John Wayne: Death and Dying On Screen–Killing Off American Heroes

Director Howard Hawks was the first to suggest that star John Wayne play an older man–and a character role at that–in his 1948 Western Red River” before he was old enough to do it.

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 Wayne’s heroes less assured or more dependable, started with Rio Bravo,” which slightly altered his screen image, without diminishing its power. In “Rio Lobo,” Wayne’s sheriff needs help in holding the town, and a saloon girl protects him in crucial moments.

Vulnerability in El Dorado

However, it was Howard Hawks’s 1967 Western El Dorado–dealing among other things with the effects of age on man’s capabilities–that marked a turning point in John Wayne’s career. In this picture, 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 sheirff (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

Furthermore, during the course of the story, John Wayne is accidentally shot twice. The first time it’s by a woman, which almost paralyzes his right hand, and the second, when 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.

Wounded but Not Dead

In most of John Wayne’s 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.

Sands of Iwo Jima

In Sands of Iwo Jima, John Wayne 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 the war movie when on screen death is concerned. Most Western narratives typically end with the triumphant survival of their cowboy-heroes. Indeed, 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

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. The critic Dick Williams (Los Angeles Mirror, October 27, 1960) 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 similar vein, “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 could not tolerate the idea of her son being killed on the screen.

The Cowboys

Wayne’s most irritating death was in The Cowboys, shot down by a crazed killer (Bruce Dern). Director Mark 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.

However, movie critics and movie audiences were disturbed by his death. Some disapproved of the way he was killed–shot in the back–noting that John Ford or Howard Hawks would never have allowed such death in their films. They felt that John Wayne’s image, by now bigger than life, was damaged because he was not given a chance to fight back.

True, John 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 shot, John Wayne himself 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 Howard Hawks in Red River’s screenplay, to keep the star’s hero alive.

In Harm’s Way

At times, though, these attempts were absurd. A case in point is Otto Preminger’s WWII saga In Harm’s Way, in which John Wayne is injured multiple times. First, the Japanese strikes Wayne’s ship 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 formulaic plot twists irritated the movie critics, most of whom commented in their reviews on the star’s indestructibility “You can’t kill John Wayne,” wrote the New York Times” Bosley Crowther on April 7, 1965. “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 historian Ivan Butler’s comment that In Harm’s Way says in 167 minutes what was scarcely worth saying in 80, “that John Wayne may lose an early battle, but is sure to win in the end.”