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Part One: 1907–1939
Part Two: 1939–1952
Part Three: 1952–1961
Part Four: 1961–1979
About Scott Eyman
For Jeff Heise
And for Harry Carey Jr.,
“Just put on my tombstone, ‘He rode with the Duke.’ ”
Ride away . . .
“That guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”
—DUKE MORRISON, AKA JOHN WAYNE, 1957
“Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in
John Wayne, with the customized, sawed-off Winchester he twirls in his introductory shot in
The scene had a problem, and the problem was the gun.
Dudley Nichols’s script was specific: “There is the sharp report of a rifle and Curly jerks up his gun as Buck saws wildly at the ribbons.
“The stagecoach comes to a lurching stop before a young man who stands in the road beside his unsaddled horse. He has a saddle over one arm and a rifle carelessly swung in the other hand . . . It is Ringo . . .
You might need me and this Winchester. I saw a coupla ranches burnin’ last night.
I guess you don’t understand, kid. You’re under arrest.
(with charm). I ain’t arguing about that, Curly. I just hate to part with a gun like this.
“Holding it by the lever, he gives it a jerk and it cocks with a click . . .”
John Ford loved the dialogue, which was in and of itself unusual, but the introduction of the Ringo Kid needed to be emphasized. Ford decided that the shot would begin with the actor doing something with the gun, then the camera would rapidly track in from a full-length shot to an extreme close-up—an unusually emphatic camera movement for the period, and an extremely unusual one for Ford, who had grown to prefer a stable camera.
Since the actor was already coping with two large props, Ford decided to lose the horse. He told his young star what he was planning to do: “Work out something with the rifle,” Ford said. “Or maybe just a pistol.” He wasn’t sure.
And just like that the problem was dropped in the lap of his star, a young—but not all that young—actor named John Wayne, better known to Ford and everybody else as Duke.
Wayne ran through the possibilities. Every actor in westerns could twirl a pistol, so that was out. Besides, the script specified a rifle cocked quickly with one hand, but later in the scene than what Ford was planning. In addition, Ford wanted him to do something flashy, but it couldn’t happen too quickly for the audience to take it in. All the possibilities seemed to cancel each other out.
And then Yakima Canutt, Wayne’s friend and the stunt coordinator on the film, offered an idea. When Canutt was a boy he had seen
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
show. As the overland stage raced around the arena, a messenger trailing behind the stagecoach had carried a rifle with a large ring loop which allowed him to spin the rifle in the air, cocking it with one hand. The crowd went wild. Canutt said that it had been thirty years ago and he still remembered the moment. More to the point, he had never seen anybody else do it.
Wayne sparked to the idea, as did Ford, but first they had to make it work. Ford instructed the prop department to manufacture a ring loop and install it on a standard-issue 1892 Winchester carbine. After the rifle was modified, Wayne began experimenting with the twirl move as Canutt remembered it, but there was a problem—the barrel of the rifle was too long—it wouldn’t pass cleanly beneath Wayne’s arm.
The Winchester went back to the prop department, where they sawed an inch or so off the end, then soldered the sight back on the shortened barrel.
With that minor adjustment, the move was suddenly effortless. Wayne began rehearsing the twirling movement that would mark his entrance in the movie he had been waiting more than ten years to make—a film for John Ford, his friend, his mentor, his idol, the man he called “Coach” or, alternately—and more tellingly—“Pappy.”
With any luck at all, he’d never have to go back to B westerns as long as he lived.
It’s the late spring of 1939, and you’re sitting in a theater watching
It’s a western, not the most admired genre, and the cast is made up mostly of reliable character actors. But the reviews have been more than good, and John Ford has already achieved a measure of fame among critics and moviegoers.
The first couple of minutes have already told you this is a movie made by filmmakers at the top of their game—precise, emphatic compositions, perfect editing that never leaves a shot on-screen for less time than it needs to be understood, unforced exposition that expertly delineates seven major characters inside of twelve minutes.
