Few movie stars earn the legendary stature of someone like John Wayne. The iconic western star acted in many influential roles throughout his career. It’s hard to name the best one. One film worthy of inclusion in the conversation is The Comancheros. The 1961 western directed by Micahel Curtiz (Casablanca) stars Wayne as a Texas ranger who must partner up with his prisoner to stop a group of renegade arms merchants.
The Comancheros was another hit for Wayne when it was released. Bosley Crowther reviewed the film for the New York Times when it was released. He described the film as, “So studiously wild and woolly, it turns out to be good fun. There’s not a moment of seriousness in it, not a detail that isn’t performed with a surge of exaggeration, not a character that is credible.”
The release of the film came with the sad news that director Curtiz was unable to complete the project before passing away due to terminal illness. Wayne took over directing duties when Curtiz stepped away shortly before filming was completed.
The Duke was no stranger to tragic events while filming by this time. In fact, Wayne nearly lost his own life while filming an earlier role in 1949.
John Wayne’s Close Call
In one of his many collaborations with director John Ford, Wayne was filming She Wore a Yellow Ribbon when a stunt went wrong and nearly cost him his life.
According to the author of American Titan: Searching for John Wayne, Marc Eliot, the cinch belt on Wayne’s belt had loosened while he rode a horse. As a result, he was thrown off during a scene where he was waving his coat at the Native Americans.
Wayne reportedly said: “I hit the ground. Hit my head. Blacked out. Now there’s about 50 horses tear-assing at me. I came out of the blackout to hear the Old Man, Mr. Ford, yelling and there was general hysteria, but a wrangler with guts, he ran out and headed off the stampeding horses, which were within about a few feet of stomping me to death.”
Wayne luckily survived the ordeal and continued making many successful films. Including many more with Ford. The pair collaborated extensively for more than 20 years and produced some of the greatest westerns in American film.
Their long relationship started with 1939’s Stagecoach. The film put Wayne on the map and spawned a long and lucrative partnership between the star and the director. The partnership came to an end after the 1963 film Donovan’s Reef. In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1976, Wayne said Ford still had the creative energy all the way until the end.
“Up until the very last years of his life … Pappy could have directed another picture, and a damned good one,” Wayne said. “But they said Pappy was too old. Hell, he was never too old. In Hollywood these days, they don’t stand behind a fella. They’d rather make a goddamned legend out of him and be done with him.”