Thursday, April 30, 2015

JOHN WAYNE: Four Gutsy Role Choices

This is a look at a man attempting to change the perception people had of him and prove simply the he was a complete actor.

Marion Robert Morrison changed  his middle name to Mitchell,because his parents had a second son they named Robert. Marion had a more famous name change courtesy of one of my favorite directors "One Eyed" Raul Walsh in 1930 to John Wayne. When he made the first wide screen American movie "The Big Trail".  I don't think either man had any idea where "Duke" Wayne would go from there.

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There are three main stories about that nick name's origin that make the rounds. One was that Wayne told people he was named for his dog "Duke" and the people in his home town referred to the two as "Big Duke" (The Dog) and "Little Duke" (The Boy). Another story Wayne told had to do with a series of "B" Western's he made featuring "The Devil Horse Duke". John Wayne when asked about his nickname would reply: "The named the Horse Duke" and it was applied to him also. Still a third story comes from Wayne's old USC Football classmate Ward Bond. Bond would tell people that "Duke" was the nickname the team gave Wayne. Whichever, pick your choice, or perhaps none of these origins are anything more than just a story..

Perhaps that story and others actually help to describe the Legend that is John Wayne, but many biographers have gone there and this small article will not. I will be looking at four of my favorite films that in my opinion John Wayne made some gutsy role choices to star in.

The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences for the majority of Wayne's career looked upon his a nothing more than a "B" Western Actor and in their minds used that excuse to deny him recognition.

A "B" Western Actor who starred in Western motion pictures like John Ford's "Stagecoach" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", Howard Hawks' "Red River" and "Rio Bravo", Henry Hathaway's "The Sons of Katie Elder" and Michael Curtiz's "The Comancheros". It would take until Henry Hathaway's "True Grit" in 1969 that the Academy would finally reward John Wayne with his Golden Statuette called Oscar. Strange, isn't that a "B" Western?

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Excuse me Academy Member, but what about John Waynes other motion pictures like Cecil B. DeMille's "Reap the Wild Wind", or the three by director William "Wild Bill' Wellman "Blood Alley", "Island in the Sky" and "The High and the Mighty", or John Ford's "The Quiet Man"? None of these seem to be "B" Westerns, but even though John Wayne was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for 1949's "Sands of Iwo Jima" which definitely was not a Western. He lost so the story goes true or not, because he was still considered a "Cowboy" actor to Broderick Crawford in "All the Kings Men". Had that word "Cowboy" which is true Americana not been mentioned afterwards. Even had he lost, as he did, it would have seemed on the merits of the other actors he was up against and a true feather in Wayne's Setson having been nominated.

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When his dream film "The Alamo" was nominated for Best Picture and resulted in Wayne also as its Producer. It too lost to Billy Wilder's "The Apartment". Wayne had hoped he would be nominated for Best Director which he was not. I guess you could call "The Alamo" a Western of sorts, but at least the Academy recognized the pictures popularity with the county in 1960, if not the Director's Guild for the skill it took to direct such a massive motion picture in its original and now lost roadshow release I saw just a few days after turning 14 at the Carthay Circle Theater.

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As to these four films I am about to describe. Each involved a gutsy career choice for the actor who was attempting to prove he wasn't just a "B" film Cowboy to the Academy and his Worldwide fan base. Although one I film I will mention might be considered a Western with a twist and the last does involve a Wild West Show.

The Academy should have taken a look at those beautiful and powerful leading ladies he played opposite in his films and I am not just speaking of Maureen O'Hara, but names such as Marlene Dietrich, Laurel Bacall, Patrica Neal, Janet Leigh and Katherine Hepburn,  Actresses who actually requested the roles to play opposite this "B" Western Star. It wasn't just his masculinity, but his acting that the Academy for all those years until 1969's never acknowledged and these actresses did.

Pigeon holes are hard to crawl out of when you are dealing with old white men with blinders over their eyes. Actually a fact mentioned just as recently as the past 87th Academy Awards toward actors of color still,


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The America Poster for "The Sea Chase" and the German Poster. The literal translation to the German is "To the Sea With the Cunning Devil", but the film was known as "The Sea Hawk".

