As with the recent article on the John Wayne movies in which Duke played real-life characters I’m going to fly by the seat of my paints and pull together all the instances I can think of in which he gets shot, wounded, knocked out and/or generally kicked around without actually giving up the ghost.
For the sake of brevity, I’m only going to tackle the films he appeared in after “Stagecoach” although if there’s any mileage in it I may consider his 1930s body of work at a later date.
JW as frontiersman Jim Smith takes on dastardly Captain Swanson, played by George Sanders at his smarmiest in this pre-War of Independence historical drama.
At one point Duke and his fellow fighters approach Swanson’s fort under a flag of truce. As they ride away someone inside the fort shoots him in the back of the shoulder, knocking him from his horse. Despite this Duke still has the wherewithal to realise “That was no army musket, that was a long rifle”, before ordering his men to return fire on the fort but to make sure they don’t kill anyone. He must have been in a good mood.
The Long Voyage Home
JW plays Swedish merchant seaman Ole Olsen, complete with a passable Scandinavian accent and intent on getting back home to his family after a considerable time at sea (hence the title of the film).
After partaking of a drink with his fellow crewmen in a local hostelry he ends up being drugged and shanghaied on to another boat. Luckily his mates come to his rescue but I’m ashamed to say all of this takes place in an English port, although in reality this type of behaviour is very rare indeed.
The Shepherd of the Hills
There’s a real surprise in store for anyone watching this film for the first time. JW, playing hot-headed bootlegger Matt Mathews, eventually faces off against the shepherd of the title, played by Harry Carey Senior, and unexpectedly takes a bullet from Mr. Carey, who turns out to be his father.
After recovering from surgery Matt says with a smile, ‘Kinda like being born again right side up’ whereas what he should have said is ‘You shot me, you son-of-a-bitch. Your own kid. I mean, what’s wrong with you?’
Wayne once said that Carey taught him everything he ever knew. Guess that didn’t get round to figuring out how to be quicker on the draw.
Reap the Wild Wind
Unusually for Duke, here playing Capt. Jack Stuart, he starts this sea-faring melodrama set in the 1840s lying comatose on the deck of his sailing ship, which has been hi-jacked in order to be sailed onto a reef and salvaged by unscrupulous seafaring folk.
It seems one of his not-so-faithful crew who is in cahoots with a villainous salvage outfit has clonked him over the head before tying him to the mizzen mask whilst the boat is wrecked. Also unusually for a JW film, he’s rescued by a woman, the feisty salvager Loxi, played by Paulette Goddard.
She falls head-over-heels for the big lug then nurses him back to health. Unfortunately, things don’t end happily for the cooing lovebirds but I’ll leave you to find out what happens for yourselves.
In Old California
Not only did I never think I’d see a John Wayne movie in which he’s described as a “two-fisted pharmacist” but I also never figured anyone would have the courage to try and lynch him either, which the local rent-a-mob try to do after mistakenly thinking he’s poisoned the town drunk with some tainted medicine.
Before the dirty deed can be done, however, proceedings are interrupted by a miner riding into town declaring there’s gold in them thair hills thus robbing me of the opportunity to suggest that JW as chemist John Craig is highly strung.
Back to Bataan
Director Edward Dmytryk and scriptwriter Ben Barzman, both former members of the Communist Party, took umbrage at some of Duke’s political views and decided to capitalise on JWs penchant at the time for performing his own stunts.
So they decided to blow him up. In one of the battle sequences in the film they had him strapped into a leather harness and then yanked out of a foxhole by an overhead crane to simulate being thrown into the air from the impact of an exploding enemy artillery shell.
Look close and you can see JWs not exactly savouring the moment, but he still took it on the chin like the trooper he was. And he never worked with Dmytryk (or Barzman) again.
They Were Expendable
Duke walks around with an injured right hand for at least the first hour of this film which I had assumed was a result of catching a bullet from a trigger-happy Zero pilot whilst being fired on at sea.
On further examination it actually turns out it gets mangled during an attack by Japanese fighter pilots on his PT boat.
The hand gets kind of mashed up in the helm, or the steering wheel for those of you unacquainted with the nautical term, when it rotates too fast as he attempts to steer the boat out of trouble.
Angel and the Badman
Difficult to ascertain exactly what injury Duke starts this film with but it definitely involves a bullet wound of some kind as described by the doctor who reluctantly patches him up.
JW as outlaw Quirt Evans is obviously on the run from what looks like a posse, the chase running under the opening credits. Duke’s horse then collapses followed by Duke himself, but he still manages to get a kiss from the lovely Gail Russell before passing out from his wounds.
Gunslinger Cherry Valance, played by John Ireland, sure has it in for hard-headed trail boss Thomas Dunson (JW), shooting at him twice during the course of “Red River”.
First time around he sends a bunch of splinters into Dunson’s gun hand by shooting at the wooden tongue of the wagon his boss is leaning against whilst Dunson threatens to hang a couple of his errant cattle herders.
