This article is from our John Wayne Collector’s Edition, which can be purchased at HorseBooksEtc.com.
SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (Henry Hathaway, dir.; 1941)
Harold Bell Wright of Rome, N.Y., knew nothing about the Ozarks until he headed to southern Missouri for health reasons. Camping out in a rural area owned by locals “Old Matt” and “Aunt Mollie,” he listened spellbound while they spun folk yarns no outsider had ever before heard. Wright jotted down vivid descriptions of the phantasmagoria and the rustic, local geography then penned a novel, Shepherd of the Hills (1907). Some literati insist it was the first book—other than the Bible—to sell more than a million copies. Wright captured the essence of this unique sub-culture and shared it with the world. In the movie version, Wayne and Harry Carey played the young swain and older mystery man respectively. The film was shot in subdued colors that caught the melancholy ring of Wright’s quaint prose and the unique “hill lifestyle.” A lavish outdoor stage production is still regularly performed at the Old Mill Theatre in Branson, Mo.
3 GODFATHERS (John Ford, dir.; 1949)
For diehard fans of pulp fiction and its Western sub-genre, Peter B. Kyne’s first novel is the end all be all. Originally published in 1913, 3 Godfathers is an allegorical retelling of the Biblical tale of the Three Wise Men. Hollywood’s early Western icon Harry Carey played the lead in the initial film version (1916). Young John Ford brought it to the screen twice during the silent era, in 1919 as Marked Men and 1926 in Three Bad Men. Ford eventually retold the tale in 1949 as a full-color epic, adding large dollops of his sentimental Irish humor and soulful Catholic redemption, creating an ocular essay on the great American desert. “Pappy” dedicated his film to the recently deceased Carey, who had ranked as his favorite star previous to Wayne. The book’s claim to fame: No other piece of Western fiction has been adapted more often to the screen than this hardboiled literary diamond-in-the-rough.
HONDO (John Farrow, dir.; 1953)
“The best Western novel I’ve ever read,” the Duke said of Hondo by Louis L’Amour on the day when both Wayne’s film and L’Amour’s book were released. Don’t think, however, that Wayne had read the novel then decided to film it. He’d come across “The Gift of Cochise,” a L’Amour story in Collier’s magazine (7/1952), saw some possibilities, and optioned the piece. Duke assigned his favorite writer, James Edward Grant, to fashion a screenplay. Grant changed most everything, including the hero’s first name, from Ches to Hondo (a name he had also employed for a villain in Angel and the Badman, 1947). L’Amour had retained the rights to rewrite Grant’s script into book form and did so, honing close to the altered version and actually describing Wayne when it came time to introduce Hondo Lane. Now, Wayne was Hondo and Hondo, Wayne. This may have been the first ever case of “novelization” from film to book instead of the opposite, which remains the norm.
RIO BRAVO (Howard Hawks, dir.; 1959)
Everyone fell in love with High Noon (1952)—everyone except Wayne and Howard Hawks. They despised what they considered to be a liberal agenda, with typical American townsfolk portrayed as spineless and a lawman (Gary Cooper) begging for help. It was inconceivable to them that such a character would cry for being spurned then be rescued by a . . . woman! They agreed to make a film to “answer” Stanley Kramer’s message movie, drawing from an obscure story by Bill McCampbell. Working with writer Jules Furthman, the team expanded it into Rio Bravo, in which the townsfolk try to help the sheriff, but Wayne’s John T. Chance turns them down. Chance prefers to face the badmen alone, yet does accept some aid from the only types that Will Kane in High Noon had rejected: a cocky kid, the town drunk, and an old cripple. Ironically, decades later, Bill Buckley’s right-leaning National Review chose High Noon over Rio Bravo as the greatest “conservative Western” of all time.
THE ALAMO (John Wayne, dir.; 1960)
Wayne had wanted to make an Alamo movie at Republic since 1946. He would have played Sam Houston in Remember the Alamo, but when that project was shelved, Wayne enlisted Jim Bowie to work with a Sy Bartlett/Warren Duff script. But studio head Herbert J. Yates rejected Wayne’s proposal due to the then outrageous $3 million budget. Wayne walked but wasn’t able to take the script with him. Republic turned around and rushed it into production as the Last Command (1955) with Sterling Hayden. The Duke went to work on a new scenario with James Edward Grant and released The Alamo, in which Wayne plays Davy Crockett. The movie is incorrectly recalled as a box office disaster; in fact, it was the country’s third most popular film during its release. As for Yates, Big John had the last laugh. The Last Command cost $1 million to make but lost so much money that Republic was forced to shut down as a production company.