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Interview with John Wayne

FORT BENNING, GA -- A lot more people sing on the radio about a-goin' way down to Columbus George-ah, than ever actually get around to a-goin' there. Voluntarily, anyway. The first thing you see in the airport is a big sign telling draftees what arrangements have been made for their transportation to the fort.

The sign doesn't say which fort, but there's only one fort way down in Columbus, George-ah.

John Wayne picked it for the location of his movie "The Green Berets" because it has scenery that looks something like Vietnam, and there are a lot of helicopters around, and a lot of young men who stand around in uniform and look amazingly like American soldiers. "They're out on the airstrip today,'' said Old Doc, whose job it is to drive visitors from the airport to the movie set. "Mr. Wayne is surely working them hard. They have one crew working all day, and then after supper another crew turns right around and works all night."

Right on the outskirts of Columbus, there was a big billboard: "Chattahoochee Valley Fair, Sept. 9-14." The Northern visitor said it aloud, to hear the sound of it: "Chattahoochee."

Old Doc chuckled. "Yes, sir," he said nostalgically. "Used to be a lot of that in these parts. You see that bridge? Wellsir, that leads right across the river into Phenix City. You ever see that movie, 'The Phenix City Story'?"

He made a wolf whistle. "Phenix City used to be the hottest little town in the South, one time. Of course they closed it all down. Dawg if there weren't some fine women over there, during the war."

Old Doc said he usually had a job driving Ford cars in a convoy. But the strike had brought a halt to that. "So here I am, driving a Ford car anyway," he said, delighted at the irony of it all.

A military policeman waved the car through the gates onto Fort Benning, and past a big sign advising visitors that by entering onto these premises they were agreeing to the principle that they could be stopped and searched at any moment. The visitor reflected happily that he had left his copy of Ramparts magazine on the airplane.

"There they are now," Old Doc said.

Shimmering in the distance was, unmistakably, a movie company. He steered the Ford car to a halt near a row of semi-trailers. In the next car, a man with a walkie-talkie was talking to someone.

"Just a second," the man said. "I'll get in contact with the company." After a series of over-to-yous and do-you-read-mes, he said someone would be right over to show the way and, in the meantime, why not eat some lunch?

So it was while sitting in the hot sun at Fort Benning, Ga., eating a steak sandwich on white bread, doused with catsup, that the Northerner saw John Wayne for the first time. Big John Wayne.

Wayne was riding in a jeep, on his way out to the location. He was about half a city block away and he was out of sight in 10 seconds, but it meant something, anyway. There are a lot of movie stars, a few of them maybe even more famous than John Wayne, and a lot of them probably better actors.

But John Wayne. IS it necessary to go into just exactly why, for a lot of people who were kids once, John Wayne is not so much a name, more of a word? Like when you're a big hero in the Boy Scouts, rescuing a drowning frog or something, and the other guys say you did a John Wayne?

The man came to show the way. Out on the airstrip, preparations were under way for a scene showing the arrival of Wayne's Green Beret unit in Vietnam. The idea was for about 10 big troop-carrying helicopters to land one after another, in a row, on the landing field. Then the cameras would cut to a shot of Wayne and Bruce Cabot walking away from the helicopters. Cabot plays the officer who is being relieved by Wayne.

In the shade of the helicopters, several dozen soldiers were standing around waiting, having already hurried up. Wayne was in conference with Mervyn LeRoy, the old pro who had been called in from Hollywood to assist in the direction.

So Wayne and LeRoy were talking over how the scene with Cabot should be played, and a guy from Warner Bros. came over to talk to Wayne. The problem was that Wayne had kicked a set photographer off the set the day before. A set photographer without a set is a pathetic being, and so the Warner Bros. man was trying to convince Wayne to relent and let the guy come back.

"I kicked that S.O.B. off the set, and he stays kicked off," Wayne said, his voice slow and angry. It wasn't really that he was angry now, it was just that the memory of the guy was painful. The Warner Bros. man suggested that maybe the guy could kind of hang around in the background and stay out of the way.

"Well, all right then, let him back," Wayne said. "But you tell him the first time I see him shooting somebody picking his nose or scratching his butt, I'll take him and boot him all the way over to Italy where they make a living doing that. And I mean I'll boot him PHYSICALLY. Is that clear?"

The Warner Bros. man said that, yes, that was clear. LeRoy came wandering over for a word with the visitor.

