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Spies on Film ~
The John Wayne Movie That Never Was – John Ford, James Ellsworth, and Marine

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 never-filmed Marine.


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 Marine hero.

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.

John Ford

“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.”

James Ellsworth

For other articles by Ronald Payne, check out The James Bond Files, also posted at this website.

We also hope you enjoy the Ron Payne Hollywood Files, available in the Spies on Film section here at Spywise.net.