The Searchers: John Ford Anecdotes

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I watched The Searchers last night – with the commentary track from Peter Bogdonavich on – his commentaries are always so awesome. Searchers fans, I highly recommend checking it out (if you haven’t already). And the good thing is is that Bogdonavich knew John Ford and John Wayne – he interviewed them both extensively, he made a documentary about Ford – etc. So his comments are insightful, and he gives anecdotes you might otherwise never hear of.

Anyway, here are some funny stories:

John Ford was notoriously cranky. Even frightening. Bogdonavich said you could tell if he liked you – but it was always very subtle. Because the guy was such a crank, and could turn on you at any moment if you pushed things too far. (The love of his life was Katharine Hepburn – and apparently the dynamic between her and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby was based on her and Ford – She could joke him out of his crankiness. She didn’t take the crankiness personally. She knew he was a bully, and she didn’t let it bother her. She didn’t cower in fear like everybody else did. John Ford was so tough that he even brought John Wayne – John Wayne! – to tears once. Here’s another story along those lines. He liked to keep people off-balance. He liked to withhold himself – his approval – just to mess with people’s heads. He could be that mean. And he and Wayne were friends! So imagine how he treated his enemies!)

Bogdonavich said that Ford was very intimidating. You had to really get yourself together before speaking with him – and organize your comments – because otherwise he’d bark at you, “Get to the point!” or whatever. Bogdonavich describes the night his documentary on Ford was first played. This was in Los Angeles in the early 70s. And Wayne was there, and Howard Hawks – all the old GIANTS. John Ford was cranky throughout, he was embarrassed by the fuss. You know … you could never catch the guy being self-important, or self-congratulatory. But anyway – the documentary went over well – Ford’s reputation was on the ascendant in the 70s, mainly because of the younger generation of film-makers (like Bogdonavich and others) – who considered him a master. The Searchers didn’t have the reputation then that it has now – of a masterpiece, in general – and certainly one of Ford’s best films. Anyway, after the screening, Bogdonavich went over to Ford, kind of nervously. He didn’t know what to say. He said, “So, Jack … what did you think?” Ford barked, “You did okay even though you had the most boring subject imaginable.” And that might have been that. Bogdonavich laughed, and the moment was about to end – but Ford then reached out, took Bogdonavich’s hand in a firm grip, didn’t let go – and said, “Thank you.” Now from the little I know of Ford, a moment like that has to be earned. And you should thank your lucky stars that he is letting you in a bit. Because it happened once a decade, not everybody was given the key to the castle. But that one moment – the “Thank you” – after all the bluster and self-deprecation – was all the praise that Bogdonavich ever needed.

Another funny anecdote:

Bogdonavich was hanging out at John Ford’s place. This was in the 70s. Ford was a bit deaf – but he sometimes pretended he was deafer than he was, just to make people more uncomfortable, and to have the fun of watching them scream their innocent comments louder and louder. Ford was kind of a sonofabitch in that way. Intimidating. So Bogdonavich said to Ford, “It’s Duke’s birthday next week. I’m thinking of getting him a present – maybe a book or something.” Ford barked, “HUH?” In a way that made Bogdonavich know that … uh oh … trouble’s ahead. So Bogdonavich repeated his sentence to Ford, only louder. “It’s Duke’s birthday next week. I’m thinking of getting him a present – maybe a book or something!” Again, Ford barked, “HUH?” Uh-oh. Apparently, he made Bogdonavich repeat that sentence 3 or 4 times – until Bogdonavich was literally screaming, feeling like a total idiot. So the last time – Ford barks, even more annoyed, “HUH?” And Bogdonavich shouts at the top of his lungs: “IT’S DUKE’S BIRTHDAY NEXT WEEK. I’M THINKING OF GETTING HIM A PRESENT. MAYBE A BOOK OR SOMETHING.” Ford took this in, and then said, grumpily, “He’s already got a book.” hahahaha And Bogdonavich said he fell down laughing.

