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"Well, there are some things a man just can't run away from -
Ich hab keine Angst vor den Plummers, ich will nur mein Recht, weiter nichts."
(John Wayne, Stagecoach - Ringo, 1939)
One-hundred years old! Riding in a cab on my way back to London-Heathrow, on the radio I heard about the upcoming 100th birthday of John Wayne. As a result, I was immediately thinking of my great-grandmother, who had just passed away. It had been only one month ago that I went to see her on the occasion of her own 100th birthday, shook her one century old hand and wished her well. She laughed when I asked, whether she felt like Sleeping Beauty in the Brother Grimm's fairy tale, waking up after a hundred years that morning. She had lived to see and celebrate her anniversary, recognized in a local newspaper article as oldest citizen of her hometown. As if she just wanted to make it, then her strength left her. She had been already elderly when I was a kid and it was good visiting her with my own children one day. Living far away, she was like a constant while times around were a changing, solid as a rock. Unbelievable but true.
Yesterday's Western. It was somehow incredible to find out that John Wayne, long gone while still present in memorabilia and movie reruns, was one month younger than my great-grandmother! With his centennial celebration getting closer, the shelves would be filled with re-releases of the Duke's films and memorial boxes. Restored, glimmer free and in fresh colours there would be new DVD releases of his feature film classics at the height of his career, sometime between 1948's Red River and 1969's True Grit, in a quality unknown from earlier TV broadcasts, a feast for the eyes. At the same time more and more minor supporting movies would be dug out, 50 minutes short mass productions from the 1930's, mostly to be ignored for all following the same pattern. Some were familiar from being recycled in the German TV show "Western from Yesterday - Western von Gestern," which aired in the late 1970's and early 1980's.
Contaminated, Singing and Searching
Comfortably Costumed. The Austrian pop singer Georg Danzer would rhyme in the early 1970's (here's an approximate translation): "Get comfortable and don't complain, sit back and relax, it's time for John Wayne!" That's just what I did the other day, leaning back to watch "The Conqueror," often called Wayne's worst movie by far (besides "The Green Berets"). Whetting my appetite on Mongolian Barbeque and Beef Tartar, I ended up just having a few pretzels while watching Wayne in one of his unbelievable costume hero roles, just like with "The Barbarian and the Geisha" as 19th century US-Consul in Japan and in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" as Roman centurion with an open helmet and one line.
Mongol Conqueror. Originally written for Marlon Brando, the wild one wisely refused to portrait the Mongol leader. The historical Genghis Khan had formed the Mongol nation in 1206, which formed the basis for an incredibly expanding empire that would ultimately reach from China to India up to Europe, where in 1241 his successors invaded Poland, Hungary and the Balkans. The movie did so bad that it was later withdrawn from public performance by its producer Howard Hughes, who is said to having screened it night after night during his paranoid last years. He felt guilty for the movie was made in 1954 in the Snow Canyon near St. George, Utah, (not to be mixed up with the Eastern Austrian wine village St. Georgen, which we had always just referred to as Schurldorf) at a time when nuclear radiation was still underestimated by far.
Nuclear Film Set. The fact that people involved in the production totally underrated the danger of the white dust in the area, although knowing about the amount of radiation it caused, became visible through photographs of Wayne even posing with a Geiger counter. The filming location representing the Gobi Desert was contaminated with nuclear fallout from the one hundred miles away atomic testing site in Yucca Flats, Nevada. As the US military is known to give deadly weapons neat nicknames, such as the disastrous "Little Boy" dropping out of his womb over Hiroshima in 1945, the 1953 atomic bomb from the Nevada test range that is suspected to have caused the contamination due to bad winds was called "Dirty Harry" for the enormous amount of offsite fallout it generated, in the end probably also causing cancer and death among half of the film crew members and performers.
Cancerous Consequences. This would include heavy smoker Wayne - he used to call cigarettes "friendship sticks", who had to have half of his lung removed ten years later, and the deaths of director Dick Powell (lymphatic cancer, 1963) and co-star Susan Hayward (brain cancer, 1975). The own population as pawn sacrifice for a bizarre arms race. For a while it seemed that Duke could even defeat cancer, in his own words he had "licked Big C", and he returned to the silver screen in 1964 with half a lung as one of the "Sons of Katie Elder," side-by-side with Dean Martin, who was said to have never passed up any chance for a Martini. Wayne on the other hand preferred Sauza Tequila, probably "blanco" as our favourite cheque. A chess fanatic, he usually carried a small set in his pocket.
