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by dr andrew cousins

Screen Legend's Origin Shocks Hollywood

His name is synonymous with the image of the rugged American man. He has become a cinema legend. He is quite simply, John Wayne. However following hours of painstaking research I can reveal that the image hides a quite shocking truth - John Wayne was Welsh.

The first hint of Wayne’s true origins came from an unusual source — Professor Beth Selamin of the Vocal Research Institute, Palo Alta, California.

Beth Selamin: We at the Institute have been working on a computer program that can distinguish between various human languages from a given piece of speech. It’s something that we’ve been working on for a number of years and the software is now tuned to a very accurate degree. In fact we’d recently begun to extend the range of the program so that it would be capable of distinguishing between various regional accents. This is something that could be extremely useful in identifying terrorists for example. As part of the study we had to find volunteers with strong regional accents and enter the various characteristics of those accents into the computer.

For a bit of fun occasionally we would play bits of dialogue from films in to the computer and see what the results were. As time went on it became steadily more and more refined but there was one annoying anomaly. Every time we would play it a bit of John Wayne’s dialogue it kept identifying him as coming from Cardiff in Wales. This became extremely annoying to us, as the rest of the program seemed to be functioning perfectly. So as a check we asked our linguistics expert to listen to some extracts from Wayne’s movies to see if he could identify what it was about his accent that was throwing the computer off track.

Dr Leon Demijohn: I became involved when Beth asked me to listen to some John Wayne movies to see if I could work out the flaw in the program. I started out by watching ‘True Grit’. I’d only got about five minutes into it when it suddenly hit me. There was nothing wrong the computer program — John Wayne was from Cardiff.

Beth Selamin: When Leon first suggested it we just laughed. The idea seemed ludicrous. But then he took us through it and we were convinced.

Dr Leon Demijohn: Accents are a very complex thing. But what we do know is that no matter how hard you try to disguise your accent you cannot stop your natural tones showing through. That’s why Sean Connery or Mike Myers always sound the same no matter which accents they attempt. So when listening to Wayne I noticed that he had a very peculiar way of forming his B’s and V sounds. That’s something that linguists call the "Cardiff calling card". In other words, it’s a very distinctive inflection that is only found in Wales. Just listen to the way he says, "The hell I will". The inflection is so clear that I’m surprised that nobody has noticed it before. Catherine Zeta Jones has exactly the same thing. Listen to her Spanish accent in ‘The Mark of Zorro’ — it’s obvious. Mind you, she’s also a rubbish actress, which doesn’t help.

Dr Andrew Cousins: At this point Professor Selamin and Dr Demijohn came to me with their findings. I was intrigued and decided to investigate further.

The early life of Wayne is not very well known. The authorised version says that he was born Marion Morrison on May 26th 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. He enrolled at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship. He also started working as an extra on silent westerns. Many of them were directed by his friend John Ford. Ford also recommended him for a part in ‘The Big Trail’, which helped to cement his image and made him a star. But the details of much of this are sketchy to say the least. One man who isn’t convinced is American movie critic Leonard Malting.

Leonard Malting: I’ve heard the stories about Wayne being Welsh. For me it just doesn’t add up. Why would he lie about his past? What would he have to gain? The argument I suppose is that the man is an American icon and that would be jeopardised if it were revealed that he wasn’t actually American. But why not be a Welsh icon? Before Richard Burton and Tom Jones not many people around the world were even aware that Wales existed. I certainly wasn’t. I think that gay man caught on to its existence earlier but that can be attributed purely to the influence of Shirley Bassey.

I’m not sold on the idea that Wayne’s accent was phoney. Listen to the man speak. He’s so American he almost looks like a cheeseburger. It’s even been suggested that he has a Welsh walk. Let me tell you that nobody walks like John Wayne. Bowel surgery patients, obviously. But no one else. The idea that his whole life was based on a lie is absurd. Okay, he did change his name. But frankly who was going to take a male movie star with a girls name seriously? A matinee idol called Marion? I so do not think so.

Dr Andrew Cousins: Clearly the idea was controversial. I needed proof. So I went to the records section of Cardiff Library and started looking through the electoral register around the turn of the century. Sure enough I discovered that there were indeed some Morrison’s living in Cardiff at that time. However it wasn’t going to be enough. What I needed was somebody who was old enough to actually remember the family. It seemed hopeless. Then I was told that I might find some of the answers I was looking for at the Wee Twilight Hours Rest home in Pontypridd. It seemed that one of the residents there used to talk about knowing John Wayne. Previously this had been put down to the senile ramblings of an ailing geriatric mind. I decided that the chance was too good to pass up. I visited the home and that’s where I met Pam Evans. Pam is 97.

Pam Evans: Oh yes, I knew the Morrisons very well. I’m 97, you know. They think I’m mad ‘ere. But I knew them. Young Marion had a hell of a time of it you know. Always being teased wasn’t he? On account of him having a girls name see. He used to have a funny walk I remember, even in them days. Well it was the outside lav see? It was bloody cold in winter. Left him with chronic frostbite on the bum. His whole backside was completely numb. I expect that’s why he was so good on those horses. He’d have been able to ride them all day and not feel a thing. Not like the way young Dai down in the village used to ride the horse though. That was just nasty. Got locked up for that he did.

Young Marion was a very good footballer. He played in America you say? I can believe that. They used to called ‘im ‘Mighty Marion’ round our way.

Anyway there wasn’t so much work in the town in those days. His father was a cobbler I think. Or was he a blacksmith? My memory isn’t what it was you know. I’m 97. I remember when they emigrated. "We’re off too America to find a better life". That’s what they said. "Keep in touch," I said to him. "The hell I will" he said. He had a right good sense of humour. That’s a very Welsh thing is that.

Anyway we all forgot about them over the years. You know, what with the world wars and everything. I’m 97, you know. Then it would have been about 1950 I saw a film, I think it was either ‘Fort Apache’ or ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. I didn’t bother with the pictures much. But as soon as he came on the screen I said, "That there’s Marion Morrison!" I said. "It’s bloody John Wayne, you daffy cow," they told me. But I knew it was him. He still had the same walk after all those years. I told you it was chronic didn’t I? That Hitler. He used to live in next door to us you know…

Dr Andrew Cousins: And that is unfortunately where the trail ran cold. Many documents, which could prove conclusively one way or the other, were destroyed in the war. Others have been lost over the last century down the backs of a thousand anonymous filing cabinets.

So was John Wayne Welsh? The circumstantial evidence combined with the scientific analysis of his voice and the eyewitness testimony of Pam Evans certainly provide a compelling argument. Perhaps we never truly will know for sure. Cardiff City Council certainly believes it. They recently announced that a statue of Wayne will be erected at the entrance to the Millennium Stadium. And who knows? Perhaps one day those filing cabinets will reveal their secrets to us. Until then I for one am convinced that John Wayne was indeed Welsh. Perhaps the time has come for cinema history to be re-written.

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