Tonight, for whatever reason, and there were several good reasons he could think of without trying, John Wayne, the Duke as he was known to his friends and millions of fans, felt in a mood to get blind, stinking drunk. Rip-roaring drunk, in fact, to the point of getting into a fight with someone and thrown in jail, if they had a jail in this sorry, no-horse excuse of a town they were encamped in, Ghadames, which the Duke assumed translated into English meant something like butt-end of the universe. If this was an oasis, you could have them. Aside from the shack of a hotel most of the cast and crew were staying at, the modest dwellings of the local inhabitants, assorted buildings that seemed as old as time, plus a few palm trees and bushes, there was nothing for miles around except rocks and sand, as if this place was what was left over after the world had been created, a few useless odds and ends dumped into a remote corner. The Duke could not imagine why anyone would choose to live here. Because they liked deserts? Because no one else could possibly want this place? Or were they all mad?
Somewhere in the growing night a dog yelped plaintively. The desert sky was quickly dimming into black, a few stars already visible. Sauntering down an unlit, unnamed street in his trademark rolling gait, the Duke had a feeling of deja vu. He felt as if he was in one of the countless westerns he'd made over the years, perhaps Stagecoach, where at the end he'd walked down a similar anonymous, lonely, dusty street for a climactic duel with the bad guys. He'd made that movie almost twenty years ago. Where had all the time gone? Making more movies, of course, like the one he was making now, Legend of the Lost, with Sophia Loren and Rossano Brazzi. He was playing a desert guide named Joe January---stupid name---hired by an archaeologist played by Brazzi to find a lost city in the Saharan desert. Sophia was the illegitimate daughter of another archaeologist who had disappeared earlier trying to find the same city and she wanted to come along to find her father. The Duke already had a feeling that this was not going to be one of his more successful films even with this North African location they were using for greater realism, in a new country called Libya.
The Duke came to the end of the street, though that was much too grand a word for just a dirt path between a jumbled assortment of square mud huts that on the outside barely looked fit for human habitation though, the Duke had to grudgingly admit, perhaps the inside was a different matter. One of the crew had told him about a place called Abdullah's out this way on the edge of town where a fellow could get a stiff drink if he wanted. Well, the day's shoot was over, basically the same scene shot over and over again of him, Sophia and Rossano struggling through a white-hot desert on their last legs dying of thirst, and now he wanted that drink. The Duke studied a building set apart from the others, slightly larger but otherwise just as humble. Approaching it, he came to a doorway shrouded by a ragged army blanket, over which was nailed a board that proclaimed in hand-painted white letters: Abdullah's.
The Duke hesitated: did he really want to go in this place? Perhaps there would be strangers who would bother him for autographs or want to talk about the movies, expect him to perform like some big dumb dancing bear, though so far his celebrity hadn't been a problem at all on this location, which was the only good thing about it. Nobody bothered him, which sort of did bother him because he was just as insecure as any actor, especially when he was used to people going gaga over him. But here, except for the respect and even awe the other cast and crew gave him, it was almost like he didn't exist, certainly not on the larger than life terms he was used to. Was that really why he'd gone looking for this joint, not to do some heavy drinking---well, that too---but mainly in the hope that he'd be recognized and treated like the star he was? Hell.
The Duke brushed the blanket aside and entered the establishment. There were no surprises: a long plank supported by several barrels served as a counter, and a dozen small tables with unmatching chairs were scattered about a small room with a dirt floor. There was a tiny stage tucked away in a corner, and a rusty lantern hanging from a ceiling hook provided the only light besides what was able to sneak in from the front doorway and another in the rear. A couple of pillars held up the roof, while the walls were windowless and bare of any decoration.
Besides himself, the only person in the place was the bartender, whom the Duke assumed was Abdullah. The Duke thought Abdullah favored the character actor Akim Tamiroff; same build, expressive eyes over a droopy black mustache. Abdullah looked at him without smiling, waiting. The Duke moseyed up to the bar, hoping that Abdullah spoke English, at least a little.
"I'd like a drink," the Duke said. "Wild Turkey, if you've got it. If not, whiskey will do."
