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John Wayne Centenary: The ’70s – Big Jake, The Cowboys and The Shootist

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John Wayne made his final ten films between 1970 and 1976; eight of them were westerns with the other two being ill-advised attempts at the cop movie genre.

The decade got underway with Chisum (1970). A meandering retelling of the Billy the Kid story, the film featured one memorable image – Wayne on horseback looking out over his land from a high plateau. Several Wayne regulars were on hand, including Ben Johnson and Bruce Cabot, and the film is pleasant enough if a little unfocused. This was followed by the final teaming of Wayne and Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo. It fails to live up to their past glories (as did the final Wayne/Ford film), with Duke too old for the part of Cord McNally, an ex-civil war colonel.

Wayne’s final big hit, Big Jake (1971) was followed by his first classic of the ‘70s – The Cowboys (1972). Wayne reunited with The War Wagon director Burt Kennedy for another ‘heist’ movie, The Train Robbers (1973) but it lacked the earlier film's exuberant sense of fun, not to mention Kirk Douglas, with Rod Taylor a poor substitute. Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973) had its moments, featuring an enjoyable turn by George Kennedy as the main villain, but at 63 Wayne was too old for the part and audiences couldn’t accept him as the father of a twelve-year-old boy (although in reality he had a son a year younger than that).

Having turned down the part of Dirty Harry, he attempted to rectify this perceived mistake (it was in fact the right choice — he was too old for Harry and the film was a hit because of Clint Eastwood) by making a pair of cop movies. McQ (1974) doesn’t really work; Lon McQ would have been retired years before, but veteran director John Sturges keeps things moving, crafting some good action set pieces. The following year Wayne came to England for the fish-out-of-water thriller Brannigan (1975) as an American cop on a mission to return a mobster to the US. Brannigan is definitely not a good film; you could (and I’m sure some would) say it’s a bad film, but good or bad, it is without doubt a fun film. Car chases, bar room brawls — this has it all, and in Wayne and Richard Attenborough it has the ultimate mismatched cop partnership (eat your hearts out, Gibson and Glover).

The misjudged True Grit sequel, Rooster Cogburn (1975) followed before Wayne’s final film, The Shootist (1976). Let’s take a closer look at that film and the other high points of the decade.

Big Jake (1971)

The film opens with a brutal kidnapping as we witness a gang of outlaws descend on a ranch and, after killing men, women, and children, they make off with a small boy, leaving behind a ransom note. Deciding that neither the army or the Texas Rangers are up to the task of recovering her grandson, Martha McCandles (Maureen O'Hara making her last appearance with Wayne) comes to the conclusion it “requires an extremely harsh and unpleasant kind of man“ which acts as the perfect introduction to just such a man – Jacob McCandles (Wayne).

It falls to Wayne to deliver the ransom and recover the boy and he’s accompanied by two of McCandles' sons, played by Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum. Also part of the rescue party is Bruce Cabot as an unlikely Indian named Sam Sharpnose.

More violent than the usual John Wayne movie, with lots more ketchup on display, the film still has a strong moral imperative, saving the life of an innocent young boy. Wayne made Rio Bravo as a response to High Noon and it occurred to me while watching the film again for this article that Big Jake was Duke’s response to another film he disliked – The Wild Bunch.

Both films take place in the early years of the 20th century (Big Jake in 1909 and The Wild Bunch in 1913), both feature a band of criminals (and both gangs contain brothers), and both take place in Mexico. In fact, gang leader Richard Boone was one of several actors offered the part of Pike Bishop in Peckinpah’s classic before William Holden was cast.

If Boone’s gang is supposed to represent the Wild Bunch, it’s clear what Wayne thinks of them; these aren’t the sympathetic protagonists of Peckinpah’s film, they are cold-blooded killers. Wayne’s Jacob McCandles, while equally a man whose time has passed, is someone who stands up for what he believes is right no matter what the odds are against him.

This was Wayne’s last big financially successful film and returned the star to the top spot of Quigley Publications' annual list of top money-making stars, a position he hadn’t held since 1954. It’s not an out-and–out classic; its uneven tone (there are a couple of out of place slapstick comedy moments) and average performances from Pat Wayne and Chris Mitchum prevent it from achieving that, but it is one of my personal favourites.

When it comes to villains in Wayne films there are few to equal Richard Boone’s John Fain. Wayne and Boone only have two scenes together but both actors make the most of them. While they are hard, violent men, Fain strives to present a more educated and congenial front. This allows Boone to charm the viewer, yet we can never forget that he would kill the boy without a second thought.

