John Wayne: Screen Image–Part Four

Part Four in a Series of Five Articles

The extraordinary coherence of Wayne’s screen image, over such a prolonged period of time, is attributable to the control that he exercised over his career. Wayne used several means to obtain and maintain such control. The most important and obvious of which was to produce his own movies. He preferred to be the producer of his pictures because it provided him supervision over every aspect of the production, that could not be achieved otherwise.

The first film in which Wayne served as both star and producer was Angel and the Badman (1947), a black-and-white Western, which was written and directed by James E. Grant. Its production values were relatively high and Wayne’s meticulous attention to detail was noteworthy; another distinguished aspect was Archie Stout’s cinematography.

Wayne went on to produce other movies while under contract to Republic, such as The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), one of his more obscure and forgettable Westerns, in which he cast himself as a farmer fighting greedy land barons.

Functioning as a producer-star was such a gratifying experience that in 1952 Wayne
established the Wayne-Fellows Productions, with Robert Fellows, a veteran producer. This company was responsible for a series of films directed by William Wellman, which were highly profitable at the box-office.

One of the first pictures was Island in the Sky (1953), a tale of survival of a transport plane’s crew, headed by Wayne, after a forced landing. Another film was the blockbuster The High and the Mighty (1954), a forerunner of the “disaster” movies, which became very popular in the 1970s. Similar in plot to that of Airport (and its sequels), it is “grand hotel in the air,” with a diverse group of passengers, each faced with personal problem in the face of a crash landing.

Both Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty were based on Ernest K. Gann’s books, though the latter was so popular with audiences that the Academy of Motion Picture also gave it its nod with four Oscar nominations, winning an award for Dmitri Tiomkin’s melodic music. Since Wayne considered himself a valuable property, he felt he should “protect that investment,” as much as possible and make movies that suited his political values.

And the best way to do it was to found his own production company, Batjac, and be its sole boss. Batjac was from the beginning an intimate family operation, employing family members and close friends. His brother Robert Emmet Morrison, served as production executive and, in the 1960s, Michael, his eldest son, took over the company’s management.

Batjac produced Wayne’s most personal and ambitious pictures, three of which were highly propagandistic: The Alamo, McLintock! and The Green Berets. It is unlikely that these movies would have been produced by other studios, particularly The Green Berets,” which was highly controversial.

Wayne’s repeated work with the same directors and screenwriters also accounted for the amazing continuity in his screen image. He worked, of course, with various writers, though only a few were important in establishing his screen persona. Their screenplays were tailor-made to his ideological specifications, but they were also written in terms of what he could–and could not do–as an actor. The writers who wrote for him from the l950s on, were so influenced by his already established image that they did not dare deviate from the formula; they also knew that if they did, he would ask for revisions.

James E. Grant, a popular pulp novelist and writer of action pictures, was Wayne’s favorite and most influential screenwriter, contributing nine scenarios, beginning with The Angel and the Badman, which he also directed. Grant’s important scripts, in terms of image-making, were two war movies, Sands of Iwo Jima and The Flying Leathernecks, two political vehicles, Big Jim McLain and The
Alamo, and two Westerns, Hondo and McLintock! Wayne relied heavily on Grant’s work and trusted him implicitly up until the disastrous Circus World,” after which he was fired.

Allan Dwan recalled that when he directed Sands of Iwo Jima, Wayne was so concerned that his role fit his image that he brought Grant to change some of the dialogue. The screenplay, written by Harry Brown, was “perfect for Wayne,” according to Dwan, “except that he wants to say things in a certain way, and a writer sometimes writes a phrase a little differently.” Wayne was “very simple and very plain,” said the director, and “he seemed to think that Grant was the only man who could put the words the way he ought to say them.”

“We evolved a system,” said Grant describing his contribution to the Wayne persona, “of making him a sort of bystander in situations, instead of actively taking part in them.” Wayne typically played a man “who was not looking for trouble, but was relentless in tackling it when it affronted him.” Grant thought it was an interesting device, because of the contrast. As he explained: “For an actor so consistently associated with action pictures and combats, Wayne did stand out as a passive figure.” Wayne thought of himself as a reactor, “I can react to a situation that has already been built up when I walk on. I do not like to have to explain that situation myself.”

Of his eighteen-year-collaboration with Wayne, Grant said: “Because he’s built like an ox, lots of guys think Duke is a big, dumb lummox. He isn’t.” Apparently, the actor could “pick out the holes in them (scripts) faster than I can,” Grant said. And contrary to his public image as “the big, calm rock of Gibraltar,” he described the star as “eternally concerned with what he is doing in pictures and how he is going to come out.”

