[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

The first real appearance (Stagecoach, 1938)

Stagecoach (1938) is distinct in its sobriety and simplicity. There are effects but they aren’t visible. They are perfectly integrated into the continuity of editing. It’s the ideal stylistic exercise for film schools to take note of.

Even so, John Ford went for a flashy effect—just one—which is completely incongruent with the rest of film. It occurs in the first shot John Wayne appears in. Here is the film that will rescue him from oblivion and make him world famous. And how is he introduced? Firstly, notice that we see him eighteen minutes after the film has begun. A delayed entrance that is quite useful and well-planned: we have already heard much about Ringo Kid in the preceding conversation. This delay could seem normal: after all, Wayne’s is only the second name in the credits behind Claire Trevor, and as we have seen, it’s a good strategy to delay the entrance of the second protagonist.

But what an entrance! Everything has been smooth so far. Suddenly, without any narrative reason, there is a tight shot of the unknown Wayne all by himself, with the tracking camera culminating in a closeup, and the Monument Valley in the background, overlaid on a thunderous score. All this for a gentleman who stops the stagecoach with a hand signal, not for a holdup but simply to use the public service: to alert the driver…

We can’t think of a better beginning for a mythification. What’s curious is that it’s for a square almost unknown to the big studios, a handsome, scrappy giant, a sharpshooter trapped in Z movies of Republic Pictures where he had made forty mid-length features in six years. Ford seems to have wanted to create a star, his star, since they were to make fifteen films together in twenty-five years. The most faithful duo in the history of cinema. Amazing intuition, when none of the earlier films helped foresee Wayne’s abilities.

Ford places Wayne in the shadows—mythicizing darkness—as much as possible, while his partner Claire Trevor is frequently in full light in the preceding shot. One wonders if this doesn’t reflect a certain lack of confidence of Ford in the dramatic capabilities of his new protégé. Testimonies confirm this: Ford had asked Wayne to emote as little as possible, to stay impassive. Whatever the case, even if it was necessitated by fortuitous reasons, the mythification is no less present, and will continue to shape Wayne’s future work in a very perverse way.

At the end of the film, Wayne kills two villains within a few seconds. We don’t have time to see anything. As Wayne joins Claire Trevor, he is seen from behind. It’s only when he is very far in the background that he turns and lets us see his face.

John Wayne’s first face (The Spoilers, 1942)

There are hiccups in the first few attempts. The definitive direction of Wayne’s work will not be clear right away.

In Seven Sinners, made in 1940 by Tay Garnett, a few closeups, probably shot with 75mm or 90mm lenses, and perhaps imposed by the production more than the actor, give him a soft image—chubbier, more rounded, like Van Johnson, his nose seeming a bit flattened—and contradict the rest of the film, shot with normal lenses: it would seem there are two Waynes in the same film, we hardly recognize him. These long, softening lenses are perfect for actresses, not for actors. We often find such embarrassing mistakes in American cinema (Stewart will suffer from it in The Far Country). A distinct nose, not too much though, gives an impression of decisiveness, virility, maturity, indispensable to our four greats, which it is dangerous to undermine.

Wayne is here the foil to Marlene Dietrich, just as he’ll be the repoussoir to Ray Milland in Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind (1941). The latter is the only film where he plays the villain: he sinks the ship he was refused the command of, and unwittingly causes the death of a stowaway. Yet, this untoward, one-off act is made up for by his kind behaviour in the first hour of the film, which gives him the edge over Milland, a kind of dandy lawyer and a ventriloquist with a puppet dog, who hits women and hurls them into the water. He becomes likeable again at the very end of the film, where he sacrifices his life to save his rival from an octopus (which he’ll encounter again in Wake of the Red Witch). The big nose is essential here: it allows us to distinguish between Wayne and Milland when they are both in a diving suit.

This role surprises us quite a bit today in light of Wayne’s entire career: to have the dandy prevail over the man of action in the beautiful girl’s heart constitutes an affront to American morals. But, in 1941, Wayne hadn’t yet earned, in the eyes of the public, his status as a generous cowboy or a man of action. You could make him play any role—he was even a lawyer in the next two films—without shocking the audience.


In Red River (1946), Hawks makes of him a tough being who kills with impunity anyone who doesn’t respect his whims at his exhausting work of cattle-ranching in a hostile land. But this toughness, made sensitive by Wayne’s aquiline profile, is attenuated by the fact that it’s disclosed progressively during the course of the film and that we have a lot of time to identify with Wayne, made likeable in the beginning following the loss of his fiancée, killed by Indians. The viewer finds himself caught in the trap of identification: is he (am I) a killer? He finds it hard to identify with Matt, the most human and level-headed character ever played by Montgomery Clift. All the more so because, at the end, Wayne turns over a new leaf. The reconciliation converts the conflict between the two men into a game, an ambiguous game.

