Monday, June 11, 2018

Remembering the John Wayne of my childhood by Kaye Spencer #johnwayne #westernfictioneers #oldwest

(1) John Wayne: May 26, 1907 to June 11, 1979

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, John Wayne was an important part of my life. His name was synonymous with cowboys, the Old West, and America. He WAS the Old West. He was my superhero before I knew what that word meant. I idolized him whether he played a gunfighter (Stagecoach), a sheriff who faced down the bad guys (Rio Bravo, El Dorado), an almost villain (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers), or a gold prospecting, reluctant groom (North to Alaska).

He was ‘a man’s man’ from his walk to his talk. You knew where you stood with him. He was straight-forward, self-sufficient, rugged, and dependable. His signature steely-eyed expression when his eyes narrowed to slits with the warning he’d taken all he was going to take would send me scooting to the edge of my seat in anticipation of the bad guys getting what was coming to them.

As Rooster Cogburn, he metaphorically tackled Hell with a bucket of ice water when he clamped the bridle reins between his teeth and took off down that mountain slope rifle in one hand and a six-shooter in the other. What an iconic scene. (True Grit)

When Big Jake came to my hometown theater, I took my then five-year-old brother to see it. He loved it so much we went back every day for the week it played.

The night my mom took us to the drive-in to see Hatari!, my dad couldn’t go with us, because one of our cantankerous Angus cows was in the corn field and he was out chasing her around on a little Ford tractor to get her back where she belonged. The irony of the plot of the movie and my dad with his tractor that night still gives me a chuckle.
(2) One of the many cover versions for the dvd

Back then, I didn’t know what onscreen chemistry meant. I just knew that John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara were the greatest movie couple. I was convinced they were married. You can imagine my shock and disappointment when I learned this wasn't the case. They were so perfect together, that this crushing reality was inconceivable to my 10 (ish)-year-old mind. When I was a little older, though, I wasn't quite so disappointed they weren't married, because I had a teenage crush on him when I better appreciated his masculine appeal.

(3) The Quiet Man

But age and experience changes a person’s perspective. When I re-watch McLintock! or The Quiet Man I cringe at the way the male/female relationships were portrayed. I also struggle with Hatari!, although I loved this movie when my child’s eyes saw it simply as an exciting cowboy adventure in Africa. The romance between John Wayne’s and Elsa Martinelli’s characters was so much fun. But as an adult, the running down and capturing wild animals to relocate them to zoos is problematic for me.

Still, I occasionally watch these movies, because I remind myself I shouldn’t judge movies (or books for that matter) by contemporary standards, expectations, and mores. They are to be taken for the entertainment they provide and for the glimpse at a different historical and cultural time period and what I can learn from it.

It would be easy to reminisce about all of the John Wayne movies that have stayed with me through the years and also talk about how his characters influenced, in some way, every male protagonist I write: The Sons of Katie Elder, The War Wagon, Hondo, Three Godfathers, The Comancheros, Alamo

(4) Rio Bravo
But I won’t. Instead, I’ll end with a scene from my favorite of his movies, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

On this 39th anniversary of his death, what are your memories of John Wayne?

Until next month,

Kaye Spencer

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Image References:
(1) 20th Century Fox, John Wayne - 1961, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons.2018.06-09.

(2) Hatari! (from Kaye Spencer’s movie collection)
(3) The Quiet Man movie still. Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne.  Saved by Mary Kate Knoll. 2018.06-09.
(4) Howard_Hawks' Rio_Bravo_trailer_(26).jpg: Trailer screenshot derivative work: Liorek (talk), John Wayne portrait, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons. 2018.06-09


  1. Kaye, thanks for the personal perspective on John Wayne. He most always played the tougher-than-nails protagonist who could rarely be defeated. Of course, it was a surprise when Bruce Dern killed him the 1972 flick, The Cowboys. Wayne's most compelling role, however, was Ethan Edwards in The Searchers that revealed a vulnerability, a dark side, and proof of his acting skills.

  2. Tom,

    Whether it's true or merely Hollywood-hype, Wayne supposedly told Dern, "Oh, they're gonna hate you for this." Despite Dern's acting accolades, his legacy will be that he was the man who killed John Wayne.

  3. Yup, just like Tom just said. THE COWBOYS holds one of my John Wayne memories, but it wasn't my greatest memory.

    Not hardly.

    Let me start at the beginning of the story. I grew up watching all of his movies at the theater as they were coming out. BIG JAKE, TRUE GRIT, THE WAR WAGON, ROOSTER COGBURN, and THE COWBOYS. I was too young to catch his earlier stuff - but I watched his movies every chance that I got. Eventually I built up a DVD collection of about 40 of his movies.

    I came to John Wayne through my grandparents. My grandmother loved his movies, as did my grandpa. In fact, grandpa kind of looked like a cross between John Wayne and James Cromwell, if you can picture that.

    I raised my stepson watching some of those movies. And that is where THE COWBOYS comes in. We were watching it together and then Bruce Dern scuttered up on the Duke and shot him. My stepson jumped up in shock and said "My God, he shot John Wayne!"

    That was about twenty years ago.

    Now let me tell you about my greatest John Wayne memory. About six years ago I got a hell of a phone call from my younger brother Dan. Turns out they found cancer in his pancreas. In case you don't know, that one is almost a sure death warrant.

    He was living in my home town in Northern Ontario. I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I hopped a plane and flew out there and spent the week trying to squeeze about twenty years worth of missed conversations into a seven day stretch.

    When we got tired of talking Dan said, "How about a movie?" He opened up a cupboard behind his big wall-sized television set and lo and behold, was about fifty to sixty John Wayne movies.

    You've got to understand that he and I had been apart for a lot of years - yet we had both grown up with the same love for John Wayne movies.

