John Wayne: Heroes Allowed to Die On Screen? (Part 9 of 9)

Departures from Image

Vulnerability was the third major departure from Wayne’s established persona. As was mentioned, Hawks suggested that he play a character role in Red River before was old enough to do it, and it was also Hawks who convinced Wayne that his increasing biological age should have some bearing on his screen roles.  This new trend, of making his heroes less assured or more dependable, started with Rio Bravo, which slightly altered his image, without diminishing its power.  Thus, Wayne’s sheriff needs help in holding the town, and a saloon girl protects him in crucial moments.

But it was El Dorado dealing, among other things, with the effects of age on man’s capabilities, which marked a turning point.  Here, Wayne is a wandering gunslinger, not the sheriff, hired at first by ruthless barons to protect their interests against local settlers, though later he switches allegiance to help the sheriff (Robert Mitchum) fight a villainous cattle baron.  Wayne is also less assured than in previous Hawks’s Westerns.  He is described as one of the three fastest shots–not the best–and he is no longer self-sufficient.  Furthermore, during the course of the story he is accidentally shot twice–first by a woman which almost paralyzes his right hand.  And the second time, he is hit in the leg and must hobble around on a clutch.  In short, Wayne is no longer in complete control, as he used to be.  In El Dorado, he uses a trick to get the villain and, on another occasion, he is saved from death by a woman.

Indeed, in most of his movies after El Dorado he is either wounded or shot–but not killed.  Of his numerous pictures, Wayne died on the screen only eight times, and his death is usually heroic and/or sacrificial.  In The Fighting Seabees, Wayne dies in a bold, one-man action, after realizing that his stubbornness has caused the deaths of many civilians.  And in Sands of Iwo Jima, he is shot in the back by Japanese sniper, after the battle is over but before the emotional flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.  Wayne’s death is disturbingly shocking precisely because it is unexpected; he is shot after telling his soldiers he has never felt so good.  His death in this film had therefore a strong impact on audiences, stressing the high price in human life paid in war, despite glorious victory.

The conventions of the Western genre have been stricter than those of war film concerning death, their narratives typically end with the triumphant survival of their cowboys heroes.  Some Westerns changed the endings of their original stories to conform to audiences’ expectations.  A case in point is Columbia’s The End of the Trail, which violated Zane Grey’s story and “kept” its hero alive, instead of him going to the gallows.  True to the narrative of the classic Westerns, Wayne’s cowboys almost always survive.

The Alamo, in which Wayne’s Colonel Davy Crockett turns up with 23 courageous men who die heroically for independent Texas is one of the few exceptions.  The picture depicts how at the end of the thirteen-day-siege, Crockett is run through by a lance, blowing the remaining ammunition–and himself–up.  The graphic details of Crockett’s death upset many viewers. One critic wrote that no additional impact was made by emphasizing so violently–in close-ups–Crockett’s death, impaled with a lance in his chest.  And another critic observed in a similar vein that “it is not how they died which is important, but why.”

Significantly, John Wayne’s mother never saw the second part of The Alamo because she reportedly could not tolerate the idea of her son being killed on the screen.

Wayne’s most irritating death on screen  was in The Cowboys, shot down by a crazed killer (Bruce Dern).  Director Rydell feared that the star would not like the idea and even considered alternative ending to the story.  He was therefore pleasantly surprised, when Wayne insisted on maintaining the narrative intact, claiming such ending was both logical and realistic.

