The Longest Day (1962)
I admit to this being one of my all time favourite WWII films that just happens to have John Wayne in it. It’s not strictly a John Wayne WWII movie, as he features alongside a positive plethora of other Hollywood stalwarts such as Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan and Rod Steiger to name but a few.
There’s a few British stalwarts in the cast to give the impression the film is a genuine depiction of a shared allied experience – Richard Todd, Kenneth More, Richard Burton et al – but make no mistake, this is a Hollywood production through and through, and John Wayne is the nominal star of the piece.
Although he only has about 20 minutes of screen time in a film that runs for 2 hours and 40 minutes our boy makes the most of his portrayal of the real life Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoort – even if Wayne was playing at the age of 55 someone who was actually only 27 in 1944.
If I had to pick Wayne’s best moment in The Longest Day it would be the speech he makes to his troops just before the D Day landings take place, telling his men that ‘Your assignment tonight is strategic. You can’t give the enemy a break. Send ‘em to hell…. That is all’. I mean, come on. You have to love this guy, right?
Duke and his troops end up in the village of Saint-Mere-Eglise, where a large number of allied paratroopers are shot by the enemy as they descend from the sky. I visited the village a few years back in France and realised that some of this sequence, as well as the famous incident in which an American paratrooper dangles from the roof of the village church at the end of his parachute, was actually shot in Saint-Mere-Eglise itself.
I couldn’t find any evidence that Wayne shot any of his scenes there even though you see him reacting to the grim sight of dead paratroopers hanging from the trees and telegraph poles in the village square, so I guess he wasn’t available for a lot of the exterior location shots. Never mind.
Even if his appearance is just an extended cameo Wayne still stands out head and shoulders above all the other actors in the film – and this time he wins the war without firing a shot. And with a broken ankle which he sustains after parachuting into enemy territory. Thanks be to our maker that he was on our side.
In Harm’s Way (1965)
Back in the day they used to call films like this ‘adult movies’, and director Otto Preminger was the daddy of Hollywood lurid adult-themed fare in the 50s and 60s with films such as The Man with the Golden Arm (heroin addiction), Anatomy of a Murder (sexual abuse courtroom drama), Advise and Consent (homosexuality) and The Cardinal (sex outside marriage, abortion).
Preminger also directed Exodus, a drama concerning the establishment of the state of Israel that ran for nearly four hours and famously prompted the American Jewish comedian Mort Sahl to plead during the premiere of the film, ‘Otto, let my people go!’.
Bearing in mind Preminger’s predilection for melodramatic sensationalism you know this isn’t going to be just another war film. Only ten minutes in and we already have naked shenanigans on the beach, fiery death in a blazing car and, just to keep the audience on their toes, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The mayhem on the ground appears to come from invisible planes in the sky – similar to the destruction of the train depot sequence in John Frankenheimer’s The Train which was released the year before – so budget-wise we’re not talking Tora! Tora! Tora! here.
Wayne turns up as Captain Rockwell Torrey, his boat torpedoed whilst in pursuit of the Japanese fleet and ending up demoted to a desk job for not following procedure.
Before you know it he’s hooked up with Patricia Neal again, returning as a slightly older version of the same nurse she played in Operation Pacific.
Then things start to get complicated. I’m not going to go through the whole story here but during the course of this nearly 3 hour film Preminger throws in, along with the small matter of fighting a war, the rape of a young nurse, suicide, adultery, betrayal and the discovery by Wayne that his estranged son, played by Brandon DeWilde – the kid from Shane – is enlisted nearby and serving on a PT boat.
Duke’s performance is a modicum of restraint compared to some of the more overblown acting of Kirk Douglas and Burgess Meredith in the film, and you can see, and sense, that age is really starting to catch up with him. There’s a few moments when he does his ‘John Wayne’ bit as his cruiser is almost sunk beneath him but there’s a real attempt on Wayne’s part to play someone who isn’t just a man of action.
‘Rock’ Torrey is a flawed individual who is unable to reconcile with his estranged son and is also subject to the dangers of war like anybody else, eventually losing his leg during the climactic sea battle. A suicide mission and glorious death are now not just specific to Duke.
We see Kirk Douglas flying to his doom whilst tracking down the location of the Japanese fleet, a mission he has taken on out of guilt after the suicide of a nurse he raped who also happened to engaged to Wayne’s son – see, I told you this was an adult movie. On top of that poor old Brandon DeWilde cops it at the end during a torpedo attack on a Japanese battleship, whilst Wayne is left standing at the end, albeit on one leg.
Not having watched this film the whole way through until fairly recently I have to say that In Harm’s Way is a rather underrated film in John Wayne’s CV, although it is badly let down by the complete reliance of models and studio water tanks for the face-off with the Japanese fleet at the end of the film.
It just goes to show what Wayne could do outside of the Western genre when given the chance to work with a top-notch Hollywood director and a decent script. The soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith isn’t too bad either.
Cast A Giant Shadow (1966)
Another star-laden Hollywood war production in the tradition of The Longest Day, with Wayne cast in a small but pivotal role as General Mike Randolph, commander of the nominal star of the film, Kirk Douglas.
Douglas plays the real-life David Marcus, an American army colonel who took part in the post-war establishment of Israel and became an Israeli general. The film also stars Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra and Angie Dickinson, and to be truthful is a bit of a messy affair.
