click for homepage

                     The Barcelona Review

Author Bio




Though fiction, this story is based on fact.


Duke attempted to squeeze out his line, the way he squeezed the trigger on his six-shooter, the way he had squeezed the last drop of Wild Turkey from the bottle that morning. As he opened his mouth, a sudden wave of nausea rolled through him. He made a feeble attempt to dismount, but it was too late. A moment later, he emptied the contents of his stomach over poor old Steel.
       Duke wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as his breakfast dripped from the stallion’s ears. “Sorry, Steel. Who knew I had such lousy aim?”
       “Cut!” yelled director Dick Powell.

Utah, 1954 Three hundred Tartar horsemen kicked up a mushroom cloud of dust as they thundered across Snow Canyon. The heat was scorching, and John Wayne was reciting his monologue while restrained in a pillory and sweating out 100-proof tequila. His Fu Manchu mustache, fastened to his face with spirit gum, threatened to slip free at any moment. “Look here, Kumlek…” he slurred at the movie’s villain, “so long as I have fingers to grip a sword, your cowardly head isn’t safe on your shoulders!” Kumlek appeared nonplussed–Duke’s fingers were far more practiced at grasping bottlenecks than swords.
       “Cut!” Dick Powell bellowed into his megaphone. “You forgot the line about his daughter.”
       Duke squinted back at him. “Whose daughter?”
       “Kumlek’s daughter!” Powell roared. “She’s lying right in front of you.”
       “I thought that was Fay Wray,” Duke hiccupped, “waiting to get carried off by King Kong.”

Hollywood, 1953“Howard, it’s Brando or bust for this picture,” Powell told the big cheese as they toured the RKO lot.“We need someone with some serious acting chops to pull off this Shakespearean dialogue. If Brando’s out, it’s curtains.”
       Powell returned to his office and discovered John Wayne reclining in his armchair with his size nine Lucchese boots resting on the desk.
       “This is great stuff, Dick,” Duke said, leafing through the script. “What are you going to do with it?”
       Powell shrugged. “Toss it in the can. That script is all wet.”
       Duke rose from the chair. “All it needs is a little star power to dry it out. A big picture needs a big star, and no one is bigger than John Wayne.”
       Powell nearly choked on his cigarette.
       Duke placed his huge mitts upon Powell’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, Dick. Making movies is just like riding a horse–you gotta trust the reins and let ’er buck.”
       You don’t say no to John Wayne, especially when all six-foot-four of his bourbon-aged brawn shows up at your office after hours. That was the first time Powell felt the weight of the movie buck beneath him. It wasn’t the last. Half the set was washed away in a flash flood, and Wayne spent days holed up in his trailer, drunk and popping Dexedrine tablets like Tic Tacs. When he finally emerged, his bloated face would be pointing one way and his hair the other. It stunned Powell the first time he saw it.
       “Holy mackerel, Duke, you’re wearing a rug!”
       “Don’t look so shocked, Dick,” Duke slurred, adjusting his toupee. “It’s real human hair, I assure you, just not my own.”
       To his credit, neither hooch nor harsh weather prevented John Wayne from getting his lines out, but drunk or sober they always sounded the same. Thankfully he didn’t have to walk a straight line when he was on horseback.

Hollywood, sometime later… Dick Powell sat in the RKO reception room with his hands folded in his lap and a Camel cigarette dangling from his mouth. He felt like the truant schoolboy summoned to the principal’s office. He’d heard that Howard Hughes had spent three days watching the rough cut of the picture. Powell was ready to face the music; he had a hunch that Hughes would chew him out and call their flick the biggest flop since the Spruce Goose.
       Hughes appeared a moment later with his ratty little mustache and slicked-backed hair.
       Powell stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray. Finally, this ill-fated fiasco was coming to an end. Whatever Hughes had in store for him couldn’t be worse than the last few months.
       “Well, Dick, you’ve done it this time!”
       “You’re telling me, Howard. I just wanted to shoot a solid picture and ended up with–”
       “A masterpiece!” Hughes clapped Powell on the shoulder. “It’s perfect. Well, almost perfect. We’ll need reshoots.”
       “Relax, Dick. I’m not shipping you back to Utah. I’m bringing the desert here. As we speak, sixty tons of beautiful Escalante Desert sand are headed our way.”
       Powell’s eyes widened. “Sixty tons? You’re kidding!”
       Hughes smiled. “I never joke about my art, Dick.”

