John Wayne Goes to War: Duke’s WWII Films of the 1940s

By my reckoning the first film John Wayne appeared in that touched upon the subject of the second World War was John Ford’s rather melancholy The Long Voyage Home, released in 1940.
The boat on which Wayne serves as a (Swedish?) crew member is attacked by a German fighter plane. The boat is eventually sunk by a submarine, although Wayne is not on board at this point.

The Long Voyage Home John Wayne

For me John Wayne has to be at the centre of the action, otherwise it doesn’t qualify as a true Wayne WWII feature. This why both The Long Voyage Home and Reunion in France – which is more of a vehicle for Joan Crawford than it is for Wayne – do not feature as one of Duke’s WWII movies.

Flying Tigers WWII with John Wayne

The Flying Tigers

Released in 1942 by Republic Studios, to which Wayne was under contract at the time, this is a really great action film with Wayne playing Jim Gordon, the commander of a volunteer group of American fliers stationed in China just before America enters the war in order to protect the local population from the dastardly Japanese air force.

What struck me when watching the film for the first time in years is how much it echoes the earlier Howard Hawks film, Only Angels Have Wings, made in 1938, which in itself was a remake of an even earlier John Ford film made in 1932 called Air Mail. One of the fliers hired by Wayne has a dodgy background, just as Richard Barthelmess had in the Hawks film.
There’s also a scene in Flying Tigers that duplicates one from Only Angels Have Wings when the crew on the ground are surrounded in fog as a flier struggles to land his plane safely.

Also of note is that one of the stalwarts of the John Ford stock company, Anna Lee, plays Wayne’s love interest, and co-star John Carroll refers to Wayne as Pappy, which of course was Wayne’s affectionate name for John Ford. Here endeth the Ford / Hawks comparisons.

John Wayne Anna Lee in Flying Tigers

Although most of the flying sequences are a combination of stock footage and model work, the action scenes more than make up for the clichéd love triangle of Wayne, Carroll and Lee that plays out on the ground. What might be of interest to a contemporary audience is that Wayne and his compatriots are fighting on behalf of the Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, who was not exactly known for his enthusiasm towards western democracy.

At least he wasn’t a commie so I guess Wayne figured he was fighting for the right side. There’s also not much here to keep the politically correct brigade of today happy when it comes to the portrayal of the Japanese. The American volunteer pilots are paid $600 a month for flying, plus a bonus of $500 for each enemy flier they kill. It’s like the film is predicated on the basis of a deadly safari played out in the sky, with the Americans as the hunters and the Japanese as the big game. On top of which all of the Japanese fliers are straight out of central casting, murderously bombing hospitals and shooting one hapless American pilot as he attempts to parachute to safety.

Wayne is obviously the star of the film, and he finally comes into his own once the volunteers hear that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbour, making their war in China official. Our man immediately puts himself forward for a suicide mission, his death wish scuppered when John Carroll tricks Wayne into parachuting out of a plane full of explosives that Carroll then flies into a Japanese troop train. And there was me thinking it was the Japanese that invented the notion of the Kamikaze pilot.

I really like this film.

It’s unadulterated propaganda but then what war film isn’t? Apart from which, there aren’t many Wayne war films that can make you laugh out loud as I did when a wounded American flyer puffs away on his cigarette whilst being treated for his wounds. That scene alone means The Flying Tigers gets a resounding thumbs-up as far as I’m concerned.

The Fighting Seabees WWII movie with John Wayne

The Fighting Seabees

Another Republic release, this time from 1944, but not nearly as good as The Flying Tigers. I remember watching this film as a kid and thinking it was full of action but having watched it again recently there’s really only two fighting sequences in the whole of the film, and it takes nearly 30 minutes before the first shot is fired in battle.

The story revolves around a group of construction workers who are restricted from taking up arms to defend themselves when the going gets tough, as they’re still classed as civilians, even though they’re building infrastructure for the army and navy in battle conditions. Step forward construction boss Wedge Donovan, played by John Wayne, who fights for the rights of his workers to take on the Japanese.