Wayne and his Writers:

Frank Nugent

Another frequent contributor to Wayne’s screenplays was Frank S. Nugent, former critic of the New York Times, who wrote some scenarios for Westerns directed by Ford, his father-in-law. Nugent scripted Fort Apache, Three Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (the last two with Lawrence Stallings), and The Searchers.” But he also penned the idyllic romance The Quiet Man and the romantic adventure, Donovan’s Reef, the last in collaboration with Grant. These two movies shared many thematic similarities, particularly in Wayne’s sex image and attitude toward women.
Leigh Brackett

A science-fiction and mystery writer, Brackett wrote four of the five Howard Hawks-Wayne movies: Rio Bravo (with Hawks), Hatari!, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo (also with Hawks). The fifth movie, Red River,” was written by the distinguished writer Borden Chase, who had written the screenplay for Wayne’s earlier war movie, The Fighting Seabees” (with Aeneas Mackenzie). Chase also wrote Flame of the Barbary Coast, set in San Francisco during the l906 earthquake, in which he named Wayne’s character the Duke.

Similar narrative conventions were employed by Chase in constructing Wayne’s character in these movies. In each, Wayne plays a stubborn, individualistic man who alienates his friends by his maverick conduct, until he learns the hard way that he has erred and has to conform. Chase was highly aware of the novelty in creating new “character” roles for the star, but he was sure it would work, predicting after Red River that Wayne would play variants of this role for the next twenty years, which he did.

Grant collaborated with Clair Huffaker on the scenario of The Comancheros, which Wayne liked so much that he asked the latter to adapt his book, Badman, to the screen, resulting in The War Wagon, a routine Western opposite Kirk Douglas.

Huffaker’s adaptation attested to great familiarity with the ingredients of the
star’s typical hero, and Wayne continued to employ him. His third and last screenplay for the star was The Hellfighters, loosely based on the real-life fire fighter Red Adaire. A contrived formula, it contained all the familiar clichs, such as a loving wife who reluctantly leaves him because she cannot handle the pressures of his dangerous work; a daughter he has not seen for years; and, of course, a happy reconciliation of all parties involved.

Perhaps the most effective means of maintaining tight control over his career, however, was choosing screen roles according to a set of strictly defined guidelines, and demanding revisions in those scripts that did not meet his specific criteria. Wayne’s choice of roles was extremely careful, though not necessarily tasteful. He limited himself, for the most part, to playing sympathetic heroes, based on his belief that “the whole world loves a hero.”

Extremely sensitive to his public image, he held that “You tend to manage you life and your thinking in a manner that is expected. I would not want mine to be different.” As for guidelines in choosing roles, he said, “if I feel the character’s interesting, I’ll do it,” but he needed “to identify with something in the character.” Wayne favored “simple characters with simple motives and emotions,” because “nuance is out of my line.”

Always sticking to simple themes, he “stayed away from psychoanalyst’s couch scenes,” claiming that “couches are only good for one thing.” “I’m the big tough guy on the side of right,”

Wayne was also aware that the stories he liked were considered “corn” by the highbrow critics. Wayne’s credo was “to give each character I play some code of ethics;” even if they were brutal, they first had to be “real men.”

Wayne’s characters could at times be cruel or tough things, but never be mean or petty. This was also his philosophy of life, which motivated him to turn down any parts that were “mean for no reason.” “I killed men on the screen,” he explained, “but it was always because they did not follow the code.” (Life,” July 11, 1969)

Consequently, “if the script calls for something I believe is foreign to the character’s nature, I simply say, ‘I’m too limited to put that across. I’m not that good an actor.'” Early on in his career, he vowed “never to go low on integrity,” and never “to do anything that will humiliate a man in the audience.”

In retrospect, Wayne’s films attest that he lived up to his vow. Wayne’s choice of roles was also guided by his politics, particularly his sincere concern with projecting a positive image of America on the screen. He rejected, for example, many offers to portray General George Armstrong Custer, killed with his command in the 1876 battle at the Little Big Horn. “Custer” he is reported to have said, “that fool, that jerk, that stupid idiot I wouldn’t be caught dead putting Custer’s story on the screen!”

For the same reason, Wayne insisted on playing the good, anti-Nazi, German captain in Sea Chase;” he would never have considered playing a Nazi, as Brando did in The Young Lions.”

Wayne also turned down screenplays that were, in his view, “dirty, mean or sleazy,” including the tough San Francisco cop in Dirty Harry,” played with tremendous success by Clint Eastwood. Later, however, he regretted his decision. “I wish I’d done that,” he said, “It was a time when every studio was doing dirty pictures. This one had been written real dirty, so I said no. I should have realized it could have been changed real easy.” “I blew the first of the successful detective stories,” said Wayne regretfully, “I could have been good in it, too.”

Wayne’s formula for good pictures was based on a combination of natural (realistic) settings with courageous people. “Natural settings alone,” he explained, “won’t turn the trick. You’ve got to put characters who are interesting and believable.” Big Jim McLain, actually a terrible film, was used as an example of his theory because it was filmed on location in Hawaii with marvelous scenery and, he believed, an interesting story. A good story for him was “any yarn that deals simply with genuine and significant people,” whatever that meant.

“Movies without great personal stories, don’t mean anything,” contended Wayne, films must be about people and their interrelations, stressing his preference of narratives about “people who are less frightened and less inhibited.” (Seventeen, October 1971). Since action was the crucial ingredient for a good movie, he attributed the failure of many pictures to having “too much story.” For that reason, short stories “by their brevity can be turned into the best pictures.”