Skip to comments.John Wayne from Mystic Chords of Memory: Learning from the American Story
Posted on 12/02/2020 11:24:37 AM PST by Retain Mike
Twenty-two-year-old Marion Morrison, known to his friends as Duke, was carrying a table on his head across the soundstage of a John Ford movie. He was working as a prop man at the Fox Studio in Los Angeles early in 1930. Director Raoul Walsh was looking for a leading man for an epic western film he was developing about a great wagon train journeying across vast deserts and mountains to California. Walsh didn’t want a known star to play the lead. He was looking for someone who would “be a true replica of the pioneer type.” He didn’t want the audience to see a part being acted; he wanted them to see the real thing—“someone to get out there and act natural . . . be himself.” Then he happened upon the young Duke Morrison lugging a table across a soundstage.
“He was in his early 20s,” Walsh recalled, “[and] laughing. . . . [T]he 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. . . . What I needed was a feeling of honesty, of sincerity, and [he] had it.” Within a few weeks, after a quick screen test, Duke would be signed up for the part of Breck Coleman, the fearless young scout in an ambitious film to be called The Big Trail; he would more than double his income, from $35 to $75 a week. He had to let his hair grow long and learn to throw a knife—and he would have a new name: John Wayne.
Already, as the young frontiersman in The Big Trail, the man the world would come to know as John Wayne is recognizable. He is more athletic and beautiful than we remember him from his later pictures, and he has a sweetness and shyness of youth that recedes over time, but he is “tough and in charge”; he has “a natural air of command.” The widescreen film is still visually stunning and interesting to watch, but it was an epic flop and left Wayne languishing in B-movie purgatory for almost a decade before John Ford decided to make him a star as the Ringo Kid in the great western Stagecoach.
Ford was inspired by something similar to what Raoul Walsh had seen in Duke Morrison. “It isn’t enough for an actor to look the part and say his lines well,” said Ford. “Something else has to come across to audiences—something which no director can instill or create—the quality of being a real man.” Ford added that Wayne “was the only person I could think of at the time who could personify great strength and determination without talking much. That sounds easy, perhaps. But it’s not. Either you have it or you don’t.” John Wayne had it. As James Baldwin wrote, “One does not go to see [Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne] act: one goes to watch them be.”
And Duke Morrison decided that John Wayne would be the kind of man he—and the audience—wanted to believe in. Whatever his flaws, and Wayne’s characters had many, he would present on screen a character that had something admirable in it. This character took on added dimensions in his greatest films like Red River and The Searchers. But its essence was discernable from the earliest days. He had courage and self-reliance, obstinacy and even ruthlessness; but also generosity of soul and spirit. As his biographer Scott Eyman put it, he had the kind of “spirit that makes firemen rush into a burning building . . . because it’s the right thing to do.” He had “humor, gusto, irascibility”; he was “bold, defiant, ambitious, heedless of consequences, occasionally mistaken, primarily alone—larger than life.” As one of Wayne’s colleagues said, “John Wayne was what every young boy wants to be like, and what every old man wishes he had been.”
Wayne was 32 when he made Stagecoach and 69 when he made his last film, The Shootist, in which he plays the dying gunfighter, John Bernard Books. His oft-quoted line from that film would have been right at home in The Big Trail: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” For 25 years, from 1949 to 1974, he was among the top ten box office stars every year but one. And he was more than a star for his time. Well into the 21st century, 35 years after his death, he was still listed as one of America’s five favorite movie stars; he became “indivisibly associated with America itself.”
On his 72nd birthday, May 26, 1979, as Wayne lay dying of cancer in UCLA Medical Center, the United States Congress, in a unanimous bipartisan vote, approved an order signed by President Jimmy Carter for striking a Congressional Gold Medal in his honor. Wayne would be the 85th recipient of the Medal. The first recipient was George Washington. Winston Churchill was awarded the Medal just a few years before John Wayne. As President Carter said, Wayne’s “ruggedness, the tough independence, the sense of personal conviction and courage—on and off the screen—reflected the best of our national character.” Wayne’s friend, actress Maureen O’Hara, testifying before Congress, said: “To the people of the world, John Wayne is not just an actor, and a very ﬁne actor, John Wayne is the United States of America. He is what they believe it to be. He is what they hope it will be. And he is what they hope it will always be.”
