JOHN WAYNE - AMERICAN
'Duke's legacy casts a giant shadow'
by Nick Zegarac
“Oscar and I have something in common,” John Wayne proclaimed at the 1979 Academy Awards, “Oscar first came to Hollywood in 1928. So did I. We're both a little weather-beaten, but we're still here and plan to be around for a whole lot longer.”
It was a statement fraught with irony and possibly a few quietly bitter regrets. For in the intervening decades, John Wayne had seen his reputation plummet among a new generation of film goers who viewed his patriotic film legacy as fraudulent (partly, because Wayne himself had never served in the armed forces even though he frequently donned military regalia for his films) but more to the point, as blatant war mongering in a decade where Viet Nam divided the nation into pro and con encampments.
“It's kind’a sad thing when a normal love of country makes you a super patriot,” Wayne openly declared. He had tolerated his place in the new Hollywood, though he never accepted the suggestion that his views were out of touch. “Very few of these so-called liberals are open-minded. . . . They shout you down and won't let you speak if you disagree with them.”
The year before, John Wayne had been scheduled to appear as a presenter at the annual Oscar telecast but had to bow out due to complications from surgery to remove a malignant tumor. In his place on that night in 1978, presenter Bob Hope held back his emotions to offer encouragement to the ailing American icon. “We expect to see you saunter out here next year, duke” Hope declared to thunderous applause, “…because nobody can walk in John Wayne’s boots.” Wayne did not disappoint.
It seems ironic now, nearly 30 years after his death, but it is a fairly safe assumption that had it not been for a director named John Ford, American cinema might never have been blessed with a John Wayne. Although Wayne had toiled in movies – first as a general laborer on the Fox backlot, then as an extra in a string of B-westerns at Republic Pictures, the young Iowan had little more than a workhorse mentality and 122 forgettable film appearances to recommend or distinguish his early career.
At 6 feet 4 inches, Wayne (born on May 26, 1907 in Winterset as Marion Michael Morrison) towered over most of his fellow actors. Yet, despite handsome looks, an athletic physique and congenial good nature, he was regarded as little more than a blip on the celebrity radar. He had come to acting in a round about way, working as property man and stunt double to help pay for a USC education. At university Wayne, who had already adopted ‘the duke’ persona (borrowed from his Uncle Tommy, a prize fighter), excelled at football while studying pre-law. By 1920 however, films were taking up more of his time.
It was at this juncture that a football injury permanently ended young Morrison’s wavering dreams to play professionally. Unable to cover his scholarship, he left college for the movies, beginning at the bottom. His work ethic impressed fledgling director, John Ford – who frequently asked for Morrison on the set. Ford befriended the young man almost by accident and eventually entrusted his young protégé with a single line of dialogue – “What do they do in the movies, Mr.?” in his film, Salute (1929).
Ford, who fancied himself a star maker en par with Svengali, had quietly decided that the young Morrison was going to be his to mold. On Ford’s recommendation, veteran director Raoul Walsh cast Wayne in his first important movie, The Big Trail (1930) an epic western shot in both conventional and highly experimental widescreen aspect ratios. Unfortunately for all concerned, Wayne’s lack of leading man experience was laid bare on the project, and the resulting epic was a disastrous flop that set Wayne’s career back by ten years.
The film’s failure also strained the mentor relationship between Wayne and Ford. It had been Walsh’s foresight to professionally change Marion Morrison to John Wayne. To Ford it seemed as though his own aspirations for molding the young actor’s career as his exclusive star had also been dashed. From that moment on the two men barely spoke – a rift that hurt Wayne considerably as he toiled in cheap westerns apart and away from Ford’s tutelage for nearly ten years.
But in the spring of 1938, John Ford had other problems. Although he was one of Hollywood’s most prominent directors with a string of critical and financial successes to his credit, he could find no one willing to finance his latest project – Stagecoach. Ford had based his screenplay on various source materials including a French novel by Guy de Maupassant called Boul de Suif (Ball of Fat) – the story of a whore who sleeps with an army officer to help people escape to freedom on a stagecoach. But it was Dudley Nichols adaptation about social hypocrisy that inspired Ford to move the project forward and eventually gave Stagecoach its psychological underpinning that later dubbed the film as Hollywood’s first ‘adult western’.
At first, Ford had proposed the project to independent producer, David O. Selznick – whose marginal interest was dashed when Ford informed Selznick that Wayne was to be cast in the pivotal role of the Ringo Kid. Known for his fastidious attention to gloss and detail, Selznick could see only Gary Cooper as his all-American and the project fell through. Ford was interested in grit – not gloss.
