Home / John Wayne Centenary: The ’60s – The Alamo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, El Dorado, The War Wagon, and True Grit

John Wayne Centenary: The ’60s – The Alamo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, El Dorado, The War Wagon, and True Grit

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The ‘60s was the decade of the all-star epic and Wayne appeared in three. The Longest Day (1962) saw him winning WWII again, this time as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, with the film recreating the D-Day landings. In How the West Was Won (1962) he was General William Tecumseh Sherman, a part he’d previously played two years earlier when he made a rare TV appearance on Wagon Train. “Truly, this man was the son of God” was his contribution to The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) a film that saw him hopelessly miscast as the Roman Centurion at Christ’s crucifixion.

It was also the decade that marked the final Wayne/Ford teaming, Donovan’s Reef (1963). It’s the weakest of their films together, falling way short of classic status. But it’s still a film that a real Wayne fan can enjoy (perhaps only a real Wayne fan); it’s just a shame they couldn’t have finished with a movie that could stand comparison with The Searchers or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Wayne also worked with Howard Hawks again on the fun African adventure film Hatari! (1962) and on the semi-remake of Rio Bravo, El Dorado (1966). Three other directors would have a big impact on his films in the ‘60s, Henry Hathaway, Andrew V. McLaglen, and Wayne himself.

The Alamo (1960)

The Alamo was Wayne’s dream project and a film he felt so strongly about that he invested a lot of his own money in it. It was also the film that marked his directorial debut.

alamoThis epic recreation of the most famous battle in the fight for Texas independence is a deeply flawed film. There are too many speeches — even when the characters aren’t actually giving speeches, just making conversation, they often come across as pompous. It’s this preachy atmosphere that puts many off and gets the film a lot of negative reviews. If you can get past that, however, there is plenty to enjoy here.

The performances, when not inhibited by the script's heavy-handedness, are good. Wayne makes a convincing Davy Crockett, easygoing, outspoken, and charismatic; it’s easy to see why men would follow him into battle. As Jim Bowie, Richard Widmark is a more reluctant leader, one who is fighting for his home, not just an ideal.

Laurence Harvey, as the straight-laced William Travis, gives a performance I’ve come to appreciate more as I’ve gotten older. Watching as a boy, he seemed far too stiff and, frankly, dull. But now I find he’s actually the most complex character of the three leads and Harvey’s is in some ways the most interesting performance. Crockett is fighting for a dream, Bowie for his home, but what motivates Travis? Is it blind devotion to duty? Self-serving ambition? Or a belief that what they are doing is simply the right thing to do? There is a touch of all of these and more in Harvey’s Travis.

The sheer spectacle of the film is another thing in its favour. The battle scenes are BIG, it’s the sort of thing that today they’d use computers for, creating little pixel people and big CGI explosions, but this is done the old fashioned way, with scores of extras in costume as Mexican troops and special effects crews blowing things up. It’s the closest the western came to historical epics like Spartacus (1960) or El Cid (1961).

But the film's biggest plus isn’t even something that you can see. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is one of the all-time classics, generating far more emotion than all the film's speeches put together. The music received an Oscar nomination (one of the film's seven, although it only won one) and perhaps deserved to win; I’d certainly put it above Exodus (the winner that year).

Most first time directors start small but this is John Wayne and he didn’t do anything by halves. He does a decent job behind the camera; there is nothing visually striking about the film other than its scope but it is solidly made. Its main fault lies in the script and in Wayne’s need to bludgeon the viewer with his own ideals. There is nothing wrong with a filmmaker using a film to present their point of view but it should be done subtly and that isn’t a word you’d use to describe John Wayne or The Alamo.

The film was a financial disaster that cost Wayne dearly. Did he learn from his mistake? Not really; his next film as director was The Green Berets (1968) with Duke using the film as a soapbox for his feelings about Viet Nam.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

liberty valanceNow this would have made a more fitting finale for the Wayne/Ford team but instead it’s their penultimate outing. The film charts the rise of Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and how a perceived heroic act (the shooting of the title) affects him and those around him. It’s a film that makes the viewer question the importance and accuracy of what we perceive as historical fact.

