John Wayne: The Life and Legend
The scene had a problem, and the problem was the gun.
Dudley Nichols’s script was specific: “There is the sharp report of a rifle and Curly jerks up his gun as Buck saws wildly at the ribbons.
“The stagecoach comes to a lurching stop before a young man who stands in the road beside his unsaddled horse. He has a saddle over one arm and a rifle carelessly swung in the other hand . . . It is Ringo . . .
“RINGO. You might need me and this Winchester. I saw a coupla ranches burnin’ last night.
“CURLY. I guess you don’t understand, kid. You’re under arrest.
“RINGO (with charm). I ain’t arguing about that, Curly. I just hate to part with a gun like this.
“Holding it by the lever, he gives it a jerk and it cocks with a click . . .”
John Ford loved the dialogue, which was in and of itself unusual, but the introduction of the Ringo Kid needed to be emphasized. Ford decided that the shot would begin with the actor doing something with the gun, then the camera would rapidly track in from a full-length shot to an extreme close-up—an unusually emphatic camera movement for the period, and an extremely unusual one for Ford, who had grown to prefer a stable camera.
Since the actor was already coping with two large props, Ford decided to lose the horse. He told his young star what he was planning to do: “Work out something with the rifle,” Ford said. “Or maybe just a pistol.” He wasn’t sure.
And just like that the problem was dropped in the lap of his star, a young—but not all that young—actor named John Wayne, better known to Ford and everybody else as Duke.
Wayne ran through the possibilities. Every actor in westerns could twirl
a pistol, so that was out. Besides, the script specified a rifle cocked quickly with one hand, but later in the scene than what Ford was planning. In addition, Ford wanted him to do something flashy, but it couldn’t happen too quickly for the audience to take it in. All the possibilities seemed to cancel each other out.
And then Yakima Canutt, Wayne’s friend and the stunt coordinator on the film, offered an idea. When Canutt was a boy he had seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. As the overland stage raced around the arena, a messenger trailing behind the stagecoach had carried a rifle with a large ring loop which allowed him to spin the rifle in the air, cocking it with one hand. The crowd went wild. Canutt said that it had been thirty years ago and he still remembered the moment. More to the point, he had never seen anybody else do it.
Wayne sparked to the idea, as did Ford, but first they had to make it work. Ford instructed the prop department to manufacture a ring loop and install it on a standard-issue 1892 Winchester carbine. After the rifle was modified, Wayne began experimenting with the twirl move as Canutt remembered it, but there was a problem—the barrel of the rifle was too long—it wouldn’t pass cleanly beneath Wayne’s arm.
The Winchester went back to the prop department, where they sawed an inch or so off the end, then soldered the sight back on the shortened barrel.1
With that minor adjustment, the move was suddenly effortless. Wayne began rehearsing the twirling movement that would mark his entrance in the movie he had been waiting more than ten years to make—a film for John Ford, his friend, his mentor, his idol, the man he called “Coach” or, alternately—and more tellingly—“Pappy.”
With any luck at all, he’d never have to go back to B westerns as long as he lived.
It’s the late spring of 1939, and you’re sitting in a theater watching Stagecoach. It’s a western, not the most admired genre, and the cast is made up mostly of reliable character actors. But the reviews have been more than
good, and John Ford has already achieved a measure of fame among critics and moviegoers.
The first couple of minutes have already told you this is a movie made by filmmakers at the top of their game—precise, emphatic compositions, perfect editing that never leaves a shot on-screen for less time than it needs to be understood, unforced exposition that expertly delineates seven major characters inside of twelve minutes.
The story is basic. Seven strangers are crowded into a stagecoach, leaving a town called Tonto, heading through Indian territory to a town called Lordsburg. The seven people are traveling for seven different reasons, and the characters are deliberately contrasted in a way that goes beyond local color. A whore has a counterpart in a mousy, pregnant military bride; a pompous banker is balanced by a shady, dangerous gambler who can accurately gauge everybody’s bad character, especially his own. Likewise, there is a meek little whiskey salesman who has to fend off a raucous alcoholic doctor.
There is also a sheriff, a bluff, hearty man who seems to believe in appearances. And there is one other character we are told about but don’t immediately meet: an outlaw lurking somewhere out there, beyond Tonto, beyond civilization. He has escaped from jail, and he too needs to get to Lordsburg, for a private mission of revenge, a mission that the sheriff has pledged to prevent.
This collection of balanced opposites, the “respectable” confronted with the “disreputable,” populate the stagecoach, the vehicle through which John Ford will assert the moral equality of the outcast and restate his claim for the western as the seminal American film genre.
