This Fourth of July long weekend is made for a trip down American history courtesy of John Wayne films. Wayne was an American original. Thirty seven years after his death, in the annual Harris poll of favorite actors, he ranks number four overall, and number one among men voting. In his day he was never shy about declaring his love of country, and he did so when patriotism was fashionable and when it was unfashionable. An American icon, the deathbed convert to the Catholic Church is a symbol of this nation, instantly recognizable around the globe. Here are some of his films set in the history of this land.
- Allegheny Uprising (1939)-The film tells the true story of the Black Boys Rebellion against the British in 1765, with Wayne portraying James Smith the leader of this proto-American Revolution.
2. The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)-John Wayne costars with Oliver Hardy, yeah, that Oliver Hardy, in a tale of veterans of the War of 1812 helping French settlers battle land swindlers in Alabama. Very loosely based on actual events. In one scene Wayne explains that his family never had money due to his father’s health being ruined after he spent a winter at a place called Valley Forge.
3. The Alamo (1960)-The epic story of the battle for Texan Independence. Wayne’s love note to America and freedom.
4. The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)-One of the more successful American diplomats of the Nineteenth Century, Townsend Harris, a native of New York City, became wealthy in the China trade in the early part of the century. He then turned to public service, serving as the President of the New York City Board of Education from 1846-1848. He founded the Free Academy of the City of New York, later renamed as the City College of New York, in order to provide college educations to low income people in New York.
In July 1856, Franklin Pierce named him the first American consul general to the Empire of Japan. He opened the first American consulate in Japan in the city of Shimoda. Overcoming enormous difficulties, in two years he negotiated what has become known as the Harris Treaty, which established full diplomatic and trade relations between Japan and the US.
On the hundredth anniversary of the treaty in 1958, John Wayne, in one of the oddest films of his career, starred as Townsend Harris in the film The Barbarian and the Geisha. Few men could have been more unlike John Wayne than Harris, and Wayne appears uncomfortable in the role of the diplomat to me. The film played up an alleged romance between Harris and Okichi, a 17 year old housekeeper, which has long been a tale told in Japan. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story is untrue. Harris fired Okichi after she worked for him for three days due to the fact that he considered her to be an incompetent housekeeper. However, the look of the film is splendid, even if the film is the usual Hollywood mix of lies and half-truths.
5. The Horse Soldiers (1959)-In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid.
Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg.
John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade. William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne. Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest.
Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period. I especially appreciated two scenes. John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives the following impassioned speech:
Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’. You think our boys are asleep down here. Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it.
Both scenes ring home with authenticity. Not a bad effort from the usual history manglers of Hollywood.(Although there are still errors enough, including Union soldiers worrying about being captured and sent to Andersonville prior to the POW camp being constructed by the Confederates in 1864.)
6. The Searchers (1956)-Set in Reconstruction Texas, John Wayne gives the performance of his career as embittered Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards and his vengeance ride against Comanches who slaughtered his family.
7. True Grit (1969)-Set in Reconstruction Arkansas, True Grit is the only film for which Wayne won an Oscar. An accomplished actor, Wayne throughout his career made it all look so easy that he was always badly underestimated. In this film, a skillful mixture of comedy and drama, Wayne was able to give life to Rooster Cogburn, one of the great literary creations of the last century.
8. Rio Grande (1950)-The final installment in Ford and Wayne’s cavalry trilogy was picked for inclusion due to the above rendition of Down by the Glenside. The song of course would not be written until 1916, but any viewer with a drop of Irish blood will forgive the historical anachronism.