The panoramic vistas of The Searchers or the Cavalry Trilogy are absent here, with most of the film shot on the studio lot, but Ford still manages to dazzle the viewer. The gunfight between Valance and Stoddard is expertly staged, with Ford showing two differing points of view that show how easy history can be wrong. The film is shot in black and white, possibly due to Paramount cost cutting, and this along with the use of sound stages instead of location shooting (more studio penny-pinching) gives the film a retro look that sets it apart from other western films made in the ‘60s.

The performances are brilliant, with Stewart adding greater depth to his standard nice guy persona and Wayne close to Red River/The Searchers meanness, yet his Tom Doniphon is also a man capable of heroism even at great personal loss to himself. Lee Marvin, still some years away from stardom, gives us a memorable display of sneering villainy as the swaggering Valance.

With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford showed he didn’t need the panoramic vistas of Monument Valley to make a great western; all he needed was a good story and talented actors and in Wayne and Stewart he had that and more.

McLintock! (1963)

The ‘60s saw the comedy western genre really come into its own –  The Hallelujah Trail  (1965), Cat Ballou (1965), The Scalphunters (1968) and Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), to name just a few. North to Alaska (1960) was John Wayne’s first comedy western but he topped it three years later with McLintock!, one of the subgenres finest.

mclintockThe film pairs Wayne with Maureen O'Hara once again with the couple's stormy marriage the core of the film. As well as his wife, George Washington McLintock (Wayne) must also contend with his spoiled, citified daughter and a scheme to steal land from the local Indians.

But this isn’t really a film concerned about plot; it’s about fun, not just for the viewer but for the cast as well. Surrounded by family (Patrick Wayne co-stars, while eldest son Michael produces) and old friends like O’Hara, Chill Wills, and Bruce Cabot, Duke is having a ball and that translates to lots of laughs for the viewer, with the actor displaying superb comic timing.

Andrew V. McLaglen directed Wayne in five films but this, their first, is by far the best. McLaglen doesn’t need to do much, just make sure he has his camera pointed in the right direction to capture the fun but he does it well. He may have learned his craft from John Ford but there are some things that can’t be taught and his films have none of the poetry of Ford; they are workmanlike, solid but unexceptionally made, with his best films elevated by great scripts or performances, and it’s the performances that make McLintock! such a treat.

Not the greatest western ever made but definitely one of the best comedy westerns, this ranks alongside The Quiet Man as the most unashamedly fun movie Wayne ever made.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

The ‘60s was Wayne’s decade for making fun films, even when not out-and-out comedies like McLintock! his westerns, with the exception of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, had a easy going sense of fun that is hard not to like.

This tale of four brothers looking to avenge their father's murder is an action-packed ride from start to finish. With thirty-odd years separating Wayne and youngest “brother” Michael Anderson Jr. this doesn’t win any awards for believability, but the banter between Katie Elder’s offspring and the sense of camaraderie between the actors allows the viewer to put logic aside.

Wayne and Dean Martin are the eldest of the Elders (pun intended) and the stars of the film. Playing the sort of tough but good-humoured character that typified many of his films over the ‘60s and ‘70s, Wayne isn’t stretched at all as John Elder. It’s the sort of performance that came easily to him, so much so that he hardly seems to be acting at all.

katie elderDean Martin, reunited with Duke after the success of Rio Bravo, plays professional gambler Tom Elder. Like Wayne, his acting muscles don’t get much of a workout and he breezes through on star charisma and charm alone. His standout moment is the glass eye scene, a piece of showmanship that never fails to make me chuckle.

As the other two brothers Matt and Bud, Earl Holliman is solid but unexceptional and if Michael Anderson Jr. overacts at times, such exuberance is easy to understand when playing opposite stars like Wayne and Martin.

James Gregory is the brothers' nemesis Morgan Hastings and he’s a cunning and intelligent bad guy, hiring a gunman but not afraid to get his own hands dirty. As the hired gun, George Kennedy is a suitable imposing physical challenge to Wayne although he’s far better used in Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973).

Also worthy of mention are a young Dennis Hopper, convincing as Hastings sniveling son and Paul Fix as Sheriff Billy Wilson, a part not a million miles away from Marshal Micah Torrance, the role he played in the successful Rifleman TV series. Fix was probably the actor who worked with Wayne the most, with the pair making 27 films together between 1931 and 1973. He played everything from an explosives expert in Tycoon (1947) to a Chinese elder in Blood Alley (1955) but the easy going sheriff he portrays here suited him the best.