Singing Sandy. Guest starring an episode of "Behind the Cameras" to promote his latest film "Blood Alley (1955)," John Wayne picked up a guitar as he remembered his own short-lived singing career with the words: "That is a relic of the short and unhappy career of Singing Sandy. The only singing cowboy with a voice like a tree toad." He referred to first Lone Star production "Riders of Destiny (Reiter der Gerechtigkeit - Rider of Justice,1933)," where he was seen singing "A Cowboy's Song of Fate," which climaxed in the line "Tonight you’ll be drinking your drinks with the dead." Yet another verse of the scary lip sync performance would make it into "Lawless Range (1935)," in German alternatively titled "Highnoon in Helltown." In an interview, Duke further revealed: "The fact that I couldn't sing or play the guitar become terribly embarrassing to me, especially on public appearances. Every time I made an appearance the kids insisted I sing 'The Desert Song' or something. But I couldn't take along the along the fella who played the guitar on one side of the camera and the fella who sang on the other side of the camera. So finally I went to Trem Carr and said: 'I can't handle it!'"
That'll Be The Day. "Riders" however also featured two of the most popular Western sidekicks of the time: The crooks George and Bert were played by none other than George "Gabby" Hayes (usually seen next to Roy Rogers) and Al St. John, in German known as 'Fuzzy,' grumpy partner of the Lone Ranger in the TV-show "Western from Yesterday," where he filled a role similar to Ralf Wolter alias Sam Hawkins in the German Karl May-Western productions of the 1960s. The line "That'll Be The Day," which Wayne spoke several times in "The Searchers (1956)," wrote music history for inspiring Buddy Holly's epic hit of the same title: "That'll Be The Day... that I die." Finally, John Wayne's very own rough voice warbled "Streets of Laredo" at the beginning of one of his last Western movies, "Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973)," which was given the fitting German title "Geier kennen kein Erbarmen - Vultures know no Mercy." Wayne had intoned the same song towards the end of "3 Godfathers (1948)," following the example of Harry Carey Jr., who had started using it as a lullaby.
Searcher's Tribute. A remake itself, director John Ford had began "3 Godfathers" with a dedication "To the memory of Harry Carey. Bright Star of the Early Western Sky." Harry Carey had been an early idol and role model of Wayne's. At the end of John Ford's "The Searchers", as Wayne turned to go out the door, he raised his left hand, reached across his chest, and grabbed his right arm at the elbow. Harry Carey Jr. remembered: "My dad did that a lot in movies when Wayne was just a kid in Glendale. It was just one take as natural as anything even though Ford wasn't expecting it, and my mom, looking on in the scene, never forgot this tribute to my dad..." Wayne's pose at the end of "The Searchers" had been associated with Carey as part of the repertoire of melodrama and the early silents. It signified things like inner struggle, or being wrapped up in thought. In fact Harry Carey Sr. kind of used it playing next to Wayne in "The Spoilers (1942)" and again in "Angel and the Badman (1947)."
Scar and Yellow Buckle. There is some irony in the fact that the 1956 release of "The Conqueror," Wayne's biggest flop, was followed by one of his biggest classics, "The Searchers." His portrayal of the character Ethan Edwards remains unforgotten, who had been called Amos in the original novel by Alan LeMay, respectively "Bull Shoulders" by Indians. The long searched for Indian chief on the other hand was called "Scar" or in Mexican "Cicatriz", in its German synchronized film version even "Black Falcon (Schwarzer Falke)", while in the novel he also appeared under the alias "Yellow Buckle", a reference to a golden ornament he wore as his "medicine". The film remains one of these master pieces that had the movie audience look up to their reliable hero, before he rode into the sunset. With its long shots of the Monument Valley panorama and incredible depth in focus thanks to the use of VistaVision filming technique, which photographed double-width frames by running 35mm film sideways through the camera, the marvelous restoration and transfer of "The Searchers" to Blu-ray disc would represent a showcase project for Warner.
In 2007, he would have been one-hundred years old and is still unforgotten - how many years do you have to go for that? Here's to a friend who sparked my interest in these old stories about guts and patriotism - how unhip.
Orange County Airport, in the east of LA, was renamed into John Wayne Airport in 1979. John Wayne's foot- and fistprints at the Hollywood Walk of Fame in LA. He must have had rather small feet.