Abdullah came up from behind the counter with the appropriate bottle and a glass that looked clean. "I'm afraid we have no ice," Abdullah said in English, with only a slight accent.
"Hell, that just dilutes it. I'll take the bottle, if you don't mind."
"Not at all."
The Duke took the bottle and glass and retreated to a table. He poured himself a drink, quickly downed it, then disposed of another in the same no-nonsense fashion. He'd learned the pleasures of drinking more years ago than he cared to remember, thanks to his maternal grandfather, Grampa Brown. The old man had a jug hidden in the fields and shared a nip or two with him, starting him on a lifetime of drinking. How old had he been then, seven or eight? He remembered his father had been trying to make a living as a farmer, the damn jackrabbits eating all the crops, then they had given that up and moved to Glendale, putting him into close proximity to the movie business and perhaps setting the course of his life. The Duke wondered what else he could have done if he hadn't gone into the movies. What other direction could his life had taken? Would he have wound up being a drugstore clerk, like his father? No way, that had never appealed to him. So what else could he have done, just worked on the fringes of the movie business all his life as a scenery mover, a grip, which was how he had started out, if he hadn't been lucky enough to make it as an actor? That's probably how his life would have gone except it hadn't gone that way, and he had become the Duke instead. Was it just luck, sheer chance, or the result of his hard work, talent, and ambition? The Duke couldn't honestly say for sure. All of those elements were certainly involved in his rise to stardom, but somehow they didn't fully explain it, either. He was John Wayne, movie star. What did that mean, exactly? He had no control over the forces that had shaped his personality and inclinations: did that mean his success was just random coincidence, or was there some deeper explanation?
The Duke poured himself another drink and lit a cigarette. He supposed what was troubling him was the question of fate, or destiny. Was his own life something that was out of his hands? Was it his destiny to be a movie star? Was everything just destiny? The Duke didn't like that idea, but found it difficult to dismiss out of hand. For one thing, what was he doing in this desert hellhole? Making a movie because he needed the money, but still. Why this particular movie, why here, why now? Surely he could have made another choice, but he hadn't. So here he was, in a tenth rate, foreign saloon, getting drunk. Somehow, it didn't make any sense.
The Duke realized that he wasn't getting drunk anymore, he was drunk. His bottle was more than half empty. Perhaps he shouldn't drink as much as he did, but if he couldn't let his hair down once in awhile, have a little boys will be boys fun that was the right of every American male of age, then what was the point of being him, John Wayne, the Duke, anyway? Sometimes a man just needed a drink, which painfully reminded him of the worst movie he had ever made, The Conqueror, in which he had played Temujin, or Genghis Khan. The only way he had survived making that movie was by staying drunk most of the time. It was like a nightmare he couldn't forget. That picture had had a desert location too, at least an American one though, in Utah. He was going to have to remember not to make any more movies with desert locations that weren't westerns, otherwise he might not have a career left. No wonder he wanted to get smashed tonight with screen debacles like The Conqueror still fresh in his mind, not to mention Jet Pilot, in which he'd played an American fighter pilot in love with a Russian fighter pilot played by Janet Leigh. God, perhaps that was the worst movie he had ever made, both coincidentally produced by the same person, Howard Hughes, who had also played an instrumental role in the courtship of his second wife the hellcat Chata when Howard had flown him down to Mexico one night in his private plane after he'd complained how much he missed Chata. His marriage to that hard-drinking spitfire was probably the worst mistake he'd ever made in his personal life, though they'd had some good times together. He still liked and admired Howard, but hoped to Christ he never got involved with him again in any venture, not with their track record.
His bottle was empty. The Duke didn't remember finishing it, but supposed he must have. He was going to shout for another when he saw Abdullah coming over with a replacement. Good man.
"Thank you," Abdullah said, departing with the empty, leaving the Duke in surprise. Had he said good man out loud? He didn't remember that. "You're a fat old drunk."