The picture is eighteen minutes old when we finally meet the Ringo Kid. There is a gunshot off-camera, there is a location shot of the stagecoach quickly pulling up. Cut to a tall, lean man standing against a process background of Monument Valley with a saddle draped over one arm and a rifle in his other hand. The camera rushes in as he twirl-cocks the rifle with one hand.
If you look at the rifle, it seems to be a tiny bit short, but nobody has ever looked at anything but the actor’s face. Midway through the camera’s rapid track-in, it loses focus for a half a second, then comes to rest in a huge, sharp close-up.
It is a good face—handsome but not pretty, assertive but not bullying. There are two beads of sweat coursing down his cheek, although whether that is a detail of character that Ford wanted or a result of the pressure of synchonizing a complicated physical movement with a complicated camera movement is lost to time.
The camera gazes for a few long seconds on the face, letting us examine the blue eyes that photograph gray on black and white film, the shadow on the right side, the suggestion of sweat on the brow, the strength of the features. As the camera lingers, the intimidating aura of the Ringo Kid as outlined by the other characters dissolves. What we see is not a dangerous outlaw but a boyish young man in bold relief—a gentle but resolute character.
The actor leaps off the screen in a way the character doesn’t in the script, and in a way the actor hadn’t in his previous movies. This is an actor you have probably seen before, in one movie or another, but never like this, never showcased with such elemental force. John Wayne has been around the movies for more than ten years, first as a prop man, occasionally as an extra, then fronting a great widescreen spectacle of early sound that lost a great deal of money.
Cast into oblivion by that film’s failure, he made his way through the Depression with large parts in tiny films and tiny parts in large films. Before Stagecoach, he has appeared in more than eighty movies—some good, most bad or indifferent.
But with this scene—no, with this moment—looks, temperament, talent, part, and presentation collide and unite. The audience sees, truly sees John Wayne for the first time.
“We are not a culture that readily associates ‘beauty’ with ‘manly,’ ” wrote the critic Michael Ventura about this moment, “but this face has that combination and something more: . . . an awareness of wilderness, a sense that here is a man meant to move in great spaces. That’s vague, but that’s the best I can do. Whitman has a line in ‘Song of the Open Road’: ‘Here a great personal deed has room.’ ”
To put it more bluntly: this is less an expertly choreographed entrance for an actor than it is the annunciation of a star. John Ford is telling us that this man warrants our attention in a way that transcends the immediate narrative of the movie.
For the next forty years, John Wayne continually proved Ford’s point. The literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote that “Mass culture is a machine for showing desire,” and successive generations desired John Wayne in a way shared by no other star of his generation.
This was . . . curious. Wayne was thirty-two years old when he made Stagecoach, and still possessed a youthful aura, but that was replaced by other things as he aged and expanded—from reminding people of their brother or son, he gradually assumed a role as everyone’s father, then, inevitably, as age and weight congealed, everyone’s grandfather.
None of that made much difference to his audience. For twenty-five out of twenty-six years—1949 to 1974—Wayne was in the list of top ten box-office stars. In nineteen of those years, he was in the top four. Thirty-five years after his death, he was still listed as one of America’s five favorite movie stars. (The others on the list, Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise among them, had the considerable advantage of being alive.)
Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, and Gary Cooper were all much bigger stars when Wayne began his ascent, but they have largely receded into the past. Wayne became more than a movie star for his time; rather, he became indivisibly associated with America itself, even if it was an America that was dead by the time he was born, and he was personifying a folklore easier to locate in the nineteenth century than the twentieth.
Stagecoach was a picture that could and in fact did fall apart several times before it finally got made, and it got made only because of the determination of John Ford, who believed in John Wayne more than John Wayne believed in himself. Ford was born John Martin Feeney in Maine in 1894, and by the time he met Duke Morrison in 1926, Ford—he took the screen name of his brother, the actor Francis Ford—had been directing movies for ten years and had already made his first great film: The Iron Horse.
In the succeeding years, Ford was drawn by the young man’s inexhaustible energy, his willingness to do anything asked of him. For Duke Morrison enthusiastically adopted the perpetual challenge of a big man with ambition—to do everything better, harder, longer than anyone else.
“On every picture, there is at least one day when nothing seems to go right,” Ford said. “When things are going wrong, Duke is a mighty fine man to have around. He will run half the length of the valley to tell the second unit that we are planning to shoot another take. He rarely asks a man to do a job he can do himself.”
