Hit after hit had long ago made him a household name in the United States and far beyond, and if anyone wondered when his glory days would run out, it wouldn’t be any time soon.
The High And The Mighty, from 1954, showed he was still adding to his skills, rather than sitting back and resting on his laurels.
Wayne, in fact, had been pencilled in to produce it – he would co-produce – but when Spencer Tracy dropped out, he stepped in front of the camera.
The whole movie set the standard for an entire genre of films of the future.
Flicks like Airplane! would parody it, of course, but disaster movies such as The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and even Titanic would borrow from its production values.
Wayne was First Officer Dan Roman, and it’s the tale – like the hilarious Airplane! – of a pilot haunted by a previous crash.
Robert Stack, in fact, would play the serious role here, and appear in the joke versions years later. The movie was such a success, though, John Wayne would certainly never make fun of it!
Another he always adored was done two years later, 1956’s The Searchers — many American critics to this day say this was the greatest film made. Ever.
Certainly, the consensus is that among Westerns, nothing has ever come close, and much of that is down to an utterly commanding performance by John Wayne at the top of his game.
He plays Ethan Edwards, who comes to live with his brother in a remote part of Texas after many years away, and though he is obsessively crazy about his brother’s wife, it’s an undercurrent that is never spoken about.
Many reckoned Wayne was incapable of such a part, but he manages to play it perfectly, alongside his normal hard man, sharpshooting side.
He arrives with a stash of gold coins and a medal from a Mexican campaign, so he has a shady past and doesn’t seem overly keen on talking about it.
His niece has been taken by the Comanches, but she is grown up and one of the chief’s wives by the time they find her, apparently happy and not wishing to come home. Ethan would rather she was dead than living there, and tries to kill her, but he is wounded by a Comanche arrow.
At the end, they get her back home, and Ethan is seen leaving, going on his mysterious way once more, leaving all sorts of troubles behind him.
If you’ve not seen it for a while, it’s well worth another look — like several of The Duke’s best flicks, it seems to age marvellously well and gets better with repeats.
Rio Bravo was a good way to bring the ’50s to a close. Generally thought of as one of Wayne’s greatest films, Angie Dickinson, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson were the perfect supporting stars.
It’s the tale of a sheriff who arrests a powerful rancher’s brother, then has to take on the rancher’s entire gang.
Dean Martin’s plays his character, Dude, the drunk deputy sheriff, very convincingly!
Music fans love it for the chance to see Ricky Nelson perform with just a guitar, while Wayne fans simply reckon it is up there with his very best.
If it seemed a hard act to follow, though, even Rio Bravo was put firmly in the shade the next year — a certain The Alamo saw to that. It had the critics wondering just how good Wayne could get.
At the dawn of the ’60s, he was in the midst of an astounding run of hit movies, and showing he could do far, far more than just play angry cowboys.
The story of the battle for Texan independence, The Alamo was a wonderful story just begging to be told in film. And John Wayne, at the peak of his powers, was just the man to carry it.
Almost three hours long (some versions last over 200 minutes), it was an epic in every sense.
Wayne also produced and directed it, and was handed $12 million to do so, an incredible amount in 1960.
He plays Davy Crockett, one of three Colonels, with Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie and Laurence Harvey as William Barrett Travis. Frankie Avalon is the young Smitty, one of Crockett’s Tennesseans.
With an impressive cast, a massive budget and The Duke in almost complete control, the pressure to succeed was all on Wayne and no one else.
He had, years earlier, quit in disgust when he first tried to make a movie about the Alamo, as the $3m budget wasn’t enough.
Now, however, he was even able to invest almost $2m out his own pocket, so it’s fair to say the big man was rather keen on getting this movie made.
A fortune was spent on the set, which one critic called: “The most authentic set in the history of the movies,” and Wayne was also thrilled with his young star.
Avalon was still a kid, but Wayne said of him, “We’re not cutting one bit of any scene in which Frankie appears. I believe he is the finest young talent I’ve seen in a long time.” From John Wayne, that’s praise indeed.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another fans’ favourite, was a nice way to start 1962, and to prove that with The Alamo, he hadn’t reached a peak he couldn’t scale again.
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