Hondo Rediscovered. In the maelstrom of John Wayne's 100th birthdays a few classic movies that hadn't been seen for years were dug out again, dusted and restored beautifully. One of them is "Hondo," the story of a stranger meeting a lonely woman and her son in the wild land, offering them protection against the Indians, who are rising one last time before being extinguished by the new American landowners. The for a long time rare 3D-movie starts with a scene, where John Wayne walks across the wide land with his dog, no horse. Coming from nowhere, no questions about the past, just being there and in the center. Also we often carry too much history around with us, will we ever get it from our shoulders to be free and happy?
Leading Ladies. Among Wayne's most sensitive roles were "Angel and the Badman" with doe-eyed Gail Russell and "The Quiet Man" with sassy red head Maureen O'Hara, shot in Ireland. In his final screen appearance he was with Bogart-widow Lauren Bacall as "The Shootist," dying of cancer in the 1976 movie as in real life three years later. People would detect parallels with high aged Eastwood confronting his own mortality in "Gran Torino."
Macho Quotes. "A man's got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job," that's how he summed up his philosophy of life. Some of his comments were painfully direct: "Life is hard. It's harder if you're stupid." For the most part he stuck to his father's life motto: "I've always followed my father's advice: He told me, first to always keep my word and, second, to never insult anybody unintentionally. If I insult you, you can be goddamn sure I intend to. And, third, he told me not to go around looking for trouble." Although, maybe he didn't always follow the third bit of the advice. Shortly before his death, he described his belief in God in an interview: "I've always had deep faith that there is a Supreme Being, there has to be!" In the monumental film, "The Greatest Story ever told (Die groesste Geschichte aller Zeiten, 1965)" he had a very small role as a Roman soldier, barely recognizable, with just one line: "Truely this man was the son of God!"
No Team-Up. As for a making a film together with Eastwood, it was only logical that Wayne would decline a cooperation after seeing him as avenging angel in "High Plains Drifter." At one point though, Wayne was imitating him, being "Dirty Duke," as "McQ" and "Brannigan" trying to repeat the success Clint had with big city cop "Dirty Harry," a role offered to Wayne in the first place, who turned it down for refusing to keep up with the time, if that meant to picture sheer violence. Not to forget "Dirty Buddy," Bud Spencer as punchy Commissario Rizzo, called Flatfoot, cleaning up Naples.
Success Factor: Name & Eye Patch
Girl's Name to Manliness. Originally, John Wayne had been named after both of his grandfathers Marion Robert Morrison. At toddler age his mother used to call him by his middle name Bobby. When he was five, she changed his name to Marion Mitchell after his paternal grandfather, so that his newborn brother could be given the name Robert Emmett after her own father. His name had been stolen, the baby brother would now be Bobby and showered with his mother's attention. Some wounds run deep, sometimes they don't heal for a lifetime. Trying to please his mother, John Wayne later fulfilled her own dreams of success, but she refused to acknowledge it. Given those circumstances, he probably didn't have too much objection against changing his name one more time. As early as 1929, during filming of "The Big Trail," Marion Morrison adopted the stage name John Wayne. Some say that he became the epitome of manliness as a result of over-compensation for carrying a girl's name, which he might have been ashamed of as a kid. "Ride Him, Cowboy" was the first of six action-packed low-budget Westerns he had made for Warner Bros between 1932 and 1933, which were mainly remakes including stock footage of silent pictures with Ken Maynard. Notably, in each of them Duke played a character named "John" and rode a white horse called "Duke".
Stagecoach Ride. After no less than 61 film appearances, Wayne had been discovered by director John Ford for the lead role in "Stagecoach (Ringo - Hell ride to Santa Fe, 1939)." The narrow interior of the coach is effectively set in contrast to the vast landscape of Monument Valley. Of course, the basic lesson taught is that "a man's got to do, what a man's got to do," a memorable quote that got lost in German translation. (Besides being proven wrong in the movie's very next scene, where Dallas, played by Claire Trevor, convinced the Ringo Kid to try to escape anyway.) The underlying character study supports the conclusion that not everything is what is seems at first glace. A change takes place in the course of the movie, which is reflected in the seating arrangement inside the coach, as demonstrated by Wayne's biographer Garth Wills in "John Wayne's America (1997)." Just in time for Wayne's 100th Birthday, the release of its German version on DVD was awaited for May 2007. However, "Desperado Man" turned out to be a dubbed version of "Sagbush Trail (1933)" with a wrong synopsis on the DVD back cover that had raised wrong expectations. Finally, "Stagecoach" was filed in June 2008 in the same "John Wayne Classic Collection" in modest image quality, especially compared to the restored English DVD version. Playing the Ringo Kid in "Stagecoach" ranks among his biggest roles, including the bullheaded, greying cattle drover Thomas Dunson in "Red River" and retiring Captain Brittles in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," Indian-hater Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers" and as Producer, Director and Davy Crockett in "The Alamo," his heart's desire and almost the financial ruin of his production company Batjac.
