It seems like the plot of a thriller that might have had John Wayne himself as a star. A team of hitmen come after a Hollywood star, but he foils their plot to end his life. But this isn’t a movie; this is apparently what actually happened. When Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decided to take out the legendary cowboy film star, he didn’t reckon on the Duke’s resourcefulness.
Wayne wasn’t just any old cowboy. He was also seen as the foremost hero of war films, with his star truly rising with the success of 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima. He became so iconic, in fact, that in 1975 even Emperor Hirohito from Japan wanted to meet him. And Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had already had that pleasure.
The star’s legend grew over more than 170 films, many of which were successful. So much so, in fact, that Wayne shifted more tickets at the box office than anyone bar Clark Gable. Interestingly, both men began to be seen about the same time, but Wayne’s career peaked for many years longer.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the ever macho Wayne preferred to be known by his nickname of Duke. He was Marion Robert Morrison on his birth certificate, but a firefighter who lived near to him when he was a child named him “Little Duke.” This was because he went everywhere with his dog, a big creature of the name of – you guessed it – Duke.
Indeed, Wayne began his career as Duke Morrison, but that credit appeared only on a single occasion. He later made his first appearance as a star in 1930’s The Big Trail. For this film, it was decided that he needed a new name. Director Raoul Walsh suggested Anthony Wayne – after the Revolutionary War general – but the studio curiously thought it was “too Italian.” So, John Wayne it would be.
That name would become instantly recognizable across America and the world, as Wayne came to represent an idealized American. He himself recognized that he had come to symbolize a certain ethos. And as his career wound on, he started to pick roles that matched that image and he rejected those that didn’t.
Wayne had taken to acting after an injury meant he had to give up a football scholarship to university. The Big Trail led to a string of leading roles in B westerns, but he remained little known. Then, though, he appeared in Stagecoach, the John Ford hit of 1939. With that, his name was made.
It’s been said that Wayne came to embody America’s frontier past. Indeed, this was an idea that the star revisited over and over in many Westerns. In films such as Red River and The Searchers he personified a calm dignity, finding his apex role as grizzled lawman Rooster Cogburn in True Grit in 1969. This part finally scooped the Best Actor Oscar for Wayne.
The Academy Award was far from the only accolade that Wayne would win. In 1979 he was presented with the Congressional Gold Meal, one of the two most significant decorations for civilians. The next year, he was posthumously awarded the other, when President Jimmy Carter granted him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Two decades later, the American Film Institute placed Wayne at number 13 on its list of the Greatest Male Screen Legends. And his illustrious status has even been marked by several places being named after the star. Most notable of them, perhaps, is John Wayne Airport in California’s Orange County.
In his early years, Wayne paid little mind to political matters. Fellow star Henry Fonda would say years later, “When we first made movies together, the Duke couldn’t even spell politics.” But in the 1940s he gained a place on the board of the Screen Actors Guild and became aware of a leftist influence on the movie world.
Wayne became interested in politics after being denied entry into the military during the World War II. He was said to be downcast at his rejection and reportedly never felt wholly comfortable about playing military heroes when he hadn’t actually served. So, he looked for other outlets for his fierce patriotism.
Towards the end of the war, Wayne became a founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA). This group aimed to take on the leftists in Hollywood. There’s talk that he only joined up to keep some of his rightwing buddies happy, but whatever the truth of that, he served as MPA’s president from 1949 through 1952, when Red Scare hysteria had America firmly in its grip.
Studio bosses pleaded with Wayne to step back from politics. They told him that it would end his career to court controversy. However, he laughed in their face as the opposite happened. As he reportedly noted, “When I became president of the Alliance, I was 32nd on the box office polls, but last year  I’d skidded up near the top.”
As president of the MPA, Wayne worked on a “blacklist.” This would be used to destroy the careers of those on it who were said to be communists. And his work caught the eye of the Soviets, in particular of director Sergei Gerasimov, who found out all about Wayne’s work.
Wayne had tasted the anger of communists before. He’d been sent anonymous threats. But when a friend suggested that he might back off a bit on his red-baiting, Wayne was adamant. He allegedly said, “No goddamn commie’s gonna frighten me.” But Gerasimov had the ear of someone who was not just any “goddamn commie.”
Even so, doubt does exist on the subject of how fervent a red-baiter Wayne was in reality. He was recognized to align on the softer side of the right, largely thanks to a willingness to forgive repentant communists. For instance, he accepted Edward Dmytryk back into Hollywood after he recanted leftwing politics.
However, Wayne’s work for the MPA seemed to indicate a fierce anti-red bias. And that was what Gerasimov is said to have reported to Stalin when he returned to Moscow. The Soviet leader was all ears when Gerasimov gave him the lowdown on the blacklist and Wayne’s fierce attacks on communists.
The Soviet dictator was perhaps not in the best frame of mind to receive news of the American star. By this time in his 70s, the stresses of World War II had left him ailing. He’d had what some thought was either a stroke or a heart attack more than once, and he apparently barely bothered with actually governing the Soviet Union.
Instead, Stalin was said to gather his cronies to watch movies – and he didn’t just love Soviet films. As well, he enjoyed European and U.S. products, many of them supposedly filched from Joseph Goebbels’ private collection. The dictator favored detective and boxing flicks and the work of Charlie Chaplin – although apparently not The Great Dictator – as well as Jimmy Cagney’s gangster films.