So we have a composite impression of the Dunson character, played by Wayne, that is not negative. We even feel entertained by this gratuitous cockfight. And at the same time, throughout the film, there is a surprising study of this character, marked at once by heroism and cruelty: we wonder to what point Dunson will go in his violence and insanity.

At 39, Wayne already portrays old men (Red River, 1946)

Respect, terror, irony: how rich… but the analysis is never ponderous: it simply unfolds over different phases of physical tasks the characters must complete.

The Wild West is, inevitably, a place without women, a world of men among themselves. Hawks knew well how to draw out the consequences of this reality often hidden by Westerns: either the fear of women where there is one, or virile friendship, even homosexuality. “You two love each other”, tells Joanne Dru to the two fighters who struggle with each other, but hardly causing hurt. Filial love or something else, this sentence retains all its ambiguity. Pretty boy Matt-Clift prancing about in his cowboy costume (a role taken over by Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo) adds a bit of spice as well. In the beginning, Dunson takes Matt in because Matt has a bull and he himself a cow… Joanne Dru’s curves attract Wayne only because he sees in her a mother capable of birthing his kid, like he would gauge one of his cows… unexpected sexual implications that lend a new dimension to the character.

A prelude shows Wayne fourteen years before the main action. Like later with Stewart (It’s a Wonderful Life, Liberty Valance), the challenge here is to make this time difference believable, or rather make us not notice the lack of difference. How to do this? The simplest way is, in the time period with lesser screen-time, to show the character in long shots or in the shadows: use of darkness again, which will only incidentally be a mythicizing darkness.

Wayne, or the actor of old age: at thirty-nine years, that is to say an age where the other three greats continue to play young leads, he plays an old cattle farmer, weary, wrinkled, wounded, wobbly, dirty and drunk, who suffers from back pain, which gives him a lot more stature than his first films, such as The Big Trail, where he didn’t do much in his roles of a slick, young dandy with a blank, unremarkable face that was such a favourite of the thirties (cf. Tyrone Power, Henri Garat etc.) and which the other three will also find hard to get out of, stuck like him with stupid standards imposed by producers who had made them sign long-term contracts: Cooper and Grant were Paramount stars, Wayne and Stewart the respective protégés of Republic and MGM. But they really attained international celebrity only when they could quit their mother-house for RKO, United Artists or Columbia. A good definition of an American actor: he is an actor under contract with Paramount, and made famous by Columbia. Adding to this is the fact that the best DeMilles were shot outside of Paramount… for which he made sixty three of his seventy films.

Mythicized unawares right at the beginning of his true career, Wayne had the intelligence to integrate contradictory, unusual elements—the cowboy with lumbago—into his roles, which imparts a lot of power and interest to his work.

Old age, which was to become the principle motif of Wayne’s art, was thus broached for the first time by Hawks in Red River. But then, this theme will be refined continuously over a quarter of a century by Ford and Hawks who will shuttle Wayne like a punching bag or, more precisely, like a rugby ball. That is why it would be awkward to study the Wayne of Ford and that of Hawks separately, disregarding their interactions. Because it’s evident that, as far as Westerns were concerned, Hawks was always jealous of Ford to whom he often pays tribute: the donkey that scares Wayne in the dark of the Hawks’ Rio Bravo, responds in jest to the horse discovered before the duel in Stagecoach. In Rio Bravo, Wayne wants to send away the heroine who cheats at cards in the next stagecoach, just what the busybodies of Stagecoach will do with Claire Trevor. And the romantic past of Wayne in Rio Bravo (which will again be his in Hatari! and Mitchum’s in El Dorado)—he was won over by a girl who came in a stagecoach, a “no good” girl—makes one suppose that he is surely the aged hero of Stagecoach, and that it did not go well with Claire Trevor… Not to forget that Hawks began shooting his first Western, The Outlaw, just after Stagecoach, Ford’s first talking Western. And Hatari! is a response to Mogambo. In El Dorado, Wayne is called Thornton, like in Ford’s The Quiet Man. In Hatari!, he is Irish and is called Sean, Ford’s birth name. The heroine of the film is called Dallas, like that of Stagecoach. It all seems like Hawks wanted to pay back a debt to Ford, namely the collected borrowings of Wayne and the Western, a favourite genre of Ford’s, who will return the favour in Rio Grande [1], where Wayne is, not sergeant, but Captain Yorke. To be sure, one finds the first clues of decrepitude in Wayne in Ford’s film They Were Expendable (1945), where lieutenant Wayne is wounded in the hand. Amputation is discussed. The next year, in Red River, Hawks proposed a comic scene to Wayne in which his finger is cut. Wayne refused, which meant that we only see a bullet extraction and that we will not discover the original scene until 1951, Kirk Douglas replacing John Wayne in Hawks’ second Western, The Big Sky. 

