The most disastrous moment of John Ford’s illustrious Hollywood career took place at the U.S. Navy base on Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean in September 1954. The legendary film director was starting work on "Mister Roberts," the movie version of the fabulously successful Broadway play, starring his old friend Henry Fonda.
It should have been a great project, but from the beginning almost everything went wrong.
The biggest problem, surprisingly, was Fonda. Ford had gone to bat for him against the studio executives at Warner Bros. who wanted a younger, sexier and more potent box-office attraction like Marlon Brando or William Holden for the title role of Doug Roberts, the young Navy officer.
Nonetheless, from the moment they got to the location, Ford and Fonda clashed. Fonda didn’t like the script Ford had commissioned, felt it was neither as funny nor as nuanced as the original play, and he didn’t care for the excessive physical comedy and coarse broad strokes of Ford’s direction.
After the first day of shooting, producer Leland Hayward arranged for a clear-the-air meeting in Ford’s room in the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters. Ford was sprawled on a chaise lounge with a tall drink in his hand. Before Fonda could finish explaining his concerns, Ford sprang up and punched him in the face. The actor fled the room in stunned silence.
Fifteen minutes later, Ford knocked on Fonda’s door and stumbled through a tearful, abject apology, but things were never the same. Ford, a life-long alcoholic, started grimly working his way through a case of chilled beer each day on the set.
A few weeks later, Ford was rushed to the hospital for gall bladder surgery, and Mervyn LeRoy took over and finished the picture. "Mister Roberts" was a box-office hit, and won three Academy Awards, including Jack Lemmon’s first, for best supporting actor. But Ford and Fonda were both bitterly disappointed. They never worked together again.
John Ford emerged from the debacle weakened physically and emotionally. He was 60, a smoker and a drinker and in poor health. He was frustrated with the studio, the actors and his own flagging health. “It was clear,” wrote Maureen O’Hara, another of the recurring cast of actors who both worshipped and feared him, “that John Ford was going through changes and that they were terrible ones.”
Still, Ford wasn’t finished. As he tried to put back together the pieces, he turned to what he knew and loved best.
The Western had been John Ford’s favorite movie genre ever since he first arrived in Hollywood 40 years earlier in the formative days of moving pictures, and he had made nearly 50 Westerns during the course of his career. He loved taking his company of actors, cameramen, wranglers, and stuntmen on location to Monument Valley along the Utah-Arizona border, famous for its scenic beauty and its utter remoteness, far from the reach of the studio money men.
And he loved working with John Wayne, his favorite actor and occasional whipping boy. Under Ford’s demanding and meticulous direction, Wayne had become America’s most iconic Western star. They were like father and son, mentor and pupil, with Wayne in the subordinate role even after he became the country’s top box office attraction.
And now, at the moment of Ford’s greatest need, his longtime friend and business partner, Merian C. Cooper, came up with the idea for a Western he thought John Ford would find irresistible.
"The Searchers," a new novel by author and screenwriter Alan LeMay, was a captivity narrative set in Texas during pioneer days. It was based in part on a true story — the abduction of a nine-year-old girl in East Texas in 1836 by Comanche raiders who slaughtered her father, grandfather, and uncle, and kidnaped her and four other young people.
Cynthia Ann Parker had been raised by her captors and became the wife of a Comanche warrior and mother of three. James Parker, her uncle, a backwoodsman who possessed an abiding hatred for Indians, searched eight years for her and her fellow captives and helped recover four of the missing.
But not Cynthia Ann. She lived with the Comanches for 24 years until she was recaptured in 1860 by the U.S. Cavalry and Texas Rangers in another murderous raid and restored to her white relatives. Kept apart from her Comanche family, she died in misery and obscurity. But her surviving son became an apostle of reconciliation, invoking the spirit of his dead mother to preach peace and understanding between whites and Native Americans.
The story of Cynthia Ann Parker has been told and re-told, altered and reimagined by each generation to fit its own needs and sensibility, until fact and fiction have blended together to form a foundational American myth about the winning of the West. The legend gave rise to a prairie opera, one-act plays, fanciful narratives, and fables — and in 1954 to LeMay’s powerful novel, one of the best Westerns of its era.
Ford had Cooper quickly arrange for Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, a scion of two massive family fortunes who was looking to get into the movie business, to acquire the screen rights to the book. Leveraging Whitney’s money, Cooper made a deal with Warner Bros. for additional financing and distribution rights and Ford and his crew set out for Monument Valley.
The movie Ford sought to make had all the elements of the classic Western — a harsh and stunningly beautiful setting, hardy settlers, brutal and rapacious Indians and a hard, relentless protagonist who stalks the frontier on a mission of vengeance. It was, as the publicity posters proclaimed, the BIGGEST, ROUGHEST, TOUGHEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL PICTURE EVER MADE.”
But while "The Searchers" pays homage to the familiar themes of the classic Western, it also undermines them. Its central character possesses all of the manly virtues and dark charisma of the Western hero yet is tainted by racism and crazed by revenge, his quest fueled by hatred.
His goal is not to restore his lost niece to the remnants of their broken family but to kill her, because she has grown into a young woman and has become a Comanche bride.
At the heart of "The Searchers" is John Wayne’s towering performance. Wayne had portrayed morally ambiguous men before, but in "The Searchers" he is darker, angrier and more troubled than ever. This dark knight is determined to exterminate the damsel and anyone who stands in this way. Still, because he is played by John Wayne, his charisma draws us in, making us complicit in his terrible vendetta.
Largely overlooked in its time — it was not nominated for a single Academy Award — "The Searchers" has become recognized as one of the greatest of Hollywood movies. It was extraordinarily influential on a generation of modern American filmmakers — from Steven Spielberg to George Lucas to Martin Scorsese — imprinting itself on their psyches and their ambitions during their formative years.
The film was also the forerunner of the post-modern wave of introspective Westerns –from Ford’s own "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962) to Sam Peckinpah’s "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and Clint Eastwood’s "Unforgive" (1992).
Just as Ernest Hemingway noted that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn,'” film critic Stuart Byron once declared, “in the same broad sense it can be said that all recent American cinema derives from John Ford’s 'The Searchers.'”
Fom "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend," by Glenn Frankel by arrangement with Bloomsbury.