Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Modern Day Heroes: John Wayne

John Wayne from The Comancheros. 1961.
John Wayne was the original movie tough guy.

He rode a mean horse. He carried a shotgun and a brace of pistols, and in most of his movies, he was pretty good with his fists, which meant he could punch out the bad guy’s lights without working up a sweat. 

Too bad his parents saddled him with a girl’s name. Marion Morrison[1] wasn’t a good name for a movie star. Especially, if he planned on specializing in tough guy roles.

Johnny Cash could very well have lifted the idea for "A Man Named Sue" from John Wayne’s life story. I have no doubt that name turned Wayne into the tough son-of-a-bitch that he became.

Not too long ago, another bad ass named David Morrell wrote a short book about John Wayne.[2] And, let me assure you, David knows a thing or two about tough guys. If you don't recognize the name, David is the man who wrote First Blood. That book unleashed John Rambo on the world. 

Johnny Rambo was a Vietnam veteran, who suffered from PTSD. In the book, Rambo got pushed a little too hard by a local sheriff because he had long hair. All I can tell you is big mistake. Rambo took out most of that town before he got taken down. 

John Wayne came from the same stock as John Rambo. 

He didn't take shit. From anyone.

I crossed paths with David Morrell back in the late 1970s when he taught Classical American Literature at the University of Iowa. The only grudge I hold against David is that he made me read Moby Dick.

If you never read Moby Dick, it’s this crazy ass book that rambles on and on for hundreds of pages about sperm. (snicker! snicker!) Or, more realistically about the sperm from a sperm whale. Only it wasn’t sperm. It was the white, waxy goo the sailors extracted from the whale’s head.

My understanding is the sperm was symbolic of world love and peace. Something like in the old Coca-Cola® commercial when they sang. “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

That book started the Transcendentalist Movement in America. It inspired Thoreau to go out into the wilderness and spend time at Walden Lake. Just him, and the solitude of the woods.

Squeezing the gooey, white sperm made Ishmael feel, “divinely free from all ill-will.” It brought him closer to his brother sailors. Of course, that didn’t stop him and Captain Ahab from poking fun at the sperm. He said, I “squeezed that sperm until a strange sort of insanity came over me.”

Boys will be boys.

I never met John Wayne, but I do know he wouldn't make anyone read Moby Dick

John Wayne knew where to plant his seed, and he didn’t get his jollies squeezing it out of a whale.

He squeezed it out of another tool he was pretty familiar with (like any real man would).

Getting back to our story, John Wayne started acting as the industry transitioned from silent films to talkies.

A lot of actors couldn’t make the cut after the white signboards went away. Luckily for John Wayne he didn’t sound like a Marion.

The Big Trail

Wayne's first big opportunity came in The Big Trail, directed by Raoul Walsh in 1930. It was a big-budget production for its time. Two million big ones.

It flopped.

If you ever saw it, you would understand why.

The show features very little of the Wayne we remember today. Throughout the movie, he’s dressed in white buckskin. He sneaks kisses from the girls. His hair is long and curly. He’s tough, but not threatening. His character, Breck Coleman, is quick with his knife, and the "best shot in this country. He knows everything."

The Duke wears a cowboy hat, but not his trademarked slouched felt cap we have grown used to. He’s the leaner, younger version of himself.

Wayne's voice was not as deep or developed. It lacked that "aw, shucks" flavor we’ve come to expect from him.

At best, we could say, Wayne was not an actor, yet. He was a man in search of himself or his persona.

As for the movie itself, it didn’t have much of a storyline. Wayne joined a wagon train so he could follow the trail of two men he suspected of murdering his trapper friend. He had several adventures and close calls as he led the settlers across the Oregon Trail. In the end, he got the bad guys and the girl.

The thing is, the movie was too long.

The version I watched ran two hours and fifty-six minutes. Walsh could have cut it in half and created a better, faster-paced movie. The epic scenes of storms, river crossings, and Indian fights were magnificent, but they created confusion and information overload.

It was too much to process. 

The Big Trail had a happy ending on the big screen, but the film’s failure sealed Wayne’s fate. It doomed him to play in more than fifty “B” Westerns over the next decade. The most degrading was his role as “Singing Sandy,” the original singing cowboy.

Singing Sandy

Wayne’s career hit rock bottom with the role of Singing Sandy.

