Looking back over the numerous articles I’ve written in the last year it may not have escaped anyone’s notice that I have generally concentrated on the high profile and better known John Wayne movies.
There’s a reason for this. First of all, when I was in my teens, John Wayne did not necessarily represent the current social concerns of the time. In other words he was an anachronism whose films and political views belonged to another generation.
He wasn’t, you know, like, cool. I found actors such as Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino more interesting to watch, more realistic and believable to my mind.
This meant that for quite a while I didn’t go out of my way to catch the latest John Wayne flick at my local cinema which means there’s a gap in my knowledge regarding a fair proportion of his output in the 1960s.
Along with all of the non-Westerns / non-war / non John Ford and Howard Hawks directed films he appeared in from 1930 onwards that I have yet to view, I have to admit I haven’t really made that big a dent when it comes to taking a look at John Wayne’s complete filmography.
‘John Wayne Movies I Missed’ is therefore going to be an ongoing and occasional series of articles that will attempt to redress this situation by considering some of the JW films that haven’t made the cut up to this point.
The Big Trail (1930)
I never realised how good looking Duke was back in the day – I mean that strictly in a manly way of course. However, as Wayne himself might have said, ‘Looks don’t get it done, mister’, so despite a mighty handsome profile he just doesn’t have the acting chops at the age of 23 to successfully shoulder the lead role in a big budget Hollywood epic.
The Big Trail is in the vein of other super Westerns such as The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse and 3 Bad Men, and although the film found an audience when first released, unfortunately that did not apply to JW.
I’d like to think that somewhere in an alternative universe this film was a huge success and Duke found fame way before he finally did with Stagecoach in 1939. But at what cost?
Would we have been robbed of the whole slew of classic movies JW made with Ford and Hawks on account of him being too expensive to hire for Stagecoach? We’ll never know of course but on reflection maybe it was in the stars for Duke not to make it big so early.
His apprenticeship in the 60 odd poverty row features he was consigned to after the failure of The Big Trail put him in good stead by the time Ford eventually gave him a leg up as the Ringo Kid.
Here Duke plays a trail scout and trapper by the name of Breck Coleman, but if he’s a trapper he seems to be dressed inappropriately in all-white.
Wayne is given lines such as ‘I gotta kill me a pair a skunks back apiece on the road to Santa Fe’, and, when the settlers want to turn back in a huge snowstorm, ‘We’re blazing a trail that started back in England’.
Nice for old Blighty to get a positive namecheck in a Hollywood film.
To be fair to JW though, the supporting cast aren’t all that convincing either. It might be that the larger than life performances are down to the acting company trying to acquaint themselves with the move from silent to sound.
Director Raoul throws in everything but the kitchen sink. We get cheating gamblers, wagon trains, Ward Bond, square-dancing settlers, a buffalo hunt, an Indian attack, incomprehensible horn swaggling galoots, inclement weather, love and romance, revenge – you name it, The Big Trail’s got it.
The film does look good though, having been shot in 70mm as well as 35mm – I’d recommend you try and watch this in widescreen rather than the cropped version I taped from tv a few years back.
The plot is fairly straightforward, with Duke vying for leadership of the wagon train with the boss Red Flack.
It turns out Duke / Coleman has been tracking Flack and his crony Lopez, who killed a friend of his, with the intention of bestowing frontier justice on the pair.
This part of the story is eerily prescient of the end of Stagecoach, in which the Ringo Kid helps in getting the passengers to Lordsburg before killing the Plummer gang.
Here he tracks Flack and Lopez in a snowstorm, finds Lopez frozen to death and checks out Flack with his handy throwing knife. Cue a welcome home from his sweetheart and everything is fine in the valley.
Apart from Duke’s fledgling screen career, that is.
Allegheny Uprising (1939)
Second-billed after Claire Trevor again in the same year they co-starred in Stagecoach, Wayne plays frontiersman Jim Smith in an action adventure story set a few years before the American War of Independence.
Also in the cast is George Sanders so cue the British as the villains.
What with most of the nice American settlers labelled as ‘rabble’, ‘treasonous dogs’ and ‘blasted traitors’ it’s no wonder the British eventually got their arses kicked out of the colonies.
If only we’d been a bit more reasonable who knows how it might have all panned out – and that’s the closest I’m going to get to politics for now.
Interesting to see JW dressed in authentic frontier fringed buckskin costume, effectively auditioning for the part of Davy Crockett twenty years before he actually played the role properly.
The thing I love about these RKO / Republic Wayne on the cusp of stardom era movies is spotting someone lower down the cast who goes on to feature in later John Wayne films.
Ten minutes in, step forward Chill Wills, serenading Claire Trevor in the local tavern. He also serves the same purpose in the Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West for all you Chill fans.
