McLintock!: John Wayne transitioned into a charming & affluent ‘Patriarch of the West’ with this rollicking comic-Western

John Wayne has never shied away from propagating his socio-political views through his films and McLintock!(1963), co-starring his favorite heroine Maureen O’Hara, is perhaps the ultimate ‘John Wayne Western’, where his reel and real life personas are seamlessly mixed up.

In 1963, two very successful films were released that bore the unmistakable stamp of two of the greatest directors of all times- Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford; but the interesting thing is that these two films were not directed by those two master directors. The first film was Charade, directed by Stanley Donen, which was called the greatest Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never directed; it starred Hitchcock’s favorite star Cary Grant along with heartthrob Audrey Hepburn in lead roles. The second film was McLintock!, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and starring director John Ford’s favorite star pair John ‘Duke’ Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. It’s hard to believe that McLintock wasn’t directed by John Ford. It has all the ingredients of a Ford movie. First, there’s the family, lead by the the powerful titular patriarch played by Ford protégé John Wayne. Then there’s the Western setting, with the film playing out as a loose remake of one of Ford’s greatest films, The Quiet Man; complete with the firebrand, red-haired beauty, Maureen O’Hara playing Duke’s wife. Then there are the colorful supporting characters played by members of Ford’s stock company; plenty of broad slapstick humor and a rambunctious muddy brawl. Indeed, McLintock! could be considered the most entertaining John Ford movie that Ford never directed. In actuality, Ford did direct a few portions of this movie; he directed the film for two days when the original director fell ill. But one element that certainly distinguishes this film from other Ford ventures is how much of John Wayne’s persona (both reel and real) is all over this film. Though ‘Pappy‘ Ford always gave his surrogate son ‘Duke‘ substantial roles in all their collaborations, his films were bigger than Wayne; he never allowed Wayne’s persona to overpower the film, but in McLintock!, Wayne is at the front and center of the film, take him out and there is no movie. It is a star vehicle in the purest and the best sense, to the point that it almost becomes a ‘meta’ movie about the star.

The meta nature of the film starts with Duke’s name in the film: George Washington McLintock has an uncanny resemblance to John Wayne (Marion) Morrison, which is a mix of Duke’s screen and real names.  Like President George Washington, McLintock too has a town named after him; a town he literally created out of the wilderness by fighting off Indians singlehandedly. He is a cattle Baron, a land Baron and a mining Baron; in short, McLintock is the most powerful, affluent and unchallenged lord of the town of McLintock. But all this extraordinary success came at a steep price: McLintock has been estranged from his wife, Katherine, for many years now, after she decided to move east and settle down in New York, as she couldn’t handle the frontier life, or perhaps, she couldn’t handle living with him. Since then he has been leading a bachelor’s life in the company of his many friends and cronies in town. The film kicks off with Katherine’s return to town. She has decided to finally put an end to their marriage by demanding a divorce from G.W (as McLintock is called by others in the film). Also, their daughter Rebecca is returning home to McLintock, and Katherine wants to take her way to the civilized East. But McLintock is not willing to give up without a fight. The rest of the film plays out as a rough, Western version of Shakespeare’s  The Taming of the Shrew, with the climax, involving the public humiliation of Katherine (that goes on way too long), lifted pretty much from a similar climax of The Quiet Man, though without the cultural subtext involved in that Irish romantic fantasia from John Ford. Hence, today, this portion is one of the most problematic aspects of this film, even though it is obvious that the film was just meant to be harmless fun. Though the plot appears very slim, that’s not how it develops on the screen. The film is filled with multiple subplots and characters; one subplot involves some friendly Native Americans who are fighting to preserve their land; another involves a young cowboy (played by Duke’s son Patrick Wayne), who eventually becomes a suitor for McLintock’s daughter; another involves his mother, who develops a flirtatious relationship with McLintock, much to the chagrin of Katherine who still harbors feelings for McLintock; all this culminating in a rambunctious Fourth of July celebration in which the multiple plot threads in the film are resolved. It appears that Duke was determined to throw every successful element from his previous films on to the screen in order to generate a hit. The feel-good, lighthearted tone of the film is directly influenced by Duke’s previous super hit, North to Alaska(1960). Duke was always very good at recycling what has worked well before into a new package and, here, he took that formula and perfected it; by assigning himself a more powerful and mature character suiting his age and his aging appearance; as well as having the perfectly suitable group of supporting actors to play off against. He would duplicate this formula for most of the films he would make in this final phase of his career.