The motion picture was based upon the novel "The Sea Chase" by Andrew Geer. The novel in turn was loosely based on a real incident involving the German Merchant Ship Ergenstrasse that was in Sidney harbor at the start of the Second World War.

Here is a description of the novel from the "Kirkus Review" website.
A man's story, of men against- and whipping- the sea, only to lose to a better ideal and morale. This tells of the elusive trip of a freighter from Australia to friendly, Nazi waters which draws on her Kapitan Erlich for all his hardwon knowledge of the tropics, the Arctic, and the vision of a victorious Germany. Complementing the dangers at sea, the pursuit by the British, are the dangers among his own officers and crew as inner dissension is heightened by the presence of Elsa, a Nazi spy. Condoning murder, driving and encouraging his weakening men, the Kapitan makes Chile, the North Seas, to meet his nemesis, an English officer whom he has scorned, and the Kapitan accepts death rather than the dishonor he fears. A grim, realistically melodramatic, good yarn.
What I call a "Gutsy" role choice is that John Wayne took the part of Kapitan Erlich. Screen writers James Warner Bellah and John Twist had to reverse the characters of Erlich and Chief Officer Kircher to permit Wayne to be the heroic Erlich and Kircher now the perfect Nazi. Portraying Elsa was Lana Turner at the height of her career having recently been in "The Bad and the Beautiful" and about to be pelted by "The Rains of Ranchipur" released that same year to be followed by "Peyton Place", Turner's character's fiancee is British Naval Officer Lt. Cdr. Jeff Napier RN played by David Farrar. Napier will initiate "The Sea Chase" and pursue Erlich while also remaining his friend.
The problem for John Wayne in this part was two fold. 
The first came from the potential audience and book reviewers who had read Greer's original novel. They were trying to figure out why Wayne who in earlier motion picture portrayals. Had assisted in taking General MacArthur and his family safely from the Philippines in "They Were Expendable", returned to fight the Japanese in "Back to Bataan" and died heroically in "The Fighting Seabees" as a Nazi. The novels original characterization of Erlich.

While others were still viewing Wayne as that "B" Cowboy. As in this quote from the review of the film in the New York Times:

Then they have given the role of the captain to that ex-cowboy. John Wayne, who plays it as though he were heading a herd of cattle up the old Chisholm Trail.
That pigeon hole again. Here is a link to that entire review:

The cast of solid actors included Tab Hunter, James Arness, Claude Akin, Paul Fix and Alan Hale,

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The movie is a lot better than the New York Times reviewer thought and the sparks fly between "The Duke" and Turner. Although at the time of its release I was 8 years old and saw it in the back seat of my parents car at a Culver City Drive-in Theater. I really enjoyed this film. I think Wayne knew the role would be trouble, but he made the choice because of both the story and a chance to break his image. It didn't work as the New York Times review indicates and neither did the next of my four films.

Here is a link to the trailer for the movie:


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Above is the poster for Howard Hughes' CinemaScope epic and the Dell Comic I bought back then.

If portraying a ex-Imperial German Naval Captain was not a "Gutsy" choice by John Wayne this motion picture really takes the cake. Wayne is cast as Temujin later to be known as Genghis Khan.

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John Wayne in make-up by Mel Berns and the face of Genghis Khan from a statue made in China.

I was 9 years old when I saw this motion picture at the Wiltern Theater located opposite MacArthur Park made famous in a song  by Actor/Singer Richard Harris in 1968 during his "Hippie" Stage. The Wiltern today is a legitimate theater and an Art Deco Landmark built in 1930 .

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"The Conqueror" has the reputation of being one of the worst motion pictures of the 1950's and according to some film historians one of the worst ever. I disagree. I really have fun with this movie, but do believe it was a misfire for Wayne who wanted badly to do this script. To John Wayne this was an accurate historical film and he felt this was a great means of changing his Western movie image.