Oscar-Winning Eye Patch. For giving tough World War II Sergeant Stryker in "Sands of Iwo Jima" Wayne had been nominated in 1950 for the Academy award and finally won it in April 1970, then aged 63, in a sort of self parody. Playing that bellied, one-eyed drunkard, an aging Marshal, his "True Grit" for ugliness finally won him the Academy award. John Boswell and Jay David summarized in "The John Wayne Album - Duke": As "Stagecoach" was to the young actor and "Red River" to the middle-aged man, "True Grit" was to the aging hero. "If I had known, I would have put that eye patch on 35 years earlier," Wayne said at the Oscar ceremony. Returning to the set of "Rio Lobo," the entire cast and crew were assembled in front of the adobe church and everyone, including the horse, wore an eye patch. Its sequel "Rooster Cogburn" co-starred Katharine Hepburn in an "African Queen"-type role, just with Duke (in his last but one film) replacing late Bogey this time. In 1990, Clint Eastwood would make an adventurous film about director John Huston (whose name was changed to John Wilson in the film), then more obsessed with shooting an elephant than the "African Queen"-picture.
Arch-Conservative Views. Just an American monument is what John Wayne became in over 150 movies, fighting for his values, being identified with the nation and its proud history. After John Wayne had passed, in 1979 his German dubbing speaker Arnold Marquis recorded a song "John Wayne, the Hero", in which he confessed: "I received notice from Los Angeles, USA, that the king of the Western stars was no more. I am not ashamed, also I cried for the greatest of the cowboys, John Wayne, my friend." In 1980, the leftist punk band Stains from Texas provoked with lines like: "John Wayne wore an army uniform, didn't like us reds and fags that didn't conform. Hypocrite coward never fought a real fight, when I see John I'm ashamed to be white!" As a matter of fact, John Wayne also stood for arch-conservative world view and right-wing value system at a time, when racial segregation of black and red people was still common in the United States and the McCarthy Era brought a witch-hunt for communists, also in Hollywood, where among others Charlie Chaplin was accused of "un-American activities" and exiled in 1952.
Hollywood Soldier. Playing the stand up patriot soldier in numerous war movies, Wayne had in fact made career while some of his fellow actors were fighting in World War II. Some say that although he tried to enlist, he wasn't drafted because of his large family - at the time he already had four children of his own. Others believe that despite of doing his own film stunts he was in bad shape and didn't pass the physical examination after voluntarily signing up. As Michael Munn's biography "John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth" demonstrates, it might as well have been that the studio he was working for at the time was quick to launch the story of an old football shoulder injury to justify keeping its biggest star on contract and preventing him from enlisting. After an intervention by Republic Pictures, requesting his further deferment, he stayed at home, built his career and served his country by making films to boost public morale. Later on he served as self proclaimed defender against post war communism up to a point where the KGB came after him, which he kept secret in order not to worry his family. As by his wife Pilar, "He would become a 'superpatriot' for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home." Among the countless lyrics references, even Deep Purple's "Gypsy's Kiss" from the 1984 comeback album "Perfect Strangers" contains the line: "John Wayne, The Alamo, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, I'll smoke a piece with you." In 2008, Billy Idol would dedicate the song "(Tonight I'm gonna be) John Wayne" to characters John Wayne played throughout his career, usually men with "something dark in their past, they're trying to rise above before the end of the movie."
Dirty Duke. He left behind footsteps usually too big for followers to walk in. But then there was Eastwood, the avenger destroying the illusion of the clean, brave frontier, who returned from Italy to get himself a name, as an action star in some 60 movies and half as many as Academy Award winning director. Two men connected and somehow opposite at the same time. The stand-up Westerner, believing in values and symbolizing them. And the distrustful stranger, shaping into a modern, vigilante type city cop, in the end an exceptional filmmaker with so much sensitivity. And grit, or whatever impresses people really. For deep inside we feel they are special and that line "Everyone's a hero, everyone's a star" (from the Bon Jovi song "Welcome to wherever you are") is not true.
