We’ve all heard it dozens of times after another disappointed moviegoer leaves the theater: “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” One reason is the absence today of the kind of men who once made the movies. Try this test yourself: Think of a few of your favorite movies, and then identify the directors, producers, and writers. You, like I, will probably then say, “No wonder.”
Beau Geste (1939), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), and Westward the Women (1951) are three of my favorites. William Wellman directed them. Born in Massachusetts in 1896, he could trace his paternal forebears in New England back to 1640. His mother was Irish immigrant Cecilia McCarthy.
A natural-born hell-raiser, Wellman was expelled from high school for lobbing a stink bomb that struck the school’s principal on the head. After playing professional hockey for a couple of seasons, he joined the air wing of the French Foreign Legion and learned to fly. He became a fighter pilot with the Lafayette Flying Corps, recording three kills and another five probables. His daring flying earned him the sobriquet “Wild Bill” and the Croix de Guerre with two palms. German anti aircraft fire brought him crashing to the ground in March 1918, and his injuries resulted in his discharge from the Legion.
Upon his return to United States, he joined the Army Air Corps and was stationed at San Diego as a pilot instructor until the end of the war. Since he had good looks and a dashing personality, he was recruited by Hollywood. He acted for a time but didn’t like taking direction. Instead, Wellman quickly rose through the ranks to become a director himself. Because of his bona fides as a fighter pilot, Paramount hired him to direct Wings (1927), the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Wellman flew as one of the stunt pilots in the movie, dogfighting as a German ace and performing a crash landing.
Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956) are also on my list of favorites. Serving as producer or executive producer for the films was Merian C. Cooper, who, like Wellman, was a World War I pilot. A Florida boy, he won an appointment to the Naval Academy in 1912 but became so upset over the Navy’s less than enthusiastic support for aviation that he resigned during his senior year in 1915 and joined the Georgia National Guard to chase Pancho Villa in Mexico. When the United States entered the war, he joined the Army Air Corps and flew on the front until shot down and badly burned in the crash. Captured, he was nursed back to health in a German hospital.
Instead of returning home after the war, he organized the Kosciuszko Squadron, a group of American volunteers who flew for Poland in her fight against the Soviet Union. He spent half a year in combat before being shot down and made a POW. After nine months in a brutal Soviet prison camp, he escaped to Latvia. He was awarded Poland’s most prestigious decoration for valor, the Virtuti Militari.
Returning to the United States, Cooper became a founding director of Pan American Airways. When World War II erupted, he was back in the Air Corps. Colonel Cooper flew as a bomber pilot in both the CBI (China Burma India) and Pacific theaters of the war. Promoted to brigadier general, he was given the honor of witnessing the formal surrender of the Japanese aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.
James Warner Bellah wrote the stories that became the John Ford cavalry trilogy produced by Merian Cooper. Born in 1899 in New York City, Bellah enlisted in the Canadian Army before the United States entered the war. Only a teenager, he served as a pilot in the 117th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. He turned his experiences into the second of his 19 novels, Gods of Yesterday. During the 1920’s, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Columbia and a master’s in history at Georgetown. His formal education later served him well when some critics complained about his depiction of American Indians. He could quickly produce sources and documentation that revealed his portrayals of Indian savagery were entirely realistic.
On the eve of World War II Bellah was back in the military, this time in the U.S. Army. He would serve primarily in the CBI theater and rise in rank from lieutenant to colonel. Much of the time he was with Col. Philip Cochran’s 1st Air Commando Group, flying troops and supplies into remote jungle airstrips in Burma and fighting the Japanese in the skies overhead.
Bellah saw several of his stories turned into screenplays by others but was credited with writing several himself, including The Sea Chase (1955) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Although few know he penned it, Bellah is the author of the famous line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
If we had Wellmans, Coopers, and Bellahs in Hollywood today, they’d make ’em like they used to.