Mark Rydell, director of “The Cowboys”, and his star, John Wayne
Mark Rydell was about 30 years old when he directed (and produced) The Cowboys. It was 1972. John Wayne had been making pictures since the 20s. He had been a star for decades. Not just a star, but an icon. A legend. Rydell was a Jewish kid from the Bronx who had directed a couple of episodes of Gunsmoke and, I think, 2 feature films. What would the experience be like?? Would John Wayne run all over him? How on earth would he direct John Wayne? There are a couple of great stories about the filming of this marvelous movie (and I also love Rydell’s image of John Wayne sitting, on break, trying to eat his lunch, while all the kids who were in the movie climbed over him “as though he was a monkeybar …” They loved and trusted him that much.) – but here’s one of my favorite stories. It reveals John Wayne as the honest and true artist that he is. Humility is at the heart of it. And self-knowledge. Like I said to Alex once, when we were watching some clip he did – a commercial for the Red Cross – and I was totally struck (yet again) by him, and I demanded of Alex, almost angry about it, “Does the man ever lie?” Alex replied immediately, in a flat no-nonsense voice, “No.” Nope. Didn’t think so.
Here’s one of Mark Rydell’s many moving memories of what it was like to direct John Wayne in The Cowboys. This is an anecdote about the filming of the beginning of the cattle drive – obviously a complicated shot, with horses and herds of cattle and camera equipment, and extras and cowboys and stunt doubles … not to mention John Wayne.
I’ll just let the anecdote speak for itself. It brings a lump to my throat, and the last bit leaves me barely able to speak or even type. That’s what John Wayne does to me.
So. Here’s Mark Rydell on what happened on that day.
And we had 1500 head of cattle. And there’s an interesting story of the first angry moment that I had with John Wayne. I was sitting up on the head of a crane. We had 9 cameras, and we were shooting this scene which had to do with starting the cattle drive. And in the background of this 1500 head of cattle, we had all the families of the kids, and all the kids are in position getting ready to start this cattle drive, and being said goodbye to by their parents. And John Wayne was seated on his horse about 50 feet in front of me and I was facing all these cattle on the top of the crane, and the scene begins with him riding over to Roscoe Lee Browne who was sitting on the top of this six-up that he had to drive, and the dialogue, if I remember correctly, is he says, “Are you ready, Mr. Nightlinger?” and he says, “Ready when you are”, or something like that. And you know, you don’t start 1500 head of cattle by saying, “Go”. What happens is, you have to push the cattle in the rear and they move and they push the cattle in front and sometimes it takes 5 minutes for them to be going. So I didn’t roll the cameras because I didn’t want to waste film until the cattle were moving. There was an enormous amount of cattle. This was really a remarkable production achievement, with Wayne riding past hundreds and hundreds of heads of cattle, all which had to be handled. It was quite a complicated procedure that required a lot of attention. So Wayne decided it was time to go – so he rode up – I hadn’t even started rolling the cameras yet – so he rode up to Roscoe and said, “Are you ready, Mr. Nightlinger?” Well, of course, I hadn’t even rolled the cameras yet. So I lost my temper. I stood up on the crane and said, “Don’t you ever do that. Go back to your spot. I’ll tell you when we’re going to roll our cameras, I’ll tell you when ‘Action’ is!” and as I was talking to him, I was thinking: what a stupid thing for me to do, to yell at John Wayne, in front of all these kids and all these people, it was humiliating. And I was really sorry, but I had stuck my neck out – and I was right, by the way. And he knew I was right. He went back to his place, did the scene, got in his car – it was the end of the day – and drove into town. All of the crew came over to me one by one to shake my hand, as if to say goodbye, because they thought I would be fired for having contested John Wayne in any way whatsoever. And the Ravetch’s were there, and they were horrified, and I got in the car with them to drive back to our production office in Santa Fe, and I was just mortified with guilt for having done this! And they kept saying, “Why did you do that?” And I kept saying, ‘I just lost my temper!” And we got back to the production office and there were four calls from John Wayne. And I thought, this is it. I’m fired. I’ll be on my way back to Los Angeles in a moment and one of John Wayne’s former directors will be down here to take over the picture. So I finally got up my courage and I called him. And he said, “Mark, let’s have dinner.” And I thought, ‘Okay, there’s the kiss of death.” So we met, and, by the way, there was nothing more remarkable than the experience of going to dinner in Santa Fe with John Wayne, who was 6’5″ and an icon. He walked into the restaurant and the place gasped! We sat down for dinner and I am waiting for the axe to fall, for him to say, ‘Son, you’re a nice guy, but I think we’re going to be better off with a better director.” You know, I was waiting for that horrifying moment! Which never came, by the way. And he proceeded to tell me that I treated him the way John Ford treated him. I had yelled at him, and he was very impressed that I had the courage to tell him off. He knew that I was right, and he was wrong. Even though it was something I certainly never should have done, he was impressed that I had the courage to do it. And he called me “Sir” from that day forward, and for the rest of the 102 days we shot this picture. And that’s the kind of guy he was.