Wayne with a moustache: the captain on the eve of his retirement (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1948)

The Ford-Hawks match stops for one round as far as amputation is concerned. But don’t worry, it’ll be up and running again soon. For now, let’s stay with the theme of old age. Following the huge success of Red River, Ford embarks on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948) with the same actors, Wayne and Joanne Dru. Wayne is certainly mystified here like he must be: his subordinate McLaglen starts a long speech forty seconds before we see Wayne in flesh and blood, which lends greater importance to his entrance. But he is not at all the firebrand of Back to Bataan or the Republic Westerns. He is an old captain awaiting retirement at a godforsaken outpost of the West, just after the notorious defeat of Little Bighorn. Captain Nathan Brittles must then be sixty years old, while Wayne just celebrated his forty-first birthday. The moustache makes him a bit older, like it does later in Rio Grande and The Shootist. At the end of the film, he wears spectacles. Captain Brittles is afraid of losing his agility for good. He readies himself, rehearses his strides, works on his swagger, in order not to faint during his final parade on the day of his retirement. The character is all the more human and pathetic because his power is negligible. Retiring as a captain at sixty in this isolated little fort… One of his favourite activities involves pulling himself together at the grave of his long-dead wife, the play of shadows making the presence of death more evident. Vanity of existence, vanity of power, anguish of retirement: what is one to do? “I’ll be glad if they ask me to shoe a horse,” confesses Brittles, who seeks to prolong the duration of his work to the fullest, to the last minute, to the last second.

All this work to avoid…work. Brittles is a good soldier, that is to say someone who seeks to prevent a conflict with the Indians—another anti-heroic element contradicting John Wayne’s old brand image. It is, moreover, the only commonality with the previous Ford-Wayne project, Fort Apache (1947), the perfect film of contradictions where Wayne (a right-winger in real life) does everything to negotiate with the Indians while his superior Fonda (a left-winger off screen) wants a war to establish his prestige. Wayne is a captain in both films, but the two roles couldn’t be more different: he is on the brink of retirement in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, while he came across as a very dapper, talented dancer sixteen months ago in Fort Apache. Why this change? It’s probably the considerable success of Red River, filmed before Fort Apache but released later, that inaugurated Ford’s new direction.

Vanity of vanities: Wayne, in Fort Apache, plays a true soldier, but he voluntarily gives up his glory to the villain Fonda who just died in a stupid skirmish, and this, in order to save the honour of the army and preserve the legend, a theme that will be revisited fifteen years later in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart replacing his friend Henry Fonda. The image that Wayne gives the viewer is one of a man afraid of glory and medals, who finds recognition solely in his own esteem and the positive result of his undertakings. Ford was, besides, very right in distrusting honours, having won the Oscar for Best Picture only once, for the mediocre How Green Was My Valley. This image is not free of a certain, somewhat Christian masochism (see Liberty Valance). In lowering himself, in staying in the shadows, the Wayne character is assured of not having been corrupted by the desire of pomp, of not being driven beyond the modesty appropriate to every human being. We’re very, very far from the John Wayne kids know…

An old man reflects on what will remain of him, that is to say his children, a son, an heir. Like it’s said in American obituaries: “He is survived by his son”. It’s the meaning of Red River, with Clift the adopted son, of 3 Godfathers (1948), with the baby saved from desert, of Rio Grande (1950), of The Green Berets (1967), where he adopts a Vietnamese kid, and to a lesser degree, of The Searchers since it’s about a childless man’s search for his niece, with whose mother he was more or less in love.

Survival thanks to the child (3 Godfathers, 1948)

The Quiet Man, filmed by Ford in 1951, seems to break away from the idea of old age, because Wayne plays a healthy man of about thirty-five years here. But we shouldn’t stop there. There is a deep similarity here with the captain of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: the protagonists of both films are about to retire, or have just retired, like the Wayne of The Searchers, who deserts the army the day after the Civil War, or the one in The Wings of Eagles, and many other heroes of late Ford (The Long Gray Line, The Last Hurrah, Liberty Valance). The difference is that the quiet man, being a boxer, retires earlier than other workers, especially because it’s a premature retirement following a dramatic event: the death of an adversary in the ring. This brings us to another commonality: the wish to avoid conflict. Wayne is a well-built man of six feet four, a boxing champion. But he refuses to use his deadly blows, at least in the first two hours of the film. There is a very fruitful dialectic at work here: the superman weakened because he doesn’t want to use force. Again, “he stoops to conquer”. Against this ambiguous John Wayne, the physical force of a Schwarzenegger or a Van Damme quickly becomes monotonous, repetitive and tautological. The wife of the quiet man hates him: she takes him for a coward afraid of fighting her thieving brother.