Above all other genres, though, Stalin supposedly admired cowboy films. According to Neatorama, Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev once claimed, “He used to curse them and give them a proper ideological evaluation and then immediately order new ones.” John Ford westerns apparently had a special place in his heart, so it’s likely he knew the screen work of Wayne pretty well.
Indeed, Stalin may well have seen himself in some of the Duke’s characters. As his biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore put it, “Stalin regarded himself as history’s lone knight, riding out, with weary resignation, on another noble mission. The Bolshevik version of the mysterious cowboy arriving in a corrupt frontier town.”
And the aging strongman didn’t clearly draw the line between what was on screen and what was real. Filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev would write of him in Sight and Sound magazine years later. In his words, “Stalin didn’t watch movies as works of art. He watched them as though they were real events taking place before his eyes, the real actions of people.”
So, somewhat curiously, Stalin sent Gerasimov to attend a peace conference in New York. When the director returned, he had plenty to say about Wayne’s behavior. Stalin was apparently furious about what he heard, so much so that he decided to take action. The plan was simple. A KGB hit team was to go to Hollywood and take John Wayne out.
When news of the hit reached America, the feds didn’t just dismiss it. They offered Wayne some protection, but he was having none of it. According to website All That’s Interesting, he said, “I’m not gonna hide away for the rest of my life. This is the land of the free, and that’s the way I’m gonna stay.”
It’s claimed that the hit squad really did turn up in Hollywood. And having found out that Wayne kept an office on the Warner Brothers lot, they put on disguises as members of the FBI and got through security at the front. Obligingly, they even received directions to find the Duke.
But as we mentioned, the FBI was fully aware that the hit-team had come for Wayne. So, as Wayne and a writer called James Grant took their places in the front of the office, a pretense of normality was established. But genuine agents from the FBI lurked out of sight.
The would-be murderers apparently came into Wayne’s office. But before they could complete the mission that Stalin had set for them, the feds went into action. They jumped out and grabbed the bad guys. Before the two hitmen could touch a hair on Wayne’s head, they found themselves weaponless and cuffed.
That wasn’t the worst of it for the hit team. The feds supposedly bundled them into cars, and off they went to a beach out of town. There, the captives were taken to the surf and forced to their knees. Shuddering, they awaited what they must have feared would be their execution – they could apparently even hear guns being prepared. But they were loaded with nothing more dangerous than blanks.
Well, if the KGB guys were scared by this experience, they were even more frightened of what awaited them when they got back to Russia. Failure would surely not be tolerated. So, they chose to defect on the spot. The watching Wayne was characteristically cool, telling them, “Welcome to the land of the free.” And then off he drove, leaving them to the feds.
You may think that after that attempt, Wayne would change his mind about having protection from the FBI. But no, he knocked back the offer of guards because it would alert his family to the danger. Instead, he changed residences, selecting a place that was surrounded by a high wall.
But even if Wayne was secure behind his towering barriers, perhaps Stalin would try again? His stuntman buddy Yakima Canutt allegedly decided to take action to keep him safe. He and his friends infiltrated red groups in southern California to find out what was going on and whether Wayne was still in danger.
The stuntmen continued to glean information about plots to take Wayne’s life. It seemed that the attempt that the FBI had thwarted was, indeed, not the end of the KGB’s plans. There was allegedly a scheme to attack Wayne on the set of the film Hondo in Mexico in 1953. Luckily for Wayne, this plot was foiled, too.
Then, in 1955 the stuntmen apparently found out about another plot. This time KGB agents were hiding at a printing company in Burbank, California. Canutt and a crew gave them a hiding and sent them packing. Ominously, the stuntmen put them on a plane to Moscow, and that was the last anyone ever heard of them.
Of course, a story this fantastic can’t be taken at face value. But the man who told it, Michael Munn, claimed he had been told it at dinner by Orson Welles in 1983. Munn told U.K. newspaper The Guardian in 2003, “Mr. Welles was a great storyteller, but he had no particular admiration for John Wayne.”
And Welles apparently had impeccable sources for the story of the Wayne plot. He had heard about it from filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk. He, in turn, had been told by another Russian movie man named Alexei Kapler. Bondarchuk hadn’t believed it until he’d spoken to Gerasimov, who gave him confirmation that the tale was legitimate.
Wayne himself received confirmation from an even better source. As we mentioned, Soviet leader Khrushchev met with Wayne when he came to the U.S. in 1959. The two encountered each other at a 20th Century Fox event. There, Khrushchev supposedly told him that the plot had been real, but now was over.
Wayne had apparently taken Khrushchev to one side and questioned him about why the Soviets wanted him dead. The Soviet head honcho told him, “That was the decision of Stalin during his last five mad years.” And he confirmed that he was certain the danger was past, as he continued, “When Stalin died, I rescinded the order.”
However, Wayne was not completely safe from the communist world, as Khrushchev supposedly told him. The Chinese leader Mao Zedong had known all about the plot to have him bumped off. And while Stalin’s order had been rescinded, Mao apparently had his own ideas. And it was very possible that he still wanted Wayne gone.
It seems that Mao really did mean it. In 1966 when Wayne was touring Vietnam, a rumored incident seemingly proved it. While visiting a village, the Duke came under fire from a sniper. The villain was caught by the U.S. military. Peculiarly, he was not Vietnamese but Chinese. And his mission, apparently, had come straight from Mao. This is, to take out John Wayne.