May 10th, 2006
John Ford and John Wayne
Pappy and the Duke

by Ken Bowser

John Ford and John Wayne — a friendship and professional collaboration that spanned 50 years, changed each others’ lives, changed the movies, and in the process, changed the way America saw itself. It was a relationship that reflected all the elements and all the paradoxes of 20th century America — generosity of spirit, abuse of power, a sense of loyalty, and a restless nationalism that didn’t quite know what to do with itself.

Ford had been a successful director for over a decade when he met Marion Morrison, at the time a young USC student working a summer job on the Fox lot as an assistant property man. He saw something in Morrison and gave the “kid” a few walk-ons in his films. Within two years Morrison had changed his name to John Wayne and Ford, very pleased with the young man’s work, recommended him to Raoul Walsh, another director on the lot.

Walsh was about to start one of the biggest films Fox had produced to date, THE BIG TRAIL, and the director gave Wayne the lead. The film ultimately flopped and Wayne’s career was quickly relegated to grade C westerns on poverty row. This was a situation many felt Ford could have stepped in to remedy, but over the next decade all the struggling young actor heard was that “Pappy was keeping an eye out for a script that would best suit the Duke,” his affectionate nickname for Wayne.

As Wayne’s career stalled Ford’s roared ahead; he was now one of the biggest directors in Hollywood. But the two men stayed friends — as long as it was clear who was boss.

During these years, Ford (contrary to popular myth, which portrays him as a simple-minded, flag-waving conservative,) gained a reputation inside Hollywood political circles as a staunch Roosevelt Democrat. Wayne on the other hand had virtually no political opinions — his focus was on his career and family. The bond between the two men was largely the result of long cruises to Mexico and the Pacific Island chains on Ford’s yacht “Araner.” These jaunts, where Ford was accompanied by Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, and others looked like nothing more than drunken pleasure trips, and for Wayne and the others that’s what they were. Unbeknownst to his passengers however, director Ford was spying. Since the mid-thirties Ford had been covertly photographing shorelines and shipping lanes for the American military in preparation for a war many in the War Department felt was inevitable.

It was after one of these voyages in 1938 that Ford teasingly asked Wayne to read the script of his next picture. Could Duke give him “some advice on what young actor might play the role of the Ringo Kid?”

The script was STAGECOACH and Ford, after finally giving the part to the hungry actor, proceeded to taunt and belittle him throughout weeks of filming. Whether it was Ford’s infamously sadistic personality or a clever ploy to have the other actors support Wayne, the end result brought forth the persona that would come to be known as The Duke. The picture would make John Wayne a star overnight and bring the Western back to the forefront of American cinema.

Wayne would never forget it — not that there was any danger of Ford letting him.

When the war started almost two years later, Ford was already in uniform and had finished five pictures in the year and a half since STAGECOACH. Amongst them were YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. But for Ford these were just movies. The war would be the greatest adventure of his life — a call to arms by the country he loved that had given him everything. It also set up a conflict between Wayne and Ford that would ultimately push Wayne into politics in a major way.

John Wayne was thirty-one-years old, married, and supporting three children when the war began. His newfound stardom was a realization of a dream he was not in a hurry to relinquish to a uniform. Throughout the war, Ford urged the young actor “to get in it,” and each time Wayne would beg off until he finished “just one more picture.” Ford was disappointed to say the least, and he let Wayne know it. Wayne was growing richer as other men died. As the war continued, Ford’s strong disappointment fueled a growing conflict between the men and fostered a sense of guilt within Wayne. Wayne’s decision to stay out of the service would haunt him for the rest of his life.

In the years following the war, Ford’s films grew increasingly nostalgic as his disillusionment with post-war America grew. Injustice, racism, and greed seemed to be replacing the values he felt he and others had fought for. On the other hand, as Ford grew more introspective, Wayne saw the world open up in front of him with each new movie triumph. As their perspectives changed so did their relationship.

Between the end of the war in 1945 and Ford’s death in 1972, the two men made twelve films together. Those films helped define how we saw ourselves, or put another way, how John Ford wished us to be as Americans. From, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, through the cavalry series — FORT APACHE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and RIO GRANDE — Ford made U.S. history both poetic and heroic. He also made John Wayne the personification of that history as well as the American male. Wayne the actor and star brought a reluctant power to those roles. That reluctant power was Ford’s principal and cherished idea of America’s greatness.

