John Wayne: Screen Image–Departures from Established Persona

Although John Wayne’s screen persona was remarkably consistent, there were occasional departures from the established formula.

These deviations, however, strengthened rather than weakened his established image, because they stressed the norm from which they departed.  They were the functional equivalent of what’s known in the business as casting against type, which is also based on audiences’ familiarity with actors’ more typical roles.

Since Wayne usually portrayed indestructible heroes who triumphed against all odds, the few movies in which his heroes are killed off or die neither changed his image nor altered audiences’ expectations because they were regarded as the exception to the rule.

Audiences knew that that in his next picture, Wayne would again play his indefatigable and immortal heroes.

Wayne: Non-American Roles

Wayne’s non-American protagonists represented a departure from his established screen persona.

Wayne’s voice, Midwestern accent, appearance, and character were so quintessentially American that he was never really convincing in portraying foreign characters of any kind.

Long Voyage Home

Sensitive to this aspect of his persona, Wayne rarely played non-American characters.  Perhaps his only successful attempt was when his master and creator, John Ford, cast him as Ole Olsen, the Swedish sailor in “The Long Voyage Home.”  Produced in 1940, this film was made before Wayne’s image was crystallized and before he became a box-office champion (in 1949 after Sands of “Iwo Jima”).

Coached by Osa Massen, a Danish actress in Hollywood, Wayne managed a rather credible Swedish accent, though he once suggested to retitle the movie into “Wayne’s Long Struggle with a Swedish Accent.” “My natural accent is strictly Winterest, Iowa, where I was born,” Wayne later explained, “It required a lot of persuasion to make it turn Swedish for the role of Ole.”

German Captain: Sea Chase

Wayne portrayal of an anti-Nazi German Captain in the adventure “Sea Chase,” opposite Lana Turner, was also a deviation.

Most reviewers were harsh on the picture as well as on Wayne the actor, mainly because of its incredulous casting.  The critic Bosley Crowther noted in the New York Times, that Wayne played the German Captain “as though he were heading a herd of cattle up the old Chisholm Trail.” (June 11, 1955).

William K. Zinsser wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, that “this fantastic bit of casting” was “like getting Lassie to play a cow” “Once you get used to All-American John Wayne and Sweater Girl Lana Turner as Germans, the film is fairly acceptable.”

The Conqueror

In Howard Hughes’s “The Conqueror,” John Wayne was (mis)cast as Genghis Khan, the thirteenth century Mongol Emperor.  He later said that he had accepted the role without much excitement and out of obligation to his friend Hughes, head of RKO, who had great hopes for this movie.

This time, however, both reviewers and audiences had difficulties disassociating John Wayne from his American image, and the picture was a financial fiasco. The “Time” critic (August 9, 1956) noted, that the film suggested that “Mongolia is in the Western U.S.,” and that the part of “the Perfect warrior,” was played by “Hollywood’s best-known cowboy, John Wayne.”

Wayne himself attributed the film’s failure to the fact that “People wouldn’t accept me as Genghis Khan. I’ve been extolled as rough American personality, and they won’t take anything else.” He also revealed that he interpreted the role of Genghis Khan as a Westerner and that’s the way he played him.

“The Conqueror” has been chosen as one of “The 50 Worst Films of All Time,” in a book edited by Medved and Dreyfuss. Made as a Western, “The Conqueror” looks “as if the wrong costumes were delivered and they decided to shoot it anyway.”

Jack Smith wrote in the Los Angeles Times (September 15, 1980) after watching the movie, that it would definitely be on his list of the ten, not fifty, worst movies. “I can’t think of a more improbable piece of casting,” he continued, “unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in ‘The King of Kings.'”

As a result, Wayne became embarrassed at the slight mentioning of “The Conqueror,” wishing to forget all about it.  Fortunately for Wayne, Hughes was sentimental toward the movie–it was his last at RKO–and when the studio was sold, Hughes bought back “The Conquerors” for a phenomenal amount of money and locked it in a vault until his death; the movie was first shown on television in 1980.