The Duke whipped around in his chair. Who the hell had said that? Then he realized no one had, it was just something he had thought, a voice in his head. He turned back around. Christ, he must be really ripped. In that case, there was only one thing to do: keep on drinking, following the perverse alcoholic logic that if he did so he might find some form of clearheadedness or insight on the other side. Uh-huh. He certainly needed it because he had a lot of things on his mind, like his beautiful co-star, Sophia Loren. Goddamn, what a woman. If you didn't like that, you were dead. Maybe that was what was really bothering him, to be faced with such temptation day after stuck in a boring desert, making a bad movie day. He was only human. It was all his wife's fault, Pilar, she should be here with him though of course she had their newborn son to take care of and this location was certainly no place for a woman with an infant, but hell, the pioneer women had survived worse so why couldn't she, which was why he had sent Pilar a telegram telling her to come immediately and she was flying to him even now to save him from the twin demons of loneliness and temptation, hopefully she wouldn't be too late. Sophia: damn! He didn't know they made women like that. Well, he did, but no wonder the whole male world was hot for her. She seemed to like older men, too, not that she'd shown any special interest in him, yet, probably because she was intimidated, Sophia was still a young girl and he was always a little gruff on the set, too all-business, he supposed, but she did seem to go for older guys like Carlo Ponti or Cary Grant or their other co-star Rossano Brazzi, who was really starting to get on his nerves, not because Sophia liked him which was understandable since he was a compatriot, a fellow Italian, but because Rossano had just made the movie South Pacific and was always going around singing or humming his big song from the picture, Some Enchanted Evening. It was driving the Duke nuts. Rossano had a good voice and it was a good song, but he swore if he heard Rossano sing or hum it one more time like he was in the shower then he was going to have to strangle the son of a bitch in mid-note.
Lost in thought, the Duke barely noticed when an old man and a boy came in and sat down at another table. He recognized the boy as being a desk clerk at the local hotel, the nameless dump which housed most of the other cast and crew. Muammar, he thought the kid's name was. Something of a rabblerouser, always making speeches about how the Arabs should unite and overthrow all Western influences. The Duke wondered if the kid was a Communist. Hopefully he'd grow out of that phase, he was still young. As for the old man, the Duke didn't recognize him, but there was defintely something funny about the old coot. He had a long white beard that looked fake, and was so hunched over under the hood of his cloak that the Duke couldn't see his face. All he could see was this fake white beard and tell from certain furtive movements that grampa was trying to sneak a peek at him without being noticed. The Duke had half a mind to go over and introduce himself, it was probably just a fan, but before he could do so three men came in, two Arabs in khaki uniforms accompanied by a foreigner in a grey suit. What was this, a raid? The Duke was vaguely aware that drinking spirits was frowned on in this part of the world, something to do with the local religion. The three came to his table.
"Excuse me," the man in the suit said, reminding the Duke in voice and appearance of a young Henry Fonda. "I'm Hummer Drinkwine. I'm with the American embassy. Mind if I and my friends join you?"
"Not at all," the Duke said in drunken bonhomie, waving an arm. "Have a seat."
The three seated themselves. "I've always wanted to meet you, Mr. Wayne," Drinkwine said. "I've been a fan of yours for a long time now, as have my friends Col. Ali and Col. Hassan."
"We think you are the world's finest actor," said Col. Ali, older and mustachioed. "You deserved an Oscar for your performance as the sheriff in High Noon."
"That was my good friend Gary Cooper," the Duke corrected, more bemused than angry. "And he did win the Oscar."
"You would have done the role better," Col. Hassan said earnestly. "You are still the world's finest actor."
"Thank you," the Duke replied modestly, seeing no reason to mention that while he was second to no man in admiration for the Coop, a straight shooter and true blue American if there ever was one, in his opinion High Noon was a terrible movie, a dreadful piece of anti-American propaganda, especially the scene at the movie's end where the sheriff took off his badge and stepped on it, and there was no way in hell he would have ever played that role, at least not the way it was written.
Abdullah came over. "Would you gentlemen care for anything?"
"Nothing for me, I'm driving," answered Drinkwine. "Boys?"
"Two coffees," Col. Ali ordered. "Black."
Abdullah left. "How's the movie going?" asked Drinkwine.
The Duke assumed Drinkwine meant Legend of the Lost. "It's going all right. We should finish up here in two or three weeks, then we'll go to Rome to shoot the interiors."
