When John Ford Punched Henry Fonda - and How It Led to One of the Greatest Westerns Ever
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.