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John Wayne

Bookends ; Comparing John wayne’s First and Last Westerns

In The Big Trail, we got the first glimpse of a future icon. The Shootist found him teeming with wisdom and experience.

The Big Trail (1930)

John Wayne, Tyrone Power, and Ian Keith in 1930’s The Big Trail, directed by Raoul Walsh.

“Hiya, Zeke!” That’s his first line. And with its delivery one can see that he’s got … it. It is the word we sometimes use when attempting to describe that indefinable quality of great leading men. For this young man, it is a simple charm that emerges from the lack of any need to charm. It is the ability to truly engage with the performers around him rather than to indicate a vague idea of engagement. And through that young man’s clear-eyed understanding of a job done honestly, we find ourselves witnessing the birth of an American identity that bleeds across our screen like celluloid caught aflame.

It was 1930 when a 22-year-old Marion Mitchell Morrison was stolen off the properties crew of a John Ford film and screen tested for a Raoul Walsh project. Subsequently, he would be renamed “John Wayne” by the Fox Film Corporation’s publicity arm and handed $75 a week to take on the leading role in one of the riskier investments in Hollywood history. It is often reported that The Big Trail represents one of Hollywood’s earliest attempts to convert the movie experience into a widescreen format, ultimately flopping because the financial constraints of the Great Depression had left movie houses unable to convert to the newer technology. While the first part is true, the actual record is a bit more complex.

There are, in fact, two English language versions of this wagon-train epic (a plethora of foreign language versions were also shot in subsequent takes with different actors). Studio founder William Fox was known to occasionally take a risk, but he was not a blind gambler. Likely fearing the economic unrest of the time, Fox had Walsh shoot his film both in the traditional 35 mm format and in the newer 70 mm. Most scenes were filmed by two crews simultaneously, while others had to be repeated with more mise en scène for the expansive 70 mm “grandeur” frame. With almost 200 wagons, hundreds of oxen, cattle, horses, and extras, The Big Trail was early cinéma vérité in its depiction of a westward trek into untamed wilderness, made by a dogged crew slogging across locations that spanned seven states.

While Fox successfully hedged his bets (only two theaters in the nation were capable of screening the widescreen version when it was finally released), he found himself trying to market a film for which the predominant inspiration had been a new technology with a broad vista, a theatrical promise that was not possible to fulfill. The movie bombed spectacularly.

As was so often the case in Tinseltown, the sins of the father were visited upon the son, and Wayne found himself banished to the lesser sets of “B” westerns for a protracted sentence.

It would not be until 1939, when his old mentor and friend John Ford had generated enough power within his own productions, that Wayne would be given another big shot, this time as the iconic Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. This second entrance is brilliantly portrayed in the foreward of Scott Eyman’s carefully researched John Wayne: The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

But The Big Trail remains a revelation, clairvoyant in its discovery of the genre’s greatest leading man and in its vision of what the film event would eventually become. Just take it from me: Make sure you watch the 70 mm version. There really is no comparison.

Ron Howard and John Wayne in 1976’s The Shootist, Wayne’s final western.

The Shootist (1976)

It’s a bit like that jolt you get when confronted with a photograph of your father in his younger years. Now take that dog-eared sepia of a young man squinting into the sunlight with his whole life ahead of him and place it next to the color Polaroid taken at his retirement party, that of a thicker man whose smile, while maybe not as broad, is supported by the assuredness of a life well spent. This is something akin to the experience of watching John Wayne’s first and last westerns back-to-back.

Of course, The Shootist is not often regarded as one of Wayne’s best. A multitude of factors play into this unfortunate exeunt for America’s leading man, the chief of them being the war of backstage egos that might have shamed even the greatest production of Julius Caesar, the principal senators here being Wayne and director Doug Siegel. Apparently, Siegel had never learned that the last person you want to tangle with on a set is an actor with power.

The script itself is a rather flat adaptation of the novel by Glendon Swarthout, an entirely passable but ultimately uninspiring western that was soured from too many fingers in the soup. Apparently, the screenwriters had never learned that the last person you want to collaborate with on a story is an actor with power.

But, according to Eyman, things were likely exacerbated by Wayne’s health, which was not at its best. It has been reported and rumored that Wayne’s portrayal of J.B. Books, a legendary gunslinger dying of cancer, was strangely poetic given that Wayne himself was battling cancer at the time. Others treat this claim as apocryphal, as Wayne had battled lung cancer a decade prior and lived. Again, the truth is always more complex.

