Friday, September 29, 2017
John Wayne: The Texas Hero
This is my entry in The Texas Blogathon, hosted by yours truly.
John Wayne was not born in Texas. He was born in Winterset, Iowa just to clarify, a place I would like to visit just to see his birthplace, but otherwise a nondescript burg in southern Iowa. (An interesting side note: Winterset was also the birthplace of Henry A. Wallace, who was vice-president under Franklin D. Roosevelt for most of WWII.)
John Wayne was not raised in Texas. He was actually raised in southern California, where his mother and father moved in about 1914. John Wayne did not attend university classes in Texas. He actually went to USC (gak!), where he was a football player on scholarship. He later had to drop out after he was cut from the team.
John Wayne never lived in Texas, at least not on a permanent basis. He resided there briefly during the making of the movies he filmed in Texas, but his permanent residence was still in California. In point of fact, only two of the many movies he made that were set in Texas were actually filmed in Texas. Most of them were filmed on back lots of studios in California.
So why does Texas revere John Wayne (or more to the point, why do I revere him)? Because Wayne was the quintessential Texan in ethos and demeanor. He is the ideal of many, a force that stood his ground despite opposition in Hollywood. In 2015, Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas legislature officially declared Wayne an "honorary Texan" and designated May 26 of that year as "John Wayne Day". (By contrast, in 2016 a plan to name May 26 John Wayne Day was voted down in Democrat-dominated California)
The following represents an overview of some of the movies Wayne starred in that take place in the state of Texas (though not all, less this post become unmanageable in length...)
One cannot begin such an expansive overview without touching upon the epic tribute Wayne did for the history of The Alamo (1960). The Alamo was Wayne's dream project. He spent years finagling with the studios and various inside personnel trying to get the movie financed. He famously even committed to making what is arguably his worst movie ever, The Conqueror, because he thought by doing so he could finagle some financial backing. He eventually put up a large chunk of the financing from his own pocket to get the movie done.
Wayne is not a Texan in this movie. He plays Davy Crockett who arrives with a band of Kentuckians to help defend the Alamo from the imminent attack by Generalissimo Santa Ana and his Mexican army. The film is a rousing tribute to the ideas and values that the average Texan feels toward his or her state. And, although the film is at times jingoistic, and does get a few things wrong (San Antonio is not "right here on the Rio Grande" as Sam Houston [Richard Boone] states early in the movie...the nearest point is about 150 miles away...)
The Alamo is probably the first Texas movie that comes to mind, when you think of John Wayne, but that's not the ONLY movie that has a Texas connection. Wayne worked with Howard Hawks to film Rio Bravo (1959) and its subsequent remakes, El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970). In the first two Wayne plays a sober fellow who helps a notoriously drunk friend to defend a jail against an assault by a mob of bad guys trying to get a jailed friend out of the jail. Wayne is typically the hero of these films, but shares that role with his newly sober friend, a gunslinger who sides with them and a crotchety old codger who fills the role of comic relief in some rather great scenes.
Although actually filmed in Arizona, John Ford's classic The Searchers (1956) involves Wayne, along with Jeffrey Hunter as a half-breed associate, searching for the kidnapped daughter of his best friend across parts of West Texas. This one is the one that most people consider one of the best westerns ever made, and John Wayne's best performance. To some Wayne enthusiasts, like myself, Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, is hard to like because he is a hard-bitten cynic who has no love at all for the Native American. You might say he's "racist", and I would not disagree completely, but I'm pretty sure his racism only extends to the "Indian" and not to all non-white peoples. Nevertheless, he puts an Academy Award worthy performance, which is all the more frustrating since the Academy did not nominate him for the role.
When Red River (1948) came out, John Ford, the director most people associate with Wayne, famously quipped "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act." Red River features Wayne as Tom Dunson, a man who yearns to have a cattle ranch in Texas. Wayne once again plays a hard-hearted man, and once again put in a virtuoso performance that was ignored by the Academy. Dunson's interaction with his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift in an early role, is the stuff of legend. This movie, by the way, is the only other movie besides The Alamo which was actually filmed on location in Texas.
One of my favorite John Wayne movies is Big Jake (1971) . Here Wayne is paired up with Maureen O'Hara in what was the fifth (and final) pairing of the two. O'Hara runs the McCandles ranch and her son, young "Little Jake" McCandles is kidnapped by a band of outlaws led by Richard Boone. Rather than rely on the Texas Rangers, she sends for her estranged husband, the titular "Big Jake" to come home and lead a team to go after the outlaws. Some of the greatest action sequences ever filmed in a Wayne movie appear here, and Wayne's character is the ideal I envision when I think of Wayne. Outside of El Dorado, my absolute favorite Wayne movie, this is the one I would recommend for people who have never watched a John Wayne movie (are there really such people?)
In The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), Wayne has to share the stage with his "brothers" (Dean Martin, Earl Holliman and Michael Anderson, Jr), the titular sons of a woman who really loved her sons and wanted only the best for them. Fate saw their fortunes go a bit differently as three of them grew up to be less than the saintly sons their mother expected, and with the fourth, despite the opposition of the three older brothers, seemingly on his way to follow in their footsteps., all around disappoints to their mother. The four have arrived to see to the burial of their mother (who passed away prior to the beginning of this movie). The sons go after a rancher who, through chicanery, has taken over the family ranch in Texas, and you know how that will all turn out. No one ever upstaged Wayne, in my opinion, but Martin and Holliman come damn close in this one.
The Comancheros (1961) features Wayne as a Texas Ranger who takes a custody of a Louisiana man who has run from te law after a duel in New Orleans and endeavors to return him to justice back in Louisiana. The outlaw (Stuart Whitman) escapes, but later teams up with Wayne to help battle the titular Comancheros, a band of renegades, led by Lee Marvin, who have been helping the Comanches out by supplying them with liquor and guns.Another rousing story that gives Wayne one of his best roles.
Other movies include several of Wayne's earliest work in the movies when he was cranking out westerns at, like two or three a month in the B- movie world. Such titles as Texas Cyclone (1932), THe Lucky Texan (1934), Texas Terror (1935), King of the Pecos (1936) and The Lonely Trail (1936) all came out prior to his breakthrough role in Stagecoach, all with cookie cutter story lines. These roles gave Wayne his first acting chops and, although they were all really filmed on a backlot at Hollywood studios, essentially put him in the state of Texas for purposes of the story. These early Wayne pictures are really only good for either true Wayne aficionados, or lovers of classic western potboilers, but they do entertain on their own level.
This has only been a smattering of the many movies John Wayne made, and some of the Texas themed movie I left out in the interest of brevity, but suffice to say Wayne became the icon in the heart of many Texans based on his ethos and appearance in many epic Texas themed movies. I hope you enjoyed this brief foray.