In anticipation of Volume 27 of The John Wayne Official Collector’s Edition, Duke’s Most Iconic Movie Moments, we’re exploring the archives to reveal the bigger picture behind some of the actor’s most iconic movie scenes. The “Fill your hand…” scene from True Grit clocks in at No. 6 in our rankings, and the entire film is worth a re-watch. Read more about this classic John Wayne Western below and find out where the rest of his scenes stand in Volume 27, out January 29!
Featured in The Official John Wayne Collector’s Edition, Volume 2
John Wayne suffered from a crippling addiction: He needed to work. The actor starred or appeared in more than 200 films during his five decades making movies, and though not every one of them is a cinematic masterpiece, his body of work speaks to Duke’s desire to constantly practice his craft more than his ability to pick a winner. But when the actor finished reading Charles Portis’s 1968 novel True Grit, Duke knew the book’s blend of biting humor, colossal characters and subdued melancholy would make a sensational movie, and he was determined to land the role of the irascible Rooster Cogburn. “The character is a larger-than-life guy who refuses to tail against impossible odds,” says Scott Eyman, film historian and author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend. “And it’s always nice for an actor to star in an adaptation of a book that was a large commercial success.”
Duke wasn’t the only player in Hollywood who had their eye on adapting the novel. Portis had sent the galleys of his story to several of the industry’s biggest producers (including John Wayne himself), hoping to spark a bidding war for the right to bring the story of Rooster Cogburn to the big screen. He succeeded. Hal Wallis, the man behind Casablanca and The Sons of Katie Elder, emerged at the top of the heap with a winning offer of $300,000. As soon as Wallis secured the rights to the film, he phoned the only man he knew could bring authenticity to Rooster Cogburn, and Duke enthusiastically signed on to be a part of the project.
Production for the film started in September 1968. Joining Duke and Wallis as creative engines driving the movie were director Henry Hathaway and screenwriter Marguerite Roberts. Hathaway brought with him the experience of working with Duke on previous films such as The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) and Legend of the Lost (1957). Roberts brought with her the controversy of making Hollywood’s blacklist, along with her husband John Sanford, after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. Although the staunchly patriotic Duke didn’t exactly keep a copy of Das Kapital on the nightstand next to his bed, the actor never let political differences blind him to another person’s value and humanity. “John Wayne was a pragmatic man and gravitated toward talent,” says Eyman. “Sometimes talent has a drinking problem, and sometimes it has a political problem, as in the case of Roberts. But Duke understood you had to stick by talent because that’s what carries you to success.”
True Grit speaks to audiences with strong visual language. Hathaway shot the film to evoke the feeling of a fairy tale or myth, something Westerns had become for Americans by the end of the 1960s. “The locations they chose for the filming are extraordinarily beautiful, with all the Aspen trees turning a golden color,” says Eyman. “The way Hathaway couches the shot of the final confrontation between Rooster and Ned Pepper in that bowl-shaped area surrounded by the forest makes them into dueling gladiators in a joust.” Hathaway infused the visuals with a dreamy romance to better capture the novel’s concept of an adult Mattie reminiscing about her past adventures years later. And no actor better conjured the sense of mythological heroism for audiences both then and now than Duke.
Duke initially struggled with how to play the marshal. And while Hathaway excelled at presenting a coherent plot with stunning cinematography, the director didn’t give much guidance to his actors. At first, Duke portrayed Rooster as broad as a barnside, but later dialed back the performance and found the Falstaffian tragedy of Rooster to balance out the humor. “Playing loneliness was in John Wayne’s wheelhouse, from his characters in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to Sands of Iwo Jima, but Rooster was unusual in that he expressed that loneliness openly,” says Eyman. “That scene where Rooster describes how his wife and son don’t like him very much...that scene elevates John Wayne’s performance into one worthy of the Academy Award.”
True Grit provided Duke with an opportunity to earn Oscar gold, and the movie remains beloved by fans. Its appeal lies in a story still able to speak to fundamental truths of the human condition. “You could show a 10-year-old True Grit and they’ll like the movie,” says Eyman. “It’s a story about finding family.” In short, it’s a tale tailor-made for America’s family man: John Wayne.
Did you miss the first installment of our archive series? Read an exclusive excerpt from The Official John Wayne Collector's Edition, Volume 1 here.