Typical of his early “B” Westerns, Riders of Destiny opened with a panoramic view of the Duke. Except for this time, he was riding across the desert, singing and strumming his guitar.

It embarrassed me to watch it. I can only think how Wayne must have felt making it!

Singing Sandy, as one character in the movie put it, was the "most notorious gunman since Billy the Kid." During the big gunfight scene, he sang to himself as he walked towards his opponent.

He kept his hand on his gun, and a song on his lips.

Singing Sandy was fast.

Everything about this movie was wrong.

Wayne wasn't a singer or a lover. He was a fighter. Give him a gun. Let him use his fists. Give him anything but a guitar.

The only good thing to come from Wayne’s “B” Western period was an increased appreciation for stunt work. David Morrell said that Wayne and Yakima Canutt brought a new reality to fight scenes. They discovered if they placed the camera behind the actor making the punch, the fight scene appeared more realistic.[3]


Most of the action in the film takes place on the stagecoach, or at stage stations en route to Lordsburg. The passengers are an odd assortment. There’s Dallas, a prostitute or dancehall girl, who is being run out of town by the “Law and Order League.” Doc Boone, a drunkard in the same situation as Dallas. Samuel Peacock is a middle-age whiskey drummer, most often mistaken for a preacher. There is a soldier’s wife, who is about to give birth, and wants to find her husband before the big event. There is a gambler, trying to make time with the soldier’s wife, and a banker, who is in a hurry to get out of town.

Up top, on the buckboard is the driver, Buck, and Marshal Curly Wilcox, who is riding shotgun on the stage.

John Wayne, the Ringo Kid, shows up 19 minutes into movie riding a lame horse. He just busted out of prison and is making his way towards Lordsburg to take revenge on Luke Plummer, the man who murdered his father and brother.

Wayne is tall, rugged, and fit. Curls lash his face and highlight his boyish smile. He’s dressed the same as he was in every cowboy movie since then. He wore a slouched felt cowboy hat, with a bandanna wrapped around his neck.

The Duke in 1939 was the same man he was in 1973.

His voice wasn’t quite as deep. But, the inflection and tone are there. He just needs a little more, “aw, shucks,” and to sprinkle in “pilgrim” here and there.

He’s a little younger, and his acting abilities are not fully developed, but he was the Duke.

There was no doubt about that.

The part set Wayne up for the role he would play for rest of his life—protecting the underdog. Or, in this case, Dallas, the lady driven out of town by the “Law and Order League.”

During dinner at the relay station, Wayne sits by Dallas. Everyone else moves as far away as they can, shunning Dallas’s character.

Wayne thinks it’s him they are trying to avoid.

"Looks like I got the plague,” he says. “You can't break out of prison and into society in the same week."

Outside, after dinner. Wayne asks Dallas to marry him, and live with him on his ranch in Mexico.

Dallas wants to, but she has a secret. She tells the doc, Ringo asked her to marry him. The doc tells her she’s crazy. If she and the Kid rode into Lordsburg together, he'd "find out all about her." And, you know what would happen then.

Not too long after this, Dallas tries to help Ringo escape before Curly can put him back in prison.
He’s on a horse. He’s riding away. Then suddenly, Ringo stops at the outer edges of the relay station. As the sheriff runs up to capture him, Ringo points to the skyline.

They have a bigger problem on their hands.


And, they’re coming for them.

Everyone climbs onboard the stage and they make a wild run for it. Wayne clambers out of Stagecoach while it's going full blast, and crawls on top to fight off the Apache attack. When the driver gets shot, Ringo jumps on the horses and works his way to the front. He climbs on the lead horse and steers the stage to safety.

Of course, the Calvary rides in at the last moment and saves the day.

When the stage reaches Lordsburg, Wayne has unfinished business to attend to. Even though he is a prisoner, Curly gives him ten minutes to get his guy.

The movie is filled with symbolism.

Luke Plummer, Wayne’s nemesis drew aces and eight's, the dead man's hand, as Ringo rolls into town. Someone was going to die. Moments later when Plummer is searching for Ringo, a black cat crosses his path.

Ringo walks down a dark street.

It’s three against one. Wayne drops to ground and fires. Plummer staggers into the bar and falls over dead.

Wayne walks back to the girl.