This means JW can’t draw, although that doesn’t cause him a problem towards the end of the film when Valance tries to shoot him again, this time coming off worse himself, although Valance still manages to put a bullet in JWs left side.
This doesn’t even slow Dunson up, so determined is he on giving his adopted son Matt Garth, played by Montgomery Clift, a damned good whupping for stealing his herd. Never come between a man and his cattle.
The Quiet Man
Unbeknownst to ex-boxer Sean “Trooper” Thornton, the villagers have devised a plan to ensure that his marriage to the beautiful Mary Kate will go ahead despite the initial protestations of her brother, Red Will.
They trick Will into thinking that the Widow Tillane is up for marriage to him, but when he finds out he’s been duped he takes his misplaced anger out on Thornton and knocks him out with a haymaker punch JW should have seen coming a mile away.
After being brought round by smelling salts Thornton leaps from the floor to go looking for the man who walloped him, and we all know how that works out at the end, don’t we?
Big Jim McLain
Taking on a bunch of Commie subversives in Honolulu, Big Jim finds himself outnumbered when he’s set upon by members of the party after he punches one of them on the nose for using a racist slur.
Before you can say “Joe McCarthy for President” they’re on JW like a ton of bricks, raining punches down on him as he falls to the floor and attempting to finish him off with a few well-aimed kicks to the head. It’s quite a realistic fight for once and JW looks genuinely duffed over until the authorities finally arrive and arrest the pinko’s in question.
And to think that the Commie party leader was played by that nice Alfred from the Batman TV series. What on earth was the world coming to back in those days?
This is a double-wounded part for JW in what is one of his most popular and iconic roles. Captured by the Apaches, he’s first of all staked out on the ground and hot coals are dropped onto his right hand, which is a bit unfair seeing that’s also his gun hand as well.
Luckily he’s carrying a photo of someone the Apache chief recognises so they let Hondo go. Unluckily, another Apache has taken umbrage against Hondo for killing his brother and challenges him to a knife fight.
During the course of the fight Hondo gets knifed in the shoulder but despite being tortured earlier he still manages to prevail. They really don’t make guys like this anymore.
This is not a film one really wants to dwell on for too long so let’s cut to the chase. JW as Temujin (aka Genghis Khan) falls for the lovely Bortai, played by Susan Hayward.
Temujin talks in such banalities i.e. “I feel this Tartar woman is for me and my blood says take her”,” You’re beautiful in your wrath” etc. that Bortai decides to check out and arranges to be ‘kidnapped’ back into her Tartar tribe.
During the ‘kidnap’ Temujin takes an arrow in his right chest, the first one to strike JW in a film that I’m aware of so far. I think he also gets tortured at one point but I wasn’t prepared to endure the torture myself of waiting to see if that happens by watching the film all the way through.
We have a saying over here in the UK – “you wait ages for a bus then three come along at the same time”. Similarly, you wait for JW to get shot with an arrow and before you can say “That’ll Be The Day” there’s another on the way.
In “The Searchers” which was JWs next film after “The Conqueror” Ethan Edwards wants to finish off his niece Debbie once he tracks her down, on account of her being tainted by association with Comanche chief Scar who kidnapped her when she was younger.
It still comes as a bit of a surprise though when he does actually pull out his gun in order to shoot her on sight but before Ethan can deliver the coup de grace a Comanche warrior appears atop the bluff and whangs a well-aimed arrow straight into JW, this time in his left side, thus sparing the audience the sight of John Wayne murdering a young girl in cold blood.
The Wings of Eagles
It appears that the older Wayne got the more vulnerable he seemed to be, and in “The Wings of Eagles”, playing real-life counterpart Frank “Spig” Wead, he’s just about as vulnerable as anyone can get when he falls down a staircase and ends up paralysed after fracturing his neck.
This actually befell the real Spig but I’m not sure how he managed to master his diagnosis and walk again. One thing I’m fairly certain of is that it had nothing to do with someone singing “I’m gonna move that toe”.
It’s not very often that a woman gets the best of JW in a fight but in “Jet Pilot” it’s Janet Leigh as Russian pilot Anna who strikes a blow for equality, among other things, by whacking him around the head with the butt of a gun when he finds out she’s actually a double agent.
In the words of the man himself, she was “a Soviet Tootsie Roll who made a chump out of me”. She sure did, but Duke still got the girl at the end of the day. Chalk that one up as a victory for American democracy.
Legend of the Lost
Accompanied by the beautiful Sophia Loren and a deranged Rossano Brazzi looking for his father and gold in the desert, Duke, as guide Joe January, gets on the wrong side of Brazzi and ends up getting being stabbed in the back.
Luckily Sophia has a gun and shoots Brazzi dead before he can incur any more damage at which point the film ends so abruptly you’re left wondering if Duke actually makes it out alive. One to ponder when discussing the number of times he meets his maker onscreen.
