10 of John Wayne's Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At

Larry Holzwarth - June 5, 2018

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
In 1939 John Wayne starred with Claire Trevor in Stagecoach, seen here, and later in Allegheny Uprising. Wikimedia

Jim Smith. Allegheny Uprising

Called Jim Smith in the film, but preferring James Smith in real life, the frontiersman played by John Wayne in Allegheny Uprising was based on a real person in Western Pennsylvania following the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion. Smith fought in both. He also led a group of men known as the Black Boys because they blackened their faces when performing acts which merited the disapproval of British authorities. The basis of their disagreements with the British was Indian Affairs, specifically some of the trade goods being offered to the Indians, rum and gunpowder. They took action to hijack pack trains of goods bound for the Indians.

These elements were present in John Wayne’s portrayal of Jim Smith in Allegheny Uprising, though all of the names of the characters were fictionalized other than his, with some name dropping of British General Gage. Most of the film is fictionalized as well, but there is nothing rare about that in the recounting of the life of James Smith. Most of what is known of him is based on his own autobiography, without corroborating support or evidence, and absent from British records, such as the fall of Fort Bedford in 1769. According to Jim Smith the Black Boys captured the British fort without firing a shot, forcing the release of several of their comrades.

Similar events are depicted by Wayne as Jim Smith. Of course Wayne’s Smith has Claire Trevor tagging along as his love interest while the real James Smith did not take his wife with him on his illicit raids. The film correctly points out that the British officials took no action against the illegal trade with the Indians, desiring to quickly regain the support of the tribes in the aftermath of Pontiac’s Rebellion. Wayne’s Smith at one point tells a British officer, “I guess you Brits will never understand our ways”, a line which denies the fact that at that point in American history the colonists considered themselves loyal British subjects, though the cords were beginning to fray.

The events of the Black Boys rebellion are poorly documented and little known outside of those who specialize in the colonial phase of American history. It occurred at the same time as the events in Boston and Williamsburg were beginning to coalesce into organized demands for representation in Parliament. Allegheny Uprising was based on the book The First Rebel: Being a lost chapter of our history and a true narrative of America’s first uprising against English military authority, which was itself based on James Smith’s autobiography, which has an even longer title. The movie’s producer did not follow either closely.

Jim Smith is one of Wayne’s lesser known roles and the film did not fare as well as the earlier release with Claire Trevor, Stagecoach, nor another film depicting the colonial era, Drums along the Mohawk. The paucity of accurate information regarding the real James Smith, the Black Boys, and the rebellion make it impossible to rate Wayne’s performance as regards historical accuracy. The film depicts the British trading rifles to the Indians at a time when rifles were relatively rare, expensive, and all handmade by gunsmiths, a lengthy process. It could have been that the gunpowder being provided in reality was for peppering the rum, a favorite technique of flavoring of the Eastern Indians.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
John Wayne’s part in How the West Was Won was short, but historically accurate. Wikimedia

William Tecumseh Sherman. How the West Was Won

John Wayne actually portrayed General Sherman twice, in the 1962 epic film How the West Was Won and on television’s Wagon Train in 1960. His role in the 1962 film was short, as it was for most of the cast, other than Debbie Reynolds and George Peppard, whose roles covered multiple generations. Wayne depicted Sherman being consulted by General Ulysses Grant, played by Harry Morgan, on the evening of the first day of the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. In the scene, Sherman towers over Grant, in real life they were close to the same size. His scenes are in a hospital visiting the wounded and then in conversation with Grant outside.

In the scene, Grant informs Sherman that there was talk that he (Grant) might be relieved after having been taken by surprise during the Confederate attack. He mentions that reporters were saying that he had been drunk the night before the battle and that Sherman might find himself in command, an inaccuracy since there were officers senior in rank to Sherman present at the battle and its aftermath. Sherman at the time was a Brigadier General. Sherman responds by telling Grant that in the early days of the war the same newspapers were calling him (Sherman) insane. That was much more accurate.

In the early days of the war Sherman suffered from a period of depression, which at the time was called “melancholy” and resigned his first command. He was later relieved from duty at a subsequent command by Henry Halleck, described as unfit for duty. The Cincinnati Commercial used the word insane in its reporting of Sherman’s condition and that of the troops under his command. Sherman returned to his home in Lancaster, Ohio, to recover. By December, 1861 he was feeling well enough to return to duty, under Halleck, in the west.

Following the battle of Shiloh, with its ghastly casualties, Grant was excoriated in the newspapers of the North, and many falsely accused him of being drunk. In fact, Grant was a moderate drinker, except during one phase of his career when much younger, but the rumors of his drunkenness have followed him down through history. The next day at Shiloh, not depicted in the movie, the Union troops regained all of the ground lost on the first day of the battle and drove the Confederate armies from the field. It was one of Grant’s greatest victories in the field.