In the final scene, Curly and the Doc let Wayne and Dallas ride off to freedom. The sheriff says, "Doc I'll buy you a drink."

“Just one," says Doc.

Doc stops drinking. Wayne gets the girl. But, the real surprise is the sheriff from Lordsburg is waiting at the stage station for the banker. It seems he stole $50,000 from his bank and was using the Indian uprising to cover his tracks.

Happy ending.

John Ford & John Wayne

Stagecoach set the Duke’s career in motion, but he soon discovered there was a dark side to success.

John Ford treated Wayne like a piece of dirt. 

During the filming of Stagecoach, he called Wayne a “dumb bastard” and “big oaf” in front of the cast and crew. He made fun of Wayne’s walk, and suggested that he was “skipping like a goddamn fairy.”[4]

John Ford was a cruel bastard.

If Wayne was anything like the characters he played, he would have challenged Ford to a duel. Right then and there. But, Wayne was smarter than that. He understood he needed Ford if he wanted to be a star.

I've read some accounts that say Ford behaved the way he did to coax a brilliant performance out of Wayne. That's possible, but most critics think it's the type of thing a mean son-of-a-bitch like Ford would do.

Ford's hazing was part of the dues Wayne had to pay to become a star. Like college hazing. It was a necessary evil.

In his book, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Eyman suggested part of the reason for Wayne’s success was the limited number of lines he had. Rather than let the Duke talk, Ford focused on his reactions and emotions through a series of well-chosen close-ups. 

Whatever the reason, the show was a major success.

John Wayne showed everyone he had the right stuff.

The biggest mystery is that the Duke never entered the service during World War II.

It seems Wayne pulled a George Bush. He secured a 3-A deferment to stay home and support his four kids.

No one would know that from his film career. Three of his movies make it appear as if Wayne won the war all by himself. See the: Flying Tigers (1942), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and The Longest Day (1962).

His lack of service became another reason for John Ford to poke fun at the Duke. During the war, Ford served as a commander in the Navy.

Many other actors followed John Ford’s example.

Henry Fonda served as a lieutenant junior grade on the USS Satterlee. Jimmy Stewart flew combat missions during the war. Later, he served as a brigadier general in the reserves. After his wife Carole Lombard died in an airplane crash, Clark Gable joined the Army Air Force. Even though he was a member of the First Motion Picture Unit, Gable flew combat missions out of England.

After the war, Ford turned more cynical and patriotic. His movies stressed old-fashioned American values. John Wayne was his choice for the face of America. 

It was a good call.

Wayne was an ultra-conservative, flag-waving patriot. He was soft-spoken independent and humble. Just like Ford's idealized American. 

John Wayne was the man every American wanted to be.

The Green Berets

The Green Berets is one of my favorite John Wayne movies, but critics had a different opinion. Roger Ebert wrote that it was crazy to portray the Vietnam War in terms of “cowboys and Indians.”[5] David Morrell said John Wayne, "took the conventions of World War II movies and imposed them on the Vietnam conflict."[6]

The real irony was that the film was a financial success even though it drew criticism from every corner. Wayne's comments didn't help, especially when he suggested the government should shoot all draft dodgers. Perhaps, he was trying to compensate for his deferral in World War II? That's what his wife, Pilar Wayne said in her book.[7]

Gary Wills was unsympathetic. He labeled Wayne a "chicken hawk."[8] He said Wayne was all for sending kids to the killing fields even though he stayed home and cemented his place on the movie charts.

That didn't sit well with anyone.

Wayne didn’t care. He said, "the critics don't like my politics, and they were condemning the war, not the picture."

Here’s the deal. The Green Berets was Wayne’s version of the World War II patriotic movies he had starred in before. He wanted to help Americans understand why they needed to get behind the war, and what was at stake if we pulled out of South Vietnam.

Wayne wrote a letter to President Johnson in 1965 telling him that he would like to film a movie about the war. Johnson passed the message on to the Department of Defense. They got behind the movie as soon as Wayne gave them final say over the script. Seventeen months later the Duke started filming The Green Berets. Most of it was shot on location at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The story centers around George Beckworth (David Janssen) an American newspaper reporter skeptical of the war. After spending some time with Colonel Mike Kirby (John Wayne) and his Green Berets, Beckworth sees the light.