McLintock! is directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, who is the son of Victor McLaglen – a prominent member of Ford’s stock company, and who had also played Maureen’s brother in The Quiet Man. This is the first John Wayne film directed by McLaglen Junior, and he will go on to make several more films with him; pretty much replacing Ford as Duke’s favorite director in the final phase of his career. The film came at a critical juncture for Duke, when he was desperate of a hit. His passion project, The Alamo(1960), which he produced and directed had under performed at the box office, leaving him reeling under huge debts, as he had hocked all his personal fortune on that film. Except for the above mentioned, North to Alaska, even his last couple of films with his mentor Ford- like The Man who shot Liberty Valance and Donovan’s Reef- were not pleasant experiences for him. He needed a big success to reinvigorate himself, both financially and career wise; and to that end, he decided to produce this film himself. He went to extraordinary lengths with it and spent a lot of time, trouble and money getting things just right. He even had one of the last surviving herds of long horn cattle in the country brought in; had an authentic railroad station built in the desolate area north of Tombstone to add authenticity; and arranged to borrow a nineteenth century train, complete with engine, passenger coaches and box-car from Paramount Pictures. He hired 287 Indians from all over Arizona as well as some of his Navajo friends from Monument Valley. The making of this film was a family affair for Duke; the whole Wayne family went to Arizona to make McLintock!, and he  had a great time working on it. His eldest son Michael was the credited producer, while his other children, Patrick and Aissa, had roles in the film, apart from the fact that Andy McLaglen, son of his old friend Victor, was the director. Although McLaglen was a competent director, Duke himself supervised the picture closely. Since he  was producing the film under his Batjac banner, he practically ran the show. Duke devised all the brawls in McLintock!, gave instructions to younger members of the cast, and sometimes flew into a rage and shouted obscenities at workers who were slow to do his bidding. He had the final say on everything and he made McLintock! the picture that it is.

By this time in his career, Duke was at the height of his powers. He was unquestionably the biggest movie star around, and he had total belief in himself and what he was doing. He’d acquired complete knowledge about who ‘John Wayne’ was and what audiences expected from him. It is this knowledge and confidence that would transform him from just a movie star into a Legend and a national icon in this, final phase of his career- and this phase started with McLintock!. It’s a phase in which the reel and real persona of Duke would merge together so seamlessly, that it would become difficult to separate one from the other. Even though Duke had, throughout his career, portrayed characters emphasizing his personal and political views, it would move to the next level with McLintock!, in which, he would not only emphasize his political views, but also his views on family, business, marriage, women and almost every aspect of social life. The film completes the transition of the Wayne persona from disenfranchised, seething outsider (starting with the John Ford classic  Stagecoach(1939)) to an affluent patriarch of the West, who takes great pride in his accomplishments. McLintock is proudly paternalistic, has a passion for chess, and an extreme loathing for government bureaucrats and seedy politicians. The film is a virtual anthology of Wayne’s social views, including a certain propensity for ethnic caricature: The Natives, the Chinese, the immigrant settlers are all filtered through a certain simplistic John Wayne prism; Mclintock’s town is basically a microcosm of America, with GW  being its de facto president, who is trying hard to rise above the corrupt bureaucrats and keep the peace between competing ethnic interests.

The major highlight of the film is Duke’s re-teaming with his favorite leading lady, Maureen O’Hara. They worked together for the first time in Rio Grande(1950), in which their combination scenes were the best thing about that film. Next, They electrified the screen with their sizzling chemistry in The Quiet Man. Maureen was Duke’s ideal woman; she laughed, drank and cursed with him, and he found her irresistible. She was one of the only women he ever felt truly comfortable with, the only one he ever went out of his way to keep company with. By all accounts, he never had an off-screen romantic relationship with her, because he was as much a traditionalist off-screen as he was on-screen, preferring passive, demure, Hispanic women as his wives. But Maureen was like no other woman he ever met, able to stand toe to toe with him, and as powerful as he was himself. He called her Big Red, and on McLintock! they had a fine time, both especially loving the scene where the whole town brawls on the edge of a fifty foot hill with a mud hole at the bottom, into which they all inevitably slide. The first stuntman to try sliding down into the mud fell and cut his head, and the others then demanded extra danger money to perform the stunt. Duke was disgusted; it was already costing him $50,000 to shoot the scene. He stood at the top of the hill and bellowed, “Well then, I guess that means I have to do it, you white-livered chicken shits! It’s about as dangerous as diving into a swimming pool, and Maureen and I will prove it.” . Maureen  shouted back, “That old bastard wants me to slide down the hill with him, but I won’t do it.” But Duke turned out to be very persuasive and  She ended up dong exactly as he wanted, as Duke beaming, took her by the arm and dragged her down with him laughing, “That’s my girl.” On one rare occasion Wayne did not like the way Maureen was doing a scene and he shouted: “C’mon, Maureen,” he said, “get going. This is your scene.” Maureen replied that she was trying to go fifty-fifty with him. “Fifty-fifty, hell,” he roared. “It’s your scene, steal it.” Then under his breath he added, “If you can.” That was more than enough to inflame Maureen to go all out, as she later remarked about the scene: “I stole it.

