The Duke

31 Jan

When John Wayne died on the 11th of June 1979 I was struck by the fact that one of the guys I was at school with was in tears off and on all day.

I suppose that might not seem all that odd. People get very attached to pop stars and film stars and so forth and people these days seem to be moved to tears on a pretty regular basis on reality TV shows and what have you. (There seems to be a consensus in some quarters that this is a good thing, because it’s supposedly healthier than bottling things up, but I must confess that I’m not convinced).

So we had this guy aged about 16 who was attending the same, not exactly genteel secondary school that I went to. I won’t claim that our school was the toughest school in the world, compared with some of the tales one comes across from High schools in inner city America (Which sound more like maximum security prisons to me at times) our school wasn’t all that tough, but it had its share of aspiring hard cases, and in any case, back in the seventies in West Central Scotland bursting into tears was permissible for girls but most emphatically not acceptable in boys (Or men).

But the odd thing is that this particular lad, who in the ordinary course of events could have expected no mercy, was largely left in peace and even offered the odd halting and embarrassed word of comfort.


Because we all knew how he felt and there were more than a few of us who, behind our juvenile tough guy personas were pretty close to tears ourselves.

This is all a bit odd, I suppose, and very hard to explain to anyone who’s grown up over the past couple of decades.

When people think about John Wayne now, and I’m not even sure anyone does these days, they probably think about his politics (which have been described as neo-fascist), his support for the war in Vietnam, the mythology surrounding his non service in World War Two and then maybe sneer a bit at a couple of his less brilliant performances.

(John Wayne’s cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told  is admittedly risible, but then again, any film that casts Max von Sydow as Jesus Christ is asking for trouble. I should add that Max von Sydow seems to be a very nice chap and his talent as an actor is quite rightly revered, but he’s over six feet tall, with blue eyes and blonde hair. We don’t have a description of what Jesus Christ looked like, but given the time and place of his birth, I think if he had been a tall, blue-eyed, blonde then we certainly would have).

Then again there’s the whole thing about him not serving in the military during WWII. Well, during his lifetime it was always said that he was medically unfit for service due to a back injury. This was crap, he did have a back injury which put paid to his sporting career, but it wouldn’t have kept him out of military service.

So then there was the suggestion after his death that he had somehow ‘dodged’ the draft. Also crap. John Wayne was given a deferment due to his age (34) and his family status as a father.

It’s perfectly true that others, notably John Ford, James Stewart and Dashiell Hammett (who served in both World Wars and was ironically jailed by the McCarthyites for ‘unAmerican activities’) all pulled strings, wangled and generally went to great lengths to sign up.

John Wayne did not go to the same great lengths, but he certainly did not break the law or otherwise abuse the regulations in order to avoid military service. As a matter of fact when his draft status was later revised, he did nothing to prevent it and it was actually pressure from the studio (including the threat of litigation), that kept him out of the war.

So their’s a lot to say about John Wayne that isn’t exactly positive and there’s also a certain amount you can poke fun at if that’s your inclination.

Having said that, he probably still holds some kind of record for the number of films he made (about 200) and for his success as a box office draw.

There are also a few facts that seem to undermine the image some people seem to have had about him as some monolithic, macho fossil.

For example, when he was making Red River, he worked with Montgomery Clift, and actor of truly awesome talent and potential, but who even by then was a heroin user (if not actually an addict), who was gay and who was also a totally different kind of actor from John Wayne and the generation of actors he’d always worked with. You’d expect The Duke to be pretty dismissive, maybe even downright hostile. He was nothing of the sort. Apparently he recognised and respected Montgomery Clift’s talent and had a great deal of time for him.

He was also perfectly happy to admit that there were about 100 of his films that he didn’t like much.

He had a three-year affair with Marlene Dietrich. (Whatever her faults, she was a strong, intelligent woman, and in her prime she could pretty much have taken her pick of men, and apparently a good few women, in or out of Hollywood. It was said that even James Stewart, one of the most monogamous of men, was still besotted with Marlene Dietrich years after making Destry Rides Again). 

Since I’m addressing a few myths about John Wayne, it’s worth mentioning that his nickname ‘The Duke’ was actually a tag given to him in childhood in his home town and had nothing to do with any role he played as an actor or any supposed aristocratic connections he might have had.

It seems that in those days, the  young Marion Morrison, as he was then called, was inseparable from his huge Airedale terrier, who was called Duke, and since he disliked being called by his real name, the local Fire Chief  took to calling him ‘Little Duke’ and the name just seemed to stick.

So maybe John Wayne was a nice guy after all.

Or maybe there was at least a bit more to him than you may have been led to believe.

Or then again, maybe not. I don’t really know and I’m really not sure I care.

What I care about are the films he made. The good ones anyway.

So if you want to see what I mean (and avoid the 100 odd films that even The Duke didn’t like), then I can offer a few suggestions.

First a rule of thumb. Avoid anything he made before Stagecoach. Some of those films might be okay, but a lot of them, including the ‘singing cowboy’ films are truly dreadful.

In addition to this, and even more importantly, avoid anything he ever did for RKO while Howard Hughes was in charge. As I’ve suggested, John Wayne’s own politics were pretty far to the right and Howard Hughes made him look like a socialist (Incidently, even before he became a total recluse, Howard Hughes seems to have been pathological to some extent.If you ever have the misfortune to watch one of the films he had a hand in you’ll find a disturbing preoccupation with sadistic violence and torture).

It also has to be said that at the height of his popularity John Wayne could be an infuriatingly lazy actor and he practically sleepwalks through quite a few of his films, so you need to pick out the films he made with a really strong director like John Ford, Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh, (and don’t bother with anything John Wayne ever directed himself, his talents really didn’t lie in that direction).

So let me offer a few suggestions:-

Stagecoach (obviously)

Red River

The Searchers (Probably John Wayne’s finest and most complex performance)

Rio Bravo

Eldorado (The only time Robert Mitchum ever looked small was when he was standing next to John Wayne. As a matter of fact, whenever I see this film I always feel a bit sorry for John Wayne’s horse. He just looks too big for the poor thing).

Rio Lobo (Actually this one’s not that good, but it makes up the third in a trio with Rio Bravo and Eldorado which are both much better)

The War Wagon (Not a classic, but the by-play between John Wayne and Kirk Douglas makes it worth a look. You also get to see Howard Keel playing a Native American, which isn’t exactly politically correct these days, but I’m always happy to see Howard Keel).

True Grit (As a matter of fact, this isn’t really a favourite of mine. I felt obliged to include it since it’s the film that won John Wayne his oscar, but I always feel it’s unbalanced. John Wayne is too big and his performance is too much. I think Kim Derby and John Campbell are fine, since they’re only really there as supporting players. The real problem is Robert Duvall playing Lucky Ned Pepper. Normally I have a lot of time for Robert Duvall, but his performance was too subtle and too nuanced to stand a chance opposite John Wayne. They really should have cast someone who worked on the same scale as The Duke, ideally Richard Boone.He would have been perfect for the role).

The Shootist (This is a hard film to watch. John Wayne was dying when he made it. He needed a stunt man just to fall on the floor for him. I happen to think that anyone who’s inclined to sneer at John Wayne should watch this film at least once. It would probably shut them up. Some of the scenes between John Wayne and Lauren Bacall are almost unwatchable. John Wayne obviously knows he’s dying, just like the character he’s playing, and you can see it in his eyes. Whatever else you might want to say about John Wayne as an actor, a public figure, a cultural icon or just as a man, it took real guts to put that on the screen).


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