A few months ago I read a new biography of John Wayne and toyed with the idea of writing something about the films of his that I grew up watching. During this time period, cinema was undergoing tremendous change as it reflected and anticipated changing social norms, style and audience tastes.
This decade of film, a varied group, are among his best and a few misfires, but still near the top of his game. For many years, Wayne’s company produced his films under an independent production agreement with the studios. On occasion, he would hire out and work strictly as an actor, but mostly he developed his own films, chose his directors and worked with familiar actors and technicians. John Wayne stayed busy as he had at least one film in the pipeline each year, in part because he had a high overhead and needed a steady income. Ex-wives, many children, expensive habits and a huge debt from “The Alamo” that took him many years to retire, plus he desire to keep working and remain at the top of his profession.
As a filmmaker, Wayne was a professional, his productions were organized and efficient, as an actor he did his work in few takes, and he often took charge on the set and delivered instructions to his directors. The lone exception for his production efficiency was “The Alamo” which was a production nightmare and source of personal debt.
Most of the films during this period were familiar Westerns, three were war films, two were police dramas, and one as an oil well firefighter.
In Harm’s Way (1965) – Otto Preminger films were a big deal and usually got a mature notation because of the subject matter. A huge studio film with large cast it centered on the U.S. entrance into WWII and stemming the tide of Japan’s dominance in the Pacific. Shot in black and white, it contains several large-scale battle scenes including the attack on Pearl Harbor. This was the second film, separate by 20 years, where Wayne and Patricia Neal are a romantic item. The plot contains a lot of melodrama but it is a solid war film with some impressive photography.
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) – A big studio Western, directed by Henry Hathaway and produced by Hal Wallis, this had success written all over it, and it was. Along with Wayne, the cast included Dean Martin, George Kennedy, James Gregory, Earl Holliman and Dennis Hopper. Four brothers reunite for their mother’s funeral, get framed for a murder and eventually prove themselves innocent. Regarded as one of the best Westerns of the 1960s, the film’s story is based on a real family of brothers falsely accused of murder.
Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) – Uncharacteristically appearing in a supporting role, a cameo really, he plays an American General who helps the new state of Israel train an army. A major international production, Wayne appeared with an A-List of actors, in support of star Kirk Douglas. The film has its moments and tells an interesting story but it has not aged well.
El Dorado (1966) – My favorite Wayne film of the 1960s, this is a remake of “Rio Bravo,” and for my money a better film. Directed by Howard Hawks, the film has some great characters, a great pairing of Wayne and Robert Mitchum, expertly photographed and edited, first-rate music and a fine supporting cast. A gunfighter returns to help his drunken sheriff buddy keep the peace between a rancher and a greedy landowner. More than a touch of lite comedy along the way. An early film for James Caan.
The War Wagon (1967) – Another teaming of Wayne and Kirk Douglas, who play rivals in the quest to take a shipment of gold away from the crook who stole the ranch of Wayne’s character. Most of the story is the staging of the plot with the third act being the heist. The star of the film is really the war wagon and the gatling gun. Directed by Burt Kennedy, this is much better than his other Wayne film, “The Train Robbers.”
The Green Berets (1968) – This was quite a divisive film in 1968 as the Tet Offensive would occur and even Walter Cronkite would say the war was lost. This film was a personal project of Wayne who directed and produced it. Whether you support the film’s message or not it was the first film to actually deal with Vietnam and the intent was to drum up support for the effort. As a film, it is poorly written, acted and directed, but it proved to be successful at the box office. Vietnam was a different experience and this film needed stronger originality, a bit more objectivity and less clichés leftover from old war films.
Hellfighters (1968) – Okay, it does contain a lot of romantic melodrama, and received mediocre response when it was released but it was nice to see Wayne in something other than a cowboy hat or military uniform. Loosely based on Red Adair, the oil well fire fighter, it was some great action sequences. I recall seeing this film at the drive-in theater and being very impressed for an 11 year old. Directed by Wayne’s frequent collaborator, Andrew V. McLaglen, the film is populated by Wayne regular actors including Bruce Cabot.
True Grit (1969) – Of course he won an Academy Award for the portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed federal marshal. Not hiding his girth or age, Wayne fits comfortably in the role. Based on a popular book, the film took several liberties with the story and ending. The film seems a little dated but holds up with other Westerns made during the time, and makes an effort for realism. I prefer this version to the re-make.