LeRoy is a short man, built something like Dr. Dolittle, and he looks like a movie director. He wore a belt buckle with his initials on it, "MLeR," and a shirt with his initials over the left pocket.

"This is the first time I've been back to Georgia since I did 'I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,'" he said. "Of course, we shot '30 Seconds Over Tokyo' a couple hundred miles from here."

LeRoy wandered back to talk to Wayne, and a muscular young man who was leaning on a jeep came over. "I'm Bill Bowen," he said. "I'm Mr. Wayne's double in the movie. And I also play a Seabee."

Bowen squinted into the sun, which was coming from directly behind him, and pronounced, slowly and clearly: "There is about John Wayne a certain magnetism that affects young and old alike. He is a legend in his own time."

Then conversation became impossible, as the helicopters revved up and took off, one by one, to circle the field and land again. An assistant director shouted over a loudhailer that the scene was finished, and then a set photographer (colleague of the disgraced one) told Wayne that some of the pilots would sure like to have their pictures taken with him. So Wayne went over and stood in the middle of the group.

LeRoy's brow furrowed. "Hold on a minute, Duke," he said. He hurried over and rearranged the pilots into two lines, six standing in back, five kneeling in front. "This way the picture will be narrower, and you'll be able to blow it up and see the faces better."

There was something fascinating in the sight of this expensive director lining up a publicity photo.

After the picture was taken, Wayne handed out souvenir cigaret lighters. Then it, was time to talk to the visitor. He walked over and stuck out his hand.

"John Wayne," he said.

The visitor, who could think of nothing else to say, said: "I recognized the face."

The face was burned a dark brown from the summer of working in Georgia. It looked down from 4 inches over 6 feet, and it looked exactly the way it does in the movies. The way it has looked in dozens and dozens of movies since 1929. It was not an old man's face, but it was creased with wrinkles around the mouth and eyes. The hair was thinning; there wasn't a lot left down the middle. Wayne wasn't fat, but he had a gut.

But could you say, here was John Wayne and he had wrinkles and a gut? No, you couldn't. Here was John Wayne, and he looked like John Wayne and talked like John Wayne and it absolutely did not matter about anything else.

Wayne said he was making "The Green Berets" because he thought a movie ought to be made about the Vietnam War. It will be the first Hollywood movie about the war. A curious state of affairs, because Hollywood turned out dozens of World War II and Korean War movies. But this war doesn't seem to be as popular as the others and Hollywood has shunned Vietnam as an almost sure money-loser. Wayne decided to produce the movie with his own production company, Batjac, and Warner Bros. put up $7,000,000 to finance it.

"I've been to Vietnam, and I've talked to the men there, and I don't have the slightest doubt about the correctness of what we are doing," Wayne said.

Wayne said the story, in a way, could be about any war. "It's about this war, but it's also about this special kind of soldier," he said. "The average Green Beret is a little older, more experienced, more professional than the average soldier," he said. "He's a man who has made up his mind about things, and who takes a pride in doing what it looks like has to be done. A word like duty doesn't sound strange to him."

Wayne settled into the seat of a jeep already occupied by Bruce Cabot, who was with Wayne in "The War Wagon" and in 11 other movies ranging back 20 years. The occasion seemed to call for a comment about "The War Wagon," and that led somehow to "El Dorado," one of the summer's biggest-grossing films.

"That was fun to make," Wayne said. "I enjoy working with a director like Howard Hawks, because he knows his craft. He may not be one of your hotshot French geniuses, but there's nothing he doesn't know about making a movie."

Wayne grinned, "You know," he said, "all the time we were making that movie, I was scared to death someone would notice that all Hawks was doing, basically, was taking 'Rio Bravo' and sort of juggling it around a little. I played the same part, and he switched Robert Mitchum for Dean Martin, and the plot was almost exactly the same. But no one seems to have noticed."

Then it was time for Wayne and Cabot to do the scene walking away from the helicopters. Wayne stood up and buckled his canvas Army belt and he walked with Cabot out into the blinding sun of the airfield. They turned to face the camera and LeRoy shouted, "action!"

"Well," said Wayne, "I'm glad to see they're bringing a little support in here.

"Twenty-third Air Cav," Cabot said.

"It's about time," said Wayne.

"Yeah. Well, I'm glad you're relieving me," Cabot said. "I'll look forward to gettin' back to the States, and maybe work off this gut," He patted his stomach.

"Yeah," said Wayne, "I guess I know what you mean."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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