The ‘50s saw Wayne make some of his greatest films but it also marked his ultimate low as an actor; in fact 1956 alone would see him show how good he could be in the right part and also how bad in the wrong one. On 21 February The Conqueror was released on an unsuspecting public, with John Wayne hopelessly miscast as Genghis Khan. Less than one month later on 13 March he was seen in arguably his finest film (and his own personal favourite role) as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.
During the decade he would be seen at sea (Operation Pacific, The Sea Chase, Blood Alley) and in the air (Flying Leathernecks, Island in the Sky, The High and the Mighty, Jet Pilot), and as far afield as the Sahara desert in Legend of the Lost and Japan in The Barbarian and the Geisha. Most of them are still enjoyable today although some have dated worse than others. It’s hard to take The High and the Mighty (the film that provided the blueprint for the disaster movies of the ‘70s) seriously after Airplane, particularly as both star Robert Stack.
But, with one exception, it was the western that provided him with his most memorable characters in the ‘50s.
Rio Grande (1950)
The final part of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande was only made to help finance Ford’s dream project, The Quiet Man. Given that fact it’s hardly surprising that this is the weakest of the three films, yet it’s still a classic in its own right and arguably the most fun of the trilogy.
The films are always referred to as Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” and yet they are not really connected. They do have some things in common though. In Fort Apache, Wayne played Captain Kirby York, while here he plays Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke and in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ben Johnson played Sergeant Tyree and Victor McLaglen Top Sergeant Quincannon; in Rio Grande they have the same names but lower ranks.
So, while the films never reference each other, the ranks would lead one to assume that the chronological order is Fort Apache, Rio Grande, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Watched in that sequence the films act as snapshots of the military career of Wayne’s character. For, although in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon he’s called Nathan Brittles as opposed to York(e), they are essentially the same man, career soldiers as married to the cavalry as they are to their women.
The film itself is less tightly plotted than its predecessors. Yorke’s relationship with his estranged wife, his son’s enlistment in the cavalry and posting to the outpost where Yorke is in command, Trooper Tyree being hunted by the law and of course plenty of Indian fighting are all covered and yet the film never feels rushed. James Kevin McGuinness' script balances romance, comedy, and action perfectly, giving all the characters something to do yet the emphasis is on Yorke, a man torn between his family and his career.
Paired with Maureen O'Hara for the first time, Wayne is clearly enjoying himself; the onscreen chemistry between the two is a joy and the film acted as a dry run for The Quiet Man. Wayne finally seems comfortable as a romantic lead with O’Hara the perfect co-star for him. They would make a total of five films together, three of them with John Ford.
The supporting cast is made up of Ford regulars (McLaglen, Carey Jr., and Johnson) along with veteran actors Chill Wills and J. Carroll Naish. Ben Johnson again shines and it seems like Ford was grooming him for stardom, having cast him in the lead of the same year's Wagon Master but a falling out on the set resulted in Ford not working with the actor again until 1964 when he gave Johnson a small role in Cheyenne Autumn, the director's final western. Johnson, like Henry Fonda before him, learned that on a Ford set Ford was God and you do not question God.
The part of York’s son went to Claude Jarman Jr., an actor best known for The Yearling. Here he’s at that difficult point in a child actor's career where they are trying to establish themselves in more adult roles. Unfortunately for Jarman he’s overshadowed by his two trooper buddies in the film, played by Johnson and Carey, and within six years his movie career was over.
Rio Grande may not be as notable as its two predecessors but it’s a fun film full of memorable sequences. The Roman riding scene is a standout, with (at least according to Carey) the actors doing their own riding. Less visually stunning than Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, it’s still a good-looking film and ranks as one of Wayne’s best of the ‘50s.
The Quiet Man (1952)
If She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was Ford’s love letter to the US Cavalry then The Quiet Man fulfilled the same purpose for his spiritual home, Ireland. While Ford was born on US soil both his parents were from Ireland and it was clearly a place he felt great affection for.
The Ireland of The Quiet Man, though, is no more the real Ireland than She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is the real west. Both are romanticised visions, less about what was real and more about what should have been.
Wayne plays an ex-boxer, Sean Thornton, who’s retired to Ireland to get away from his past. While there he meets and falls in love with a beautiful redheaded Irish woman (Maureen O'Hara) but her brother (Victor McLaglen) and tradition stand between them. It’s the simplest of stories but features some of the most colourful characters ever seen in a motion picture.
Watched in today’s politically correct times, the film could be considered offensive, with its stereotypical depiction of the Irish as drunken brawlers and its seemingly condoning a spot of wife beating just a couple of examples. Anyone who wants to argue that corner though really needs to get a life; this is a light-hearted romantic comedy that, while certainly a product of its times, hasn’t lost it power to entertain.
