Last Updated on December 11, 2021 by Steve Mayhew
Considering the number of movie fistfights John Wayne has indulged in over the years I thought I’d revisit some of them to see how our boy fared mano a mano, as they say down Mexico way. This list is fairly arbitrary – not all of the films mentioned here are Westerns – so apologies if I missed a favorite of yours. Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom.
The Spoilers (1942)
The reason this fight takes place is due to Randolph Scott stealing a mine from John Wayne, but when the final confrontation is as brutal and exciting as this one, who needs an excuse?
By my reckoning the fistfight at the end of this film runs for about three and a half minutes. It would have run longer but some scenes are speeded up in order to make the action appear faster than it actually is, which only serves to introduce a comedic element to the sequence as a whole.
I’ve heard mention that JW did some of his own stunts in the fight and if you look closely you’ll see it’s actually him being bodily pushed through the glass window of the saloon just before the fight finishes. In the overhead shots it’s obviously a couple of stunt men slugging it out whilst Scott and Wayne feature in the close ups.
A statuesque Marlene Dietrich watches from the balcony above at the mayhem below whilst sporting a heavily coiffed mountain of hair carefully balanced on her beautiful bonce.
Good to see Harry Carey Senior in the film as well. I wonder if he gave Duke any tips on how to fake a punch, seeing as Carey made about 25 silent Westerns with the grand master himself, John Ford.
And the winner is: John Wayne by a knockout
Donovan’s Reef (1963)
In this film Wayne and Lee Marvin share the same birthday so each year, to celebrate the occasion, they meet to try and beat each other’s brains out. I can’t think of a more better excuse for a fight.
Their first and main encounter takes place about ten minutes in when they confront each other in a bar, Marvin as Gilhooley getting in the first punch and knocking Wayne across the saloon into a table.
There’s a review on the net saying that Wayne ended up injuring himself when he hit the table but he appears to recover quite quickly in the scene, punching Marvin then dragging him out of the back of the saloon.
A few minutes later we see Wayne trying to either bring Marvin round in a pool of water or attempting to drown him, it’s not very clear one way or the other to be honest. Reprimanded by an old friend for their childish behaviour, they climb out of the pool then walk back into the saloon whereupon Wayne delivers a sucker punch and puts an amen to it all.
The rematch is just as perfunctory, Wayne and Marvin getting in a few licks at each other in the middle of a brawls with a bunch of sailors.
I reckon Wayne appears to have more trouble landing on top of the piano under which Dick Foran resides than he does hitting the table in the previous fight. Either way, although I’m not usually a fan of ‘comedy’ fistfights and God knows Duke’s been in a few of those over the years, it’s good to see JW still punching a few lights out in his late 50s.
And the winner is: John Wayne by a knockout. Again.
The Alamo (1960)
There’s only two punches thrown in what one might term a light fistfight in this film, but they are two awfully big punches which are worth discussing in a bit more detail.
According to scriptwriter James Edward Grant, Davy Crockett and his band of faithful Tennesseans would on occasion resort to smashing each other in the face in order to alleviate the boredom of a slow day.
In the film we are introduced to a quaint old custom whereby the individuals involved balance a feather on their nose whilst their counterpart in pugilism tries to knock the feather away by – yes, you’ve guessed it – smashing the other one in the face with their fist.
In this instance one of the participants happens to be Davy Crockett, whilst the other is a real big guy whose name escapes me at the moment so let’s just call him RBG.
RBG gets the first shot in, whacking JW in the face as hard as he can, but unfortunately for him our boy remains standing. JW gets the next shot and, wouldn’t you know it, not only knocks RBG clean across the cantina but bowls over half of the other customers at the same time.
Viewed on a big screen this small altercation takes on a more epic quality, mainly because the movie was shot using a very large Panavision 65m camera.
I had the opportunity to visit the Alamo village in Bracketville back in 2000 and I was quite taken aback by how small the back room of the cantina, in which they filmed the infamous ‘Republic, I like the sound of the word’ speech, actually was.