    We watched THE WAR WAGON and the war movie IN HARM'S WAY (which I had never seen before that).

    About three years ago I came home from working an evening shift, on the night of my birthday, only to find out that my brother had passed that evening, after spending the day watching the last big Tragically Hip concert and a hockey game.

    His team won.

    I can't watch a John Wayne movie without feeling my brother and my grandfather watching over my shoulder.

    1. Steve,

      What a touching story about reconnecting with your brother. Thank you for sharing. *blinking back tears and not being terribly successful*

      My mental image of your brother and grandfather watching over your shoulder when you watch a John Wayne movie is a comforting thing.

  4. I'm with you on your last comment...I felt a tug of tears reading that last paragraph in reply to Steve's comment. I've always loved John Wayne movies and in my FB comment I had mentioned McClintock and the Quiet Man as being two memorable movies of his, so now neat that you should mentioned them in your blog. I cringe with embarrassment for Mrs. McClintock being dragged through the streets in her underclothes and getting spanked, and you're right, it was another time, and yet it stayed true to that time despite how this kind of abuse is frowned upon in our sensitive and yet unsensitive society. His "walk" is so anticipated when someone's about to get it....the funniest imitation of JW is Nathan Lane's portrayal of trying to walk like a man in Bird Cage. I start to giggle in anticipation when that scene comes up in the movie. I always enjoy your posts, Kaye and love the way you insert photos amidst the text.

    1. Elizabeth,

      I heartily agree about the scene in McClintock. And his of a kind. Thank you so much for sharing your John Wayne memories.

  5. Read this earlier, but had to get to work. I so enjoyed the way you tied your memories and present day. Wayne was not my favorite, I leave that to Robert Mitchum and Joel McCrea. but he did a lot to symbolize the American Cowboy for so many. Doris

    1. I have a special soft spot in my fangirl heart for Robert Mitchum, so I'm right there with you on that. One of the benefits of a John Wayne movie was enjoying the host of actors and actresses who supported him. Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin, Richard Boone, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Stewart, Maureen O'Hara, Angie Dickinson, Stephanie Powers, Jane Russell to name a few. And you're exactly right that John Wayne symbolized the American cowboy, even though so many other actors are more than worthy to claim their fair share of that symbolism, too.

  6. You mention most of my favorite Duke movies. I have to mention two movies in which he was out of character and while I enjoyed them, I've never gotten used to the idea: "The Greatest Story Ever Told" in which he made a cameo as a Roman centurion and "Sea Chase" as a German captain of a merchant ship in WWII.

    1. Gordo,

      Typecasting was more troublesome for actors and actresses back then, I think. The movie that just didn't work for me was 'The Conqueror' when he played Genghis Khan. It's one of those movies that you're embarrassed for everyone in it.

    2. I had met to mention "The Conqueror" too, but I rushed. I don't think its a matter of type casting, but out of his comfort zone, not just for him, but his fans. I'll have to write up a piece someday about when I had dinner with Duke...and another time when I got drunk with Martha Raye.

    3. Gordo,

      I hope you write them soon *nudge nudge*. :-)

  7. I enjoyed your post, Kaye.
    I guess my favorite John Wayne movie is North to Alaska. At least I watched it several times more than any of his others.

    1. Jerry,

      I love a good movie bar-room brawl, and the one in North to Alaska ranks up there as one of my favorites. Ernie Kovacs falling facedown in the mud is such a great scene.

  8. As a boy I remember watching a lot of John Wayne's later movies on network TV regularly: True Grit, Chisum, Big Jake, The Cowboys and The Shootist. As I got older I got to see him as a young man. I love movies like Stagecoach (has a big star ever had a greater entrance than the Ringo Kid's?), Angel and the Badman (a small movie but I think one of his best), Red River and John Ford's Cavalry Trilogy. At this point (it changes often) my favorite of his movies is She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, where he showed he could play an older man. I also like non-westerns like They Were Expendible, The Quiet Man and Wings of Eagles. Now I'm thinking of having my own Dukefest with the DVD's I own.

    1. Louis,

      I had the "Dukefest" bug bite me, too. *grin* I've recently watched Hellfighters and El Dorado. That is a great scene with the Ringo Kid standing on the side of the stage road and the way the camera zooms from long shot to his face.

  9. My favorite movie of his was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, too, Kaye. So many great movies he was in, and thank GOD we had video when the kids were little so we could have "movie night" in our house, complete with JOHN WAYNE (of course!) and a big ol' bowl of popcorn. His movies were always the ones the kids wanted to see, and brought many laughs and fond memories. My dad loved Rooster Cogburn so much, but one of his favorite JW movies was Hellfighters since he was an oilfield man himself. And I agree, that shot of the Ringo Kid standing on the side of the road, the way the camera just hones in on him, coming in for a close up...that was so different for the times, and that version of Stagecoach is still my favorite!

    Oh, Gordo, THE CONQUEROR!!! That one just makes me cringe. Where he's riding the horse and says, "Greetings, my mother..." Something about covering her in diamonds and rubies...oh lord. I watched it once, and it was too painful to ever sit through again. Much better to think of him in the western roles he did so very well!

    1. Cheryl,

      My hometown had a drive-in theater and Wednesday night was Double Feature/Car load night. It was a dollar to get in regardless of how many people you had crammed into the car. *grin* A John Wayne double feature was common. The first movie would be one of his 'good' movies and the second would be a "B" list movie like the Conqueror. It was great fun.

  10. Thanks for a great post - I'm a Duke fan as well. When I watch a "cowboy" movie, it's usually a Wayne flick. Maybe Gordo will come to the convention and we can get him drunk and get that story out of him...

    1. J.E.S.,

      Ooh... great idea about getting Gordo to share his stories. Let us know how that turns out. *wink*