"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, June 30, 2017

John Wayne


The big one

 
Jeff Arnold’s West has reviewed hundreds of Westerns and done overviews of the Western careers of numerous actors, such as Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Glenn Ford, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, and many more.

But the elephant in the room, the one not yet attempted, the big one, is, of course, John Wayne.

Wayne was big in every sense, a sort of colossus of the Western movie. He was involved in various capacities in close to a hundred Westerns and acted in eighty (depending on your definition of Western). His career went from being a prop boy on the 1926 Tom Mix oater The Great K & A Train Robbery to starring in the splendid The Shootist in 1976, his last Western and indeed his last movie. Fifty years of Westerns. Many, especially in his early days, were low-budget B-pictures, but many were fine films, key moments in cinematic history even, directed by the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Raoul Walsh.

Wayne was largely ignored by the Academy Awards, finally winning only one (consolation) Oscar for True Grit in 1970. And the idea still persists that ‘John Wayne couldn’t act’. What nonsense. Anyone who has seen Red River or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Searchers will know that he could indeed act, and superbly too.

Today we’ll look at the Westerns of John Wayne, and marvel.

I’m not going to rehearse the known facts of his life. It would make this post far too long. It’s already pretty monstrous and if you don’t read it all that would be more than understandable. You may want to skip to the movies or years that interest you most. I’ve tried with sub-headings to make that easier to do. Anyway there are plenty of biographies you can read to get all that, the best being John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014.
 
The best bio
 
I’m going to review Wayne’s career in Westerns, with personal observations along the trail. The vast majority of Duke’s Western movies have already been reviewed separately on this blog (and the rest will soon follow) so you can click the live links along the way if you want to know more about any given picture.

The very first Westerns

At Fox in the late 1920s, when Tom Mix was king, ex-football player Marion Morrison, known as Duke, got a job shifting scenery and handing out props. He also occasionally appeared as an extra. So the first Westerns he was involved with (peripherally) were the entertaining silent The Great K & A Train Robbery, when he was not yet twenty, and the talkie Rough Romance, an Oregon logging picture with George O’Brien in which Duke was uncredited as a lumberjack.

In 1930, when he was 23, the prop-boy/extra on $35 a week was suddenly catapulted into stardom when he landed the lead role in Fox’s huge Manifest Destiny 70 mm wagon-train epic The Big Trail, directed by Raoul Walsh. Studio heads grumbled at the casting of an unknown but Walsh told them, “I don’t want an actor. I want someone to get out and act natural – be himself.” That’s what he got. Walsh had noticed Duke lugging furniture on the set of John Ford’s (non-Western) Born Reckless earlier in the year. “He was in his early twenties – laughing and the expression on his face was so warm and wholesome that I stopped and watched. I noticed the fine physique of the boy, his careless strength, the grace of his movement.” The prop boy was indeed destined for bigger things.

The Big Trail

Fox promoted their new-found star, to whom the new name of John Wayne was assigned, with a press release that was so hurried most of it was actually true, and blurb that called him “a youth who bids fair to prove the screen sensation of 1930 … a smile that is one in a million, a marvelous speaking voice, a fearless rider, a fine natural actor and he has everything the femmes want in their leading man.”

The Big Trail was a massive picture, involving an enormous budget, hundreds of cast and crew and four months of location shooting. Fox confidently forecast a $4m gross and lined up their new star for two more Westerns. The studio flooded the country with publicity and photographs before the première.

But the picture was over-written and much of the acting was very stilted. Wayne was winning but often awkward. Visually stunning, the film was slow and ponderous from a narrative point of view. Most people saw it in standard 35mm, where it was much less impressive. Scott Eyman says it was an authentic epic but an authentic epic flop. It grossed under a million and lost twice that. The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and subsequent Great Depression nearly did for Fox and impacted very negatively on the movie business as a whole.

Wayne’s career as film star came to a juddering halt. The Big Trail was the last A-picture he would make for ten years. He would spend the rest of the 1930s feeling lucky to get parts in B-Westerns. Utterly demoralized, soon after the flop of The Big Trail he met Fox’s biggest star of the day, Will Rogers, who kindly advised him, “You’re working, aren’t you? Just keep working.” Wayne always remembered that remark as “the best advice I ever got – just keep working and learning, however bad the picture … and boy, I made some lousy pictures.”

The wilderness years

After Fox dumped Wayne, the young actor managed to get a short contract at Harry Cohn’s Columbia. It was underwhelming: he had to play a corpse in one picture and he landed non-starring parts in Buck Jones and Tim McCoy Westerns which were so bad that they are today pretty well unwatchable. The first was titled Range Feud and the title screen below will give you an idea how sloppy and trashy it was.
 
 
The acting was wooden (Wayne is by far the best actor on the set), the budget rock-bottom and the writing dire. Range Feud, Texas Cyclone and Two-Fisted Law were a series of cheap rip-off pictures Cohn wanted for the increasingly popular double-bills. Wayne hated them but gritted his teeth and kept working.

In the end, though, he was fired. Cohn (left) believed that Wayne was having an affair with a young actress that Cohn himself lusted after. “It was a goddamned lie,” Wayne fumed, still angry forty years after.

He disliked the studio boss ever after, even to the point that when, twenty years later, Cohn had a great screenplay, The Gunfighter, which Wayne, by now a famous Hawks and Ford big star, desperately wanted to do, he wouldn't because Cohn was offering it and he wouldn't work with Cohn. In the end, Cohn sold it to Fox and Henry King directed Gregory Peck in one of the greatest Westerns of all, in 1950. You could say that Wayne cut off his nose to spite his face - or that he stood, decently, on principle. 

Fired twice in a year from major studios (if you call Columbia a major) Wayne now had little choice but to walk further down Gower Street where the Poverty Row studios lurked. He signed to do three (non-Western) serials for Mascot, a tiny outfit started by Nat Levine in 1927 which only lasted nine years before being absorbed into Republic. Levine made features for $30,000. The salary was terrible and the conditions worse but at least Duke was following Will Rogers’s advice and working. And it was there he made the acquaintance of stunt genius Yakima Canutt and began a lifelong friendship.

Warners

Things were bleak but they were now to look up a bit. In mid-1932 Wayne signed a contract with Leon Schlesinger who had an in at Warner Bros. Schlesinger produced a series of six Westerns and while these movies too were quickly-produced B-Westerns (average time spent, three days per picture), Schlesinger was able to use Warners’ high-class interiors and the movies had vastly superior production values than than the Harry Cohn trash. They were well shot by DP Ted McCord. The scripts were better and the acting too. Paul Fix was a regular and would become a stalwart Wayne collaborator for years to come. Wayne was paid $850 for each picture – a princely sum to him.

For me the highlight of the series was The Telegraph Trail, a breezy romp through the standard Manifest Destiny theme of spanning the nation with wires. Duke (on his white stallion, the second-billed Duke) naturally was the hero who overcame all obstacles and built the lines. The picture is energetic and fun. It’s fifty-four black & white minutes of straight-down-the-(telegraph)-line action. There’s a brave Army scout as hero (Wayne, right), a comic corporal for light relief, “red devils” galore, a vile renegade white man helping the Indians to try to prevent “American civilization struggling slowly westward” and, of course, a fair maid to be wooed ‘n’ won. What more could you want? Oh yes, the US Cavalry arrives at the last moment.

