John Wayne: One Last Shot Before the Final Farewell


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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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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September 23, 2010