Monday, March 19, 2012

Chasing John Ford

Any discussion of American filmmaking greatness has to include John Ford (1894 - 1973). During a career that began in the silent era and ended in the late 60's he created a series of landmark American films that went a long way toward defining a generation's self-understanding of the American experience. Films like Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath and The Searchers manage to be both personal statement and eloquent expressions of universal human themes, not to mention their monumental technical brilliance.

I'm reading a superb biography of Ford by local author Scott Eyman. Incidentally, I had the good fortune to meet Eyman at a Christmas party last year hosted by some mutual friends. I buttonholed him in the kitchen and we had an enjoyable chat about his current project (a biography of John Wayne), as well as some of the other figures he's written about. There have been other noteworthy Ford bios, but as far as I can tell this is the most exhaustive. I'm on page 107 and we're still in the 1920s! The title, Print the Legend, comes from the final scene of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and it hints at the difficulty of writing about the "legend" that is John Ford, since that legend was largely self-constructed. I like how Eyman describes his biographical approach.

Any artist's work takes precedence over his life, but, to an unusual degree, Ford's work was his life; his own history and beliefs are scattered like seed through his films, and ripened into vast statements in both his middle and late periods.

I have tried to record John Ford's life, what he said and did and thought. I have attempted to resist the oppressive moral vanity of our age, in which biographers adopt the role of prosecutor and profess disappointment over human failings that occur nearly as frequently among biographers as they do among artists.

To be a serious artist is to have a single-minded mania for control, the precise quality that makes it extremely difficult to be a loving husband and father. To spend hundreds of pages primly documenting every instance of ill temper or alcoholic outburst strikes me as pointless as writing about fish and reporting with outrage that they are cold and wet.

Any artist who arouses clean, uncomplicated feelings will almost certainly turn out to be unworthy of serious attention. Human beings are not clean and uncomplicated, and John Ford was a very human being.

The great epigram of Ford's career is, of course, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. With all due respect for the amber hue of myth, this book concerns itself with how the facts of John Martin Feeney led to the legend of John Ford.

Quote from pp. 22-3 of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (John Hopkins University Press, 1999)

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