Towards the end of the summer of 1959, just after the release of The Horse Soldiers and having finished shooting Sergeant Rutledge, the director Sean Aloysius O’Fearna – or, as he was better known, John Ford – came to Spain at the invitation of the producer Shmuel Bronstein, or, as he was better known, Samuel Bronston. Bronston had just put out John Paul Jones and as he was putting together the framework to produce King of Kings, he was looking around for help and support of suitable Hollywood people, ones who enjoyed a certain degree of independence from the major studios. Ford had already turned down the chance to direct the Biblical epic, but he did still seem interested in one of the many ideas swilling round in the imagination of the Russian-American producer: specifically the adaptation of a historical romance by Arthur Conan Doyle, The White Company, a tale of fourteenth-century Cistercian monks, somewhere between Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Neither Ford’s biographers, nor Bronston’s, mention this trip, for two reasons: the hawk-nosed director of Westerns made it only on condition of secrecy, so as to evade the attention of journalists, hangers-on and other parasites, and because the project never made it past the drawing-board, due, among other reasons, to the greed of the heirs to the estate of the man who created Sherlock Holmes. But we know for a fact that the tall, gangly individual, hidden behind dark glasses and a driving cap, who disembarked from the four-engined plane that arrived from London one morning in 1959, and who after briefly acknowledging Bronston and his people went directly to the tobacconist at Barajas Airport and without further ado, got himself a box of fine cigars, was John Ford - the film director, the one who made Stagecoach, the one-eyed genius who threw producers off the set, the guy who had six statuettes of Mr. Oscar adorning his lounge in his Bel Air house.
It seems that Ford was only in Madrid for a couple of days, though in truth I don’t have any concrete information on that. But we can assume that he spoke to Bronston about the project. We may also assume that after discussions, or more likely monologues on the part of the talkative, veteran producer, that the director already knew that the film wasn’t going to happen, for the while at least: and we also know from Ford’s own later comments that he thought the novel would make a good film. Be that as it may, on the third day, probably fed up with Bronston’s megalomania, or perhaps of the greyness of a Madrid full of perms and shoeshine boys, he persuaded somebody to get him a car (a Pegaso, naturally) strapped on his driving cap, got himself what was now only half a box of cigars and a case of whiskey (Irish, naturally) and headed off “to hunt for locations for the picture” leaving Bronston twiddling his thumbs.
Was he hoping to find an area of desert to stand in for Monument Valley? Or a Cistercian abbey? Or did he just want to be alone? Who knows, but the fact is that he left Madrid by the N2, the Zaragoza road, one morning in the middle of September 1959, and was in Los Monegros by the afternoon. Maybe he asked directions to the Cistercian Monasterio de Rueda, but they misunderstood and he wound up in Villanueva de Sigena, a monastery for monks of the order of St John of Jerusalem. Maybe he drove with no particular route in mind, saw from the main road some byway he liked the look of, which for one reason or another seemed like a good idea, and decided to take it? Again, it’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but what we do know is that by the time a red sun, seeming to melt over the horizon, was filling the whole western half of the sky, Ford found himself sat on a hillside rock, not far from a village in the province of Huesca by the name of Sena, smoking, drinking and chatting with a goatherd.
The version of that twilight conversation which I’m going to tell here was told – by that most unusual goatherd - to a friend of mine, who, some years afterwards, began his professional career as a teacher working in the same village, in Sena. My friend prefers to remain anonymous, but I can personally vouch for the veracity of his words, and of course the goatherd was not normally a fantasist, nor did he have any particular reason to lie. So we can be reasonably sure what happened and that what each of them said to the other was more or less what follows (assuming all I’ve got is my friend’s translation to spanish of their dialog in english).
The goatherd was taking the route he always took, more led by the animals than leading, when he was surprised – and intrigued – to see the outline of somebody sat facing the horizon and smoking. So he went over and, sitting down beside him, said in Spanish:
- Buenas tardes. Si se ha perdido yo puedo orientarle.
- I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
The rest of the exchange took place in English, as I said above, though given that the version I have available is the one which the goatherd gave my friend, it’s pretty absurd, not to mention pedantic on my part, to try and reconstruct the “original version”. But here goes, without subtitles:
- No problem, I understood you perfectly. In fact I happened to be born in Milwaukee, almost fifty years ago.
