Back in the early 90s I was reading a book by the now-deceased British film director Lindsay Anderson (he directed If, O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital among others) when I came across the mention of a meeting Anderson had with John Ford in Dublin, in 1951, while Ford was in Ireland shooting location footage for The Quiet Man.
A penny suddenly dropped. Of course, Ford must have gone to Ireland to make one of his most famous films, something that had not occurred to me before. Typically, Hollywood films were very rarely made on location but by the late 1940s / early 1950s television had drastically reduced the American domestic cinema audience, forcing Hollywood to tempt filmgoers back with innovations such as 3D and Cinemascope, as well as the added attraction of location shooting to bring an extra dimension to the cinematic experience.
The film was shot in and around the village of Cong so, making a mental note of the name of the place, I decided that if I was ever in the area I’d take a look at some of the locations used for the film.
A few years later, 1993 to be exact, we decided to take a family holiday in Ireland and in the second week of our visit we stayed in a boarding house in the village of Spiddal, located on the shore of Galway Bay. One day the sun decided to grant us with it’s presence so, checking my road map, I plotted a route which took us north of Spiddal into Connemara, after which we hung a right to take us to the village of Cong.
We entered the village from the West, driving up the main high street until we hit a t junction, on the right of which I was delighted to see Pat Cohan’s Bar, the pub in which John Wayne threw the final punch that finished his epic fist fight with Victor McLaglen. After we parked I immediately enlisted in The Quiet Man tour, for which I still proudly hold a certificate.
Our guide was a young man who couldn’t have been more than about 17 years old but who had obviously seen the John Ford classic more times than he’d had birthdays. The tour took about an hour in which we saw Mary Kate Dannaher’s house, to which John Wayne’s character, Sean Thornton, arrived for his first date with her. We were shown the gate that Ward Bond, playing the local Catholic priest, Father Lonergan, leaps over in excitement upon being informed that the climactic fist fight has finally begun, as well as the location where Wayne knocks McLaglen into a stream with one punch.
Various other locations were also visited, including the magnificent Ashford Castle, which is literally about half a mile outside of the village.
Once the tour had finished I revisited some of the locations on my own and was struck by how little everything had changed since John Ford and his cast and crew had arrived to shoot The Quiet Man over forty years before.
At some point either on that day we visited Cong, or shortly after, I started to think about what it might have been like for a young boy living in the village in 1951 when the film was being made. What if that kid was, just like me when I was younger, a huge John Wayne fan?
Furthermore, what if one day he opened his front door to see the real John Wayne standing in the street outside his house preparing for a take? What would that young boy be thinking? How would he react upon meeting his hero in the flesh? And that, dear reader, is how I came to write Connemara Days.
Actually I wrote the screenplay first, a script which unfortunately has yet to be produced. The book version followed a few years afterwards. I couldn’t find a publisher so I self-published a thousand paperback copies, most of which I managed to sell in Ireland and to various interested parties. What with the advent of internet publishing which provides the opportunity to make contact people who share my interest in films, and John Wayne and John Ford in particular, I have decided to issue a new version of the book which has been revised and proofed by a professional editor.
I called the book Connemara Days because on the day we visited Cong for the first time we drove east through Connemara and I did not realise until quite a while afterwards that Cong is actually in County Mayo, albeit only just over the border.
I contemplated changing the title to County Mayo Days but that kind of rhymed with mayonnaise which in itself suggested the existence of some strange kind of Irish relish so I kept the original title.
I hope you enjoy it – the book that is, not the relish.
I first made contact with Harry Carey Jr., or ‘Dobe’; as he came to be known, back in 1998. I’d met up with the film director Andrew McLaglen at Pinewood studios to discuss a script I’d written about the making of The Quiet Man on which he had worked as an unaccredited assistant director in 1951.
After discussing my script we started talking about John Ford and the subject turned to Monument Valley. I told him I was planning a trip that year over to the States and that I’d recently seen a documentary in which Harry Carey Jr. pointed out some of the locations Ford used in Monument Valley. To my astonishment he gave me Dobe’s phone number and said I should ask him about some of the other locations in the valley where Ford had shot many of his Westerns.
I finally got round to ringing Dobe one evening after watching him get shot by Powers Boothe in the film ‘Tombstone’. Dobe told me that he’d been ‘shot at, stomped on and filled full of arrows’ in practically every film he’d ever made. He said he was coming over to England some time the following year and that we should meet up for a cup of tea but unfortunately he hurt his back not too long after so we didn’t actually meet up until nearly ten years later.
He sent me a copy of his book Company of Heroes My Life As An Actor In The John Ford Stock Company – mandatory reading for all Wayne and Ford fans – which was waiting for me at Gouldings Lodge in Monument Valley. One of my cherished memories is sitting on the balcony of our apartment reading Dobe’s book as the sun went down over the valley, with ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ playing on the TV in the background.
