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Posted on Mar 1, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

A Salute to John Wayne

By Wyatt Kingseed

The year 2007 marks the centennial of the birth of one of the greatest American film stars—John Wayne. Fellow actor Jimmy Stewart said that John Wayne stamped AMERICA across the face of the motion picture industry. Quite a tribute. Wayne’s bigger-than-life image is indelible and endures. One forgets that that image developed slowly over time. And were it not for two films that he produced himself which drip with political conservatism—The Alamo and The Green Berets—it might not exist at all. Yet nearly three decades after his death in 1979 he is still one of the most popular film actors. Stewart knew what he was talking about.

Though his range and skill as an actor far exceeded the genre that made him famous, Westerns, and beyond what most critics give him credit for, it was in war films where Wayne acquired iconic status. It is here that he best personified the ideal American soldier: stubborn, strong, and courageous. Over his long career, he starred in some of the best that Hollywood ever produced.

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Here are six films set in World War II, all available on DVD. Listed chronologically in terms of the war, they place Wayne at the center of action as a member of all four branches of the service. Each was filmed in sharp black and white.

1.jpgThe Long Voyage Home (1940). Director John Ford’s melancholy adaptation of four Eugene O’Neill one-act plays gave Wayne his first chance to escape the western genre and stretch as an actor. Set in the period before the U.S. entered the conflict, it is not a typical World War II film. The story follows a motley group of wayfaring merchant mariners aboard the SS Glencairn, an English tramp freighter hauling a cargo of dynamite from Baltimore for the Allies in Europe. They must avoid Nazi submarines and handle the loneliness that besets sailors far from home. The men don’t consider themselves heroes, but accept the danger to help their country.

Wayne plays Ole Olsen, the “pet” of the crew, a young Swede who dreams of home and his family farm. Along for the trip are Thomas Mitchell—giving one of the best performances of his career as Driscoll—and Ford regulars, Ward Bond, John Qualen, and Barry Fitzgerald. Not until The Quiet Man, twelve years later, would Wayne work with such an outstanding ensemble cast.

Cinematographer Gregg Toland, one of the best in the business, sets the mood perfectly as he matches the haunting black and white images captured the year before in his stunning work on The Grapes of Wrath. The swirling fog encases the ship, symbolizing the danger of the mission and the uncertain future. German U-boats sent over 2,700 Allied ships to the bottom of the sea during the war, so the anxiety of merchant sailors was real.

The crew saves Olsen from being shanghaied but loses Driscoll in the process. His ship is later torpedoed with all hands lost. The New York Times praised the film as “one of the most honest pictures ever placed on the screen," saying that by showing “that out of human weakness there proceeds some nobility, it is far more gratifying than the fanciest hero-worshipping fare."

The film was nominated for Best Picture.

2.jpgThe Flying Tigers (1942). In Wayne’s first traditional war outing, American mercenary pilots fly combat missions out of Burma to help Chinese General Chaing Kai-Shek and the fledging Chinese Air Force fight Japan. Wayne plays Captain Jim Gordon, a squadron leader in the American Volunteer Group in the days before Pearl Harbor. Pilots are paid $500 for each kill, and while a few are in it for the money, most risk their lives on principle.

It is a surprisingly good film, with plenty of air combat action—lots of blazing guns and blood oozing though the fingers of enemy pilots shot in the face. Actual war footage is spliced with special effects to create authentic-looking and sounding dogfights, deserving of its Oscar nomination. It also contains fine performances and the requisite Hollywood plot line of a charismatic flyer (actor John Carroll) whose recklessness causes the death of a fellow pilot. He feels compelled to redeem himself with a heroic death by helping Gordon take out an enemy bridge. Throughout, Wayne’s character is the stoic and steady leader who teaches the unit the importance of teamwork. When a Chinese member of the ground crew points to his plane’s bullet-ridden fuselage, Gordon scoffs “termites.”

The film’s reputation as propaganda is deserved with scenes of Japanese bombing hungry, innocent Chinese children, and machine-gunning an American pilot who parachutes from his burning plane. The message is clear—America was needed in the fight against Japanese naked aggression. In one of the film’s strongest scenes, Gordon and company listen silently to FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech.

Despite its good points, the film lacks accuracy. The Flying Tigers never conducted a bombing mission as portrayed, and the timing is off. The real unit did not see combat action against the Japanese until after Pearl Harbor. Most egregious, the film fails to mention Claire Chennault, the former Army Air Corps captain and Flying Tigers founder, whose innovative tactics helped the unit compete so successfully against faster enemy aircraft. According to Chennault, during the seven-months of its existence, the Tigers had 299 confirmed kills with another 153 probables. It own loses were just 73 planes.

Republic Pictures, a B studio, scored big with the film, which became its top grosser.

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