Johnny D. Boggs is a four time Spur Award winner and has also served as the President of the Western Writers of America - Booklist placed him among the best western writers working today. For the Archive's John Wayne weekend he has supplied the following piece which was originally written to celebrate the Duke's centennial year.
What’s an actor without writers?
“Movies without great personal stories, don't mean anything,” John Wayne said in a 1971 interview.
The same could be say about novels or short stories, the latter of which Wayne said “by their brevity can be turned into the best pictures.”
John Wayne, the 1970 Levi Strauss Saddleman Award recipient from Western Writers of America, celebrates his centennial this year. Born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa, he rose out of poverty to become an American icon, and almost 30 years since his death, remains hugely popular. Earlier this year, Time magazine ranked him as America’s No. 3 movie star.
Wayne scored hits from original screenplays, but many of his films began as short stories and novels. Here’s a look at some of the writing that made him a star.
In 1937, Collier’s published Ernest Haycox’s short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” about a stagecoach of strangers, including a woman named Henriette who runs “a house in Lordsburg” and a vengeance-seeking man called Malpais Bill, traveling through Apache country.
Saying it reminded him of 19th Century French writer Guy de Maupassant's short story “Boule de Suif,” director John Ford bought the film rights for $4,000 (Wayne would be paid $3,700). Dudley Nichols was hired to write the screenplay in which Henriette became Dallas (Claire Trevor) and Malpais Bill became the Ringo Kid (Wayne).
Stagecoach, the first of several Ford films shot in Monument Valley, became a hit, earning two Academy Awards and making Wayne a star.
Red River (1948)
Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1946-47 as “Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,” Borden Chase’s story about relentless Texas cattle baron Thomas Dunson (“A bull of a man. A brute of a man.”) and his foreman/foster son Mathew Garth caught the attention of director Howard Hawks, who wanted to make a Western.
Hawks first went to Gary Cooper, but Cooper said Dunson was too mean for his screen image. Cary Grant also turned down the role of gunman Cherry Valance, saying the part was too small. Wayne, however, loved the part of Dunson, and Hawks landed newcomer Montgomery Cliff as Matt Garth and John Ireland as Cherry Valance. Chase turned his novel into a screenplay, with help from Charles Schnee, and Bantam released the novel as a paperback, under the new title, Red River, to tie in with the movie’s release. Hawks made one significant change in Chase’s story. In the novel, Dunson eventually dies from the bullet wound received by Valance, who is killed in the gunfight. The movie opted for a happier ending with Dunson and Valance surviving.
Upon seeing Wayne’s performance, Ford said, ““I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.”
“Cavalry Trilogy” (1948-1950)
In 1947, Ford noticed a number of short stories about the frontier cavalry appearing in The Saturday Evening Post. The stories were all written by James Warner Bellah, whom Ford had met in India during World War II.
“Massacre” (February 22, 1947) became the basis of the first of Ford’s famed “Cavalry Trilogy,” with Frank S. Nugent handling screenwriting duties. Henry Fonda played martinet Owen Thursday while Wayne took the role of Captain Kirby York (Flint Cohill in Bellah’s story).
For 1948 standards, Massacre would not do as a title, so a $100 prize was offered to the person who came up with a new name; Ford landed upon Fort Apache himself.
In the next installment, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Nugent and Laurence Stallings adapted “War Party” (June 19, 1948) and “Big Hunt” (December 6, 1947). Wayne had a hand, too, actor Harry Carey Jr. remembers.
“Every once in a while John Wayne, very tactfully, would make a suggestion to Ford without getting decapitated,” Carey recalls. “In Yellow Ribbon, it was Wayne that thought of ‘I’ll have a chaw if you don’t mind, sir.’ And Duke hands me the plug of tobacco and I take a ‘chaw.’ It’s when we’re watching the Indians torturing the bad guys that gave them rifles.”
Wayne shined as aging Captain Nathan Brittles. Nugent and Stallings were nominated for a Writers Guild of America award, while Winton C. Hoch won the Oscar for cinematography.
