By John H. Foote
Never say to me John Wayne could not act. Ever.
The great film historian John Milius once said, “I think John Wayne in The Searchers is the greatest performance in the history of cinema.” It certainly is one of them.
Wayne believed in planting his feet and telling the truth, that was his acting style. Like the other stalwarts of the 50s, his style changed after Brando, rooted in greater realism. He gave his finest performance in The Searchers (1956), just five years after the emergence of Brando. It was a towering piece of acting that will forever be hailed as brilliant.
“Wayne always played John Wayne” his critics claim. No, he was not. There were always small, subtle variations in his characters and when working with a talented director he trusted, he would take the risks other great actors do. He was unmistakably John Wayne because of his size, voice and mannerisms, but there were differences in each performance. Would they have him do Shakespeare? Why not let the man do what he did best? Or put Olivier on a horse in a western and see how that goes? Wayne and his directors were very aware of what he did well and his limitations as an actor.
Academy Award winner Robert Duvall had this to say: “Wayne was a hell of an actor. He understood his characters inherently and knew exactly what the director needed from him. He understood everything about cameras and lenses, but it all started with him. He did what all great actors do, he strived for the truth.”
Sadly, Wayne is becoming forgotten among today’s younger audiences. His films are rarely shown on TV anymore, though are commonly available on Blu Ray and DVD. I hope the kids give the films a chance. If there is a place today in the hearts of filmgoers for the Dude, Jeff Bridges’ lovable rogue, surely there is one for The Duke. As an actor, he certainly was among the finest when in the zone.
1. THE SEARCHERS (1956) — His greatest performance was as Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s psychotic western, where he portrayed a racist, raging warrior without a war. Finding one after Natives conduct a murder raid on his brother’s homestead, massacring the entire family and taking two daughters with them, Ethan burns with rage, storming away from the burials to begin his search. He seeks those responsible to bring back the girls and scorch the earth in the process. There are deaths, including one of the girls, the eldest found raped and murdered in a canyon. Burying her in his rebel coat Ethan rages when asked about it: “Don’t ask, long as you live, don’t ever ask me again.” For years they search, Ethan’s anger mounting, until his search partner Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) realizes Ethan is not going to bring Debbie home at all. He plans to kill her for being defiled by the Natives. They find her, a woman grown and one of the Natives now, but when face to face with her, Ethan cannot kill her. He instead lifts her high over his head as he does at the beginning of the film when she is a little girl, then sweeps her into his arms and whispers tenderly, “Let’s go home Debbie.” There have been many theories through the years as to why he could not bring himself to kill the girl. It could be in searching he found his humanity, or that seeing his last living family member alive, he could not do it. Others think that Ethan and Martha, his brother’s wife had an affair and Debbie was the result, as they obviously have deep feelings for one another. Never forget the tender kiss he gives her when he sees her after many years, or the way she holds his coat with such love. It is Martha’s name he calls first upon seeing the homestead smoldering. Maybe. Upon returning Debbie home, Ethan watches as all the others go in the house, but he remains outside, framed in the doorway. And then he turns and walks away, forever the wanderer, forever on the outside. More like the Natives than he knows. Watching Wayne’s towering performance in The Searchers I cannot understand how anyone could suggest Wayne was not a great actor. Limited, for sure, but in his element, in westerns and roles like this he was astonishing. He deserved to win that first Oscar for The Searchers, and just about every film historian will tell you that.
2. THE SHOOTIST (1976) — The most difficult role of Wayne’s career was his last one, as he portrays J.B. Books, a gunfighter in 1901 who learns he is dying of cancer. Back then, there was no hope if you had cancer; you were doomed. He comes to town to see a doctor he once knew, portrayed with folksy warmth by James Stewart to get a second opinion and is told the same thing: he has advanced-stage cancer, and very little time to live. Books decides to stay in the town for the time he has left and takes a room in a boarding house run by a widow, Mrs. Rogers (Lauren Bacall). Her son Gillom (Ron Howard) discovers who Books is and it is not long before the entire town is aware of the gunfighter’s presence. Men come to kill him, wanting to become famous for doing so and he kills them all in Mrs. Roger’s home, terrifying her. When she asks him to leave, he tells her the truth and she permits him to stay. In fact, she will take care of him as the cancer advances. “I’m a dying man, afraid of the dark” he confesses, showing uncommon vulnerability for the character Wayne was portraying, but perhaps a glimpse into himself too. In the end, Books decides not to die screaming in agony, but challenges three sharpshooters and at least two bad guys to a dual, three on one in the local saloon. Witnessed by Gillom, Books guns them all down, but is mortally wounded when the sneaky barkeep shoots him in the back. Gillom kills the man, then staring into the dying eyes of Books, throws away the weapon, earning a nod of approval from the dying man. Wayne gave the most elegant performance of his career here as Books, and the scenes with Bacall are lovely, with their late-life romance. I am not sure Bacall was ever better. Sadly, Paramount dropped the ball on releasing the film, turning it into a summer entertainment when it deserved an awards release in the fall. I saw it at a drive in…A DRIVE IN! Wayne absolutely should have earned a Best Actor nomination as it was among his finest performances and easily among the very best of the year. Deeply melancholy and forever haunting.
