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John Wayne angered John Ford on a Western set plagued by tragedy

In 1959, John Wayne teamed up with his long-time collaborator and fellow Hollywood conservative, John Ford, in what would be the filmmaker’s only full-length American Civil War film. Duke and his co-star in The Horse Soldiers, William Holden, managed to negotiate a whopping $775,000 (almost $8 million today) each, plus 20 percent of the total earnings. This was an unheard of sum at the time, but there would be none of the latter to share, as the film was a box office bomb with a “lackluster” response from critics and audiences. What made this failure even more painful was how incredibly difficult the film had been to make. Holden and Ford not only argued constantly, but there were also cost overruns, serious injuries, and even a tragic death. Meanwhile, the alcoholic director had been forced by his doctor to sober up or risk dying from the side effects of his strong drink. This made the notoriously curmudgeonly and uncompromising filmmaker all the more unbearable to Wayne, who was at the limit of his strength.

Ford, who infamously provoked his cast to get better performances from them (including constantly insulting Wayne for not serving during WWII) was even tougher on everyone than usual. Even though Wayne didn’t have to stop drinking, Ford demanded that Duke do the same on the set of The Horse Soldiers. In the end, the star begged producer Martin Rackin to take him away from the director he called Pappy just for a while.

The producer agreed, outright lying to Ford that Wayne and Holden’s teeth were turning yellow in the film, so they had to have their teeth whitened in New Orleans. As a result, the three of them had a drunken night in Crescent City, returning to the set with an enraged Ford who discovered through spying on him how many bars they had visited. Wayne had certainly needed the escapism during filming because of the personal crisis he was facing with his wife Pilar de el.

Pilar had become addicted to barbiturates, but Wayne had refused to admit her to a private sanitarium, believing he could help her get over it in Louisiana. However, during filming, his wife began to hallucinate and even cut her wrists with a razor. At this point, Duke realized that he needed to admit her to the hospital in Encino, California. Incredibly, this incident was kept out of the newspapers.

Meanwhile, on the set of The Horse Soldiers, three actors, including Ford’s son Patrick, suffered broken legs. But the final tragedy came as the film’s climactic battle scene was being filmed.

READ MORE: True Grit: Elvis Presley Turned Down John Wayne’s Offer To Co-Star

Veteran stuntman Fred Kennedy performed a horse fall for the film, but broke his neck and died during the attempt. According to biographer Joseph Malham: “Ford was completely devastated [as he] he felt a deep responsibility for the lives of the men who served under him.” After the tragic accident, filming was immediately halted and he moved back to Hollywood. By this stage, the filmmaker had totally lost interest in filming the end of the script with Wayne’s character, Colonel John Marlowe, and his forces arriving in Baton Rouge. In the end, he simply wrapped up The Horse Soldiers with the Hannah Hunter protagonist’s farewell to the Constance Towers before going across and blowing up a bridge to stop the Confederate advance.

Despite the unsavory sides of Ford’s character, he was well ahead of his time in championing black actors in the segregated South where the movie was being shot.

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Ford had cast tennis champion Althea Gibson as Lukey to help attract African-American viewers to see The Horse Soldiers. However, her dialogue was written in an offensive and stereotypical “black” dialect. As a result, he assured the director that he would not deliver the lines as written. Despite the filmmaker’s usual uncompromising nature in the face of such demands from his actors, he agreed and the script was altered. Additionally, Ford also ensured that black extras in Louisiana and Mississippi were paid the same as whites, angering members in segregated states.



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