THE SEARCHERS featured an appalling mistake by Ward Bond that had to be covered up for years to avoid the “terrible temper” and physical attack of director John Ford. When the filmmaker finally found out what he’d done to John Wayne, he was “left speechless” as his face “turned white” as a sheet.
John Wayne and John Ford collaborated on some of the Hollywood Golden Age’s best-loved Westerns from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Perhaps their most famous was 1956’s The Searchers, which is on BBC Two this afternoon. The film saw Duke play a Civil War veteran spending years searching for his abducted niece, played by Natalie Wood. Still a student in high school at the time, Wayne and co-star Jeffrey Hunter had to pick her up and take her to set on a number of occasions.
The Searchers was shot in Ford’s favoured Monument Valley, part of the Navajo territory on the Arizona/Utah state line, temperatures during filming could reach heights of 49°C (120°F).
The director was brilliant and eccentric, chewing through the corners of a dozen handkerchiefs while smoking a pipe each day. He also discouraged chatting and bad language in front of women and insisted on an Earl Grey tea break each afternoon.
Maureen O’Hara, who worked on five movies with him said in 2004: “He was a genius. He was the finest director any of us ever worked with, and we were proud to work with him and work for him.
“We realised that he was bad-tempered and awful but we accepted it and forgave him… He was abusive if it suited him and what he was after. I used to watch him and think, ‘Oh, he’s after something.’”
With such a reputation for anger, Reverend Captain Clayton star Ward Bond found himself in a situation on The Searchers set one day in which he barely managed to escape the filmmaker’s wrath.
One day the actor, who would walk around naked in his motel room after filming with the curtains open in the futile attempt of attracting co-star Vera Miles, realised he needed a shave and what happened next was certainly a close one.
During the filming of Ethan’s speech in which he recounted discovering and burying Lucy, Wayne nailed his first take much to Ford’s delight.
However, for some strange reason, the camera had stopped which saw the director “supremely irritated”. He asked the cameraman what was wrong, only for the power to return and filming to resume.
What had happened was that Bond had pulled the plug so he could charge his electric razor.
The crew knew the truth of the matter but decided not to tell Ford out of fear that the director would thump him.
Nevertheless, the director did indeed find out, long after the actor’s death of a massive heart attack in 1960.
Years after The Searchers premiered, the film’s cinematographer Winton C Hoch told Ford at a Hollywood event how the late actor was responsible for losing Wayne’s perfect take.
Upon hearing this “Ford’s face turned white. He was uncharacteristically speechless because he didn’t have his favourite horse’s ass to kick around anymore.”
Despite being known for having a terrible temper and playing harsh pranks on cast and crew, the director was very kind to Duke’s son Patrick Wayne who played Lt Greenhill in The Searchers.
In Scott Eyman’s biography of Ford, he recalled that the filmmaker “was crazy about me.”
Patrick, who was in his first big movie role, said: “Everyone had their day in the barrel, but I was always spared that. Which was good and bad.
“I wasn’t exactly the most popular person on the set. Everyone was getting reamed but me… he handed everything to me… Remember, he was the only director I’d worked for at that point, and I figured that this was the way pictures were made. And I had my real father standing there watching me in the scene. I wasn’t acting scared; I was scared.”