If that was just the main thrust of the story then there might have been room for more action but the film is stumped by a strange love triangle between Wayne, war correspondent Susan Hayward and Hayward’s boyfriend, Dennis O’Keefe, who plays a navy Lieutenant, and is all for helping Wedge to get his men the right to bear arms.

Hayward loves O’Keefe, then Wayne falls in love with Hayward, she falls in love with Wayne, Wayne realises he’s a heel for stealing O’Keefe’s girl, drops Hayward, then goes off and gets himself killed in the climactic battle with the Japanese. I think the only reason Hayward then finally tells O’Keefe that she still loves him is because out of the two men O’Keefe is the only one still standing.

John Wayne Dennis O'keefe Fighting Seabees

Either way the whole love story plot just gets in the way of what could have been a really good WWII film, particularly as the story of the Seabees is based around the real-life WWII Navy Construction Battalions.

Like The Flying Tigers the film is obviously a low-budget propaganda affair with lots of back projection and use of stock footage. There’s even a guest appearance by one of the Japanese pilots from the previous film just to make you feel at home.

If possible the Japanese are even more merciless and callous – and uglier – than in The Flying Tigers, grinning manically as they shoot yet another character actor in the back. This film would also most definitely fall foul of today’s political correctness, the enemy at one point referred to as ‘bug-eyed baboons’. Wayne yet again engages in another suicidal mission, this time to push a tank of boiling oil onto the attacking Japanese soldiers and flush them out into the open where they can then be humanely mown down in their hundreds like the Oriental swine that they are.

Wayne’s death scene happens very quickly – he’s shot in the chest whilst using a bulldozer to shift the oil tank – and comes as a bit of a shock, but he has to die in order for Susan Hayward to live unhappily married to Dennis O’Keefe after the war is over.

One scene that I would pay good money never to have to watch again is when, at a party sequence early on in the film, Wayne jitterbugs with a young lady who goes by the name of Twinkie Tucker – now there’s a name to conjure with. He is not a dancer, any more than he was a singer in his 1930s Republic cowboy films.

I guess it’s an example of the studio trying to get down with the kids by having Wayne engage in the terpsichorean shenanigans of the contemporary young – by my estimate he must have been at least 36 years old when the film was made – but for me it’s still painful to watch. In the world of Hollywood war films there are two constants that can never be challenged.

Charlie don’t surf, and Duke don’t dance. Enough said.

Back To Bataan WWII film John Wyane

Back to Bataan

A change of studio for John Wayne as this was produced by RKO, who look as though they have a bit more money to spend on the script. The film, released in May 1945, just a few weeks after VE Day, is directed by Edward Dmytryk, who a couple of years later fell victim to the anti-Communist witch hunts in Hollywood and ended up in jail for contempt.

According to some sources Wayne and Dmytryk clashed towards the end of production over the director’s political leanings. Despite the conflict behind the camera, however, the end result is the best WWII film Wayne appeared in up to that point.

Wayne is Colonel Joe Madden, tasked with rallying the resistance forces in the Philippines against the invading Japanese. The film begins with a march past the camera of some of the real-life American POWs who were held in captivity at the time the film was set in 1942, the idea being I guess to demonstrate the veracity of what follows.

JOhn Wayne Anthony Quinn in Back To Bataan

One of the main differences between this film and the previous two WWII movies Wayne appeared in for Republic is that he has no love interest to distract him from the task in the hand.

That falls to his co-star, Anthony Quinn, here playing Zorba the Filipino Resistance Hero in much the same way as he eked out a career as Zorba the Circus Performer (La Strada), Zorba the Arab (Lawrence of Arabia and Zorba the Greek in, well… Zorba the Greek. Quinn’s girlfriend ostensibly collaborates with the occupying Japanese forces but in reality she’s a double agent.

