"Once upon a time, he strode through meadows, was chased by Mohawks, buried the ax in the stump, and read from the law book as if it were the Bible. In all eras, he ran, galloped, slouched, and rounded into and out of the Hollywood dream of American history.
As the prairie town’s tin star, he was hard but clean, proficient but haunted. As the comic victim of romantic love, he took pratfalls for lustful females. In war, he led armies and studied his thoughts while other men whacked maps with sticks. Other times, he was the loner, drifter, killer — the dark shape cornered with a gun, or the parolee flattened by sunlight against a scorched expanse of heartland. Even when falsely charged, he was the criminal of his own imagination, because he could so easily have done what they accused him of — robbed the bank, or committed the murder.
He would appear in different places, looking familiar but never quite the same, sometimes leading the crowd, sometimes off to the side, an American artist caught up in representing his country’s history — the history of centuries or of hours ago — sometimes its forceful subject, sometimes its mere object. At his noblest, he embodied the highest promises of democracy. At his darkest, he was the quiet, antisocial, anti-pluribus American, the American whose ‘Don’t tread on me’ meant just that: Leave me alone, or I might kill you.
You find Henry Fonda in every corner of the mythic history and imaginative geography mapped by the movies. Like any star of such duration, he puts his name to many bad movies along the way; the career in total recalls John Berryman’s remark about the collected works of Stephen Crane: ‘majesty and trash scrambled together’. But in the fullness of time, he creates an image of the national man that is kaleidoscopic, frightening, and wildly improbable.”
- Devin McKinney, The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda