[Another excerpt from the Delancey Street newsletter. John Wayne was very much the polarizing figure back when most of us came of age. Has our assessment of him mellowed or improved over time? Or, is he an enduring hero of a time that we have moved past? Stated differently, is he Silverback Worthy? SB SM]
Today’s selection — from American Cowboy John Wayne: The Duke. John Wayne became the quintessential American hero of the 1950s and early 1960s, standing taller in his era than perhaps any before or since. His towering, iconic presence quickly lost its preeminence in the iconoclastic 1960s and 1970s:
“Howard Hawks’ coaxing of a new kind of performance from John Wayne in Red River (1948) — opened up new doors not only for Duke, but for the Western genre as well. That film, with its darker, deeper portrayals and its determinedness to assert themes touching on the human condition was a glimpse of what audiences could expect from both Wayne and Westerns in the 1950s.
“Surprised by the Duke’s ever-increasing range as an actor, John Ford cast him in what would be known as not only Wayne’s best picture to that point in his career, but Ford’s as well. The film promised to be something bigger and bolder as Westerns were transitioning from ‘caters’ to films. The script and Ford would push Wayne to an unforeseen level. The nuanced part of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) put Wayne’s image at risk. Heretofore, most of Wayne’s roles had given audiences uncomplicated heroes. Wayne, nevertheless, took the chance playing the perplexing character of Edwards — a man of questionable motives and unpredictable action — and it marked the moment he transitioned from leading man to larger-than-life Hollywood legend.
“In the wake of elevated status, Duke continued making box office successes, sometimes produced by his own company, Batjac. In 1959, he appeared in Rio Bravo and The Horse Soldiers, the latter directed by his mentor, John Ford. But Wayne, a steadfast American and a politically conservative, had long dreamed of making a film about the battle at the Alamo — a heroic moment in history that he viewed as a fight for liberty. Making the epic was Duke’s greatest challenge and an undertaking he had in planning for more than a decade.
“The Alamo project was so vital to Wayne that he decided to direct as well as star in the picture. He was determined to mold the heroic struggle for Texas independence into his political credo to reawaken American patriotism. Eventually, the actor exhausted his finances to complete the production, and he was devastated when reviewers panned his movie. Duke claimed that critics failed to understand that The Alamo (1960) wasn’t just about the brave men who died in San Antonio, it was a call for freedom. ‘That picture lost so much money I can’t buy a pack of chewing gum in Texas without a co-signer,’ Duke quipped.
“To bring himself back from the fiscal brink, Wayne took high-paying cameo roles in The Longest Day and How the West Was Won and in The Greatest Story Ever Told he incongruously played a Roman centurion who accompanied Jesus to the cross. Working overtime he made The Comancheros, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hatari!, and Donovan’s Reef in the early 1960s. During the making of Donovan’s Reef, his final film for Ford, Duke’s coughing spells grew so severe that his wife, Pilar, became frightened, but Wayne assured her it was nothing.
|Film still from The Comancheros (1961)|
“Fans, even those who disagreed with the actor’s politics, admired his determination, drive, and honesty. Duke’s dedication to the work ethic, his perseverance, and his uncomplicated beliefs fused with his down-to-earth demeanor to make him more than a Hollywood personality. He became a friend to audiences around the globe — a hero on-screen and off. ‘Everyone thinks I’m their neighbor,’ Duke often said. His magic lay in convincing his public that he was the character he projected on the screen. ‘I read dramatic lines undramatically and react to situations normally,’ Wayne said. Watching him in darkened theaters, fans could relax because they knew that the good guys were going to win even when the going was tough. In an increasingly complex world, such reassurance was welcome.
“In 1963, Wayne starred in McLintock! for his own production company. As his costar Duke selected his most successful leading lady, Maureen O’Hara, who had earlier performed with him in Rio Grande and The Quiet Man. O’Hara was one of the few actresses feisty enough to hold her own against Wayne’s machismo. ‘Maureen is kind of like a lady John Wayne,’ a stuntman on McLintock! said. Wayne treated her like ‘one of the guys,’ and she gave as good as she got in action scenes, much to Duke’s amusement.
