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

A commonly heard critique about John Wayne’s acting is that throughout his more than fifty year acting career he consistently portrayed himself. The man known as the Duke played fictional characters from all walks of life, in a wide variety of professions including soldiers and sailors, cops and robbers, saints and sinners, ranchers, marshal’s, athlete’s, frontiersmen, and even a singing cowboy (with overdubbed voice). Wayne appeared in westerns, dramas, war films, comedies, mysteries, and biblical epics. In addition to his film career as an actor, he was a producer of films, some of which he appeared in and some he didn’t.

Besides appearing as fictional characters, some of whom were loosely based on real personages, John Wayne portrayed several real persons of history, and not all of them American. His roles included a Roman centurion mentioned in the Gospels, and a Mongol warrior. He also played an American businessman and Consul General to Japan and a Civil War general (whom he also played on television). Other real life characters included an influential naval aviator who developed the concept of jeep carriers in the Second World War, a rancher involved in the Lincoln County War, and a commander of US paratroopers who dropped into France during Operation Overlord.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
John Wayne on a morale boosting tour in Brisbane in 1943. State Library of Queensland

Here are ten real life persons portrayed in film by John Wayne, including what he got right and what he got wrong.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
Frank “Spig” Wead during his days as a pioneer naval aviator. Library of Congress

Frank “Spig” Wead. The Wings of Eagles

John Wayne played the role of Frank Wead in the 1957 release The Wings of Eagles, a title taken from the Book of Isaiah (40:31). Wead was one of the earliest US Naval aviators, heavily involved in the development of the branch during its fledgling days, when it competed with the US Army for dollars by establishing flight records for publicity. The film depicts parts of the rivalry in farcical scenes, including the cliché of rivals becoming fast friends after semi-drunken fisticuffs. Wead later became a writer, and wrote several books, plays, magazine articles, and motion pictures scripts, including They Were Expendable, which starred John Wayne and Robert Montgomery.

Wead’s naval career was interrupted due to a fall in his home, accurately played by Wayne in the film. Wead was at home one night when the cries of his daughter caused him to rush to her room, and he either tripped or slipped down a flight of stairs. Paralyzed from the waist down, he underwent a long convalescence, being medically discharged from the Navy in May 1928. The film also accurately depicts Wead’s separations from his wife, which severely strained his marriage, from the dedication to his career before his injury.

Wead died ten years before the film was made, but Wayne knew him from their working together during the making of They Were Expendable. Thus his portrayal was based on first-hand knowledge of Wead’s story. The scenes of Wead’s struggles as a writer and his difficulties coping with his limited ability to walk, with supporting canes, were based on conversations with Wead. When Wead returned to active naval service during World War II, in carriers, Wayne demonstrated how hard it was to move about ship, especially in action under enemy attack. Wead served the final months of his naval career in action against the Japanese in the Pacific.

It is in the combat scenes at sea where the film takes its biggest step from the truth. Newsreel footage used in the film implies that USS Hornet (CV-8) was sunk by the attacks of kamikazes. Hornet was heavily damaged by dive bombers and Japanese torpedo planes (though one Japanese bomber did crash into it) in the Solomon Islands in 1942. The crew abandoned ship and US destroyers tried to sink the carrier, which refused to do down. Finally Japanese destroyers sank the ship. The term kamikaze and their use as a weapon against American ships did not surface until 1944. Timelines in the film were similarly altered with dramatic license.

Those who had known Frank Wead found the Duke’s portrayal of him to be true to the subject, although those who knew Wead best, his wife and children, never commented on his performance publicly. The film was directed by John Ford (who appears as the character John Dodge in the film, played by Ward Bond) and was meant to be a tribute to the screenwriter with whom he had frequently collaborated. Wayne is almost subdued through most of the film, once he is past the part when he is playing a young hellion of a test pilot. The film found little audience when released, lost money, and the story of Frank Wead as a naval officer and film writer remains relatively obscure.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
A 1956 film poster for The Conqueror in which Wayne portrayed Temujin. Though he lobbied for the role he later called himself miscast. Wikimedia

Temujin. The Conqueror

The Conqueror told an epic story, with a distinguished cast, including Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead, with John Wayne starring in the lead role. It was produced by Howard Hughes. It had all the ingredients for success, and it finished eleventh of all films released in 1956, in terms of dollars earned at the box office. Yet it is widely held to be one of the worst films of John Wayne’s career, and is often included in lists of the worst films of all time. Nearly all critical of the film agree that John Wayne was hopelessly miscast in the lead role, which he worked hard to obtain after reading the script, even offering to share some of the cost of production.

For those unaware, Temujin is better known today as Genghis Khan. In real life Temujin was married at 16 in an arranged marriage to Borte of the Onggirat tribe, intended to strengthen tribal relations. Borte was subsequently kidnapped by the Merkit tribe, given away as a wife, and later rescued by Temujin, with the support of allies. Borte remained Temujin’s wife for the rest of his life, though he eventually had about 500 other consorts. As Temujin rose in power and increased his authority over the gradually uniting Mongol tribes, he introduced a system of promotion based on merit, rather than of familial or tribal relationships. He also practiced fratricide.

