HomeAmerican EntertainmentJohn Wayne’s ‘The Searchers’ Debuted on This Day in 1956: How He Bonded with Local Navajo During Filming

John Wayne’s ‘The Searchers’ Debuted on This Day in 1956: How He Bonded with Local Navajo During Filming

by Craig Garrett
John Wayne
(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

On this day in 1956, one of John Wayne’s most well-regarded Westerns was released: John Ford’s The Searchers. In the Hollywood Golden Age, Wayne and Ford created several Westerns together – many of which were filmed in Monument Valley on Arizona’s border with Utah. Of them all, The Searchers stands out as one of their most remarkable works. The Duke played a Civil War veteran searching for his niece (Natalie Wood), who had been abducted by a Native American tribe.

The film is frequently cited as an influence by generations of filmmakers, including Martin Scorcese. Despite some controversial themes by modern audience standards, the film is still well regarded. It currently boasts a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With its anniversary upon us, it seems like a good time to highlight some stories from the set of the iconic John Wayne film.

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Since Natalie Wood was still a high school student, Wayne and co-star Jeffrey Hunter had to pick her up from home several times and take her to set. The scorching temperatures at Monument Valley of 120°F would have probably tested everyone’s patience on the set. However, Wayne managed to stay composed in every situation – even when someone needed his help.

Wayne’s famous calm is on full display in a recent post from his official Instagram account. They posted an image of the actor on the set of the film, along with the following story. “While filming The Searchers (1956), a Navajo child became seriously ill with pneumonia and needed urgent medical attention. John Wayne lent his plane and pilot to the little girl so she could get to the hospital. For his deed, the Navajos nicknamed him ‘The Man With The Big Eagle.’”

Another example of John Wayne’s kindness on the set of ‘The Searchers’

However, this wasn’t the only time he showed his kindness during filming. In the comments, a fan recounted another behind-the-scenes story that Wayne’s estate verified. “He also helped get the actress who played Look to her son’s wedding as well. He saw her crying and asked what was wrong. Because they were stuck on location that weekend, he flew her back on his plane in time to be there. That was big-hearted, generous John Wayne!”

On the set of Fort Apache, Duke was extremely courteous to his co-star John Agar when they shot in Monument Valley. Director John Ford would often provoke his actors as a technique for obtaining better performances from them, The Express reports. He persistently referred to Agar as “Mr. Temple” due to his being married to Shirley Temple at that time.

The director was publicly berating and humiliating young Agar on set, pointing out his inexperience with horse riding as well as critiquing the way he delivered his lines. This hurtful treatment eventually pushed him to a breaking point; in an impassioned outburst, he declared that he would quit the movie. Thankfully, Wayne came to the rescue before it was too late.

Wayne, in the form of Captain Kirby York, stepped up to guide Agar through the more complex aspects of their production. The Duke apparently got through to Agar, who would later say, “I would go to hell and back for Duke.”