John Wayne: Screen Image–Part Five

Part Five in a Series of Five Article

Wayne’s Demands for Script Revisions

Wayne’s demand for revisions was based on strong instincts as to the elements that best suited him. He asked Ford, for example, to make changes in The Were Expendable,” because he did not like the humiliation involved in the evacuation scene from Bataan. Thus, a new scene, in which he was willing to disobey orders and sneak off to a jungle guerrilla, until a superior officer orders him back aboard, was added.

By contrast, Wayne liked the scene in which he loathes leaving the battlefront, “I got business here,” because it was congruent with the independent and rebellious streak in his screen persona.

Director John Ford also changed the ending of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” to a more optimistic one. Initially, Wayne was to take his leave and be seen, at the film’s end, riding off to a new settlement. But Ford did not want to end the picture on a sad note, with Wayne fading off, so he added a new scene in which a dispatch rider is sent after Wayne, assigning him a new appointment, as the Chief of Scouts with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Changes in Red River

A few changes were also introduced into Red River” to suit Wayne’s public image. At first, Hawks wanted him to play Thomas Dunson as a coward, which Wayne flatly rejected. Instead, he played him as a strong man who has fears, reasoning that, “as a man, you can be scared, but you can’t be a coward.”

Because Wayne was only forty-one when he played the aging cattleman, Hawks asked veteran actor Walter Brennan to teach the star how to walk like an old man. Once again, Wayne objected, claiming that none of the outdoorsmen he knew were tottery, stoop-shouldered, or bow-legged.

The movie differs from the original story, on which it is based, in other ways. In the book, Dunson competes with Matt Garth for the love of Tess Millay, but in the movie, Tess is interested in Wayne just in order to protect Matt, her true love. Moreover, contrary to the original, in which Wayne is killed, Hawks decided to keep his characters alive; death was incongruent with Wayne’s screen immortality.

Rio bravo

Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo” originated in opposition to Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon,” a Western that neither Wayne nor Hawks liked, feeling that its spirit severely deviated from their idea of the “Real West.” Hawks did not think that “a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help.” Instead, he claimed, “a good sheriff would turn around and say, ‘How good are you Are you good enough to take the best they’ve got'” (McBride, 1972, 15-16).

Wayne’s objections to the film were even stronger than Hawks’s. He described its plot with great contempt: “In that picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff. He goes to the church and asks for help and the guys go, ‘Oh well, Oh. gee.’ And the women stand up and say, ‘You’re rats. You’re rats. You’re rats.’ So Cooper goes out alone.” “It’s the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life,” charged the actor, for the rugged men of the frontier, who had battled the Indians as well as nature, would not be afraid of four villains. Instead, they would have united, as they had united “to make the land habitable.” Wayne was also humiliated by the movie’s last scene, showing Cooper “putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it.” (Playboy,” May 1971). Walking away from his job, as Cooper did, was inconceivable to Wayne’s commitment to responsibility and public office.

In Rio Bravo,” Wayne’s sheriff refuses all but selected help, and he gets more assistance than he expects. Offered help, he characteristically says, “If they are really good, I’ll take them. If not, I’ll just take care of them.” Another major difference is that Cooper’s marshal was scared and faced a severe inner conflict before deciding to handle the crisis by himself, whereas Wayne’s sheriff is independent and unwaveringly courageous. In contrast to Cooper, Wayne plays a superior and self-assured sheriff, who could easily inspire and rally the men around his leadership.

Wayne denounced another Western starring Cooper, They Came to Cordura,” in which Cooper’s Marshal Thomas Thorn is assigned, due to cowardice in battle, the degrading task of “Awards officer” to the Mexican expedition of l9l6. His task is to select five men as candidates for the Congressional Medal of Honor, because Washington needs heroes in a hurry for a World War I recruiting campaign. “How they got Gary Cooper to do that one,” Wayne wondered, “to me, at least, it simply degrades the Medal of Honor.” “The whole story makes a mockery of America’s highest award for valor,” Wayne elaborated, “the whole premise of the story was wrong, illogical,” because “they don’t pick the type of men the movie picked to win the award, and that can be proved by the very history of the award.”

By contrast, being cast as Captain Rockwell in In Harm’s Way” was in complete
harmony with Wayne’s favorite screen role. “In this picture,” he described the role, “I must show that I care about other people. Otherwise, when they go off and get killed on my orders, people will hate me.” He didn’t mind “audiences hating me,” he said, as they “did perhaps in Red River,” but they understood my point of
view.” (Tomkies, 1971, 124).

In one crucial scene, Kirk Douglas, Wayne’s brooding executive officer, rapes Jill Hayworth, the fiance of Wayne’s son. Later, she commits suicide and Douglas, to redeem himself, sacrifices his life in a risky mission. Wayne did not like the way the scene was written. “If I were playing this part,” he said, “I would want the girl’s boyfriend to return, face me, and kill me.” Dying on screen did not bother him, he claimed, “if the confrontation is direct,” based on his belief in “facing everything directly.”

Wayne’s strict principles resulted in rejecting “sleazy’ screenplays, like Dirty Harry,” or “cleaning up” others. The Shootist”‘s initial screenplay, by Miles Hood
Swarthout and Scott Hale, was considered by him to be too graphic in its depiction of cancer and too heavy and downbeat in its ending.

As a result, Wayne suggested that it be less gloomy by adding a few light touches in the way his hero dealt with his fatal disease. Moreover, in the original script, Ron Howard was a punk who robs Wayne after his death in the saloon. At Wayne’s suggestion, Howard’s character was made more positive, and, after avenging Wayne’s death, he throws down his gun and runs out of the saloon.

Blurring Distinctions

In addition to the other strategies, what contributed to the coherence of his image was a deliberate attempt, almost from the very start, to blur the distinction between his real name and those of his screen characters.

Many of Wayne’s films used his name, John or Duke, or his nick name, Duke, to facilitate audiences’ identification with him–on screen and off. Wayne was not the only Western star to use his name; Gene Autry was quite frequently cast as himself in his films.

In most of his “B” Westerns of the 1930s, his 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, Wayne’s character’s name was the Duke, like his nickname in the industry, as in Two Fisted Law.” Wayne’s 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 heroine’s name, Pilar, was named 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 reverse trend also prevailed, namely, Wayne’s fictional heroes influencing his real life. Wayne liked so much his character of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers” that he named his third 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, paying tribute to Claire Trevor’s heroine in Stagecoach.”

The villain in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” Liberty Valance, bore resemblance to Cherry Valance in Hawks’s earlier Western, Red River.”