There is no record of the conversation as depicted in How the West Was Won between Grant and Sherman that evening in the memoirs of either man other than Grant’s caustic reply to Sherman’s comment “Well Grant, it’s been the Devil’s own day” Grant replied, “Yes, lick ‘em tomorrow though.” Wayne portrayed Sherman in the brief role as a pugnacious fighter and loyal subordinate, as well as a loyal friend of Grant’s, all of which he was in life. The short scene provided historical accuracy whether it really occurred or not, as it was intended to, in a film which was largely fiction.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
A painting of St Longinus and a Roman soldier which hangs in the Greek Orthodox Church and Museum, Miskolc. Wikimedia

Longinus. The Greatest Story Ever Told

In the Gospels telling of the Crucifixion, the last of the five wounds received by Christ during his execution on the cross was from a lance, thrust into his side by a Roman Centurion who witnessed the event. The centurion is not named in the Gospels. His name first appeared in a document known as the Gospel of Nicodemus. The lance became known as the Holy Lance, and it, or something which represented it, was a revered relic by the Christian community in Jerusalem during the sixth century. By the eighth century Longinus was said to have been cured of eye problems by the touch of Christ’s blood on his eyes.

Another version of the tale of Longinus has it that he was punished for the rest of his life for the act of piercing the side of Christ with the lance. In the Letter of Herod to Pilate, which is another document not officially recognized by religious authorities in Rome, Longinus is described as having been confined to a cave, where he was nightly attacked by a lion. The next day his wounds would heal, that night the lion would return, and the process would continue for eternity. In many ways it was similar to the tortures of Prometheus for having given the gift of fire to humanity.

Another legend arose which had Longinus helping to lower Christ’s dead body from the cross, and helping to clean it prior to burial in the tomb. From this act a sponge, allegedly used by Longinus and stained with Christ’s blood became a relic in Mantua, where the body of Longinus was discovered along with the lance and the sponge. Longinus and the relics were separated into several different items, and are claimed to be in several churches in Europe, including the Chapel of the Holy Blood in a Benedictine Monastery in Bologna. Others are claimed to be in Prague. His body is claimed to have been buried in several different locations.

Longinus is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church (Feast Day October 16), the Armenian Apostolic Church (October 22) and the Roman Catholic Church (October 16). A statue entitled Saint Longinus stands beneath the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Basilica is said to have a portion of the lance used by Longinus at the Crucifixion. He appears in frescoes, paintings, stained glass windows, and tapestries, and in works of literature and fiction. He has also appeared in film, including in George Stevens’s epic The Greatest Story Ever Told.

In that film, during the Crucifixion, the Roman Centurion standing beneath the cross is given the line, “Truly this man was the Son of God”, attributed to Longinus. Longinus was portrayed by John Wayne. The role was a cameo, the line his only in the film, and the existence of the character being portrayed is highly questionable, but it was the one time in his long career that John Wayne played a Saint of the early Christian church. Despite the shortness of his role, Wayne appeared in much of the preproduction advertising for the film, indicating that his involvement was more than just a whim.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
The ranch house owned by the real John Chisum, who was played by Wayne in the movie Chisum. Wikimedia

John Chisum. Chisum

John Chisum was a rancher and businessman in Texas and later New Mexico, one of the first to raise cattle along the Pecos River. His large ranch was acquired through the claiming of the land and occupying it with his herds. He became wealthy in both land and cattle, with herds of up to 100,000 head. Following the American Civil War Chisum contracted with the US Army to provide beef on the hoof to Fort Sumner. He also contracted with partners in Santa Fe to provide beef to miners and with other ranches across the region. His business interests included a partnership with Alexander McSween.

All of these facts are presented, more or less accurately, in 1970’s Chisum, in which John Wayne plays John Chisum, with the story of his first venture in the Pecos Valley narrated by William Conrad over the opening credits. Once the film begins however most of the accuracy goes out the window. There was a John Henry Tunstall, a rancher, and there was an Alexander McSween, who was Tunstall’s lawyer and business partner. And there was a competitive faction in town, led by Lawrence Murphy. These real people appear in the movie, but only loosely connected to history, in some cases by name only.