Some years later I decided to write a thesis on the silent films of John Ford and figured it would be a good idea to contact Dobe, as his father had been the star of approximately 25 of Ford’s early silent Universal Studio Westerns between 1917 to 1921.By this time he and his wife Marilyn had moved from Durango down to Santa Barbara on the West Coast a few miles north of Los Angeles.
I finally got to meet Dobe and Marilyn at their house in October 2007, by which time he was 85 years old, and looking fairly frail, but very much up to talking about Ford and his father. Not having interviewed anyone properly before, we kind of went off on the main subject of the films his dad made with Ford, and, over lunch, got into talking about John Wayne and John Ford instead, and the films that Dobe himself made with Ford.
A couple of interesting pieces of information came out of the conversation, including the fact that Dobe was originally going to be cast in The Quiet Man as the IRA character Hugh Forbes, a part that eventually went to Maureen O’Hara’s brother, Charles Fitzsimons.
Both Dobe and Marilyn said that Ford was quite a formidable character, but Dobe still reckoned he was the best director he ever worked with. He’d also worked with a lot of other directors, including Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. I’d asked him previously why he wasn’t in the Hawks film Rio Bravo, even though his name appears in the opening credits. He said he was going to write about that in his next book which unfortunately he never got around to finishing.
If you want to know the reason why he’s not in the film refer to my article on John Wayne films, or alternatively check out the Silver Grey Fox, a biography on Howard Hawks in which Dobe is interviewed on that very subject.
Dobe also talked about how grateful he was to Andrew McLaglen for casting him in the majority of films McLaglen made in the 60s and 70s. He was also full of praise for film director Peter Bogdanovich, who gifted Dobe with an original poster of the John Ford film, Wagon Master, which he’d starred in back in 1950 alongside Ben Johnson. The poster adorned the wall of their home along with numerous other posters and memorabilia relating to both Carey Jr. and Carey Senior.
Just after lunch Dobe declared that it was time for his nap, at which point Marilyn informed me that was his way of saying goodbye. I immediately got up to leave but Marilyn said she was only half joking and I could stay as long as I wanted. Dobe signed a DVD of 3 Godfathers
for me, another Ford film, then posed for a photograph with me before saying his goodbyes. After he had retired Marilyn gave me the opportunity to trawl through the large archive of photographs Dobe had collected over the years for anything on his father that I might be able to use in the thesis, a couple of which eventually made the final draft.
I asked Marilyn why they had settled in Santa Barbara, as when I first spoke with Dobe back in 1998 they were living in Durango. She said they had to move because the air was so thin there it was literally killing him as he got older, so they moved to California to be close to friends and family.
She then ruefully told me that her father, the actor Paul Fix, had been cast as the doctor in the pilot episode of Star Trek back in the 1960s. For reasons obscured in the mist of time he apparently turned down the opportunity to play the role once the show was picked up by the network so the part went to DeForrest Kelly instead. Marilyn said if her father had taken the role in Star Trek she and Dobe would have probably been receiving me in their mansion in Bel Air instead.
Marilyn also regaled me with a story about how they met up with a tired and emotional John Wayne at a party one night. He asked Marilyn for a dance then promptly waltzed across the room holding her upside down. She said a remorseful Wayne was full of apologies the following day, and sent her a large bouquet of flowers – but she decided it was best not to dance with Mr Wayne again.
I stayed in touch with both Dobe and Marilyn over the years, and I’m happy to say that due to the research I carried out on Ford’s silent films I was able to send them copies of some of the recently discovered films Dobe’s father made with Ford, such as The Scarlet Drop (1917) and A Gun Fightin’ Gentleman (1919) for his collection. We sent each other Xmas and New Year greetings for a while then things went quiet towards the end of 2011. The news came through just after Xmas in 2012 that he had passed away at the age of 91.
For the Ford aficionados who might be reading this, you’ll know that the director paid tribute to Harry Carey Senior at the beginning of 3 Godfathers, dedicating the film to ‘the brightest star in the Western sky’, just after Carey had passed away in 1948. Well, there’s another star in the Western sky now, shining just as bright. And I’m happy so say I had the privilege of actually meeting him once.
In the preface to a book dedicated solely to a collection of essays on The Searchers (The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western, edited by Eckstein and Lehman) one of the editor’s mentions a video installation set up in the desert a few miles to the east of Los Angeles back in 2001.image source:
The installation was the brainchild of a guy called Douglas Gordon whose aim was to project the complete version of The Searchers onto a screen positioned not far from the main highway, but with a projection time of approximately 1 frame every 15 minutes as opposed to the standard 24 frames a second.