The Warners Westerns usually grossed over two hundred thousand dollars each on release, a healthy return for their very modest budget.

Wayne was also learning fast: he is far more natural in these pictures, still with a boyish charm but more assured, and more comfortable in scenes with actresses.

The six Warners Westerns, in order (US release dates in brackets), are:

The Big Stampede (October, 1932)
Haunted Gold (December, 1932)
The Telegraph Trail (March, 1933)
Somewhere in Sonora (May, 1933)
The Man from Monterey (July, 1933)

(The missing links to be reviewed soon).

In June 1934 Duke married Josephine Alicia Saenz and he and Josie moved in to a three-room apartment. Children would soon follow. It was essential that he got work. But the last Warners Western of the deal had been released in July ’33. At this point producer Paul Malvern stepped in and proposed a series starring Wayne at Monogram. Monogram was another Poverty Row studio, founded in 1931 and specializing in cheap second features. It too would be absorbed into Herb Yates’s Republic in 1935.
 
Paul Malvern - rather dashing
 
Monogram – the Lone Star Westerns

The backbone of the studio in those early days was a father-and-son combination: writer/director Robert N Bradbury and cowboy actor Bob Steele, a pal of Duke’s from his early days in Glendale. Bradbury wrote and directed most of Malvern’s early Monogram Westerns, under the Lone Star brand. While budgets and production values were low, Lone Star Westerns rattled along energetically and made the most of the very limited resources. Budgets were often only $10,000 per picture.
 
RN Bradbury (right) with his son Bob Steele
 
It was a big step down from Warners, and even from Columbia. Poverty Row was where washed-up actors usually ended up, not where emerging talent started. But work was work. Twelve pictures were planned (actually sixteen were made in the end, released at roughly six-week intervals over a year and a half) and they all had zip and pace. Bradbury was a fan of fast action, rapid pans and snazzy dissolves. Paul Malvern hired Archie Stout to shoot the pictures and Stout gave Bradbury what he wanted. Ornery and cantankerous, Stout, who had worked with Henry Hathaway at Paramount on the talkie remakes of their silent Zane Grey stories, was a real pro who occasionally would produce artistic work (as John Ford would understand).
 
Archie Stout
 
Yak Canutt was Duke’s stunt double and second unit director, often also playing a henchman of the villain – sometimes even the lead villain. Many of the scripts were written by Lindsley Parsons, a surfing buddy of Duke’s, who churned out cheap gangster movies and Westerns for Monogram with aplomb, for $100 a pop. He and Bradbury as writers loved mistaken identities, secret passages and villains in disguises. There was usually a crusty old-timer (often Gabby Hayes), some comic relief and a pretty girl for Duke to woo and win. Sometimes too there was a plucky young lad for the largely juvenile audience to identify with. Corny stuff, maybe, but it went down well in the theaters.
 
 
Like many 30s Westerns, these pictures inhabit that weird twilight world in which there are modern trucks, cars and trains and most characters wear contemporary (i.e. 1930s) clothes, yet pistol-packin’ cowpokes in range duds ride the trail and hold up stages. I suppose that the ‘Wild West’ was still so recent in the memory of the audience of the day (rather like movies set in the 1970s to us today) that they could almost believe that this world existed. Or at least suspend their credibility for 54 minutes.

Writing of Wayne at this time, Eyman rather astutely says:

Wayne wasn’t the worst actor among the B movie cowboys, but he wasn’t the best either. He was taller than Bob Steele – everybody was – but at this stage in their careers, Steele was a better actor. Wayne was sexier than Hoot Gibson, but Gibson was a better rider. What Wayne had was charm, great good looks, a wonderful smile, and the beginnings of technical and physical assurance to go with the assertiveness that was written into the characters, if not always the performances.

One problem was that screen cowboys in those days were expected to sing. They had to strum guitars while on horseback and serenade the leading lady under the moonlight. But Wayne couldn’t sing worth a damn. They dubbed his songs usually, with a rich and fruity operetta baritone utterly unlike Wayne’s own voice, but in Riders of Destiny Bradbury made Wayne, as feared gunfighter Singin’ Sandy, use his own voice. The result is hilarious.
 
Singin' Sandy
 
Someone forgot to renew the copyright on these movies later on with the result that they are all now in the public domain. The upside of that is you can easily find them. The downside is that they have often been copied and recopied to the point where the print quality is lousy. But they are all an entertaining watch. My favorite is The Trail Beyond, a Canadian Western which is huge fun and co-stars both Noah Beery Sr. and Noah Beery Jr.

The Lone Star Westerns in order (US release dates in brackets) were:

Riders of Destiny (October, 1933)
Sagebrush Trail (December, 1933)
The Lucky Texan (January, 1934)
West of the Divide (February, 1934)
Blue Steel (May 10, 1934)
The Man from Utah (May 15, 1934)
Randy Rides Alone (June, 1934)
The Star Packer (July, 1934)
The Trail Beyond (October, 1934)
The Lawless Frontier (November, 1934)
'Neath the Arizona Skies (December, 1934)
Texas Terror (February, 1935)
Rainbow Valley (March, 1935)
The Desert Trail (April, 1935)
The Dawn Rider (June, 1935)
Paradise Canyon (July, 1935)

Republic

In 1935 Herb Yates (left) at Consolidated proposed a deal to Nat Levine at Mascot and Trem Carr at Monogram. The studios would merge and buy up other smaller Poverty Row outfits, in effect centralizing Poverty Row output in the new Republic Pictures. Levine would run production, Carr would supervise and Yates would run the business. John Wayne’s career was now in the hands of the shrewd Brooklyn-born Yates who, Wayne thought, “didn’t have a creative bone in his pear-shaped body”. Yates was first and foremost a businessman, and he believed that the way to fortune was by making movies cheaply. He was famous for having said, “Some people make dollar cigars. We make nickel cigars. Remember that.” It was an inauspicious start but once again, it was work.

In time John Wayne would become Republic’s biggest and most bankable star, a sort of cut-price Clark Gable for MGM. But not yet. For now, the recipe was much as before, and the crews and casts were the old ones too. In effect, it was more of the same, cheap one-hour B-Westerns to run as second features.

Wayne’s first eight Republic movies, the likes of Westward Ho (Republic’s first picture), Lawless Range or Winds of the Wasteland (the last for a time), are pretty well indistinguishable from the Lone Star ones. It was business as usual. The formula was simple: as Wayne explained to Peter Bogdanovich, “The quickie [movies] are those kinds of pictures in which you tell the audience what you’re going to do, then you go do it, and then you tell them what you’ve done, then you tell them what you’re going to do next.” They were thus undemanding fare suitable for unsophisticated viewers, and often quite talky, as the various characters explained the plot to each other, so they had to be pepped up with a lot of rapid action in between. But they were enjoyed. They were light and unpretentious entertainment for the mid-West masses.

After Winds of the Wasteland in July 1936 there came a Western pause. Wayne now made six non-Western pictures for Universal, in an attempt to broaden his appeal. The critics were only moderately kinder than they had been and Wayne was unhappy there. "I had lost my stature as a Western star and got nothing in return,” he said. It was back to the saddle.