Tunstall was not murdered while riding to see the governor as depicted in the movie, but by a posse trying to collect some of his cattle in order to make good Tunstall’s debt, as ordered by the court. The movie depicted some of the events of the Lincoln County War, but in an inaccurate context and timeline. It also greatly exaggerated Chisum’s role in the war. Chisum did have a niece named Sallie who lived with him at his ranch, the daughter of his brother James. They lived near what is now Roswell, New Mexico. Sallie’s diary of the time contains numerous references to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Chisum’s main contribution to the Lincoln County War was taking steps to end it by either capturing or killing Billy the Kid. This aspect took place after the events in the film, in which Chisum killed Lawrence Murphy in a fistfight. In fact Murphy died of cancer in the fall of 1878, and was quite ill during the time of the events of Chisum. Chisum worked with other ranchers to hire Pat Garrett, after the Battle of Lincoln, inaccurately depicted in the film. In the film Garrett and Bonney work together to purchase stock for McSween and Tunstall’s new store, which in reality opened in 1876, two years before the events of the film.

John Chisum did back the venture, and Lawrence Murphy was the major impetus for the Lincoln County War. Bonney was involved and was still at large after the Battle of Lincoln. John Chisum was a powerful rancher due to his connections and wealth, but he did not ride to the guns as depicted in John Wayne’s portrayal. The film is an amalgam of truth and fiction, Chisum is portrayed in the classic fashion of a John Wayne western. The portrayal takes liberties with the real character of the man being depicted in the film, but not in a negative way.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
An image of Shimoda, Japan, taken from Commodore Matthew Perry’s Narrative. New York Public Library

Townsend Harris. The Barbarian and the Geisha

In The Barbarian and the Geisha, John Wayne plays a role which tells a fairly accurate tale of American and Japanese history, while at the same time repeats a legendary story which is based in Japanese myth. Wayne portrays Townsend Harris, a wealthy merchant from New York who in real life made several successful voyages to China and the Dutch and British colonies in the South Pacific. By the mid-1850s Harris was an expert on Asian affairs and customs. When Commodore Matthew Perry first landed in Japan and opened trade between the United States and Japan in 1854, he did so largely through intimidation. Harris was sent to Japan to negotiate a more friendly treaty.

The real Harris found an initially reluctant Japanese government, with the Shogun refusing to even meet with him for nearly a year and a half. Bearing a letter from President Franklin Pierce, which introduced Harris as his personal envoy and promised the friendship of the United States, Harris refused to negotiate with any entity but the Shogun. During the impasse, Harris resided in Shimoda in a household provided by the Japanese. It was during this residence that the legend presented in the film began. The legend has since been proven to have little basis in fact, and began during Harris’s residence to discredit him.

According to the legend, Harris adopted a geisha girl of 17 in his household. The girl, named Okichi, taught Harris the nuances of Japanese culture and customs, and helped him to understand the need to display respect and cooperation with the Shogun. As time went on the geisha and Harris developed a romantic relationship, and through her intercession Harris came to understand the Japanese, and become adapted to their ways. This change in the attitude of the American was noticed by the Shogun, who gradually became open to discuss a formal trade agreement with the United States.

In truth, a girl named Okichi was present in Harris’s Shimoda household as a housekeeper, fired after only three days because Harris was displeased with her work. There is evidence that she may have been placed in the household as an informer. Another part of the legend claims that Okichi was placed in the household to help persuade Harris to accept Japanese terms during the negotiations, though she was discharged long before trade talks between Harris and the Shogun began. After Harris made several overt gestures of respect to the Japanese government, he was allowed to go to Edo (now Tokyo) to meet with the Shogun.

The result was the Harris Treaty, which formalized trade between the Japanese and the United States, and helped lead Japan out of its period of isolation, recreating itself as a modern nation and society. Wayne’s portrayal of Harris is historically accurate in parts which do not pertain to the legend of the geisha girl. Although he was not treated with the level of hostility which is depicted in the film, he did need to overcome Japanese distrust and fear of the west. Harris returned to the United States in 1861, recalled by President Lincoln. He continued to speak of the Japanese and his tenure in Japan favorably for the rest of his life.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
General Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division before on the D-Day, which was presented in the film, The Longest Day. Library of Congress

Benjamin Hayes Vandervoort. The Longest Day

The Longest Day told the story of the Normandy invasion in 1944 using a cast which included most of male Hollywood, with support from the British stars of the day, and several notable German and French actors. Most of the roles were of short duration. John Wayne played Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort. Vandervoort was promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel on June 1, 1944, only five days before leading the 2nd battalion of the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment into France in the wee hours of June 6, 1944. The battalion was tasked with seizing and holding the French village of St. Mere Eglise during the operation.

As presented by Wayne in the film, Vandervoort broke his ankle during his parachute landing, but continued to lead his men in the action against the Germans. While it is true that most of the 82nd Airborne Division was inaccurately dropped in France due to inclement weather and poor navigation, the 505 PIR was relatively close to its target and assembled into fighting formation quickly. As portrayed in the movie, some paratroopers did land in the town, and some became entangled on church steeples and other roofs of the town. In real life and the movie, Vandervoort placed his men to hold the town from German counterattack.

