Holy Christmas, it’s John Wayne! ‘Christmas with the Duke’ TV marathon rides tall on AMC
Saddle up, pilgrims! The AMC cable network is scheduled to sustain their Christmas marathon sampling seven of John Wayne’s best latter-day Westerns distributed between 1959 and 1976. Within an astounding 167-film canon, the American institution appeared somewhere in the neighborhood of 87 Westerns in his workaholic 50-year career on the silver screen.
Affectionately known as the Duke by his army of aficionados, the late action star’s cultural impact is still felt over three decades after his death from the ravages of stomach cancer. Believe it or not, Wayne regularly places in the Top Five on the annual Harris Poll of America’s favorite living or deceased actors. He is the only actor to remain firmly ensconced on the list every year since the poll originated in 1994. No other major entertainment personality of the era comes close except Elvis Presley.
In chronological order, the Wayne films scheduled during holiday consumption are Rio Bravo — Howard Hawks’ sharp rebuttal to the anti-McCarthy High Noon — the traditional family versus evil landowner plot ably depicted in The Sons of Katie Elder, Hawks’ successful reimagining of Rio Bravo as El Dorado with drunken sheriff Robert Mitchum, the revenge-fueled, brutal Big Jake, the refreshing, coming-of-age The Cowboys [Oscar-nominated On Golden Pond director Mark Rydell’s sole Western], the critically castigated, misunderstood Cahill: U.S. Marshal, and the 6'4” giant’s brilliant final screen epitaph, the claustrophobic turn of the 20th century The Shootist. Set your DVRs to zoom past the gluttony of pesky commercials.
In an exclusive interview with Wayne’s eldest surviving son, actor Patrick Wayne reveals, “I’d have to say Big Jake was really the most fun I had working with my dad. My younger brother Ethan Wayne was in the film, and my older brother Michael was producing it via Batjac. It was a little family affair. We were on location in a remote part of Mexico — Durango and Zacatecas — and your family tends to get closer when you don’t have a lot of distractions like television or whatever.”
Late character actor Gregg Palmer left an indelible impact on my psyche growing up. Wielding a vicious-looking machete in Big Jake, Palmer fondly remembered the taut Western two years before his 2015 passing at the ripe old age of 88.
“I still get comments when I go to film festivals,” said Palmer. “I’ll be signing a picture and I’ll hear a voice say, ‘That’s the man that killed John Wayne’s dog, son.’ Of course, forty-plus years ago I was 6’4’’ and nearly 300 pounds, so hopefully I’m not as intimidating today [laughs].
“It’s me with the machete getting that dog or Richard Widmark pushing that lady in the wheelchair down the stairs in Kiss of Death . Folks tend to remember those things [laughs].
“I portrayed a vicious outlaw named ‘John Goodfellow.’ At the film’s climax, Dick [Richard] Boone yelled, ‘Get the kid!’ Duke’s eight-year-old son in real life, Ethan, was playing Big Jake’s grandson. Anyway, I went after him, and he was hiding in a haystack.
“Big Jake’s dog, perhaps in a nod to Duke’s dry humor, had the no-frills name of ‘Dog.’ He protected the kid and chewed me up real bad until I got him with my machete. Big Jake comes to the rescue, and I try to kill him, too. He runs out of bullets, so he grabs a handy pitchfork when I lunge at him. I get it in the gut.
“George Sherman directed Big Jake. He had directed me in three features for Universal in the early ’50s — The Battle at Apache Pass with Jeff Chandler, Back at the Front, and The Veils of Bagdad with Victor Mature — so I knew him pretty well.
“Sherman had worked in the late ’30s with Duke, before he became a bona fide star, on several of the popular Three Mesquiteers quickie B-movies for Republic. Wayne was a generous man who never forgot a favor, and he personally selected Sherman, nearing the end of his decades-long career, to helm Big Jake. The director wasn’t always in the best of health, so Duke took over much of the action/outdoor scenes. However, he refused to be credited as co-director.”
While the programming choices are perpetually vulnerable to debate — no trace of Wayne’s renowned Stagecoach, Red River, John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, Hondo, The Searchers, True Grit, or even the Christmas-themed 3 Godfathers — AMC’s final contenders signify exactly why the Duke’s legacy transcends most of his contemporaries.
