John Wayne: Making of a Superstar

Howard Hawks’ Red River, made in l946 but released in l948, began the fourth phase in Wayne’s career, which lasted until the late l960s. These two decades were the most important in his career, featuring his best performances and making him the biggest box-office attraction in film history.

During those twenty years, Wayne was extremely busy, with every studio in Hollywood seeking his services. Indeed, from 1948 to 1969, he made no less than 45 movies, achieving an annual record of two to three pictures.

The largest number of films (11) were produced and/or released through Warners. In l952, he signed a comprehensive deal with this studio, which stipulated that he could produce films for Warners without starring in them. But in addition to Warners, he appeared in seven movies at Paramount, seven at United Artists, six at RKO, five at Republic, four at Twentieth-Century-Fox, and two at Universal. Committed to his two specialized and favorite genres, he made eighteen Westerns and eleven war movies.

Wayne’s portrayal of Thomas Dunson, the ruthless cattle baron in Red River, is considered to be one of his best performances and, next to Stagecoach, his most important vehicle. This movie marked a turning point in his career, featuring his first portrayal of a character role, which was well beyond his age. Apparently it was Howard Hawks who told Wayne, “You’re going to be an old man pretty soon and you ought to get used to it. You better start playing characters instead of that junk you’ve been playing.”

True, until the late l940s, he played for the most part young, handsome, and charming cowboys. Furthermore, Red River not only featured his richest work to date, but also convinced its detractors that he could act. Ford was so impressed with his portrayal that he cast him in his cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande, providing him some of his most interesting parts.

Red River began a long and creative collaboration with Hawks who, next to Ford, exerted the greatest influence on his career. Hawks proceeded to direct him in three Westerns, regarded by some as a trilogy because of their similar thematic concerns. These were: Rio Bravo, opposite Dean Martin; El Dorado, opposite Robert Mitchum; and the lesser endeavor Rio Lobo, which surrounded Wayne with a mediocre cast. In addition to these Westerns, Hawks also used Wayne in the highly entertaining adventure, Hatari! concerning a professional team of animal hunters, filmed on location in Tanganyika.

Wayne appeared for the first time on the poll of the ten most popular stars in the U.S. in 1949, following his performance in Sands of Iwo Jima, a war film that also won him his first Academy nomination as Best Actor. Wayne went on to become the biggest box-office draw in film history, not just in America. He remained on this popularity poll, the most accurate and most important in the industry, for an all-time record of twenty-five years, from l949 to l974. No other star, male or female, American or foreign, has been as popular as Wayne for so long a time–and consistently so.

The most creative years in Wayne’s career were from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. His best work was once again under Ford, who directed him in two excellent Westerns, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford also cast Wayne in the distinguished idyllic romance, The Quiet Man, beautifully photographed in Ireland and highly praised by the critics. This director was also responsible for making a team out of Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, casting them together for the first time in Rio Grande. O’Hara went on to become his most favorite and most frequent screen lady.

In 1951, Wayne and Robert Fellows, a veteran producer and former Paramount executive, formed an independent production company, the Wayne-Fellows Productions, which made many of Wayne’s films, including Big Jim McLain, Island in the Sky, and The High and the Mighty. Later, Wayne established Batjac, his own production company, over which he had complete control. Batjac was instrumental in bringing to the screen projects that reflected Wayne’s personal politics and no other studio would have touched.

The l950s marked Wayne’s first significant use of the film medium as an ideological weapon, with such blatantly propagandistic vehicles as Big Jim McLain, an anti-Communist movie, and The Alamo, officially the saga of Texas fight for freedom, but replete with allusions to contemporary democracy and patriotism. This trend continued in the l960s, culminating with the oversimplified The Green berets, the only pro-Vietnam movie at the time. Of all projects, however, The Alamo was his most ambitious, politically and personally; he produced, directed, and starred in it. It was his labor of love and conviction, investing in it, as he said, his soul and his money. The failure of The Alamo, both critically and commercially, was the biggest disappointment of his career.

Wayne’s second directorial effort, The Green Berets, was even more propagandistic, but much less distinguished as a picture. Panned by all critics, it curiously turned out to be more popular with audiences than The Alamo. A lesser movie on all grounds, its commercial bonanza is still a mystery.

Wayne’s political power went far beyond making pictures or being a movie star. He was proud to be a founding member, and later president, of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an extremely right-wing organization, which supported Senator Joseph McCarthy and the investigations conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Wayne’s anti-Communism could be described as a life-long and deep-rooted obsession, of which he made no secret.

This era also saw the merger of his screen image and off screen life to the point where the two aspects became one inseparable entity. Undoubtedly, no other actor in the American cinema has displayed such a complete blend (or confusion) between life on screen and off. What contributed to this integration was the display of his onscreen courage and true grit off screen, when he survived three major operations, beginning with his l964 successful bout with cancer and his subsequent miraculous recovery.

Wayne’s increasing age, however, combined with the decline in American film production in the l960s, slowed down his work. He made fewer movies and, like other stars, began to appear in cameo roles, most of which to disastrous effects. His worst cameo appearance was in George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which he was miscast as a Roman Centurion! Two bit parts were somehow more successful: as Lt. Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort in the epic war movie, The Longest Day, and as General Randolph in Cast a Giant Shadow, the biopicture of Colonel David Marcus (Kirk Douglas), who contributed to the formation of Israel’s modern army.

These cameo roles, however, were the exception, for unlike other major stars, forced to accept supporting roles as they aged, Wayne was always the leading man and center of his movies.