Being a symbol of America was a responsibility that ate away at Wayne. It was that sense of responsibility combined with his continuing guilt over not serving during the war that drove Wayne deeply into politics.

As the Cold War heated up and the Iron Curtain fell, Wayne began to merge his personal commitment to defending America with his screen persona. And from behind the camera, Ford’s vision of his country and his part in how it saw itself was shifting. With THE SEARCHERS, THE HORSE SOLDIERS, and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, Ford would use the iconic image he’d helped Wayne create to cast light into the shadows of the country he loved. While Ford’s perspective may have grown darker, his love of America, its people and its landscape, never dimmed.

The growing difference of political opinion between the two men can be seen in two events. In late 1948, John Wayne became president of The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Including the actors Ward Bond and Adolphe Menjou, producers like Metro’s James McGuiness, and director Sam Wood, the organization saw its principle goal as hunting down subversive elements within the American film industry.

While Wayne was lending his star power to the anti-Communist forces, Ford was standing up at a historic Directors Guild meeting to stop the red hunters, led by C.B. DeMille, from firing the president of the Guild, Joe Mankiewicz, who they had come to view as dangerous. Ford famously rose after several hours of debate amongst the various factions and introduced himself humbly and ironically, “My name is John Ford and I make Westerns.” By the time he finished saying what he thought of DeMille for his sneak attack on Mankiewicz the tide had turned and DeMille and his followers had to do the resigning.

For the two friends politics became a topic that was left out of their conversations.

By the time the fifties ended John Wayne was the biggest star in the Western world. For Ford, who was pushing into his sixties, it was another story. His pictures were not the successes they once were and he found himself increasingly reliant on Wayne to get films done.

The politics, their careers, and the changing dynamics of their relationship would become clear on THE ALAMO.

THE ALAMO was John Wayne’s “vision of America’s greatness” — a simpler, more heroic America. He had been trying to get it made with himself as the director for years. Now at the height of his fame he was able to finally secure financing as long as he also starred. Under great pressure to prove himself he began production. He was barely a third of the way through when Ford showed up in Texas to “lend a hand.” Wayne was beside himself, he couldn’t just turn his mentor away. Finally Duke’s cameraman suggested they give Ford a second unit to shoot pick-up shots far away from the first unit. So Wayne, out of his own pocket, financed Ford to shoot a second unit. Very little was used in the finished film, but the rumors that Ford had to “save” Wayne were humiliating for the star.

By now it must have been clear to Ford that the son, so to speak, had surpassed the father. While THE ALAMO was hardly a huge success, it was now Wayne who wielded the power in the industry.

In later years as Ford struggled to get pictures made Wayne was always there for him, even on LIBERTY VALANCE, when the Duke had serious reservations about his part. If Pappy wanted him, that was it, the Duke showed up.

Kenneth Bowser is the writer/producer/director of NBC’s two-hour network special, LIVE FROM NEW YORK: THE FIRST FIVE YEARS OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, created for the 30th anniversary of SNL. His last film, EASY RIDERS/RAGING BULLS (a Trio/BBC co-production), was an official selection at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.

Bowser also produced and directed the Emmy Award-winning documentaries “Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer” and FRANK CAPRA’S AMERICAN DREAM (Columbia/TriStar Pictures). He has produced, directed, and written for ABC News Productions and is the writer/director/producer of the feature film IN A SHALLOW GRAVE (American Playhouse Theatrical Films.) In addition, Bowser was the director/writer and producer, with Rachel Talbot, of HOLLYWOOD, DC: A TALE OF TWO CITIES (Bravo).

To order a copy of John Ford and John Wayne, please visit the American Masters Shop.

  • Ruth Bodiford

    John Wayne was and always will be my favorite. When I was 19 I had one heck of a crush on him. Didn’t matter that he was 50. He was all man.

  • Marti Thorson

    John Wayne was my hero, John Ford’s beautiful photography influenced my Western travels and hikes.

