John Wayne

Belittled by a Father Figure: the only movie where John Wayne stormed off-set

Thanks to the mythology he’d crafted around himself both on-screen and off, John Wayne was never a person or performer to show any outward signs of weakness, but being repeatedly criticised by the filmmaker who became his erstwhile mentor and father figure came close to breaking him completely.

The decades-long partnership between ‘The Duke’ and John Ford gave rise to several stone-cold cinematic classics, but they weren’t always on the best of terms. The war drama They Were Expendable marked their third film together after Stagecoach and The Long Voyage Home, but things grew so tense between them that Wayne ended up storming off set.

Released just three months after World War II had ended in September 1945, the story finds Wayne and co-star Robert Montgomery’s lieutenants being told they can finally lead their squadrons into battle following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their patrol and torpedo boats take the fight to the enemy by shooting down Japanese aircraft, eliminating hostiles on the open water, and relaying messages between allied forces.

Authenticity was at the forefront of Ford’s thinking, with the United States Navy supplying real boats to be used during production while great swathes of the cast and crew had served in the conflict. Wayne wasn’t one of them, and that was precisely the ammunition the director needed to push the star to give the best possible performance, even if ‘The Duke’ didn’t respond too kindly to the verbal tongue-lashing.

Of course, Ford had acted as the head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and was named a commander of the United States Navy Reserve. He was there when Japan attacked Midway and was also present on Omaha Beach during the D-day landings, so he had first-hand experience of being in the thick of the battlefield, albeit not as a soldier.

A number of cast members on They Were Expendable also served, and they had their military ranks listed alongside their names in the credits. However, that didn’t include Wayne, and Ford made sure to never let him forget it. During one scene that required the actor to do nothing more than offer a salute, the director took him to task by asking, “Duke, can’t you manage a salute that at least looks as though you’ve been in the service?”.

Having been called out for his lack of military duty, Wayne ended up feeling so embarrassed and humiliated that he stormed off the set and didn’t return until the following day. To try and mend fences, Montgomery – who drove ambulances during the war and was there during the Normandy landings – was furious, telling Ford, “Don’t you ever speak like that to anyone again.” He ultimately apologised to ‘The Duke’, and they returned to work with no further issues.

For all the support he showed the armed forces both on the big screen and in his many public appearances, Wayne always seemed troubled by the guilt that he was granted an exemption from serving during World War II. When Ford let him have it for that very reason, the end result was the only recorded incident of the star ever walking out midway through a day’s production and not coming back.

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