He made a one-off Western at Paramount, Born to the West, released in December 1937. The picture had something Wayne hadn’t seen much of since he’d done The Big Trail: budget. Not that it’s a huge Paramount production. It was still a 59-minute B-picture. But it had a rather glossier look to it than Wayne was used to. There are some classy wide shots of cattle, probably Paramount stock footage but still. Wayne appears much more at ease in this movie, quite relaxed and delivering his lines with a certain panache. The lines are better, mind. I quite like this picture.

At the time RKO was looking for a replacement for George O’Brien, so that was now a possibility, but they passed on Wayne. So it was back to Herb Yates and the series of Three Mesquiteers Westerns. It was a reasonable deal – eight pictures at a salary of $3000 each – but it was still only half what he had been getting at Universal. And the movies were pretty low-grade stuff, only one step up from a serial, really.

The Three Mesquiteers

William Colt MacDonald’s popular novels were destined for the screen. There had been two independent motion pictures, Normandy Pictures’ The Law of 45s in 1935 with Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams as Tucson Smith, and RKO’s Powdersmoke Range later the same year with Harry Carey as Tucson Smith, and Hoot Gibson as Stony Brooke, and Big Boy Williams returning but as Lullaby Joslin.

Then Republic took over the franchise and produced no fewer than 51 pictures between 1936 and ’43, with a variety of actors but always with a trio of pards ridin’ the range and rightin’ wrongs. There had already been five in 1938 before Wayne  (right, as Stony) joined the team in Pals of the Saddle in August. He took over from Robert Livingston as Stony Brooke. Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan was Tucson Smith and Max Terhune (with his ventriloquist’s dummy Elmer as the alleged comic relief) was Lullaby Joslin.

The series was hugely popular. It was the only one of its kind to be specifically named and rated in contemporary polls of the top Western film stars. The Motion Picture Herald consistently ranked the series in its top ten, reaching a peak of 5th place in 1938, when John Wayne joined.

The Wayne pictures were:

Pals of the Saddle (August, 1938)
Overland Stage Raiders (September, 1938)
Sante Fe Stampede (November, 1938)
Red River Range (December, 1938)
The Night Riders (April, 1939)
Three Texas Steers (May, 1939)
Wyoming Outlaw (June, 1939)
New Frontier (August, 1939)

So Wayne made four in ’38 and four in ’39, with Stagecoach, released in February ’39, in the middle.

All were directed by diminutive, cherubic George Sherman (left). Wayne remained a stalwart Sherman supporter ever after, and as late as 1971 Sherman was credited director on Wayne’s Big Jake, though by then the poor fellow was pretty well out of it and Wayne himself did most of the directing. It was typical of Wayne, though; he was intensely loyal to friends and former colleagues.

The first Three Mesquiteers picture, Pals of the Saddle, is (vaguely) set during some post-1938 world war, at least one assumes so, and has a plot about a crooked scheme to mine the poison gas ‘monium’ and ship it out of the USA for use by (unnamed) European powers. Naturally, the pals foil the evil machinations. Children must have enjoyed it.

Overland Stage Raiders has the same contemporary-yet-Wild West setting, with the Stetsoned and spurred pals riding the range with sixguns on their hips, yet cars and planes figuring and the rest of the cast in modern dress (the chief villain always in a suit). It’s odd, but you get used to it. In fact the internal combustion engine is central to the plot of this one: while we are used in Westerns to plots about stage lines being put out of business by the railroads, in this one the robbed stage in question is a bus and it is replaced by an air service.

Santa Fe Stampede was a lusty little Western which also featured good old William Farnum. It’s interesting because it is already clear in it that Wayne is the star. The other two mesquiteers are pretty well bystanders.

Red River Range has a rustling plot. The twist is that the rustlers are using big trucks (which, thanks to speeded-up film, manage to hold the road at over 100 mph). Though Stony has a rep for romancing the dames, he never actually gets one. In Red River Range, however, we are 'amusingly' led to believe he has fallen into matrimonial clutches in the last reel. But luckily someone else marries Jane and the three pals can ride off into the sunset to find their next adventure, which is pretty well de rigueur.

Wayne felt trapped. He seemed condemned to B-Western leads for minor studios. The plots and scripts were formulaic and trite. They gave him no scope. Even the titles blurred into each other: The Man from Monterey for Warners, The Man from Utah for Monogram; The Lawless Frontier for Monogram, The New Frontier for Republic; Lawless Range and The Lawless Nineties; they seemed indistinguishable.

John Ford

For several years after The Big Trail, John Ford (right) simply cut John Wayne dead. He could be a spiteful and unforgiving man and he was not about to pardon Wayne for being ‘discovered’ not by him but by Raoul Walsh, a director and figure whom Ford envied. So while Ford went from strength to strength, Wayne had no part in that.

But by the mid-30s Wayne was at least readmitted to Ford’s social circle. He, along with Ward Bond and a few other courtiers, were regular guests on Ford’s yacht, the Araner, or at his house for drinking and cards. Wayne seems to have had a curious admiration of, almost dependency on Ford, craving his approval. Ford semi-sadistically enjoyed withholding that. He was scathing of Wayne’s Republic Westerns but offered no part which would enable Wayne to escape them.

It may genuinely have been that Wayne was, in Ford’s estimation, not yet ready for an A-picture lead. In any case Ford wasn’t making Westerns; he hadn’t done one since the silent 3 Bad Men in 1926. But in late ’38 Ford finally found the right script for John Wayne.

Even then Ford toyed with the young actor, inviting him onto the Araner, outlining the project and asking Duke disingenuously who he thought might be suitable to cast as the Ringo Kid. Of course he had already decided on Wayne. It was just malicious fun.

Wayne's years in the wilderness during the 1930s had been somewhat less than Churchillian, and Winston's didn't involve acting in low-budget B-Westerns for minor studios (at least not to my knowledge) but poor Duke had wallowed in pretty low-grade oaters all through the 30s. Yet as the decade drew to a close, the two giant figures re-emerged, Duke and Winnie, to a commanding position in their respective genres (Western movies and geopolitics, respectively). John Wayne was the star of Stagecoach.

Stagecoach

Stagecoach was in fact an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle, and Wayne’s was actually almost a minor part: the Ringo Kid appears late on the scene, when the other characters are already established, and he has fewer lines. And he is surprisingly passive for a hero, surrendering his guns in the coach, giving up his freedom and even his true love at the end of the trip (it's the marshal who arranges his escape). Wayne only got $3700 for his fee, barely more than John Carradine for the gambler part. But small part or not, Wayne’s sheer power and charisma allow him pretty well to dominate the cast. Ford helped: he made sure the camera homed in on the Kid often for silent reaction shots. The Ringo Kid is the hero of the piece, and Wayne, from the stunning entry Ford gives him onwards (you'll never forget it), is undoubtedly the star of Stagecoach. John Wayne now showed that he wasn't just a Poverty Row B-Western guy; he was a real Western actor.