She even leaves him. Final return to force, particularly the shot where Wayne slaps his wife. This scene, frowned upon today—so much that it’s deleted from the video version doing the rounds in France—at least has the merit of fitting into a dialectic progression of weakness-force totally absent in a pale copy like McLintock! (1963), in which the repeated slaps—the purported solution to make the victim more likeable—remain all the more gratuitous for failing to counterpoint Wayne’s weakness.

We could include the fascist aspect in the same register, the inglorious blows of the representative of the State on the bandit (Rio Bravo) or the fallen enemy (The Undefeated), which gets the joyous approval of the public.

In The Quiet Man—which I criticize to the extent that its length and ponderousness limit the charm of the fable—there is at least the benefit of this systematic alternation which gives the character a depth. On one hand, Wayne kisses Maureen O’Hara right away, without foreplay, with a surprising masculine ardour; he throws his hat in the air as though he were in a javelin tournament; he lands a kick to his wife’s bum; he breaks down the bedroom door. On the other hand, he pretends with a silly look to not have seen O’Hara’s legs, he falls to the ground upon a single blow, he searches for peace and hates money (“I’m sick of money”), which is anti-American to say the least, and he remains silent in the first scene of the film on the railway platform while everyone else keeps speaking to say nothing.

It might seem bizarre, in a text on Wayne, to study Land of the Pharaohs (1954), in which he doesn’t feature, while not mentioning films that he produced, directed and acted in, or True Grit that got him his only Oscar. But I’m fine with it.

Because I find it impossible to believe that, when coming up with his Egyptian fresco, Howard Hawks, who was to make four of his six last films with Wayne and who retired partly because Wayne did not want to work with him, did not think of his favourite actor, who would prefer becoming Gengis Khan rather than Cheops.

When Jack Hawkins, filmed with a tracking camera, runs wounded under Dimitri Tiomkin’s sonic cataclysm, I can’t help but see Wayne running in exactly the same conditions at the end of Red River. When I see Land of the Pharaohs, it always takes me a long while to realize that it’s not Wayne on screen. Besides, Ford too will go for Hawkins, the near-lookalike, when a British-accented Wayne was required (Gideon’s Day).

There is here the same double act as the one between William Boyd and Gary Cooper, between Cooper and Mitchum, Cary Grant and Rock Hudson, Stewart and Lemmon.

Cheops—Hawkins—Wayne dedicates his entire life to construct an impregnable tomb for himself, in order to survive his own death: another manner of survival that compounds the more banal way of doing it through an offspring, which is evoked for a moment in Land of the Pharaohs (death haunts the first-born, like it does in The Wings of Eagles) and which announces the morbidity of Wayne’s future work.

Already wounded… (The Searchers, 1955)

During the course of The Searchers (1955), Ford only sketches the motif of retirement. He doesn’t speak about old age. Wayne is not amputated—just hurt for a moment, his arm in a sling. But the film takes place over a long, undefined duration. On reflection, it must be seven years, spent in the search for the niece kidnapped by Indians. Red River, Land of the Pharaohs, The Wings of Eagles also unfold over fifteen or twenty years, so do Liberty Valence and Flashing Spikes, films whose interest is centred on two distant eras, shown or suggested. These long, typically Fordian sagas (cf. The Long Gray Line, How Green Was My Valley, The World Moves On, which carries the record to more than a hundred years) lead inevitably to the idea of old age: one can’t help but grow older at the end of such durations. To be sure, Wayne’s appearance doesn’t change between the beginning and the end of the film. On the other hand, the one who changes and ages is his niece Debbie, the real calendar of the film, who goes from nine years to sixteen. Most importantly, this nice little white doll has become a young, painted-over squaw who has trouble speaking English. It’s this change in Debbie which renders Wayne older. And this perpetual search across places and seasons leads us to fundamental questions. As we discover, thanks to Debbie, that so many years have passed during two hours of runtime, while we the audience have lost the idea of time, a certain fear grips us: haven’t we lived for twenty or fifty or more years, without having realized anything, as if we were born yesterday, like Wayne’s Ethan Edwards?

Won’t it be the same for our remaining years? Won’t we die without the impression of having lived? Of having fully lived? Because what’s the point of this tedious search, for Ethan only despairs when he finds his niece? Worse, when our two searchers attain their goal, they wish they had never found her, they think of killing her, because she has become the other. How could a human being change to the point of becoming an “other”? Vanity of the notion of family, at the root of Ford’s art. Isn’t this drawn-out hunt the epitome of human pettiness in face of the immensity of the Monument Valley, since it culminates in the direct opposite of its objective? We already saw this long persistence in pettiness, complete with the final defeat, in Land of the Pharaohs and Red River (Wayne struggles against driving the cattle to the rail, to remain their only master, to kill Clift, and it’s the opposite that happens).

