Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Print The Legend

I don’t just watch low-rent horror movies about mansquitos terrorizing the countryside, I like pretty much all genres of film. A recent bout of compulsive watching of westerns brought me to reading Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. It was written by Scott Eyman, and first published in 1999., although copies are easy to come by. Eyman also wrote Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise about the legendary director of To Be Or Not To Be, a book I found to be interesting.

John Ford’s career began in the silent era, and he continued directing until the 1960s. He is most known for his westerns, but worked in various types of film, directing prominent non-Westerns such as The Informer and The Quiet Man. It was in westerns, though, that he made his mark, directing at least three true classics, Stagecoach, Fort Apache and The Searchers, as well as a number of near-classics such as My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and others. He had a great eye for detail and composition, and the westerns shot in his prime, largely using Monument Valley, Utah as a backdrop, are some of the most beautiful ever created. He is known for using John Wayne, for whose career he was partially responsible, in a number of roles.
Print the Legend (title taken from a line near the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) is an adept portrait of the man and the studio system he worked in and fought against. Eyman resists the temptation to descend into gossip, as the sexual dalliances common to the studio era are discussed but not dwelled on. At the end of it, the reader feels as close as he ever will be to knowing a man unknowable even to himself.

John Ford was a great director, but not such a nice person. He had a streak of real sadism, and never forgot any perceived slight. Sometimes, his cruelty was calculated to achieve a desired emotion in an actor, but often it was just an expression of who he really was. He harassed those who worked with him, and mostly ignored his children.

Biographies of people who live full lives are always tragedies. Talent fades, health declines. This is seen in Ford, as he progresses from being one of the top Hollywood directors to a point where he is reduced to unsuccessful attempts to get work directing ultra-low budget westerns for scale. His films reflect the dimming of his health and the darkening of his worldview. Compare the beautiful location-filmed vistas of The Searchers to the claustrophobic set-driven The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, his last good movie, made when he was losing his sight, a difficult burden for a director who always said the set determines the story. Valance is also a tragic commentary of the destruction time inflicts on all of us. If you don’t believe that, re-watch the final framing segment, and reflect on the fates of the three man characters, all of whom lost what was most precious to them, although two of them got what they thought they wanted.

I’d recommend Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford to any fan of his movies, or to anyone interested in the Golden Age of movies.

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