What critics disliked is the way the movie depicted the Vietcong as bloodthirsty killers out to murder the poor South Vietnamese. They also hated the canned scenes, such as the relationship between Sergeant Petersen and Hamchunk, a young South Vietnamese boy. It’s reminiscent of Audie Murphy in his World War II memoir To Hell and Back.

The scene that really pushed it was at the end when Hamchunk ran between Helicopters searching for Petersen. When it sinks in that Petersen isn’t coming back, Hamchunk runs off crying.

Wayne comforts him, saying, “You always knew it could happen.”

A few moments later Hamchunk cut to the chase. He asked what would happen to him now. Wayne said, “You let me worry about that, Green Beret. You’re what this is all about.”

Then they walk off into the sunset with Sergeant Barry Saddler singing The Green Berets theme song in the background.

Is the film pure poppycock like the critics panned it for, or was it a reason to go on fighting?

True Grit 

True Grit was the pinnacle of John Wayne’s film career.

The movie didn't have the magnificent scenery of The Big Trail or Stagecoach. It wasn’t necessary. It was evident from the start that Wayne was the star of this comic drama. It pulled the best out of Wayne. He didn't have to say anything to be funny. When he screwed his face up, it displayed a thousand emotions from comic to tragic. And, when he did open his mouth magic spilled out. His deep scratchy voice and western drawl said it all.

It took thirty years for Wayne to move from Stagecoach to True Grit, but it left no doubt, he was the real deal.

Wayne’s voice, face, and style showed a range of emotions he couldn’t master as a young man.

Here’s the storyline. Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) hires Marshal Rooster Cogburn to go after Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. Together with Texas Ranger, La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) they ride into Indian Territory.

They catch up with two of Chaney’s associates. From them, they learn that Chaney and Pepper are expected to arrive later that night. They set a trap, but it fails when La Boeuf fires his gun too soon.

Later, La Boeuf and Mattie, watch from a hilltop as Rooster charges three of the gang members on his own.

Wayne tells the men to throw their guns down.

"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," says Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall). Wayne charges them with both guns blazing, rifle in one hand, pistol in another, and his bridle in teeth.

Rooster kills two of the men but gets caught under his horse when it gets shot out from under him. An almost dead Ned Pepper rides up to finish Rooster off. He would be dead if La Boeuf did not get a shot off from his Sharps.

In the end, Chaney tosses Mattie into a snake pit to die. Wayne arrives in the nick of time, kills Chaney, and with the help of La Boeuf, rescues Mattie.

La Boeuf dies from his injuries, and Rooster races off with Mattie in tow as he tries to save her life.

Despite its serious nature, the show had many funny moments.

Mattie was so fond of pulling the lawyer card Campbell finally screamed out, “she draws him like a gun.”

Another time, Wayne was taking pulls from a whiskey bottle while searching for a sign. The further he rode and the more he drank, the more he screwed his face up in a thousand different directions. Then he fell off his horse and decided he had found the perfect place to camp.

The Shootist

The Shootist mirrored Wayne’s story.

Don Siegel cast the Duke as an aging gunfighter, who discovered he had cancer. Rather than suffer the pain and humiliation of dying from cancer, he planned a scenario that allowed him to go out the way he lived—in a blaze of glory.

The story had a great set-up.

Wayne’s first stop after riding into town was to visit the aging doctor played by Jimmy Stewart. He unwrapped his red doily seat pad (stolen from a house of ill repute). He spread it out on the chair and explained his situation to the doc.

After completing the exam, Stewart told the Duke. “You have a cancer. Advanced." The only way to get rid of it, he explained, was to "gut him like a fish," and that wasn’t an option.

Wayne’s character had two months to live—tops.

In the final scene, Wayne rides the streetcar to death. He walks into the bar, plunks down his money, and tells the bartender, "This is my birthday. Give me the best in the house."

A desperado fires a shot at Wayne from the shadows. Wayne dives over the bar and takes him out.

Richard Boone is up next.

Wayne takes a bullet in the chest, and another in the arm, but he rolls with the punches. Boone picks up a table and uses it as a shield to charge the bar.

Big mistake! The bullets pass right through.

Close to the end, there is a short, intense scene where Wayne wiggles around behind the bar. He gets himself into position as the card shark winds his way closer. Wayne nails him in the forehead as the man peeks around the corner of the bar.

