The Makers of Legend

11 Mar

This semester, I am teaching Expansion of the United States and had my students read The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel, an excellent study of how a historical event can get turned into a movie.

The book is chronological, and the reader can see how the story continues to evolve as different people use it for different reasons. I will not go into great detail, but, as the story gets passed on, those who tell it do so with various reasons. In the end, the story barely resembles the reality, and the reality, to many, would be more interesting.

I chose this book because I want my students to know that there is more to history than what happened in the past. History is also about who interprets it and when they do that. I believe it is as much about the people looking into the past as it is about people who lived in the past.

One of my favorite movie lines comes from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. When Senator Ransom Stoddard finished telling reporters about his life and what happened in the town of Shinbone, Maxwell Scott, the newspaper editor, rips up the notes and throws them into the fire.Print the Legend

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?

Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

That line conveys the difficulty that historians of the American West, or any other history, faces when trying to find out what happened way back then. Dime novels. Newspapers. Journals. Diaries. Inaccuracies and embellishments can be found everywhere.

However, it is not just those who record history who cause problems. Those who took part in history do the same. In the book I mentioned, the story was being told incorrectly from almost the beginning, and those incorrect accounts were coming from people who were there.

This brings me to a video I stumbled upon while scanning through YouTube. It is called The American West of John Ford and should be watched by anyone who likes the Western genre. John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda reminisce about working with Ford and take turns interviewing him.

During those interviews, all of them freely admit that Ford was not interested in depicting historical accuracy. He was interested in telling stories within a Western backdrop. He used the genre to study the human condition. However, there was one part of the documentary that got my attention.

While talking about My Darling Clementine, about the actions at the OK Corral, Ford said that Wyatt Earp had personally told him what happened at the gunfight and drew a map for him. In the movie, Ford depicted the gunfight just as Earp had described. According to Earp, a stagecoach came by, and he used it for cover to get closer to those he was after.

I have read a ton about Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral. I have been to Tombstone, Arizona and stood where the gunfight took place. At no point have I ever heard about a stagecoach being used as cover. It could have happened, but that would be a new take on it for me. Hopefully, a historian can tell me that I am wrong, but I do not think a stagecoach had anything to do with it.

So, who are the makers of legend? Was it John Ford, a director who admitted to not caring about historical accuracy? Was it Wyatt Earp who could have embellished a story to impress his Hollywood friends? Was it the director of the documentary who included that story in his movie? Is it me for writing about it?

13 Responses to “The Makers of Legend”

  1. shutterbugshea March 11, 2014 at 22:51 #

    Who knows the truth? My all time favorite is is High Noon…did it happen ?…maybe so….maybe not…however, it is right on when telling the human condition….I love the old western movies…

    • Rick March 11, 2014 at 23:13 #

      Westerns are where our myths are told.

  2. javaj240 March 11, 2014 at 23:09 #

    Ah, a historian’s questions! Loved this post šŸ™‚ also, thanks for turning me on to the John Ford interview, I will definitely watch it. I love Westerns!

    • Rick March 11, 2014 at 23:14 #

      It’s an interesting documentary. I can’t believe I stumbled upon it. Thanks for liking the post.

  3. Marilyn Armstrong March 11, 2014 at 23:45 #

    You and Garry are true kindred spirits.

    I wish I’d had a history teacher who didn’t bore me stupid. Mind you, I did very well in history because I love it, but even through college, history classes were dull, spitting back standard answers (with one exception) in all those years. I don’t think we ever read anything that wasn’t a standard text book. All the history I read was on my own and even back then, I knew a lot of what I was being taught was wrong.

    I envy your students having someone to encourage them to think.

    • Rick March 12, 2014 at 00:45 #

      I try hard not to bore them. My goal is for them to like history a little after they leave. Thanks for comparing to Garry. That’s a real compliment.

  4. satanicpanic March 12, 2014 at 05:46 #

    I never thought about of all the myth-making would affect historians. Must be hard to find the real story (if there is such a thing at all). Such a recent time too- just beyond living memory.

    • Rick March 12, 2014 at 16:06 #

      That’s the question. Is there a real story?

  5. El Guapo March 12, 2014 at 21:01 #

    That’s one of the fascinating things about studying history – the variety of the stories surrounding events, and trying to find the threads that hold true.

    Personally, I’d rather know the truth and just enjoy the legend.

    • Rick March 13, 2014 at 04:51 #

      The truth is out there. Historians depend on documentation. I am frustrated by the missing pieces that don’t get written down.

  6. jcalberta March 13, 2014 at 00:58 #

    As you say, every year certain things that we were taught in school – particularly in History – are found to be completely false – and were taught for a long time.
    I also recall an exercise that they used to do in school whereby the teachers would stage some unannounced incident in front of the students – then later ask they to write down what they had witnessed. The perceptions and reports were often very different.
    I’ve also seen news reports in two different newspapers of the same event – that reported completely different ‘facts’.
    I wouldn’t say there is no way to get the truth, and we should surely challenge many things. Particularly on the Internet.

    • Rick March 13, 2014 at 04:52 #

      The accounts of witnesses depend on memory, and memory is a dangerous thing to depend on.


  1. I Went Down to the Crossroad | Surrounded By Imbeciles - March 15, 2014

    […] As I got out to take a picture, I wondered if this was the real crossroad. Then, I wondered why I was wondering about a place that claims to be the location of an event that is more myth than fact. […]

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