One of those revolving door powers-that-be in home video distribution made a recent comment that the only black-and-white DVD’s that move are those with John Wayne. The absence of sales figures (are there better kept secrets than these?) prevent our knowing what truth, if any, that quote contains, but I’d venture to say this individual at least understands that John Wayne remains top man among deceased stars, possibly the only name who can still open a weekend for old movies released on DVD. I’d love to read the deal memo Wayne’s family had with Paramount for that Batjac group they released last year. What sort of revenue does Hondo and The High and The Mighty generate in 2007? Do such annuities provide sufficient cakes and ale for surviving family members? It’s one hundred years since Wayne was born and nearly thirty since he passed, yet fan following persists, and his ongoing status is closer to mainstream and wider than any niche celebrating classic era rivals. Others were bigger in their day, but none approach Wayne now. He’s certainly the only star identified with westerns that modern audiences will go near. If Randolph Scott could somehow morph into John Wayne, we’d sure enough be watching those Budd Boettichers courtesy Sony DVD by now. Hard to believe Wayne spent much of his active career broke. In that respect, he was a lot like Elvis. Neither left estates commensurate with their legend and popularity. Any time you figure on having seen Wayne’s entire deck of cards, another performance will come along, never mind that it’s one you’ve seen a dozen times, and confirm yet again the man’s remarkable grasp of what his public wanted. A hundred tributes for the hundredth dredged The Searchers and Rio Bravo, so permit me on this occasion to bypass John Ford and Howard Hawks in favor of a boilerplate special Batjac served called The War Wagon. Far from forgotten (how could it be, with virtual non-stop exposure on Encore channels?), anything but a candidate for critical rediscovery, but here is the best evidence of how well John Wayne understood us.
I am not a man of words and nuance, Wayne said. The real cowboy loved, hated, had fun, was lusty. He didn’t have mental problems. This was Batjac’s philosophy in a nutshell. Wayne could rise to occasion for those strong directors who defined his screen image, but understood Ethan Edwards and Tom Dunson were not characters to man the cash register. Fans preferred to know exactly what they were getting from Wayne. Again, he shared the Elvis trap of having to deliver on rigid expectations, and with age an increasing factor, Wayne could hardly afford to frustrate these. Not that he wanted to. Sure, they’re simple, but simplicity is art was among defense tactics Wayne played against critics who wondered why his own westerns weren’t as good as those he’d done for Ford and Hawks. Too considerate of his mentor elders to mention it, but Wayne could take solace in Batjacs earnings, to wit --- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for Ford does 3.1 million in domestic rentals, McLintock under Wayne’s control takes 4.5. Howard Hawks’ El Dorado earns a sturdy 5.2 million, but The War Wagon bests it with 5.8 domestic. Comfort westerns were best for the long haul, and Wayne going on forty years in the business was too smart to rock that boat. Everything about The War Wagon bespeaks his total creative control. It’s shows like this that really put you inside Wayne’s skull. Memoirs and interviews have spoken to episodes in which directors, always younger and more compliant at Batjac, ceded their chair when Wayne proposed (self-described) better ideas. Few had the nerve or endurance to stand and argue with the star/producer under a boiling Durango sun. Most long-standing crew members knew well to avoid bringing Wayne himself to a boil, for his was a temper quick to rise whenever things ran at less than maximum efficiency. War Wagon cinematographer William Clothier remembered Wayne pushing Howard Keel, a formidable physical presence himself, from rock to barranca and back again. He moved actors around like chessmen on location gameboards he knew as well as the one he often played between set-ups. Stars with stature at least approaching his, such as Kirk Douglas here, could make Wayne stand down, but only just.