That Wayne portrayed Vandervoort with historical accuracy in The Longest Day isn’t surprising, given that the film is one of the most true to life ever made about World War Two. It was based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan. Ryan’s book, which focuses on the people involved in all aspects of the operation, was based on personal interviews of the participants. Ryan hired researchers who conducted more than 3,000 interviews for the book, including combat veterans from all of the armed services who participated, civilians who watched the invasion unfold, and members of the resistance in France.

Surviving German officers and men were also interviewed and the title of the book and subsequent film were taken from a comment by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, overall commander of the defenses in Normandy. Rommel told his aide, “…for the Allies, as well as for Germany, it will be the longest day”, in anticipation of the invasion. The focus on historical accuracy led to several of the actors using props which had actually been on the beach on the morning of June 6, or carried by the paratroopers when they dropped earlier. Actor Richard Todd for example wore the actual helmet worn by Major Howard, the character he portrayed, during the invasion.

The one aspect of Wayne’s portrayal of Vandervoort which was inaccurate was his age. Wayne was 55 when he lobbied for the role of the Lt. Colonel who had been 27 on the day of the invasion. The role had originally been intended for Charlton Heston, who wanted it, but Wayne made an eleventh hour decision to participate in the film and the role. He was the highest paid actor in the film, in part to punish the producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, for disparaging remarks he had made regarding Wayne’s epic film, The Alamo, which failed at the box office.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
John Wayne played himself on I Love Lucy and again on the later The Lucy Show. Wikimedia

John Wayne. Television and documentaries

Throughout his career in film John Wayne appeared in documentaries and short films as himself, though in scripted roles. Later, with the emergence of television, he appeared in several programs as a guest, nearly always playing on his status as a major motion picture star. Wayne appeared in the first television episode of Gunsmoke, introducing the series and his friend James Arness, though the program had already built a substantial audience on radio. He made two appearances on the wildly popular I Love Lucy, again appearing as himself, a comical victim of the shenanigans of the show’s star, Lucille Ball.

In 1961 Wayne appeared in an anti-communist documentary opinion program called The Challenge of Ideas. The program was labeled as propaganda, produced by Dragnet producer Jack Webb, and featured Wayne, again as himself, and Webb as well as television news anchor Chet Huntley and actress Helen Hayes. He made several short films which supported his own movies, describing how and where they were made, or providing information regarding the characters or the times. One such was a documentary short in 1970 entitled John Wayne and Chisum, about the life of the real John Chisum, narrated by Wayne.

Wayne made several appearances at the Academy Awards as a presenter, but at only one in which he was awarded an Oscar for acting. He received the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1970 for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. That same year he also presented the Academy Award for Best Cinematographer, to Conrad Hall for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He appeared in several other sitcoms, always as himself, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Maude, and The Lucy Show. He also appeared in television dramas playing himself in scripted appearances.

Wayne made numerous appearances on The Dean Martin Show, and appeared on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. He was a semi-regular on the talk show circuit, usually to support an upcoming or recently released film of his, and appeared in numerous specials and celebrity galas, especially during the bicentennial year of 1976. That year he appeared in a special entitled Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend, which honored General Lewis “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated United States Marine in the history of the Corps. The film had been made six years earlier.

In 1970 John Wayne appeared as the narrator on No Substitute for Victory, a propaganda short supporting the involvement of the United States in Vietnam, at a time when support for the war was dwindling. The short featured commentary by General William Westmoreland, retired General Mark Clark, Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, and several others, who questioned the loyalty of those protesting against the war and presented true Americans as giving its prosecution their unquestioning support. It was among many controversial positions taken by John Wayne in his career, but there was never any doubt about where he stood on a subject when he portrayed himself.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Hollywood’s Representation of Naval Aviation: Frank W. “Spig” Wead and John Ford’s ‘The Wings of Eagles'”, by Dominick Pisano, The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, January 5, 2012, online

“Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film”, by Richard V. Francaviglia and Robert A. Rosenstone, 2007

“A Time to Stand”, by Walter Lord, 1961

“James Smith”, entry, Ohio History Central, ohiohistorycentral.org

“Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant”, by Ulysses S. Grant, 1885

“The Latin Passion Play: Its Origins and Development”, by Sandro Sticca, 1970

“In the Shadow of Billy the Kid: Susan McSween and the Lincoln County War”, by Kathleen P. Chamberlain, 2013

“Yankees and Samurai: America’s Role in the Emergence of Modern Japan” by Foster Rhea Dulles, 1965

“Combat Films: American Realism”, by Stephen Jay Rubin, 1981

“The John Wayne Filmography” by Fred Landesman, 2004