The story is basic. Seven strangers are crowded into a stagecoach, leaving a town called Tonto, heading through Indian territory to a town called Lordsburg. The seven people are traveling for seven different reasons, and the characters are deliberately contrasted in a way that goes beyond local color. A whore has a counterpart in a mousy, pregnant military bride; a pompous banker is balanced by a shady, dangerous gambler who can accurately gauge everybody’s bad character, especially his own. Likewise, there is a meek little whiskey salesman who has to fend off a raucous alcoholic doctor.
There is also a sheriff, a bluff, hearty man who seems to believe in appearances. And there is one other character we are told about but don’t immediately meet: an outlaw lurking somewhere out there, beyond Tonto, beyond civilization. He has escaped from jail, and he too needs to get to Lordsburg, for a private mission of revenge, a mission that the sheriff has pledged to prevent.
This collection of balanced opposites, the “respectable” confronted with the “disreputable,” populate the stagecoach, the vehicle through which John Ford will assert the moral equality of the outcast and restate his claim for the western as the seminal American film genre.
The picture is eighteen minutes old when we finally meet the Ringo Kid. There is a gunshot off-camera, there is a location shot of the stagecoach quickly pulling up. Cut to a tall, lean man standing against a process background of Monument Valley with a saddle draped over one arm and a rifle in his other hand. The camera rushes in as he twirl-cocks the rifle with one hand.
If you look at the rifle, it seems to be a tiny bit short, but nobody has ever looked at anything but the actor’s face. Midway through the camera’s rapid track-in, it loses focus for a half a second, then comes to rest in a huge, sharp close-up.
It is a good face—handsome but not pretty, assertive but not bullying. There are two beads of sweat coursing down his cheek, although whether that is a detail of character that Ford wanted or a result of the pressure of synchonizing a complicated physical movement with a complicated camera movement is lost to time.
The camera gazes for a few long seconds on the face, letting us examine the blue eyes that photograph gray on black and white film, the shadow on the right side, the suggestion of sweat on the brow, the strength of the features. As the camera lingers, the intimidating aura of the Ringo Kid as outlined by the other characters dissolves. What we see is not a dangerous outlaw but a boyish young man in bold relief—a gentle but resolute character.
The actor leaps off the screen in a way the character doesn’t in the script, and in a way the actor hadn’t in his previous movies. This is an actor you have probably seen before, in one movie or another, but never like this, never showcased with such elemental force. John Wayne has been around the movies for more than ten years, first as a prop man, occasionally as an extra, then fronting a great widescreen spectacle of early sound that lost a great deal of money.
Cast into oblivion by that film’s failure, he made his way through the Depression with large parts in tiny films and tiny parts in large films. Before
, he has appeared in more than eighty movies—some good, most bad or indifferent.
But with this scene—no, with this moment—looks, temperament, talent, part, and presentation collide and unite. The audience sees, truly sees John Wayne for the first time.
“We are not a culture that readily associates ‘beauty’ with ‘manly,’ ” wrote the critic Michael Ventura about this moment, “but this face has that combination and something more: . . . an awareness of wilderness, a sense that here is a man meant to move in great spaces. That’s vague, but that’s the best I can do. Whitman has a line in ‘Song of the Open Road’: ‘Here a great personal deed has room.’ ”
To put it more bluntly: this is less an expertly choreographed entrance for an actor than it is the annunciation of a star. John Ford is telling us that this man warrants our attention in a way that transcends the immediate narrative of the movie.
For the next forty years, John Wayne continually proved Ford’s point. The literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote that “Mass culture is a machine for showing desire,” and successive generations desired John Wayne in a way shared by no other star of his generation.
This was . . . curious. Wayne was thirty-two years old when he made
, and still possessed a youthful aura, but that was replaced by other things as he aged and expanded—from reminding people of their brother or son, he gradually assumed a role as everyone’s father, then, inevitably, as age and weight congealed, everyone’s grandfather.
None of that made much difference to his audience. For twenty-five out of twenty-six years—1949 to 1974—Wayne was in the list of top ten box-office stars. In nineteen of those years, he was in the top four. Thirty-five years after his death, he was still listed as one of America’s five favorite movie stars. (The others on the list, Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise among them, had the considerable advantage of being alive.)