John Wayne: Screen Image of Most Powerful Star in Film History–Part 4

Part Four in a Series of Articles

sands_of_iwo_jima_posterThe extraordinary coherence and continuity of John Wayne’s screen image, over such a prolonged period of time, is attributable to the artistic and administrative control he insisted on exercising over his career.

Wayne used several means to obtain and maintain such control, the most important and obvious of which was to produce his own movies. He preferred to be the producer of his pictures because it provided him overall supervision that could not be achieved otherwise.



Angel and the Badman

angel_and_the_badman_wayne_4The first film in which Wayne served as both star and producer was Angel and the Badman (1947), a black and white Western which was written and directed by James E. Grant. Its production values were high and Wayne’s meticulous attention to detail was noteworthy; another distinguished aspect was Archie Stout’s cinematography.

Wayne went on to produce other movies for Republic, such as The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), one of his more obscure and forgettable Westerns, in which he cast himself as a farmer fighting greedy land barons.

Wayne-Fellows Productions

Functioning as a producer-star was such a gratifying experience that in 1952 Wayne established the Wayne-Fellows Productions, with Robert Fellows, a veteran producer. This company was responsible for a series of films directed by William Wellman and highly profitable at the box-office.

island_in_the_sky_wayne_posterOne of the first pictures was Island in the Sky (1953), a tale of survival of a transport plane’s crew, headed by Wayne, after a forced landing.

Another film was the blockbuster The High and the Mighty (1954), a forerunner of the “disaster” movies, which became very popular in the 1970s. Similar in plot to that of Airport” (and its sequels), it is “grand hotel in the air,” with a diverse group of passengers, each faced with personal problem in the face of a crash landing.

Both “Island in the Sky” and “The High and the Mighty” were based on Ernest K. Gann’s books, though the latter was so popular with audiences that the Academy of Motion Picture also gave it its nod with four Oscar nominations, winning an award for Dmitri Tiomkin’s melodic music.

island_in_the_sky_wayne_2Since Wayne considered himself to be a “valuable property” (his own words), he felt he should “protect that investment,” as much as possible and make movies that suited his political values and expressed his worldview.

Batjac: Wayne’s Production Company

The best–most efficient–way to do that was to found his own production company, Batjac, and yo be its sole boss. Batjac was from the beginning an intimate family operation, employing family members and close friends. His younger brother, Robert Emmet Morrison (born 1911), served as production executive. And in the 1960s, Michael, his eldest son, took over the company’s management.

Batjac produced Wayne’s most personal and ambitious pictures, three of which were highly propagandistic: “The Alamo,” “McLintock!” and “The Green Berets.” It is unlikely that these movies would have been produced by other studios, particularly “The Green Berets,” which was highly controversial and borderline risible; it was dismissed by most serious critics, but made money at the box-office.

Same Directors and Screenwriters

red_river_wayne_3Wayne’s repeated work with the same directors and screenwriters also accounted for the amazing continuity in his screen image. He worked, of course, with various writers, though only a few were important in establishing his screen persona. Their screenplays were tailor-made to his ideological specifications, but they were also written in terms of what he could–and could not do–as an actor. The writers who wrote for him from the l950s on, were so influenced by his already established image that they did not dare deviate from the formula; they also knew that if they did, he would ask for revisions.

James E. Grant: Writer of Nine Scripts for the Duke

A popular pulp novelist and writer of action pictures, Grant was Wayne’s favorite and most influential screenwriter, contributing no less than nine scenarios, beginning with “The Angel and the Badman,” which he also directed.

rio_bravo_wayne_2Grant’s important scripts, in terms of image-making, were two war movies, “Sands of Iwo Jima” and “The Flying Leathernecks,” two political vehicles, “Big Jim McLain” and The Alamo,” and two Westerns, “Hondo” and “McLintock!” Wayne relied heavily on Grant’s work and trusted him implicitly all the way up until the disastrous “Circus World,” in 1964, after which he was fired.

Allan Dwan

sands_of_iwo_jima_2_wayneVet director Dwan recalled that when he helmed “Sands of Iwo Jima,” Wayne was so concerned that his role fit his image that he brought Grant to change some of the dialogue.  The screenplay, written by Harry Brown, was “perfect for Wayne,” according to Dwan, “except that he wants to say things in a certain way, and a writer sometimes writes a phrase a little differently.”  Wayne was “very simple and very plain,” said Dwan, and “he seemed to think that Grant was the only man who could put the words the way he ought to say them.”

“We evolved a system,” said Grant about his personal, immeasurable contribution to the Wayne persona, “of making him a sort of bystander in situations, instead of actively taking part in them.” Wayne typically played a man “who was not looking for trouble, but was relentless in tackling it when it affronted him.”

Grant thought that this was an interesting gimmick and effective device, because of the contrast involved in comparing Wayne with his other male co-stars.  As he explained: “For an actor so consistently associated with action pictures and combats, Wayne did stand out as a passive figure.”  True, Wayne thought of himself as a reactor, “I can react to a situation that has already been built up when I walk on. I do not like to have to explain that situation myself.”

sands_of_iwo_jima_6_wayneOf his eighteen-year-collaboration with Wayne, Grant said: “Because he’s built like an ox, lots of guys think Duke is a big, dumb lummox. He isn’t.”  Apparently, the actor could “pick out the holes in them (scripts) faster than I can,” Grant said. And contrary to his public image as “the big, calm rock of Gibraltar,” he described the star as “eternally concerned with what he is doing in pictures and how he is going to come out.”