Spies on Film ~
The John Wayne Movie
That Never Was – John Ford, James Ellsworth, and
By Ronald Payne
Editor’s Note ~
Continuing the “Ron Payne Hollywood Files,”
Spywise.net is pleased to present two articles more or less focused
on the same project.
The first, originally titled "Lights, Camera,
‘Chesty . . . !’” in its first publication on
November 13, 2003, is the story of how film producer James Ellsworth
tried to bring the account of actual World War II and Korean War
hero Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller to the large
screen. One director keenly interested in the project was the legendary
John Ford, and actors vying for the role included the likes of John
Wayne, Lee Marvin, George C. Scott, Steve McQueen, Charlton
Heston, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, and Eddie Albert.
Why wasn’t the film produced? Ron Payne uncovered
the story, which includes bad timing, bad decisions, and the story
behind a little-known documentary produced by John Ford with
narration by John Wayne.
“Chesty”: Tribute to a Legend has
its own story to tell, being only aired once in the U.S. before its
2009 release on DVD.
The second article from 1971 is an interview with James Ellsworth
after he’d signed George C. Scott to play
“Chesty” Puller. But Ellsworth also talks about his
first film, Five Minutes To Live and his thoughts on two
of its stars, Johnny Cash and Ron Howard. Not to mention anecdotes
about Bob Hope, Janis Page, and an interesting connection between
007 producer Albert Broccoli and, of all things, Johnny Cash’s
first movie. Toss in some connections between Patton and the
Read on. . .
Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller was, and
remains, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. In 1962, Puller
found himself needing money. Enter James Ellsworth, formerly James
Raynor Ailsworth, producer of the television series Champions
of Sports and a feature motion picture, Five Minutes to
Live, a Hitchcock-like thriller that is most notable for creating
the movie debut of the late country singing star, Johnny Cash.
Ellsworth envisioned “Chesty” Puller’s story
as “the greatest true life war adventure to ever been filmed in
Hollywood.” But it wasn’t to be.
When “Chesty” Puller’s biography,
Marine! by noted author-historian, Burke Davis, was
published early in 1962 by Little-Brown Publishing of Boston, Ellsworth
made a fast track to Puller’s door in Saluda, Virginia, and
bought the motion picture rights for $50,000, a considerable sum of
money in this period when most studios were still making westerns
and John Wayne was the top box office star in the world. The
contracts were immediately drawn between “Chesty”
Puller, author Burke Davis, who had spent seven years of his life
researching and writing his book, and James Ellsworth Productions,
Inc. Little-Brown, the publishers of Marine! rounded out
the deal, minus various agenting fees.
It seemed for awhile, at least, every major star in Hollywood
wanted to portray “Chesty” Puller. John Wayne put
himself at the top of Ellsworth’s list and courted Ellsworth
for the role through his friend and mentor, Admiral John Ford, who
besides being one of the world’s greatest film directors
– The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers,
The Quiet Man, How Green Was My Valley,
etc. – was also a great and close personal friend of the
Two real life Marine heroes, Lee Marvin, an Oscar winner for
Cat Ballou and who would soon become more famous
for his WW2 film, The Dirty Dozen, and Eddie Albert,
who at the time was starring in the hit CBS television series,
Green Acres, also threw their names into the pot.
In fact, Albert flew to Virginia and met, personally, with Puller,
who thought “Albert ” very suitable, as he had
bravely risked his life during World War 2 “hunting enemy
submarines and had helped liberate some of the darkest
concentration camps in Nazi occupied Europe.” Eddie Albert
had also just finished a major role in Darryl F. Zanuck’s
film of the Normandy invasion, The Longest Day, and
Puller was impressed with the man’s discipline, toughness
and courage under fire.
“Chesty” Puller also liked John Ford, enormously.
Ford had made a star out of John Wayne by casting him in the lead
in Stagecoach. During World War 2, Ford had left
Hollywood fed up with the creative restrictions imposed on his films
by 20th Century-Fox production boss, Darryl Zanuck. Ford also
wanted to get away from a wife he couldn’t love, but
couldn’t divorce and a love affair that was going nowhere
and making his life miserable. Ford was desperately in love with
Katherine Hepburn, but now she was in the arms of Spencer Tracy.
Like other Irishmen before him, Ford sought solace in drink and
work. Ford, born Sean Feeny in New England, often commented
about the Dublin-born author, James Joyce. “He was a
drinker with a writing problem.” This view of the world also
applied to John Ford, who did everything to cover his own personal
pain. Needing an outlet for his pent-up emotions and frustration,
Ford was looking for a good fight and World War 2 seemed just his
ticket – out of Hollywood.
The Signal Corps had already made Colonels out of Jack L.
Warner of Warner Brothers and Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th
Century-Fox. An avid yachtsman, Ford aimed his ambition at the
United States Navy. All throughout the war, Ford filmed the best
color footage of combat in the Pacific, risking his own life again and
again. John Ford filmed “Midway,” as it was actually
happening, just as the first explosive bombs and torpedoes ripped
through the islands, sending everything into flames and deathly
carnage. Ford stood beneath a lookout tower with his 16mm Imo
camera as it took a direct hit. He got it all on film. Carnage, death
and destruction. Ford captured it all. Ford left nothing out. He showed
dead bodies being pushed into shallow graves. He proved with his
artist’s eye what General Sherman had said eighty years
earlier, “War is hell.”
When “Chesty” Puller and John Ford met for
the first time in the Pacific, “war was hell, all right,”
according to Ford, “ and ‘Chesty’ Puller
was in his element. A brave, tough, dedicated Marine. I
couldn’t forget him.”
For other articles by Ronald Payne, check out
The James Bond Files, also posted at
We also hope you enjoy the Ron Payne
Hollywood Files, available in the
Spies on Film section
here at Spywise.net.