By comparison Wayne is a straight shooter (both figuratively and literally) and he never leaves you in any doubt of his intentions. Estranged from his wife (O’Hara) for reasons we are never fully privy to, he’s an old man whose world is changing with the onset of “civilisation” and such modern contraptions as the automobile. This “man out of time” theme is something else it shares with The Wild Bunch but it never fully explores.

The film references some of Wayne’s past glories as well. Ethan Edwards' catchphrase from The Searchers (“That’ll be the day”) is used at one point and the ranch used as the McCandles home is the same one featured in Chisum, but it’s the cast that bring the most memories of earlier films – there’s O'Hara, of course, but also Bruce Cabot, John Agar, and Harry Carey Jr. (playing a villain for a change). Then there’s the dog which brings back memories of Sam in Hondo, with both coming from the same breeder/trainer; this time though it doesn’t even have a name, just “Dog.”

The script by Harry Julian and Rita M. Fink (who wrote Dirty Harry) is above average. Wayne gets some great dialogue, including a Harryesque “do you feel lucky” kind of speech at the end.

The credited director on the film is George Sherman, a man Wayne first worked with in his pre-Stagecoach days. But Sherman was not a well man during the making of the film (although he outlived Wayne by twelve years) and Duke directed much of the film himself but refused to take a screen credit (he’d done the same thing on The Comancheros in 1961).

It’s a far better film than either of the two he was credited for (The Alamo and The Green Berets), making the most of the impressive locations and with a brilliantly executed climactic shootout. It’s a well-made and, in the case of Wayne and Boone at least, well-acted film that falls short of being a classic but it’s still worth seeing for fans of Wayne or the western genre in general.

The Cowboys (1972)

When Wil Andersen can find no men to help him move his herd to market (due to a sudden case of gold fever) he’s forced to take on a group of school boys. With himself and black cook Jedediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne) the only adults, they set off for Belle Fouche.

The Cowboys is a coming of age story, as the boys undergo the hardships of the trail and learn what it means to be a “cowboy.” But it’s more than that; for Wayne’s Wil Anderson it’s about getting a second chance as a father. At one point he refers to his two dead sons, telling Nightlinger how “They went bad on me. Or I went bad on them.” It’s this fatherly relationship that is the heart of The Cowboys.

Wayne gives one of his very best performances here, he’s gruff and tough but also undeniably human. He has memorable scenes not just with the boys but with all the adult actors, from Sarah Cunningham as his wife to Bruce Dern as the film's villain, but it’s with Brown that he has his finest moments. The pair have a natural onscreen chemistry that makes even the simplest of scenes compelling. Nightlinger isn’t your standard black character in a western, he's an educated man, better educated than Wil Anderson in fact, and it makes a refreshing change.

Wayne told Bruce Dern that audiences would hate him for what his character does in the film and Dern turns in one of his very best performances as the psychotic Asa Watts. Watts is one of the best western villains, a truly loathsome character. His confrontation with Wayne is one of the film's highlights; violent and emotionally powerful, it ranks as the most shocking moment in any Wayne western.

The “cowboys” are all surprisingly good. Robert Carradine and A Martinez play the two eldest boys and both have gone on to successful acting careers while a couple of others have gone on to work as stuntmen. Clay O'Brien, who plays Hardy Fimps, would work with Wayne again in Cahill U.S. Marshal as his real son rather than just a surrogate one as he is here.

Mark Rydell’s direction is perfect. It’s no surprise that he handles the character moments so well, as that is his forte, having started out as as an actor, but he also does a great job with the action. He gives us a sense of the immensity of the task before the cowboys, with sweeping overhead shots showing just how big the country is. When the Wayne/Dern confrontation occurs, it's palpably tense and brilliantly staged with both actors giving their all.

Helping Rydell create this cinematic masterpiece are cinematographer Robert Surtees and composer John Williams. Surtees worked on Ben Hur (1959) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and he helps give the film its epic feel. John Williams' score is one of his best, rousing when required but capable of subtlety too; just listen to the simple guitar in the scene where Wayne talks about his dead sons. It also has a menacing theme for Watts and his gang that owes much to Ennio Morricone and spaghetti westerns.

Rydell originally wanted George C. Scott for the part of Wil Anderson as he disagreed with Wayne’s views on Viet Nam. Thankfully studio bosses persuaded him to approach Wayne, giving the veteran actor one of his best parts not just in the ‘70s but of his whole body of work.