This is quite a brutal film for its time, with summary executions of American POWs on a Japanese death march, the hanging of a teacher from a flagpole, the torture of a young Filipino boy, and Japanese soldiers being knifed and chopped to death.

The version I watched recently appears to have been censored for some of its violence, a few scenes looking as though they’ve been shortened to avoid upsetting the more sensitive viewer.

The Japanese themselves are now portrayed as real people as opposed to the sadistic nameless killers with no back story from The Flying Tigers and The Fighting SeaBees. They’re still sadistic killers of course but they’re shown to have very nice table manners, so I guess that’s a start.

The film is more of a tribute to the Filipino resistance than it is to the American’s who fought in the Philippines, possibly because the war in the Philippines is maybe viewed in the same way as the British view Dunkirk: an honourable defeat, but a defeat nonetheless. Wayne still takes centre stage however, and in this one he gives good war, throwing himself with gusto into the action and machine-gunning and blowing up the enemy with the best of them.

At one point he is blasted into the air by the force of a hand grenade, a stunt he obviously performed himself, proving how much he was prepared to suffer for his art.

One scene worth noting is when Wayne tells a young Filipino boy that ‘you’re the guy we’re fighting this war for”. This predates by 23 years the last line from The Green Berets, in which he tells a young Vietnamese boy of similar age that ‘you’re what this is all about”. Uncanny, or what?

This is one Wayne WWII film I’d gladly watch again.

If you get the opportunity check out a film called Bataan, directed by Tay Garnett and released a couple of years before in 1943. That film deals with the events prior to Back to Bataan and together they make a great double bill.

The Were Expendable WWII John Wayne Movie

They Were Expendable

Despite Wayne being cast second in the bill to George Montgomery, this is the first real classic WWII film of his career. It doesn’t hurt of course that it was directed by John Ford and the film, to my mind, is a small yet underrated masterpiece in the director’s body of work.

The film was released just after the end of the war by MGM in early 1946 and tells the story, based on fact, of two navy Lieutenants, John Brickley, played by Montgomery, and Rusty Ryan (Wayne) who are instrumental in using PT boats to attack the Japanese navy in defence of the Philippines.

The film itself, like Wayne’s performance, is a subdued and somewhat melancholy affair, bearing in mind, as the screenwriter Lem Dobbs points out in a documentary on Ford, that the title suggests most of the characters are dead by the time their story is told. Montgomery, unlike Wayne, had actually served during the war in the navy and commanded a PT boat in the Pacific.

On top of that Ford had also seen action with his photographic unit at Midway, in which he was mildly wounded by some shrapnel, and had also witnessed the D-Day landings. Ford apparently rode Wayne mercilessly for not having voluntarily enlisted himself, moving Montgomery to intervene on Wayne’s behalf and upbraiding Ford accordingly, which I think goes some way to explaining Wayne’s low-key performance in the film.

He’s heroic enough of course, and he gets to indulge in a doomed love interest sub-plot with a nurse played by Donna Reed, but on balance I’d say this is more of a Ford film than it is a vehicle for Wayne.

They Were Expendable John Wayne WWII with Donna Reed

Ford isn’t generally known for his action sequences, being more interested in character and mood. The battle between the PT boats and the Japanese fleet, however, is genuinely exciting and extremely authentic, no doubt helped by Ford and Montgomery having witnessed the real thing during the war itself. Wayne gets to survive this one, both he and Montgomery having to leave their men behind to help organise other PT boat missions on behalf of the navy.

In keeping with the rest of the film, the ending is rather low-key, the histrionics kept to a minimum as Wayne tries to stay with his men but Montgomery ordering him to leave, asking the question ‘who do you work for?”. Inevitably, this being a WWII movie, the film ends with a rendition of glory glory hallelujah, but the triumphalism is weighed down by the fact that the men they leave behind will most probably not make it back to their families in America.

