In the summer of 1955, director John Ford was in the middle of filming The Searchers (1956), with John Wayne, Wayne's son, Patrick, Ford veteran Harry Carey, Jr., and a cast of Navajo "warriors," some of whom had known Ford for over 15 years as he returned, time and again, to his beloved Monument Valley. At 60, Ford needed a hit. He found it with The Searchers, now regarded as one of the greatest Westerns of all time.
In this cover shot from the July, 1999 issue of Arizona Highways, Ford is sharing a laugh with Wayne and Vanderbilt scion and producer Cornelius V. Whitney. (In a nod to its family readership, the magazine eliminated a cigarette that Wayne was holding in his left hand.) I used to read and collect Arizona Highways, before it scaled back from large format to standard size--now about as impressive as a shrunken Rolling Stone. This is one of my favorite issues. It was well-penned by the father and son team of Scottsdale-based writer Jeb J. Rosebrook and his son, Jeb Stuart. Rosebrook wrote for The Waltons and other TV fare into the '90s, but is best known--and rightly so--for Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner, with Steve McQueen.
When Ford first arrived in Monument Valley in the late 1930s to film Stagecoach, he not only saved the financial hides of Harry and Mike Goulding, who ran a trading post in Monument Valley hard hit by the depression, but boosted the fortunes of numerous Navajo families, whom he hired as extras. Decades later, they returned the favor by presenting Ford with a commemorative deerskin, with the words, "In your travels may there be beauty behind you, beauty on both sides of you, and beauty ahead of you"--a common Navajo prayer and blessing.
The Navajo are fond of nicknames, and on that day they gave one to Ford. They called him Natani Nez, or "Tall Soldier." It was July 4th, 1955.