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Monday, 26 May 2014

Duke it out

He learned to ride as a boy and in his early and mid-career, he was obviously expert. At an early age—while his father cleared the land, he was expected to follow, ready with a rifle to shoot any rabbits or rattlesnakes that came into view. His family moved to a community of farms and ranches, where he continued to lead an outdoor life.

In high school, he was an honour student, class president, sportswriter on the student paper, president of the Latin society, member of the drama club, and orator in the Southern California Shakespeare contest, among numerous other scholastic activities. He was also a skilled chess and bridge player. These youthful achievements are all the more impressive when one realizes that he accomplished them between delivering newspapers before school and working at a part-time job after school. He might have been successful in higher education, perhaps becoming a lawyer, if he hadn't been exceedingly fond of athletics, alcohol, and the movies.

After a football scholarship allowed him to attend the University of Southern California, a torn shoulder interfered with his game so much that he eventually lost the scholarship. Simultaneously, his love of alcohol distracted him from his studies.

Dropping out of college, in search of a way to earn a living, he gravitated toward film sets as he had when he was a boy watching westerns being made in the countryside near his home. Movies weren't merely entertainment for him. They were an escape from reality. Like many obsessively ambitious people, he was haunted by harsh memories of severe poverty and constant arguments between his parents. To escape from his depressing home life, he went to the movies as often as he could, four and five times a week. Playing with other children, he pretended that he was in a movie, as star, director, and writer.

The above is a mildly tampered-with minor extract from a moving appreciation: John Wayne - The Westerns by David Morrell, which I recommend. The quotes below are also taken from the short book, or rather lengthy essay.

Wayne’s birthday is May 26. He was born in 1907.

He didn’t start out as a film star. He worked hard at his apprenticeship. Throughout the thirties he made 56 formula pictures, ‘acquiring the elements that would combine to produce the persona of John Wayne.’ With his stuntman friend Yakima Canutt he developed the fistfight technique subsequently seen in movies, creating realistic punches thanks to the canny camera position; when they duke it out, it appears as if the fist connects....

As Morrell states, ‘he doesn’t act as much as he reacts. He lets his eyes communicate as much as his dialogue…’ Michael Caine’s acting master-class was all about the eyes, too.

He was a big man, and a determined one. That determination saw him ride out many setbacks that would have floored lesser individuals. When his long-time studio Republic refused to finance The Alamo, Wayne ‘angrily severed relations with it. He raised the money on his own and … elicited good performances from Lawrence Harvey as Colonel Travis and Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie. Wayne’s control of the ambitious production would have been a credit to an experienced director, let alone to a novice.’

In 1964 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He announced that surgeons removed his left lung so that other people might seek regular check-ups; he didn’t mention that he also lost four ribs. He made 19 films after that, among them El Dorado, True Grit, The Undefeated, Chisum, Rio Lobo, The Cowboys, McQ, Rooster Cogburn, and The Shootist; during the latter he required oxygen between takes.

He died three years after The Shootist, in 1979, aged 72. ‘Given his excessive smoking and drinking as well as his cholesterol-thick diet (all of those steak-and-eggs breakfasts), it’s a wonder that he survived as long as he did.’

Morrell believes what epitomised Wayne was a ‘sense of integrity, hard work, and self-reliance, a belief in fighting for the values that one holds dear, a willingness to help, a refusal to be pushed, a readiness to take a stand, a championship of the individual in tandem with the understanding that we are all in this together.’ John Wayne was a complex individual, not simply the reactionary espouser of right-wing gun-toting politics portrayed by his detractors. 

On Wayne’s grave can be found his own words:
‘Tomorrow is the most important thing in life.
Comes into us at midnight very clean.
It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands.
It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.’

David Morrell is a best known for his debut 1972 novel First Blood. He has written 28 novels.

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