Other co-workers concurred, and valued Wayne for his willingness to extend himself far beyond the limited portfolio of an actor.
“I’ve seen him put his shoulder to a location wagon that was stuck,” said the cameraman Bert Glennon, “or hold a pair of shears and a comb for a hairdresser when she had to make a hurried change on one of the characters.”
This never changed. Thirty-six years after Stagecoach, he made The Shootist, his last movie. The scene: a dying gunfighter named J. B. Books goes to a barbershop.
As Wayne settled himself into the barber chair for the scene, a prop man began to cut thin strands of fake hair and arrange them around the perimeter of the chair. Wayne and Alfred Dennis, the actor playing the barber,
began to run their lines. Wayne stopped and watched what the prop man was doing.
“That won’t work,” said the star.
“You’re not cutting off enough hair. The camera is ten feet away. It won’t read the little hairs that you’re cutting off. Give it to me.”
Wayne grabbed the prop hair and scissors and began chopping off giant hunks of hair, four and five inches long, throwing them around the barber chair. Rationally, these chunks would come from a man with shoulder-length hair, but Wayne knew that when it comes to movies, the eye is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the lens sees.
The young prop man didn’t know that Wayne began his career as a prop man, and wasn’t about to lower his standards. In all the reviews and analyses of the picture then and later, the huge hunks of hair at the bottom of the barber chair always go unnoticed.
John Wayne always knew what the camera would see; he always knew what the audience would believe.
John Ford was profoundly Irish in every possible way, and his character was accompanied by an assortment of more or less symptomatic demons. He was defensive, in total control of his art, if not his life, and he was some sort of genius.
“He was talented, and he was intolerable,” was the succinct opinion of Maureen O’Hara.
Andre de Toth, a director whom Ford promoted, said,
“He was not a social person. He kept to his boat, to the studio, and to his Jack Daniel’s. There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in his life, and there wasn’t a lot of dialogue in his movies.
“He was making motion pictures. He was sure of the art he wanted to make, but not much else. People put up with Jack Ford for one reason: he always told you what he thought was the truth. That’s what you see in a Ford film: honesty.”
In contrast to the largely impenetrable and essentially solitary Ford, Wayne had few obvious demons. He drank—but never allowed it to control his life or interfere with his work. He smoked incessantly, ate what he wanted, enjoyed the company of women, adored the company of men. He was like his mentor in one way only: he invariably said what he thought.
Ford had bought Ernest Haycox’s original story for Stagecoach in 1936 and circled the idea of making his former prop man the star of a western.
After flirtations with a couple of other actors, he made up his mind: Duke would be the Ringo Kid.
“It isn’t enough for an actor to look the part and say his lines well,” said Ford. “Something else has to come across to audiences—something which no director can instill or create—the quality of being a real man.”
Wayne embodied one other quality Ford needed: “He was the only person I could think of at the time who could personify great strength and determination without talking much. That sounds easy, perhaps. But it’s not. Either you have it or you don’t.”
Like all excellent directors only more so, Ford was a manipulator, a man capable of thinking on three or four levels at once, and he enjoyed Wayne because the actor was completely different than he was. Wayne was a creature of spontaneity, with a bubbling enthusiasm for every new project and for life itself, and little interest in the contemplation of mistakes, of roads not taken. The most important movie of Wayne’s life was always the next one.
“Duke has always been able to enjoy life . . . to swallow and digest it in big, unchewed pieces. Depending upon the circumstances, he can be a roughneck, or a perfect gentleman. He’s my boy, always has been; always will be.”
Just before they began production on Stagecoach, John Ford took the young man aside and told him that he had a great future ahead of him.
He had no idea just how right he was.
The decade of B westerns had been Wayne’s movie prep school, the learning equivalent of years in repertory theater. In 1939, Wayne was relatively unknown only to the critics in the big cities. As far as they were concerned, he had the stink of dozens of disposable B movies about him.
But as far as the audience was concerned, Wayne had paid his dues. They had watched the big man for nearly ten years; they had seen him mature as a man and as an actor. They had always liked him, and they had grown to respect him as well. Wayne may not have been a star in New York, but he was assuredly a star in Waco and Rockville and Atlanta.
Wayne hadn’t played a variety of parts, but he had carefully observed actors who did. He had seen how even a bad movie was impossible without teamwork on the part of the cast and crew.
“Doing those B westerns he learned how to be resilient,” said the actor William Bakewell, who did time with him in some of these films. “He
learned what to lean on and how to bring his best foot forward. You had to get up on your lines. You had to be a quick study because they didn’t want to waste any time or film. . . . Doing those quickie westerns, he learned how to be John Wayne.”