Wayne and O’Hara are at the peak of their onscreen relationship here. Whether comic or romantic, their scenes together are perfectly played. The parts required a lot of physical acting and it’s something both actors excelled at; O’Hara in particular must have come home bruised after many a day's shooting.
Good as Wayne and O’Hara are, it’s the supporting cast that really makes this worthy of its classic status. Arthur Shields and Ward Bond as two clergymen, one Catholic, the other Protestant , and Victor McLaglen as O’Hara’s domineering brother, all add to the film's sense of fun. But it’s little Barry Fitzgerald who steals the show as Michaleen Oge Flynn, the man who has to act as chaperone for the film's romantic couple. Almost every line he speaks is comedy gold but my personal favourite has always been: “Is this a courting or a donnybrook? Have the good manners not to hit the man until he's your husband and entitled to hit you back.” Of course it’s not just the line but the way it’s delivered that makes it work and the master scene stealer plays it pitch perfect.
Frank S. Nugent’s script provides the material for all these actors to shine, and it's not just a funny script, it’s an intelligent funny script. Nugent made several films with Ford, including The Searchers, but this may be his crowning achievement.
Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, who did such a great job of bringing Ford’s vision of the west to the screen in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, here captures the director's idyllic vision of the Emerald Isle and that vision is further enhanced by Victor Young’s score which captures the film's spirit perfectly.
This may not be Ford’s best film but it is his most perfectly realised and heartfelt. It’s both ironic and fitting that a film that had so much trouble finding financial backing should end up winning the director the last of his Oscars.
Not so much a classic as a personal favourite, although it’s a damn fine western by any standards.
Based on the Louis L’Amour novel, it tells the story of an army scout named Hondo and the woman and child he finds alone on a ranch in the heart of Indian country. Hondo had an Indian “wife” but she died and since then he’s been close to no one, not even Sam, his canine companion. He comes to care for the woman and her son, treating them like a surrogate family.
The film highlights what a good physical actor Wayne was; at one point he’s shoeing a horse and he seems perfectly at home with the blacksmith's tools, going about the business at hand while delivering his lines. He makes the scene look natural and the playing of it easy and it’s that ease that led people to believe he wasn’t a great actor. He had originally only planned to produce the film, with Glen Ford the intended star. The part would have suited Ford well but I doubt he’d have been better than Wayne.
Geraldine Page was Oscar nominated for her role as the lonely frontier woman although Wayne reportedly didn’t get on well with her. Duke regulars Ward Bond and James Arness are on hand as a couple of army scouts and Michael Pate shows a more human side to the Indians as Apache Chief Vittorio. In fact the film, like Fort Apache and to a lesser extent She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, is sympathetic to the Indians' plight, with Hondo, himself part Indian, having a fondness for their way of life.
The film's best performance, however, comes from the four-legged member of the cast. Sam the dog was either played by or related to the dog that played Lassie (I can’t find confirmation one way or the other) but Sam is a million miles away from that canine hero, even sporting an ugly looking scar. As Wayne says at one point “That dog don't take to pettin', son” and the animal is as fiercely independent as his human traveling companion (the dog doesn’t have an “owner”). Interesting fact – Wayne, so the story goes, won the dog in a drunken poker game after the film wrapped only to give it back the next day.
Fourteen years after the film, Wayne produced a TV series based on the same story with Ralph Taeger taking on the part of Hondo. The series only lasted one season but I’ve always had fond memories of it. Wayne’s Hondo was the first though, and arguably the best.
The Searchers (1956)
The search for a white girl kidnapped by Indians would seem the sort of heroic story perfectly suited to Wayne’s all-American hero persona, yet the character he brings to the screen is the most complex of his career. The Searchers is, for me, the finest film ever made. Why? That’s a hard one to put down in words but I’ll give it a try.
It's a stunningly beautiful film to look at. All of Ford’s westerns are visually breathtaking, even when let down by other elements, but this one captures the untamed beauty of the west better than any other. Its vast open spaces are both a thing of wonder and an alien landscape filled with potential danger. It also has a script that walks the fine line of sentimentality but never strays the wrong side of it. There are comic moments that can turn dark in the blink of an eye (Wayne having a laugh at the newly ‘married’ Jeffrey Hunter’s expense until he realises his ’squaw’ wife may know where Debbie is.)
If there’s one single reason this is my all time favourite film though, it’s down to John Wayne. My Dad was a Duke fanatic, and I’ve been watching Wayne films since I was a little kid. The Alamo used to upset me as a child. No not because of the speeches, but because Wayne ‘died.’ He wasn’t supposed to die, he was indestructible, like Superman. When I first saw The Shootist, after he died, I had a tear in my eye. However it was The Searchers that had the most profound effect on me, not because he died, but because he was so damn mean.
