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John Wayne, Texan?

Hollywood’s greatest cowboy wasn’t from around these parts, but we claim him just the same.

By December 2015Comments

Illustration by Michael Koelsch

There are a lot of “whereases” in House Concurrent Resolution No. 130, and not all of them speak directly to the necessity of the State of Texas establishing an official day to honor John Wayne. For instance: “WHEREAS, born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa,” or, “WHEREAS, in 1925, he began attending the University of Southern California . . . ”

But it doesn’t much matter that Wayne was born in Iowa and went to USC, or that he never lived in Texas and filmed only 2 of his approximately 140 movies here. He’s now an honorary Texan. “When you think of Texas,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick proclaimed when the Legislature adopted the resolution last May, “you think of John Wayne.”

I agree with Lieutenant Dan. For one thing, Wayne did play a lot of Texans, even if he rarely played them in Texas. The catalog of his early B westerns, filmed on Hollywood back lots for crank-’em-out studios like Monogram and Republic, is full of titles like Texas Cyclone, The Lucky Texan, Texas Terror, and Three Texas Steers. More to the point, his habitual on-screen character meshed with our fond Texas dream of ourselves. In almost every carefully curated role Wayne played, he was a big, friendly, open-handed presence, but there was also a concealed-carry component to his personality, an undertone of lethal efficiency that could border on real menace. It was a persona that worked best on a big stage, and there was no bigger stage—real or imagined—than Texas.

In 2011, long before the state legislature bestowed Texantude on John Wayne, the actor and director Barry Tubb (who played the trail driver Jasper Fant in Lonesome Dove) established, along with advertising and publishing veteran Leslie Light, the John Wayne Film Festival. The festival reigned in pastoral splendor in Tubb’s hometown of Snyder before moving to Dallas a few years ago. (The event benefits the John Wayne Cancer Foundation.) And as far as I can determine, ours is the only state to house a thirteen-ton boulder carved into the likeness of the Duke’s head, which lends an air of Easter Island mystery to the library of Lubbock Christian University. Speaking of monuments, there is also Not Thinkin’. . . Just Rememberin’, a recent book by retired Michigan automotive executive John Farkis all about (I mean all about—it’s 990 pages long) Wayne’s obsessive quest to direct his 1960 epic The Alamo. (Bizarro World fun fact: Frank Sinatra was in talks to play William Barret Travis.)

Texans were always a natural audience for Wayne, though growing up in Texas during the fifties and sixties, I felt as if I’d missed the crest of the Duke’s wave. I came of age during his toupee and dad-bod years, when he tended to wear, in one movie after the next, a variant of his standard cowboy costume: bib shirt, vest, bandanna, trail-dusty hat. When I was a boy, he was already an old man to me, and to my snide college generation he became the grouchy embodiment of everything we were supposed to reject. For his out-of-touch sins—up to and including directing 1968’s feverishly jingoistic The Green Berets—he had been ordered to stand trial in the kangaroo court of history. But as Scott Eyman’s 2014 biography makes clear, Wayne was far more than just a sclerotic cold warrior. He was a formidable craftsman not only of his own image but of filmmaking itself, and a generous spirit endowed with a forgivable inventory of human flaws.

In his Texas-set movies—a bright silver vein running straight through the mountain of his filmography—he can be found both at the height of his powers and at a genial idle. These movies include two anointed classics, Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956), along with a number of lesser works in which the Wayne persona is still vibrantly intact.

Texas itself is a sketchy presence in most of these films. Red River begins in the guise of an old-timey history lesson, with the cinematic page-turning of a leather-bound book titled Early Tales of Texas. The text declares that what follows will be “the story of the first drive on the famous Chisholm Trail,” and in short order the movie is throwing around site-specific names like Salt Fork, San Saba, and Brazos. But director Howard Hawks shot the film in Arizona, and the Texas setting is fuzzy throughout—a chronic geography disorder that afflicts almost all of Wayne’s Texas-set movies, including 1959’s Rio Bravo, its unnecessary 1967 remake El Dorado, and other sixties-era westerns like The Sons of Katie Elder, The Comancheros, and The Undefeated.

When I saw Red River again recently after many years—during a binge watch of Wayne’s Texas movies—I was about half as impressed as I thought I should be. Hawks directed it with his usual loose-jointed confidence, and there were unforgettable moments, like the beautifully random scene in which Montgomery Clift dips out of the saddle of his moving horse with the grace of a ballet dancer to scoop up a horny toad. But the story itself—of inflexible cattle boss Thomas Dunson (Wayne) facing a trail-driving mutiny led by Matt Garth, the surrogate son played by Clift—struck me as a contrivance. Dunson was written as Lear lite, his paternal rage against Garth more convincing as a plot device than an organic character trait. But there’s nothing phony about Wayne’s performance. One of the most commanding moments in his long career is the scene where Dunson strides into a bunkhouse and warns his drovers of what’s ahead of them on the trail to Missouri. “We got a thousand miles to go. . . . There’ll be dry country, dry wells when we get to ’em. There’ll be wind, rain. There’s gonna be Indian territory, how bad I don’t know. When we get to Missouri there’ll be border gangs. It’s gonna be a fight all the way—but we’ll get there.”

