John Wayne: Screen Image–Continuity, Departure, and Change

Part  Eight of Nine:

Continuity of Screen Names

In most of his “B” Westerns of the 1930s, Wayne’s hero’s name was John.  His character was called John Drury in Ride Him Cowboy, John Steele in The Big Stampede, John Trent in The Telegraph Hill, John Bishop in Somewhere in Sonora, John Holmes in The Man from Monterey, John Brant in Sagebrush Trail, John Carruthers in Blue Steel, John Weston in The Man from Utah, John Travers in The Star Packer, John Tobin in The Lawless Frontier, John Higgins in Texas Terror, etc.  In several pictures, his character’s name was Duke, as in Two Fisted Law.  His hero’s name was Duke Slade in Adventure’s End, Duke Hudkins in Lady Takes a Chance, Duke Fergus in Flame of the Barbary Coast, and Duke Gifford in Operation Pacific.

Another example of the continuity (or blur) between his screen image and life off-screen was the borrowing of family names, of his wives and children, for his protagonists.  Marlene Dietrich’s heroine in Pittsburgh was named Josie, the nickname of his second wife, and in The Comancheros, Ina Balin’s name, Pilar, was after Wayne’s third wife.  In Donovan’s Reef, Wayne’s character was Michael Patrick Donovan, based on the names of his eldest (Michael) and second (Patrick) sons.  But the reversal also prevailed, with his fictional heroes influencing his real life.  Wayne liked so much the character of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers that he named his third and youngest son after him.

Moreover, Wayne often used the same characters’ names in different movies.  He played Captain Kirby York in Fort Apache and Lt. Colonel Kirby Yorke (with e) in Rio Grande, though it was not clear whether he portrayed the same hero.  Wayne also used the name Kirby in two war movies, Major Dan Kirby in Flying Leathernecks, and Colonel Mike Kirby in The Green Berets.   In Hondo, Wayne’s character was Hondo Lane and Geraldine Page’s Angie Lowe; twenty years later, he used the same names in The Train Robbers: his hero’s name was Lane and Ann-Margret’s widow was Mrs. Lowe.  Elsa Martinelli’s photographer in Hatari! was named Anna Maria, but her nickname was Dallas, after the heroine of Stagecoach.  And the villain in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Liberty Valance, bore resemblance to Cherry Valance in Hawks’s earlier Red River.

Departures from Image

Although Wayne’s persona was remarkably consistent, there were occasional departures from it, but these deviations strengthened, rather than weakened, his established image because they stressed the norm; they were equivalent to casting against type, which is also based on audiences’ familiarity with actors’ typical roles.  For example, Wayne usually portrayed indestructible heroes who triumphed against all odds, so that the few movies in which his heroes are killed neither changed his image nor altered audiences’ expectations because they were regarded as the exception.  And audiences could expect that in the next picture Wayne would again play his indefatigable and immortal heroes.

His non-American protagonists were definitely a departure from his established persona.  Wayne’s voice, Midwestern accent, appearance, and character were so quintessentially American that he was never really convincing in portraying foreigners.  Sensitive to this aspect of his persona, he rarely played non-American characters.  Perhaps his only successful attempt, Ole Olsen, the Swedish sailor in The Long Voyage Home, was, curiously, his first.  Coached by Osa Massen, a Danish actress, he managed a rather credible Swedish accent, though he once suggested to retitle the movie into “Wayne’s Long Struggle with a Swedish Accent.”  “My natural accent is strictly Winterest, Iowa, where I was born,” he explained, “and it required a lot of persuasion to make it turn Swedish for the role of Ole.”

Much more embarrassing was his portrayal of an anti-Nazi German Captain in the adventure Sea Chase.  Most reviewers were harsh on the picture as well as on Wayne, mainly because of its incredulous casting.  Critic Bowsley Crowther noted in the New York Times that Wayne played the German Captain “as though he were heading a herd of cattle up the old Chisholm Trail,” and another critic wrote that this “fantastic bit of casting” was “like getting Lassie to play a cow.”  “Once you get used to All-American John Wayne and Sweather girl (Lana Turner) as Germans,” one reviewer cynically commented, “the film is fairly acceptable.”