“The most memorable sequence in McLintock! is a spectacular mud fight that ends up with Wayne, O’Hara, and half the cast in an outrageous mud bath. The weather near Old Tucson, where the picture was filmed, had turned blustery and cold enough that smudge pots had to be set out each morning to thaw the ice that formed during the night on the mud puddle. Some of the stuntmen asked for hazard pay for going down in to the mess, until Duke and O’Hara volunteered to do the stunt themselves. O’Hara went down the slide into the mud first, so Wayne had no choice but to follow. ‘He couldn’t let me win,’ the actress said. Then the stars had to stand in the wind, covered in movie mud (actually bentonite clay, which made for a better slide) while the scene was finished.
“Yet John Wayne, the heroic figure who had risen to be the biggest movie star in Hollywood history, was a sick man. In 1964, his time of private testing had come. Finally alarmed by a persistent cough, Duke went for a checkup after finishing In Harm’s Way, and X-rays showed that the actor, a heavy smoker, had a spot on his lung. A month later Duke was admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital, a malignant growth was removed from his left lung. The tumor, about the size of a golf ball, was sufficiently large that the surgeon had to enter through the patient’s back. Wayne awoke to discover that he had only one functioning lung. ‘I’ll never forget that black day the doctors told me I had the “the big C,”‘ he said. ‘Ever since I heard those words, I haven’t quite gotten over the feeling that I’m pretty much living on borrowed time.’
“Duke lost forty pounds following his surgery, but his willpower remained strong. Doctors told him that he must stay inactive for at least six moths, but the work-oriented actor grew restless despite continued difficulty in breathing.
“His agent and advisers implored him to hide the real reason for his hospitalization, contending that the truth would destroy his image. But in December 1964, the ailing actor held a press conference in his home and explained the facts of his illness to reporters. ‘I always believe in facing everything directly,’ he told them.
“His brave words were typical of the intrepid John Wayne towering above the celluloid hazards. ‘I’m not the sort to back away from a fight,’ he said. ‘It’s not my speed. I never flinched before in my life, so I see no reason to do so now.’ Duke counted on his fans to embrace his frank approach, and he judged their loyalty correctly. Most of his public, including a host of converts, viewed Wayne’s disclosure as a noble action. His valor and fighting spirit made him an even greater hero in real life than he had been on the screen. Later, he was awarded a citation for his role in combating the public’s cancer phobia.
“Convinced that he had beaten ‘the big C,’ Duke packed his bags in January 1965, less than four months after his operation, and left for Durango, Mexico where he made The Sons of Katie Elder. ‘I figured I had loafed around long enough,’ he said. ‘I can’t stand being idle.’
“But Durango is high in the Sierra Madre range, and the thin air there meant that Wayne would tire easily and be more dependent than ever on bottled oxygen. Making an action picture is physically demanding under the best of circumstances, and Duke was functioning on one lung. He did his own riding, roped steers, rounded up cattle, and handled his fight scenes without a double.
“In one sequence, Wayne was pulled off a horse, fell into a mountain stream, and engaged in a lengthy brawl in freezing water. He came out of the stream chilled to the bone and could not stop coughing. An aide wrapped a blanket around him and he immediately grabbed for an inhalator and placed the mask over his nose. As the press moved toward him, a photographer snapped a picture of Duke holding the oxygen mask to his face. Wayne snatched the camera from the reporter and angrily threw it on the ground.
“Later in Durango, for the benefit of the press, the actor threw a couple of pills into his mouth, washed them down with a swig from a half-gallon jug of mescal, and proclaimed, ‘I’m the stuff that men are made of!’ Despite his weakened condition, Wayne had to be the macho man. He soon began smoking again and spent evenings carousing with costar Dean Martin. Duke’s daughter Aissa remembered seeing her father and Martin marching arm-in-arm down the street outside their hotel in Durango, inebriated and singing their lungs out.
“The public appeared to accept John Wayne’s image as the stalwart warrior who had wrestled ‘the big C’ and come away victorious. But his screen persona was shifting to that of a mature hero — one of enduring muscle who observed younger men’s love affairs with understanding and a touch of humor. Meanwhile, the gap between John Wayne the movie star — and John Wayne the family man and patriot — had narrowed. He would live another 15 years after his cancer surgery, make 18 more movies, and see his second set of children enter early adulthood. A bloated face and an expanding paunch had replaced his youthful good looks, but in the years that followed, Hollywood’s favorite cowboy star soared off the screen to become a growing icon in a world culture.”