Great American Westerns (Part 4) – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs: John Wayne II

In part 3 of this series on successful director-actor pairings, we took a look at the two early collaborations which set John Wayne on his path to stardom. Now, let’s dive into John Wayne’s work with directors Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Andrew V. McLaglen. These partnerships would yield some of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed films of John Wayne’s career.


Howard Hawks and John Wayne

Red River (1948), Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1966), Rio Lobo (1970)

Howard Hawks was one of the greatest directors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He directed hit movies for every big star over a 40-year period, including Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Monroe and of course, John Wayne.

Wayne first worked with Hawks on the film Red River which was released in the busiest year of his career, 1948, in which he also starred in two films by John Ford (including Fort Apache, the first of the “Cavalry Trilogy”) and in the sea adventure The Wake of the Red Witch. Considered one of the greatest Westerns made, Red River tells the story of the conflict between a ranch owner (John Wayne) and his adopted son (Montgomery Clift) during a 1000 mile cattle drive they undertake along the famous Chisholm Trail from their ranch in southern Texas to the town of Abilene, Kansas. This was only Clift’s second film; the strikingly handsome actor with a brooding screen persona was the perfect foil for John Wayne’s overbearing, larger-than-life character Thomas Dunson. Clift’s debut film The Search had been released just a few months earlier, for which he would receive a Best Actor nomination, the first of 4 in a 26-year career that was impacted by a horrific auto accident in 1956 and tragically cut short by an early death ten years later.

Hawks and Wayne came together more than a decade later for Rio Bravo, in which sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) must hold off a siege of his jailhouse, assisted by his drunken deputy (played by popular entertainer Dean Martin), a young gunfighter (played by teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson), a cripple (played by acclaimed character actor Walter Brennan) and a female gambler (Angie Dickinson, years before she became TV’s Police Woman). Howard Hawks was a critic of the portrayal of the sheriff in the acclaimed 1952 Western High Noon, and Rio Bravo was his and Wayne’s statement of how they felt a sheriff should act in the face of overwhelming odds.

The Hawks-Wayne collaboration yielded two more Westerns, both essentially remakes of Rio Bravo. El Dorado (1966) is a genuinely entertaining attempt, with Robert Mitchum and a young James Caan taking up the roles of John Wayne’s associates. Rio Lobo (1970), on the other hand is an embarrassment and was a commercial bomb. It was Hawks’ final film as director and frankly the only thing worth noting is that it features one of the earliest screen appearances of former math teacher and model Sherry Lansing, who would go on to become CEO of Paramount Pictures and release some of the studio’s greatest hits like Forrest Gump, Braveheart and James Cameron’s Titanic in the 90’s.

Although not a Western, Hawks and Wayne worked on one other film, one of my favorites, Hatari!. It was released in 1962 with an international cast, including Elsa Martinelli as Wayne’s romantic interest and featured Henry Mancini’s famous “Baby Elephant Walk” tune. In adjusted dollars, three of their films together, Red River, Rio Bravo and Hatari! each made about $250 million at the domestic box office and count as among the highest grossing Westerns of Wayne’s career.

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River (1948), directed by Howard Hawks

Henry Hathaway and John Wayne

North to Alaska (1960), How the West Was Won (1962), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), True Grit (1969).

By the time John Wayne appeared in a Henry Hathaway film in 1960, the director was an old hand at Westerns having kick-started his career with actor Randolph Scott in the early 30’s.

Their first partnership North to Alaska, as the name indicates, was technically a “Northern” rather than a Western, but it featured all the standard Western tropes and settings, much as the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Canada-set film The Far Country had five years earlier. This was perhaps the first John Wayne Western to embrace so much broad comedy and it proved reasonably popular and profitable. Hathaway and Wayne worked together soon after in How the West Was Won, but as I mentioned in the James Stewart section of this series, this film had three directors and pretty much every big movie star of the day, so cannot be genuinely considered a one-to-one collaboration. It remains however, the biggest grossing movie of Wayne’s career in adjusted dollars. Their third effort The Sons of Katie Elder repeated the pairing of John Wayne and Dean Martin from Rio Bravo and was a profitable release. John Singleton’s 2005 film Four Brothers starring Mark Wahlberg is a loose remake.

