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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: John Wayne film collection worth the price

by Philip Martin | May 23, 2021 at 2:02 a.m.
Submitted for viewers’ approval: the John Wayne 14-movie collection.

On May 11, Paramount Home Video released a product called "John Wayne 14-Movie Collection," which consists of movies from 1953's "Hondo" to Wayne's last performance in Don Siegel's "The Shootist" (1976).

It is curious to note that in the marketing materials accompanying the DVDs, it refers to the "Essential 14-Movie Collection" while the packaging makes no such claim. It's as though the packaging is shyly demurring with the puffery: "14 DVDs for $79.99 isn't a bad deal in itself; buy me and you can watch a John Wayne movie every night for two weeks. And some of these are actually good."

The set contains a number of Wayne's films I would acknowledge as essential, and arguably none of these can be dismissed as below average. (That's because Wayne made some real stinkers — his work in the 1930s, "Stagecoach" excepted, is pretty dismal.)

"The Shootist" from 1976 is one of his best, in which a dying Wayne played a dying gunfighter who, having lived into the 20th century — the film is set in 1901 — is looking for a dignified way out.

Wayne is magnificent in the movie; his character, J.B. Books, is a former lawman turned killer for hire who has murdered 30 men over his career. (Director Don Siegel makes canny use of footage from Wayne's old films for a flashback sequence showing many of his shootouts.) Now he has cancer, his doctor (Jimmy Stewart) confirms, and maybe six weeks to live. He doesn't want to go out in a gunfight, because he doesn't want to be defeated on the field of battle and, presumably, because being shot is a painful way to die.

So he holes up in a boarding house in Carson City, Nev., run by Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), a widow who lives there with her 17-year-old son Gillom (Ron Howard). Although Books wants to be anonymous, his identity is quickly discovered by young Gillom, and soon the entire town is aware of the dying gunfighter in their midst.

Many want to kill him — some out of revenge, some because he would make a nice trophy. Others want to exploit him in other ways; those include reporter Dan Dobkins (Rick Lenz), who means to write a book about him, and his old flame Serepta (Sheree North), who was approached by Dobkins regarding the book. The undertaker (John Carradine) offers him a free funeral, but Books rejects it because he suspects the man plans to sell tickets to see his remains.

"You son of a bitch," Books says. "You aim to do to me what they did with John Wesley Hardin. Lay me out and parade every damn fool in the state past me at a dollar a head, half price for children, and then stuff me in a gunny sack and shovel me under."

While there is some predictability to the script, for most of its running time "The Shootist" is a surprisingly gentle movie built around the relationship between the valedictory Books and the coming-of-age Gillom. There is a spasm of violence at the end and, as we knew he would, Gillom gets to fire the final shot from one of Books' 45s with antique ivory grips. But as Books looks on, cut into by a shotgun blast and dying rather more quickly, Gillom tosses the gunfighter's guns away. Books smiles and dies.

Wayne had won his only Best Actor Oscar six years earlier for playing Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit," another movie included in this collection. That award is largely considered a lifetime achievement honor. Wayne's only other nomination had come nearly 20 years before, and he was the biggest movie star in Hollywood.

But it's his work in "The Shootist" that reveals him as something more than a walking special effect. Wayne acts in "The Shootist," conveying human qualities like empathy, tenderness and an existential fear.

Whether Wayne understood he was dying when he made "The Shootist" is a matter of contention. He had had a cancer scare a dozen years earlier — his left lung and several ribs had been removed in surgeries — but he had been declared cancer-free in 1969. Wayne had no intention of retiring from the movies. He had another project, a comedy called "Beau John," set in a small town in Kentucky during the 1920s. He wanted Howard, with whom he'd grown close during the making of the "The Shootist," to be in it along with Hal Linden, best known for playing police detective Barney Miller in an ABC sitcom.

Certainly Wayne was not in the same situation as his character Books, or as Chadwick Boseman was when the latter was working on his final projects. He had not been told he was terminal and should make final preparations, but he was nevertheless a sick man (in the interim between "The Shootist" and his death in June 1979, Wayne would deal with open heart surgery, hepatitis, a prostate infection and pneumonia before succumbing to stomach cancer).