3. TRUE GRIT (1969) — The scene. He rides into a meadow, and four riders are at the other end of the field, four dangerous criminals who will not think twice about killing him. He could ride away, he could let them pass this day, but instead he twirls and cocks his rifle and like a jaunty old knight moves forward to do battle, as though they were jousting. Trading insults, he is attacked for being “a one-eyed fatman” and looks with menace at his enemy. He takes the reins in his teeth, yells “Fill your hand you son of a bitch!” and with a weapon in each hand, charges directly at them. Gauntlet thrown, they charge right back at him. That moment defined the character, Rooster Cogburn who we have been told over and over is fearless, and indeed he is. He survives the fight with the four men, finds his young charge, kills a rattlesnake but not before it bites her. The 14-year-old girl now faces death unless Rooster can get to help. He drains the wound as best he can, throws her on a horse, rides hellbent across the countryside, eventually killing the horse, at which point he picks her up and carries her until he finds a wagon to steal, er, borrow. And he saves her. Rooster was a role Wayne was born to play, a heroic old rascal who drank too much, misbehaved and was quick to pull the trigger. In his portrayal of Rooster he brought to the role a mythic sense of heroism and wonder. And he won his long overdue Academy Award for Best Actor. And no one complained. I think they knew it was 20 years overdue.
4. RED RIVER (1948) — Howard Hawks’ superb black-and-white western plays like a Mutiny on the Bounty on the cattle trail. Thomas Dunson (Wayne) has amassed a massive herd of beef cattle that he plans to drive to the towns along the Chisholm Trail. Dunson had adopted a son, and now grown, he works for his father and is to a lesser degree his partner. Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) admires and respects Dunson but disapproves of his vicious treatment of the men. When his father is going to hang a man for an infraction, Matt rebels and takes control of the herd, leaving Dunson in the wilderness with nothing. With nothing but his burning thirst of revenge, he storms across the wilderness in pursuit of Matt, with murder on the mind. Wayne’s portrayal of single-minded fury is unsettling; he is a frightening sight to behold. He catches up, of course he does, and begins to beat on Matt who takes the vicious beating until he has had enough and fights back. That courage is what Dunson had been hoping he would see. Though the ending is a contrived studio conclusion, it works, the men come back together, Matt becomes a true partner, his name included on the brand, and they emerge father and son. Wayne was a towering figure in the film, menacing, dangerous and commanding respect in each scene. Clift holds his own, but the film belongs to Wayne, and Hawks knew it. No Oscar nomination, shame on the Academy.
5. RIO BRAVO (1959) — This has been described as the ultimate John Wayne performance. A strong, honest law-abiding man who will not back down from trouble, in this case possible death. He surrounds himself with misfits, who always come through for him because he believes in them. There are those in Hollywood who insist Wayne and director Howard Hawks made this film when they became appalled with High Noon (1952), Wayne stating, “No town Marshall would do as Gary Cooper did—run for help.” Though he and Cooper were friends, Wayne did not care for the film. When the chance to make Rio Bravo came across his desk, he leaped at it, loving the role of John T. Chance. This is the ultimate western entertainment. When word that a bad guy’s crew is coming to spring him from the jail Chance has locked him in, the Marshall prepares for their arrival. Surrounding him are Dude (Dean Martin), a good shot but hopeless drunk, the Kid (Ricky Nelson), a lightning-fast draw, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a kooky old timer with no teeth and a penchant for using dynamite when he needs it. Together they face down the villains, each rising above themselves. Angie Dickinson is along for a love interest for Wayne, though emphasis is more on the action and inevitable shoot out. Stoic, a hero straight through, it is the favourite western of Quentin Tarantino. If that means anything.
6. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949) — Right after Red River, John Ford asked his friend to portray Nathan Brittles in this sprawling western shot in Technicolor. Wayne leaped at the chance to work with Ford, despite the director’s habit of trying to humiliate the actor. Wayne loved Ford, felt he owed his career to the man, and therefore took the abuse. On the screen the results were always a triumph. In this film, in the aftermath of the massacre at Little Big Horn where Custer ordered his men into certain death, Brittles (Wayne) is nearing retirement but given one last assignment, well two actually. He is ordered to broker peace between a group of Natives, and then asked to escort an aunt with her niece to a local fort. He and the niece, Olivia, fall in love, and marriage becomes his retirement. The film has a lovely autumnal feel to it, and Wayne is wonderful, believing his Oscar nomination for Sands of Iwo Jima that year, should have come for this film as it is the better performance. No argument here.