“He’s already got a book.”

There’s more to be said about the actual filming of The Searchers – I do want to write more about that – fascinating observations … but those Ford anecdotes are classic.

What a crusty old pirate.

The technique with him is hidden. Bogdonavich helped me to see that. People often say that Ford never moved his camera. But that’s not actually true. He moved it quite a bit – but so subtly that you, the audience member, barely notice it. It does not call attention to itself. It always has a point. Wayne walks into the room and the camera moves in with him. So the camera IS Wayne. It tells us, in no uncertain terms, who to look at … but it doesn’t tell us what to feel, or how to think about it. It is a kind of artistry that is so sure, so certain … that can be easily dismissed … because it seems too easy. Bogdonavich’s observations about Ford’s work as a director really made me see that movie in a new and alert way. So much fun.

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Oh – and one last thing: see how John Wayne is standing there? That’s from the famous last shot of The Searchers. The pose – with the one arm holding the other – was quite distinctive, and so un-John-Wayne-like that Bogdonavich once asked him about it. “You know how you stand in the doorway in that last shot? And how you have your arms? Was that on purpose? Did you choose that pose, or …”

And John Wayne’s answer is enough to bring tears to my eyes. He said, “I knew a guy who stood like that all the time. And the pose always seemed so lonely to me. I thought it would work well in that last shot.”

The consciousness of his artistry, his genius … that he chose that particular pose on purpose – for that reason …

Brilliant.

UPDATE: The Shamus has been doing a whole series of posts on Duke – definitely go over there and check them all out. I’ll link to this one in particular.

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22 Responses to The Searchers: John Ford Anecdotes

  1. DBW says:

    I love that last shot of Wayne in The Searchers, and all that it means–Ethan Edwards outside the home, apart from his family within. I never knew the story of that pose until you posted about it once before. As you say, it was an unusual posture for Wayne, yet it seemed perfect for that moment. The backstory just makes it better.

    What makes a man to wander?
    What makes a man to roam?
    What makes a man leave bed and board
    And turn his back on home?
    Ride away, ride away, ride away.

  2. red says:

    Yeah – I love the kind of awkwardness of his pose there. He can’t go back inside – he will be in exile forever.

  3. DBW says:

    I was thinking about what I wrote above. That really isn’t accurate. It’s not Ethan’s family. It’s that other family–I forget their name–something Scandinavian. He is separated from civilization and the potential comforts of family. There are lots of juxtapositions in this movie. Ethan, in some ways, is doomed to roam without peace just like the dead Indian he shoots in the eyes earlier in the movie. And Martin is saved from losing his love, unlike Ethan who lost his beloved to his brother–and so on. Does Bogdanovich talk about things like this in his commentary? I’ll have to watch this again(for about the 20th time) with his comments.

  4. red says:

    Yes – the Scandinavian family. The ones whose daughter (Vera Miles) is in love with Martin.

    Bogdonavich talks a lot about the subtlety of all of these family relationships – and how very little of it is IN THE DIALOGUE. That is indicative of John Ford’s history as a silent film director. We get that John Wayne is in love with his brother’s wife – without one word of dialogue. Not even a close-up! Nothing is on the nose … we just KNOW that he loves her. In an unrequited way.

    And then there’s the shot where the reverend (love him) sees her in a backroom, holding John Wayne’s military coat, and stroking it.

    Again: no dialogue. We just see the reverend see that … and …

    We are left to make our own conclusions.

  5. red says:

    And also – probably the most well-known close-up of Wayne’s career – or one of them – is the one where he sees what happened to the captive white women.

    Unbelievable. Very un-Ford-ish – that camera move – moving in on his face. Calling attention to itself. Very dramatic.

    It gave me goosebumps.

    John Wayne was such a master of film acting that you could watch him “do” that closeup 100 times and still be learning something new.

