John Wayne: Choice of Roles–Criteria and Values in Selecting Screen Parts

Part  Seven of Nine:

Perhaps the most effective means used by Wayne to maintain a tight control over his career 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,” he once described his favorite role, but he was also aware that the stories he liked were considered “corn” by the high-brow 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.” His 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.”  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 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, his 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 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, he 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 which 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.”

His 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 that 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.”  And because action was the key note 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.”

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

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.

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 “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.

Hawks’s Rio Bravo originated in opposition to Zinnemann’s earlier High Noon, which neither Wayne nor Hawks liked, feeling that its spirit severely deviated from their idea of the “Real West.”  Hawks did not think “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?'”  Wayne’s objections to the film were even stronger than Hawks’s, describing 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.”  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, cast as Captain Rockwell in In Harm’s Way was in complete harmony with his 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 did not mind “audiences hating me,” he said, as they “did perhaps in Red River, but they understood my point of view.”  In one crucial scene, Kirk Douglas, Wayne’s brooding executive officer, rapes Jill Hayworth, the fiancée 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.”

His 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 too graphic in its depiction of cancer and too heavy and downbeat in its ending.  Consequently, he 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.

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 his films used his name, John or Duke, or his nickname, 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 Wayne’s “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, 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.