The project migrated to independent producer Merian C. Cooper, but any hopes for an enjoyable shoot were dashed when sparks began to fly on the set. Determined not to repeat Walsh’s mistakes on The Big Trail, Ford verbally attacked Wayne’s performance at every opportunity, relentlessly bullying the actor to such an extent that costar Claire Trevor later commented she found the whole experience quite painful to observe. For his part, Wayne quietly absorbed the abuse, convinced that all the antagonism would be worth the final product. It was a clairvoyant assessment. Stagecoach reinvigorated the Hollywood western and jumpstarted John Wayne’s career onto a 35 year run as America’s ultimate action hero.
By all accounts Wayne should have departed Ford’s ambitions. Yet for much of his later career, Wayne chose to align his star and his allegiance with that of his first mentor. To be certain, the alliance was fortuitous and profitable for both. Only occasionally did their on screen union show signs of strain behind the scenes, as on the set of They Were Expendable (1945) a story about accepting defeat rather than celebrating success. The film has since proven to have more than an ounce of artistic merit.
Throughout the forties, Wayne and Ford refined the Wayne persona most often rekindled when we think of John Wayne today. In Forte Apache (1948) Ford cultivated the persona of a noble solider torn between duty and fate. In She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Ford transformed Wayne’s charismatic good looks into those of an aged tired veteran on the verge of retirement. Throughout these film excursions Ford continued his relentless assault on Wayne’s acting prowess, perhaps because he had begun to realize that his young star was making quantum strides apart from his expert guidance toward becoming a legend.
“I made up my mind that I was going to play a real man to the best of my ability,” Wayne later explained in an interview, “I felt many of the Western stars of the twenties and thirties were too goddamn perfect. They never drank or smoked. They never wanted to go to bed with a beautiful girl. They never had a fight. A heavy might throw a chair at them, and they just looked surprised and didn't fight in this spirit. They were too goddamn sweet and pure to be dirty fighters. Well, I wanted to be a dirty fighter if that was the only way to fight back. If someone throws a chair at you, hell, you pick up a chair and belt him right back. I was trying to play a man who gets dirty, who sweats sometimes, who enjoys kissing a gal he likes, who gets angry, who fights clean whenever possible but will fight dirty if he has to. You could say I made the Western hero a roughneck.”
Away from John Ford, John Wayne made several well received WWII thrillers, including The Flying Tigers (1942), Back to Bataan (1945), The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). He also starred opposite Montgomery Clift in Howard Hawks’ seminal western, Red River (1948) – the tale of an embittered veteran whose ruthless pursuit and public assault of a young cowboy closely mirrored Wayne’s own relationship with Ford.
Asked to define John Wayne on screen Wayne explained, “I want to play a real man in all my films…and I define manhood simply: men should be tough, fair, and courageous, never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either.”
Yet, throughout the war years Wayne kept silent about being turned down by the draft. Instead he focused on building a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most dependable and bankable stars. For his legion of fans, John Wayne personified the high-minded idealism and optimistic spirit of bravery and leadership that was America. While his hero, John Ford was off making military propaganda films on the front lines, he, Wayne, was starring in a solid string of war-themed movies that presented John Wayne as everybody’s favorite fictional war hero.
At war’s end, John Wayne’s success in front of the camera allowed him the luxury to move behind it. He produced as well as starred in many of his movies and co-founded Batjac Productions – a lucrative company that made westerns and other movies distributed by almost all the major Hollywood studios. By the time John Ford approached Wayne to star in The Searchers (1956) the balance of power between these two ‘sometime’ friends had shifted. Wayne was now the driving commodity of any film’s failure or success. Ford was an aging curmudgeon whose best days in the director’s chair were fast nearing finality.
Nevertheless, John Wayne endured Ford’s badgering and belittlement as he had done a decade earlier and for his own part, Ford did not go easy on his talented star. What emerged from their collaboration on The Searchers was one of Wayne’s most finely wrought and intricately crafted filmic performances. As Ethan Edward – a man driven to near insanity and certain compulsion to find his niece, Debby (Natalie Wood), Wayne laid bare the depiction of a ruthless, tyrannical – often frightening – man on the verge of becoming a murderer for the sake of his family honor. It was this sobering portrait of the American west, not witnessed in Hollywood’s prior glamorization that Wayne eventually declared his most satisfying performance, and it marked an indelible turn in the mythic perception that had been the main staple of the western genre.