Aesthetically, Wayne walked right into an American archetype. The part of the Ringo Kid—the way Ford presented the actor, the way the actor played the part—served as the template for about half of his career: dignity, intent, competence, and, if necessary, skill in combat, all added to a foundation of innate likability.
Wayne had spent ten years in limbo after The Big Trail, working for some of the worst directors in the business. Now, after a single turn working for one of the best, his life would never be the same again, but he never seemed entirely convinced that there was anything inevitable about it, or even that he had done it on his own recognizance.
“The reason Ford made a star of me,” he grumbled to John Ford’s grandson late in his life, “was that I played cards with him.”
In his early years, Wayne’s acting was tinged with a tentative self-consciousness; it was acting that didn’t seem to be acting, that had a way of intimately involving his audience rather than keeping them at an admiring distance.
Soon enough, he would play the tired, benevolent Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the fierce, my-way-or-die Tom Dunson in Red River, the hesitant retired boxer Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man, the lonely isolate Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, as well as ten other varied characterizations fully deserving the overused adjective “great.”
The watchful, shy young actor of the 1930s became a man burdened by responsibility and pain too terrible to fully share, gradually segueing into a feisty old guy who could still uncork a jug . . . or twirl a Winchester. Alone among the great movie stars, Wayne dared to show us the most perilous as well as the most moving of the seven ages of man.
As Randy Roberts and James Olson pointed out,
“He was so American, so like his country—big, bold, confident, powerful, loud, violent and occasionally overbearing, but simultaneously forgiving, gentle, innocent, and naive. . . . John Wayne was his country’s alter ego.”
I first met John Wayne in August 1972. He was not merely big, he was huge, with hands that could span home plate—the largest hands I have ever seen on a human being. It was not so much his height—six feet three and three quarters inches, as he attested in a military application during World
War II—it was his bulk: very broad shoulders and a large chest that, in his youth, spiraled down to a slim waist. By the time I met him, a good-sized man could stand behind him and never be seen.
At the same time, there was an unexpected delicacy about him. He had small feet for a man his size—size 10 or so, as opposed to the 14 or 16 that might be expected. This accounted for his carefully balanced walk, the arms slightly bent at the elbows for balance.
And there was also a surprising graciousness of manner and a quiet way of speaking. He was shooting a TV show at CBS at the time, and regarded himself impassively in the makeup mirror in between sips of a scotch and water. Every once in a while, he would contentedly puff on a slim cigar, even though he had lost a lung to cancer eight years earlier. He answered my questions calmly, getting enthusiastic mainly when talking about directors.
My hair was undoubtedly longer than he liked, but he didn’t seem to mind. I loved John Ford and so did he. At the end of a long day on the set, he walked over, shook my hand, and said, “I hope you got what you wanted. I’m not such a terrible right-wing monster, am I?”
His general attitude, on that day and on several days thereafter, was a perceptible relief that he could have a conversation about something besides cancer or politics.
Most actors are disappointing when you meet them—often smaller than life, they need writers and cameramen to give them their aura of command. Not John Wayne. He liked to talk about chess, Indian lore, and western art, but above all he liked to talk about movies. It was the movies that had converted the son of a reliably unsuccessful drugstore clerk, a young man who managed to win a football scholarship to USC only to lose it, into a rich man with a kind of immortality. In no other actor was the apparent line between the private man and the public image so narrow.
In the movies, he played searchers, warriors, men who settled the West or fought for democracy in the Pacific. His characters’ taste for the fulfillment of an American imperative was usually based on patriotic conviction, rarely for economic opportunity. He came to embody a sort of race memory of Manifest Destiny, the nineteenth century as it should have been.
For decades, his image was in fashion and then it went out of fashion. His strength was seen as authoritarian, his overwhelming sense of the past held up as proof of his archaic nature. A man of complex ideals was nudged aside in a time of expedient desires.
But eventually, the wheel comes around again.
These are the movies of John Wayne. Not all of them—by actual count there are 169, give or take, depending on whether you allow guest appearances or not—just the best, in no particular order:
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
They Were Expendable
Sands of Iwo Jima
The Quiet Man
Island in the Sky
It can be seen that, while Wayne would make important films in many genres, it was the western that made him a star, and it was the western that kept him a star. As Charles Silver of the Museum of Modern Art wittily observed,
“Wayne made westerns for twice as long as it took to fight the Indian wars. He made westerns for about as long as it actually took to settle the continent west of the Missouri.”