  • Earnie Ruegsegger

    I am looking for the poem, John Wayne read at John Ford’s funeral. One of the lines is, Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there; I did not die. If anyone can help me, I could use it. Thank you and happy holidays!!!

  • gary uselton

    the most unique relationship in movie history. i would dearly love for someone to make a movie about this incredibly complex friendship. it was and is fantastically interesting.

  • Jonjo Powers

    @Earnie – The poem, “I Did not Die” is by Rosalie Ferrer:


    Do not stand by my grave and grieve.
    I am not there, I did not leave.

    For I’m that distant shining star.
    I’m all around you, never far.
    I am the sparkle in children’s eyes.
    I paint the blue in the autumn skies.
    And in those cool sweet summer eves,
    I hide in the shadows the sunshine weaves.
    Yes together we laughed and cried,
    But now I’m ever at your side.
    For as long as I am in your heart,
    We’ll never really be apart.
    So live your life and do be gay,
    And look forward to that day,
    When somewhere just around the bend,
    We will surely meet again.

    I have found a very helpful way of getting such information is to simply put the lines into Google. Most of the time, it will come up with information on source material.

    Hope this helps. Happy New Year!

  • Jonjo Powers

    I also found another version:

    I did not die

    Do not stand on my grave and weep
    I am not there I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow
    I am the diamond glints in the snow
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain
    I am a gentle Autumns rain
    When you awaken in the morning hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush
    I am the birds in circled flight
    I am the soft stars that shine at night
    So do not stand on my grave and cry
    I am not there…. I did not die

    This poem has been claimed by:


  • Kimberly Kay King

    What was John Wayne like to work with? Was he polite and considerate of the other cast members and the crew?

  • edward s

    You Better get all your facts straight about ford. He was neither liberal nor conservative, except possibly the final year of his life ( and after his career ended). In Searching for John Ford, his biographer(one of many) talks about the day after the much heralded victory at the directors guild; Ford called DeMille, told him how much he admired him, and that he hoped he didn’t take the previous day’s remarks seriously. The point is, trying to figure out Ford is impossible; it can’t be done. That statement is from Maureen O”hara in her autobiography, and similar like comments by Harry Carey jr in his great book In the company of heroes. I have been a monumental Ford fan for almost 40 years, read the biographies and the articles and I can tell you: American masters needs to do a lot more investigation and time starting with his great collaboration with the other great Ford Hero Henry Fonda, and then all those Ford films which neither of them appear; i.e., Iron Horse,Pilgrimage, the Will Rogers trilogy, How Green Was My Valley, Long Gray line, Mogambo, and Last Hurrah. He isn’t simply an American Master; he is THE AMERICAN MASTER; THE most influential artist this country has ever produced, and as Andrew Sarris said the Shakespeare of the cinema-our Shakespeare

  • bill porter

    Ther is no doubt in my mind that John Ford was the greatest director of all time followed closly behind him was William Wyler, John Sturges, Robet Mulligan and Alfred Hichcock. In that order.

  • Joe Mirza

    Sorry it took so long but, frankly, I just picked up the thread this morning. Regarding Duke Wayne’s on-set behavior, he was, like Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Charlton Heston, one of the few consummate professionals in the business who focused primarily on getting the job done. This more than likely stems from the fact that, unlike Kate the Great and Chuck, he did not come from the legit stage nor was he groomed by the studio system but rose in the ranks from grip and stuntman to bit player and eventually lead. He did not stand on his mark, say his lines and then head for the nearest watering hole but insinuated himself and his ideas into every facet of the production, from lighting and camera angles to costumes and subtle tweaks of lines and gestures. He was not the dumb, one-dimensional cowboy that the eastern literati made him out to be but a very intelligent actor with an ineffable presence and the moxie as to how to use it on screen. While the 70s auteurs may have dismissed him as a non-entity, he and Jack Ford had the respect of directors like Kurosawa, Godard and Lindsay Anderson…not a bad audience that.

