John Ford biographer Scott Eyman manages to do to me what Ford did to many of those who knew him in real life: inspire conflicted feelings of admiration and loathing. I've been living with Eyman's book for several months. As mentioned in an earlier post Print the Legend is massive, but not unduly so. I agree with the blurb on the back that praises Eyman for giving us "a 600-plus-page book without an ounce of fat." In addition to educating me on the facts of Ford's life and career it left a far deeper appreciation for his art. I've gradually been revisiting -- as well as watching for the first time -- Ford's vast output of American film classics. Thanks to this book I've been doing so with new eyes.
Eyman serves his subject well without sugarcoating the considerable dark side. If in some alternate life I'd ever met John Ford I probably wouldn't have found him likeable (and he probably wouldn't have liked me!) and I definitely wouldn't have wanted to walk in his famous shoes. The final chapters of Print the Legend are among the saddest things I've ever read, as Ford in his last years is brought low by professional obsolescence and cancer. Most tragic are the broken relationships Ford left in his wake, especially with his children -- one of Ford's last spiteful acts was to disinherit his son Patrick. Yet despite all that I fought back tears reading the account of Ford's death. Say what you will, the man's artistic achievement endures, and will endure as long as there are any humans left to watch movies.
From the Epilogue here is Eyman's eloquent attempt at summing up that astonishing body of work.
Faced with the eternal question framed by Yeats ("The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life or the work"), Ford chose the work. He devised a belligerent, deceitful carapace to protect an inner man on the run from insoluble inner tensions, largely revolving around the gap between what he really wanted to be—a naval hero—and what he actually was—a poet. Like Ethan Edwards, he drove all before him with the force of his fierce personality.
John Ford transcended the imprisonment of his anger, insecurity, and disfiguring alcoholism, and cast his imagination outward, transmuting his deep flaws into a profounder form. His films are about the search for a place we can never find, and form an album of America as it was meant to have been, as well as of the place it really is. His films have the power to burn through space to a place inside us, an art about memory that makes our own lives more vivid.
He shaped a vision of America for the twentieth century every bit as majestic and inclusive as the one Jefferson crafted in the eighteenth century. It's made up of soldiers and priests, of drunks and doctors and servants and whores and half-crazed men driven by their need to be alone, even as they journey toward home, toward reconciliation.
Like Tom Joad, he's all around us in the dark.
Print the Legend is available in paperback and a Kindle edition. John Ford's pictures (he didn't like to call them films) are widely available on home video and television.
Quote from pp. 567-8 of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999)