Arizona, 1963 Dick Powell was the first to die, seven years after the film landed with a thud at the box office. Cancer. Of the what, no one could say with certainty. John Wayne had just finished spanking Maureen O’Hara on the set of McLintock! when he received the news. “With all them Camels he smoked,” Duke muttered, “it might’ve been cancer of the hump! Well, fellas, let’s pour one out for Dick.”
       Two months later, Duke’s friend Pedro Armendáriz, his sidekick Jamuga in the film, died of cancer via suicide. He snuck a pistol into his hospital suite and shot himself in the heart when he learned his cancer was terminal.
       Duke met with his pal John Ford to drown his sorrows. “Hell of a shame, John. I just wish he had fought ’til the end. Like Dick.”
       Ford nodded solemnly. “I heard Dick Powell spent the last week of his life in a coma.”
       “That might be, but I bet he was fighting like hell in that coma.” Duke took a swig of Wild Turkey. “Dick smiled a lot, but inside he was about as happy as a one-legged tap dancer. Pedro was different. Full of fun, always playing pranks. Did I tell you about the time he brought a Geiger counter on set? He was waving the thing around and going on about Annie, Nancy, Ruth, and Dixie. It sounded like some old-lady knitting circle, but those were the names of the nuclear tests the government had just done. That Geiger counter was going crazy. I thought the thing was busted or that the whole thing was a joke, but maybe the joke was on us. We were within spitting distance of ground zero.” Duke polished off the last of his bourbon. “You reckon it was safe out there, John?”
       Ford shrugged. “Government said it was, but they said the same about asbestos, and now they’re not so sure. I’ve been knee-deep in asbestos, Duke–we used it to create fake snow on sets. Called it pretty names like Snow Drift and Pure White.” Ford shook his head. “It would be a hell of a thing, though.”
       “If Uncle Sam ended up killing John Wayne.”

Las Vegas, 13 years later Three hundred Tartar horsemen thundered across Snow Canyon, and the sound was so immense that it shook the chandeliers of the Desert Inn. “He’s watching that damn movie again,” the maître d’ told the head chef. “That Eastern Western with John Wayne. It makes the whole hotel shake.”
       The head chef spooned some canned peas onto a plate. “No one’s laid eyes on that picture in years–he snatched up every copy. I guess he felt guilty about all those folks that croaked.”
       “I’ve got to start wearing earplugs. I may not have seen that film, but I sure as hell have heard it.” The maître d’ picked up the plate. “Did you sort them? He only likes the little ones. Any big ones and he’ll send it all back.”
       The head chef sighed. “I studied at Le Cordon Bleu, I think I can manage a few fucking peas.”
       On the top floor of the Desert Inn, the once devilishly handsome Howard Hughes was now mostly just devilish. His emaciated frame was filthy, and he was surrounded by boxes of Kleenex and bottles of urine. He clapped his claw-like hands together when the disclaimer appeared on the screen. “Though fiction, this story is based on fact.
       Even at 100 decibels, he couldn’t hear the thundering hooves or Victor Young’s bombastic score. But he could see it. He could see it all. A world of fiction, based on fact. A world shot in CinemaScope, twice as long as it was high and graded in Technicolor. A world where one could almost believe that Utah was the Gobi Desert and that John Wayne was the leader of the Mongol Empire. Howard Hughes smiled; that was a world he’d like to live in. A world contained in a silver stream of light that shimmered in the darkness. Suspended within that flickering, glittering light were a few tiny motes of truth. The rest? Well, the rest was just magic.

© K. P. Taylor 2024


The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization