John Wayne: Screen Image–Part 5

Part Five in a Series of Articles

The extraordinary coherence and continuity of John Wayne’s screen image, over such a prolonged period of time, is attributable to the artistic and administrative control he insisted on exercising over his career.

Wayne and Other 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 1956 masterpiece, “The Searchers.”

the_quiet_man_7_wayneBut he also penned the idyllic Irish romance, “The Quiet Man,” and the romantic adventure, “Donovan’s Reef,” co-starring Lee Marvin, 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, Leigh 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,” in 1948, 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).

Borden Chase








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, his nickname in the industry (inspired by his dog).

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. The end resulting was The War Wagon, a Western opposite Kirk Douglas, in which their screen images were contrasted, to Wayne’s benefit.

Clair Huffaker

el_dorado_wayne_2Huffaker’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 your 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 once described his favorite role, but he 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 had 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 l876 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 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.”