Through these questions, which verge on the metaphysical, we think of Moby Dick. The Searchers is as fascinating as it boring, because of the monotony of this repetitive search, which is probably a parable of human existence. Fascinating and heavy too, because of its postcard prettiness full of dull transitions, more out of place in these rarefied realms than in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Then there is the final miracle. Against expectation, by weariness, by human or familial instinct, Wayne asks his niece to return to her birth place (“Let’s go home, Debbie”, the magical little phrase of Ford’s cinema which evokes the “So long, you bastard” of Seven Women), an implausibility that shocks us, but which retains, even because of its abrupt nature, an immense emotional power.

We link this phrase to the personality of Ethan Edwards, who is portrayed as a racist throughout the film, a racism that—Ford’s supreme skill—we share sometimes, before the highly uglified, idiotized, white squaws. Ethan Edwards doesn’t change physically, but he changes morally.

We can also link this evolution to the personality of John Wayne. He was, as we know, a militant anti-communist in life and on screen: no less than five anti-Red films, Jet Pilot, Big Jim McLain, Blood Alley, The Green Berets, which he would sometimes produce and even direct, to which I’d perhaps add his biopic of Gengis Khan, The Conqueror. To be sure, anti-communism shouldn’t be confused with racism by playing on the double meaning of the word “red”, even though the two go together at times. And I don’t think Wayne was racist. A clue: he had two marriages with Latino-American women. And he doesn’t seem to have shown any repulsion towards Indians during his life. Besides, no one is anti-Indian for the past fifty years, Indians having no power anymore… We can nevertheless observe that Wayne often bashes “Yellows” (Flying Tigers, Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan, Iwo Jima, Blood Alley, Green Berets, the last two produced by him). Clearly, distinction must be made between the Japanese war enemies and Yellows, which is not easy. An actor of many Westerns from the thirties and the forties, a period when Hollywood made the ancient Indian a villain, he went with the flow of the time (cf. the beginning of Red River, quite despicable for natives). He produced and acted in Legend of the Lost, which took the piss out of Arabs. All this gives Wayne a rather negative brand image and makes him even more of a right-winger that he must have really been.

One could consider Ethan Edwards’ racism as a transposition of, an equivalence to Wayne’s radicalism. The ending of The Searchers (like that of Fort Apache, to a lesser degree) seems like a spectacular turn of events. It wouldn’t have the same charge were it Brando or Montand or Gian Maria Volonté who accepts a young squaw in his family instead of John Wayne, who has moreover just scalped an Indian… It’s like the start of a conversion to liberalism.

The most unbearable shot… “I’m going to move that toe” (The Wings of Eagles, 1956)

To be sure, it’s difficult to assert that all the political and metaphysical implications of The Searchers were Wayne’s doing, or even Ford’s. It’s nevertheless true that the theme of the film—the passage of time—is specifically Wayne’s, and no one else could’ve better portrayed the obstinance of this search, this hardboiled quality, this pig-headedness, which is conveyed through his face, and his sharp nose. In characters he brings to life, the final and complete change in behaviour (cf. Red River, The Quiet Man) is of an even greater importance.

The next Ford, The Wings of Eagles (1956), continues to play with time, but especially returns to the motif of decrepitude, made more sensitive by the fact that, at the beginning, the marine Frank Wead, played by Wayne, comes across as a cheerful soldier, full of life, who fights with conviction against those in the army. After a nasty blow, he springs back into the frame to knock down his rival (Wayne is forty-nine years old: hats off!). He harnesses his boxing flair which extends from Seven Sinners (1940) to North to Alaska (1960). He receives and hurls custard pies.

But in the fifteenth minute, a darkened composition signals the first warning: his baby dies. Military obligations retain him far from home for long. He repents to his wife, who is furious about his disappearance. A few hours after their reconciliation, this high-risk amphibian-flight specialist breaks his head on the stairs to his kids’ bedroom. He is paralysed. It’s the fortieth minute. Many months pass at the hospital. Two very long shots of unbearable difficulty—one would think this is a film by Wiseman—characterize this rehabilitation. One shows us Wayne stretched out on the bed, constantly shouting “I’m going to move that toe” (since the movement of a toe is the first clue of the paralysis rolling back) in chorus with his old friend, a champion of the Coué method. In the second shot, he tries to walk with crutches, without anyone to help him. Two shots made intolerable by their length, the repetition of words, their channelling of a medical truth, their sudden appearance in Hollywood fiction. Later, Maureen O’Hara kisses the bald part of Wayne’s head. Finally, near the hundredth minute, this crutched hero collapses, for good I thought, before being pulled up from the boat on to a helicopter, all the while recalling cheerful images of his distant past: “The good times have passed. But that’s alright, because we will always remember them.”. Such is, in broad terms, his manifesto.

