John Wayne: One Last Shot Before the Final Farewell

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During the
making of The
Shootist
(1976), Don Siegel’s rich, elegiac western
about an ageing gunfighter dying of “a cancer”, its star
John Wayne became too ill to film. The actor had had a lung removed
twelve years earlier and was now struggling with the stomach cancer
that would eventually lead to his death in 1979. A few days later,
when Wayne bravely returned to the set, he picked a quarrel with
the director, who had carried on filming a gunfight scene in his
absence, over the way his character was shown killing a villain.

He forced Siegel
to redo the scene, declaring: “Whatever the cause, I would
never shoot anyone in the back. It’s unthinkable for my image…
I spent many years in this business building up my image.”

He certainly
did – but he wasn’t the only one. The 6ft 4in Marion Morrison
was a former USC American football player with a few bit parts to
his rather girlie name, when he was spotted carrying an armchair
across the Fox Studios lot by legendary director Raoul Walsh (one-eyed,
but sharp-eyed). Walsh cast him in The
Big Trail
(1930) – a western, the genre Wayne would
above all be associated with – and renamed him after Revolutionary
War general “Mad Anthony Wayne”.

But it was
director John Ford who turned Wayne into an all-time star, by casting
him as the Ringo Kid, in Stagecoach
(1939), which is perhaps the definitive western (though based on
a Maupassant novel).

Wayne’s
character makes his first appearance standing on the trail, firing
into the air to stop the stagecoach and, as the camera whips in
to a breathless close-up, he announces that: “You might need
me and this Winchester, Curly!” In his dark placket-front shirt,
light army-style braces, bandana and broad white hat, Ringo is a
dazzling vision of male beauty and heroism. Wayne was already 32,
with 78 films behind him – but the freshness of this “Kid”
is unforgettable.

The Shootist
opens with a montage of its hero’s past exploits – taken
from Red
River
(Howard Hawks, 1948), Hondo
(John Farrow, 1953), Rio
Bravo
and El
Dorado
(Hawks, 1959 and 1966). It’s clear this is a
summation of Wayne’s career as well as that of his character
in The Shootist, JB Books.

Younger film-watchers
may not be so aware of the Wayne legend, or of his films –
it was against the heroic Wayne, in a sense, that the spaghetti
westerns of Sergio Leone (and then Eastwood) were angled; so too
were the Seventies anti-westerns of Peckinpah.

Wayne’s
fame is probably not dissociable, in fact, from the Cold War era
– from anxieties about communism (his quite reactionary politics
could be ugly) and gender (it’s often clear that his characters,
men’s men, are ill at ease with women). But no one who sees
a good John Wayne film (and there are many) will forget his complex,
dignified presence. He was large, physically powerful, with a rolling
gait, increasingly craggy as time went on – but always a careful
watcher of others and a man of few words. He had indomitable courage
and a basically decent heart, though also a quick temper and a capacity
for black, violent rages.

The great Wayne
films directed by John Ford don’t figure in The Shootist
montage – they’re too distinctive and different in tone.
It was Hawks (at least according to Hawks) who discovered that Wayne
could actually act, making him the ruthless Thomas Dunson of Red
River – and in that auteur’s view: “If you try
to make a western with somebody besides Wayne, you’re not in
the sphere of violence and action that you are when you’ve
got Wayne.”

It was after
this that Ford again used him for westerns – starting with
the Cavalry trilogy of Fort
Apache
(1948), She
Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(1949) and Rio
Grande
(1950), in which he plays respectively youngish,
oldish and indeterminately middle-aged characters in three films
within a period of two and a half years. Wayne had already turned
40 and the elegiac is the keynote of these films.

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the rest of the article

September
23, 2010

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