Although he was a contemporary of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Raoul Walsh, William Wellman is not that well-known because he has long been regarded as a studio hack, which is odd since much of his personal life, especially his experiences as a pilot in WWI, found their way into his films. He is probably best known for Wings (1927) or The Public Enemy (1931), but my personal favorites are The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Battleground (1949).
William Wellman was born on February 29, 1896, and his father was an insurance broker with irregular success, so the family sometimes had to move to the poor side of town and eat beans. To make matters worse, his mother was an assistant probation officer, so he had to face her when he was caught “borrowing” cars. After dropping out of high school, Wellman originally wanted to be a hockey player, but failed to make the professional leagues, and drifted from job to job. However, he became fascinated by flying, and hung out around airfields. An attempt to join the United States Air Force (then called the National Aviation Service) in 1917 failed because he was not a college graduate.
As a result, Wellman joined the Norton-Harjes Volunteers as an ambulance driver, and immediately transferred to the Lafayette Escadrille when he arrived in France on June 1, 1917. Life in the French Foreign Legion was far from romantic, conditions were harsh, unbelievably unsanitary, and he was surrounded by hardened criminals. He also soon became accustomed to seeing friends die, like David Putnam, who had guided him through training, and died during the Battle of San Michel, which he used in Wings (1927). In fact, the experience of those few months in France would have a lifelong influence on Wellman.
Their flying training was rough, and only occupied the mornings. Actually, the instructors told them what maneuver to execute, and then let the students figure out how to do it in the air. Wellman was assigned to the Black Cat Squadron, and quickly became a daredevil pilot. Along with his close friend Tommy Hitchcock, he shot down a German plane, which won him a Croix de Guerre, and he later brought down two German planes, while covering an attack by the Rainbow Division. Wellman was shot down on March 21, 1918, and survived, but his back was badly wrenched, so he had serious back problems for the rest of his life. The injury won him an honorable discharge, and he returned to America, where he became a popular speaker at war bond rallies. Eager for action, he re-enlisted, and became a flight instructor.
Wellman got a supporting role in the Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919) through Douglas Fairbanks, but he realized after one film that he hated acting, and wanted to become a director. In fact, he wanted it so much that he gave up a $400 a week actor’s salary for $22 a week in the production department. Fortunately, Will Rogers liked him, and helped him become a propman. His next break came when General Jack Pershing visited the Goldwyn Studio, where he worked, and remembered meeting Wellman in a Paris brothel. When Pershing asked if he could help Wellman, he took Pershing away to talk privately, but in front of the Goldwyn brass. The next day, Sam Goldwyn himself made Wellman an assistant director. After working on a few films in 1921-2, he moved to Fox in 1922. Wellman became close to director Bernard Durning, who gave him his first chance to direct when Durning was recovering from a drunken binge, and then was decent enough to tell the Fox producers what had happened.
Wellman directed a number of films for Fox starring Buck Jones, but after seven films he was unsatisfied with his salary of $185 a week, and was fired when he asked for a raise. A year later, he was still unemployed, and had to accept working as an assistant director at MGM. After doctoring a few MGM films, Wellman was made a full director, and then fired when his first picture flopped. However, he found a job at B. P. Schullberg’s Preferred Pictures, and Schulberg brought Wellman with him when he was made Head of Production at Famous-Players-Lansky (Paramount). His first picture was another disaster, but Schulberg kept him, and his next film was a critical and financial success.
Schulberg then forced the Paramount brass to let Wellman direct Wings (1927) because he was the only director at Paramount who had been a pilot during the war. Wellman threw himself into the film, and worked hard to make the best film possible, taking the time to reshoot scenes until he was satisfied. For the climatic battle scene, he had the army bombard a mile-long location outside of San Antonio, and then had trenches dug, which created such a realistic effect that several pilots who had flown in the war felt nervous when flying over the area. Wellman worked the soldiers and Air Force pilots assigned to the film hard, but kept them satisfied with barrels of beer for the troops and dinners for the pilots, as well as a gift of $50,000 for the mess. In the end, three planes crashed due to Wellman’s fixation with realism, and the Air Force was not pleased.
Wellman had also managed to offend many Paramount bigshots while filming on location, so his contract was not renewed when it was completed. However, the film was a huge success, and won an Oscar, so he hired Myron Selznick as his agent, and got a much better contract with Paramount. He then filmed Legion of the Condemned (1928), which used footage from Wings, and was believed to be modeled on the Layfette Escadrille, but is now lost.