That action did not go down well in many quarters. William Manchester writes in Goodbye Darkness that John Wayne was booed when he visited Marines wounded during the battle for Okinawa. After the war, some people asked him to play Sargant Striker in Sands of Iwo Jima, because they believed the movie could help thwart efforts of Harry Truman and Omar Bradley to abolish the Marine Corps. He agreed to do so.
My favorite Wayne movie.
My favorite too.
Big John Wayne fan. The fact that during the Vietnam War, he would go toe to toe with protesters standing outside the VA Hospitals he would go to, and had no problem engaging with them. (Lest one think “Hey, they wouldn’t protest outside a hospital with wounded servicemen, would they?” one only needs to look at Walter Reed during Gulf War II. Despicable a-holes.)
He was a conservative, and not afraid to say so. Even then, in the Sixties and early Seventies, being conservative was becoming a career stopper.
But, loved The Searchers. And, of course, loved True Grit. Just watched it again a few weeks ago...:)
I was so jealous of him, he bought a WWII minesweeper and turned it into a pleasure yacht! The “Wild Goose”! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_YMS-328)
I have always read the exact opposite. Wayne kept telling Ford he'd enlist but never did. Ford reportedly resented that Wayne did not enlist as he (Ford) did. I have read two biographies of Wayne and one of Ford and they all agree on that.
BTW, Ford was an asshole. Great director, but an asshole nonetheless. During the filming of They Were Expendable Ford really rode Wayne hard finding fault with everything he did. Presumably this was due to the resentment Ford still felt over Wayne not enlisting.
I would certainly agree. The reviewer makes the statement, “Today we see it through enlightened eyes, but in 1956 many audiences accepted its harsh view of Indians.” What nonsense. Politically correct indoctrination ignores the many tribes which were barbaric predators in order to create a perception of purity allowing acceptance in chosen social groups.
We cut the cord 4 or 5 years ago and the only thing I miss is TCM.
Here’s a link to watch this Wayne debut on Youtube, the whole thing.
Yup; mine, too. My other JW favorites are “The Quiet Man” and “High and the Mighty.”
I just watched the movie. What a wonderful restoration. I especially liked the history lesson about wagon trains.
Wayne repeatedly wrote to John Ford saying he wanted to enlist, on one occasion inquiring whether he could get into Ford's military unit. Wayne did not attempt to prevent his reclassification as 1-A (draft eligible), but Republic Studios was emphatically resistant to losing him since he was their only A-list actor under contract. Herbert J. Yates, President of Republic, threatened Wayne with a lawsuit if he walked away from his contract, and Republic Pictures intervened in the Selective Service process, requesting Wayne's further deferment.
John Ford and John Wayne had a complicated relationship that spanned over 50 years. It was Ford who first gave John Wayne, then still Marion Morrison, walk-ons in his films. Ford would go on to be commissioned as a commander in the United States Nay Reserve and consistently degraded John Wayne for not enlisting, telling him to “get into it” and that he was growing rich while others were dying.
However, a letter penned by John Wayne addressed to John Ford suggests that Wayne did take this to heart. It reads:
“Have you any suggestions on how I should get in? Can you get me assigned to your outfit, and if you could, would you want me? How about the Marines? You have Army and Navy men under you. Have you any Marines or how about a Seabee or what would you suggest or would you? No I’m not drunk. I just hate to ask for favors, but for Christ sake you can suggest can’t you? No kidding, coach who’ll I see..”
Owing to Wayne’s situation, then, his status at the beginning of the war was 3-A, which meant family deferment. Yet there is a possibility Wayne wanted to enlist at that time. Indeed, in 1942 the actor wrote to Ford, saying, “Have you any suggestions on how I should get in? Can you get me assigned to your outfit, and if you could, would you want me?
Yet if Ford ever answered the letter, there’s no evidence of it. It’s true, though, that Wayne applied to serve in the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) and was subsequently accepted into the Field Photographic Unit. The letter of approval went, however, to the home of his estranged spouse Josephine Saenz – and she kept it from him.
The article above the John Wayne one about Helen Keller was interesting. The writing by her was something you do not see much today.
I didn’t know that...very cool. Looks like a great party boat, too!
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