The Final Weakness
Inflation of Apologies. How tough can you be? As rough as John Wayne is some of his roles, when he would blow away bad guys without batting an eyelash? In the film "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)," he went as far as to say that to excuse yourself was a sign of weakness. And he's right! Why? I'll try to explain... It can be quite difficult to excuse yourself for a mistake or oversight. Sometimes it's easier in a foreign language, as we now hear Germans often whispering "sorry!" On the other side, there is the over-excusing that comes from lack of self-confidence or simply the routine use of the word, in phrases such as "Excuse me, do you have time?" In this case maybe better to be replaced by "please" - which however, may lead to a harsh order of "Please! Thank you!" A Latin phrase informs us: "Excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta - Who excuses himself, accuses himself!"
No Excuse in Latin. The Latin teacher instructed us never to excuse ourselves for giving a wrong answer, since we couldn't take it back anymore. Not quite as hard-boiled as her, but still the archetype of masculinity, in the film "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" John Wayne would often be heard saying: "Don't apologize, it's a sign of weakness!" The conservative and honest use of words of apology can actually keep them from being watered-down and losing their meaning. They should be reserved for situations that really call for forgiveness. Still, the importance of the word itself is revealed in the fact that it's one of the first words young children learn - usually before they can even speak properly, as a cousin of mine would often be heard saying "Gungligung!" before mastering the correct German pronunciation of "Entschuldigung!" By the way, excuse me in Swiss German is "äxgüsi," similar to the French "excuse-moi."
Deathbed Christening. Playing with his macho public image, when Harvard students asked him in 1974 about his view on Women's Lib, he would joke: "I think they have the right to work anyplace they want to - as long as they have dinner ready when you get home." Through all of his lifetime he had shared a preference for Latin-American women. "Some people collect stamps", he once commented on his affinity for Hispanic women, "I go for Latin women." Since all of his wives were Catholic, John Wayne, originally a Presbyterian, had himself baptized into the Roman Catholic Church "for his family" two days before his death. He died on June 11, 1979. Buried in Newport Beach, California, he had wished for the inscription "Feo, Fuerte y Formal" on his grave. One could just hear him delivering the line in English: "I'm ugly, I'm strong and I'm dignified" However, his wish was not met and for a long time his grave remained unmarked for protection. About 20 years later, a bronze plaque was placed over his last resting place. It depicts him in one of his greatest roles, on a horse at the Alamo and recites another quote from him: "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."
American Idol. Although Wayne did constantly swear while talking in private, in his movies he never used offensive language, always protecting his display of American values by that. He became an American Idol, long before a casting TV show would give this expression a completely different meaning. "Duke Wayne symbolized just this, the force of the American will to do what is right in the world. He could have left no greater legacy," as Ronald Reagan put it in his obituary, found in the October 1979 edition of Reader's Digest. And so Johnny Cash's rendition of "Remember the Alamo" describes John Wayne too, who for many fans around the word embodied the American ideal: "Grieve not little darling my dying, if Texas is sovereign and free, we'll never surrender and ever with liberty be!"
Marines Memorial at Arlington Cemetery, Washington D.C., and Malaysian National Monument in Kuala Lumpur. Both sculpted by the same American architect Felix DeWeldon, an Austrian emigrant. There were 17 years between those two pictures.
Green Berets over Dirty Dozen. Having his high time near the end of the 1940's and in the 1950's, Wayne's character shone especially bright under directors like Howard Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo, Hatari, El Dorado), John Ford (Stagecoach, Yellow Ribbon, Quiet Man, Searchers, Liberty Valance) and Henry Hathaway (Circus World, Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit). After the financial disaster with "The Alamo," Republican through and through, Wayne would only direct one more film himself, the controversial Pro-Vietnam War movie "The Green Berets." In order to make this film, he even turned down the role of Major Reisman (then played by Lee Marvin) in "The Dirty Dozen," an all star-epos like "The Longest Day" and a decision many of his fans would ultimately regret.
Shootist's Swan Song. Duke was one of the last survivors of the great old guard of the grand Hollywood. Gable, Cooper, Tracy, Bogart, all of them had died, and Wayne was still making movies, fighting the same battles for the same ranchlands as he had for half a century. In his late years, Wayne was dominating productions up to a point that he would fill in for director George Sherman for a while in "Big Jake," an unusually violent Wayne movie. Three of his sons were involved in the family production with the running gag: "I thought you were dead!"