    The camera zooming in like that is a “device” – and directors who overuse such devices lessen their impact. By Ford zooming in like that – big big close-up – it has SO much impact that the hairs on the back of my neck are rising right now, just remembering it.

    Also – back to Wayne – if you watch him in that closeup … you can see how … he just KNOWS when the camera is in the position it needs to be … Hard to explain – but he knows how close the camera will get, and he saves the intensity until the moment it is at its closest …

    It is truly exhilarating to watch acting like that.

  6. DBW says:

    “It is truly exhilarating to watch acting like that.”

    And to read someone like you talking about it.

  7. red says:

    Ohh, you’re nice. Thank you!!

    I do like talking about this stuff, as you well know!

    Do you happen to remember the closeup I’m talking about?? It’s so damn AMBIGUOUS – that’s why it’s so brilliant (in my opinion). The whole character of Ethan is ambiguous – and I love them for making no apology about that.

    But that one close-up …

    shivers!!

  8. DBW says:

    Are you seriously asking me if I remember that close-up? Ha. Yes, I remember it. As I said, I have seen The Searchers many, many times. There’s a bit of silliness in it that, in my opinion, keeps it from being a perfect movie, but it’s one of my favorites. Of course, Ford was known for throwing in scenes like those. That close-up is chilling. Not the kind of thing that Ford did that often, but, as you said, Wayne knocks it out of the park. He is really quite nasty in this movie, and not in the typical I-won’t-take-crap-off-anyone Wayne manner. Ethan has a core nastiness that borders on evil. I remember the first time I saw The Searchers many years ago. Right up to the end, I thought Ethan would kill Debbie, or that Martin would shoot Ethan before he could kill her. It’s one of those movies that continues to reveal things to the viewer each time you see it. I didn’t catch that Scarface(or whatever the scarred Indian was called)was wearing the medal that Ethan gave Debbie earlier in the movie until seeing the movie at least a couple times–just for example. Or the contrast between the way Ethan laughs at Martin’s “squaw bride,” and the disgust and hate he feels about Debbie being an Indian’s “squaw.” Or, as I mentioned earlier, the connection between Ethan dooming the dead Indian to roam without peace while Ethan suffers the same fate in real life. There are lots of subtle(or not so subtle for a more alert viewer) things like that in this movie. The way Ethan lifts Debbie as a small girl early in the movie, and then again at the end. And so on. I’ll stop.

  9. DBW says:

    OK, one more thing. You are right about the amibuity in the E. Edwards character. When he first shows up, he is very non-committal about where he has been, what he has been doing, how did he come up with the gold pieces, the love he feels for his brother’s wife, the gravestone behind Debbie tells us that Ethan’s own Mother was killed by Commanches, etc. We have talked before about movies that feel compelled to beat you over the head with any info or clues about a character’s motivations or inner workings. It’s always nice when a movie trusts the viewers to figure some of those things out for themselves, and when it doesn’t mind that one viewer may see some of it differently from another.

  10. red says:

    DBW – hahahaha i definitely should have known you would know what I was talking about!! hee hee

    //Ethan has a core nastiness that borders on evil.//

    God, yes. To me that is one of the most fascinating things about this film. It is relentless – it never lets up … and so that last moment – when he lifts Natalie Wood in the air – you truly do not know what he will do. What other actor can make you so uneasy? So … unsure? And ALSO – even with his hard-ness … also like him?

    That’s one of the reasons why that close-up is so wrenching, so unbelievable.

    Even after all of that – we STILL do not know what is REALLY in his heart. We can guess … but we would probably be wrong.

    John Wayne’s acting does not “date” itself. Ever. I think part of that is because he is not literal, and not obvious. He’s simple and clear – always – but never predictable, hammy, or … obvious.

    The scenes with the Indian squaw are quite questionable (in terms of humor, and whatever) – especially when Martin kicks her down the hill and Ethan roars with laughter. But one of the reasons why I think this film is a masterpiece is that it soft-pedals NOTHING.