Faced with such a film, as with The Searchers, we’re caught between a progressively deeper monotony of the filmed material and the provocative power of a new, unseen truth. I don’t know of a more depressing film. The typical Hollywood trajectory towards an ecstatic climax (whose prototype would be The Fountainhead or Duel in the Sun) gives way to a very slow, continuous, irreversible march toward death. I can’t say if this depressive power is to the film’s credit or not. It’s certain that there is no compensating element in the form of a magnificent landscape as in The Searchers. In this ambiance, Ford’s mediocre comic interludes fast become distasteful.

The Wings of Eagles played at the biggest theatre in the world, the Radio City Music Hall. It bombed and was withdrawn after three weeks. Wayne and Ford needed to change their refrain a bit. Besides, was it possible to go further in this direction? The Horse Soldiers (1959) will witness them coming back to a more classical style.

Sentimental education of the handsome fifty-year-old (Rio Bravo, 1958)

Wayne doesn’t stop there, with the cooperation of his other partner in crime this time. Hawks’ El Dorado (1966) is really a parade of cripples, which went down better with the audience thanks to a sustained humour, more acceptable than the transitory humour of Ford’s.

Right at the beginning, Wayne finds himself with a bullet in his back. It doesn’t prevent him from fighting like usual, but he is at the risk of being paralyzed any moment, at the right hand no less, which is unfortunate for a sharpshooter. With the help of an alcoholic sheriff Robert Mitchum, who bumbles constantly, he hunts down a limping assassin. The baton is soon passed: Mitchum gets a bullet in his leg. Wayne’s right hand is paralyzed. The killers don’t bother with this one-armed man any more. He shoots with his left hand… he is wounded in the leg, like Mitchum. Both Wayne and Mitchum have crutches now. They get them mixed up…

They are joined on their mission by an old man (Arthur Hunnicutt), a clumsy young smooth-talker (James Caan) and a beautiful woman. We find here the skeleton of Rio Bravo (1958), which too contains the union of the four ages of man and which El Dorado plagiarises to an extent, Hunnicutt—Wayne—Mitchum—Caan taking over from the Brennan—Wayne—Martin—Nelson quartet. Cornered, Huston stopped at three ages in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt). It’s a little more complex because, in El Dorado, Wayne, older by eight years, borrows from Rio Bravo’s Walter Brennan, a doddery old chatterbox with problems of misplaced dentures like in Red River twelve years ago… Rio Bravo already played against the powerful John Wayne myth: “Wayne is a hero, but he is old and needs to learn what dependence is: before the end of the film, he must take the help of a disabled old man, a drunkard, a punk and a saloon girl”, rightly notes Leland A. Poague, the greatest authority on John Wayne [2].

There is thus a tremendous unity in Wayne’s body of work, or at least in his best films: old age, decrepitude, the passage of time. We have here, beyond doubt, an auteur. But perhaps he is a fake auteur, an interim one. For these themes are excluded from the catalogue of his company, Batjac, and from his two directorial ventures (Alamo, Green Berets) and he survives essentially thanks to his five Hawks and his fifteen Fords, which really gave impetus to his theme. These two directors marvellously took turns in this marathon of decrepitude, almost to the point of becoming one. It’s true that both took Wayne along as their own old age set in, forty-three years for Ford, fifty for Hawks. It’s normal, then, that they made him age before his time. But what a strange coincidence between two directors so unlike each other: John Ford was one-eyed, and couldn’t see very well from the other eye. Besides the whisky, he had become a doddery old man moving on a wheelchair. He even had to abandon two or three films during the shoot (Mister Roberts, Young Cassidy, even Pinky), and it’s probable that insurance companies hastened his retirement. Completely logical, then, that he made Wayne undergo this long ceremony of human decay, a transposed reflection of his own trajectory even if—as a simple diversion—he is represented through the features of the healthy Ward Bond in The Wings of Eagles.

In contrast, Howard Hawks, the elegant sportsman who drove his bike even at seventy-eight years, what did he have to with the pangs of senility? The question becomes even more pertinent given that the theme of old age is a facet not just of his work with Wayne: in Monkey Business, he parodies the desire for youth, perhaps even that of his own. For there can hardly be any other reason. He wouldn’t bring up old age, surely, to compete with Ford in his own game, considering that he had beat him to it with Red River. He filmed old age because he was afraid of it. A kind of exorcism, a conjuration. It’s not for nothing that, at fifty-seven years, he married a model of twenty-five years, that he made films as athletic as Hatari! and Red Line 7000 between sixty and seventy years… Old age seen from the outside, which helped him be much more jovial about it than Ford.

