Back in 1959, John Wayne teamed up with longtime colleague and fellow Hollywood conservative John Ford in what would be the director’s only full-length American Civil War film. Duke and his The Horse Soldiers star, William Holden, managed to negotiate a whopping $775,000 (nearly $8 million today) each, plus 20 percent of the gross profits. This was an unheard of amount at the time, however there was 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 all the more painful was how incredibly difficult the movie was. Not only were Holden and Ford constantly arguing, but there were cost overruns, severe injuries, and even tragic deaths. And all the while, his doctor had forced his liquor director to sober up or risk dying from the side effects of his heavy drinking. This made the notoriously vicious and relentless director even more difficult for Wayne, who was at the end of his rope.
Ford, who badly bashes his team to get a better performance from them (including constantly insulting Wayne for not serving during World War II) is much harsher on everyone than usual. Despite Wayne not having to quit drinking, Ford demanded that Duke do the same on the set of The Horse Soldiers. Eventually, the star begged producer Martin Rackin to take him away from the director who named him Papi for a short time.
The producer agreed, outright lying to Ford, that Wayne and Holden’s teeth were appearing yellow on film, so they needed to be whitened in New Orleans. As a result, the three have a drunken night out in Crescent City, and return to sit in the car of an angry Ford who has found out through his spies how many bars they have visited. Wayne definitely needed an escape during filming due to the personal crisis he was having with his wife, Pilar.
Pilar became addicted to barbiturates, but Wayne refused to admit her to a private sanitarium, believing he could help her beat it at a location in Louisiana. However, during filming, his wife began hallucinating and even slashed her own wrist with a razor. At this point, Duke realized he needed to hospitalize her in Encino, California. Incredibly, this incident was kept from the tabloids.
Meanwhile, back on the set of The Horse Soldiers, three actors including Ford’s son Patrick suffer broken legs. But the final tragedy came when shooting the film’s climactic battle scene.
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Veteran stuntman Fred Kennedy performed a horse fall for the film but broke his neck and died in the attempt. According to biographer Joseph Malham: “Ford was completely destroyed [as he] I felt a deep responsibility for the lives of the men who served under him.” In the aftermath of the tragic accident, shooting was immediately halted and he returned to Hollywood. At this point, the director had completely lost interest in shooting the script that ends with Wayne’s character Colonel John Marlowe and his troops arriving at Patton In the end, The Horse Soldiers simply concluded by bidding the commander farewell to Hannah Hunter of Constance Towers before crossing the bridge and blowing it up to stop the Confederate advance.
Despite the bad sides of Ford’s character, he was ahead of his time in sticking with black actors in the segregated South where they were filming.
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Ford had cast tennis champion Althea Gibson as Loki to help get African American viewers to watch The Horse Soldiers. But her dialogue was written in an offensive and stereotypical “nigger” accent. As a result, she assured the principal that she would not deliver the lines as she had written. Despite the director’s usual uncompromising nature to such demands of his actors, he did indeed agree and the script was modified. In addition, Ford also made sure that black additions on site in Louisiana and Mississippi were paid as much as white ones, angering members of the segregated states.
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