The War Wagon profits by a lighter touch, and shorter length, than just previous The Sons Of Katie Elder. Principal heavy is good ol’ Bruce Cabot, as narrator Wayne refers to him in the trailer, layers of paunch past King Kong and beyond capacity to engage his opponent at fisticuffs evoking memories of previous set-to’s in 1947’s Angel and The Badman. Wayne nearing sixty tumbles over saloon tables and backwards through an ocean of breakaway chairs, as epic scale, if unmotivated, brawls were de rigueur in establishment 60’s westerns headed for their own extinction. It’s ten years younger than Wayne Kirk Douglas who’s clinging to youth in The War Wagon. His leather outfit looks as sprayed on as Shirley Eaton’s gold paint, and indeed anticipates casting potential among William Friedkin’s ensemble in 1980’s Cruising. A then unexpected bare-assed gag (oddly missing from the recent DVD) was among the first I recall with a major male star, and Douglas seems intent on showing Wayne up with saddle-seating acrobatics worthy of a silent-era Tom Mix. In fact, the older man was annoyed, and observed for publicists that anyone could perform such miracles surrounding their mounts with trampolines. Douglas gigged Wayne further by calling him John instead of the preferred Duke, while the latter pointedly asked if his co-star, wearing a comical oversized ring over his gloved finger, intended on playing the part like a queer. Assuming the role of sagebrush Spartacus, Douglas tried fermenting rebellion among cast and crew against Wayne’s perceived tyranny, encouraging browbeaten director Burt Kennedy to just once defy his overbearing producer/star. That’s just how Duke is, replied Kennedy, whose better judgment negated temptation to join Kirk’s slave revolt. Friction between Wayne and Douglas was never serious, however, as they’d worked together before and knew each other’s foibles too well. Boredom on location as much as anything inspired Kirk’s mischief making. Their tension and rivalry work well for the picture in the end, as friendly enemies Wayne and Douglas execute an old west heist with borrowings from played straight noirs The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing. There’s even gold dust blown away a la Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, though ramifications of this don’t impede a welcome upbeat ending. The War Wagon’s solid boxoffice reconfirmed that action men in maturity work best in pairs. Wayne discovered this going into the sixties and seldom ventured alone onto marquees thereafter.
The War Wagon wound up in a three-way Summer 1967 race with super-westerns El Dorado and The Way West. Thanks to release delayed over a year, Hawks’ film obliged Wayne to compete with himself, as El Dorado’s debut of 6-1-67 was followed within ten days by The War Wagon. Kirk Douglas was similarly afflicted as The Way West, also featuring Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark, had opened on 5-24-67 and was fading fast to a disappointing tune of just 1.9 million in domestic rentals. As it was his company’s money invested in The War Wagon, Wayne took a personal interest in premiering the western where it would be best received (Dallas, then Fort Worth). His Texas contacts were of long standing. Veteran circuit men knew him on a first name basis as Wayne bear-hugged every sociable occasion while visiting the Lone Star State (as shown here). He’d wangled money from oil and cattle tycoons to finance The Alamo and hoisted many a jug among whoop-it-up modern westerners. Would but life and art commingle, we might imagine John Wayne flying up from Reita with the Benedicts to join festivities on Jett Rink Day, then attending Capt. Wade Hunnicutt’s Home From The Hill barbecue. Just following people person Wayne around on his selling junkets had makings of a compelling movie in itself. It’s an aspect of his career every bit as fascinating to me as what he put on the screen. Wayne was very much of the work hard and play harder school of movie making. Running with his crowd called for iron man constitution and at least two hollow legs, not to mention lungs impervious to toxin. Autumn years Wayne vehicles resonate with names and faces that tried to keep his pace, but couldn’t sustain the race. Grant Withers had become an alcoholic and killed himself in 1959. Ward Bond dropped dead of a heart attack in 1960 while attending a football game in Texas (age 57). He’d maintained a red meat/cigarette/bourbon regimen over three seasons of eighteen-hour workdays on Wagon Train. The War Wagon heavy (Good ol’) Bruce Cabot was indeed that, having lost a pile partnering with Wayne on a whiskey importing venture and dying at 68 of lung and throat cancer. Wayne had lately come out of his own near miss when they did The War Wagon together. Batjacs to come would be less profitable for distributors as Wayne had priced himself to a point where little pie was left for studio participants. His amazing career has only been equaled, if not eclipsed, by Clint Eastwood, a latter-day man of action who’s managed to outlast Wayne, both starring and directing, just by taking a little better care of himself.