"The interiors?" questioned Col. Hassan, brow furrowed. "You mean you're not filming the entire movie here?"
"Nah, they like a more controlled environment for the interior shots. What you see on the screen is never what's going on behind the scenes."
"So true," said Drinkwine. "How are things going with your other project?"
"What other project?"
"Your Alamo project. You are trying to raise funds to make a movie about that subject, aren't you?"
The Duke wondered how Drinkwine knew that. It wasn't really common knowledge, though it wasn't exactly a secret, either. "I'm in negotiations now with potential backers. I hope to have the ball rolling by the end of the year."
"Maybe we can help you," Drinkwine said. "How much do you think you'll need?"
The Duke wondered if this guy was serious. He wished he hadn't been drinking so his head was clearer. "Oh, about ten million," the Duke replied, throwing out an impossibly high figure.
"That's a lot of money," said Col. Ali. "Why do you need so much?" "I want to do things right. Not only is this movie important to me, it's important to America, too. It's about a piece of our past that's become mythical and should never be forgotten."
"Who will direct, the great John Ford?" Col. Hassan asked eagerly.
"I will," the Duke answered, refilling his glass. "This is my baby. I'm not going to trust it to anyone else, even John Ford."
"Does this mean you won't be acting in it too?" asked Col. Ali.
"No, I'll have a part in it," the Duke said, lighting up another cigarette. "I wanted to play a small role like Sam Houston, but I'll probably have to play a bigger part like Davy Crockett."
"Davy Crockett?" queried Col. Hassan.
"Yeah. He fought at the Alamo. He was one of America's greatest frontier heroes."
"Are you sure? I thought it was Daniel Boone."
"Besides, Fess Parker is Davy Crockett," said Col. Ali firmly. "I saw him once on tv when I was in America, so you cannot be him too."
"Mr. Parker played Davy Crockett on a tv show," said Drinkwine, coming to the Duke's rescue. "Mr. Wayne can play him too, and will if he so chooses in his movie. As for Daniel Boone being Davy Crockett, they are both 19th century American frontier heroes, but it was Davy Crockett who died at the Alamo, not Daniel Boone. I hope that clarifies matters."
Col. Hassan nodded thoughtfully. "I see. But Davy Crockett died at the Alamo? I'm not sure I like that. Can't he live, Mr. Wayne?"
"Nope, they all died. Giving their lives for the cause they believed in, making the ultimate sacrifice. That's why it's such a great story."
The two colonels exchanged confused looks. "They all die?" asked Col. Ali. "They don't win the battle?"
"Not at the Alamo, but their side does win the war, because of the heroic sacrifice they made in delaying Santa Anna's army."
"Not exactly true, but why complicate things," Drinkwine said. "It does raise an interesting question: if the Texans hadn't won their war, would you still be making a movie about the Alamo?"
"But they did win," the Duke rejoined, giving Drinkwine his practiced tough guy stare. "Just like America has won and will win every war it's ever going to fight because we're on the side of truth, justice, and freedom. Are you sure you're with the American embassy?"
"I'm an assistant to the ambassador."
Abdullah delivered the colonels' coffee and left. "This is very troubling," Col. Ali said, taking a sip. "I didn't know that they all died. Can't you change it so they don't all die, and win somehow?"
The Duke chuckled. "Not without changing history, pardner. I like your attitude, though. With a few more men, more ammunition, a couple more cannon, they might have held out and--"
"You have to die too?" asked Col. Hassan. "I mean, your character, Davy Boone?"
"Yup. Fighting to the last."
"You can't change that?"
"There is a report that the real Davy Crockett tried to escape at the end by putting on women's clothes," Drinkwine said. "Any chance of that being in your movie?"
"Hell no," the Duke said, more astonished than angry. "Where did you hear that?"
"Mexican sources. They claim that Crockett was taken prisoner dressed as a woman, and then executed. Obviously it could be an attempt to discredit the Alamo legend, but wouldn't it make sense for Crockett to try and escape that way, when it was clear that the battle was lost? Wasn't it his duty as a soldier, to try and preserve himself to fight another day? If you put that in your picture, showed things in a less heroic, more realistic light, then you might have something."
