John Ford may have publicly disdained his "artist" status and scoffed at would-be "serious" interviewers,but I suspect he thrived on the image,and would have been bereft without it(Scott tells about how Ford tried to manipulate various promotions and medals during his military service---that was illuminating).Don't get me wrong,though,I love John Ford---even when he's a sour old man biting the head off Peter Bogdanovich(after all,toadys like that always have it coming!)---and Scott Eyman is among the small handful of truly great writers on film---after you finish reading "Print The Legend",look up the rest of Scott's output---Ernst Lubitsch,Mary Pickford,"The Speed Of Sound"---then push that little button that says "Add To My Shopping Cart"---you'll learn more about picture history from this guy than any ten other writers,and you'll enjoy it more as well.
To some, John Ford's films might seem like simplistic chunks of overly sentimental, Irish blarney, and there are times when they steer dangerously close to those shores (just try to watch THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS these days), but what he put up on that screen were some of the most powerful images and incredible characters ever captured on celluloid. Scott Eyman's book cuts through the fabrications and half-truths to present a picture of a man who was an amazing mass of contradictions. He was both loyal friend and petty bully; a brilliant artist who would only say he was doing a job; a director who insisted on sober co-workers but who could turn into a raging alcoholic in the bat of an eye; and a person who concealed a humanitarian side behind one of the most gruff exteriors since Scrooge. This is the book that both Ford fans, worshippers and mavens have been seeking, and one that both lovers of cinema history and biography will admire. If you love a good biography without being a movie buff, you will like this book. Well researched and structured in a way that keeps both the films and Ford's life in perspective, one cannot imagine a better book on the subject appearing for a long time. Filled with some good surprises (how Ford sided with many blacklisted people in the industry is one of them) and beautiful illustrations, this book ranks with Eyman's previous book on Lubitsch in the clarity of its writing and the understanding of its subject. One even suspects Ford might grudgingly approve of the tome, after cussing out the author and throwing the book across the room, then quietly asking someone to pick it up and give it back to him.
There are five great "classic" American directors( excluding foreign born figures such as Wilder and Hitchcock): D.W. Griffith,Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, and John Ford. While Griffith was -often-too primitive in his sensibility, Capra too sentimental,and Orson Welles too experimental and unfinished, Hawks and Ford come closest to leaving only the slightest shadow of a doubt.Hawks had had his biographer; now, his friend and rival, John Ford, has one as well. This book is a masterpiece of research and critical sensibility.Eylan has grasped the essential truth about Ford..he was the great cinematic poet of America, and to extent, one of the great poets of Irealand as well.Eylan is honest about the virtues and faults of Ford the man and honest as well about the virtues and faults of his films.This fine book is more than a contribution to Film history, it is a contribution to American-and Human - self understanding.In this, it has much in common with the best films of John Ford.
Shickel, as usual, misses the point. He clearly hates Ford and his work, and can't understand why Eyman doesn't hate him too. (Why would Eyman want to write a 650-page book about a man he hates? Why would anyone want to read such a thing?) It all comes down to Shickel's simplistic observation that Ford wasn't a nice man--as if this "defect of character" somehow hobbled his work. Ford's films are renowned because they display a consistent and deeply-felt understanding of the romance of the American West, and of the basic tenets of human behavior--love, honor, courage, duty--under primitive, often deadly circumstances. They're about real people, who aren't always terribly nice, struggling to do something more than merely survive. Shickel can't stop there; he mocks Eyman's style, which is beautifully realized and perfectly appropriate to the size and challenge of his subject, and then offers up a short list of "better" directors--as if Raoul Walsh or Sam Peckinpah could ever be capable of a "Grapes of Wrath" or a "Searchers." In short, Shickel's review of this excellent book is not only ill-considered, but mean-spirited as well. A defect of character, perhaps?
I'm not sure why Amazon let so many reviews of the subject - rather than the book itself - post. Listen, if you're a film buff (whether or not you're a John Ford buff), student or just appreciate a good biography this well crafted work is for you. Scott so thoroughly researched his subject, it's hard to believe Ford knew any more about himself than this book shows! The title is ironic i.e. Scott tells an event as the legend tells it, then retells it from as many points of view as were available to him. Of course, Ford was the worst legend-spreader of all (several friends used the word raconteur) but Scott digs beyond myth and legend to find the truth. But, he never claims "I decided John Wayne's (e.g.) version was the correct one." He realises that, like Rashomon, each story may have some portion of truth. Some reviewers panned the book because Ford wasn't Mother Theresa, well I doubt Van Gogh or Michelangelo were very easy men to deal with either!
At the end of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," the newspaper reporter interviewing James Stewart discovers that Stewart's hero didn't really kill Lee Marvin's villain. His response is: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That's just what John Ford did in all 140 of his films over five decades. Ford used a fledgeling medium and created it into an art form. In doing so, he reformulated the American "legend," how we understand our past. Much of how we see ourselves as Americans, for better or worse, has its basis in the film depictions that Ford created. There have been numerous books on Ford and his films, but Scott Eyman's is undoubtedly the most comprehensive treatment of a brilliant artist who was also a deeply flawed man. Previous biographies of Ford have either concentrated on the meanings of his films or on his personal life. Eyman's book does both, but he also looks at how Ford directed actors, how he related to them and how he elicited such great performances from them (sometimes gently and sometimes harshly). No other book on Ford has done this to the same degree, and this is what makes the book so good. Also, Eyman interviewed dozens of Ford's peers from the silents through the sixties. The book is well written, comprehensive and fair in the treatment of its subject. More importantly, like a good Ford movie, it never ceases to hold your attention. I came away from this book with a better appreciation for the films, and a healthy respect for an often difficult yet gifted director. Orson Welles was once asked who he thought were the three greatest American directors. His response was "John Ford, John Ford and John Ford." Whether you agree with Welles or not, Eyman's biography is a great read.