Shadow of the Shootist

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The western died with John Wayne, but his daughter-in-law is determined to reignite the genre.

John Wayne: godfather of the western. The most aggressively American movie star, the epitome of rugged individualism, is synonymous with the most classically American movie genre. It is appropriate that westerns were marginalised in US culture at around the time of Wayne’s passing. The last great old-style classic western was his swan-song The Shootist (1976), a heartbreakingly self-referential portrait of a frontier legend dying of cancer. The star and the genre grew up, grew old and died together.

There are public monuments to John Wayne in the US, but the fact that the western has not really outlived him is perhaps the greatest one of all. Westerns were displaced by cop thrillers, “road movies” and sci-fi epics such as Star Wars. Sagas celebrating mature white males conquering the West find little favour in modern America, most of whose cinemagoers are aged between 12 and 24. A few big-screen westerns have appeared in recent years ( Open Range, The Missing, a new Alamo) — but these have been expensive, superfluous stragglers in pursuit of a parade already long vanished.

Yet on television and DVD westerns are still hugely popular, and the biggest-selling personality on DVD is the man who bestrode the list of top ten movie stars for a generation. Even this year he was ranked third in a Harris poll on America’s favourite movie star, behind Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks. Not bad for a star who died 28 years ago.

Later this month, on May 26, it will be the 100th anniversary of John Wayne’s birth. Paramount Home Entertainment, in conjunction with Wayne’s own production company, Batjac, will mark the occasion by releasing special collector’s-edition DVDs of four classic Wayne movies long out of circulation and much sought by devotees of the Duke: Island in the Sky (1953), Hondo (1953), The High and the Mighty (1954) and McLintock! (1963).

The release of these four movies is timely and commercially shrewd, but it isn’t all about dollars and cents. This is the culmination of a labour of love. Michael Wayne, the star’s eldest son, was the president of Batjac from 1961 until his death, at the age of 68, in 2003. Gretchen Wayne, Michael’s wife of 45 years, assumed the presidency and devoted her energies to, in the finest Wayne fashion, “finishing the job”. Now Gretchen has fulfilled her late husband’s dream of restoring the films, which she will release with a wealth of special features from the Batjac archives. And she will appear at Cannes in May to present a digitally restored print of Hondo in 3-D.

I visited Gretchen Wayne in her home in Hollywood and at the Batjac offices in Beverly Hills. She is a dynamic, charismatic lady, elegant in appearance, warm, open and friendly in her personality. Even before she met Michael Wayne, on a blind date when he was 15 and she was just 14, she says she had already long been conscious of John Wayne. She grew up in Hollywood. Her father ran a tyre dealership and belonged to a golf club where Wayne was a member. “My father loved to go to westerns,” she says, “so he would take my sister and myself. I saw all the early John Wayne westerns.” (Her sister, Kathryn, is married to Frankie Avalon, who played Wayne’s young sidekick Smitty in The Alamo.) But what were her early impressions of the man? “He wasn’t a person who ever came into the room in a loud way. He was a very proper man — very respectful. I had an extraordinary mother-in-law [Josephine Saenz, Wayne’s first wife; they divorced in 1945]. To the credit of both of them, they kept whatever their problems were between them. She never spoke a disparaging word about the father to the children. He was always a very warm person and loved family.”

Once married into the Wayne family, Gretchen’s only problem with her father-in-law was what to call him. She wouldn’t call him “Dad”, because her own father was still alive. When he invited her to call him “Duke”, as the world did, “I agonised over this because he was ‘Mr Wayne’. That’s how I’d known him for ten years. Fortunately, when we had a baby he said, ‘I would love it if the grandchildren called me Grandaddy’ — so that’s what I called him until the day he died.”

Besides devotion to his family, Gretchen stresses another virtue that Wayne embraced with equal fervour both onscreen and off: “He had incredible loyalty to his friends. If you were his friend, you were his friend for ever. My husband had the same trait, and that’s a noble quality in a human being. He was also very generous, and he didn’t do it in a public manner. True generosity is giving of yourself or your time without any accolades. My husband did exactly the same thing.”

Wayne instilled strong values in his children, and the children absorbed them and adopted them as their own. Michael Wayne learnt the ropes of movie production before assuming control of Batjac, just as Duke Morrison had started out as a prop man before his gradual and hard-won rise to stardom.

“Grandaddy trusted Michael. He was the ‘go-to’ person for him. If he got in trouble financially, Michael would figure a way out, and Michael’s dad deferred to that judgment. Hence the fact that Michael ran and owned the company.”

Wayne was enormously proud of all his seven children, particularly of his eldest son. Yet, occasionally, the shrewd producer had to learn to keep pace with the old pro.

“On one picture,” Gretchen recalls, “as Michael told the story, the call was for 8am. They take a car out to work, and there’s this lone figure standing on the set, in his western attire. ‘Where the hell have you been?’ [he says]. ‘It’s 8am. We’ve lost an hour of shooting because the sun is up.’ First one on the set. Last one to leave. Michael said, ‘I learnt my lesson. I was up and there before he was from then on.’ ” In 1964, Wayne had famously “licked the big C”. Shortly before he succumbed to a fresh cancer in 1979, Michael convinced him of the need to protect his name and likeness legally from exploitation. Now anyone in the US (at least) who wishes to market a John Wayne product requires a licence from the family-owned Wayne Enterprises. “It was Michael’s idea,” says Gretchen, “that funds raised, with his father’s approval, would go to support cancer research; and Michael’s dad said, ‘I don’t want you to get fat on this.’ Michael gave millions to the cancer institute.”