It was the western that defined John Wayne for audiences the world over, that made him the symbol of America to the world at large. In many ways, it still does.
Audiences traditionally assume that movie stars are just playing themselves, a gross oversimplification that ignores the massive adjustments that changed Duke Morrison from Winterset, Iowa, into John Wayne.
As the briefest glance at any of Wayne’s early B westerns shows, the easy, likable personality was there from the beginning, but so was a lumbering gaucheness not far removed from a high school play. The accoutrements that spelled John Wayne were added incrementally, painstakingly, intentionally. The John Wayne of 1932 has little to offer except his looks and personality; the Wayne of 1938 is a greatly improved actor of authority and concision. Duke Morrison built John Wayne the actor, John Wayne the
businessman, John Wayne the icon, brick by brick.
“He worked hard to be a graceful big man,” said Harry Carey Jr. “It didn’t just happen.”
As a man, Wayne could be demanding and impatient, as everybody from prop men to directors found out, but he had an innate gregariousness, an interest in other people, that was unexpected and charming.
“What was different than the roles he played,” said his oldest son, Michael, “was that he would listen to people. He wanted to hear what they thought. He was a listener as well as a talker.”
His daughter Toni said,
“He was an expert in western Indian tribes. He was a history buff who knew all about the Civil War. He knew what battle was where, and how many men died at this place. He knew an awful lot about Oriental art, about Native American art. He knew an awful lot about a lot of things.”
He was also a demon chess player. Although he wasn’t quite tournament caliber, he would make up for technical flaws with controlled aggression and by psyching out opponents. “Is that the move you’re gonna make?” he would say with an air of deep regret. “You’re sure? Well, okay.” The opponent was soon convinced that he had blown the game. He did the same thing playing bridge.
But when it came to making movies, there was no guile involved. He relished the process. He almost never went off to his trailer during the lengthy period when shots were being set up, but hung around the set, preparing, playing chess, joshing with the crew. For Wayne, a movie set was home, and he loved being home.
Forged by years of working for little money and less acclaim, Wayne became the compleat professional. “I never saw him miss a word,” said Harry Carey Jr. “I never saw him late. I never saw him with a hangover. Oh, all right, I saw him with a hangover, but he was really a good man to work with.”
The years of laboring in thankless vineyards produced an actor who could effortlessly command a scene simply by entering it, who could communicate complex emotions without words. His own strength of character was easily lent to the men he played, but that strength often derived from an isolation that came at a terrible cost. Wayne’s power as an actor, and his greatest triumph, was that he never shied away from the ultimate implications of his screen image.
All this earned him his place as America’s idea of itself, a man big enough, expansive enough to serve as a metaphoric battlefield for America’s conflicting desires. He wasn’t born that way. As a boy he was insecure, bedeviled by
poverty and nightmares. Until he accreted the security of a screen character, whose certainties he gradually made his own, he regularly berated himself for his clumsiness in the craft he pursued with such passion.
So the story of John Wayne is simultaneously the story of Duke Morrison—an awkward boy who transformed himself into the symbol of American self-confidence.
There have been several biographies of John Wayne over the years, mostly written by two disparate breeds: rapt fans, or scholars—alternating currents of hero worship and a quizzical wonder mixed with covert—or not so covert—disdain.
I knew Wayne slightly, but until I invested four years in research I couldn’t claim any special insights into the man other than witnessing his good humor, his courtesy, his surprising sensitivity.
“Had you read the O’Neill plays?” I bumptiously asked him once, regarding John Ford’s film of The Long Voyage Home.
He could have blown me right out of the water, and probably should have. Instead, he eyed me wearily, sighed, and quietly said, “I’d been to college; I’d read O’Neill.”
John Wayne’s story is about many things—it’s about the construction of an image, the forging of a monumental career that itself became a kind of monument. It’s about a terribly shy, tentative boy reinventing himself as a man with a command personality, of a man who loved family but who couldn’t sustain a marriage, and of a great friendship that resulted in great films.
And it’s also about a twentieth-century conservatism considered dangerously extreme that became mainstream in the twenty-first century.
It is, in short, a life that could only have been lived by one man. 1.
One Winchester with a ring loop used by Wayne—he also did the move in Circus World and True Grit—does survive and the barrel has indeed been slightly sawed off. I’m grateful to Yakima Canutt for telling me about all this, to Jeff Morey and Joe Musso for explaining how it was done, and especially to Musso for showing me one of Wayne’s customized rifles.