The movie was an unsensational but decent box-office success but a great critical hit. The Daily News wrote, “Every part is admirably acted … and John Wayne is so good in the role of the outlaw that one wonders why he has had to wait all this time since The Big Trail for another such opportunity.” How true. Pauline Keel wrote of Ford’s “simple, clear, epic vision” and said that the movie “had a mixture of reverie and reverence about the American past that made the picture seem almost folk art.” Westerns through the 1930s had become repetitive, slightly infantile pictures which appealed to some but left many adults indifferent. After Stagecoach, grown-ups formed lines outside movie theaters to see Westerns again and all the big studios, sensing the $$$ potential, got in on the act.

Scott Eyman wrote that “the modern Western starts here.”

And had John Wayne’s career as an A-picture star finally, at long last, been launched? Or would Stagecoach be another Big Trail, another false start? Well, it was in a way. It would be almost another decade before Wayne got the lead in another truly fine adult Western, Howard Hawks’s Red River, released in 1948. For now, it was back to Republic to finish those contract Three Mesquiteers movies.

Back to Republic

The Night Riders saw the heroic three pards becoming vigilantes to foil the nefarious land-grab schemes of villain George Douglas. Three Texas Steers is a circus story (Wayne was in quite a few of those over the years) in which the Mesquiteers thwart the schemes of villain Ralph Graves who wants to get his greedy hands on the ranch of circus owner Carole Landis.  In Wyoming Outlaw the three foil a crooked politician (LeRoy Mason) in order to help a man reduced to stealing cattle to feed his family. New Frontier is a dam story (dam building was all the rage in those New Deal days) in which Stony and his pals lead the farmers who are to be dispossessed and also foils the crooks who want to cash in. All in all, Wayne’s heart must have sunk.
 
 
Still, things were in fact looking up. Herb Yates wanted to cash in (of course) on the new-found – or refound – stardom of John Wayne. He had Gene Autry and Roy Rogers for cheap Westerns. Now he had visions of grandeur. Two days after the end of shooting on New Frontier, he loaned Wayne out to RKO to make Allegheny Uprising, a 1750s tale which took a full eight weeks to shoot and which reunited Wayne with Stagecoach co-star Claire Trevor. And then Yates really pushed the boat out: he put together Dark Command, a major project for Yates, and a big budget - $750,000, no less! To add weight, Walter Pidgeon was borrowed from MGM to co-star and Raoul Walsh from Warners to direct. And, yes, Claire Trevor again.
 
A big-budget Republic picture. Gosh.
 
Ten years on from The Big Trail, Walsh said, “The trouble with most competent but ungifted actors, and that’s what the Duke is, is that they think they’re wonderful. Wayne does not. He’d read a script and shake his head. … ‘It’s too hard. I’m not good enough for it.’ You let Wayne alone, let him do the thing the way he feels he can, and he’s fine.”
 
The dashing Raoul Walsh
 
He was indeed fine. Dark Command is no Red River but it was probably Republic’s best ever film and Wayne was excellent in it. It’s a farrago about Quantrill (Pidgeon played ‘William Cantrell’) in Kansas and it’s all a lot of hooey historically, but that was par for the course. The Jack Marta black & white cinematography and the Victor Young score give the picture real atmosphere. It all climaxes with a spectacular rendition of the raid on Lawrence. The picture was both a critical and box-office success and it filled the theaters. Wayne’s reputation went up another notch.

The early 40s

Wayne now began a period of loan-outs and independent pictures combined with bread-and-butter Republic Westerns. This phase was to take him all through the war, when many other cowboy stars had joined up. In fact he didn’t do that many Westerns. Dramas of various kinds, romances and of course war films occupied him more. He did The Long Voyage Home, released by United Artists and, later, They were Expendable at MGM for John Ford, and Reap the Wild Wind for Cecil B DeMille at Paramount. DeMille had earlier turned Wayne down for the part of Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman, preferring Gary Cooper, saying that since The Big Trail “a lot of water has passed under the bridge.” So he wasn’t exactly Duke’s favorite director. Wayne got his own back, though: when in 1940 DeMille asked him to do North West Mounted Police, (again he used Coop), Duke sent him a note, refusing, adding that “a lot of water has passed under the bridge.”
 
Cecil B DeMille
 
A non-Republic Western – well, semi-Western - was Paramount’s The Shepherd of the Hills in 1941, directed by Henry Hathaway, in which Wayne starred with his old mentor Harry Carey. Hathaway and Wayne held each other in esteem for many years and would of course work together again.
 
Hathaway chats with Duke. They got on.
 
In ’42 at Universal Duke starred with Randolph Scott and Marlene Dietrich (with whom he was having an affair) in the latest (and best) version of The Spoilers, a rambunctious Alaska gold-rush tale. In ’43 he did RKO’s A Lady Takes a Chance, a rom-com Western with the great Jean Arthur. And in ’44 Wayne was back at RKO to make Tall in the Saddle, with old pals Paul Fix (who co-wrote it), Ward Bond, Gabby Hayes and Ray Hatton. His friend Robert Fellows produced it. In fact, Tall in the Saddle is rather good and Duke as the hero Rocklin is the classic tough hombre. He was beginning to establish a Western persona now, a name, a voice, a walk, and this kind of role would last him the rest of his career.
 
Harry Carey Sr
 
Otherwise, there were pretty standard pictures back at Republic. They paid the bills. In Old California (1942) and its sequel In Old Oklahoma (1943), romantic B-Westerns, were followed by the rather lurid Flame of Barbary Coast and Dakota in 1945. These two were directed by Republic standby Joseph Kane, of whom Scott Eyman has said that he was “a man who made more than one hundred movies without an interesting shot to be found in any of them.” In Dakota Wayne had the misfortune to be saddled with Herb Yates’s mistress Vera Hruba Ralston as leading lady. Ms. Ralston was neither attractive nor talented, and her middle-European accent was what many would have described as thick.

The late 40s

Wayne’s next Republic Western, the rather charming Angel and the Badman in 1947, was announced on the title screen as “A John Wayne Production.” He had moved up and was taking more control. James Edward Grant wrote it and he did a fine job with the screenplay.
 
James Edward Grant
 
The script is intelligent, occasionally dryly witty and interesting too. The characters, even the minor ones, are very well delineated. It was Grant’s first collaboration with Wayne. He would go on to work closely with Duke, notably writing Hondo and The Alamo. Later he would do several other Wayne Westerns. Wayne also let him direct Angel, his first of only two pictures at the helm, and it is probably true that directing was not his forte. But Wayne said:

It sure changes when you’re the producer as well as the star … As a producer I want to give people new chances. If they click, I’ll feel that it will be a sort of repayment for the brand of friendship and trust that Jack Ford has given me.

Angel is in fact almost an anti-Western: a gunslinger is reformed by the love of a Quaker girl. It harks back more to William S Hart than to early Wayne Westerns. Wayne gave the part of the marshal to Harry Carey and he was masterly in the role, remaining in the memory. Another Wayne groupie, Bruce Cabot, plays the villain, very well. The black & white photography was by Archie Stout, so competent it verges on arty. There are some lovely shots of riders on a ridge, a favorite image of his. Wayne was beginning to assemble his ‘stock company’, like John Ford. Angel is a pretty little film with real qualities.
 