- Well, blow me down! Have a drink on a fellow countryman. My name’s John Ford.
- Delighted to meet you. I’m James Falk.
They shook hands. Falk accepted the whiskey and tobacco which Ford offered him.
- That name sounds familiar. You’re not a movie actor?
- Something rather worse. I’m a director.
- Well, you’re a long way from Hollywood.
- This guy invited me over to talk business, but I don’t trust him. This sunset is superb.
- Isn’t it just. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I still stare like I was hypnotised. It’s like fire.
- It is fire.
- Yes it is.
They fell silent, and watched. It must have felt, for sure, that they were in the right place at exactly the right time. The throbbing of the sun, the bleating of the herd and the smell of the thyme had all come together for their contentment.
- Don’t feel at all obliged, but if you don’t mind – I can’t help but be curious as to how someone from Milwaukee ended up in a place like this.
- I’ll be more than pleased to tell you, pal. I came to this country twenty years ago to join the International Brigade, during the Civil War, you know. I reckoned I was going to kill half the fascists in Europe single-handed. In truth – and I hope you won’t be too shocked – back then I was a communist. These things happen in your youth.
- No, I’m not shocked. There were plenty of communists in Hollywood back then. For sure, not so very long ago a guy called McCarthy, a fucking politician, ordered me to inform on them.
- And did you?
- Of course not! What do you take me for? Politicians are like producers – a bunch of back-stabbing bureaucrats. Get too close to them and you’re done for, they poison you.
- Yeah, I reckon you’re right. They let me down from the get-go. Rather than unite against Franco, they fought among themselves. And my communist comrades – especially their leaders – were among the worst of them. Hypocritical and twisted.
- So what did you do? Change sides?
- Of course not! What do you take me for? News reached me from the States that my parents had died in a car crash. I was given permission to go home, but I just couldn’t do it. I was scared to.
Sometimes the past is more dangerous to us than bullets.
- Afterwards I went to England and then I went back to war in France, but I couldn’t make myself forget about a certain girl I’d met here, in Spain, so in 1945 I came to look for her. And I found her.
- That’s quite a story you have there.
- It sure is.
- You could make quite a film out of that. But you’ve been looking after goats ever since?
- I do all sorts of things – help repair houses, thresh and cut the corn and barley, harvest the cherries and peaches. I’m a Jack of all trades.
Falk laughed, perhaps at his own remark, or perhaps at some memory or other which had just entered his mind. He was plain-featured, with weather-beaten skin and blue eyes. From underneath his beret extruded locks of greying fair hair.
- Did the police not come to bother you?
- I’m not James Falk here. I’m Juan Fajardo. False papers end up being real ones, it’s just a matter of time. What’s more, in the village they have a lot of respect for my wife. Or perhaps they’re afraid of her. When she wants she can be a real battleaxe…
This time they both laughed. The sun was melting on the horizon, caught in waves between the earth and the sky. In a moment or two it would be gone, leaving behind traces of boiling purple.
- Have another sip, my friend. So you’re a goatboy rather than a cowboy! Talking of boys, what’s the dog called?
- She’s a girl, actually. Clementine.
- My darling Clementine. You’ll have to forgive me for a second, but I can’t see properly in these glasses. I’ll get my other pair from the car and bring some more whiskey while I’m at it.
Ford got up, stretched his legs and walked over to the Pegaso. He came back with untinted glasses, a patch over his bad eye and some hooch made from Irish barley.
- Now that I think about it, I reckon I’ve seen one of your films. Last summer a mobile cinema came to the village and they showed a Western. John Wayne and some kid were looking for a girl, John Wayne’s niece. She’d been abducted by the Comanche. Yes, that was it. I liked it. The end was exciting.
- Thanks. I liked it too.
- I dunno if I’ve seen any others. Can’t remember. To be honest I’ve not seen a lot of films – I hardly ever leave the village. But just in case, I’d like you to recommend me a good one.
- I liked The Quiet Man a lot. It’s the story of an American boxer who goes back home to his native Ireland and eventually finds his place in the world. With this I mean a woman. You get it? It’s exactly opposite to what happened to you. You had to go to a different continent to find her.