The script was by Oscar Millard who had been nominated for an Oscar in 1951 for his gritty screenplay for a forgotten World War 2 film starring Richard Widmark and Dana Andrews "The Frogman". He also wrote the screenplay for the James Stewart film "No Highway in the Sky" which is a very interesting motion picture character study revolving around the possibility of a structural flaw in a passenger airplane that causes the tail to fall off after it reaches a certain amount of flying time. At this point Millard's career was going in the right direction until "The Conqueror" effected it as it did others and he had to turn to television for work. For 1956 Hollywood Millard's screenplay was historically accurate, but with Howard Hughes at the helm of RKO the final motion picture seemed like one of those "B" Westerns Wayne was trying to escape from. There are places where you could insert the Calvary for the Mongols and the Indians for the Tartars without loosing a word of dialogue, or the look of the scene. Hughes' control and vision for the film  at work.

The motion picture was directed by Singer/Actor Dick Powell. Powell had been in 60 motion pictures starting with Busy Berkeley musicals in the 1930's and was the male lead of Berkeley classic "42nd Street". Along with "The Conqueror" Powell directed a total of five films including two outstanding War movies: 1957 "The Enemy Below" and 1958's "The Hunters" both starring Robert Mitchum. Powell was also involved with live television and "The Zane Grey Theater" and "Dick Powell Presents" an anthology series. So Howard Hughes had an excellent choice as director and it shows.

Playing opposite Wayne as his "Tartar Women" was Susan Hayward.

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This was Susan Hayward's third motion picture with John Wayne. Her 14th film was Cecil B. DeMille's 1942 "Reap the Wild Wind". Seventh billed Hayward played Drusilla Aston who stows away on a ship unknown to Wayne who is the captain. He deliberately wrecks the ship and she dies. It is a short, but pivotal   role to the story line. 1944's "The Fighting Seabees" saw Susan Hayward once more opposite John Wayne, but as his co-star. Now she was playing the role of Bortai in "The Conqueror" her 45th screen appearance and like John Wayne had a major fan base wanting to see the motion picture,

The cast also included Agnes Morehead as Temujin's mother. Morehead was one of the original members of Orson Wells' "Mercury Theater" and would go on to play Endora the mother of Elizabeth Montgomery in the televisions series "Bewitched". Playing Temujin's brother was Mexican actor and Wayne's good friend and John Ford alumni Pedro Armendariz. Smaller parts included John Hoyt, Ted de Corsia and Lee Van Cleef.

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As I said I enjoyed this film as a 9 year old boy and today as a 68 year old man. Yes, John Wayne in that make-up is at times laughable as is some of the dialogue, but the film is still very well made and the story was as accurate as any other American movie that was to come about Genghis Khan.. Having Egyptian Omar Sharif play the role nine years later in 1965 might seem a better choice than Wayne, but even than they had Irish born actor Stephen Boyd in Mongolian make-up which was equal too, if not worse than seeing Wayne's.

Once again the New York Times brought up John Wayne the Cowboy. In the review of the motion picture we once more find:
Although it purports to detail the early career of the twelfth-century Mongol leader whose world conquests earned him the august title Genghis Khan, it is simply an Oriental "Western." An illusion persists that this Genghis Khan is merely Hopalong Cassidy in Cathay.
John Wayne is now William Boyd whose television series "Hopalong Cassidy" from two years before was still in syndication in the mind of the reviewer. Even though John Ford's "The Searchers" had just opened two weeks earlier.

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Here is a link to the entire review:

As to how bad this movie was the critics seems to overlook that according to Variety it was the 11th highest grossing film of 1956. When you think of all the motion pictures made that year the film's rating is excellent. Especially when those 1956 films included Mike Todd's "Around the World in Eighty Days", Richard Burton playing "Alexander the Great", the science fiction classic "Forbidden Planet" and Gary Cooper in "The Friendly Persuasion" are just four examples, besides Wayne's own "The Searchers".

