Directed by Alan Smithee #5: When the Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

My mom will probably read this series of “Directed by Alan Smithee” posts and call me a liar.

It’ll probably be like watching the movie adaptation of the book you really love—gasping and head shaking and accusations of “That’s not how it happened!”

I exaggerate—I lie. Which parts, I don’t even know. Whenever my mom tells stories about me as a kid I don’t remember the instances the same way as she does at all. She mentions things that I didn’t even care about and don’t even think of anymore. She never mentions things that I still have dreams, even nightmares about.

In my favorite John Wayne/John Ford movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a reporter near the end says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” When I re-watched this movie recently, as someone who just spent two semesters working as an intern at the Oxford American, where the bulk of my work was fact-checking articles before they were published, I gasped at that line. Facts corrupted? The Truth turned into a farce, a myth, a legend? Over my dead body and the dead bodies of noble fact-checkers everywhere!

Oh, please. Here’s another thing besides being a liar that my mom knows about me that you should probably know too: I’m a bit melodramatic. I used to tell my mom sunlight was searing my retinas. I once thought I was going to die from eating an overcooked hot dog.

But ah, who cares? Where would the world be without a little lying and melodrama? The single tear, the mentor’s satisfied smile and nod, the lush orchestration as the hero rides off into the sunset with his arm around his girl. That stuff doesn’t exist in real life.

However, the feelings generated from those instances do exist.

Or so I like to think.

Stories and art bottle up those feelings in convenient little containers so that people can carry them around. It’s the old “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” idea. Except really I think that truth doesn’t exist AT ALL without a good story. I hear somebody talking about Christianity, preaching at people, I think the whole religion is a load of crap. I read the bible or hear a believer tell a personal story, I think I need to jump into the next body of water and be re-baptized. Maybe being a storyteller I’m a little biased. I bet physicists think physics is the absolute, where-it’s-at, capital-T Truth. But I can’t shake the feeling that the world, at least as we humans know it, needs art, needs stories, whether they be fiction or fact.

I, of course, am a bit heavy-handed with the fiction. My name should be a disclaimer for “take what follows with a grain of salt” just as Alan Smithee’s name is a disclaimer for “some stuff went down” and “some stuff hit the fan.” I always feel so insecure writing nonfiction. In an earlier post I wrote about bawling when watching Bambi. How can I be sure that I cried because Bambi’s mom bit the dust or if I really just found “Little April Showers” insufferable?

Dispute not with her: she is a lunatic. This random Shakespeare quote sums it up—I’m crazy, I’m a bit delusional, I don’t fit in with the rest of the world a lot of the time—so take whatever I say but take it with a touch of skepticism.

My stories are like magic tricks—meant to make you believe in them even when you know they can’t be true.

I’d be an awful magician. After each trick I’d want to explain excitedly how it was done. I might even assign some larger meaning to it—relating it to my life and storytelling and art until all the magic has been displaced into words. I’d probably write some rambling blog post about it.

How much can anybody really remember about anything? And who has ownership of a childhood story—the child who felt the moment or the adult who could interpret the moment?

The answer is neither of the above. Sorry, Mom, but the ownership of any story rests with the storyteller and the listener. The storyteller calls the legend fact. The listener “prints” the legend, buying into the charade instead of disputing it.

Basically, when the fiction becomes truth, print the fiction.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the rough-and-ready John Wayne character calls the tenderfoot Jimmy Stewart character “Pilgrim.” What a lovely nickname, really, even though the Wayne character means it to be kinda demeaning. Really the movie is about the legendary Wild West and the dying of that legend as the frontier closes and the land becomes “civilized” with lawyers and schools and fair democracy. A lot of the movie is about questioning the legend—Jimmy Stewart doesn’t buy into Wayne’s macho tactics of tough talk with a hand on a pistol and gritted teeth, the traditional Wild West way of dealing with things. Meanwhile, though, Stewart becomes his own legend—the Pilgrim who came and tamed the West.

The movie is a classic for a reason—it’s as relevant today as it was in 1962, when it was released. It makes you think about storytelling, legends versus facts, how legends play into politics and influence government, how in turn those legends have real-life effects.

It makes you realize that every story, no matter how honorably told, is shaped in a way by the storyteller’s sensibilities and perceptions. But it also makes you realize that you as a listener also have a bit of ownership over the story—you get to decide what you’re going to swallow, what you’re going to find meaningful and carry around with you.

In other words, you believe what you choose to believe, Pilgrim.


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.
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