After finishing Young Eagles (1930), his third film on WWI, he left Paramount because he felt the studio was not giving him good pictures. He joined Warner Bros. in March 1930 at $2,500 a week. Wellman fell in love with the script for Public Enemy (1931), and persuaded Darryl F. Zanuck to let him direct, with James Cagney in the lead. It proved to be one of Zanuck’s better decisions, and Public Enemy became Wellman’s biggest hit since Wings. Wellman then made a solid string of successful movies at Paramount. However, when Wild Boys of the Road (1933) failed at the box office, Wellman bid farewell to Warner Bros., and followed Zanuck when he left Warner Bros. for the newly formed 20th Century Fox. Actually, he did not sign a contract with a studio for two years, which might have been due to his growing reputation as a hellraiser after a series of brawls with assistant directors and Spencer Tracy.
Unable to settle down, Wellman worked for almost every studio in Hollywood, and went through three marriages before he married nineteen-year-old Dorothy Coonan in 1934, which lasted until he died. He bounced around from studio to studio throughout the mid 1930’s until he signed a five-year contract with Paramount. However, increasing problems with his back reduced his productivity to a movie a year, and he spent several months in 1940 bed-ridden.
Wellman had acquired the rights to the book The Ox-Bow Incident, but was turned down by every producer in town until Zanuck had the balls to make the film. Wellman was so crazy about the book, he read the entire book to his wife in one night. Zanuck felt the prestige would counter-balance the lack of profit, but he still forced Wellman to sign a five-year contract with 20th Century Fox, where he would make a movie a year, two of which would be sight unseen, which says a great deal about Wellman’s devotion to the project. The film failed in the US as expected, but it was a success overseas.
Oddly enough, although he was a former pilot and made a large number of movies about pilots, many of those films, especially the later ones, devoted surprisingly little time to aerial scenes, possibly because he had burned himself out making Wings. Even more surprisingly, he produced two of the best WWII infantry movies, The Story of GI Joe (1945), and Battleground (1949). As a former pilot, Wellman was extremely resistant to filming war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s The Story of GI Joe because it focused on the infantry, but Pyle was persistent. It turned out to be the right choice, since veterans praised the film as incredibly accurate, and Dwight Eisenhower said it was “the greatest war picture I’ve ever seen.”
Wellman was a rabid anti-communist, but he kept politics out of his films, shooting the Iron Curtain (1948) as a spy thriller, instead of focusing on the Red Scare, and he treated the Communists in Blood Alley (1951) as Indians in a Western.
He signed a three-year contract with MGM in 1949, but despite the financial success of his films such as Battleground and The Next Voice That You Hear (1950), Wellman felt that he was not getting good scripts, so he decided not to renew with MGM even though he was offered a higher salary. Instead, he went to Warner Bros., where he signed a three-year contract with Wayne-Fellows Productions, which became Batjac. When his contract ended in 1956, he decided to remain at Warner Bros. At that point, he was 60-years-old, and his arthritis was making it harder to work. Furthermore, as someone who had been part of the studio system since 1919, he had grown accustomed to the security provided by studios.
Despite being viewed as a director for hire, Wellman had pushed and cajoled for years until he finally persuaded Jack Warner to back his dream project C’est La Guerre, which was based on his experiences in WWI, but he had to do any other film Warners gave him for free in exchange for 50% of the profits. It is a pity that Wellman made Lafayette Escadrille (1958) (the final title of C’est La Guerre) at the end of his career, and he himself was unsatisfied with the final product, which was a dismal box office failure. Darby’s Rangers (1958) was the contractual obligation for Warner Bros., and Wellman’s lack of enthusiasm permeates the film. Unfortunately it was his last film, although he occasionally went through the motions of setting up a project.
He became popular with film scholars in the mid 1960’s, but he is still relatively unknown today. He died of leukemia on Dec. 9, 1975.
Wellman directed almost 80 movies, 20 with a historical theme. He started his career during the silent era, and he even won an Oscar for Wings. He has a reputation as a studio hack because he generally directed whatever the studio assigned him, instead of initiating projects like Ford or Hawks. However, this perception unfairly ignores that he fought hard to get the Ox-Bow Incident made, even accepting a five year contract with Zanuck, and pushed for decades to get C’est La Guerre made. As a former pilot, who made six movies about pilots, it would be expected that his air movies would be the best. However, despite the success of Wings, he is best remembered for The Public Enemy, a gangster movie, The Ox-Bow Incident, a very dark Western, and Battleground and The Story of G.I. Joe, extremely realistic movies about soldiers in WWII. Unlike John Ford, whose films usually added to American mythology, Wellman’s historical films were often bleak, uncompromising descriptions of the past.