The Conqueror and the Atomic Bomb

Any review of "The Conqueror" can not be written without mentioning the Atomic Bomb controversy associated with the deaths of the motion pictures cast and crew.

The film's exterior shots were made near St. George, Utah. The city was located 137 miles downwind of the Nevada National Security Site, or the testing area for 11 nuclear weapons of "Operation Upshot-Knothole" from March 1953 through June 4, 1953. 

It may be hard for any of my readers who were not born and living in the early 1950's. To understand that the Scientist's responsible for the creation of the Atom Bomb, even by 1956, three years after "Operation Upshot-Knothole" concluded. Still had no real knowledge of the long term, or for that matter, actually the short-term effects of radiation.

The motion picture makers in my youth were having fun creating their ideas of what exposure to fallout would do. Such as in Roger Corman's, 1955, "The Day the World Ended", and Bert I. Gordon's, 1957, "The Amazing Colossal Man".

However, other science fiction movies took a more serious look. The motion picture, "THEM!", is about the possible consequences to the balance of nature. The classic, 1954, Japanese anti-Atomic Bomb, "Gojira", takes an allegorical look at the effects of the Castle-Bravo Atomic Tests on the 27-man crew of "The Lucky Dragon #5" fishing boat, and the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. 

Two years later, because of lingering anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, the film would be released in an American re-edit. The re-edit dropped the original nuclear age warning and made a typical giant monster on the lose feature, starring Raymond Burr with the title, "Godzilla, King of the Monsters"

Statistics can be frightening and between the mid 1950's, when this movie was shot, and 1980. St. George, Utah had marked increases, for its population size, of leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, bone cancer, brain tumors, and gastrointestinal tract cancers. Which brings me back to "The Conqueror".

The filmmakers knew about the nearby nuclear testing, as did the residents of St. George, BUT both were assured by the Federal Government that there was nothing to fear from them.

Not only was the cast and crew of "The Conqueror" shooting on location for several weeks, but Howard Hughes had 60 tons of dirt shipped back to RKO. So, that the in studio scenes would match the location shots.

The cast and crew numbered 220 people at the Utah location. Of that number, by the end of 1980, 91 of them had developed some form of cancer, and 48 had died from the disease. 

It has been rightly mentioned, that almost everyone on the shoot smoked, as was the norm in the 1950's. People argue that smoking may have contributed to these deaths and not just the fallout from "Operation Upshot-Knothole", Growing up in that Era, I can attest to the validity of that argument..

However, none of those bringing up the cigarette smoking argument, have ever mention the residents of St. George, Utah, over the same time period, as a comparison model to the cast and crew of "The Conqueror"

Looking at just the film cast and crew, University of Utah Professor of Biology, Dr. Robert Pendleton stated:

With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you'd expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91 cancer cases, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law.

Here is a link to a  "People" Magazine article, for November 10, 1980, called "The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell Fear the Fallout Killed Their Parents",,20077825,00.html

It should be mentioned, that actor Pedro Armendariz had contracted cancer, but did not die from it. On, June 18, 1963, he committed suicide to stop the pain he was suffering from it.

Another factor NOT TAKEN INTO CONSIDERATION in the statistical figures, then and now, were the Native American Paiute Indians that portrayed extras in "The Conqueror". No one ever checked on the rate of cancers of these extras, or for that matter, within their community that was also downwind of the atomic tests.

What actually happened I will leave for my readers to decide in their own minds. WHAT IS FACT, is that after the controversy over the rate of Cancer came out. Howard Hughes went around and purchased every known copy of the film for approximately $12 million dollars. Hughes apparently had regrets, as it was Hughes who had made the decision to film near St. George, Utah. 

The movie's "Cancer" Legend grew, and with the film out of circulation, the Legend of the film also. In 1979 Universal Studios purchased "The Conqueror" from the Howard Hughes Estate and the Mongolian Western was back in circulation.