With Gail Russell in Angel and the Badman
 
And talking of Ford, it would soon be time for Wayne to really shine, as lead in the three great Westerns we know as John Ford’s cavalry trilogy: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. Before then, though, came the absolutely splendid Red River.

Red River

Red River was the only Western in which Howard Hawks matched the work of John Ford. It is a mighty film. One thinks of Ford while watching it not only because Hawks elicited a stunning performance from John Wayne but also because of the epic grandeur of the movie, the noble themes and the fact that each shot is framed as a work of art.
 
 
Dunson ages in Red River
 
Ford does seem to have had some input to Red River. Tag Gallagher, in his book John Ford: The Man and his Films (University of California Press, 1984), suggests that Ford assisted Hawks on the set and made numerous editing suggestions, including the use of a narrator. It may have been so. Certainly Ford wrote to Hawks asking him to “take care of my boy Duke”. Hawks did say that he often thought of Ford when shooting, particularly in a burial scene when ominous clouds started to gather. Hawks later told Ford, "Hey, I've got one almost as good as you can do - you better go and see it."

Wayne’s performance as the Capt. Bligh-like Thomas Dunson is towering. He had never been better and he showed that he could handle a major part in a huge movie with power, confidence and conviction. After seeing Wayne's performance in the film, Ford is quoted as saying, "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act" – which was a bit rich after Stagecoach, in which Wayne had pretty well outshone all the rest of the cast.
 
Howard Hawks
 
In a 1974 interview, Hawks said that he originally offered the role of Dunson to Gary Cooper but Coop declined it because he didn't believe the ruthless nature of Dunson's character would have suited his screen image. Hard to say it, but I don’t think even Coop could have done it better.

The picture was a big hit, being 1948's third-highest grossing film at $4.15m. And it really made John Wayne into a leading Hollywood star. Furthermore, it ushered in Wayne’s period of true greatness. In the space of only three years, 1948 - 50, he made six Westerns, four of which were fine, fine films.

The cavalry trilogy

Fort Apache is essentially a war film, almost an apologia for the US Army, and in the post-Second World War period it must have resonated. But it is also a seminal work of mythography. From 1947, Year 1 you might say of the Cold War (the year Russia got the bomb) and the year Fort Apache was filmed, frontier conflicts in which decent and brave Americans faced up to the menace of the ‘red’ men represented how America would confront the ‘red threat’ of the Communist world. In many of these post-war Westerns, Fort Apache included, the recently concluded Civil War was to be read as World War II. The movies were often pretty obvious metaphors of the contemporary scene. But Fort Apache is also a true Western which follows many of the conventions of the genre, and an outstanding Western too.
 
 
The casting was inspired. Wayne played a natural Westerner, languid, wise, knowing, ‘the man who knows Indians’, while Henry Fonda was given the part of the rigid martinet, Easterner Colonel Thursday, stiff as a poker. It gave great scope to both and both were superb. Like Red River (shot before Fort Apache but released after) Fort Apache established Wayne as the dominant actor in the genre, and like Red River it was both a critical and commercial hit.

After Fort Apache Ford, anxious to make money to compensate for his megaflop The Fugitive, moved straight on the same year with another oater, this time for MGM, a Technicolor remake of a sentimental tale, 3 Godfathers, again with Wayne. Wayne is good in it but the picture was far from Ford’s finest and has been described as “terminal treacle”. But then, immediately, even before 3 Godfathers was released, Ford returned to the cavalry theme for RKO, yet again with Duke in the lead, and went into production with a picture shot by the highly talented (and Oscar-winning) Winton C Hoch, whom he had used on 3 Godfathers, which was given the title She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
 
 
Naturally, the setting was Monument Valley, which contributed so much to so many Ford Westerns. Wayne later wrote, “We lived in a tent city [Wayne was slightly stretching the we there: he and Ford were the only ones to have private cabins] and at night we played cards … Sometimes the Sons of the Pioneers were there, and they sang too. It was kind of captured companionship and we made the most of it. And most of it was delightful because it was different from the way we lived at home.” This nostalgic view was not, however, the way most of the cast and crew remembered the location shooting; it was pretty basic out there in the valley.

This time John Wayne is crusty Captain Nathan Brittles, in his last week of service before retirement. Wayne’s performance is stunningly good. He is totally convincing as an elderly officer, twenty years older than his real age; the way he walks and looks and talks are just right. Of course he had done something similar for Hawks in Red River. The business with the spectacles as he examines the inscription on the farewell watch could have been saccharine but it is in fact very moving. Wayne said that this was his favorite role ever. “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” What Wayne was now showing, in spades, was an ability to suggest an essential nobility of character beneath rough Western manners. This ability suited the parts he played in Ford’s cavalry Westerns right down to the dusty ground.

Though Ford and Wayne never conceived these pictures as a trilogy, another cavalry Western would help fill the coffers. Ford's son Patrick said, "He didn't want to make Rio Grande, he didn't want any part of it. So then there was the compromise, going back and forth: 'Well, I'll tell you what, if I can have my choice of cast in Rio Grande, I'll make it for you’." Pat Ford said that John Wayne didn't really want to do it either. "Duke didn't really want to make it. It was just a job." Both Ford and Wayne wanted to go off to Ireland to film Ford’s beloved project The Quiet Man and they needed the cash. Neither really wanted to do another cavalry Western, and a black & white picture back at penny-pinching Republic was hardly an enticement. But they bit the bullet and did it. And in fact Rio Grande turned out to be superb, as good as the other two – and that’s saying something.

It was another Cold War allegory – very much so – as it dealt with a raid across an international frontier to hit the enemy just as General MacArthur was trying to persuade Truman to let him cross the 38th Parallel in hot pursuit. Audiences in the theaters would have seen newsreels from Korea just before they saw the movie and the similarities – and message – can’t have escaped them.
 
Claude Jarman Jr superb as Wayne's son in Rio Grande
 
But once again it’s also a wonderful Western in its own right. Although it suffers from the second-rate Maureen O’Hara as leading lady, the great Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. are there in force, and Claude Jarman is absolutely superb as Wayne’s son – among many other things, this is a coming-of-age story.

These three pictures were in many ways Ford’s masterworks and they were certainly Wayne’s finest hour – until The Searchers.

There followed a three-year pause. Wayne had certainly done enough Westerns for the moment. He was occupied with The Quiet Man and the likes of Flying Leathernecks and Big Jim McLain.

Hondo

But in 1953 he returned with Hondo. For me, Hondo, a Louis L’Amour story with screenplay by James Edward Grant, is one of the best Westerns of the 1950s. It was slated for Glenn Ford, who would have been great, but when he learned that John Farrow would direct, he backed out (they didn’t get on). Farrow didn’t get on with many people, actually, and he was a poor director of Westerns. Nevertheless, Hondo is first class, in many ways what a Western should be. The opening is astonishingly Shane-like (Shane came out earlier the same year). A mysterious gunman comes out of nowhere, arriving at a threatened farm where he is attracted to the farmer’s wife and bonds with the young son. Quite a coincidence, you must admit.
 