Starring Clara Bow and Charles “Buddy” Rogers
Two young fighter pilots with the American Expeditionary Corps in France during WWI are rivals in the air and on the ground since they are in love with the same woman.
The Legion of the Condemned (1928)
Starring Gary Cooper and Fay Wray
The film is presumed lost but the plot was about fighter pilots in WWI.
Young Eagles (1930)
Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Jean Arthur
Another movie about WWI fighter pilots that is presumed lost.
The Public Enemy (1931)
Starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow
Two young men rise through the ranks of the criminal underworld, surviving the ups and downs to eventually become leaders of a powerful gang during Prohibition.
The Hatchet Man (1932)
Starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young
A hatchet man (an assassin for a Chinese tong) is forced to kill his best friend but inherits his friend’s business on the condition that he marries the dead man’s daughter when she comes of age. Fifteen years later the hatchet man has become a prosperous businessman but then another Tong war erupts.
Heroes for Sale (1933)
Starring Richard Barthelmess and Aline MacMahon
Having trouble adjusting to peace time, a WWI veteran becomes addicted to morphine, but becomes a successful businessman until he loses everything during the Depression.
Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936)
Starring Warner Baxter and Ann Loring
After Mexico cedes California to the United States in the 1840’s, the influx of American gold miners abuse the native Mexicans until one man leads a small-scale rebellion against the miners.
Beau Geste (1939)
Starring Gary Cooper and Ray Milland
Three brothers are adopted into an upper-class household but when the family heirloom disappears, they confess to the crime and join the French Foregin Legion, where they find that their sadistic sergeant is as much of a threat as the rebellious Arabs.
Starring Gene Tierney and Preston Foster
A civilian flight instructor patiently helps a British cadet overcome his fear of flying but their bond is threatened when they both fall in love with the same woman.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
Starring Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews
Two drifters ride into a town shortly before news arrives that a local man has been murdered and his cattle stolen. Drafted into a posse, they attempt to prevent the three men caught with the cattle from being hung on the basis of flimsy evidence.
Buffalo Bill (1944)
Starring Joel McCrea and Maureen O’Hara
Bill Cody is an army scout but he is unable to prevent a war from blazing up between the army and his Cheyenne friends, who are furious that the buffalo that they depend on are being slaughtered for their fur. He eventually conceives of setting up a Wild West Show to help easterners better understand the West.
This Man’s Navy (1945)
Starring Wallace Beery and Tom Drake
US Navy blimps during WWII
The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
Starring Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum
War correspondent Ernie Pyle accompanies an infantry company as it fights its away across first North Africa and then Italy where it takes part in the battles of San Vittorio and Cassino, while observing firsthand how the men endure the endless boredom and sudden bursts of terror.
The Iron Curtain (1948)
Starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney
Igor Guzenko is working as a code clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Canada when he realizes that the Soviets are stealing atomic secrets. His growing dissatisfaction with Stalin’s regime drives him to try to tell the Canadian authorities.
Starring Van Johnson and John Hodiak
In December 1944, believing that Germany is on the verge of collapse, Allied forces are taken completely by surprise by a sudden German offensive in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. The 101st Airborne is sent to plug a hole at Bastogne and quickly finds itself surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge.
Across the Wide Missouri (1951)
Starring Clark Gable and Ricardo Montalban
A fur trapper in the 1830’s marries a Blackfoot woman to win permission to trap in her people’s land but after he falls in love with her, he no longer sees her people as savages.
Blood Alley (1951)
Starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall
A freighter captain is persuaded to smuggle a shipload of refugees fleeing the Chinese Communists to Hong Kong.
Darby’s Rangers (1958)
Starring James Garner and Etchika Choureau
The story follows the US Rangers from their formation and training by British commandos to their battles in North Africa and Europe during WWII.
Lafayette Escadrille (1958)
Starring Tab Hunter and Etchika Choureau
Even though America is still neutral, a group of American pilots volunteer to fly for France during WWI.
Further Reading:William A. Wellman-Frank Thompson, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, N.J., 1983.
The only biography on Wellman, Thompson focuses as much on analyzing the films than on Wellman himself, and even describes tracking shots in scenes. However, he succeeds in bringing to life a sadly neglected director, whose filmography deserves much more attention than it has received.