Once John Wayne established himself as a bonafide movie star as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” he steadily built up his fanbase via hits like Raoul Walsh’s “Dark Command,” Cecil B. DeMille’s “Reap the Wild Wind,” and John Ford’s “They Were Expendable.” Did it help that some of his marquee competition (e.g. James Stewart and Henry Fonda) had paused their careers to serve in World War II? Absolutely. This might be deplorable in hindsight (especially in light of the actor’s conservative politics and later support of the disastrous Vietnam War), but, at the time, the majority of the American moviegoing public clearly didn’t mind. A new Wayne movie almost always packed ’em in and turned a profit.
While the Duke was riding high at the box office, he was slowly turning into a caricature of his stolidly macho self. The fresh-faced kid who once got Marlene Dietrich’s motor running now came off a good 10 years older than he was, and, in terms of performance, worked barely perceptible variations on his drawling persona. The return of Ford from World War II would eventually break him of his broadest habits, but it would take Howard Hawks to pull something not just different, but shockingly sinister out of him.
The Duke goes full Captain Ahab
Based on Borden Chase’s serialized yarn “The Chisholm Trail,” Hawks’ “Red River” thrust Wayne into the role of Thomas Dunson, a hard-nosed, financially hard-up rancher who, out of desperation, resolves to drive his cattle from South Texas to Missouri. It’s an arduous trip that places the overzealous Dunson at odds with his adopted son (Montgomery Clift).
Wayne’s Dunson may be the film’s protagonist, but his harsh management style challenges our sympathies. Wayne was no stranger to playing hard men, but Dunson verges on maniacal à la Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab.
Though Wayne butted heads with Hawks over his portrayal of Dunson, he was grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate his range. According to David Welky and Randy Roberts’ “John Wayne: Treasures,” the Duke said, “It was the first time I felt like a real actor.” Hawks added, “We were walking a tightrope in telling a story like that. Are you still going to like Wayne or not?”
Wayne’s loyal fanbase powered the film to second place at the 1948 U.S. box office, while critics of the era praised the star’s performance. Years later, film scholar Gerald Mast opined:
“It may seem like a hyperbolic claim, but no star in the history of film other than John Wayne could play [his] role in ‘Red River’ and make it mean what it does and make the story mean what it does.”
Wayne strung together a series of first-rate performances over the next few years, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in 1949 for his heroic turn in “Sands of Iwo Jima,” and turning in what might be his finest work ever as Captain Nathan Bruttles in Ford’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” For Wayne fans, this was inarguably his prime.