Hondo: great cast
 
But in Hondo the stranger is stronger (it’s Wayne, not the soft Alan Ladd), there is no husband to get in the way (although we meet him later he is a rogue, soon disposed of), the wife, Geraldine Page, is better than Jean Arthur in Shane (Page was justly nominated for an Oscar for it) and the little boy, Lee Aaker, is far grittier than the whiny kid in Shane (Brandon de Wilde).

Hondo belongs to the new genre of those hard, adult Westerns of the early 50s. Hondo has a Winchester with an inscribed plate showing he has won it for marksmanship, a quotation all fans of Winchester ’73 will recognize. The picture was Wayne’s riposte to the Anthony Mann/James Stewart tough-guy oaters. Support acting is excellent, notably Ward Bond as grizzled Indian scout Buffalo Baker, a perfect role for him (one of 23 films he made with Wayne), and another Wayne pal, James Arness (still blond) as an unsympathetic rival, even taller than Wayne. Paul Fix is a major.

Hondo was the second movie (after Big Jim McLain) of Wayne’s new company Batjac Productions, set up with Fellows, run for many years by John Wayne’s son Michael, which would go on to do many of the later and very bankable Wayne Westerns.

In 1954 Wayne produced the classy Track of the Cat, a William A Wellman-directed contemporary Western with a superb Robert Mitchum, based on the fine novel by Walter van Tilburg Clark, of The Ox-Bow Incident fame.

And then in 1956 it was back to John Ford, and The Searchers.

The Searchers

I regard The Searchers as the masterpiece of both John Ford and John Wayne. Not everyone does, though, and at the time the film received lukewarm praise from the critics and was ignored by the Academy Awards. But in 1989, it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress. Today the American Film Institute rates it as the twelfth greatest American film ever made and the best Western. David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard and George Lucas have all spoken about how it influenced them. And many, many people share my opinion of this splendid work.
 
Towering
 
From the famous (and very beautiful) opening scene of Monument Valley framed by the doorway of the homesteaders’ cabin to the similar final view, we, on the inside looking out, see Ethan Edwards (Wayne) as the outsider, the man excluded from family and society. And indeed throughout this powerful film, he is exactly that. In his finest performance, Wayne shows us a complex character. He is the true Westerner: he is strong, individualistic and self-sufficient. Yet he is brutally racist, probably criminal (his illegal activities after the war are hinted at), and seeks an almost crazed revenge. He is one of the most savage Western heroes in any film. He is capable of slaying wild animals just so that Indians starve or shooting out the eyes of an Indian corpse so that “his spirit wanders forever between the winds” and he finally scalps his quarry. His aim is not really to recapture the white girls (one has been killed; the other ‘contaminated’) but to get his mad revenge.

He is actually very like Scar, his Indian enemy (Henry Brandon). When they face off and trade insults they are alike. They speak each other’s languages and have suffered from each other’s brutality.

And yet, and yet... Ethan Edwards is also an enormously sympathetic character, full of courage, ability and even nobility. He is implacable yet curiously vulnerable.

“When I looked up at Duke during rehearsal,” remembered Harry Carey Jr., “it was into the meanest and coldest eyes I have ever seen. I don’t know how he molded that character. Perhaps he’d known someone like Ethan Edwards as a kid … He was even Ethan at dinner time. He didn’t kid around on The Searchers like he had done on other shows. Ethan was always in his eyes.” We don’t think of Wayne as a method actor but in The Searchers he came close to that.

The late 50s

Wayne followed The Searchers by producing three Westerns. First came the fine Seven Men from Now (Warner Bros, 1956) one of those excellent Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher pictures.
 
Duke, Randy, Budd
 
Then Gun the Man Down (United Artists, 1956), a sort of big-screen Gunsmoke spin-off, with James Arness, directed by Wayne protégé Andrew McLaglen, son of Ford’s favored actor Victor. In fact Wayne himself was considered for the part of Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, which was moving from radio to TV, but he turned it down, not wanting to be confined to the small screen. At the time everything Wayne did was good and made money too. There’s an amusing 1955 intro to the show by Wayne you can watch here. It’s a typically generous gesture to his friend Arness. And then Escort West (United Artists, 1958), the last Western of Victor Mature, who was surprisingly good in the genre. The cast of Escort West was thickly populated with Wayne stock company actors.

Rio Bravo

Wayne had always wanted to make a major picture celebrating the heroism of the defenders of the Alamo. For years he had tried to persuade Herb Yates at Republic to finance one, but Yates would never risk that much capital. Worse, he ripped off Wayne’s idea and produced his own cut-rate Alamo story, The Last Command (1955) with Arthur Hunnicutt and Sterling Hayden. Wayne never forgave Yates, and never made another picture for him. In fact he never spoke to him again. Just as Duke was a loyal and steadfast friend, so he could be a steely foe.

So Wayne decided he would make the picture himself. It was a huge budget affair and so he began putting bankable projects together to finance it, and in ’59 two of these were another Ford Western, The Horse Soldiers with William Holden, released in June, but first the exciting, entertaining and hugely successful Rio Bravo, at Warners, directed once more by Howard Hawks.

Wayne (and Walter Brennan) with Hawks in a Western – Red River rides again? Nope, it wasn’t like that. Rio Bravo was commercial, brash and straight-down-the-line. That’s why the public loved it. In some ways it was an anti-High Noon: both Hawks and Wayne disliked High Noon. Hawks said, "I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn't my idea of a good western sheriff." Wayne thought in un-American. In their version the marshal retains his star and doesn’t throw it in the dirt at the end.
 
Classic later Wayne: Rio Bravo
 
Quentin Tarantino said that if he started getting interested in a girl he would show her Rio Bravo. And she better like it… I kind of see what he means.

It was in Rio Bravo that John Wayne started wearing that uniform of salmon-pink shirt, leather vest and that splendid hat. And of course that old yellow-handled 44.40.


It became his standard attire, whatever period the Western was set in, for the next decade or more.

The Horse Soldiers was a disappointment, a lackluster cavalry Western which didn’t click. It hardly seems a John Ford picture at all. Wayne was distracted by plans for The Alamo but was still his professional self, working hard and doing it right. But Ford was losing it, the story was not well told and Constance Towers as co-star was very weak.

The Alamo

Wayne and Batjac didn’t seem to understand that a cast of thousands and some big name stars don’t on their own add up to much if you don’t have a gripping story and above all, pacing. The Alamo moves at the pace of a snail on valium.

A lot of the blame must go to James Edward Grant, Wayne’s preferred writer, friend (although Duke sometimes had to clench his teeth) and in this case associate producer. He came up with a screenplay that is ponderous, turgid and only periodically actionful. Perhaps it was too hard anyway to make that plot into anything beyond the obvious siege and heroic, doomed defense (although other Alamo movies, of which there were many, didn’t do badly). In any case, inventing heroic sallies to destroy artillery or rustle cattle behind enemy lines didn’t help. You just keep wanting Santa Anna to get on with it and start the attack.


Defenders of the Alamo
 
That’s another weakness: the Mexicans have no character or personality at all. They are just uniforms to be mown down. Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla) is only billed 24th in the titles, second to last, and has no lines. At 203 minutes (director’s cut) Wayne had all the time in the world to develop key characters like this if he had bothered. Presumably he didn’t think it mattered.