    That being said, costars and production teams remember Duke as being a courteous, thoughtful, generous, fun-loving and professional gentleman at all times on the set. Having come up from the ranks, Duke (like Jack Ford) liked to surround himself with the same people in front of and behind the camera and was especially attentive to the more overlooked members of the cast and crew. His job was to make movies and not screw around – if it was his own Batjac money or somebody else – and he did not suffer fools or unprofessional behavior. He knew his line as well as the other actor’s, and God help anyone who showed up late or unprepared for the day’s shoot. He was gregarious and fun to be around but eschewed anyone posing as a prima dona or “star” as he did not though as the most popular actor in the world he easily could have.

    Another curious fact about the Duke is that, despite his conservative (the uninformed would say reactionary) politics, he was exceedingly tolerant of people of gender, color and political stamp. A two-fisted macho man to his core, he worked with several high powered gay actors of his time, including Randolph Scott, Montgomery Clift, Laurence Harvey and Rock Hudson. He had a wonderful relationship with Harvey during the making of The Alamo and reveled in his caviar and champagne breaks among the dust, tempers and stuntmen. He enjoyed the same camaraderie with Rock while making The Undefeated and even expressed his awe and admiration for Rock’s physique and sex appeal. He was so comfortable with his own masculine sexuality that he was not threatened or insecure around openly gay men.

    A closing note, we would not have had the fine adaptation of True Grit by Charles Portis if Duke had not stepped in to defend the screenwriter Marguerite Roberts. Ms. Roberts was a suspected Communist and blacklisted in the 50’s by HUAC. When there was some objection to a Godless Commie writing the screenplay for a Duke Wayne film, the Duke himself told the press and public to back off – Ms. Roberts was fine writer and that her politics had nothing to do with her contributions to the film.

    Hope this answers the question, albeit long-windedly, about how Duke Wayne’s reputation as a giant and a legend (while not without many wrinkles and stains) was simply an extension of who he was in himself as Marion Morrison. Alas, like so much of America, the age of legends like John Wayne is permanently closed and probably will never be seen again. God bless you Duke and may you rest comfortable in the knowledge that you gave the world so much pleasure and conveyed the feeling that with you around everything would be all right.

  • Michael Powers

    Wayne didn’t rename himself and there was no “work” for Ford to be pleased with. Walsh spotted Wayne moving furniture, tested him, renamed him “Wayne” because Walsh happened to be reading a biography of “Mad Anthony Wayne” at the time (Wayne wasn’t present as the name was concocted), and Ford often took credit for all this, in addition to denigrating Wayne’s brilliant performance in “The Big Trail,” all of which is astonishing since Walsh was still alive as Ford blithely gave interviews, one of which is on youtube, claiming to have discovered Wayne as a prop man just before “Stagecoach” and renamed him, thus eliminating Wayne’s first nine years as a leading man in movies for which his name was usually listed over the title (granted, only “The Big Trail,” an amazing masterpiece, was an A picture that first decade). Ford’s comically crazy insistence that he was responsible for Wayne’s career continues to be widely believed.

  • Charlotte Hammack

    Duke wanted to sign up with Ford’s Navy outfit, but Herbert Yates who owned Republic Studio, where he was under contract, told him if he went into the military, he’d make sure he’d NEVER work in movies again!!!! Duke was over 30, and was married with four children. Yates’ other big moneymaker, Gene Autry, went into the military, so if he permitted Duke to go, his studio would have been in bad shape!!!! The studio filed for deferments for Duke, never Duke.

    But Duke DID feel guilty about not going, so perhaps that’s the reason why he went to some of the war zones in the Pacific to make personal appearances, and one of the reasons he always showed his support for the US troops in the Vietnam War. He went to Vietnam for at least three weeks, without his toupe, and visited with the troops, coming under fire more than once. Duke found it painful when he met a wounded soldier who told him that he had joined the military because of the heroic parts he had played in WWII movies!!!! He believed that Americans should support the troops, even if they disagreed with the war!!!!!

    I can’t BELIEVE that PBS made an American Masters program that included BOTH John Ford and John Wayne!!!!!!

    EACH of them deserves a two hour American Masters program ON THEIR OWN!!!!!!


    SHAME ON YOU, PBS!!!!!

  • Bob Hightower

    That poem was read by the Duke at Howard Hawks’s funeral, not John Ford’s.

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