Of course, his natural acting technique has been derided by critics for over three quarters of a century. However, examine any of the seven movies showcased and see if his genuine charisma doesn’t leap off the television screen. Stints as an apprentice prop man and stuntman in his journeyman years enhanced the Duke’s supreme knowledge of what constituted a good film. You really believe he is the genuine article.
In the years after the elder Wayne’s passing, was it tough to revisit his films? “I’d have to say no to that question with the exception of one film,” admits Patrick. “I couldn’t watch The Shootist as it was so close to reality. He played an old gunfighter who was an anachronism dying of cancer.
“Too many of the elements in there were just too close to what actually happened to him in his real life, so that film took me about 10 years to watch again. When I did finally watch it, I have to say that it’s probably his finest performance as a pure actor, using all his skills and being more than just a cardboard cutout, but more of a real human being — a vulnerable human being — and I think he pulled it off really well.”
If you’re not convinced to take a gander, take a look at the veritable laundry list of classic Hollywood stars populating the Wayne films — Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin, Lauren Bacall, Robert Mitchum, Maureen O’Hara, Angie Dickinson, Richard Boone, Bruce Dern, James Caan, Ed Asner, Rick Nelson, Ron Howard, and George Kennedy. Directorial masters Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Mark Rydell, and Don Siegel are analyzed in film schools.
In a teaser advertising a previous 2013 marathon, AMC shrewdly marketed the Duke’s humorous line delivery of “Holy Christmas!,” uttered after a bucking mule and a strategically fired shotgun thwarted Cahill: U.S. Marshal’s plans to frighten his teenage sons into turning themselves into the law while digging up stolen loot in a spooky graveyard. Mirroring much of the star’s real life parental absence, particularly during his first marriage to Josephine Saenz, Cahill is vastly underrated.
Ethan did visit one of his father’s cowboy sets in Durango very early on. The sixth of seven Wayne offspring clarifies, “I was only three years old but probably The Sons of Katie Elder for real clear memories — Dean Martin and the spurs.”
The oft-imitated Oscar winner truly tried to maintain a more active presence for his three kids with third wife Pilar Pallete, although his driving acumen left much to be desired. “Dad had a couple of green Pontiac Grand Safari station wagons featuring a customized roof for his Stetson and even a telephone with two channels,” says Ethan. “They were customized by George Barris who did the Batmobile.
“When I was about five he would drive to Los Angeles, put me on his lap, and make me steer. If I would start driving out of the lane he would yell, “Hey — get back in the lane!” and scare the crap out of me. He would also accelerate when we would go into a corner. He had a lot of fun doing that.”
Remember in the late ’90s and early ’00s when TBS used to air Christmas and Thanksgiving Western marathons alternately featuring Wayne and Clint Eastwood? While that’s a bygone tradition, let’s applaud AMC for having the guts to recommend the Duke to a slew of iPhone-brandishing millennials.
Christmas with the Duke: The Complete Schedule [All times Eastern Standard]
- 9 a.m.— Big Jake 
- 11:30 a.m — The Shootist 
- 2 p.m. — Cahill U.S. Marshal 
- 4:30 p.m. — Rio Bravo 
- 7:30 p.m.—The Cowboys 
- 10:30 p.m. — El Dorado 
- 1:30 a.m. — The Sons of Katie Elder 
- The man who killed John Wayne’s dog: Remembering formidable villain Gregg ‘Grizzly’ Palmer
- Patrick Wayne unmasks extraordinary dad’s vulnerability in exclusive birthday tribute
- Gettin’ back in the lane with John Wayne’s youngest son
- ‘Beau John’ — The untold story of John Wayne’s last film project
- He was ugly, strong, and had dignity — Uncovering John Wayne’s hidden treasure
- James Drury’s brush with greatness — Encountering genuine article John Wayne
- Ink-slinging Steve McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill dishes on Elvis, Paul Newman, and the Duke
- Having a ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ with passionate Wings guitarist Laurence Juber
- Tony Bennett’s ‘final’ Christmas performance with Conan O’Brien
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