    Like – even at the end … when Martin is telling Laurie about going to fetch Debbie – Laurie shows the disgust and racism of the time … that Debbie is now tainted, spoiled – and somehow not worth saving, since she has been “soiled” by being married to Scar, the warchief.

    When he lifts her up in the air at the end – and her face … her hands go into fists … and then gently, he brings her down into his arms, like she is a little girl …

    Dammit. It’s just moving.

    And yet – he has paid a price. At the end: he cannot go into that house. He knows it.

  11. DBW says:

    Damn. I just love talking about these kind of things with you. That ending just kills me, every time. Even as a young boy, when I first saw this movie, I knew there was something fundamental in Wayne’s posture, and the way he turns away from the sounds and comfort inside the house, framed by the dark outline of the doorway…and then the door shuts. His character had changed, but not enough to allow him to pass through that door. Oh, and remember when a couple people brush by him as they enter the house? The way he looks at them, and after them, is wonderfully done.

  12. red says:

    DBW – yeah – Martin and Laurie are behind him at first, she’s clinging to his arm – you get the sense that: Okay, this couple will FINALLY get together.

    And the mother and father hustle Debbie into the house in front of Wayne – so there’s all this activity around him – behind and before … he stands still until finally the screen is empty, except for him.

    All of this reunion stuff – which he is not included in at all.

    He is “other”. Not one of them.

    No close-up (Bogdonavich reiterates over and over again how efficient and sparing Ford is with close-ups and how much you DON’T need them …) Just that pose – and the background (Ford liked to have a dark foreground and a light background – he liked that sense of being inside something, looking out onto a vista).

  13. Dan says:

    More Sheila on Wayne (and Ford) please. ;-)

  14. red says:

    Dan -

    I definitely need to do a big “what I observed” post on The Searchers – there’s just so much!!

    And having watched it now with Bogdonavich’s commentary – I see so much more. It’s cool – the best kind of commentary.

  15. Dan says:

    I really enjoy your discussions of the Duke’s acting. I often try and convince folks he really WAS acting but I like the knowledge to explain properly – so it’s a pleasure to read someone who does.

  16. Nightfly says:

    You know he’s acting because it never looks like he’s acting. That’s why everyone says that “he was just being John Wayne” in every role.

    Y’know, because 150 consecutive times acting like himself in a movie wasn’t boring AT ALL to him or his audience.

    I’ll sit back down now and let teacher go on. =D

  17. red says:

    No teacher here! Every comment from fans and admirers adds to the legacy. Not that the man needs help – he still beats out most other actors as a box office draw. I wrote that post about trying to rent a John Wayne film from my local blockbuster – and every single copy of any movie of his – was out. You know … that’s the kind of track record that you can’t plan for, work for … You just have to keep doing work, and keep your integrity as much as you can.

    John Wayne made a lot of crappy movies. Actors were in more movies back then – they were faster productions, they cranked ‘em out much quicker – and many of them are not good at all.

    But he … it’s not that he rises above them. It’s that he never ever HAMS it up – he never cheapens his own talent in that way. And believe me – there is always pressure to cheapen your talent.

    Those who allow it to be cheapened (for sometimes very good reasons) lessen their staying power. Here’s a trivial example (perhaps) – but I just say this because i’m a fan of her: Charlize Theron has let herself take too many “girlfriend” parts. Even before “Monster”. I always knew that chick could act. She just happens to look like Lana Turner. But she’s also ambitious, hungry for work – and was in a couple too many bad movies, where she didn’t ahve that much to do.

    Until finally her career came to a halt. 2 years passed. Nothing. No work. She’s beautiful, sure, but who the hell cares. It was her courageous choice to make Monster – to produce it, develop it – nobody ASKED her to do that – the powers that be were the ones who didn’t know what to DO with this gorgeous woman … and you know what? They still don’t.

    It’s hard. Everyone needs to work. A job is better than no job.