But that’s the main weakness: the 203 minutes. Nearly three and a half hours! OK if it’s gripping, but 'overblown' is the only word here. Even the shortest cut weighs in at a hefty 2 hours 20’. Editor Stuart Gilmore seems to have misplaced his scissors. And it’s so talky, especially the first half. The characters spend the whole time talking about liberty and explaining to the audience how historic their present efforts are going to prove to be. It’s not just implausible, it’s boring – the cardinal sin of the Western.
 
 
How ironic that Herb Yates’s rip-off B-Western The Last Command turned out in fact to be better.

The Alamo cost a fortune – literally, Wayne’s personal fortune. Wayne knew that The Alamo needed to gross $17 million to make any money. It made $8m. With later sales abroad, and TV rights, it did eventually just about break even but by then Batjac had sold its interest to pay debts and Wayne reaped no financial reward.

Poor John Wayne. He had invested everything, financially and spiritually, to make The Alamo and all he got was a bloated plodder.

In May 1960 John Wayne began shooting North to Alaska with Henry Hathaway, a commitment he had with Fox, as soon as he had wrapped The Alamo but before it was released, and he was busy working on his own big picture even between takes on the new movie. He was also working on setting up The Comancheros (1961) so it was a bit like juggling, trying to keep all these projects going at the same time and not drop the ball. But he needed the money. The Alamo had taken up most of his reserves and then some. North to Alaska was a lusty romp set in 1900 in the goldfields round Nome and in some ways was a trial run for McLintock! (1963).

Between North to Alaska and The Comancheros Wayne made a cameo appearance as General Sherman on an episode of Wagon Train directed by Ford, The Colter Craven Story. It’s little more than a curiosity. Wayne appears almost spectral, in deep shadow. He was to return as Sherman in another cameo in MGM’s lumbering (but successful) How the West was Won in 1962, in the segment of the movie directed by Ford.
 
 
Big 20th Century Fox budget; beefy, muscular musical theme by Elmer Bernstein; large, panoramic Utah locations (buttes and mesas) photographed by William Clothier; Clair Huffaker and James Edward Grant screenplay from a Paul Wellman novel; The Comancheros had all the hallmarks of a successful John Wayne Western. But it was actually a big B-movie. It is distinguished, though, by top-class character actors, notably Jack Elam, Edgar Buchanan, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (his last movie), Bob Steele and Lee Marvin. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, who never really ‘got’ Westerns and anyway was ill, poor man. It had been slated for Budd Boetticher. That would have made all the difference.

The Man who Shot Liberty Valance

Wayne’s last Western for John Ford is regarded by many, Westernistas and non, as a magnificent movie. Not by yours truly, though. As far as Wayne goes, though he was the marksman of the title (as it turns out), his part is low-key and he is really backing up James Stewart. Myself, I find the black & white picture studio-bound, old-fashioned, over talky and lacking action – and also rather bleak. The theme is the dying of the legend, and the movie was that in more ways than one. Still, there is no denying that many think of The Man who Shot Liberty Valance as a great Wayne (and Ford) Western. You pays your money and you makes your own judgement.
 
The man who shot him
 
Wayne worked with Ford again, on the non-Western Donovan’s Reef, but never did another Western with his old mentor. Ford did make a last (and weak) Western, Cheyenne Autumn, but that starred Richard Widmark. Liberty Valance was the end of a long, long collaboration which had produced some of the finest Westerns ever made.

Big commercial Westerns

After Circus World, a dreary 1964 picture which has a vague Western tinge (it’s more of a Wild West show than a circus) Wayne and Hawks thought that as their pairing had really worked on Rio Bravo. They would try again, with El Dorado. It was really just a remake of Rio Bravo. The good guys have to keep the bad guy in jail till the US marshal gets here and the bad guy’s henchmen are all out there waiting to kill them. This time Robert Mitchum gets Dean Martin’s drunk lawman role and James Caan is the bumptious kid instead of Ricky Nelson. Walter Brennan as the cantankerous old deputy has been replaced by the nearest equivalent, Arthur Hunnicutt. It was a box-office hit everywhere it played. But the whole thing was a sloppy, low-grade Western, I’m afraid, and only worth a DVD purchase if you are a committed Wayne fan or can’t resist Mitchum or want a fairly nostalgic evening. (Oh, you too?)

The same year Wayne produced Hondo and the Apaches, in which two episodes of Batjac’s TV spin-off Hondo were tacked together to make a movie.

Wayne, in his uniform, spent the rest of the 60s and early 70s making big, lusty, commercial Westerns, mostly for Batjac. They were undemanding fare but they had good budgets, straightforward plots, and they were immensely popular in the theaters.

McLintock! was a sort of Taming of the Western Shrew and is a picture I don’t care for at all. It has to be said that comedy Westerns weren’t really Duke’s forte, and this one also starred the dreadful Maureen O’Hara. It was directed by AV McLaglen, who was second-rate. Some people like it. Well, they’re welcome.

The Sons of Katie Elder (not actually a Batjac picture) in 1965 was way better. Wayne was recovering from quite drastic cancer surgery. The Western-loving public was holding its breath. Would he come back as a Western star? Of course he would! With the strength and guts and work ethic he had, he’d be back in the saddle alright. The Sons of Katie Elder was the first in a whole series of big, commercial, well-made movies that he made down in his beloved Durango, Mexico, 1965 - 73. It’s big, bold, and self-assured.

His then wife Pilar was dismissive of them:

Looking back, I can barely tell those Durango films from one another. They had a sameness of story, plot and location which seemed like a disservice to Duke’s fans. Different casts are the only thing which made them stand apart.

But in fact she was quite wrong. They had very different stories but similar casts. Wayne gathered his stock company about him and used them in successive movies. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., Paul Fix, Bruce Cabot, Hank Worden – the usual suspects. And he used favorites for the crew too. His son Michael as producer, Carl Anderson as art director, William Clothier and Lucien Ballard as cinematographers, Burt Kennedy or Andrew V McLaglen to direct. And they did a good job; they were professionals. The films did well at the box-office; people liked them. And they fixed Wayne in the mind as a larger-than-life Western star. These were in many ways the golden years of the John Wayne Western.
 
Wayne was John Chisum
 
The others were The War Wagon, with Kirk Douglas, The Undefeated, with Rock Hudson, Chisum, Big Jake, with Richard Boone, The Train Robbers and Cahill, US Marshal. If you like your Westerns colorful, noisy and full of action, you’ll go for these. I do!

True Grit

By now Wayne was battling a paunch, wearing a toupee and was well into his sixties, and he was overcoming cancer surgery. It didn’t stop him.

At last, in 1969, Wayne took a role that suited him, where he could revel in his age and girth, and could really go for it in a full-blooded performance. And it finally won him an Oscar. It was, of course, his Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.
 

Rooster
 
The Paramount picture, directed by Hathaway, was written up by the excellent Marguerite Roberts from one of the finest ever Western novels, True Grit by Charles Portis. Actually, Portis’s Rooster was only in his forties but Wayne and Hathaway went for broke. This Rooster is elderly, cantankerous, drunken, loud and at least half rogue. Much of the Wayne theology is desecrated yet it doesn’t seem to matter and he gets away with it. He is a drunkard. He is ready to shoot a man from ambush and rob the dead. He’s doing it all for the money. These are not standard Western hero traits, and certainly not Ducal ones. It’s a truly wonderful performance by Wayne and if ever an actor deserved an Oscar it was John Wayne.
 