While it is true that Wayne had a cancerous lung successfully removed in 1965, more than a decade later he would develop another malignancy, this one in his stomach, which would eventually take his life.  By the time he was cast in The Shootist, the first cancer had gone into remission, but the parallels to a dying legend would not have been lost on any man who’d stared down the reaper and could still see him out there waiting in the plains. 

Perhaps it was the knowledge of just such an inevitability that led to the Duke’s final performance being a perfect study of calm acceptance. A lesser actor, or a less experienced man, might have botched the role by layering it with angst and desperation. Instead, we are gifted with an almost whimsical acceptance of hard truths and a sweet farewell to the world he now realizes he never knew: a world in which humanity springs eternal like a tree splitting limestone.

Marion Mitchell Morrison, also known to the world as John Wayne, was laid to rest on June 15, 1979, at sunrise. Above him was set a tombstone that would remain unmarked for 20 years. When it was finally given an epitaph, it would be in Duke’s own words:

Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes to us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.

Philosophical yet optimistic, it is a decent epitaph, though its purpose remains vague. It is perhaps the kind of phrase one might use as a kind of forked twig when trying to divine the extremely complex life and personality that was John Wayne. But this choice of epitaph is also ironic (and, to me, a bit sad) in that it was done in direct contradiction to a clearly stated wish that his future epitaph be nothing more than the following Mexican phrase: “Feo, Fuerte y Formal.” Translated it would have read:

John Wayne: Ugly, Strong and Dignified

John Wayne

”The Shootist”: John Wayne put all his heart into the final movie.

John Wayne. What can you say about him? Whether you enjoy the man’s work or not, there’s no denying that he has made a massive impact on film history and pop culture. But even as a fan, I can’t defend every aspect of the Duke, like the guy’s acting. I can’t think of anyone who’s watched a John Wayne film for his acting chops.

The man was more known for his screen persona than his acting abilities, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have some good advice on acting.There are, however, a couple of films in which Duke pull off a pretty good performance . There’s his iconic role as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) where he played a cold-hearted and cynical war veteran searching for his niece.

Then there’s his Oscar-winning performance as the one-eyed, fat, drunken Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn in True Grit (1969). But in this column, I’m going to talk about his last performance in a feature film :Тһе Տһootıѕt (1976), directed by Don Siegel.Based on the Glendon Swarthout novel of the same name, the film tells the story of an aging gunfighter named JB Books, played by Duke, who at the dawn of the 20th century finds out he has terminal cancer.

Per this news, he decided to try and spend his final days in peace. But as rumors spread about him through the tiny town of Carson City, Nevada, more people want to get a piece of him. It eventually climaxes with Books realizing that he’ll never escape his past and going out the only way he knows how.Before I go on about John Wayne in the film, I have to talk about the rest of the cast.

This film boasts an all-star ensemble, many of whom took the role purely as a favor to Wayne. There’s Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart) who delivers the bad news to Books about his health and becomes a closer friend throughout the film. “You know, Books,” he says, “I’m not an especially brave man. But, if I were you and had lived my entire life the way you have, I don’t think that the ԁеаtһ I just described to you is the one I would choose.

Then there’s the late, great Lauren Bacall as the widowed boarding house owner Bond Rogers and Oscar-winning director Ron Howard as her wide-eyed idolizing son. The film also features a slew of great TV and Western legends — Richard Boone as the vengeance seeking Mike Sweeney, John Carradine as the town’s undertaker Hezekiah Beckum, Bill McKinney as the ill-tempered Jay Cobb, Scatman Crothers as the liver-stable owner Moses Brown, and Harry Morgan as the fast-talking and loud Marshal Thibido.

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John Wayne

The reason John Wayne is labeled as ‘Draft Dodger’ by the audience in World War II.

Around the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Wayne was not the big-name actor we remember him being today. He was fresh off the box-office success of the 1939 film “Stagecoach.” According to author Garry Wills’ 1998 book, “John Wayne’ America: the Politics of Celebrity,” the actor received a chorus of boos when he walked onto the USO stages in Australia and the Pacific Islands. Those audiences were filled with combat veterans. Wayne, in his mid-30s, was not one of them.

Being drafted or enlisting was going to have a serious impact on his rising star. Depending on how long the ԝаr lasted, Wayne reportedly worried he might be too old to be a leading man when he came home.Other actors, both well-established and rising in fame, rushed off to do their part. Clark Gable joined the Army Air Forces and, despite the studios’ efforts to get him into a motion picture unit, served as an aerial ɡսոոеr over Europe. Jimmy Stewart was initially ineligible for the draft, given his low weight, but like some amazing version of Captain America, he drank beer until he qualified.