The Undefeated (1969) – This feels like the last of his large budget, large cast films. Co-starring Rock Hudson, the film seems a little out of time, perhaps an end of an era. Forces from opposite sides of the Civil War come together in Mexico against a Mexican General. Like the big Westerns of the decade, the story takes place over a vast landscape, with a big cast of known Western actors headed toward a large battle finale. The film has some enjoyable sequences but does not add up to being more than an average film at best.
Chisum (1970) – One of my least favorite John Wayne Westerns. Loosely based on the real Lincoln County War, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidd, the film never really comes together. Very violent, there is little that is morally redeeming to balance the bad vibe. There is a great cast and competent direction but for me, the story and the characters are sub par. The story is a classic battle between large interests for control and influence, enlisting others in their fight of good verses corruption.
Rio Lobo (1970) – This film is notable for featuring a cameo by George Plimpton (getting shot) and being the last film by famed director Howard Hawks. The script was written by Leigh Brackett, who penned several of Wayne’s other films and a few classics like “The Big Sleep.” Brackett also co-wrote “The Empire Strikes Back.” The “Rio Lobo” script is unfortunately nothing special, a routine Western with a few good moments and an outstanding opening sequence where Confederate soldiers stage a train robbery by greasing the tracks.
Big Jake (1971) – For my money, the best film of this bunch. This film had a lot of violence, like his other Westerns of the period but it is much better written and balancing of character motives. The final teaming of Wayne and O’Hara, although her scenes are brief but the fire between them is still there. Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum represent the next acting generation, in addition to a fine support cast. Another turn of the century story, as films of this era tended to be. Directed by the veteran George Sherman, who had been doing Westerns since the late 1930s, the film looks good, is well staged and moves the action along. The end is too abrupt to make sense or be realistic but the first 109 minutes are exception.
The Cowboys (1972) – The story of a rancher facing the prospect of not being able to get his cattle to market, and having to resort to using a bunch of young boys to help. This is a great concept, competently directed by Mark Rydell, and with a fine supporting cast. Another film where the very senior John Wayne playing a parental role is central to the story. It is rare that John Wayne dies in a film.
The Train Robbers (1973) – This is one of John Wayne’s leaner films. The film is written and directed by Burt Kennedy and it is surprisingly dull. Now, the cast included Ann-Margret, Rod Taylor, Ben Johnson, Ricardo Montalban and Christopher George. The story is a race to find stolen gold. That’s it. See, not much to work with other than Ann-Margret in tight-fitting clothes.
Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973) – Written by the Finks, known for writing “Dirty Harry” and “Big Jake,” one of Wayne’s better late period Westerns, and directed by frequent director Andrew V. McLaglen, this has an interesting concept but not a very inspiring result. Wayne plays a Marshall whose sons participate in a robbery. This was ultimately a tale of an absent father whose sons fell in with outlaws and then regretted their actions.
McQ (1974) – The first of his two cop films that are really just contemporary Westerns. This film is known for his driving a Trans Am, which ends up crushed between two trucks, and the machine gun pistol he uses. Offered the role of “Dirty” Harry Callahan he is reported to have said the film was too violent, but as gritty urban police thrillers proved very popular, he became a agreeable to this role. A competent film, with a few outstanding moments, it was directed by veteran John Sturges (The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven).
Brannigan (1975) – Taking place in London, it bears a resemblance to “Coogan’s Bluff” of a cop in a strange place to collect a prisoner. A standard detective plot, nice London locations, an entertaining relationship to his English counterpart, and some fast driving make this a good but not great film.
Rooster Cogburn (1975) – Rarely did John Wayne play second fiddle to anyone but in this case he did for Katharine Hepburn. Reprising his role from “True Grit” as the cantankerous Marshall, he is again trailing killers with a somewhat difficult companion. This film has a certain charm although it feel very familiar and plows no new ground. If it seems like an updated version of “The African Queen” it definitely has some similar threads.
The Shootist (1976) – His last hurrah, as his health was becoming an issue and his career was coming to an end. Working with director Don Siegel and a solid cast of actors, the story matched his own end of life story. The production had great attention to historical detail in a turn of the century setting. The story has both a sweetness and sadness as you are aware of perhaps watching the great lion making his final screen appearance and his character counting down his final days. A very strong performance by Wayne and fine supporting roles by James Stewart, Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Ron Howard and Lauren Bacall.