It’s perhaps premature to explain all of Wayne through his two mascot-directors. Wayne has the particularity of being the first late-blooming star, after eight years of bit roles and sixty films in anonymity, foreshadowing Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Louis de Funès, Michel Picolli, Lino Ventura, and Jean Carmet in this. We could say that he never possessed a youth, or that he had consumed it in this hunger, or that he hated it, his image of a young cowboy coinciding with his mediocre period.

We also notice that it’s in 1946, the year of Red River, his first role as an old man, that he experienced the first signs of the lung cancer that took him away in 1979 [3]. Wayne was primarily preoccupied with the theme of physical decay. And after Ford’s death, after Hawks’ retirement, after two roles as an old one-eyed man (True Grit, Rooster Cogburn), we see him again, on the brink of the terminal stage of cancer, climbing onto his horse at the age of sixty-nine, to portray… the last days of a cancer-ridden sharpshooter in Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976). We come full circle: John Wayne’s characters had always preceded him. Little by little, he moved towards them, and became one with them in his very last film, fully living out his theme.

The new triangle: he, she… and the animal (Hatari!, 1960)

Decrepitude isn’t the only anti-mythical element John Wayne worked on. There is a second flaw…

The major problem of the star system was to find a plot that brought together a young woman—since actresses, like sportsmen, hit their peak between eighteen and thirty-five years, depending on their physique—and an aging actor—since actors follow the course of politicians and acquire (or preserve) celebrity status with age.

In Rio Bravo (1958)—Hatari! (1960) uses the same premise—Hawks gives us a self-assured sheriff of fifty years, who knows the rivalries of his district in and out, who shoots marvellously, who benefits from the aura John Wayne confers on him, but who doesn’t know how to behave with the other sex. He once knew an adventurous woman who broke his heart. And he never got out of that. This handsome, well-built fifty-something is probably a virgin, or nearly so. The embarrassment he feels at Feathers’ (Angie Dickinson) advances—advances that are a new affront to the Wayne myth, especially in a Western—remains inexplicable. If we take it at face value, he is afraid of Feathers since he believes that she is like the other woman, “no good”, that he’ll fall in love with her, that she’ll betray him too, and that he’ll be heartbroken beyond repair. But on closer look, it’s his inexperience with women, his fear of sex that explains his timidity: he reacts truly like a frightened teenager. The two readings converge a little: the scenario gives him, to say the least, long years of abstinence, which justifies his fear. And Hawks, the Texan Marivaux, doubles down on the trope of an old hunk doing everything to hide his feelings from the cover girl who loves him. Adding to this is the trope of the naïve romantic, clearly rejuvenated by the age and the stature of the person concerned.

Everything proceeds by innuendo. For Feathers, the challenge is this: sheriff Wayne has told her not to wear such a sexy costume on stage. But she hopes he’ll tell her that, not as the respectful sheriff of decency and good order in town, but as a man jealous of seeing the woman he loves being sized up by voyeurs. But Wayne remains guarded, and doesn’t cross the threshold. She has to settle for his warning that, if she wears the costume, he’ll arrest her, an over-emphasis she takes for a confession. “Ï arrest you” means “I love you”. Similarly, in Hatari!, the relationship between Sean and Dallas will crystallize through an intermediary in the form of, not undergarments, but animals, and through their respective attitudes towards the baby elephants Dallas feeds.

In Rio Bravo, the affair is complicated by the jealousy that pits Feathers against Stumpy, the disabled old man who cooks for Wayne, and whom Wayne kisses suddenly in jest…

The emotional vein of Rio Bravo was so original that it would be harnessed again, not just in Hatari!, but also in North to Alaska.

It’s still the old principle, “he stoops to conquer”: there must be a handicap which makes the actor likeable for the viewer. With Wayne, it’s either physical old age or the exact opposite, juvenility or mental infantilism expressed in his relationship with women.

At the end of Rio Bravo, John Wayne makes up his mind and throws Feathers’ costume out the window, just like she had wanted. In Jet Pilot, filmed in 1950 by Sternberg, and written by the same Jules Furthman, he seizes the stupefied Janet Leigh’s pants, which goes out as well… This time, it’s the virile and macho John Wayne in all his splendour. As much as Jet Pilot is a fascinating cocktail—it’s an erotic, anti-communist comedy centred on beautiful ballets of airplanes in the sky—it remains banal in its conception of Wayne’s role. He is a hunk, period. Like always, Sternberg does his own thing, without taking into account the profound possibilities offered by actors. It’s interesting to note here that, with John Wayne—outside of Ford and Hawks, of course—high-profile directors or ones of great importance like Ray, Preminger or Huston, who were not concerned with the problem of old age, have only produced mediocre work (Flying Leathernecks, In Harm’s Way, The Barbarian and the Geisha), clearly inferior to that of directors with a narrower range like Allan Dwan, Edward Ludwig, Don Siegel or Bernard Vorhaus.

