Tuesday, September 05, 2017

"Say it with awe!" The Apocryphal John Wayne

Twelve years ago (Say it with aweSay it with awe update), I blogged about the legendary John Wayne story, in which the Duke, playing the role of the centurion at the cross in The Greatest Story Ever Told, delivers the line "Truly, this was the Son of God," only to be told by director George Stevens, "Say it with awe, John!" He responds, "Awww, truly this was the son of God!".

 Here's the clip in context. Wayne comes on at the 2:30 mark:





I noted at the time that the story certainly appears to be apocryphal, and I have been meaning to take a little more time to look into it ever since. I am currently teaching my Jesus in Film course at Duke, and this week we all watched The Greatest Story Ever Told, and it prompted me to revisit the story.

It is always difficult to chase down the authenticity of stories like this. Demonstrating that something did not happen is tough. But after a little searching, I found a lovely confirmation that in fact it never happened, in an interview that fills in some background and context in Greatest Story.

The source is Michael Munn, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth (New York: New American Library, 2003): 248-9. Munn begins by retelling the famous story:
There is a famous but untrue story concerning Wayne’s only line of dialogue in the Crucifixion scene, and this is the time to put the record straight. According to legend, Wayne said his line “Truly this was the Son of God” three times, none of them to Stevens’s satisfaction. So Stevens said, “Can you give it a little more awe, Duke?” and Duke said, “Aw, this was truly the Son of God.” Very funny. But not true.
He goes on with an account of a 1977 interview he conducted with Roddy McDowall, who played Matthew in the film:
When I interviewed Roddy McDowall on the set of The Thief of Baghdad at Shepperton Studios in 1977, he talked about his work on The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which he played the disciple Matthew, and about John Wayne’s brief appearance as the centurion. Said McDowall, “We shot the Crucifixion on a soundstage in the studio. It was a marvelous set. There was hardly any dialogue except between the actors playing the two thieves and Max as Jesus. I promise you, John Wayne as the centurion did not say a word. If you watch the film closely, when you hear his voice saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God,’ you don’t see his lips move, and that’s because George Stevens had decided he wasn’t going to let the audience hear Wayne. In fact, he shot the scenes of Jesus carrying his cross and the Crucifixion in such a way that you hardly knew it was John Wayne. George was embarrassed that he’d been made to bring in so many stars as extras. After filming, George decided he needed the centurion to say the line after all, and he got Wayne into a sound studio, and he wasn’t in costume and he just had a microphone, and George asked him to deliver the line. Wayne told him, ‘I can’t do this.’ George said, ‘You’re an actor, aren’t you? That’s what you’ve been trying to prove all these years.’ And Wayne said, ‘I’ve got nothing to react to, so if I screw this up, don’t blame me.’ And he was right. He couldn’t give the line what it needed. You can’t blame Wayne, you can’t blame George; you can only blame the assholes who made the decision to use Wayne—and all the other actors who were in that scene just so the names would bring in the crowds—which they didn’t.”
Munn's account ends with this enjoyable comment:
Playing John the Baptist was Charlton Heston, Hollywood’s most prolific star of epics. He said, “There are actors who can do period parts and there are actors who can’t. God knows Duke Wayne couldn’t play a first-century Roman.”
McDowall, as reported by Munn, is right -- Wayne's lips are not moving in the scene.

Although it never happened, it is, of course, a lovely story, and like all good myths, it tells the hearer something important about its subject matter. In this case, it names the director of the film, it tells you that Hollywood bigwigs played key cameos, and it tells you that the film erred by casting famous Hollywood stars at the expense of realism. And, of course, it makes you chuckle.


3 comments:

Unknown said...

Nice piece of detective work! Pity he didn't say it though...

Joe Weaks said...

I can't emphasize how little investment I have in this discussion/investigation, however, I don't see how the dug up interview settles anything. If I understand it, Michael Munn, author of a 2003 book, interviewed actor Roddy McDowall in 1977. This timeline already is difficult. In the quoted interview snippet, McDowall is never asked nor responds to the question "Did Wayne say this 'awe' line?" (is there a portion missing?) Is it possible that Munn is misremembering the interview 20 years later, thinking he asked McDowall directly about the "awe"-story?
McDowall, istm, does offer up contextual evidence that the recording of the line was indeed an awkward and difficult thing for Wayne, a situation where the "awe"-line story sounds feasible, where George Stevens is trying to get the line well-delivered out of Wayne.
McDowall's interview accomplishes one thing for sure, namely, it moves the occurrence to a sound studio rather than on the set where the scene was filmed. But that certainly doesn't negate the story. And, it also reduces the number of witnesses. McDowall himself would not have been in the sound studio when the "awe"interaction occurred. McDowall never indicates what is his source for knowing what happened when Wayne was at the mic.

Peter T Chattaway said...

McDowall makes it sound like Wayne was there for the Via Dolorosa sequences. I had always assumed that Wayne showed up just to shoot that one shot with the voice-over. I'll need to re-watch those earlier sequences, now.