George Stevens: The Greatest Story Ever Told

Mickey Rooney never played Jesus, but John Wayne was cast in the improbable role of a Roman Centurion, leading Jesus to crucifixion in George Stevens’s unsuccessful attempt at a biblical epic, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which features one of Wayne’s two or three worst appearances. Totally miscast, his only line, “Truly, this man was a son of God,” evoked laughter in the audience and was sheer embarrassment.

Wayne’s performance, however, was just one of many other “shattering and distasteful” performances by many stars cast in cameo roles, including Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Carroll Baker, Shelley Winters, and Telly Savalas.

Wayne’s Villains

Wayne’s heroes fought against any imaginable type of villains, from Indians, smugglers, and rustlers in his Westerns, to Nazis, Japanese, and Communists in his war and political movies.

However, once in a while, he allowed himself to be cast as a villain, which was the second departure from his image, though his villains usually repent in the course of the narrative. Indeed, he made sure that the few outlaws he played were sympathetic or “likable,” as he described his roles in Red River” or True Grit.”

Most of the villains in his repertoire restore themselves to legitimacy and achieve redemption either through self-sacrificial death or through the love of an innocent girl. The normative range of his roles was quite restrictive, willing to deviate from norms or violate the laws under specific conditions. And when the screenplay did not “take care” of his villains’ redemption, he did not hesitate to demand revisions.

Angel and the Badman

In “Angel and the Badman,” for example, Wayne’s wounded gunslinger is regenerated through the love of a Quaker maid. Religious salvation is also the solution in Three Godfathers,” a symbolic Western based on Christian mythology. At the film’s start, Wayne is a leader of an outlaw gang, which runs away after robbing a bank. But he redeems himself after vowing to a dying waif in the desert to bring her baby to safety in New Jerusalem, a endeavor which costs the death of his two accomplices as well as the sacrificial death of the baby’s mother.

Henry Fonda

The other stars of Wayne’s generation also established their solid screen reputations by playing sympathetic roles, to the point of being severely circumscribed by what the public was willing–and unwilling–to accept.

Henry Fonda, for example, played only a few foreigner characters in his lengthy distinguished career.

Significantly, two of those films were made before Fonda’s screen image took shape. He played a Canadian horse trainer in “Wings of Morning,” and a peasant fighter in the Spanish Civil war in “Blockade.”

Later in his career, Fonda was miscast as Pierre in King Vidor’s screen version of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

Fonda played few villainous roles until the last decade of his career; his earlier portrayal of the outlaw Frank James, in two Westerns, was whitewashed and even glamorized.  Fonda in fact was much more convincing as an innocent man accused of murder in Fritz Lang’s “You Only Live Once,” and he gave a memorable performance in Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man,” as Manny Balestrero, the honest musician who was mistakenly identified as a hold-up man.

Like Wayne, Fonda’s portrayal of villains or criminals was an occasional departure, an exception. However, as the critic Philip French suggested, the casting of Fonda and Wayne in villainous roles has signified different meanings: “When Wayne is cast as a criminal, there is usually a suggestion that something is wrong with the law in a local, easily resolved way; when Fonda is cast as an outlaw, the implication is that there’s something basically wrong with society.”

Clark Gable

This differential reading of Wayne and Fonda’s roles attests to the immense power of their respective screen personae.

John Wayne and Henry Fonda were no exception. Most movie stars who began their careers playing villains had to transform their images before winning the public’s acceptance and approval. Clark Gable (“The Painted Desert”), Humphrey Bogart (of his 1930s movies), Alan Ladd (This Gun for Hire”), Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson (in most of their 1950s roles) were first typecast as heavies, often gangsters.

Humphrey Bogart

However, once the studios realized they had star potential, they stopped casting them in such roles.  Thus, some viewers resented Bogart’s return to playing villains, as in John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” despite the film’s high quality and Bogart’s distinguished performance.

Some critics suspect that Bogart failed to win an Oscar nomination, if not the award, because he played a greedy and corrupt character. By 1949, Bogart’s heroic and romantic image had been firmly established, which confined the range of his roles.

Nor was Bogart’s role as an escaped convict, shot down by the police, in his next to last picture, “The Desperate Hours,” welcomed by his ardent fans, reminding them of an earlier, less popular, phase in his career when he specialized in such roles.