Gordon estimated it would take about 5 years for the film to run from the very first to the very last frame – which is the time it takes in the film for Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) to track down his kidnapped niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). A few years before this Gordon did something similar with his installation 24 Hour Psycho in which he expanded the running time of the Hitchcock classic over a 24 hour period. The question is, out of all the films Gordon could have chosen to project onto a screen in the middle of a desert, why The Searchers?
The preface to the book quotes his childhood growing up in Scotland and watching Westerns with his dad on the tv. He is quoted as saying that he complained to his parents about the lack of pace and action in The Searchers, and they told him he would understand the film once he was older.
For the so-called boomer generation, of which I am a fully paid up member, I think that’s really the key to it all. You need to watch the film quite a number of times over a long period – I first saw it in 1956 when I was four years old and I still watch it on a frequent basis – before you start to appreciate the complexity of The Searchers, as well as the realisation that it really is one of the best films ever to have come out of Hollywood, and certainly the finest of all the movies born out of the partnership of John Ford and John Wayne.
Rather than preach to the converted out there, people of my age and maybe those of the generation that came afterwards, the question I would pose is how can I go about persuading my children’s generation that they should watch the film in the first place? In other words, why The Searchers and not Citizen Kane / Vertigo / Sunrise / Seven Samurai / Breathless or any other film that constantly appear in best film polls.
If I were faced with an audience in their late teens / early 20s to whom I would be tasked with making the case for The Searchers then I would ask them to consider three key elements of the film itself.
So here’s the first problem. The Searchers is a cowboy film. And it’s got John Wayne in it. Let’s deal with the fact it’s a Western first.
To be brutally honest, the Western genre is moribund, to say the least. It’s crawling around somewhere out there in the dust and tumbleweeds, shot full of arrows and barely able to move, the spark of life reignited with the occasional injection of a Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven or Deadwood to indicate it has not yet totally ceased to exist.
Of course elements of the Western can still be detected in one form or another – whether it ‘s Star Wars, Assault on Precinct 13 (based on Rio Bravo), Outlander (1981 sci-fi thriller based on High Noon), Serenity (Stagecoach by any other name) – the list goes on.
The presence of John Wayne, however, could be considered to be a bit more problematic for a contemporary audience. Here’s an actor whose screen character is interchangeable with his off-screen persona. Wayne still stands for old-fashioned American values, values that have gone out of favour with many people, including Americans themselves in these more cynical times.
Being honest, God-fearing and consuming large amounts of mom’s apple pie just doesn’t cut it any more and Wayne personifies those outmoded morals in spades.
The point that needs to be made, however, is that when it comes to The Searchers you’re not being presented with the steadfast, upright, morally correct individual that Wayne is usually associated with. I can’t think of any other John Wayne film made either before or after The Searchers in which he a) shoots three men in the back, b) shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche warrior, c) mutilates the corpse of another dead Comanche and d) attempts to murder one of his own relatives.
Admittedly he’s quite vicious in Red River, which was made about 8 years before, and he can be mean and ornery in some of his later roles in The Cowboys, True Grit and The Shootist but in those films he still embodies the characteristics that define the John Wayne we’re all familiar with.
Even in The Searchers there are occasions when he can’t help being John Wayne – ‘This an invite to a necktie party, Reverend?’, ‘That’ll be the day’ etc – but the character of Ethan Edwards transcends those clichés.
He’s a snarling, angry, bigoted racist who wants to put a bullet into Debbie’s brain because she had the temerity to be kidnaped and thus tainted by association with the tribe that took her away. She is no longer acceptable in white society so has to be eliminated. Ethan Edwards is up for the job and that’s what makes The Searchers unique in John Wayne’s acting CV.
Wayne is simply at his career best here and even though Ethan doesn’t carry through with his threat to kill Debbie – a scene that continues to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck no matter how many times I watch it – this is still a film everyone should see for themselves, even if Wayne’s presence may initially be off-putting for the audience of today.
I could write a hundred thousand words on the subject of John Ford and still do not do him justice, so I’ll just stick to the issue in hand. Ford is obviously known for his Westerns, even though the majority of the films he made in that genre were actually produced during the silent era.
He made his first sound Western, Stagecoach, in 1939 and along the way helped elevate Wayne to star status. In my humble opinion nearly all of the Westerns Ford directed from 1939 onwards qualify for classic status, apart from the occasional box-office misfire such as Two Rode Together, which is almost a virtual remake of The Searchers.
For me, one of the aspects of The Searchers that sets it apart from the cowboy films Ford made prior to this is the way in which he depicts the plight of Native Americans. I feel this is the real turning point in the director’s onscreen attitude towards America’s indigenous natives. Some of the images from the sequence in which Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey hunter) chance upon a Comanche village that has been devastated by the cavalry bears comparison with some of the late 60s / early 70s liberal Westerns such as Soldier Blue and Little Big Man.