The film also featured Yvonne De Carlo in her first picture for four years. She was married to Bob Morgan, a stuntman who had lost a leg in an accident whilst working on How The West Was Won(1962). As soon as Duke learned of the hardship they were facing, he insisted on rescuing De Carlo from the nightclub circuit by finding her a well paid role in his film. She played the role of Mrs. Warner, mother of Patrick Wayne’s character, who come to stay in McLintock’s house as the cook, immediately setting up an adversarial relationship with O’Hara’s Katherine, who is also staying in the house. The romantic-comic trio indulges in some drunken slapstick routines, in which Duke proves himself to be extremely spry. Duke was 56 years old when he made the film, and unknown to many, was suffering from lung cancer. He would recover from it, sacrificing one of his lungs in the process. But he never let his age or his illness come between his performance; this is one of his most exuberant, physical performances. Duke also had his favorite writer James Edward Grant on this film. His forte was writing the kind of terse, sarcastic dialogue that Duke was famous for and he was simpatico with Duke’s political views. He has written the kind of dialogues for Duke in the film, which are perfectly in line with his personal views; like the one that takes potshots at the government:

The government never gave anybody anything. Some years back a lot like you come in. Had a pretty good first year. Good summer. Easy winter. But the next year the last rain was in February. And by June even the jack rabbits had sense enough to get off the Mesa. There’s no such thing as free land. You make these homesteads go you’ll have earned every acre of it. But you just can’t make ’em go on the Mesa Verde. God made that country for buffalo. Serves pretty well for cattle. But it hates the plow. And even the government should know you can’t farm 6000 feet above sea level!

Or the bureaucrats, especially the governor, Cuthbert H. Humphrey, of the territory, who is making a play for Katherine:

Cuthbert H. Humphrey, Governor of our territory, is a cull. Do you know what a cull is, ma’am? A cull is a specimen that is so worthless that you have to cut him out of the herd. Now if all the people in the world were put in one herd, Cuthbert is the one I would throw a rope at.

You have to be a man first before you’re a gentleman. He misses on both counts

If these settlers get burned out, there’ll be a lot of hollerin’ that this country is too wild to be a state. We’ll go on bein’ a territory some more, with a lot of political appointees runnin’ it according to what they learned in some college where they think cows are somethin’ you milk and Indians are somethin’ in front of a cigar store.”

and especially the East-coast intelligentsia, who were never comfortable with Duke (and vice versa). Katherine’s character, who comes from the east becomes a target for a lot of these barbs, especially her propensity for using fancy terms like ‘unprepossessing‘, ‘impugn‘ and ‘reactionary‘- a term that was always used to describe John Wayne.

as well as his views on labor:

“Boy, you’ve got it all wrong. I don’t give jobs I hire men.And for that I’ll pay you a fair day’s wage. You won’t give me anything and I won’t give you anything. We both hold up our heads”

Though the film is simplistic entertainment with broad humor, it is not without heart. The film has one of the most moving monologues ever delivered by Duke, in which he is seen discussing his legacy with his daughter; how he wouldn’t want her to inherit his wealth and would like to see her make her own:

Becky! Come here. You’re going to have every young buck west of the Missouri around here tryin’ to marry you – mostly because you’re a handsome filly, but partly because I own everything in this country from here to there. They’ll think you’re going to inherit it. Well, you’re not. I’m going to leave most of it to, well, to the nation really, for a park where no lumbermen’ll cut down all the trees for houses with leaky roofs. Nobody’ll kill all the beaver for hats for dudes nor murder the buffalo for robes. What I’m going to give you is a 500 cow spread on the Upper Green River. Now that may not seem like much, but it’s more than we had, your mother and I. Some folks are gonna say I’m doin’ all this so I can sit up in the hereafter and look down on a park named after me, or that I was disappointed in you – didn’t want you to get all that money. But the real reason, Becky, is because I love you, and I want you and some young man to have what I had, because all the gold in the United States Treasury and all the harp music in heaven can’t equal what happens between a man and a woman with all that growin’ together. I can’t explain it any better than that.”

Obviously, this was as much a personal project for Duke as it was commercial, and his faith was vindicated when the film became a big hit at the box office. At a time when the counter-cultural 60s was coming into its own, with rebellious anti-heroes brought to screen by young guns like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were becoming a rage, Duke, ever the traditionalist, proved that he still had it in him to hold his own. McLintock! continues to charm the audiences and remains one of the most popular John Wayne films ever.