John Wayne Wasn’t A Fan Of The Image Howard Hawks Had In Mind For Him
There’s a popular misconception that John Wayne was a stiff-limbed movie star with limited range, but, in reality, he was capable of making subtle adjustments in his comportment and line delivery that could completely transform our perception of his character. It’s all on display in Howard Hawks’ “Red River,” where Wayne, playing a hard-nosed rancher driving cattle along the perilous Chisholm Trail, comes off at different moments as confident, world-weary, and scared.
Yes, The Duke, arguably the most macho movie star of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the epitome of big-screen American manliness, could play scared. On one hand, this is just good dramaturgy from an actor’s perspective. A film’s narrative arc can easily get flattened if there’s little to no variance in a character’s emotional state. This sameness is fine when you’re making a Steven Seagal movie (where you expect him to win every fight and overcome every obstacle without much of a hassle), but if you want your film to be taken seriously, you can’t have a monolith where your leading man is supposed to be.
Wayne might’ve been surprisingly game when it came to playing scared or flat-out unlikable, but he drew the line when it came to playing a coward.
John Wayne was no coward … in the movies at least
According to Scott Eyman’s “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” Wayne was especially fond of working with Howard Hawks due to the filmmaker’s tendency to improvise moments on the fly. Actor William Self, who had an uncredited role in “Red River” as a wounded wrangler, observed their collaboration thusly:
“Something would catch [Hawks’] eye on the first take, and he’d throw things out, make some dialogue changes, and Wayne would do it easily. He wouldn’t always do that — it depended on his level of comfort with a director. But he and Hawks were remarkable together — they were nimble and confident of each other.”
But in 1948, Wayne had grown protective of his image. He knew audiences came to see him play strong, capable men. This meant, no matter how much he trusted Hawks, playing what he described as “a big, blustering coward” was out of the question. As Wayne remembered, “‘You’ll win an Academy Award,’ [Hawks] said. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ I said. Instead, I played it as a strong man who was scared. After all, as a man, you can be scared, but you can’t be a coward.”
These are fascinating words coming from a man who went out of his way to avoid serving in World War II, but what’s the use of having a public image if you don’t dishonestly burnish it once in a while?