This is Ford finally questioning the role of the military in ‘settling’ the West and he doesn’t pull any punches. The cavalry regiment that arrives in the nick of time at the end of Stagecoach, flags flying gloriously in the wind, is now transformed into a ruthless band of cutthroats who kill those that came before them.
I would therefore argue that The Searchers is indicative of a real turning point in the life of Ford himself, with particular regards to his own attitude towards the plight of the Native Americans, and it’s up there on the big screen for all to see.
By the time Ford made his last Western, Cheyenne Autumn, in 1963, the Native Americans are no longer depicted as ciphers or silhouettes on the horizon. They are shown as real people with real lives and emotions, the characters in the film elevated in the storyline and sharing equal screen time with the white protagonists. Ford made a lot of other films that were deemed to be close to his heart, such as The Quiet Man, They Were Expendable and The Wings of Eagles but for me The Searchers is about as personal as it gets.
As an aside to the question of the settling of the West as referenced in The Searchers, one of the essays in the book mentioned at the beginning of this article raises an intriguing point regarding the Comanche raid on the home of Ethan’s brother. The author of the essay, Tom Grayson Colonnese, is a Native American himself and he calls the siege on the cabin a counterattack against those who had themselves earlier appropriated the land by force.
This doesn’t take into account of course the fact that whoever lived there before the settlers arrived had also probably done exactly the same thing, but it’s a worthy point of discussion.
Where would the Western be without Monument Valley?
The silhouettes of the towering buttes and the dark orange of the desert have come to personify the cowboy film over the years since Ford first went there to film Stagecoach. It’s almost cinematic shorthand for depicting the West.
Marty McFly lands smack in the middle of it in Back to the Future 3, and Sergio Leone cheekily hijacked the spectacular setting for his Western, Once Upon a Time in the West. The Marlboro man poses in front of a backdrop to the valley, and Wile E. Coyote is forever chasing the Road Runner in and out of a landscape closely modelled on Ford’s favourite location.
It is in The Searchers, however, that for the first time Monument Valley is as much a character in the film as it is a backdrop to the action that plays out against the wilderness of the terrain.
The landscape hides the marauding Native Americans just before they snake along the slopes surrounding Ethan and his search party. The valley then reduces the size of the individuals in pursuit of Debbie until they are rendered almost invisible to the naked eye by a backdrop that has not changed in millions of years, and will remain in place long after Ethan and his compatriots have turned to dust.
Ford comes close to equating Monument Valley as character in the earlier She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but it is in The Searchers that the director perfectly encapsulates the isolation and unforgiving savagery of the wilderness as exemplified by the location itself.
So there you have it. A short defence of a film that should be seen by all serious lovers of film no matter what age, gender or ethnic background you may come from.
Early John Wayne Films Directed by John Ford
There is a suggestion in a number of Wayne filmographies that his first appearance in a John Ford film was as an extra in the silent Mother Machree, released in 1928. The film, however, was actually shot in 1926 but held back for release until 1928 whilst the studio, the Fox Corporation, added sound effects to incorporate the new requirement for sound. According to a number of biographies on both Wayne and John Ford, the young actor did actually appear in the film, but only by accident when, working as a prop man, he wandered in front of the camera whilst sweeping the studio floor. As only about 30 minutes of footage at the most still survives from Mother Machree it’s hard to determine if Wayne is featured as an extra so I guess the jury is still out on that one.
His next acting credit in a Ford film is Four Sons, which was released in 1928, also featuring sound effects and a small line of dialogue. Again, there is some dispute as to whether Wayne featured in the film itself as he was apparently still working in the props department. The first definitive appearance of a young John Wayne in a Ford film is in Hangman’s House, also released in 1928, indicating how prolific Ford was back in the early days. Wayne actually gets to appear twice in this film. He can be seen quite clearly as a condemned man swinging from a noose in a flashback sequence. His second appearance is as a rather over-enthusiastic horse racing fan who tears down a fence when cheering on the winning horse. One filmography also claims he appears in Ford’s The Black Watch, the director’s first full-sound film but again there doesn’t appear to be any photographic evidence to back that claim up.
His first speaking part in a John Ford film is as a bullying naval cadet in Salute, released in 1929. A year later Wayne appears in what was interestingly the only sequel Ford ever made, Men Without Women, a submarine drama featuring characters from the earlier Salute, although there’s no evidence Wayne plays the same role in both films as he is not actually credited in the cast list for any of these early Ford films. This also applies to his work as an extra in Born Reckless, directed by Ford and released in 1930. It would not be until 1939 that John Wayne received an official acting credit in any Ford film, in this case the awesome classic western Stagecoach.
The rest, as they say, is history.