Once more this is a really enjoyable film for the period and worth watching by any fan of "The Duke", or its cast members. The film is available in the "John Wayne 5 Iconic Films" DVD Set that includes another Howard Hughes production "Jet Pilot" with a young Janet Leigh, "Seven Sinners" and "Pittsburgh" with Marlene Dietrich and "The Shepard of the Hills" the first John Wayne film directed by Henry Hathaway from 1941.

Here is the link to the motion picture's trailer:


A motion picture starring John Wayne and directed by John Huston should have been a major hit. Unfortunately there was 20th Century Fox and their need for profits taking priority over the vision of the two men behind the film,

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If you have ever read anything about Townsend Harris the first American Consul General to the Shogunate of Japan, His story does have the making of an epic motion picture and the Geisha in that romantic sounding title of "The Barbarian and the Geisha" really existed. Her name was Okichi and she was only 17 years old while Harris was 52. Okichi was assigned to watch him and after he left Japan she was ostracized by her own family and village over her association with Townsend Harris. She became known as the "Barbarian Okichi". In 1892 not shown in the motion picture she would commit suicide.

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John Huston enjoyed the works of Akira Kurosawa and other Japanese film makers who set their motion pictures in Feudal Japan. His desire was to make such an epic himself. Huston approached John Wayne to play Harris. The scope of Huston's film was like nothing Wayne had been associated with and he accepted the role. Another gutsy choice that he hoped would be the means to stop being thought of as a "Cowboy" and be taken seriously as the actor he actually was.

Playing the part of Okichi was Japanese actress Eiko Ando. According to the story she got the part over 33 other actresses simply because she was taller at 5 feet 7 inches and wouldn't look out of place next to 6 foot 4 inch Wayne.

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The New York Times reviewer actually liked the released film saying this about John Huston's direction:
With settings, costumes and color photography that can be compared only with those that were seen in the superlative Japanese film "Gate of Hell," he and his camera man and art directors have made this a film of such appeal to the eye and the corresponding senses that it thrills you just to sit and look at it.
This time there was no mention of John Wayne being a "Cowboy", but about his performance as Townsend Harris the reviewer wrote:
Mr. Wayne, in the role of Harris, appears a little bewildered and repressed, being much more accustomed to action. He carries patience and celibacy like a cross.

Should you be interested here is a link to the entire review:

The problem here, apparently unknown to the reviewer, is the running time of "The Barbarian and the Geisha", The motion picture as released is one hour and forty-five minutes, but the motion picture's original running time was estimated based upon John Huston's personal script with editing instructions to be at least three hours.

20th Century Fox saw John Huston's original edit of the film and the executives ordered him to trim the film down for more showings, because the length of Huston's original cut would require an intermission and that meant less ticket sales. John Huston refused to edit the motion picture and when he saw the new cut wanted his name removed. 20th Century Fox told him he had a contract and his name would stay.

Until I started reading biographies on John Huston I had never heard this and when the film was originally released enjoyed it. Although I found a lot of my friends and family members who had seen it at odds with my feelings. Again as the New York Times reviewer wrote they felt John Wayne was out of his element and stiff in his performance as Harris.

To begin with look at the released motion picture and there are obvious jumps in time and story line. We know that John Huston's edit for release ran at the minimal 180 minutes. Comparing the running times between the two versions the other editor removed 75 minutes, or one hour and fifteen minutes of John Huston's motion picture.

Simple question:
How much of John Wayne's criticized performance was lost in a cut that some of his old "B" Westerns didn't even come to in length?

How much of that cut footage the New York Times reviewer called reminiscent of Teinosuke Kinugasa's classic 1953 "Gate of Hell" would have added to the story and perhaps turned this film into the classic both John Huston and his star John Wayne dreamed it would be? We will never know.

The film didn't do well at the box office and then the legal action taken by John Huston caused 20th Century Fox to pull the motion picture out of United States circulation. This motion picture even in the 20th Century Fox cut is worth seeing and with a little appreciation of the facts behind the release. The viewer can speculate what the actual film as envisioned by director John Huston was to have been.