But critics and audiences alike were disturbed by the specific mode of his on-screen death.   Some disapproved of the way he was killed–shot in the back–noting that Ford or Hawks would never have allowed such death in their films.  They felt Wayne’s image, by now bigger than life, was damaged because he was not given a chance to fight back.  True, Wayne’s immortality was by now so firmly rooted that some critics thought he was “unnecessarily killed,” and others stressed the temerity of Bruce Dern to murder him, thus desecrating a sacred “American institution.”  Dern recalled that before the death scene was filmed, Wayne told him, “Dern, you’re gonna be hated everywhere in the world for this one.”  Moviegoers were so familiar with his screen persona that when one critic wrote in the Los Angeles Times that The Cowboys marked Wayne’s first screen death, she reported to have received numerous letters protesting the inaccuracy of her account.  In most movies, almost everything and anything possible was done to avoid Wayne’s screen death, as the changes introduced by Hawks in Red River’s screenplay, to keep the star’s hero alive.

At times, though, these attempts were absurd.  A case in point is In Harm’s Way, in which Wayne is injured multiple times.  First, his ship is struck by the Japanese and his arm is fractured; then, in another attack, he loses a leg but is promised an artificial one so that he can go on fighting.  These predictable plot twists irritated the critics, most of whom commented in their reviews on the star’s indestructibility.  “You can’t kill John Wayne,” wrote the New York Times, “That’s the message–the only message–that comes through loud and clear.”  “No matter how much the enemy takes deadly aims at Mr. Wayne,” this reviewer continued, “and no matter how rough his superiors in the U.S. Navy are on him, he comes through alive and a hero, minus one leg.”  There was also a good deal of cynicism in Ivan Butler’s comment that the picture says in l67 minutes what was scarcely worth saying in 80, “that John Wayne may lose an early battle, but is sure to win in the end.”

Happy endings, however, including triumphant survival against all odds, were integral to the image of most Hollywood stars during the Golden Age.  The great male stars died before the cameras either before their public images took shape or very late in their careers when it no longer mattered.

Take Clark Gable, for example, who died in only four of his 67 movies, with two of these screen deaths occurring during the first year of his career–a bootlegger gangster in Dance, Fools, Dance, and an underworld leader in A Free Soul.  Gable also died romantically in Myrna Loy’s arms in Parnell, another uncharacteristic movie which miscast him as a nineteenth-century Irish politician.  His fourth reel death was in a war movie, Run Silent, Run Deep, one of his last pictures, in which he dies on duty, as a captain of a U.S. submarine during the Second World War.

Significantly, when these deaths occur, as in Jimmy Stewart’s pictures, they are most revealing in their insights about male heroism in the American cinema.  In a typical Stewart movie, it is usually his girl or his wife who dies–not he.  In three of his Westerns he loses his woman in tragic circumstances, as in Destry Rides Again, in which Marlene Dietrich’s saloon owner is shot in the back while trying to save his life.  Even more tragic is his wife’s (Debra Paget) death in The Broken Arrow, paying a high price in the achievement of peace between the whites and the Indians.  Stewart’s frequent screen lady, Margaret Sullavan, often found her death in his arms, as in The Mortal Storm, an anti-War picture, in which both are shot as they cross the border to safety but she dies.  Stewart’s rare screen deaths are either heroic, as in the war drama Malaya, or accidental, as in the biopicture The Glenn Miller story, dying in an air-crash.

The only Hollywood star to have experienced multiple reel deaths were those specializing in the crime-gangster films, most notably James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.  Note that Bogart’s heroes are shot in no less than one third (25 out of 75) of his pictures.  Eighteen of these, however, are in movies prior to The Maltese Falcon (the movie which made him a star), when he played the heavies in films starring Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or George Raft.  Bogart once ironically observed that it was his screen deaths which kept his career alive, but he was wrong.  It is doubtful that he would have become such a legendary figure had he continued to be killed in the last reel of his movies.  Indeed, after l941, Bogart dies in only seven of his movies–and in some, heroically.  The movies which made him a big star and which the public associates most with his screen persona, such as Casablanca or To Have and Have Not, were those in which he survives.  The lessons from Bogart’s career, which Wayne exemplified in his, are that no actor in the American cinema has so far become a popular star if his roles were confined to playing heavies and destructible villains.  Endurance in the audience’s collective memories off-screen also requires the hero’s immortality onscreen!

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