Directed with assurance by Henry Hathaway and with a rousing score by Elmer Bernstein, this is a feel good western that sets out with one purpose in mind – to entertain – and it does that in spades.

El Dorado (1966)

Wayne re-teamed with Howard Hawks for this quasi-remake of Rio Bravo that has him playing a gunfighter who allies himself with a drunken lawman (Robert Mitchum) against a powerful local rancher. So which is the better film?

As the drunken sheriff, Robert Mitchum is superb but is he better that Dean Martin in Rio Bravo? It’s an impossible choice — Mitchum’s drunk is played more for laughs than the emotional wreck that Martin portrayed and it just serves to emphasise El Dorado’s lighter tone.

el doradoA young James Caan fills the Ricky Nelson role and his Mississippi is a cooler, funnier, and much more interesting character than Nelson’s Colorado. Caan, even at this early stage in his career, is a real actor (unlike Nelson) and while he has no hope of stealing the film from pros like Wayne and Mitchum, he holds his own.

Arthur Hunnicutt was a great character actor and Bull Harris is one of his best creations but he’s filling the role originally played by the master. Walter Brennan is the man when it comes to grumpy old sidekicks with a heart of pure gold and Stumpy in Rio Bravo is the pinnacle of that archetype. So, good though Hunnicutt is, when you’re up against the best all you can hope for is second place.

The romantic interest for Wayne is provided by Charlene Holt, whose biggest claim to fame (apart from somehow wangling a part in this western classic) was being crowned "Miss Maryland" in 1956. That probably says all that needs to be said about her acting ability and she’s certainly no Angie Dickinson.

So lets check the score – 1 for El Dorado (Caan), 2 for Rio Bravo (Brennan and Dickinson) and one too close to call (Mitchum vs Martin), which leaves us with Wayne. Several years older and having had major surgery to remove a cancerous lung just two years before, Wayne was still a powerful screen presence. It’s hard to pick between his performances in the two films, with the onscreen banter with Brennan weighing in Rio Bravo’s favour while the chemistry with up-and-comer Caan is always fun to watch.

So we’re back to that question: which is best? It really all depends on your mood, with El Dorado having a more comedic slant, in common with Wayne’s work in the ‘60s, while Rio Bravo works on the viewer’s emotions. Both are classics but Rio Bravo came first and that counts for a lot.

The War Wagon (1967)

This is another ‘60s western that never fails to entertain. The war wagon of the title is a horse-drawn armoured car with a Gatling gun mounted on top and Wayne and his mismatched team have an elaborate plan to rob it of its shipment of gold. That’s right, this is a heist movie, sort of The Italian Job on horseback.

war wagonBeing a Wayne film though, this can’t just be an ordinary robbery, there has to be a reason behind it. Taw Jackson (Wayne) has had his ranch stolen and done time in jail (we’re never fully clued up on why) and now he’s out to get even. The gold in the war wagon is from his land and he’s going to get it back. This is Wayne doing his regular western hero, always fun to watch but nothing spectacular. It’s the sort of performance he gave a lot during the decade and what boosted it here (as was often the case) was having someone with an equal star status to play off. 

All the westerns I’ve picked from the ‘60s so far have one thing in common — they all pair Wayne with a big name co-star and this one is no different. Kirk Douglas plays the flamboyant Lomax and it’s a part tailor-made for him. The complete opposite of Wayne’s western persona, Lomax is all about what you see. He wears fancy clothes, including a leather shirt and one glove (maybe Michael Jackson’s a fan), never mounts his horse in conventional fashion, instead leaping aboard (you’re never in any doubt that it really is Douglas doing the stunt), even his female companions are exotic.

Wayne and Douglas were polar opposites and that comes across in their performances. Jackson and Lomax aren’t friends, in fact Lomax has been offered money to kill Jackson with only the chance of a bigger payday stopping him, but the pair do have a mutual respect for one another and I think the same was true of the actors who played them. Douglas certainly seems to be having fun, doing his utmost to upstage Wayne.

The rest of the gang comprises Howard Keel as an Indian (yes, you read that right), Robert Walker Jr. as the young explosives expert who also happens to be an alcoholic, and Keenan Wynn as the inside man.

