Monday, July 20, 2009

53 Years Ago in the Screengrab: Finding "The Searchers"

[It's been ninety years since Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., D. W. Griffith, Frank Capra, Ben Hecht, Louise Brooks, and Roscoe Arbuckle met at an open-air press conference to announce that they were combining their resources to produce a new film journal called "the Screengrab". And while it's true that the "open-air press conference" was technically a conversation between the founders and some vice cops who discovered them out in a field at 2 A.M. with 68 gallons of bathtub gin, eight underage girls, and a ram named Ulysses, and that many people think they were just stalling until their lawyers arrived, Chaplin, a man of his word, ordered his manservant to buy a printing press as soon as he was released from custody and his hangover had dimmed enough that he could once again operate his mouth. As the Screengrab approaches yet another signal moment in its ongoing evolutionary history, we are proud to reach back into our archives and reprint some rarely seen features from our illustrious past.[

1956: At 62, John Ford has the impressive, stolid quality of a small mountain who figures that either Mohammad can damn well come to him or they can both get along without each other. You don't expect a man Ford's age to be spending his days camping out in Monument Valley, but by now, this venerable Western location must feel like home to Ford--and if it didn't, Ford keeps himself surrounded by enough of his living personal history to make anyplace feel like home. The set of The Searchers, the movie he's about to wrap, is populated by crew members and technicians and actors from many earlier Ford productions, including Ward Bond, Harry Carey. Jr., Hank Worden, John Qualen--and the picture's star. John Wayne, making his ninth feature with Ford since the director guided him to his breakthrough performance in Stagecoach, seventeen years ago. (Wayne's son Patrick, who appeared in Mister Roberts and had uncredited bit parts in four other Ford films, is also in it, in the small, comic role of an eager young lieutenant.) In The Searchers, Wayne plays a former Confederate soldier who devotes years of his life to tracking down the niece who was abducted as a child by Comanches. Ford's temper is famously fiery and notoriously unpredictable. It's with no small degree of trepidation that one suggests to him that it must be hard finding a way to freshen what must seem like very familiar material to him, especially working with collaborators he knows so well.

Surprisingly, a trace of a smile spreads across Ford's face. "I imagine a lot of people will go in expecting to see something they've seen before. 'Let's go admire the old boy's craftmanship, see what he can do with his hundredth cowboy movie', like that. Well...we'll see. It's just possible they'll find something in this one that opens the form out a little."

Now, relaxed after his lunch and a few questions from the dumbass representatives of the press, Ford settles into his chair and prepares to shoot the final location scene. You can sense people snapping back to attention: it's time to go back to work. "Action!" Ford yells. Natalie Wood, who plays the niece grown to young womanhood, come running past the camera, running as if her very life depended on it. Wayne charges up behind her, on horseback. Suddenly, he reaches down and lovingly scoops her up into his arms. "Let's go home, Debbie," he says.

Suddenly, Ford explodes. Red-faced, he springs up from his chair. "Cut, fucking cut!!" he screams. Wayne sets Wood back down, and she shyly edges away from him, her face turning to ash. Wayne looks down at his feet. Everyone seems unsure what to do.

In the time it's taken him to walk to where Wayne is standing, Ford's fury seems to have turned to bewilderment and shock. "What...what was that?" he asks. "Do you...during lunch, did you..."

Wayne is uncharacteristically abashed. "I'm sorry, sir. I just...

"You've read the script?"

Wayne's face tightens, as if he were starting to get angry, but his respect for, and maybe his fear of, the older man tamps that down. "Of course, sir. I know what the scene..."

"Why!? Why did you do that? Why did you say that!?"

Wayne no longer hangs his head to look down at Ford. He stiffens to his full height, as if posing for a statue. "I wasn't planning to do that," he says. "I was going to do it like it says in the script, but when I got close to her--what I did, sir, it was instinct. Because it's what felt right!"

Ford stares at Wayne. You can almost hear the crickets chirping. Finally he says, "For Roy Rogers, maybe! You're playing Ethan Edwards! You're a deranged killer! A psychotic racist! You fought for fucking slavery, goddammit, and that was before you lost your mind! This girl, this last remaining trace of your family, the blood of your blood, has been living with the Comanches. She's been sleeping with the Comanches! She has become a Comanche."

Wayne kicks a clod of dirt with the heel of his boot. "I know, sir," he says, in a little boys voice.

Ford is in shock. He sounds as if he's trying to explain how a light switch works to his adult son, whose basic intelligence he has never doubted up to that moment. "There's no way your character could ever be reconciled to that. It couldn't happen! Certainly not...not at that moment, that way, just like that! It would turn the movie into a joke. That's why, when you catch up to her, you grab her, you throw her down, you smash her head with that rock, then you take your knife and slit her throat, you make another incision straight down the front of her, and when Martin runs up and finds you, you're sitting there grunting like the caveman you've always been one step away from regressing to, eating her raw liver. You understand?"

Wayne is looking everywhere but at Ford's face. "Yes, sir."

Ford stares at him for a minute, then gives him a conciliatory punch to the arm. "I know it's a big stretch for you. We're gonna shake 'em up with this one, John. Now get back on your horse and get back into place. Were gonna go again and this time you do it like the stunt choreographers have been showing you all week, right?"

Wayne nods and climbs back onto his horse.

Ford returns to his chair. "Action!" he yells. Wood comes running past again, Wayne comes galloping up behind her, and again, he grabs her and sweeps her up into his arms. "Let's go home, Debbie."


Ken Curtis, standing just out of range of Ford's hearing, looks at Wayne and emits a low, admiring whistle. "Man," he whispers to nobody in particular, "I didn't know they grew death wishes that tall."

"Sir," Wayne says to Ford, who's still seated in his chair, "I'd like to talk about the scene. Something inside me says to me..."

"Gosh, Mar-i-on," says Ford between gritted teeth, "there's nothing I'd like more than to have a good long chat about the scene that you agreed to do as written and that we've been preparing to do these past few months, but there's thing that we in the motion picture business refer to as "losing the light", and I'm afraid that's going to happen to us if we get embroiled in a stimulating exchange of ideas. So here's my idea, seeing as how it's my picture and all; why don't we shoot the scene, as written, Mar-i-on, and then we can talk about all the better ways we could have done, without regard to whether or not they would have rendered the preceding two hours of movie utterly meaningless and preposterous, all the walk back to Los Angeles. Is that acceptable to you, Mar-i-on?"

Wayne stares at Ford long and hard. "Yes, sir," he says, and climbs back onto his horse.

Soon, he and Wood are back in their starting places. "Action!" yells Ford. Wood comes running across the set, Wayne comes riding up behind her, scoops her up in his arms, says, "Let's go home, Debbie."

You can hear a pin drop. "Cut," Ford says, almost lackadaisically. "Not quite the right approach. Let's go again. Natalie, let me go if you need to take a break to let your legs rest." He leans his head towards his assistant and murmurs, "Start brewing up some iced tea, would you?" Wayne and Wood are back at their places. Ford looks in my direction, the first time he's acknowledged my presence since beginning work on the scene. "It happens," he whispers with a shrug. "In a situation like this, the only thing to do is to just keep shooting it over and over. Eventually, one of us is going to break. And I think Mr. Wayne is in for a surprise as to which of us it's going to be."

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