7. THE QUIET MAN (1952) — As boxer Sean Thornton, returning to the home of his ancestors in Ireland after killing a man in the ring, Wayne gave one of his best performances in one of his most popular films. A love story, with his screen partner of many films, Maureen O’Hara, sparks fly at their first meeting and every scene after. She adores him, and he her, but the question of dowry threatens to ruin their love when Thornton clashes with her brother, long the big man around town, but who might have met his match with Thornton. You can feel the tension building, and when Wayne finally returns his bride to her brother, the donnybrook everyone has waited for is unleashed. Not even Mary Kate (O’Hara) can hide her smile while watching her brother and husband beating the hell out of each other. They return to Sean’s home, drunk, arms around each other, forever friends who now respect one another, and all is well with their marriage. Beautifully filmed by John Ford, who won his fourth Oscar for direction, none of the actors were nominated which seems to me a terrible oversight from the Academy. Wayne, O’Hara, tiny Barry Fitzgerald were all deserving of nominations.
8. (tie) -THE COWBOYS (1972) — Wayne dies partway through this western (is it a spoiler 50 years after the fact?), gunned down, shot in the back by Long Hair (Bruce Dern) who bullies and terrifies the boys that Wayne’s character has hired to drive the herd? In what amounted to more of a supporting role than a lead, Wayne plays a gruff rancher who cannot find good honest men to drive his cattle for him, so ends up hiring teenagers and boys to do the job. One of the men he turns down is Long Hair, who Wayne just does not trust. Turns out with good reason. Wayne beats him within an inch of his life and as he walks away, he is shot in the back, and then shot again, dead. The boys, inspired by their leader, take the herd back from Long Hair and he meets his doom. It is a testament to Wayne’s large looming presence that he hangs over the film long after his last scene.
8. (tie) – ROOSTER COGBURN (1975) — The reason, THE SINGLE REASON, this film is on the list is the lovely performances of Wayne and Katherine Hepburn in their only screen outing together, and the luminous chemistry they generated. Returning to his character Rooster Cogburn, the fearless one-eyed Marshall, the role for which Wayne won his only Academy Award, this film is sort of a remake of The African Queen (1951). It’s a bit of a mess but the two leading legends carry the film. A preacher’s sister watches her brother shot dead and their mission destroyed; she meets Cogburn who decides to take her to safety. Unknown to him, they are the targets of a vicious gang who hate Rooster and want him dead. With Miss Goodnight (Hepburn) urging him on, they fearlessly move on until they appear trapped on a river, only to have Rooster rise and do what he does best, shoot people. There is a gentle suggestion of something more between them, of a someday that will never come. Wayne got Hepburn’s stamp of approval as an actor, no small feat. She claimed to love every second she spent with him. The two are superb in a dreadfully written and directed mess, one of those rare times the acting elevates the film in every way.
9. SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949) — As the tough talking sergeant in this enormously popular war film, it is his job to get the men ready for war. Tough, uncompromising but fair, Stryker (Wayne) is the ultimate marine, filled with patriotism and courage. The men feel safe under his watch, and so they should as he is a magnificent warrior. Wayne nabbed his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for this, though his performance the same year in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was stronger, and certainly deeper. Though he would give better performances through his career, this remained one of his most popular roles and films among his fans. This became the template for all tough military trainers to follow, but none were quite as heroic as Stryker, killed lighting a cigarette with his men.
10. THE ALAMO (1960) — Of the many actors to portray the frontier legend Davey Crockett, Wayne might have been the only one at the right age when he did. Crockett was in his 50s by the time he landed at the Alamo to help Texas fight for their freedom. When John Wayne announced cameras would finally role on his dream project, he appointed himself director, having learned from the greats John Ford and Howard Hawks. The studio executives insisted he portray Crockett, needing box office re-assurance for what turned into a very expensive undertaking. The results were mixed. Wayne and the cast were excellent, delivering powerful and honest performances in the huge sprawling film about the 10-day fight between 180 Texans fighting five thousand soldiers of the Mexican army commanded by General Santa Anna. For 10 incredible days, the Texans held them off, until finally losing the fight. The Mexican General was so impressed, so moved with their valor and immense courage, he granted Texas their independence. Wayne gives a commanding performance as Crockett, surrounded by Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie and Laurence Harvey as Colonel Travis. It takes a long time to get to the fighting, but the war scenes are superb. Wayne helps make the wait worth it.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.