The cantina itself wasn’t that much bigger either, confirming once more the magic and illusion that underlines our pleasure in all things cinematic. In this case the illusion is more upfront than normal, because if I were on the end of either of the punches thrown by Wayne or Blubber I’d have probably ended up in intensive care or, at the very least, eating soup through a straw.
And the winner is: John Wayne by a whisker, but it’s a close run thing.
I think Hondo is probably one of the most action-packed films John Wayne ever made. You get an Apache / Wayne chase sequence, a hand-to-hand combat scene, a climactic cavalry / Apache battle, as well as a couple of punch ups along the way.
Duke gets to belt it first off with Leo Gordon, who turns out to be the wayward husband of Geraldine Page, left alone with her young son at a ranch in the middle of nowhere.
Duke is unaware of the connection between the two until after he punches Mr Gordon’s lights out in a fairly clichéd but short saloon fight.
Of course Gordon doesn’t help matters much by pulling a gun on Wayne after the first punch, after which Duke is morally obliged to knock him through the swinging saloon doors – I told you it was clichéd. In fact the moral obligation goes even further when later on Duke has to shoot him, but that’s another story.
The other punch up is literally just a one-off interaction between Wayne and James Arness in which Arness attempts to blackmail Duke after Duke has killed Page’s husband. Like the film as a whole, which runs for only about 1 hour 30 minutes it’s short, sharp and to the point.
And the winner is: Duke Wayne on both counts
What is it that McKlintock, North to Alaska and The Undefeated have in common? Answer. They all contain fist fighting sequences in which John Wayne and certain other actors demean themselves by attempting to outdo each other when it comes to pratfalls, gurning and downright plain silliness.
If I went to see a John Wayne film as a kid I didn’t want to end up witnessing a sub-par Charlie Chaplin movie in which the assembled cast dodge flying chairs, thumping fists and, in the case of McKlintock!, a mud-filled crater into which everyone inevitably visits at some point in the proceedings.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I don’t like comedy fights, especially in a film that doesn’t start out as a comedy. The Undefeated is not a comedy, it’s a pretty serious film and dropping a comedic fight into the middle of it breaks the tone of the whole thing. North to Alaska is definitely a comedy but unfortunately not a very funny one, which is why I never got round to watching the movie all the way through.
I’m giving McKlintock! a pass though because the mud crater fight starts with a truly iconic and unexpected John Wayne ‘moment’.
Duke decides he’s not going to punch Leo Gordon (again?) in the face, telling him ‘I’m not gonna hurt you’, then changes his mind with the statement ‘The hell I won’t’ before dispatching him to said mud crater.
I found that genuinely funny, as I seem to remember the rest of the packed audience also did back in Dreamland cinema in Margate, UK in 1963. There’s also a pretty good separate punch-up in the film between Patrick Wayne and Edward Faulkner which, along with the epic mud fistfight, fits with the narrative of the film.
They’re not just dropped into the film irrespective of the main story so both fights in McKlintock! work for me.
And the winner is: No one. They all end up covered in mud. I think.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome one and all to the cowboy town of Lincoln, where the bad guys are tough but the good guys are even tougher. We have for your delectation a good old fashioned no holds barred cinematic grudge match, with the winner taking all and the loser buying a one-way ticket to Boot Hill.
In the left-hand corner, weighing in at about 63 years old and more pounds than he’d care to admit to, the one, the only Duke ‘Uppercut’ Wayne. Over in the right hand corner we have his opponent, Forrest ‘Roundhouse’ Tucker, who has the advantage of age – he’s 12 years younger – but Duke’s got more experience on his side, as well as his faithful stand-in Cliff Roberson so we’re going to be witnessing a fairly even matched fight.
This isn’t the first time these two have met of course. Their first match was back in ’49, both men much younger and rather more sprightly, but judges voted a tie on account of the Second World War getting in the way – although if the match had gone the full twelve rounds my money would have been on Duke.
The Marquis of Queensberry rules go out of the window as Duke rides in through the window on his horse, dodges the blast from Tucker’s shotgun, jumps down and throws the first proper punch of the fight.