The script was written by Frank Wead, or ‘Spig’ as he was known, a real-life character that Wayne went on to portray in Ford’s The Wings of Eagles, released in 1957.

Sands of Iwo Jima

Sands of Iwo Jima

With this film, released in 1949, Republic finally delivers the goods when it comes to John Wayne at war. Directed by Allan Dwan who, like Ford, had started his career in the silent era, the film depicts the savagery of the no-holds barred fighting at Iwo Jima.

Nominated for his first Academy Award, Wayne’s performance is more complex than usual, something he had started to hint at in Red River the year before and which reached its height in The Searchers a few years later.

He plays Sergeant Stryker, a veteran of Guadalcanal, who is put in charge of getting his marines in shape for battle.

I never met the actor but when you read about him and watch interviews you get the feeling he was used to having his way and telling people what to do all the time so I think this is a perfect role for Wayne, and probably why he was so good in this film.

The Japanese, now that the the war had been over for about 4 years, are now referenced a bit more respectfully. No more talk of baboons. This time around they’re all Nips, or ‘little lemon coloured characters’. They’re reduced once more, however, to non-characters, the enemy the audience doesn’t get to know apart from watching them bayonet and kill their way through the film.

Also, even if I hadn’t picked up on it in the credits, I would have guessed James Edward Grant had something to do with the script. Wayne utters the words ‘I’m going to tell you something’, in exactly the same way he addresses Linda Crystal in The Alamo, which of course Grant wrote the script for.

Harking back to The Fighting Seabees, there’s a small dancing sequence in which Wayne shows a recruit with two left feet how to march in the correct rhythm. It illustrates yet again that he ought not to do this in front of a paying audience but if you’re a real fan of Hollywood WWII films you might want to check out Guadalcanal Diary. The film contains a scene in which William Bendix entertains the troops by dancing in the style of a female entertainer that is downright perverse.

John Agar doesn’t really convince as the embittered son of Wayne’s previous commander, who has died at Guadalcanal. The not-so-subtle story line hinges on the idea that the tough Stryker will eventually bring Agar’s character around to stop thinking of him as another version of his father who was apparently somewhat of a martinet, but Agar’s acting abilities just don’t stretch that far.

JOhn Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima

Forrest Tucker, who is also in the film, might have made a better go of playing Agar’s character, but his part in the film is mainly there to initiate a fist fight with Wayne that doesn’t really get resolved until Chisum 20-odd years later.

Although it’s nearly half an hour before the action hits the screen it’s well worth the wait. The battle sequences, despite being interspersed with stock footage of what appears to be the real fight for Iwo Jima, are quite impressive, and more realistic than previous Wayne WWII films.

I think it could have done without the Hollywood practise of giving someone a final word just before they die, one character who has just been shot exclaiming ‘I’ll get a good nights sleep tonight’ before crumpling to the ground. On the other hand it adds to the genuine shock of Wayne’s own sudden death scene because he doesn’t get the chance to say anything at all.

One moment he’s telling everyone he feels good, the next thing he’s being shot in the back by one of those nasty Nips and dying instantly. This realistic depiction of death is somewhat diluted by the sentimentality of Stryker’s last letter to his son being read out aloud, then Agar’s unconvincing acceptance of taking up Wayne’s mantle.

Raising the American Flag Sands of Iwo JimaHowever, all of this is compensated for in the last scene showing the flag finally being raised on Iwo Jima, which is genuinely moving and a fitting tribute to the real soldiers who died there, so overall I’d have to vote this one of the better efforts of the WWII films Wayne appeared in during the 1940s.

In fact I think he should have got his first Oscar for his performance as Stryker – he lost to Broderick Crawford this time around – although for my money he was even better in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Coming soon to a website near you – Duke Goes to War: The WWII Films of the 1950s

Photo of author
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.

5 thoughts on “John Wayne Goes to War: Duke’s WWII Films of the 1940s”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.