- That’s right. Although, all things considered, you could say it was the same. I mean coming back is just another way of going. The past may be dangerous, as you said, but it’s never in front of us. Always behind.
- I know what you mean. In the film, he finds that Ireland is just as he left it. But he has changed.
The clear night sky was like a huge screen on which the stars were projected, a spectacle which they could see from the front row and without paying a cent for their tickets. To the south-east a milky light had given way to a bright white light on the horizon. The moon was about to appear.
- I dunno if it’s the whiskey, or the night, or whatever’s made me feel lately that I’m getting old very quickly, but, since you seem the type who knows how to listen, which is pretty rare, rather than get up and go right now I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anybody before.
- Go right ahead, pal. I can keep a secret.
- I got into this business by way of my older brother, Francis. He was the one who came to California seeking his fortune and in no time at all he was writing, directing and acting in the movies in Hollywood. Sure, I mean silent movies, back in the days of the Great War and the Model T Ford. If he hadn’t encouraged me quite so enthusiastically to get myself out of Maine and go and join him I would have been a sailor, and a good one, if modesty will permit. But that’s the way it went, and here I am.
Francis was an amazing guy, friendly, clever, perceptive. Put his heart and soul into everything he did. He left home when just a young man and criss-crossed the country with a company of travelling players. He got into the pictures thanks to Thomas Edison himself. He married very young and had two children, but the marriage was never going to last, and it didn’t.
At the time I’m referring to, he was a big star. Famous, made a lot of money. His producers had the whole world believing, via the scandal sheets, that he was involved with Grace Cunard, the actress who co-starred in the serials they made, but he never was. He had a lot of luck with the ladies – to tell the truth he was with a new girl every two or three months. One Saturday night we drank until the small hours and it was early morning before we set off for home. This guy came up to us and told Francis he was going to pay for taking his girl off him. My brother tried to reason with him, but the other guy was mad with fury and pulled a knife. Without thinking twice, I hit him hard. The guy fell on his back and broke his neck on the kerb. I killed him. Simple as that.
The street was empty. We got out of there as fast as we could and never spoke of it again. Neither of us. Not a whisper. Never. Until now.
From that very moment Francis’ career went into a slow decline. He directed less, and for that matter worse, until finally he concentrated on acting, but never as the star. In the talkies our roles were reversed: it was he who was dependent on me for minor roles which I was able to put his way. He died six years ago.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it. All through life we talk and talk, nonsense for the most part, and we keep our mouths shut about the really important things.
- Sometimes you can’t talk about the really important things. Or you shouldn’t.
- Maybe, who knows. I’m sure you’re right, just as you were when you said that the past is never ahead of us. Forgive me, I beg you. I’m obviously getting old.
The pale light of the moon bathed the scene in tones of blue. A grasshopper decided to begin making its tiresome noise. The goatherd got up, called his dog and said:
- It’s getting late. Thanks for everything, pal. If you’re ever round these parts again, you know there’ll be a welcome waiting for you. And just let the time go past, it’s the only thing you can do for sure.
After shaking his hand, Ford saw Falk, his dog Clementina and the goats move off towards the village, wrapped up by the silky blue of the moon light and the impalpable warmth of the thyme scent. When he closed his eyes for a moment he could see quite clearly the face of his older brother. As usual, the whiskey had made his head hot and his feet cold.
He drove as well as he was able to Zaragoza and spent the night in the Gran Hotel. Next day he went back to Madrid, told Bronston to count him out and took a return flight to the US.
Three years later, in 1962, director Sean Aloysius O’Fearna – or, as he was better known, John Ford – returned to Spain, as, at the time, did many other people from the world of cinema. But he didn’t come back to the Monegros, or come anywhere near Sena. This time there were hangers-on, journalists, photographers and other parasites all around him. And even a politician.
James Falk, better known as Juan Fajardo, kept his secret. When he related the above to my friend, the great director had been dead and buried for years, and he himself had begun to suffer the first symptoms of the glaucoma which would cast him into darkness in his final years.
Nobody has ever brought Conan Doyle’s novel, The White Company, to the screen.