In Howard Hughes’s The Conqueror, Wayne was cast as Genghis Khan, the thirteenth century Mongol Emperor, without much excitement–and out of obligation to his friend Hughes, head of RKO, who had great hopes for this movie.  This time, both reviewers and audiences had difficulties disassociating Wayne from his American image, and it was a financial fiasco.  The Conqueror was described by one critic as an “oriental Western” and Wayne’s appearance as “a mite startling at first,” but “soon recognizable.”  “Once in the saddle,” he wrote, “he is the rough-riding John Wayne of yore.”   Similarly, the Time critic noted that the film suggested that “Mongolia is in the Western U.S.,” and that the part of “the Perfect warrior,” was played by “Hollywood’s best-known cowboy, John Wayne.” Wayne himself attributed the film’s failure to the fact that “people wouldn’t accept me as Genghis Khan.  I’ve been extolled as rough American personality, and they won’t take anything else.”  But he also revealed that he interpreted the role of Genghis Khan as a Westerner and that’s the way he played him.

The Conqueror has been chosen as one of “The 50 Worst Films of all Time,” a book edited by Medved and Dreyfuss.  Indeed, one critic wrote in the L.A. Times, after watching the movie in l980, that it would definitely be on his list of the ten, not fifty, worst movies.  “I can’t think of a more improbable piece of casting,” he continued, “unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in The King of Kings.”  Made as a Western, The Conqueror looked “as if the wrong costumes were delivered and they decided to shoot it anyway.” Wayne was embarrassed at the slight mentioning of this picture, wishing to forget all about it.  Fortunately for him, Hughes was sentimental toward the movie, being his last at RKO, and when the studio was sold, he bought back The Conquerors for a phenomenal amount of money and locked it in a vault until his death; it was first shown on television in l980.

Mickey Rooney never played Jesus, but Wayne was cast in the improbable role of a Roman Centurion, leading Jesus to crucifixion in George Stevens’s unsuccessful attempt at a biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, arguably Wayne’s worst appearance.  Totally miscast, his only line, “Truly, this man was a son of God,” evoked laughter in the audience and was sheer embarrassment.  Wayne’s performance, however, was just one of many other “shattering and distasteful” performances by many stars in cameo roles, including Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Carroll Baker, Shelley Winters, and Telly Savalas.

Wayne’s paucity of non-American roles was also characteristic of the other Hollywood stars known as the great American actors.   Henry Fonda, for example, played only a few foreigners in his lengthy career and, significantly, two of them before his screen image took shape: a Canadian horse trainer in Wings of Morning, and a peasant fighter in the Spanish Civil war in Blockade.  Later in his career, he was miscast as Pierre in King Vidor’s screen version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Wayne’s heroes fought against any imaginable type of villains, from Indians, smugglers, and rustlers in his Westerns, to Nazis, Japanese, and Communists in his war and political movies.  But once in a while, he allowed himself to be cast as a villain, which was the second departure from his image, though his villains usually repent in the course of the narrative.  Indeed, he made sure that the few outlaws he played were sympathetic or “likable,” as he described his roles in Red River or True Grit.  Most of the villains in his repertoire restore themselves to legitimacy and achieve redemption either through self-sacrificial death or through the love of an innocent girl.  The normative range of his roles was quite restrictive, willing to deviate from norms or violate the laws under specific conditions.  And when the screenplay did not “take care” of his villains’ redemption, he did not hesitate to demand revisions.