    But it’s MORE important to hover over your talent – whatever it is – and not let anybody mess with it. Because it;’s the only fucking thing you’ve got. That’s IT. Plenty of girls are beautiful. Plenty of girls are talented. But there is only one Charlize Theron. She needs to honor that. It’s tough, I know – but taking roles that cheapen you (and I don’t mean slut parts – I mean parts that are just NOTHING parts) can definitely chip away at your individuality. Your you-ness.

    John Wayne was fortunate enough to have been discovered – first by Raoul Walsh, and then by Ford … people who knew how to USE this man. He so easily could have been mis-used.

    Think of the times when he’s played cops. It’s not quite right. He’s always fine in those roles – better than most … but it was the Western that set this man free.

    Many actors flounder around for their entire career – waiting for the moment when they will align with the right material, the right moment … when their genius can be unleashed, they can be recognized. (Stallone talks a lot about that, in the Rocky commentary. He’s talking about himself – but also about the Rocky character. Rocky’s a great character, a great guy – with a strong heart, a beautiful spirit … but without that CHANCE, without the chance Apollo Creed gave him … he’d be “just another bum from the neighborhood”.)

    Wayne was lifted out of the crowd – by directors who saw something in him and who helped (along with him) create that typical Wayne character that now seems so inevitable (Walsh talks about having seen Wayne, when he was a prop guy, pick up a chair and move it across the room and Walsh said he thought: “Hmmm. There’s something powerful about the way that man moves … He should be given a chance …”)

    And then think about how he pulls the gun out of its sheath in The Searchers – when he sees the house burning below … God, it gives me goosebumps – the way he moves. That gesture.

    Seriously. He is so uninhibited in how he moves. That can certainly be taught – but not to the degree that Wayne displays it. That was innate. And also indicative of his emotional fearlessness.

    He had no protection. Even with that crusty character he played. He was uninhibited – in every way that is important for an actor to be uninhibited.

  18. red says:

    Tempe – His commentary on Bringing Up Baby is my favorite DVD commentary ever, I think. I have a lot of films he’s commented on – and they’re all fantastic.

    I will buy a DVD BECAUSE he has done commentary. Give me rambling any day, if it’s Bogdonavich! He’s made some of my favorite movies ever, in his own right … and his film-historian’s approach to these classics is just what I want from a commentary.

    And I was VERY happy with the commentary on The Searchers – I’ve read his interviews with John Ford, so quite a bit of these stories are already known by me – but like I said (in my post) – he helped me see some of Ford’s particular brilliance – in camera moves, and efficiency of story-telling – things I might have missed because it all seems so easy to Ford.

  19. red says:

    This whole marvelous thread reminds me:

    Please, John Wayne fans – tell me what else I need to see. I’ve seen many but I have missed more.

    What are your personal favorites?

    Gimme, gimme!!!

  20. Dan says:

    Well, there’s what I think of as the John Wayne ‘Canon:’ The Searchers, The Quiet Man, Rio Bravo, Stagecoach, Rio Grande, She Wore A Yellow A Ribbon, Fort Apache, True Grit, The Shootist.

    There’s also what I think of as ‘the Lesser Canon’, films that aren’t Wayne’s A-list material but that I have a great affection for: The Sons of Katie Elder, Big Jake, Island in the Sky, The Cowboys, Rooster Cogburn.

  21. alex. says:

    John Wayne. A class act, no doubt. No? Well, how about: Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, The Shootist. Watch ‘em all, and tell me that the Duke wasn’t all that, and more. A damn good actor, and a great American, God Rest.

  22. alex. says:

    Red, you want favorites? Flying Leathernecks, with Robert Ryan, who actually was a WWII Marine; Sands of Iwo Jima, a classic; The Green Berets, gotta love it!; The Hellfighters, watched a hundred times on tv; Hatari!, what a hoot! With Red Buttons!; Donovan’s Reef, hillarious, with Lee Marvin, another WWII Marine. Enjoy!