He also understood that he was no longer the pre-eminent Western hero, that he had been eclipsed by Clint Eastwood and the taciturn antiheroes he routinely played. Wayne famously wrote Eastwood a letter about "High Plains Drifter," the 1973 film that Eastwood directed and starred in. The film's script is by Ernest Tidyman, who took as his inspiration the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens in 1964, an act reportedly witnessed by 38 people, none of whom called police or came to her aid.

Wayne allegedly complained that the Old West was nothing like the town Eastwood depicted in "High Plains Drifter"; that there were "good people" in the West. Eastwood told Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan that he didn't respond to Wayne's letter because he thought the Duke missed the point of his movie.

"I realized that there's two different generations, and he wouldn't understand what I was doing," Eastwood said. "'High Plains Drifter' was meant to be a fable: It wasn't meant to show the hours of pioneering drudgery. It wasn't supposed to be anything about settling the West."

Someone should make a movie about the relationship between Wayne and Eastwood, whether such a relationship existed or or not. ("Print the legend," someone once said.) We can imagine a lot about it. Three years after "Dirty Harry" came out, Wayne played a derivative maverick police detective in 1974's "McQ." and, for his trouble, got called "Clint Eastwood in paunch in an ersatz 'Magnum Force'" by New York Magazine's Judith Crist. (No one would argue that "McQ." is in any way essential, so it has been left out of this package.)

Another odd coincidence: it is rumored that Wayne initially contracted cancer by witnessing the detonation of a 32-kiloton atomic bomb in the Utah desert in 1953, when he was shooting "The Conqueror," in which he was bizarrely miscast as Genghis Khan. That bomb was nicknamed "Dirty Harry" and allegedly also caused the cancer deaths of Wayne's co-star Susan Hayward, the film's director Dick Powell, and dozens of other cast and crew members.

Add to that the fact Wayne was the producers' first choice to play "Dirty Harry" Callahan. He turned it down, and Frank Sinatra stepped in. Then Sinatra dropped out due to an injury and the part was offered to Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum and possibly George C. Scott. Finally, it fell to Eastwood.

It was the fourth time Eastwood had worked with director Don Siegel.

Lauren Bacall and a young Ron Howard star with “The Duke” (John Wayne) in “The Shootist” (1976).
Lauren Bacall and a young Ron Howard star with “The Duke” (John Wayne) in “The Shootist” (1976).

John Wayne is one of my favorite actors — wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me my favorite movie, and I'm as likely to shout "The Searchers!" as anything else. But it's possible to enjoy an actor and at the same time understand that he's not what he's portraying on-screen.

Wayne is problematic in some respects; his famous ultra-patriotism was likely partly in compensation for his shame at having failed to do what he perceived as his duty during World War II.

Even today, people are willing to make excuses for him that he did not make for himself. He was not prevented from enlisting to fight the Nazis by "an old football injury." The U.S. government did not forbid him from signing up because his movies boosted morale and did more to help the war effort than his service would have.

Wayne was 34 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; he was married and the father of four, which made him eligible for a 3A deferment (as sole support of his family), and he took it. (Wayne was not living with his family at the time — he was separated from his wife and carrying on an affair with a Mexican actress.)

But it's important to remember Wayne didn't do anything that thousands of others didn't do. He didn't illegally evade service; he just didn't volunteer. Maybe because he did his job of pretending to be a hero so well, that feels odd. But Wayne made an understandable choice in a difficult situation. It's ironic that, given a chance to serve, Wayne didn't. But he was an actor, not a hero.

So, although Jimmy Stewart flew 20 combat missions over Germany with the Army Air Corps and 48-year-old Dashiell Hammett volunteered and was sent to the Pacific theater of operations, John Wayne stayed home in Hollywood.

But in 1941, Wayne wasn't the iconic figure we think of today. He was at best a midlevel star (he wouldn't become a full-blown movie star until the release of "Red River" in 1948). It's not fair to compare him to some of the other established actors who volunteered for duty. A five-year break from working could have finished Wayne's career.

On the other hand, Wayne was bothered by his actions; he told friends that he'd enlist after making one or two more movies. But he didn't. Instead, in 1944, he applied to have his deferment changed to 2A for making a contribution to the war effort. When the Selective Service revoked his deferment and reclassified him as 1A — fit for service — Wayne appealed and had the deferment reinstated.