Rio Grande (1950) was based on “Mission With No Record” (September 27, 1947), which focused on Colonel D.L. Massarene (“Ruling the West and the regiment with it, with the iron hand of duty”). In James Kevin McGuinness’ screenplay, Massarene became Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne), estranged from his wife (Maureen O’Hara) and commanding their son (Claude Jarman Jr.).
Republic Pictures forced Ford, Wayne and O’Hara to make Rio Grande before the studio would green-light the movie Ford wanted to film, The Quiet Man (based on a story by Irish writer Maurice Walsh). Studio executives thought an Irish comedy would tank and wanted a Western to salvage the finances. Ironically, The Quiet Man was a commercial and critical success, winning Oscars for Ford and cinematography, and gave Wayne one of his most remembered roles.
On July 5, 1952, Collier’s published Louis L’Amour’s short story, “The Gift of Cochise.” Wayne bought the film rights for his Wayne-Fellows Productions, but L’Amour retained the rights to turn James Edward Grant’s screenplay into a novel. At first, Wayne planned on only producing the movie, but when actors Glenn Ford and Robert Mitchum bailed out, Wayne joined the cast.
Grant changed the story significantly. Cochise became Vittoro. Angie Lowe’s daughter was deleted; her heroic husband, Ed, became a louse and a killer; while Ches Lane was reborn as Hondo Lane. Shot in 3-D and directed by John Farrow, Hondo earned an Oscar nomination for Geraldine Page, who played Angie. L’Amour had a hit, too, when Fawcett published Hondo with a blurb from Wayne, who called it the “best Western novel I have ever read.” L’Amour would also write the novelization of another Wayne movie, How the West Was Won (1962), from James R. Webb’s screenplay “suggested” by a Life magazine series.
The Searchers (1956)
Alan LeMay’s The Searchers, serialized as “The Avenging Texans” in The Saturday Evening Post and published in book form by Harper & Brothers in 1954, received critical praise. “It’s stark, brutal, beautiful writing about a primitive era,” the Denver Post noted.
Screenwriting duties went to Ford favorite Nugent, altering LeMay’s story -- Amos Edwards became Ethan Edwards, who, unlike Amos, survives the final assault -- while retaining the novel’s dark mood.
“People were more deadly serious with that show,” Carey says. “Duke was into that role so much that even off the screen he seemed to carry the part of Ethan with him.”
The Searchers proved only modestly successful in 1956, but has grown to be revered as, arguably, Ford’s best movie and Wayne’s greatest performance.
“Wayne said it’s the best thing the old man (Ford) ever did,” Carey says, “and he was a pretty good judge of pictures.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Dorothy M. Johnson already had a Spur Award (for her story “Lost Sister,” 1956) and had seen her novella The Hanging Tree turned into a pretty good movie with Gary Cooper before Ford and Wayne teamed up to make their last Western together.
Ford hired Bellah, assisted by Willis Goldbeck, to adapt Johnson’s short story, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which had first appeared in Cosmopolitan in July 1949.
The movie won a Western Heritage Wrangler Award from what is now the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and singer Gene Pitney scored a hit with the song, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the song never made it onto the soundtrack, the same music used in Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). As Pitney said, “Go figure that out.”
The War Wagon (1967)
Clair Huffaker had adapted many of his novels into movies, including Seven Ways from Sundown, Flaming Star and Posse from Hell, and was a well-respected Western writer who, the Los Angeles Times said, “drives his story home with a passion.” Huffaker had worked with Wayne on The Comancheros (1961), an enjoyable romp based on Paul I. Wellman’s novel, so Wayne asked him to adapt Badman.
Badman started out in Ranch Romances as “Holdup at Stony Flat” before Huffaker expanded it into a 1957 novel. A heist story, lean and leathery like much of Huffaker’s fiction, Badman told the story of two brothers, Jack Tawlin and his double-crossing brother Jess, but the movie opted for tongue-in-cheek action and an oddball cast (Howard Keel as an Indian?). Instead of brothers, The War Wagon cast Wayne as Taw Jackson and Kirk Douglas as a gunfighter called Lomax.