In his 2014 book, “American Titan: Searching for John Wayne,” author Marc Eliot alleges Wayne was having an affair with actress Marlene Dietrich. He says the possibility of losing this relationship was the real reason Wayne didn’t want to go to ԝаr.

But even Dietrich would do her part, smuggling Jewish people out of Europe, entertaining troops on the front lines (she crossed into Germany alongside Gen. George S. Patton) and maybe even being an operative for the Office of Strategic Services.Wayne never enlisted and even filed for a 3-A draft deferment, which meant that if the sole provider for a family of four were drafted, it would cause his family undue hardship. The closest he would ever come to Worւԁ Wаr II service would be portraying the actions of others on the silver screen.

With his leading man competition fighting the ԝаr and out of the way, Wayne became Hollywood’s top leading man. During the ԝаr, Wayne starred in a number of western films as well as Worւԁ Wаr II movies, including 1942’s “Flying Tigers” and 1944’s “The Fighting Seabees.” According to Eliot, Wayne told friends the best thing he could do for the ԝаr was make movies to support the troops. Eventually, the government agreed.

At one point during the ԝаr, the need for more men in uniform caused the U.S. military brass to change Wayne’s draft status to 1-A, fit for duty. But Hollywood studios intervened on his behalf, arguing that the actor’s star power was a boon for ԝаrtime propaganda and the morale of the troops. He was given a special 2-A status, which back then meant he was deferred in “support of national interest.”

The decision not to serve or to avoid it entirely (depending on how you look at the actor) haunted Wayne for the rest of his life. His third wife, Pilar Wayne, says he became a “super-patriot for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying at home.”After the ԝаr, he made a number of films set in Worւԁ Wаr II, including some of his most famous, like “The Longest Day,” “They Were Expendable” and “Sands of Iwo Jima.”

When actor John Wayne visited American soldiers in Vietnam in the summer of 1966, he was warmly welcomed. As he spoke to groups and individuals, he was presented gifts and letters from American and South Vietnamese troops alike. This was not the case during his USO tours in 1942 and ’43. Despite his post-ԝаr patriotism, many labeled Wayne a draft dodger for the rest of his life. He succumbed to stomach cancer in 1979. His enduring influence on American media and the perception of American fighting men led President Jimmy Carter to award Wayne the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1980

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John Wayne

The meaning of the phrase that John Wayne requested to be engraved on his tombstone.

John Wayne lived his life exactly the way he saw fit, right down till the very end. It’s why his tombstone features an odd, but honest message.In 1979, Wayne’s days were unfortunately numbered. He had last appeared in a film three years prior in The Shootist, and after overcoming lung cancer in the mid-1960s, his bout with stomach cancer was proving to be his ultimate killer.

When making final preparations, John Wayne requested a specific phrase in Spanish to be engraved on his tombstone. The tombstone, to this day, reads, “Feo, Fuerte y Formal.”The phrase means “ugly, strong, and dignified.” We couldn’t think of anything that better fits John Wayne if we tried.

However, that isn’t the only thing that’s transcribed on the acting legend’s tombstone. In 1999, the grave was marked with a quote:“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”

John Wayne Converted to Catholicism Late in Life

The 72-year-old acting legend was going through a journey in his final days. Years later, his grandson and Catholic priest, Matthew Muñoz, discussed his grandfather’s transition to Roman Catholicism as he struggled with cancer.“My grandmother, Josephine Wayne Saenz, had a wonderful influence on his life and introduced him to the Catholic world,” said 46-year-old Fr. Muñoz, a priest of the Diocese of Orange. “He was constantly at Church events and fundraisers that she was always dragging him to and I think that, after a while, he kind of got a sense that the common secular vision of what Catholics are and what his own experience actually was, were becoming two greatly different things.”

Further, Muñoz added that his grandfather converting to Catholocism “was one of the sentiment he expressed before he passed on”. The Catholic priest said his grandfather blamed the delay on “a busy life.”According to his grandson, Wayne was a spiritual and Christian man throughout life. This is best evidenced through his written prayers.“He wrote beautiful love letters to God, and they were prayers. And they were very childlike and they were very simple but also very profound at the same time,” Fr. Muñoz said. “And sometimes that simplicity was looked at as naivety but I think there was a profound wisdom in his simplicity.”

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