He finally got his Oscar. His acceptance speech was underwhelming - watch it on YouTube
 
Everyone loves this film. Quite right too: it’s outstanding.

The last years

Writer Leigh Brackett had done Rio Bravo and had been obliged by Hawks and Wayne to plagiarize herself on El Dorado. Now the poor woman was made to do it yet again in 1970 with Rio Lobo. Hawks said, "When you find out a thing that goes pretty well, you might as well do it again."

Robert Mitchum turned it down. After reading the script, he said it was "an even bigger piece of crap than El Dorado." I fear he was right. Hawks himself was honest about it. "I didn't think it was any good," he said. A perceptive man, Hawks. It does have saving graces. There's a lively sub-Rio Bravo shoot-out at the end. There's some nice William Clothier photography of Mexico and Old Tucson locations, and quite a stirring Jerry Goldsmith score (and lovely guitar music over the titles). And there's a good performance by cranky old Jack Elam with his shotgun, doing his Walter Brennan act (actually, he was a decade younger than Wayne). But really, they should have stopped at Rio Bravo.

In 1972 Duke made a Western for Warners that I am rather fond of, The Cowboys. In it, he recruits a bunch of kids to be drovers and though it may sound a bit cheesy, it isn’t at all. It’s a gritty, tough Western. And what’s more Duke is shot in it, and killed. He’d never died on screen before (except in The Alamo, where he had to) and the brutal killing here, done by that splendid villain Bruce Dern, comes by no means in the last reel. It was a real shock to audiences at the time. It’s a good little picture and definitely quality Wayne.
 
Shock: Dern kills the Duke
 
In 1975 Wayne thought he’d have another go at Rooster, and made Rooster Cogburn, a sort of Western African Queen with Katharine Hepburn, produced by Hal Wallis again. The director was Stuart Millar, who tried valiantly to follow Henry Hathaway but clearly wasn’t in the same league. He had been a producer of Little Big Man but Rooster Cogburn was his only Western as director. Wayne as Rooster launches into the part with even more gusto than he did for Hathaway – in fact he comes dangerously near to overacting. Hepburn as Goodnight does her Hepburn act, grande dame with, as Rooster says, all that wah wah accent. There are a couple of moments which work well – Hepburn reciting the 23rd Psalm as Jordan shoots at her feet, or wetting the foresight of her Winchester with her finger prior to shooting one of the bad guys. But all in all, it was a bit of a clunker, and only a pale imitation of True Grit.

Fortunately it was not to be the Duke’s last Western.

The Shootist

The Shootist (Paramount, 1976), John Wayne’s last movie, is a fine picture on many levels. It is an excellent film, with memorable performances by Wayne, James Stewart and Lauren Bacall in particular. It is too an excellent Western, with a showdown in the saloon where the hero does what a man’s gotta do, using his six-shooter against the bad guys though outnumbered. But most of all it is a poignant picture for us viewers because it deals with a man dying of cancer and it was the swansong of a man who had suffered from cancer and in a short space of time would die from it.
 
A fine portrait
 
You might also say that its theme was the end of the West. JB Books (Wayne) is a dinosaur, a Wild West gunfighter out of his time and with nowhere to go. And by the mid-70s the Western movie was in full decline too. It seemed almost an anachronism. So the whole tone of the piece is elegiac. It’s a farewell.

Adieu

John Wayne said, looking back on his career, “I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been.” He knew it was all make-believe, of course he did. He also said, “I’ve had the most appealing of lives. I’ve been lucky enough to portray man against the elements at the same time as there was always someone there to bring me orange juice.” This seems to me to be typically wry and modest of Wayne. Wayne’s son Michael said, “He wasn’t a cowboy or a rancher; he was a movie star. He wasn’t a hero; he was a movie star. But for many people, he was a symbol of America.”

That’s undeniable.

I personally think, as an ardent Western fan, that he was a truly great Western actor, and I also think that the contribution he made to the Western genre will never be surpassed.

Harry Carey Jr said, "Just put on my tombstone, 'He rode with the Duke'.


 

9 comments:

  1. As fine as fine can be, Jeff. 👍🏻

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  2. Wow! You've done the big man proud, Jeff, with this super overview of an unparalelled western career.
    I would take issue with your descriptions of those Columbia 'B westerns of Buck Jones and Tim McCoy though. As that genre goes, their Columbia films were pretty solid, among the best. All in the eye of the beholder, I guess.
    I think your assessment of Wayne's greatest performances is pretty unarguable though. I get mad when people say he couldn't act.
    Much lesser films but I am also very fond of 'TALL IN THE SADDLE', 'DARK COMMAND'.

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    1. Thanks, Jerry.
      Yes, however good/bad you think a Western is, there's always some who think the opposite. Fair enough. Chacun à son goût.
      Though naturally the world would be a better place if it were chacun à mon goût.
      Personally, I find those 3 Columbia oaters unmitigatedly awful.
      For me, lesser films JW was really good in: Angel and the Badman, The Spoilers.
      Jeff

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    2. Another two of my favourite lesser JWs........

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  3. A monolithic piece,Jeff,where does one begin.
    Firstly I take issue with the fellow who said there's not one creative
    shot in Joe Kane's work and I might add that on the Fifty Westerns
    Of The Fifties site Kane's superb RIDE THE MAN DOWN is the "most wanted"
    title it's readers wish to see on Blu Ray.
    Kane's Republic A Westerns starring the likes of Rod Cameron,
    Forrest Tucker,William Elliott and John Payne are generally very
    good,especially SAN ANTONE,BRIMSTONE and THE ROAD TO DENVER.
    I always thought Kane was the Raoul Walsh of B movies especially
    with the way his films are paced and his feeling for landscape.
    I've never admitted it anywhere else,Jeff but I totally agree with
    your take on LIBERTY VALANCE.
    To be fair to Republic I think THE LAST COMMAND is far more than
    a B Movie,as was Kane's JUBILEE TRAIL. The latter was said to be
    Republic's answer to GONE WITH THE WIND...they sure got that one
    wrong!!
    When all is said and done though,we are all glad that The Duke
    went out on a very high note with THE SHOOTIST.
    Thanks again,Jeff for a stellar essay.

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    1. Yes, Eyman was perhaps a little harsh on Joseph Kane. While we remember him mostly for that seemingly endless series of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers Westerns, and then equally numerous TV shows, I do agree that The 1948 Plunderers, Ride the Man Down, San Antone and The Road to Denver were passing good, and he did that Vanishing American with Scott Brady. The Maverick Queen was pretty grim but it did have Stanwyck.
      He was a pro who knew his stuff, even if he would never be a great artist. But Republic didn't want (or want to afford) that.
      I know Dark Command had a $750,000 budget, Wayne and Pidgeon in it too, but it just seems to me to be a big B-movie. Let's call it a B+ movie.
      Jeff

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  4. It's a 'dirty' job but somebody has to do it. You did a helluvajob! Thanks Jeff!

    Bart

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Bart. It's taken me seven years but...
      Jeff

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