of the American West, which in reality involved stealing land from indigenous
peoples and in some cases eradicating them, is actually a pretty sour
period in U.S. history. This era was completely idealized in American
culture, however, and the truth of the history was "altered"
by popular literature and later in the cinema, by the "western",
which idealized the concept of the "western hero." In the
early decades of the 20th century, any wrongs the country might have
perpetrated during the latter part of the 19th were "erased"
by the image of the lone American Western Hero, cast alongside his horse,
standing tall for the ideals of American patriotism. No Western Hero
in pop culture was bigger than John Wayne, an imposing actor who grew
to iconic status during his lifetime, and a figure that even today stirs
some discontent among liberal thinkers who won't forgive him for the
ills he represented, especially because of his ultra conservative stance
in the later years of his life, when the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam
has all but disappeared from American lore. First popularized by "dime
novels", supposedly recounting the lives and actions of real people,
like Buffalo Bill, the stories of western expansion through the "wide
open spaces" of the American West were prime fodder for the budding
film industry. The film companies built standing film sets in the area
around Los Angeles, and hundreds of "oaters" were produced
on shoestring budgets, igniting the imaginations of a generation of
young filmgoers in the 20s and 30s. John Wayne rose from the ranks of
these low budget westerns to become one of the most respected western
stars in the Hollywood galaxy.
John Wayne, born Marion
Morrison on May 26, 1907 grew up in Southern California and attended
USC on a scholarship. He was a strapping and almost impossibly good
looking alpha male. While in college, "Duke" Wayne became
a prop man on the Fox lot. Impressed with his looks, film director John
Ford cast him in "The Big Trail", a big budget story of western
expansion shot in 70mm widescreen. Although the film was a commercial
failure, Wayne became typecast as a western hero, and by the time Ford
again cast him in his breakthrough film, "Stagecoach", in
1939, the "Duke" had made over 70 low budget westerns.
The archetypal western
hero that John Wayne evoked was a loner, hardhearted, decisive, quick
to act, inflexible but righteous. His characters might not always be
"right" but they were always heroic and larger than life.
The mantle of western hero was shed for a series of war films Wayne
made during the U.S. involvement in World War II during the 40s, and
in between the westerns and the war films, there were some other roles
in different genres, but by the end of the decade of the 40s. Wayne's
"cowboy", epitomized by Tom Dunson in Howard Hawk's "Red
River" in 1948, became an iconic figure for most of the country.
He never really was
able to shake the image he had established, and the directors who worked
with him, specifically John Ford, crafted and refined his iconic image
in film after film as he aged. Today, he is almost forgotten among youth
obsessed with video games and big budget concept films. He's been dead
for almost 30 years. He still commands attention with a devoted following,
however, even though his status as icon was somewhat tarnished because
of his politics during the latter part of his life.
The image grew larger
than life while he was still making films, and with each succeeding
role, he made sure that the ideals he represented were never compromised.
An ardent Republican, Wayne used his celebrity to further his political
causes and anti communist stance. His production company made movies,
such as "The Green Berets", the only movie about Vietnam made
during the war, which was unpopularly pro war. His greatest role was
in Ford's "The Searchers" in 1956, where his character's idealistic
obsession nearly borders on insanity while "searching" for
a girl who was kidnapped by "indians". Ford's films increasingly
dealt with the plight of the Native American, and in "The Searchers"
the truth vs. the legend of the American West was finally being exposed
on film. That didn't stop the legend from growing, however. It is in
another Ford movie starring Wayne, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"
where the line "Print the legend" was coined. The legend of
Duke Wayne continued to grow througout the 50s and 60s.
Wayne is always considered a "movie star" rather than an actor.
Movie Stars developed personas which they played off in film after film.
Wayne's output does match this definition, but he did turn in some powerful
performances, and though not a "trained actor", his screen
work can be quite varied when investigated. His roles in "The Searchers"
and "From Here to Eternity" deserved acting accolades, but
it wasn't until 1969, late in his career, that he was awarded the Oscar
for portraying one eyed Rooster Cogburn in the film "True Grit."
He spent another decade on the nation's movie screens, but during the
70s a differnt kind of movie became popular, and though Wayne's star
never really faded, it did sink lower into the sunset of American film.
Wayne died of lung cancer in 1979. In his last role, in 1976's "The
Shootist", he plays a gunfighter dying of cancer who perishes onscreen.
It was a fitting end to a long and illustrious career.
He has had airports
and schools named after him. During WWII, items as various as paper
towels and C-ration crackers were christened with his name. A lot of
veterans claim their entry into service is because of his movies. In
March 2007, the first "official" John Wayne website will go
online. He will not soon be forgotten in the cultural blender of time.
WHY JOHN WAYNE?
Although the Western film propelled many acting careers into the stratosphere,
Wayne's career superseded those of nearly all who came before or after.
In modern film history, the "western" is almost dead, but
during Wayne's heyday, it was the most popular genre of feature. From
the oaters of the 30s, through the iconic 50s John Ford films, on through
to the rubberstamped period films of the 60s, the tall, commanding image
of John Wayne became ingrained in American cultural history. He embodies
the cowboy, or "western hero", and personifies a complete
culture that virtually ignored the actual history of the founding of
the American West. But even aside from the jingoism and lies perpetrated
by the "myth", the figure of John Wayne is larger than not
only life, but larger than the misconceptions some of the genre in which
he participated perpetrated during the 40s through the 60s. There will
never be another John Wayne.
Photos obtained from various websites
using a Yahoo image search. The movie footage has been embedded from
a user at the YouTube site.
first success was in John Ford's "Stagecoach" in 1939 as
gunfighter the "Ringo Kid".
iconic still from the movie "Hondo". Wayne's particular
ambling walk is one of his trademarks.
specialized in western roles and in service pictures. During World
War II, Wayne fought for every branch of the service in his films.
no nonsense. Ready for a fight. Upstanding. Immovable. The great American
Cowboy Hero. Wayne's persona never mellowed as he aged.
young John Wayne
Wayne collector plate.