John Wayne 1930s Westerns – West of the Divide

Although I wasn’t expecting too much from yet another of John Wayne’s early period oaters, I have to say that on occasion something comes along that really makes you sit up and take notice.

Lobby card for West of the Divide with John Wayne

West of the Divide (1934) Lone Star, Dir: Robert N. Bradbury, b/w, 54m

Cast: John Wayne, Virginia Faire Brown, George Hayes, Lloyd Whitlock, Yakima Canutt, Lafe McKee

West of the Divide is one of those films because I can’t even begin to describe how amazed I was to stumble across a relatively unknown JW death scene that I had not been aware of before. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

George Hayes, playing alongside Duke for the – I think – third time, definitely appears to have been working on his screen persona in between JW movies.

You can see in West of the Divide that there’s a real sense that the actor is starting to make his mark. The constant chewing of tobacco and the perpetual gurning of his unshaven face along with the occasional incomprehensibility of his speech indicate the imminent birth of the one who would forever be known as “Gabby” Hayes.

And I reckon it all started here.

Conversely, I’m afraid to say that even after having appeared in around fourteen Westerns and another sixteen movies of various genres and quality, there’s still no real sign at the beginning of this film that Duke will ever make it as a serious actor.

He constantly comes across as wet behind the ears and his screen persona doesn’t really set the place afire, although we’re obviously aware that eventually, he would get to become the John Wayne we all know and love.

Then you notice he’s wearing a black hat this time around, along with matching black costume. What’s going on here? 

Duke, playing a character called Ted Hayden, and his trusty sidekick Dusty, played by Hayes, are reclining in the countryside a spell when a stranger appears from out of nowhere muttering that he’s drunk poisoned water.

After the man dies, Duke finds a wanted poster on the body of the dead guy, who turns out to be a hired gun called Gatt Gans.

Dusty points out that Gans and Hayden look awfully alike so our hero decides to impersonate Gans, who it turns out has been hired by the villain of the piece, a Mr. Gentry, to help run off an old man and his daughter from their ranch.

It then becomes clear why Wayne is dressed in black on account of him taking on the guise of a killer. A few minutes further on into the film a thought suddenly occurred to me so I went back to the death scene of Gatt Gans.

JW dying in West of the Divide
JW playing the dead man

Upon close examination my suspicions were confirmed – Gans is also played by JW, meaning that we can add yet another film to the list of those movies in which John Wayne cops it. 

I’m starting to really like these early Wayne Westerns. They seem to be the gift that just keeps on giving.

At some point in the proceedings, Ted finds out that Gentry was the one who shot his pa and also left Ted for dead as well.

On top of that, the AK (annoying kid) who’s actually not that too annoying, probably a maximum of four on an AK scale of one to ten, turns out to be Ted’s little brother.

What with Duke playing a ‘villain’, he’s apt to get a little ornery every now and then, telling his little brother’s guardian – I use the term loosely – that ‘You ever whip that kid again I’ll break every bone in your carcass.’

This is before he finds out the kid is family. Imagine what he would have done to the guardian if he already knew.

There’s a ridiculous fistfight at the end between Duke and the villainous Gentry. Why JW didn’t just plug him on account of Gentry making his play first is beyond me.

I guess the fight is basically padding to make the film hit the fifty-four-minute mark. In the meantime, Gabby / Dusty disappears from the film for almost a good twenty minutes – he was probably trying to master the art of frontier gibberish for the next film – then turns up just in time for the denouement.

There’s a nice stunt at the end in which Duke, being doubled by his stand-in, Yak Canutt, who plays yet another bad guy in the film, rides up to a cabin and throws himself through a window from his horse.

There’s yet another bout of fisticuffs between Duke and Gentry, Gentry then running from the cabin only to be met by a hail of bullets from the group of bozo’s that constituted his gang.  

Duke gets the gal, so no surprise there. On the other hand, when you see for the very first time a rarely mentioned scene in which JW takes off for the pearly gates, you need to cut the filmmakers some slack every now and then.

Quite a memorable film for obvious reasons, and one I certainly won’t forget for a long time to come.

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Steve is a film scholar of note, gaining both an MA in film studies and a Ph.D. for his thesis on the silent films of John Ford. Steve, a scriptwriter and published novelist, provides much of the content you see here and is a dedicated aficionado and longtime fan of John Wayne, John Ford and Western films in general.

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