And so in 1969, came the crowning glory of Wayne’s career with his Oscar winning performance as the one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Honestly, I didn’t see anything in his acting that I hadn’t seen before or since and it’s generally believed that the Oscar was effectively a “lifetime achievement award” for an amazing body of work and indeed, his longevity as a top box office draw. Even Wayne was self-effacing when receiving the award and commented “Wow! If I’d known I’d have put the patch on 35 years earlier…”. Wayne appeared in a poorly received and forgettable sequel titled Rooster Cogburn in 1975, but the original film’s legacy was restored by the highly acclaimed Coen Bros. remake in 2010, with Jeff Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn.

Kim Darby and John Wayne in True Grit (1969), directed by Henry Hathaway

Andrew V. McLaglen and John Wayne

McLintock! (1963), The Undefeated (1969), Chisum (1970), Cahill United States Marshal (1973).

Andrew V. McLaglen was the son of veteran actor Victor McLaglen, who had such a memorable Oscar-nominated role in John Ford’s The Quiet Man, starring alongside John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The younger McLaglen was primarily a TV director before graduating to the big screen with the Western action-comedy McLintock! in 1963, which reunited Wayne and O’Hara for the first time since The Quiet Man. The film was quite popular and led to three more McLaglen-Wayne partnerships, but with steadily diminishing box office returns. This was not for lack of resources, as all the films were big budget affairs, featuring ensemble casts, lots of extras, lavish outdoor locales and some impressive action set-pieces. The storylines are interesting too, but somehow they are missing that special something in the execution that could have elevated them into the realm of greatness.

All the films were shot in glorious widescreen Technicolor with the first three lensed by William H. Clothier, an expert in filming Westerns, having worked on several since the late 50’s and subsequently contracted by Wayne’s Batjac Productions. His cinematography on The Undefeated in particular is striking, with spectacular scenery shot in the Sierra de Órganos National Park in Mexico and some stirring scenes involving hundreds of horses. This Civil War era Western is the only film in which John Wayne shared the screen with acting legend Rock Hudson.

In the same way that character actor Ward Bond served as an on-screen foil for Wayne in the early part of his career, actor Ben Johnson did so in some of Wayne’s later films. The former stuntman played Wayne’s #2 in both The Undefeated and Chisum. I loved the recurring gag of Johnson’s character James Pepper muttering and complaining under his breath in Chisum, his own unique expression of affection and concern for his boss! A year later, Johnson would win theBest Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as “Sam the Lion” in the small-town drama The Last Picture Show, highlighted by his poignant lake-side soliloquy which reflected the nostalgia and faded hopes of an entire generation.

By the time the McLaglen-Wayne partnership arrived at its final film in 1973, Cahill, United States Marshal, there was a distinct change in tone, perhaps influenced by Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 film The Wild Bunch. Gone was the characteristic light-hearted joviality of the typical John Wayne film and instead the film has a darker feel to it.

In addition to the four Westerns, the director and star also worked together on Hellfighters, loosely based on the life of American firefighting legend, Red Adair.

As I had mentioned in part 2, McLaglen also directed three Westerns starring James Stewart in the late 60’s, two of which were middling efforts. The director thus had the rare, but questionable privilege of working with two acting legends at the tail end of their careers, when perhaps the scripts didn’t go through the rigor that they should have been subject to, and quality was often equated to big budgets.

John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in McLintock! (1963), directed by Andrew V. McLaglen

And so, I’ve now touched upon the most prolific and notable collaborations of Golden Age of Westerns involving stars Randolph Scott, James Stewart and John Wayne. Others like Gary Cooper and Glenn Ford were equally prolific in Westerns but didn’t have any long-lasting or memorable partnerships with specific directors. There is one big Hollywood star who emerged as these legends were fading away and is indelibly linked to Westerns through a game-changing collaboration with an Italian director. He will be the focus of my fifth and concluding entry in this series next week.

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