Gretchen’s role in presiding over Batjac is clearly as much about continuing Michael Wayne’s work as that of his legendary father. But what’s next for Batjac? The holy grail for John Wayne fans would be the director’s cut of The Alamo (briefly available in the UK on VHS in 1993). The rights, however, are with United Artists (now MGM/UA), and beyond Gretchen’s control, though she says she would be happy to give them material for DVD special features.

The Alamo(1960), produced and directed by Wayne as his grand patriotic statement about American liberty, had its premiere at the dawn of the most politically contentious decade in recent US history. It was also the era in which John Wayne skyrocketed from film star to right-wing polemicist to beloved national institution. Wayne had already won his political spurs as a dedicated antiCommunist during the 1940s and 1950s, but his hawkish stance on the Vietnam War was heartfelt, controversial — and the impetus behind his second directorial effort, The Green Berets (1968), which drew almost unprecedented critical flak.

“He made that picture because he made a promise,” Gretchen explains. “He went over to visit these young soldiers at his own expense, and there was a lot of risk involved. He said, ‘I promised them I would tell their story.’ And that’s why that film got made. He was a conservative, but he thought he was a liberal in the real sense of the word: open-minded, studied the classics, listened to all ideas, then made his judgment. But he was probably fiscally conservative, socially liberal.”

The following year, the Oscar he won as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969) demonstrated the depth of affection for him, and reinforced his image as Movie America’s champion of traditional values and Manichaean certitudes.

But why, even now, is John Wayne such an enduring icon?

“They refer to that generation of men during the Forties as ‘the finest generation’,” says Gretchen. “They put everything on the line. They married their sweethearts, went off to war, kept us safe from the enemy, and we still revere them, thank God. We haven’t done the same for our other fighting men. But we revere that generation, and they were the moral compass for a lot of us today. They were the ones who set the standard. And who was emblematic of that standard? John Wayne.”

Yet that wasn’t how Wayne saw himself. “He always said to Michael, ‘People say I’m a hero. I must be a good actor! I’m not a hero.’ People identified with him. He had an honesty about him that people could connect with. He was sophisticated, but he didn’t wear sophistication on his sleeve. He had a humble quality. Women saw him as the manly man – the epitome of what manhood should be. He was respectful of women, except in The Quiet Man, but that’s the humour of it. And men — I think of the guy that went to work, doing his best to support his family, eking out his living, being honest, loving his wife, caring for his children, supporting his country: he felt he could identify with John Wayne. Because in John Wayne he saw a guy that was true to his ideals in life.

“He represents a time when we gave our word, and meant our word, on a handshake. Honesty, a certain amount of gentility, respect and obligation. He felt all of those things, and he represented that in characters he played. People look up to that. Maybe he’ll remind us of a time when people were responsible human beings, and I think we’ve lost that.”

That sentiment could have come from John Wayne himself. To millions of fans around the world, he’s Superman in a Stetson, and the fifth face on Rushmore. Does she think Wayne’s star might ever fade?

“Not in my lifetime. He lives with people in their hearts. But,” she points out, “I don’t know what my great-grandchildren would think. How many know Tom Mix? He was a big star.”

There are lots of stars, and they come and go. But as a lifelong fan, I can only respond: there’s only one John Wayne.

Michael Coyne is author of The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western (I. B. Tauris) and American Political Films (Reaktion Books). Special editions of Island in the Sky, Hondo, The High and the Mighty and McLintock!, will be available on DVD from May 14

A boy called Marion

May 26, 1907: born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa. In 1914 moves to California. Nicknamed “Duke” after his pet Airedale.

1926: on football scholarship at University of Southern California, finds work as props man at Fox.

1930: the director Raoul Walsh casts him in The Big Trail and advises a name change to John Wayne. The film is not a hit and he languishes in B-films.

1939: John Ford casts Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, launching a new star, the golden age of the western, and an enduring director-star team.

1942-45: Wayne becomes the all-American war hero — on screen — in Flying Tigers, The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan and They Were Expendable.

1948-50: Howard Hawks’s Red River catapults him to superstardom, prompting Ford to say: “Never knew that big son-of-a-bitch could act.” He stars in Ford’s Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, the first of five films with Maureen O’Hara. Oscar-nominated for Sands of Iwo Jima.

1948-51: identified with antiCommunist crusade in Hollywood, joining the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.

1956: plays racist Ethan Edwards in Ford’s The Searchers, now seen as his greatest role.

1959: stars in Rio Bravo as a riposte to High Noon (1952), which he thought “unAmerican”.

1960: directs and stars in his dream project, The Alamo, investing heavily in the $12 million epic. Critics pan it.

1962: stars in Ford’s late-career masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

1964: has surgery for lung cancer.

1968: directs The Green Berets in support of America’s role in Vietnam. Despite pickets and hostile reviews, it is a hit.

1969: plays fat, boozy, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway’s True Grit — and wins the Best Actor Oscar.

1976: in his 152nd and final film, The Shootist, he portrays a gunfighter dying of cancer.

May 1979: awarded Congressional Medal of Honour, inscribed simply: “John Wayne, American”.

June 11, 1979: dies of cancer. Buried in unmarked grave overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

– Michael Coyne, TimesOnline

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