Here was an anti-hero before there were such things. Ethan Edwards is not a good man and Wayne showed a darkness he’d only previously tapped in Red River. He’s a racist, a cold-blooded killer, a man who’s as vicious and savage as any Indian. But for all his brutality Edwards is a “real” character shaped by experience, a man whose hard life has made him a cold, hard man.
This is without doubt Wayne’s finest performance, he’s not just playing himself, as he was often accused of, and even said himself on occasion. He’s inhabiting the skin of another person in the same way as Brando or De Niro are acclaimed for and it’s a performance that deserves to be compared to the best.
Eastwood’s Dollars character sprang from Ethan Edwards, and he’d have felt at home with The Wild Bunch’s Pike Bishop. Wayne may not have liked those characters and the films they appeared in, but the character he created would have recognised kindred spirits. And, while he disturbed me as a boy (has anyone ever had scarier eyes than Duke in this?), as an adult I understand what made him the way he was. The little nuances that a child would miss, hints that he was in love with his brother's wife and it was this that led to his self-imposed exile seem obvious to me know.
The climax may seem like a cop-out to some (and was the biggest change from the novel) but it at least provides some hope for Edwards’ redemption. As the credits roll he is still an outsider facing an uncertain future alone once more, and how (or if) he’s been changed by the film's events is up to the individual viewer to decide.
Rio Bravo (1959)
Even though he accepted Gary Cooper’s Oscar for High Noon on behalf of the absent star, he was not a fan of the film and considered it un-American. Seven years later he got to tell the lone (well, almost) lawman facing insurmountable odds story the way he thought it should be told. Director Hawks felt the same way as Wayne about High Noon and this shared outlook no doubt helped the film.
Wayne plays John T. Chance, a small-town sheriff who finds himself at odds with a powerful rancher when he arrests his brother for murder. Holed up in the jail awaiting the arrival of the marshal, Chance must fend off the rancher’s hired guns with only a drunk, an old cripple, and a young gunslinger for help.
There are three things that make Rio Bravo a western classic – its cast, its script, and its director. Dean Martin plays the drunk, typecasting you may think, but this is no comedy drunk. Dude was once a respected gunman until a woman (it’s always a woman) led him to seek solace in the bottle and it’s the characters struggle to regain his sense of self-worth that provides much of the film's emotional core, its heart and soul. It’s probably Martin’s finest performance and shows that he really could act when given a role that required it, he just got too few of them.
Walter Brennan made a career playing the aging sidekick but Stumpy is probably his finest rendition of the archetype. In much the same way that Groot in Red River is a go-between for Dunson and Garth, Stumpy helps reconcile Chance and Dude. Also like Red River he provides much of the film's humour and there are some very funny moments for the veteran actor to milk.
The weak link is Ricky Nelson. Obviously intended to give the film more appeal to a younger audience, he’s inhibited by the fact that he really isn’t a very good actor, in fact mediocre is perhaps being charitable. He’s most at home in the scene with Martin where the two sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” but he doesn’t come close to spoiling the film.
Providing the love interest for Wayne is Angie Dickinson and the age difference (Wayne was 51 and Angie only 26) may make the relationship a little unbelievable. There is no denying that Dickinson had star quality and she’s never overshadowed by Wayne.
Jules Furthman was a screenwriter who’d got his start in Hollywood in 1915. Over the years he’d scripted such memorable movies as Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Big Sleep (1946). He also scripted the John Wayne film Jet Pilot but the less said about that the better. Rio Bravo was his final film and possibly his greatest. He mixes drama and comedy in such a way that the action scenes have a greater poignancy. We believe in his characters and most importantly we like them, thus when they are put in jeopardy we are more emotionally involved; it’s a lesson many of today’s writers would do well to learn.
Furthman may have scripted some excellent films but when it comes to career highlights few have more than Howard Hawks. He could turn his hand to almost any genre and produce a classic. You want comedy? Try Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Thrillers more to your taste? To Have and Have Not or The Big Sleep. And, while he wasn’t credited as the director, his influence of horror classic The Thing from Another World is undeniable. Rio Bravo wasn’t his only western masterpiece; he’d already made the epic Red River with Wayne and the pair would later reunite for El Dorado, virtually a remake of Rio Bravo.
By this point in his career, in his mid-sixties, his output had slowed down but his mastery of film hadn’t left him. Just watch how he builds tension as the film edges nearer its action-packed climax or marvel as he takes a musical interlude that should feel out of place and makes it one of the film's highlights. Much has often been made of Martin Scorsese being the greatest director never to win an Oscar (a debate The Departed finally put an end to) but for me Hawks has always been the most underappreciated director, nominated only once (for Sergeant York) and receiving an Honorary Award in 1975, two years before his death. Westerns were also often overlooked by the academy but it’s fair to say that Rio Bravo would have been a worthy winner and has stood the test of time to become one of the all time greats of the genre.