Great American Westerns (Part 3) – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs: John Wayne I

Having covered the Western careers of Randolph Scott and James Stewart, specifically their significant partnerships with directors, it’s time to talk about the biggest cowboy of them all, John Wayne.  

During an acting career spanning half a century and more than 150 films, John Wayne’s personality and mannerisms (that distinctive walk!) came to define the American Western hero. Given his longevity and stature, it’s no surprise that Wayne worked with virtually every A-list director in Hollywood across Westerns, war films, comedies and dramas. His first role as a leading man came in Raoul Walsh’s epic western The Big Trail, which was shot on both 35mm and 70mm (one of the earliest widescreen films, decades before the format caught on), but it wasn’t until he teamed up with director John Ford in Stagecoach (1939) that he broke through. The films that these two giants made together until the early 60’s represent the high-water marks of both their careers. But of course, Wayne had equally rewarding, though less prolific partnerships with other celebrated directors. And in fact, in numerical terms he made more Westerns with directors R.N. Bradbury (13) and George Sherman (8) for Monogram and Republic Pictures in the 30’s then he did with anyone else.

George Sherman and John Wayne

Pals of the Saddle, Overland Stage Raiders, Santa Fe Stampede, Red River Range (all 1938), The Night Riders, Three Texas Steers, Wyoming Outlaw, New Frontier (all 1939), Big Jake (1971)

The Three Mesquiteers was a “Western Cinematic Universe” owned by Republic Pictures which encompassed 51 films produced between 1936 and 1943. These were B-movie “quickies”, usually 55 minutes long, and were very popular in their day. They were based on a series of Western novels by William Colt MacDonald, with stories set in the early to mid 20th century, in which the world of cowboys comes in contact with the contemporary world represented by modern technology (cars, phones, radios) and a growing bureaucracy. All the films featured a trio of good-natured cowboys as the heroes, played by a revolving door of actors. During the peak years of the series in 1938-39 when the films were directed by George Sherman, John Wayne played Stony Brooke, one of the three cowboys. The George Sherman movies are packed with light humor, drama, occasional romance and elaborately staged action scenes. The fresh-faced Wayne with his easy smile and lanky 6’4″ frame came across as a natural leader of the trio and had top billing. These films honed Wayne’s craft and set him up for greater things to come. A good example is Wyoming Outlaw, available on YouTube, which addresses the clash between the emerging laws of the land (coupled with corruption in the local government) and the traditional ways of frontier living. Raymond Hatton, who plays Rusty Joslin, another member of the trio, is a dead ringer for modern day character actor Tim Blake Nelson!

From left: Ray Corrigan (as Tucson Smith), John Wayne (as Stony Brooke) and Raymond Hatton (as Rusty Joslin) are the “Three Mesquiteers” in The Wyoming Outlaw (1939), directed by George Sherman

Sherman continued to direct films for the next three decades and was also the producer for one of John Wayne’s hit films The Comancheros in 1961. John Wayne reunited with George Sherman as director in 1971 for the final feature film of Sherman’s career, Big Jake. In the latter part his career when his name alone could get a movie into production, it was not uncommon for Wayne to ensure the inclusion of favoured cast and crew into his films on a recurring basis. And so, Big Jake featured beloved actress and Wayne’s close friend, Maureen O’Hara playing the title character’s estranged wife (a repeat of Rio Grande and McLintock!). Also on board was Wayne’s son Patrick and Christopher Mitchum (the son of star Robert Mitchum) playing Big Jake’s sons.

John Ford and John Wayne

Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), 3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961).

There’s not much to be said about this partnership that hasn’t already been written. In the late 1920’s, Wayne appeared as an un-credited extra in half a dozen silent films directed by Ford. Soon after, Ford recommended Wayne to director Raoul Walsh for his first starring role in The Big Trail. Ford eventually got to feature Wayne as a leading man in one of his own films, Stagecoach in 1939. His portrayal of the Ringo Kid captured the imagination of the paying public and Wayne never looked back. His on-screen entrance riding shotgun on a stagecoach as the camera zooms in (and briefly goes out of focus) is one of the all-time famous shots in the history of cinema.

In spite of that success, Ford and Wayne got back together again only about a decade later. They released four films in two years from 1948-50 including the “Cavalry Trilogy” – Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. These films (along with the ones Wayne did with director Howard Hawks) created the legend of John Wayne and the stereotype of the Western hero. These three are very much my favourites from the Ford-Wayne oeuvre. In Fort Apache, Wayne shares the screen with acting legends Shirley Temple and Henry Fonda, both arguably bigger household names than him at that point. Shirley Temple was 20 years old at the time and this would be among her last big screen appearances. One of my favourite character actors Ward Bond, who appears repeatedly in John Wayne films, has a significant supporting role in this one. Rio Grande paired John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara together for the first time as estranged husband and wife; they would become lifelong friends working together in another four films together, usually repeating the same relationship dynamic on-screen (O’Hara referred to herself as Wayne’s “fighting partner” in an interview). Although not a Western, it’s worth mentioning that this dynamite combination of director Ford and actors Wayne, O’Hara and Bond delivered the charming and delightful Ireland-set film The Quiet Man…it won a Best Director Oscar for John Ford and is a must-see for any John Wayne fan.

The last two films of the Ford-Wayne partnership – The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – then attempted to tear down the legend of the Western hero with a revisionist approach. After nearly 40 years of making largely formulaic Westerns, it’s understandable that Ford wanted to explore some shades of grey, perhaps even the dark underbelly of the Wild West. John Wayne plays tragic characters in both films. The Searchers is considered a seminal Western film, appearing on multiple lists of the greatest films ever made. Rather than the standard Cowboys vs. Indians narrative, the film attempted to address the issues of racial hatred and the systematic genocide of native Americans. Personally, I found this a difficult movie to watch. Teenage actress Natalie Wood, coming off her Oscar-nominated role in Rebel Without a Cause, plays the 15-year-old version of the little girl whose abduction by Comanches sets off a journey into the heart of darkness for her uncle Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). Also in a prominent role is Jeffrey Hunter, who sci-fi geeks will be familiar with as the actor who portrayed Capt. Christopher Pike in the abandoned pilot episode of Star Trek.

John Wayne in the iconic “doorway” shot from The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford

In next part of this series, I will cover John Wayne’s collaborations with Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Andrew V. McLaglen.

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