The first time I saw The Cowboys I was the same age as some of the boys in it and I think this is one reason I rate the film so highly. For me it ranks alongside the Ford and Hawks films as one of the best westerns Wayne made. For any Wayne fan who wants to initiate their children (particularly boys) into the pleasures of Dukedom, this gets my recommendation. It’s a great film for fathers and sons to watch together.

The Shootist (1976)

Famous gunfighter John Bernard Books discovers he has just weeks to live and decides to spend his remaining time in Carson City. He takes a room at a boarding house operated by Mrs Rogers, a widow. The film chronicles Books’ final days as he encounters past acquaintances and forms a relationship with Mrs Rogers and her son Gillom.

As final films go there can be few as fitting as The Shootist. Wayne had battled cancer in the past and was ill while the film was being made, with production shut down for two weeks. In the coming years he would undergo heart surgery as well as further operations for cancer. As Books he gives a poignant yet never overly sentimental performance. Books is a hard man who’s lived a hard life, like many Wayne characters before him and it’s fitting that the opening of the film is a montage of clips from earlier Wayne films used to depict Books’ past; it adds even more to the aptness of this being his last performance.

This isn’t a big action film, it’s a film about relationships and dealing with one's own impending demise. During the film Books encounters many looking to make money from his death; a newspaper man who thinks he can make a name for himself writing Books' life story, an ex-lover looking to marry him and live off his name, even an undertaker who offers to bury him for free knowing he’ll make a killing charging people to view his corpse. The core of the film, however, is his relationship with Mrs Rogers and her son.

Lauren Bacall as Mrs Rogers more than holds her own with Wayne. The two characters are often at odds with each other yet there is a mutual, if in the case of Mrs Rogers unspoken, admiration between them. One gets the feeling that had they met under different circumstances, a friendship might have blossomed. It’s an understated relationship, as much about what they don’t say as what they do and it’s the kind of thing that rewards repeat viewings.

I’ve never been impressed with Ron Howard as an actor and his performance is the weakest here. As Gillom Rogers he’s required to show a range of emotions that he simply lacks the ability for, and while it would perhaps be unfair to say he’s bad, a better actor could have added greatly to the film as a whole. Watching this, it’s no surprise that Howard decided he was better suited to work behind the camera.

The best of the supporting cast are Harry Morgan, Richard Boone, and James Stewart. Morgan is the town Marshal, a man who can hardly contain his pleasure at the news of Books' impending demise. In the hands of a lesser actor the role would have been mere comic buffoonery but Morgan, while certainly comical, brings much more to the cowardly lawman than that. Marshal  Thibido is almost as much of a vulture as those looking to make money from Brooks’ death.

Richard Boone was a friend of Wayne’s and agreed to do the film purely because of that, as did James Stewart. His performance is little more than a cameo but he manages to imbue Mike Sweeney with more menace in two short scenes than most actors could in a whole film.

Playing the doctor who gives Books the bad news is James Stewart and the screen time they share are some of the most moving moments in the film. Stewart draws on his friendship with Wayne to add to the character and the script references The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the film the pair made together fifteen years before. As with Bacall there is much unsaid and the scenes work so well because of their simplicity. 

Downplaying the emotion inherent in the story was a conscious decision by director Don Siegel. Realising the risk of the film being overly sentimental, he gets the cast to give more restrained performances than a less seasoned director would have and makes the film a more powerful and moving experience because of it.

Most actors as they get older move into supporting roles. That Wayne was still headlining films while in his late sixties says volumes about his movie star status. His ability as an actor has often been questioned but his performance in The Shootist ranks alongside the best of the genre and is a fitting finale to the career of perhaps the greatest movie star Hollywood ever produced.

He made a string of classic films that started with Stagecoach in 1939 and culminated with The Shootist in 1976. His name appeared on the annual top 10 money-making stars list a record twenty-five times between 1949 and 1974, topping the list four times.

This article marks the end on my journey through Duke’s career but I’ll shortly be taking a look at Warner’s recently released John Wayne Film Collection that contains six of the star's less well known films made between 1939 and 1953, all of which are available for the first time on DVD in the US. Have Warner's unearthed any lost Wayne classics? We'll see.

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About Ian Woolstencroft

  • Robert Ham

    Great column. Duke’s performance in The Cowboys is extraordinary. Thank you, Ian.

  • Michael

    The Duke’s performance in ‘ The Shootist ‘ was just as Oscar-worthy as his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in ‘ True Grit ‘ – as well as his role in ‘ The Quiet Man ‘ . John Wayne is a true American treasure.
    Btw,he was right about Vietnamn.