Very late in the war, Wayne voluntarily changed his classification to 1A and mailed in some paperwork that would have allowed him to join the naval photography unit headed up by director John Ford. But he never followed through and enlisted, and there was little chance of him getting drafted at that point. Hiroshima was only a month away.

Wayne visited troops in the Pacific theater as part of a United Service Organizations tour during the war. And there's evidence that he felt ashamed about the gap in his resume.

All this mumbo-jumbo about an old football injury (or ear infection) keeping Wayne out of the service can likely be traced to Ronald Reagan's oft-quoted eulogy, delivered at Wayne's funeral in 1979. Reagan claimed the Duke "was rejected because of an old football injury to his shoulder, his age, and his status as a married father of four. He flew to Washington to plead that he be allowed to join the Navy but was turned down."

Where Reagan got that whimsical misinformation is anybody's guess. It wasn't from Wayne. While he may have been embarrassed by his lack of a service record (and there are reports that, during the war years, Wayne brawled with soldiers who wondered out loud why he wasn't in uniform), he never claimed he tried to join the service and was rejected, probably because such a claim could have been easily refuted.

Having said that, I don't blame Wayne for not having availed himself of the opportunity to serve his country. And he may well have done more by continuing to work in Hollywood than he might have as an ensign on a PT boat. It was not possible for him to fight as an actor the way Ford and Frank Capra could fight as directors; Wayne couldn't directly use his talents in the war effort.

But Wayne benefited from staying in Hollywood during the war. He got lots of parts that otherwise would have gone to other actors like Stewart and Henry Fonda, who were bigger stars. In 1942 alone, Wayne starred in seven films. That same year Henry Fonda, who at 37 was nearly too old to enlist, joined the Navy. He said he didn't want to "be a fake in a war studio." He didn't make another film until 1946's "My Darling Clementine."

John Wayne (right) takes five behind the scenes with Jimmy Stewart and director John Ford on the set of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).
John Wayne (right) takes five behind the scenes with Jimmy Stewart and director John Ford on the set of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).

The 14 movies in the Paramount set represent about 10% of Wayne's career, and all of them feature him as the established star and focal point. It is a fair sampling, though Wayne's best films, such as John Ford 's "Stagecoach" (1939), "The Quiet Man" (1952) and "The Searchers" (1956), obviously were available to the packagers.

But the set includes Ford's last great Western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), a rueful meditation on myth-making, in which Wayne's character's heroism is surprisingly usurped by Jimmy Stewart's lawyer character. It also includes the lightweight and unfortunate "Donovan's Reef" (1963), a comedy filmed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai that hasn't aged well. Also starring Wayne's "Liberty Valance" co-star Lee Marvin, it's full of male wishfulness and stereotypically pliant natives. It's most notable that, with Ford's health declining, Wayne directed much of the film himself.

Better are the enjoyable Howard Hawks Westerns "El Dorado" (1966) and "Rio Lobo" (1970); the odd but enjoyable "McLintock!" (1963), which transposes Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" to the Old West and — like "Donovan's Reef" — features a notorious scene where Wayne spanks a grown woman (in this case Maureen O' Hara); and "The Sons of Katie Elder" (1965), which teams Wayne with Dean Martin. Then there's "True Grit," which, while it has been eclipsed somewhat by the Coen Brothers remake, is at least a sturdy fable.

That Paramount is making this set available suggests that Wayne, the pre-eminent American screen presence, the chief American Male Movie Star for almost 50 years, retains some drawing power. More than 40 years after his death, his name still resonates in our collective consciousness.

It serves not only as the assumed name of a specific actor, but as shorthand for a way of being: rugged, authoritarian, self-confident and strong.

"John Wayne" is monumentally American, with echoes in infamy — John Wayne Gacy, John Wayne Bobbitt. The Harris Poll had him as the No. 1 movie star as late as 1995, when he drew three times as many votes as Mel Gibson. He was No. 2 in the poll in 2000. Ronald Reagan acknowledged being in Wayne's thrall; he once made a pilgrimage to his fellow Iowan's putative birthplace and told White House visitors, "Wayne understood what the American spirit is all about."

I don't know about that. But he was a big man, big enough to serve as a wall onto which we can project all sorts of masculine wishes and desires.

Email: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com | blooddirtangels.com

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