In this scene, Wayne is at the apex of his physical majesty. He’s still lean, his longish hair is streaked with gray, his trail shirt and corduroy vest are soft and worn, sumptuous in the black and white tones of cinematographer Russell Harlan. He walks slowly in front of the men, a warning scowl on his face but his eyes warm with comradely affection. It’s only a brief scene, but it’s one of the most visceral depictions of a leader in the history of movies.

It’s no surprise that Wayne twice expressed interest in playing Texas’s ultimate leader, Sam Houston. He was slated to be Houston in 1939’s Man of Conquest for Republic Productions, but Herbert Yates, Republic’s president, changed his mind and told him, “You’re not strong enough.” He was plenty strong years later, when he was the biggest box office star in the country and nearing the end of his ten-year quest to direct The Alamo. He wanted to play Houston in The Alamo mostly because the part was a cameo and would leave him free to focus his attention on directing, but United Artists wouldn’t bankroll the project unless Wayne was in a leading role, so he ended up playing Davy Crockett instead.

The Alamo, released in 1960, was the project closest to Wayne’s heart, a movie that not only would take dead aim at Texas history but, he said, would inspire “namby-pamby pussyfoots” all over America to reform themselves into “men and women . . . who had the guts to stand up and fight for the things they believed in.” But it was a critical disappointment and an epic financial disaster. “That picture lost so much money,” Wayne told the screenwriter Melville Shavelson, “I can’t buy a pack of chewing gum in Texas without a cosigner.”

I think the movie has a worse reputation than it deserves. The script, by Wayne’s frequent screenwriter and drinking buddy James Edward Grant, is full of leaden sermonizing about freedom and tyranny, but slumbering beneath the bombast is a taut little character drama about Crockett, Bowie, and Travis. And Dimitri Tiomkin’s score might just be the best movie sound track ever. (Not cool to admit, but I melt to the strains of “The Green Leaves of Summer.”) Wayne as Crockett is the personification of frontier affability, and Wayne as director isn’t bad at all. He learned how to direct from the alcoholic genius John Ford, Wayne’s mentor and tormentor. Many of the scenes in The Alamo have a Fordian sweep and tempo, with men on horses pounding into the frame across the Texas landscape—the real Texas landscape this time (the movie was shot near Brackettville).

The only other movie Wayne made in Texas is Hellfighters, a fictional take from 1968 on a Red Adair–like character who puts out oil fires all over the world. It’s a bad movie that is more tolerable now than when it was released because it offers a time-capsule view of a vanished Texas epoch that in its own way is as distant as the Battle of the Alamo. Wayne’s Chance Buckman is a self-made Houston potentate who wears his Texanness well—better than he wears the red firefighting jumpsuit that highlights the paunchiness of his late middle age. Buckman has an office that seems to be located just off Interstate 45, with picture windows that look out over the nostalgic skyline of sixties-era Houston. He lives in a penthouse downtown that features a houseman named Hernando and is filled with all sorts of manly trophy art. There’s a less than compelling story about Buckman’s firefighting protégé and his romance with the boss’s headstrong daughter, but the real appeal of the movie is the opportunity to see Wayne out of cowboy uniform, plunked down into a once contemporary Texas world that he inhabits with total authority.

Of all of Wayne’s Texas-set films, 1956’s The Searchers is the darkest, most enigmatic, and most written about. It was directed by Ford and based on a novel by Alan LeMay that was inspired by the Comanche abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker. Though it was filmed in Arizona’s Monument Valley, it deals explicitly with the bitter frontier heritage of Texas, and Wayne’s Ethan Edwards embodies all the big paradoxes of the Texan character: the intermingled strands of tenderness and savagery, of family devotion and brooding isolation. By the end of the movie, he’s a man so determinedly the product of an unforgiving place that he ends up belonging nowhere.

I caught The Searchers on the last night of this year’s John Wayne Film Festival. It was showing outdoors, in Klyde Warren Park, in the middle of downtown Dallas. Wayne’s son Patrick was in attendance. He played a small role in the film, a teenage cavalry lieutenant, and after an acting career in movies and dinner theater he is now the chairman of the John Wayne Cancer Institute’s board. He is a robust-looking man in his seventies with a big-handed handshake and a friendly but slightly challenging way of looking at you that is pesteringly familiar.

Patrick said a few words to the audience about the work of the cancer institute, and then The Searchers began. There were about a hundred people sitting on blankets or folding chairs in the grass. It was a soft September night, and the chanting from a nearby gathering of local Hare Krishnas mixed in with the Max Steiner score. The image on the inflatable movie screen rippled subtly in the breeze. There was an almost full moon hanging above the city’s skyline. “It just so happens we be Texicans,” said a tough settler’s wife in the film named Mrs. Jorgenson. She acknowledged the hardships of that condition but went on to predict, “Someday this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be.”

It certainly was a fine, good place to be that night. And what more could a Texican want than to recline in comfort under the open sky in downtown Dallas, watching honorary Texan John Wayne ride a horse across the landscape of our imagination?

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