Burt Kennedy was the perfect choice as director on such a light-hearted film. He’d made The Rounders (1965), a sort of Monte Walsh-lite with Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford a couple of years previous and the following year he made one of the classic comedy westerns, Support Your Local Sheriff! with James Garner. Here he throws in everything from gunfights to saloon brawls and finishes with a robbery that (as always in a heist movie) doesn’t go quite to plan.

While The War Wagon won’t find a place on any top ten lists, it is solidly entertaining and has two lead actors who may have been coasting on star charisma but also played off each other to the film's benefit and the audience's delight.

True Grit (1969)

Wayne’s favourite director of the ‘60s was Henry Hathaway. They made four films together during the decade and while only this one was a classic, they are all enjoyable. The unexceptional Shepherd of the Hills (1941) was the first film they made and they worked together in the ‘50s on the desert adventure Legend of the Lost. North to Alaska (1960) got the '60s off to a good start while Circus World (1964) was the least interesting of their offerings and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) we’ve covered already. That leaves the classic I referred to, True Grit.

A mismatched trio are tracking a gang of criminals each for their own reason. Marshall 'Rooster' Cogburn (Wayne) is doing his job, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) is looking for the man who killed her father, and Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) is hunting the man who killed a Texas Senator (and his dog). It's these disparate individuals' relationship, particularly Cogburn and Mattie Ross, that forms the centre of the film.

Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance in the film is often dismissed as the academy just being sentimental, having overlooked the aging actor for so long; others would argue that had Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight not both been nominated for Midnight Cowboy and thus splitting the vote, one of them would have been a more deserving winner. Well this is one reviewer who thinks Wayne got his just desserts for one of the best performances of his career.

true gritIs it his best? No, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have won. Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers should all have seen him get at least a nomination. That they didn’t and that the only western one of the genre's greatest directors was nominated for was Stagecoach (1939) shows it wasn’t just Wayne that was overlooked but the western genre as a whole. Cimarron (1931) was the only western to win best picture until Dances with Wolves (1990).

Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn, the tough, crotchety, drunken, one-eyed lawman, was a perfect fit for Duke, well apart from the one-eyed part. It gave him the chance to use his gift for comedy while also allowing him to be the macho western hero he’d become famous for. There was a touch of self-mocking humour in his performance that showed he was one Hollywood actor who wasn’t trying to hide his advancing years.

In Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross he has one of his most unusual co-stars, a feisty young girl who could give Maureen O’Hara a run for her money when it comes to strong-willed characters. Wayne didn’t get on with her on set, finding her behaviour unprofessional, but onscreen they are a perfect match.

As an actor Glen Campbell makes a great singer and as Texas Ranger La Boeuf he’s the film's weakest link. Not just up against Wayne and Darby but also a veteran scene stealer like Strother Martin and up-and-comers Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper, the country and western star is out of his depth. He’s kept afloat by Wayne who is so good he draws your attention away from Campbell in their scenes together.

The film looks magnificent thanks to cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Ballard was director of photography on many of Sam Peckinpah’s films, including The Wild Bunch (1969). Made the same year as True Grit, The Wild Bunch was a film Wayne disliked intensely, feeling it destroyed the myth of the western, so it’s somewhat ironic that he finally won his Oscar the same year that the genre underwent its biggest change since Stagecoach.

Henry Hathaway was an expert action director, regardless of genre. He excelled himself with True Grit, creating one of the most memorable shootouts in western movie history as Wayne, out-gunned, takes his reins in his teeth and with pistol in one hand and rifle in the other charges “Lucky” Ned Pepper's gang. It’s an iconic image and one of the most enduring ones of Wayne; ask a Wayne fan to pick a scene from one of his films and this would doubtless rank near the top of the list.

The film also features a score from the master of the genre, Elmer Bernstein. Famous for his rousing theme from The Magnificent Seven, he does a similar job here but there’s an emotional centre to the music that plays on the viewer's emotions and adds to the Rooster/Mattie relationship.

The western may have been changing thanks to The Wild Bunch and its ilk, but as the ‘60s closed Wayne showed he was far from finished, giving his best performances in years and he still had a couple of classics left in him.

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About Ian Woolstencroft

  • Hey pallie, love your Dinodescription in “Sons of Katie Elder.” Truly our Dino “breezes through on star charisma and charm alone.” Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool. Oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth!!