The Life and Times of John Ford

By Scott Eyman

Simon & Schuster. 656 pp. $40

Reviewed by Robert Sklar

In John Ford's 1962 film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," a distinguished senator returns to Shinbone, in his Western state, for the funeral of a town nobody. Quizzed by a newspaper editor about his unusual visit, the senator, portrayed by James Stewart, narrates through a long flashback the truth about the violent years before statehood. It was the dead man, played by John Wayne, and not he, who had performed the heroic, civilizing deed for which he had mistakenly received credit and that became the foundation of his illustrious career. Will the editor report the true story? "This is the West, sir," the editor famously replies. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

This line provides Scott Eyman's title, and the biographer is well aware of its resonance in an era of "debunk the legend" movie-director biographies. With previous works on Mary Pickford, Ernst Lubitsch, and the coming of sound to movies, Eyman has emerged as one of the most distinguished and reliable of popular film historians. Print the Legend displays his broad knowledge, his tact, his willingness to credit other writers, his capacity to avoid sensationalism but not to flinch from difficult truths. He gives readers, as Ford's movie does, both the legend and the facts, and lets us decide which should take precedence.

John Ford (1894-1973) was born into a large Irish immigrant family in Portland, Maine, and went straight from high school to Hollywood, where an older brother had already established himself as an actor and director. "We are liars, weaklings, and selfish drunkards," he wrote of his family years later to a nephew, "but there has always been a stout rebel quality in the family and a peculiar passion for justice."

Eyman's book is in a way a 600-page gloss on that sentence. From the World War I era into the mid-1930s, Ford directed around 80 films and had climbed to the top rank of Hollywood's journeymen. His bosses valued him as a money-saver who loathed making extra takes, and his discerning co-workers recognized an unusual talent who developed an overall plan in his head, edited in the camera while shooting, and left little to do in the cutting room. These traits reached their apotheosis, Eyman says, on "Rio Grande" (1950), when for 646 individual camera set-ups he made only 665 takes. Ford won a best-director Oscar in 1935 for "The Informer," a film not much esteemed today. But it was his love affair with Katharine Hepburn in 1936 while making "Mary of Scotland," Eyman suggests, that fueled his development into one of the central shapers of American cultural mythology.

Whether or not the actress and the married director became sexually intimate, a question the author leaves open, by renouncing his passion for Hepburn Ford gained painful insight into loss, duty, honor and family obligation. These were central themes of his many great films that followed, from "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) and "How Green Was My Valley" (1941) -- for which he won back-to-back directing Oscars -- to "The Searchers" (1956) and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

Ford revitalized the Western genre with the 1939 "Stagecoach," shot in Utah's Monument Valley, and his many subsequent Westerns turned that spectacular setting into an iconic image of the American West. He hired local Navajo as extras, saying, "the poor bastards never get enough to eat unless I make a picture there." Conditions were so rough there as late as 1949, when Ford made "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," that Eyman writes, "The company was simultaneously playing the West and being the West, and the combination gave the filming a mystical authority."

The director was known both as a progressive and a conservative during his career, and his family's "rebel quality" and "passion for justice" provide a clue to his ideological alliances. His most famous political moment came during the post-World War II struggles over communism in Hollywood. When Cecil B. DeMille in 1950 led a right-wing group seeking to oust Joseph L. Mankiewicz as president of the Directors Guild, Ford sat silently through a long, rancorous meeting that threatened to destroy the Guild. Past midnight, Ford rose, introducing himself as "a director of Westerns," and proposed a solution that defeated DeMille's coup. Eyman's is the most thorough and evenhanded account of this episode.

Eyman provides abundant details of Ford's drooling drunkenness, his vicious bullying of actors (John Wayne was a lifelong target), his sullen, secretive temperament. Ford was mean "especially to the people he loved," one actor says, and others describe his cruelty as a defense mechanism of an overly sensitive and insecure man. He could hold grudges for decades, yet he was also intensely loyal. Eyman's clear-eyed biography considerably complicates the John Ford legend that it prints.

Robert Sklar teaches Cinema Studies at New York University and is the author of "Movie- Made America" and other books on film.