The Duke laughed. "You stick to what you know how to do, pilgrim, and I'll make the movies. I think it's better that way."
The Duke poured himself another drink.
"You are an influential man in your country, no?" Col. Ali asked. The Duke made a non-committal face. "I suppose, in some ways."
"You are a longtime supporter and good friend of Vice-President Nixon, who will most likely be your next president?"
"He will be our next president, and yes I am."
Col. Ali smiled over his tented fingers. "If you could help us with something, we could help you with money for your Alamo project."
"Yes. We would be very appreciative if you would speak to Vice-President Nixon for us about a certain matter of importance."
The Duke shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He felt like he was getting in over his head. "What matter?"
The colonel looked around to make sure no one was listening. "The Singing Sword," he whispered reverently.
The Duke waited for more, but that was it. "What's the Singing Sword?"
"A weapon to scourge our enemies and infidels like the Communists!" Col. Hassan said fervently. "If you could help us obtain one, we would be properly grateful."
The Duke knew he was drunk, but didn't think he was that lit. "What the hell are they talking about?" he asked Drinkwine.
"The Big One," Drinkwine answered. "Also known as the Destroyer of Worlds, or, more simply, the Bomb. They want you to use your influence with the Vice-President to get them one."
"That's nuts," the Duke told Col. Ali, forgetting for the moment that he was a guest in the colonel's country. "Do you think we just give those things away?"
"We just want a small one," pleaded Col. Ali. "We are a new country and it would do wonders for our national esteem. Our neighbors would respect us."
"We would be very grateful not only to you personally, but also to your country as well," put in Col. Hassan. "We are fortunate enough to be sitting on immense oil reserves, according to the latest information, and also there is the matter of your Wheelus air force base. Its lease is coming up for renewal."
The Duke looked at Drinkwine. "Shouldn't you be saying something here? Isn't this your job?"
"You're doing fine, Mr. Wayne. Carry on."
"Just one small bomb," said Col. Ali. "One of your older, obsolete models. Is that so much to ask? It would cement the relationship between our two countries."
"I can't help you," the Duke said. "I don't have that kind of power."
"Such modesty as befits a star of your magnitude," Col. Hassan said admiringly. "You're the great John Wayne, hero to millions. A word from you to the right people would do wonders."
"Would you at least consider our request?" asked Col. Ali.
The Duke sighed. "Sure. I'll think about it."
"That's all we ask." The two colonels got up from their chairs. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Wayne," said Col. Ali. "May Allah be with you. Good night."
The two colonels left. "What was that all about?" the Duke asked Drinkwine.
"They want you to speak on their behalf in the corridors of power. Use your influence with Vice-President Nixon."
"I don't have that kind of influence! Hell, I don't think even the Vice-President could swing what they want, if he wanted to."
"They don't know that. If you could play along, it would be helpful."
"Well, like they said, they are sitting on a lot of oil. Not so far down the road that's going to become very important to us. Also, we would like to keep Wheelus air force base, and it is a definite possibility that one if not both of those two colonels will wind up running this country someday. So we would like to stay on their good side."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Just play along. The next time you meet them, say you'll talk to the Vice-President."
The Duke stared at Drinkwine. "You're not really a diplomat, are you? You're something else."
Drinkwine smiled. "I'm an assistant to the American ambassador. That's all I can tell you."
The Duke closed his eyes and began kneading his forehead. This was like a bad dream. A straight-shooter like him had no use for this sort of intrigue, but if it was for his country, what choice did he have? None, even if he didn't trust this Drinkwine as far as he could throw him.
"All right, I'll---" play along, the Duke was going to say, but there was no one to say it to. Drinkwine was gone. The only proof that there had been anybody at his table besides him were two empty coffee mugs.
The Duke got up. He threw some money on the table, grabbed his bottle, then almost stumbled into a pillar. A poster taped there caught his attention, advertising someone called the Desert Elvis, playing at this joint later tonight. Over the announcement was a black and white photo of the real Elvis in the middle of one of his hip-swiveling performances. In his inebriated state, the Duke had a feeling that this meant something he should pay attention to, but decided to ignore his intuition and staggered out into the night without a backward glance, despite the feeling that someone or something was following him or soon would be.