Wayne’s Temujin kidnaps Bortai, she fails to be impressed by him, and she is rescued by the Tartars. Later Temujin is captured by the Tartars and while a prisoner she begins to be more impressed with him. After falling in love with him she helps him to escape and Temujin begins his ascent to becoming Genghis Khan. He does so portraying Temujin as a faithful husband to one woman, with a western accent from which lines such as “she is my destiny”. Wayne wears a Fu Manchu moustache and a Mongol hat which is more than a bit ridiculous. The film was made in the Utah desert and most of the extras were Navajo Indians. There are no Asians in the film, which is strange since it portrays Asian history.

The film is more famous for its links to cancer which afflicted many of the cast and crew. Of the 220 men and women which comprised the cast and crew 91 had developed some form of cancer by 1980. Since the filming was completed downwind of the Nevada nuclear test site, which was actively testing nuclear weapons during filming, some postulate that this statistically high rate of cancer was a result of the testing. Others argue that several of the victims of cancer, including director Dick Powell, John Wayne, and Agnes Moorehead were all heavy smokers. Wayne smoked several packs a day for most of his life. Susan Hayward, also a heavy smoker, likewise died of cancer.

Although Wayne did depict Temujin as a ruthless warrior, it is in a manner which is nearly laughable, and the real Temujin was anything but a figure of fun. Wayne disliked discussing the film in later years, and lamented that he had been hopelessly miscast. The film is essentially a western in the wrong costumes, and Wayne played his role with much of the same flourish and gesticulation which punctuated his western heroes. There is nothing historically accurate about The Conqueror nor John Wayne’s portrayal of the man who became Genghis Khan, one of the most brutal and genocidal rulers in Asian history.

10 of John Wayne’s Characters: What He Got Right and What He Failed Miserably At
David Crockett of Tennessee with his famous motto handwritten beneath his image. Library of Congress

David Crockett. The Alamo

John Wayne wanted to play Sam Houston in his 1960 epic The Alamo, but other investors in the film insisted that he take a starring role. Wayne also directed the film, and believed that starring as well would take away from both his performance and his direction. Needing the money from the investors (he put in about $1.5 million of his own money) he acquiesced and selected the role of Colonel David Crockett of Tennessee, a part which had been made famous by Fess Parker for Disney just a few years earlier. Wayne’s Crockett was at times true to the original, but at others wandered from actual history, as did other parts of the film.

Crockett did lead a party of volunteers to Texas, arriving in early 1836 at San Antonio de Bexar, though they believed the fighting between the Texians (as they were called) and the Mexicans to be over. Throughout his life the real David Crockett (he hated to be called Davy) enjoyed pulling a cork and telling a tale, attributes which Wayne portrays. Whether Crockett was forced to trick his men into staying in Texas and joining the fighting is unknown, since all of his party were killed in the Alamo. Crockett also knew fellow Tennessean Sam Houston, but he did not visit the general prior to his arrival at the Alamo.

During the actual siege of the Alamo the Texians made several sorties outside of the fort, prior to the arrival of the full Mexican Army. These were to clear brush and several outbuildings which would have afforded cover for Mexican sharpshooters, and most were conducted on foot. There was insufficient food and water within the slipshod fort for the Texians (and Tejanos) to maintain a large number of horses, though there were some for the use of messengers. In the final assault on March 6 there were not three attacks, with the first two repelled. There was instead a three pronged assault which overwhelmed the defenders as there was simply not enough men to man the length of the walls and barricades.

The heroic death of Wayne’s Crockett was false for two reasons. There were no Mexican lancers used in the assault, they were stationed on the plain outside specifically to run down any men attempting to flee the attack. Nor was the powder magazine within the Alamo destroyed during the battle. That Crockett did die inside the fort was confirmed by Susannah Dickinson, the wife of one of the defenders, and a slave known as Joe who belonged to William Travis. Both claimed to have seen his body within the confines of the fort, near the chapel. Historians believe that several Texians attempted to escape the fort and fight out of the encirclement, only to be cut down by the lancers, but it isn’t likely Crockett was one of them.

Another former American slave who was a cook for the Mexican Army also claimed to have seen Crockett’s body, although how he would have recognized Crockett is unknown. What is known is that according to eyewitnesses Crockett died during the battle, despite claims he surrendered and was executed. Wayne’s portrayal of Crockett in The Alamo is for the most part historically accurate, including his expressed surprise at the lush greenery of parts of Texas, and how the area was well watered, the people welcoming and friendly. The portrayals of Travis (a slave owner who abandoned his wife) and Bowie (a smuggler, slave dealer, and fence) were far less accurate.

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