In Angel and the Badman, for example, Wayne’s wounded gunslinger is regenerated through the love of a Qaker maid.  Religious salvation is also the solution in Three Godfathers, a symbolic Western based on Christian mythology.  At the film’s start, Wayne is a leader of an outlaw gang, which runs away after robbing a bank.  But he redeems himself after vowing to a dying waif in the desert to bring her baby to safety in New Jerusalem, a endeavor which costs the death of his two accomplices as well as the sacrificial death of the baby’s mother.

Pittsburgh is the tale of two coal miner friends (Wayne and Randolph Scott) who become wealthy magnates, but success affects them in different ways.  Scott represents the conscientious altruist, viewing money chiefly as means to serve his employees, whereas Wayne is selfish, ruthlessly power-driven, and abusive of friends and family.  Early on, he tells his girl (Marlene Dietrich), “I know there ain’t a thing in the world I can’t do–once I set my mind to it,” upon which he deserts her to marry into society.  After success goes to his head, however, it turns against him: divorced by his wife, he is left with no friends.  Realizing he has erred, he repents by starting all over again, at the bottom of the hierarchy of Scott’s plant.  And at the end, a higher and nobler cause, the nation’s interest and the need of every citizen for the War effort, reunites him with Scott.  Wayne’s role in Pittsburgh has been compared with Thomas Dunson in Red River, because in both he starts as ruthlessly ambitious and inconsiderate, devoid of any humanity, but reforms in time to begin a new and better life.

The only picture in which Wayne plays a morally dubious character was Trouble Along the Way, cast as a cynical big-time football coach who was kicked out of the big league because he was unable to conform.  Later, he is hired by the Rector of a Catholic college, Father Burke (Charles Coburn), who wants to save the college from its financial difficulties by establishing an athletic program.  Wayne uses unethical methods to put the college back on its feet, faking academic grades to get good players, and even resorting to blackmail to get good playing dates.  He refuses to admit to any shame, when reproached by the Father for his disreputable means.  Throughout the film, he maintains a cynical view of the sports business, refusing to condemn corruption, so long as it is a useful means to win–which some interpreted as a realistic commentary on the corrupt practices of the American sports establishment.

The other stars of Wayne’s generation also established reputations by playing sympathetic roles, to the point of being severely circumscribed by what the public was willing–and unwilling–to accept.  Fonda played few villainous roles until the last decade of his career; his earlier portrayal of the outlaw Frank James, in two Westerns, was whitewashed and even glamorized.  Fonda in fact was much more convincing as an innocent man accused of murder in Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, and he gave a memorable performance in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, as Manny Balestrero, the honest musician who was mistakenly identified as a hold-up man.  Like Wayne, his portrayal of villains or criminals was an occasional departure, an exception.  However, as critic French suggested, the casting of Fonda and Wayne in villainous roles has signified different meanings: “When Wayne is cast as a criminal, there is usually a suggestion that something is wrong with the law in a local, easily resolved way; when Fonda is cast as an outlaw, the implication is that there’s something basically wrong with society.”  This differential reading of Wayne and Fonda’s roles attests to the immense power of their respective screen personae.

Wayne and Fonda were no exception.  Most stars that began their careers playing villains had to transform their images before winning the public’s acceptance and approval.  Clark Gable (The Painted Desert), Humphrey Bogart (all of his l930s movies), Alan Ladd (This Gun for Hire), Lee Marving and Charles Bronson (in most of their l950s roles) were first typecast as heavies, often gangsters.  But once the studios realized they had star potential, they stopped casting them in such roles.  Indeed, the public resented Bogart’s return to playing villains, as in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, despite the film’s high quality and Bogart’s distinguished performance.  Some critics suspect that Bogart failed to win an Oscar nomination, if not the award, because he played a greedy and corrupt character; by 1949, Bogart’s heroic and romantic image had been firmly established, which confined the range of his roles.   Nor was Bogart’s role as an escaped convict, shot down by the police, in his next to last picture, The Desperate Hours, welcomed by his ardent fans, reminding them of an earlier, less popular, phase in his career when he specialized in such roles.