Duke and his compatriots pursue an Indian raiding party who have kidnapped a couple of children (holy Searchers - that sounds familiar).
Unfortunately named the Black Boys, they disguise themselves by blacking up their faces with war paint on top - not sure how this movie would play in today’s politically correct climate, what with Wayne and the others offending two ethnic minorities for the price of one but, as they say, different times.
Like a lot of low-budget films such as this one the plot itself tends to be convoluted at best so I’m not going to go into detail here, but in a nutshell, Sanders as Captain Swanson plays a nasty English army soldier - told you so – who is ordered to protect the population from marauding Indians.
Being a stickler for the rules he unwittingly allows the even nastier Brian Donlevy to trade illicitly with the local tribes by giving him a permit to transport army goods, so It’s up to JW and his boys to disrupt the illegal trade and bring the villains to justice.
I’m not sure why Claire Trevor is the nominal star of the movie as her character is literally left out of most of the action, Wayne and the others coming up with a whole bunch of devious tricks in order to keep her out of harm's way.
The film lacks the usual climactic good versus baddie battle and turns into a court case in which Donlevy shoots one of Wayne’s mates then frames Wayne.
I think I may have to check out the end of the film again because I don’t remember Donlevy getting his just desserts for committing murder. The first thing that struck me watching Allegheny Uprising is that it reminds me of the kind of main feature you’d have seen as a kid back in the 1950s at a Saturday morning picture show.
In short not earth shattering or particularly memorable but adequate fare for the non-discerning John Wayne fan.
Dark Command (1940)
Okay, so let me make sure I’ve got this right.
Gabby Hayes is a travelling dentist who employs John Wayne to start an argument with anyone who crosses his path, after which JW then punches them in the mouth in order that they are then forced to seek dental help from the aforementioned Mr Hayes.
Seeing as there’s no writing credits on the version I watched I checked IMDB and there are four writers associated with Dark Command which doesn’t usually bode well for a film, and already it hasn’t got off to a good start.
Mind you, I think this is the first time I’ve ever been able to understand every word Gabby Hayes says so let’s be thankful for small mercies.
Set in Kansas a year before the outbreak of the American Civil War, there’s a huge dollop of overt patriotic sentiment running through this film.
First off John, playing a likeable character called Bob Seton, nearly has an early ‘Republic. I like the sound of the word’ moment when he hears schoolchildren singing ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’, then stepping in to protect someone from an angry crowd with the words ‘If a man’s born in this country he has rights’.
Something JW obviously forgot himself when he helped to run Carl Foreman out of town in the early fifties, but I’m going to keep my powder dry on that subject for when I get to check out Big Jim McLain.
Moving swiftly on, it’s reunion time for Duke in this one, working with the star of the film, Claire Trevor, for the third time – they’ll meet up again a few years later in The High and the Mighty.
There’s also stalwart Gabby Hayes and the director is Raoul Walsh of The Big Trail.
What’s interesting to see for all of us cowboy fans though is the pairing of Wayne with Roy Rogers who plays Trevor’s brother.
It’s intriguing to see Rogers eschew his well-known cowboy persona and do a bit of quite impressive acting for once.
Duke thinks about doing a bit of gun-running but wisely sidesteps that profession and runs for town Marshal instead, which he wins. His opponent, Will Cantrall (Cantrell / Quantrill – geddit?), played by Walter Pidgeon, decides in a fit of pique to avenge his defeat by setting the whole country ablaze, which is a bit of an overreaction if you ask me, but the die is cast.
JW vies with Pidgeon for the love of Claire Trevor, a situation which becomes even more complicated when that nice Roy Rogers shoots and kills a man in cold blood when they argue about slavery. Roy Rogers? A murderer and a racist?
And to think when I was a kid that I worshipped Roy even more than he revered Trigger. And that’s saying something.
In quick succession Pidgeon defends Roy, intimidates the jury, get’s him found not guilty, the civil war starts, Pidgeon goes off on one and cue montage of Cantrill’s (Quantrill’s) Guerillas pillaging, burning and raping arbitrarily on either side of the border.
Pillaging and burning anyway. Let’s not forget. The Hayes Code still stood for something back in 1940.
There are a whole lot of other twists and turns in the plot too numerous to recount here so I really recommend you check this film out if you haven’t seen it before. It’s not just an entertaining watch, it tackles a whole raft of issues including racism, patriotism capitalism, warism – you name an ism, the writers throw it into the mix.
Just in case you were wondering, John Wayne finally gets his girl. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
Three Faces West (1940)
There were a number of Hollywood films produced in 1940 that overtly referenced the war in Europe at the time, including titles such as Foreign Correspondent, The Great Dictator and Waterloo Bridge.
This is a relatively unknown entry in that list, unknown to me anyway, that in a way deals with the same subject.