The great meeting: the cowboy and the cook (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1961)

The reader might be surprised that I’ve spoken so far only of the characters played by Wayne, without really talking about his work as an actor, his body language, his voice. The blank pages I had readied before seeing his films remained almost devoid of notes, while for certain films of Cooper like Deeds or Design for Living, I found myself short of paper. It’s simply that Wayne really doesn’t work on the details, or that his work remains invisible. No shocking rough patches, no absurdity, nothing to latch on to. Wayne places himself on a middle path that constantly oscillates between the extremes of underplay and overplay. He wears nearly the same costume in all his films. He leans a little more than Cooper does towards his co-stars. He often rests his hands on the hips (John Wayne’s Pelvis suggested by the Portuguese director João César Monteiro in Cahiers du cinéma no.458, July-August, 1992) which happens to be loaded with arms. He plays on presence, but little on gaze. To make up for it, Hawks always throws in a young man with a sharp gaze, Clift or Ricky Nelson or Gérard Blain or James Caan, even Dewey Martin. He doesn’t move his hands much, which are always attending to the gun. Well, he does, a bit: there is a neat little play of hands towards the beginning and end of El Dorado. But I don’t want to go that route. For they will not go a long way, and might make us lose sight of the essential. He walks a lot, with supple strides. He often rides a horse. He has no problem reciting dialogue, even long ones, and blends in normally with his co-actors. His possibilities remain limited: you only have to compare his inexpressiveness during the trial of Reap the Wild Wind with the brio of his colleagues in full flow. In short, a discretion that goes, at first glance, a bit against his status as a superstar. But isn’t the greatest art to know how to avoid one’s shortcomings, as much as amassing feats? An art of passivity more than of creativity. Its power likes in giving the impression of ordinariness, while this man, who almost always uses his gun, lives in the realm of the extraordinary, which gets its value precisely by its unique reinsertion into everydayness (Rio Bravo and, why not, Gideon’s Day). Besides, in hundred-and-fifty films, playing a sharpshooter had become everyday life for him.

Built like a tank but with a common face, coarse to the point of being unique, impossible not to recognize and at the same time swollen, tanned, toughened and wrinkled, comparable to the crocodile of Hatari!, to the bull of Land of the Pharaohs and of Red River, and, in the end, even to my almost asexual grandmother.

Cooper and Wayne are frequently spoken of together, the two cowboys who are often in uniform. Nothing could be more incorrect. Wayne is the leader (or sub-leader) of a group. Cooper is a lone man. He stands out when in a group (Ball of Fire, For Whom the Bell Tolls). Cooper works within a heroic realm, Wayne in the everyday. Cooper never dies, never ages after forty. Wayne was never young, and never ceases to age. Cooper is malleable enough to produce excellent work with ten great directors. Wayne suited only two. He has a precise theme. Cooper doesn’t. Cooper remains fascinating in his immobility. He does nothing, just two or three effects. Wayne refuses effects, works softly, doesn’t let himself be noticed, and gets carried away by action.

The track record is stunning: in a 1978 survey in Brussels of sixty American films deemed the most important, there are four Waynes—The Searchers, Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, Red River—which are also the first four Westerns in the list, against two Stewarts (Vertigo, Rear Window), no Grant, no Cooper.

This man who never worked in the theatre, this odious reactionary, nevertheless finds himself at the cutting edge of the avant-garde in matters of acting. For, considering the best films of today, Hartley or Kiarostami, Muratova or Bresson, Kieslowski or Rohmer, Itami or Sembene, Oliveira or Straub, it’s not Cooper, and even less Grant or Stewart, who can be cited as the precursor, but certainly Wayne and his discreet presence, his silhouette perfectly integrated into the film’s tapestry.



[1] Rio Grande has Rio Bravo as its principal tributary…

[2] In The Most Important and Misappreciated American Films, p. 69, Cinématheque de Bruxelles, 1978.

[3] There is another hypothesis to Wayne’s cancer: this militant anti-communist may have been affected by radiations resulting from atomic experiments during the Cold War, in 1954, while he was shooting The Conqueror in Nevada, and which could’ve caused, in long term, the deaths of the principal collaborators of the film: Dick Powell, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendariz, Agnes Moorehead. He could thus have reaped what he had sown.