This is a link to the film's trailer:


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"Circus World" (known in the U,K. as "The Magnificent Showman") was the last production made by producer Samuel Bronson at his studios in Spain. Previously he had made there such films as 1961's "King of Kings" and "El Cid", 1963's "55 Days at Peking" and 1964's "The Fall of the Roman Empire". The studio went into bankruptcy shortly after this motion picture was completed.

On the surface "Circus World" is an old fashion circus picture in the style of Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 "The Greatest Show on Earth" and Irwin Allen's 1959's "The Big Circus", However unlike these two motion pictures the setting is Europe as in James Hill's 1956  "Trapeze", Adding into this mix is a period Wild West Show in the tradition of "Buffalo Bill's".

The screen play was by Ben Hecht and the motion picture was directed by Wayne stalwart Henry Hathaway. In this production John Wayne had two leading ladies.

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The first was Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. "Circus World" was her 26th film and the second American production her first being the classic comedy from Blake Edwards 1963's "The Pink Panther". However, many American movie goers knew the actress from two Italian films of that same year, Federico Fellini's "8 1/2" and Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard" starring Burt Lancaster.

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The second actress was Rita Hayworth. She had starred in motion pictures ranging from 1941's "The Strawberry Blonde" opposite James Cagney and 1944's "Cover Girl" with Gene Kelly to her one time husband Orson Wells' 1947 "The Lady from Shanghai". Rita Hayworth was now suffering with the first stages of Alzheimer's Disease. A disease that would cause many problems on the set with her forgetting lines and instructions, but in the end she would give a performance that earned a Best Actress Golden Globe Nomination.

The supporting cast included veteran actors  Lloyd Nolan and Richard Conte. Along with popular Western television actor John Smith who was playing Claudia Cardinale's love interest.

In short the film had all the ingredients for a strong family film, but it also had an adult subplot that made the choice of this role a gutsy decision for John Wayne. Wayne as Matt Mathews has been raising Toni Alfredo played by Claudia Cardinale the daughter of Trapeze artist Lili Alfredo played by Hayworth from the beginning of the motion picture, The film turns into both a search for Lili and then her return to the Trapeze along side of her daughter. A scene not actually ever shown.

Again this all seems family orientated, but there is a dark secret that Lili's husband's brother Aldo Alfredo played by Richard Conte is seeking vengeance over. Lili and Matt had an affair that caused his brother her husband to commit suicide. Ben Hecht's script is well written, but for the role Wayne played strongly against character even with the inclusion of a Wild West Show as an adulterer. A strange underlining story for this excellent family film, but a part that truly showed off John Wayne the actor and diffidently against his image, I personally thought Wayne deserved an Oscar nomination.

Turning again to the New York Times the Reviewer describes Wayne's performance thus:
And the exposition of the drama is so perfunctory, without style or charm, that you get the impression the actors are soldiering on the job. John Wayne is mostly sullen and snarly as the circus owner who also performs with evident nonchalance and disinterest in the robbing-the-stagecoach olio.
In fact the reviewer rips the entire movie apart and doesn't seem to have any idea that this story takes place in 1901 and not 1964 when the movie came out. As to the performance of Claudia Cardinale:
Claudia Cardinale is buxom and brash as his foster daughter, whose unaccountably thick Italian accent is one of the many bewildering inconsistencies,
Excuse me her "Italian accent"? The name of her parents are Alfredo and her father is Italian.

Should you be interested here is a link to the entire review:

There is a scene containing a major circus fire. Apparently during the sequence either John Wayne didn't hear his cue to leave the set, or the Assistant Director mistimed it. No one is sure which, but had Wayne remained were he was the entire burning set would have fallen on him. Here are some stills from the tent fire scene.

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I have a widescreen copy of the motion picture I purchased from South Korea as it is still not as of this writing available in the United States. This link is to YouTube and the entire motion picture:

Four films four roles and a "B" Cowboy Actor showing an acting diversity overlooked. John Wayne had the courage to go against type, but no matter how well he performed he could not escape that Pigeon Hole set in people's minds.

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