Charles Coburn and Sigrid Gurie play father and daughter refugees from Nazi occupied Vienna who are hired by Wayne, as farmer’s organizer John Philips, to work as doctors in a mid-Western dust bowl town.
Philips learns that the land is going to be declared barren and that the whole town is going to have to uproot and move to better farming land 1500 miles away in Oregon.
JW gives a stirring speech to those farmers who wish to stay and battle it out with the elements:‘Everyone of us has been served by a dispossessed notice, not by Uncle Sam or a bank or some mortgage company, but by a little gal we’ve been kicking in the teeth – mother nature’.
Prophetic words indeed. Makes you think that if Wayne were alive today he’d be supporting Al Gore and the climate change lobby when it come to saving the planet.
Then you sober up and realise drink makes you say stupid things sometimes.
The moral is: if the couple from Vienna can find a new home elsewhere then so can Wayne and his farmer friends. Then it rains. Leni asks if the rain will ‘save our land’.
JW bestows a big smacker on her lips –a reward for showing she’s now fully integrated into American society. Then they plan to marry. Then a letter arrives telling Leni that Eric, her fiancé, who she thought was dead, is still alive and plans to come to America and marry her.
Luckily for everyone concerned, Eric turns out to be a genuine cast-iron twenty- four carat gold-plated dyed in the wool Nazi son-of-a-bitch, which means that Duke and Leni get to live happily ever after.
The film – still not sure what the title means but I’m sure someone out there will let us all know - can be viewed in more ways than one, either as a romantic drama between the lady from Vienna and the rough and tumble mid-American JW character, or as a propaganda piece that encourages Americans to embrace the influx of wartime refugees fleeing persecution from their homeland.
Kind of a mashup of Grapes of Wrath meets Casablanca, although actress Sigrid Gurie as Leni is no Ingrid Bergman, and Wayne’s no Humphrey Bogart. On the other hand, who would want him to be?
Hardly any action to speak of apart from the occasional punch thrown by JW at those who don’t agree with him, so a bit of a curio but not the best of the Wayne / Republic titles from this era.
The Long Voyage Home (1940)
I was surprised to see Wayne top-billed in this, his second film for Ford, based upon the writings of Eugene O’Neill.
His position in the credits of the films he made in the early 40s still fluctuated between star and co-star and seeing as The Long Voyage Home is really an ensemble piece I was expecting him to be lower down the cast.
John Wayne plays Swede Olsen, a somewhat naïve merchant seaman aboard a ship bound for England during the early years of WWII. Duke attempts a Swedish accent in this one, which is probably why he didn’t try a German accent in The Sea Chase. Pity. I reckon he’d have sounded great.
Cinematographer Greg Toland shares the screen with Ford’s name in the opening credits, his innovative deep focus compositions in The Long Voyage Home further explored by Toland a couple of years later in Citizen Kane.
Staunch Ford stock company members such as Barry Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick and John Qualen are all present and correct, along with British actors Ian Hunter and Wilfrid Lawson, playing respectively a mysteriously broody member of the crew and the ships captain.
I watched this film a couple of years ago so I’m relying on my fading memory here but I seem to remember that the story of Wayne’s character is foregrounded more towards the end when he nearly ends up being shanghaied by an unscrupulous shipping agent and press-ganged for another ship.
His compatriots rescue him and he manages to get safely back to meet his family in Sweden.
Some of the characters come to a sticky end, with Ward Bond copping it early on and Ian Hunter getting shot to pieces by an enemy fighter plane that attacks the ship, which is transporting explosives to England.
Thomas Mitchell is press-ganged onto another ship which is torpedoed and goes down with all hands. So, not exactly a barrel of laughs but then there aren’t that many John Ford films with a happy ending anyway.
The fact that Ian Hunter’s character turns out to have been an alcoholic who has left the Navy and his family in disgrace brings home how much the theme of drink permeates not only Ford’s work, but also a lot of the actors associated with his films in general.
Wilfrid Lawson, who played the frequently inebriated father of Claire Trevor in Allegheny Uprising – now there’s type casting for you – was a famous carouser and imbiber of the demon drink off screen as well as on.
I think it was Michael Caine who told the story in one of his autobiographies – yes, he wrote more than one but not many people know that – of the time Richard Burton bumped into Lawson in a pub one evening.
Already four sheets to the wind, which would have served as a good alternative title for The Long Voyage Home, Lawson told Burton after a few more drinks that there was a very good play being performed in a theatre just opposite the pub and if they hurried they’d catch the second act.
Firmly ensconced in their seats the play began and after a few minutes Lawson said to Burton, ‘now watch this bit, it’s going to be really interesting.’.
Burton asked why to which Lawson replied, ‘because I’m supposed to come on next’. Makes you proud to be British, and that’s a fact.