Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

John Wayne's Brand Of Comfort Western

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 there is in the claim, but I’ll venture this individual  understands at least 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 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 see much more of him. Hard to believe Wayne spent much of an 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 star’s grasp of what his public wanted. A hundred tributes for the Wayne centenary dredged The Searchers and Rio Bravo, so permit me on this occasion to bypass John Ford and Howard Hawks in favor of a boilerplate Batjac called The War Wagon. Far from forgotten, 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. Shows like this really put you inside Wayne’s skull. Memoirs and interviews speak to episodes in which directors, always younger and more compliant at Batjac, ceded their chair when Wayne proposed "better ideas." Few had nerve or endurance to stand and argue with the star/producer under a boiling Durango sun. Crew members knew to avoid bringing Wayne 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 Duke pushing Howard Keel, also a formidable physical presence, from rock to cactus and back again. JW moved actors like chessmen on game boards like those he'd play between set-ups. Stars with stature at least approaching Wayne's, such as Kirk Douglas, could make him 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 big scale, if unmotivated, brawls were part/parcel of establishment 60’s westerns headed for their own sundown. Ten years younger (than Wayne) Kirk Douglas clings more 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,  Douglas also 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 producer/star. That’s just how Duke is, replied Kennedy, whose better judgment kept him distant from Kirk’s slave revolt. Friction between Wayne and Douglas was never serious, however, as they had 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 had 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 on his selling junkets had making 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), having maintained a red meat/cigarette/bourbon regimen over three seasons of eighteen-hour Wagon Train workdays. 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 lung bout when they did The War Wagon together. Batjacs to come would be less profitable for distributors as Wayne priced himself beyond any pie left for studio participants. His amazing career has only been equaled, if not eclipsed, by Clint Eastwood, a latter-day man of action who has managed to outlast Wayne, both starring and directing, just by taking a little better care of himself.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only the politics of the critical establishment has kept Wayne from being recognized as the biggest star of them all. A typical remark I remember is from early 1970, as it became clear he was about to win the Oscar for True Grit: "You know, Duke has made an awful lot of movies. He's also made a lot of awful movies. He's even made a lot of movies awful." Funny, but only two-thirds true. Wayne never made a movie awful, not all by himself (no, not even The Conqueror, which wasn't his fault; not even Yul Brynner or Toshiro Mifune could have saved that one).

What fun that you focus on The War Wagon: a pure Duke Wayne entertainment with no pretensions to art. It does have one of my favorite dialogue exchanges, when Kirk and the Duke square off against a couple of (doomed) bad guys. Guns blaze, baddies drop, and Kirk and Wayne eye each other as they re-holster.

Douglas: "Mine hit the ground first."

Wayne: "Mine was taller."

8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love The Duke. They don't make them like that anymore. It is sad to know that he did spend an awful lot of his later life not exactly well off, but you know I think if you had asked would he do anything different I'm sure he would have said no.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I always liked THE WAR WAGON. It's a fun Wayne western and always a great view. Watched the DVD a while back. How great to see it again in scope.

Perhaps Wayne learned to walk over the people he knew he could get away with it from the old man GENERAL FORD, who did the same.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I've spent twenty hours reading through every single post on your blog. I don't know whether I should send you a bottle of champagne for such an entertaining and thoughtful mini-history of things Hollywood, or instead get mad for getting hung up on such an addictive site!

-btw- - I see that TCM is running promos for "War Wagon" for a September 29 showing.

8:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Erik. I'm always happy to hear from someone who's discovered the site and gone back to read the stuff in archives. I'm constantly delving back in and touching up old posts, adding new images, etc. As of today, there are 442 stories on Greenbriar!

9:05 PM  
Blogger Larry Aydlette said...

Excellent assessment of the Duke. Love the line about Douglas spray-painted into those clothes.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came of age when John Wayne was winding down. Pity … . As you pointed out his lesser (I love the term "comfort westerns" flick remained pretty darned entertaining flick. Something like THE TRAIN ROBBERS (not one of his good ones by a long shot) I saw on its initial release and I wasn't bored.

I did recommend that people who didn't "get" John Wayne should watch STAGECOACH and then they'd immediately get why he was a star. By the way … where does HONDO (In MARRIED WITH CHILDEN it was Al Bundy's favorite Wayne film) rank with fans? It's playing at the Motion Picture Academy this November (the 13th I think) in 3D! I suspect it may be digital projection but if anyone wants to know I can post here on how it looks.

2:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Spencer --- Here's a link to a really good "Hondo" article that may clear up questions as to origin of that 3-D print. Sure wish I could be there to see it, but I'm a few years past sitting five hours bolt upright in an airplane to see any movie, even this one.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I did see HONDO in 3D and it was a lot of fun. A mediocre Wayne film is still better than most people's good films. The digital presentation was pretty good (although I really HATE the heavy, active 3D glasses but unless they use a silver screen that's what you need) and they are going to try and piggyback a limited release onto the tail end of the BEOWULF wide release.

That's good news for folks NOT in the Los Angeles area. Also they way they treated the general public at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was pretty abusive so NOT seeing it at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater is a GOOD thing.

Few “in your face” effects (they may have reconverged the images in the digital presentation to minimize the effect) unlike THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER (I saw that in the 3D festival last year) which had some fun stuff along those lines. Definitely a “comfort western” although since it is a John Wayne western they can afford to have enough Indians and Cavalrymen to be really impressive. The few flat scenes (they had equipment problems while shooting the film in the 120 degree heat in the desert) aren’t really much of a problem. The rather honest admissions throughout that the white man had cheated the Apaches and that the Apaches had the “high moral ground” are a bit of a surprise. The fact that genocide is the object is mentioned and Wayne’s character doesn’t approve is also a bit of a surprise.

All in all I hope this means that they will do transfers of older 3D films to digital because they look great and are a LOT of fun.

3:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for that report on the "Hondo" 3-D screening, Spencer. Are they actually going to exhibit this around the country? Some NC theatres are presently running "The Nightmare Before Christmas" in 3-D, and I assume it's digital projection, though I haven't seen it ...

4:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what happened with the bare rear-end scene? It's not on the DVD, but is it shown when the film airs on pay cable or has it been excised for all time?

10:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Can't account for that scene missing from an otherwise complete DVD. Anyone know why it was excised?

9:11 AM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

"The War Wagon" remains one of my favorite JW titles; I also do not figure as to why this title,-- as well as his 2 FOX TITLES OF 1960-61, introducing that decade--- are almost NEVER mentioned in ANY media offerings of WAYNE past OR present: Henry Hathaway's magnificent "NORTH TO ALASKA" and Mike Curtiz' "THE COMANCHEROS" finds the DUKE in TOP form; and at the same time, cementing his WAYNE PERSONA for the rest of his film career. As far as Kirk and the 'fanny scene' edit, I saw WW FIRST-RUN in Chicago in 1967, and the scene WAS THERE; and I HAVEN'T SEEN the excised bit SINCE!! Not even in the BRAND-NEW 16MM 'scope PRINTS UNIVERSAL rented later, nor, NOT ON ANY TV SHOWINGS that I've seen of it, ANYWHERE! (...and I know this film well...!!). Some mystery to me for sure; This little story of this little edit discussed here is VERY interesting. Any solving of this riddle explaining this peculiar, (yet, to most folks probably ridiculous) MINDLESS EDIT? And for what reason? I would guess maybe Kirk would know! (And a HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY-KIRK DOUGLAS!!) I LOVE this new PLACE....GREENBRIER! THANKS! Steven.

2:38 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024