Sometimes, a line from a book or a film just sounds to good to resist. It sticks in your head and you tend to quote it – and eventually you change the words while you’re at it. (“Play it again, Sam” – anyone?) When this happens, not only does the quote get mangled – and taken out of context – but the original author is soon forgotten, and his or her original meaning is lost. This is what happened when I latched onto Larry McMurtry’s epigraph in The Last kind Words Saloon:

“I had the great director John Ford in mind when I wrote this book; he famously said that when you had to choose between history and legend, print the legend. And so I’ve done.”

This sentence (underlined) was in a film, a song, a play, and a short story. But where did it actually come from? And what was it, originally?

McMurtry not only recalled the line differently, but also gave it a different meaning by writing “choose between”, implying a choice between two related concepts. However, his version fits what he did in the novel – which was to depict, and print, the legend of Wyatt Earp, not the real-life Wyatt Earp. Also, it was not John Ford who said it. It was the screenplay writers who wrote the lines for the actor who played the part of the reporter, “Maxwell Scott”, in the 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which was directed by John Ford. There’s a mouthful – but that’s not all of it.

1. First there was the screenplay…

Screenplay writers James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck have to be credited with those words. Ford, having become famous, is often credited with it, and not those guys of whom I’ve never heard. In the film, the characters say this:

“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.”

In other words, when fiction becomes fact, print the fiction. A legend is folklore – or an old, made-up story – that people eventually believe took place in history and is true, because it sounds so convincing and humanistic. In the film, Maxwell Scott firmly chose legend over fact because legends sold more newspapers in the Wild West.

The film poster of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring James (Jimmy) Stewart and John Wayne, and directed by John Ford.

They created a great exit line for the context that they had created in the film. The reporter, Maxwell Scott (played by Carleton Young), gets the facts about the celebrated career of “Ransom Stoddard” (played by James Stewart ) a senator who, in his youth, became famous for killing an outlaw, “Liberty Valance”.  Having listened to the roll-call of the senator’s achievements in politics and the law, which is much duller than the public gossip doing the rounds, Scott realizes that Stoddard’s entire reputation is based on the myth that he killed Valance. And  he rips up his notes and says the famous line.

It is ironic that one of the most quoted lines in the film is spoken by a minor character, right at the end. It is a line that reflects the state of journalism on the American Frontier, in the second half of the 19th century to about 1890, the period in which the film is set. (Clues in the film indicate that it takes place after 1876.)

Newspapers of the time contained sensationalist stories with blaring headlines. This sort of “Yellow Journalism” – the forerunner of today’s tabloids – was backed up by exaggerated and frankly fantastical “dime novels” about the “Wild West” that became hugely popular after 1859. What the public demanded, the public got. And what they got, they believed.

It also reflects the cynicism of the writers and their belief that in news publishing, the legend (a juicy bit of fiction that the public believes) is more acceptable than history (or the facts.) It was certainly true about Hollywood in those days, where the PR machines of the big movie studios churned out endless lies and legends about movie stars.

Their famous line has often been misquoted, for instance by film critic Richard Schickel in the New York Times, who not only attributed to the quote to John Ford, but also mangled it. He wrote:

”When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.”

When he wrote it like that – when fact becomes fiction, print the fiction – he got it backwards. It’s the opposite of the meaning of the original line.



  1. One of my favorite films! I can still sing the song. 

    Sent from my iPhone


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