I had a copy of the book written by the director of the film, Melville Shavelson, about the making of the movie, called How to Make a Jewish Movie, which I seem to remember was a damned sight more engaging than the film itself. Coupled with the fact that Shavelson started out as a gag writer for Bob Hope then you get the idea.
Duke gets about 10 minutes of screen time in this one, acquitting himself well in a flashback sequence in which he witnesses the horror of the liberated Dachau concentration camp. It’s a perfect example of Wayne’s ability to convey emotion without words, and similar in tone to his unforgettable reaction in The Searchers to the plight of the rescued white women who had been held captive by the Comanches.
There is also a striking similarity between this film and The Longest Day when Wayne orders his men to cut down a dead German soldier dangling from a clock tower just as he does with the American parachutists dangling from the trees in the earlier film.
Wayne’s character, known only as The General, is obviously based on General Patton. I wonder how that would have turned out if he’d played Patton instead of George C Scott in the 1970 film Patton: Lust for Glory? Just a thought.
Cast a Giant Shadow is not a film I would recommend, even with a fairly decent Elmer Bernstein soundtrack. If you want to see Wayne and Douglas playing opposite each other then check out In Harm’s Way or The War Wagon, the latter in particular an infinitely better and more joyful experience.
The Green Berets (1968)
This obviously isn’t a JW WWII film but it is a John Wayne war film and I think I would be rather remiss to not include it in this article.
The Green Berets has to be the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to Wayne’s acting career – the turkey in the room is reserved for The Conqueror but let’s steer clear of that one for the moment. I’m not going to explore the controversy that exploded in the late 60s over this film, which I remember very well at the time, as I’m sure you can find enough of that elsewhere if interested.
However, I think it goes without saying that whilst some people find the film a glorious tribute to the fighting American forces who gave their lives in Vietnam to halt the spread of Communism before it reached the United States, to others it’s an overblown one-sided piece of right-wing propaganda that attempts to justify the promotion of a war that a lot of people in America didn’t want in the first place.
If one considers the film purely in terms of an action movie then the first thing I have to say is that John Wayne is just too old to be playing combat Colonel Mike Kirby, what with him being at least 60 when he appeared in the film which he co-directed with Ray Kellogg.
Duke and Aldo Ray and Bruce Cabot spend most of their time throughout the movie trying to hold their stomachs in, with Cabot failing miserably. And while we’re on the subject, what is it with all these Wayne films Cabot gets to play in? He even turned up for one scene as a quartermaster in In Harms Way then disappeared for the rest of the film. Did he have the negatives or something?
After spending over forty minutes delivering a lesson to journalists on why America is fighting the good fight in Nam and setting up the characters – Jim Hutton is the Scrounger from The Great Escape by any other name, David Janssen is the cynical lily-livered left-wing journalist who asks questions on behalf of the audience, the little orphan boy, Ham Chuck, who channels his inner Short Round from Indiana Jones and Temple of the Doom to capture our hearts, Luke Askew as the guy who is obviously going to buy the farm before the final reel – we’re into a set-piece of a battle that appears to be closely modeled on Wayne’s only other (official) directorial effort, The Alamo.
It’s by far the best sequence in the film, with the Mexicans, sorry, the Vietcong, laying siege to the Green Beret Nam encampment using ladders to clamber over the barbed wire.
It’s blindingly obvious this is a thinly-disguised Western with the Vietcong replacing the marauding Comanche or Apache (select your preferred warring tribe) villains of the piece. The whole Alamo vibe is further reinforced with the presence of the actor who played alongside Chuck Roberson as one of the ‘it do’ Tennesseans in The Alamo.
Another Alamo veteran, Patrick Wayne, pops up reprising his dad’s heroics from The Fighting Seabees as an engineer using a bulldozer to try and halt the advancing enemy. The only thing missing is Dimitri Tiomkin on soundtrack – Miklos Rosza doing the honours here instead.
After the battle in which Wayne manages to escape death twice, once by rolling clear of a downed helicopter then rolling clear of a downed observation tower, the film then takes a strange turn which I can only describe as Mission Impossible meets The Dirty Dozen. I understand this section of the film, in which Wayne and his men are sent on a secret mission to kidnap a North Vietnamese General, is one of the few parts of the film that actually comes from the original source material written by Robin Moore.
Needless to say the mission is a success, although we lose Jim Hutton to a particularly gory demise when he gets perforated and stabbed up by a Cong booby trap of pointed bamboo sticks. Cue tears from orphan Ham as he loses his new friend, with Wayne making him feel better with the last line in the film, ‘you’re what this is all about’. And there you have it. Vietnam 101 for those not in the know.
At this point in his career, John Wayne the man and John Wayne the screen persona were, in the eyes of both those who loved him and those who hated him, completely inseparable.
To anyone who can remember back to the late 60s Wayne was perceived to be a living parody of the characters he played onscreen, a right-wing Commie-baiting dinosaur whose politics went out of fashion nearly a decade before. The Green Berets does nothing to dispel that perception and, to be frank, Wayne didn’t help himself that much with his critics when it came to some of the statements he made in his Playboy interview in 1971.
Ultimately, however, what’s so wrong with someone who wears their heart on their sleeve when it comes to loving their country? And Wayne loved America with a passion. I should know. I bought the record.
I think I’ll leave the last word on John Wayne and his political leanings to none other than the left-wing French director Jean Luc Godard. Asked in 1964 on what he felt about Wayne coming out in support of the Republican senator Barry Goldwater, Godard replied by saying ‘how can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?’