The War Wagon earned a Wrangler, and Wayne hired Huffaker to write the screenplay for his 1968 movie Hellfighters, of which co-star Katharine Ross said, “It’s the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever done.”
No one, however, would call Wayne’s next movie a piece of crap.
True Grit (1969)
First appearing in three parts in The Saturday Evening Post, True Grit by Charles Portis was published as a novel by Simon and Schuster in 1968.
Told in first person by Mattie Ross, the novel chronicled a 14-year-old girl’s attempt to “avenge her father’s blood” by persuading one-eyed, ill-tempered, hard-drinking deputy U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn to track down her father’s killer in Indian Territory. Mattie tells the story looking back on the events about a half-century earlier.
Wayne loved the role of Cogburn, and loved the script by Marguerite Roberts, a bit of a surprise considering that Wayne had been one of Hollywood’s leading supporters of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s, and Roberts had been blacklisted after declining to answer questions about her affiliations with the Communist Party.
Yet Roberts loved Westerns, with screenwriting credits that included 5 Card Stud, Ambush, Honky Tonk and The Sea of Grass. “I was weaned on stories about gunfighters and their doings,” she said.
The rest of the cast wasn’t so easy to fill. Mia Farrow and Tuesday Weld turned down the role of Mattie, and Wayne wanted Karen Carpenter to play Mattie, but the part went to Kim Darby. Elvis Presley was considered for the part of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, but Glen Campbell signed on.
Roberts stayed faithful to Portis’ novel, lifting much of the dialogue although deleting scenes detailing Mattie as a spinster and Cogburn’s 1903 death. Also, in the film version, Mattie keeps her arm and LaBoeuf dies.
On April 7, 1970, Wayne took home his only Academy Award, beating out Midnight Cowboy stars Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, and Richard Burton (Anne of the Thousand Days) and Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr. Chips).
Roberts, who won a Wrangler and was nominated for a Writers Guild award but not an Oscar, followed True Grit by adapting Portis’ Norwood. She wrote two other screenplays, Red Sky at Morning from Richard Bradford’s great novel and Shoot Out from Will James’ The Lone Cowboy, before retiring in 1971.
On June 11, 1979, exactly 10 years after True Grit opened, John Wayne died of stomach cancer, making his last role even more poignant.
The Shootist (1976)
Few writers could ever match the gift and range of Glendon Swarthout, a poet, playwright and novelist whose titles ranged from Bless the Beasts & Children and Where The Boys Are to The Cadillac Cowboys and They Came to Cordura.
In 1975, Doubleday published The Shootist, a novel about a gunfighter dying of cancer in turn-of-the-century El Paso that won the Spur Award. 2007 Owen Wister Award recipient John Jakes probably describes the novel best in A Century of Great Western Stories: “The Shootist is one of the most important Western novels ever published. It completely destroys, then carefully rebuilds, the myth of the Western gunfighter ....”
The script by Miles Hood Swarthout, Glendon’s son, and Scott Hale made one major change from the novel. Instead of Gillom Rogers being a punk who gives dying gunman John Bernard Books the coup de grace after a saloon shootout, Gillom (Ron Howard) throws away his gun in disgust after killing the bartender who backshoots the shootist. Books gives Gillom a nod of approval, then dies.
Not that the screenwriters had any say in the matter.
Wayne had come under fire for The Cowboys (1972) in which the “boys” in the picture exact revenge on the killers of Wayne’s character. Turning kids into murderers didn’t go over well with some viewers. Wayne wasn’t going through that again, so Gillom Rogers was softened. Wayne also had his favorite horse, Ole Dollor, worked into the script, and the setting was moved to Carson City, Nevada.
It all worked. Although only a modest success when released, the National Board of Review named The Shootist one of the Top 10 Films of the Year and the screenwriters were nominated for a Writers Guild Award.
“If, God forbid, John Wayne should choose to end his incredible career right now,” Arthur Knight wrote in a The Hollywood Reporter review, “after more than 45 years in film, I can’t think of any more perfect picture to fade out on than ... The Shootist.”
Jakes agrees, calling the novel “the perfect vehicle for John Wayne’s last movie.”