Most of Wayne’s subsequent endeavors apart from John Ford were extremely successful, including Angel and the Bad Man (1947), Island in the Sky (1953), Hondo (1953) and The High and The Mighty (1954). 1958’s Rio Bravo was such a colossal hit that Wayne and director Howard Hawks chose to remake it twice later, as El Dorado (1966), then Rio Lobo (1970).
By 1960, when John Wayne embarked on his most ambitious and personal project, The Alamo, he no longer needed the guidance or reputation of John Ford to help bolster his own credibility. In fact, the opposite was very much true. Ford had burned a lot of professional bridges in his relentless pursuit of excellence. Hence, when Ford showed up unexpectedly on the set in Texas and began to take charge of Wayne’s directorial style, the star/director would have been entirely justified in throwing his old co-collaborator off the set. Instead, Wayne provided Ford with a second unit to direct as a gesture of respect.
There were, however, signs that John Wayne’s legend had begun to reach its prime. In September of 1964 producers issued phony press releases when Wayne entered Good Samaritan Hospital to undergo cancer surgery. “Those bastards who make pictures only think of the box office,” Wayne reportedly confided, “They figure Duke Wayne with cancer isn’t a good image.”
Recovering from his ailment, John Wayne moved beyond the scope of making movies to embrace political causes. He emerged as a conservative spokesman, in support of America’s involvement in Viet Nam, directing and starring in The Green Berets (1968). Although audiences flocked to see it, critics of America’s involvement in the war were not amused.
Further controversy erupted upon the release of Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys (1972) that outraged liberals with its justification of violence as a solution to lawlessness. Wayne’s importance on the political scene reached its zenith when it was reported that the Republican Party asked him to run for President even though he had no previous political experience. Wayne turned the offer down, saying that he did not believe America would take a movie star seriously.
Wayne’s galvanic reputation as a bankable commodity emerged almost unscathed, as the curmudgeonly ‘Ford-esque’ marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969) the role that finally won Wayne his only Best Actor Academy Award. “If I'd known this was all it would take, I'd have put that eyepatch on 40 years ago,” Wayne mused. That same year, he provided his own cream of the jest when he told Time Magazine that he “…would like to be remembered, well...the Mexicans have a phrase, 'Feo fuerte y formal'. Which means; he was ugly, strong and had dignity.”
All evidence to the contrary in an appearance as a fluffy pink bunny on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, in 1968 that did much to soften his reputation as a hard line conservative, something Wayne staunchly denied throughout his later years. “The sky is blue, the grass is green,” Wayne read aloud on Laugh In, “Get off your ass and join the Marines.”
While this display of goofiness did much to amuse both sides of the political spectrum, a May 1971 Playboy magazine interview, in which Wayne openly stated that he believed in ‘white supremacy’ until blacks were educated enough to take a more prominent role in American society, did not bode well with the changing times.
Nevertheless, Wayne’s iconography proved larger than life and Teflon coated. He was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1974. In defiance of that legacy, The Harvard Lampoon invited Wayne to their annual ‘Brass Balls Award’ ceremony for his ‘Outstanding machismo and penchant for punching people’. Assuming that Wayne would never accept such a (dis)honor, Wayne did shocked his detractors by arriving atop an armored personnel carrier before ad-libbing his way through a series of derogatory questions with an adroit wit and charm that quite easily won over even his harshest critics.
The loudest chuckle of the evening deriving from the following, “If it hadn’t been for football and the fact I got my leg broke and had to go into the movies to eat, why, who knows, I might have turned out to be a liberal Democrat.”
Wayne returned to film making an invigorated star. But while preparing for his role in The Shootist (1976) word leaked out that he had been battling cancer for more than ten years. As it became known beyond his private circle of friends that John Wayne – the legend - was indeed dying of cancer, Senator Barry Goldwater introduced legislation to award the actor the Congressional Gold Medal. Wayne’s frequent costar and long time friend, Maureen O’Hara rallied friends in the Hollywood community to give testimony. The bill passed unanimously. The medal was presented to the Wayne family the following year.
John Wayne died on June 11, 1979. The inscription on his Congressional Gold Medal is simple, though fitting “John Wayne - American.”
“We must always look to the future. Tomorrow - the time that gives a man just one more chance - is one of the many things that I feel are wonderful in life. So's a good horse under you…or the only campfire for miles around; or a quiet night and a nice soft hunk of ground to sleep on. A mother meeting her first-born. The sound of a kid calling you dad for the first time. There's a lot of things great about life. But I think tomorrow is the most important thing. Comes in to us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday.”
– John Wayne
@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).