For a moment, it seems as if the Duke survived the assault. That is until the bartender grabs a shotgun and completes the work the three gunfighters started.

J. B. Books is no more, but he doesn’t go out unavenged. Young Gillom Bond (played by Ron Howard) grabs the Duke’s gun and blasts away at the bartender. He removes his coat and covers Wayne’s body.

John Wayne couldn’t have picked a more fitting final movie. Like the lead character, J. B. Books, he was dying of cancer. Rather than go out in a final blaze of glory, Wayne got his satisfaction on the Big Screen.

The acting was sub-par, about what you would expect from your typical “B” Western. The scenes with Wayne and Stewart reprised some of the old magic. Lauren Bacall excelled as the prim and proper, Mrs. Bond, the owner of the boarding house Wayne was staying at. Richard Boone’s portrayal of Wayne’s arch nemesis was dull and lifeless.

The one bright spot was Ron Howard (better known to most of us as Opie Taylor or Ritchie Cunningham). He gave a stand-out performance as the young man caught up in preserving the myth of J. B. Books.


Wayne was a heavy smoker with a two pack a day habit. In 1964, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, probably from the smoking cigarettes. But, Wayne also received lung damage caused by a fire while filming Circus World.

Wayne wound up having a lung removed.

The surgery didn’t stop him. He continued to play the tough guy, but he often required oxygen, especially after filming a stressful fight scene.

John Wayne died of stomach cancer in 1979. 

Vice President John Wayne

Ronnie Reagan was the first actor to become President, but it could have been John Wayne.

MSNBC reported that George Wallace wanted Wayne as his running mate in 1968. The Governor admired Wayne’s tough character and conservative stance. Like Wallace, the Duke was politically insensitive. His films suggested whites, blacks, and Native Americans should mind their place. If they stepped over the boundary, Wayne was there to knock them back.[9]

But, honestly? Can you imagine the Duke playing second fiddle to anyone?

Vice president sounds impressive enough, but former office holders tell a different story.

Lyndon Johnson referred to his time as vice-president as “castration.” John Adams said, “I am vice-president. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” John Nance Garner put it in terms Wayne could relate to. “The vice-presidency is not worth a warm bucket of piss.”

Next in line to the Oval Office, and “not worth a warm bucket of piss.” That is worse than second billing in a major motion picture.

The funny thing is by the mid-60s, most people associated John Wayne with cancer or conservative politics. Only superfans talked about his acting abilities.

A May 1971 Playboy interview barely took notice of Wayne’s acting. The interview concentrated on his politics.

"I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility," Wayne told the interviewer.

When asked about the Native Americans, Wayne said taking their land was "a matter of survival.” White people needed the land, and “the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves."

The Playboy interview said all there was to say about Wayne—on screen and off. He told the interviewer his dad said to "never insult anybody unintentionally." He took that advice to the grave.

Because of his movie roles, everyone pictured the Duke as this rough and tumble cowboy type. Nothing could be further from the truth. His son Ethan, said Wayne wasn't a cowboy. He liked the beach, especially spending time in the boat fishing, away from people. That's when he could let loose and be himself.[10]

Wayne summed up his life best when he said, "I've played the kind of man I'd like to have been."[11]

Isn't that the dream?

[1] Wayne’s middle name is Robert, but is sometimes listed as Mitchell.
[2] Morrell, David. John Wayne: The Westerns. 2000.
[3] Morrell, David. John Wayne: The Westerns. 2000. Page 9.
[4] Morrell, David: John Wayne: The Westerns. 2000. Page 11.
[6] Morrell, David. John Wayne: The Westerns. 2000. Pages 2-3.
[7] Wayne, Pilar. John Wayne: My Life with the Duke. 1987.
[8] Wills, Gary. John Wayne’s America.
[9] Howard, Adam. “Why John Wayne Remains an Icon of the Right.” MSNBC. January 20, 2016.
[10] Mandell, Andrea. “Remembering John Wayne: You’ve never Seen Any of These Exclusive Photos. USA Today. May 25, 2017.

[11] Bogdanovich, Peter. Playing John Wayne. Scott Eysman’s John Wayne: The Life and the Legend. The New York Times Sunday Book Review. March 28, 2014.

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