They wrestle each other to the ground but Tucker’s too quick for Duke, getting up and smacking him across the head with a conveniently placed piece of furniture. Tucker runs up the stairs pursued by Cliff – sorry, Duke – who gets kicked back downstairs again.
Duke then pops up – or is it Cliff – then runs back upstairs whereupon he attempts to rearrange Tucker’s features with three punches to the face. The fight spreads out onto the balcony where Duke gets to pummel Tucker a few more times, Tucker swinging a branding iron at Duke’s skull.
Both men plummet from the balcony where – wouldn’t you know it – Tucker ends up skewered on that long cow horn that got thrown off the balcony a moment before. The end result is a damned sight more conclusive than the last time these two met and the best man definitely won.
And the winner is: Duke by a mile.
The Cowboys (1970)
I have to admit that every time I catch The Great Escape on tv, where it is now a staple of all Bank Holidays over here in England, I always hope that just one time Steve McQueen will finally make it over that last barb-wire fence on his bike and scoot off to Switzerland.
Similarly, I find myself fervently wishing that just for once Bruce Dern doesn’t get to pull out his gun and blast Duke to kingdom come in The Cowboys but my prayers are never answered.
Now let’s be honest here for a moment. Telling Mr Dern that although he might be thirty years older but on his worst day could still ‘beat the hell’ out of him was probably not the most diplomatic approach by Wayne, particularly as he and his fellow cowboys were outgunned and surrounded by Mr Dern’s gang.
Exacerbating the situation, even more, Wayne sucker punches Dern twice before being knocked to the ground by one of Dern’s cronies from behind. Dern sportingly waits for Duke to get up before punching him to the ground, whereupon Duke catches him with a left punch to the face. Dern gives as good as he gets until Wayne tries to knock down a tree using Dern’s head.
As someone said at the end of the World Cup final between England and Germany back in 1966, ‘they think it’s all over’, and you genuinely think it is until Dern goes and spoils it all by shooting Duke in the back three times before finishing him off.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, for audiences watching this scene for the first time back in 1972, it was probably the most unexpected early demise of a major Hollywood actor on screen since Janet Leigh, after only forty-seven minutes into Psycho, took a shower and exited the film after forgetting to lock the bathroom door.
Duke doesn’t leave the stage that quickly, in fact, he lingers on until the morning before finally giving up the ghost. After that, the rest of the film becomes a curious mixture of Bugsy Malone meets Death Wish, the cowboys wreaking revenge upon our hero’s killers who luckily don’t seem to be capable of hitting a barn door from ten paces when it comes to shooting at kids.
And the winner is: Duke won the battle, but Bruce Dern won the war.
The Quiet Man (read more)
‘Danaher, you owe me three hundred fifty pounds. Let’s have it’. So begins probably the most famous screen fight of John Wayne’s cinematic career.
But wait one moment, I hear you ask. The Quiet Man is a romantic comedy, and the ensuing fight is more of a humorous conflict than, for example, the literal fight to the death in The Cowboys. Yes, but the eventual encounter between Sean Thornton and Will Danaher in The Quiet Man comes at the end of a story in which everything is leading up to this moment, a bit like the fight in The Spoilers if I’m honest, with the tension between the main characters finally exploding into a climactic brawl that cannot be contained in one place.
The fight takes the audience on a mini-tour of the village of Innisfree, in which, along the way, various bystanders jump in to contribute to the action, before the final denouement in Cohan’s Bar.
The very first time I visited Cong back in 1993 I parked the car and went for a walk across the Rose Cottage bridge. If you look in the other direction to the cottage you’ll see – hopefully, it’s still there – a big tree on the right bank of the stream, and I immediately recognised it as the location where Wayne pulls Victor McLaglen from the water, only to be rewarded by a punch in the face.
The fact that the first thing I saw and recognised in Cong from the film was related to the fistfight says it all. There are many other memorable scenes in The Quiet Man that come to mind but it will always be celebrated for the fight at the end which, by my reckoning, runs for about nine minutes of screen time from first to last punch. ‘Homeric, impetuous’, as a certain character in the film might remark.
And the winner is: John Wayne (and the audience) by a mile.