It’s more than unusually dangerous for JW as Sheriff John T. Chance in the town of Rio Bravo. Not only does he have to keep an eye out for any passing hombre wanting to prove they can take him on, he also has to contend with his own deputy, Dude, played by Dean Martin, whacking Chance around the head with a very large piece of wood after JW gets between him and the silver dollar Dude attempts to retrieve from a spittoon.
Later on, Chance also takes a tumble and gets knocked unconscious when some of the aforementioned hombre types trip him up at the bottom of a staircase. You would have thought he’d have known better after what happened in “The Wings of Eagles”.
The Horse Soldiers
So let’s get this right. First of all JW, as Col. John Marlowe, takes a brigade of Union soldiers deep into Johnny Reb territory in order to carry out an attack on a town that supplies the Confederate army at Vicksburg.
Then he is forced to confront a band of Confederate soldiers intent on taking him and his men down. Then he gets drunk. Then he and co-star William Holden duke it out and after all that, he goes and gets himself shot in the leg in the last five minutes of the film.
JW still makes it across the bridge that leads to freedom at the end though, so maybe it was just a little old flesh wound.
Duke must have had extreme faith in his co-star, Stuart Whitman, when it came to wielding a shovel near his head. After capturing gambler Paul Regret, Texas Ranger Jake Cutter stupidly hands his prisoner a very large spade in order to help bury some of Cutter’s friends.
Although Regret expresses regret at what he’s about to do he still goes ahead and does it anyway, whacking Cutter on the side of the head with said spade and knocking him unconscious. Regret lives to regret his actions and that’s all the regret puns I can think of at the moment.
The Longest Day
Duke, as Lieutenant Col. Benjamin H. Vandervoort, leads his men on a parachute drop into Normandy on D-Day. During the course of the drop, Vandervoort lands badly and breaks his ankle.
Being the war horse he so obviously is he decides to carry on with the mission in an even more ornery mood than he was before, ordering his men to push him around on an abandoned wooden wagon with his ankle strapped up tight.
For more information about WWII hero Vandervoort check out our earlier article here on the real-life characters Wayne played in his movies.
In Harm’s Way
Out of all the scrapes JW gets himself into described thus far this has to be one of the worst.
During the final sea battle that takes place in this Otto Preminger WWII naval movie Wayne, as Captain “Rock” Torrey, faces the might of the Japanese navy and ends up seriously wounded when his ship takes a direct hit.
The serious nature of the wound doesn’t become obvious until later when it is revealed that Torrey has had to have his leg amputated. In harm’s way indeed.
Johnny Crawford, that nice kid from “The Rifleman”, drygulches Duke and in return receives a bullet in the gut from JW who then has to deliver poor old Johnny’s body to his father.
JW as hired gun Cole Thornton berates the father for leaving a boy to do a man’s job. The dead boys sister decides to settle out of court with Thornton herself so shoots him in the side, the bullet lodging near his spine which causes a number of complications further on down the line.
You might have thought JW, playing a character based upon oil well firefighter Red Adair, would have suffered at least a couple of burns or scorched eyebrows at the very least but nope, he has to up the ante and get himself nearly crushed to death by a bulldozer instead.
It’s not his fault, what with trying to cap a well at the same time but this is definitely a one-off incident that was unlikely to ever be repeated in any of his other films. And he ends up in hospital too.
Another two injuries for the price of one. First off JW as Civil War Union Colonel Cord McNally gets whacked over the head by Johnny Reb Tuscarora Phillips for having the temerity to try and get back a gold shipment stolen by the Confederates.
Later on, in yet another hostage exchange that kind of goes off the rails a la “Rio Bravo”, Duke gets himself shot in the leg by Jim Davis, he of Jock “Dallas” Ewing fame, although Davis gets his just deserts in the end like all those cowardly SOBs that want to hurt our boy.
The tense showdown at the end of the film between JW and Richard Boone as killer John Fain is also another hostage swap situation, this time with Big Jake trying to get his grandson back in exchange for a million dollars in cash.
The similarity with “Rio Lobo” doesn’t end there because when Fain realises Jake hasn’t brought the money a gunfight ensues in which JW gets shot in the leg – again – with a sniper in the bell tower shooting him in exactly the same leg and in almost the same place – again.
Not to worry though. JW gets to limp away at the end of the film in one piece. Again.
In summary it appears as though Mr. Wayne sustained the following onscreen injuries from the films thus far mentioned:
- Blown up 1
- Broken ankle 1
- Crushed by a bulldozer 1
- Drugged 1
- Fractured neck 1
- Loses a leg 1
- Nearly lynched 1
- Tortured with hot coals 1
- Mangled Hand 2
- Wounded by an arrow 2
- Knifed 2
- Generally roughed up 2
- Knocked unconscious 6
- Shot 8
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article there’s bound to be other instances I’ve missed that feature JW ending up wounded or at the very least getting very annoyed at finding himself on the end of a bullet, knife, arrow or any other type of dangerous device wielded in an attempt to do him in.
Feel free to comment on whether I got anything wrong or have left out other films which should have made the list. If we get enough feedback we’ll update the article as and when necessary.