American Icon

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John Wayne :: Biography (190-79)

    "John Wayne is as tough as an old nut and soft as a yellow ribbon." - Elizabeth Taylor

John Wayne's long, final illness in the spring and summer of 1979 unleashed a tidal wave of American emotion. As the media constantly reminded everyone, Wayne was the man who carried 'true grit' over from the movie screen into real life: no self-respecting American could fail to be moved by the sight of the Duke, ravaged by 'Big C" but still a vast and imposing presence, looming up before the TV cameras at the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony. It was an awesome occasion. He said that night.

    'Oscar and I have something in common. Oscar first came to the Hollywood scene in 1928. So did I. We're both a little weatherbeaten, but we're still here and plan to be around for a whole lot longer.'

Two months later he was dead, but even as the old man slipped away Maureen O'Hara and Elizabeth Taylor fought desperately to win him a Congressional Medal of Honour, the highest tribute that can be paid to an American. It was the least President Carter could do, and the American people were able to take part in the medal-wearing too with the mass-minting of duplicate gold awards bearing the simple legend 'John Wayne, American'.

Above all others Wayne was the film star whom America had chosen as its symbol of strength, bravery, manliness, patriotism and righteousness in the post-war years. The film journalist Alexander Walker has persuasively argued in his book Stardom that Wayne:

    '...was the most complete example of a star who has taken his politics into films and his films into public image.'

john wayne
John Wayne, 1931

A Republican at Republic

The image of Wayne as the ultimate American fighting for right grew up during World War II when he played the war-hero in Republic's Flying Tigers (1942) and The Fighting Seabees (1944), and in the wake of Hiroshima when American military might was most in need of justification. In Back to Bataan, They Were Expendable (both 1945), the fiercely jongoistic The Sands of Two Jima (1949), and John Ford's cavalry triology - Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) - he played war leaders who were tough, courageous, compassionate and American. Meanwhile, back at the Hollywood front Wayne, a staunch Republican and President of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, was taking an active part in running Communists out of the film capital - and colleagues out of their livelihood.

The films that also involved Wayne on the production side are those which most cohesively unite his movie and public images. Big Jim McLain (1952), which he co-produced, is pro-McCarthyist propaganda with Wayne as a tough HUAC investigator pursuing 'pinkos'; in The Alamo (1960), his first film as a director, he played Davy Crockett defending Texas against Santa Anna's Mexican army - a martyr for American frredom; The Green Berets (1968) was his second stab at direction and is a vituperative pro-Vietnam War film in which he plays a mercenary routing the Vietcong. As 'pro-American' propaganda this is strong, sometimes unpalatable stuff, and he even recorded an LP called Why I Love America with Robert Mitchum. Now there is a hint of bathos in that title, as there is in the whole of Wayne's over-inflated image as the last American hero, and it would be feasible to suggest that Wayne was aware of it. His Republicanism and anti-Communism (he had read widely in Communist literature and in political science) were sincere, and he was a fervent supporter of Eisenhower, Goldwater and Nixon, but perhaps he knew too the power of talismen, bronze medals and movie images in the art of propaganda. Yet, strange as it may seem, in his greatest films Wayne's characters are not all that America would have them be.


South of the border . . .

If Wayne was and is a symbol of Americanism then, politically and socially, no other actor has done so much to undermine the self- righteous bluster of WASPish - White Anglo- Saxon Protestant - redneck values, both by espousing them and showing the neuroses nagging away at them. Wayne married three Spanish-Americans during his lifetime (so much for The Alamo) and eventually turned to Catholicism on his death-bed. If Ford, Hawks and the directors at Republic hadn't grabbed him for Westerns and war films in the late Forties and early Fifties, he might have been an effective star of film noir, so thoroughly ambiguous and troubled is his image when scrutinized. In fact Ford's The Searchers (1956) is a Western film noir with Wayne as a psychopath trapped in the alternatively light and dark landscape of his own mind. Even if Wayne was politically naive then surely he understood the dreadful frailty of his bloated, brow-beating characters and that the anger, insensitivity and spitefulness of Tom Dunson in Red River (1948), Sergeant Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima and Tom Domphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) showed the bully and the tyrant in the hero who defends his flag at all costs. These characters are tired, unhappy men, soured and warped by their own experiences and plunged into crises of conscience which they can only solve by blasting their way out.

For all their self-sufficiency and arrogant confidence Wayne's movie characters - his American heroes - are lonely, sulky, ill-tempered and desperate. In good moods they tend to be bluff and patronizing - Wayne's grin is cracked; his eyes narrowed under his brow with suspicion. In bad moments they are monstrous; recall the incident in Red River when Dunson bounds across the trail, draws and shoots the cocky gunslinger without stopping his relentless march and lays into his young foster-son Matt (Montgomery Clift), a fury of flailing fists and mad temper. 'I never knew that big sonofabitch could act,' Ford said to Hawks after seeing Red River. As old men or neurotics Wayne was especially effective and knew exactly what he was about, as did Ford - his patron and mentor - and in The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers (1959), a wearied view of the Civil War, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, they share the knowledge that the American Dream has become an American nightmare.

No Janet for John

On other levels Wayne's characters are equally ill at ease. It is significant that in many of his films he is essentially womanless. In Red River he leaves his girl behind (intending to return) but she is killed by Indians; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon finds him as a mawkishly sentimental widower who confides in his wife's grave; in Rio Grande he is estranged from his wife becvause he burnt down her home in the Civil War; in The Searchers the woman he loves is married to his brother; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees him lose his girl to the man who also usurps his heroism. The Wayne persona inevitably engenders sexual disharmony. For such an American hero Wayne frequently cut an impotent, asexual figure - so colossal that he swamps mere masculinity. He was certainly no Gable - after all, how many women find the Duke attractive? - and this is surely not the way the American male likes to view himself.

Of course there is an escape clause, for Wayne is seldom just a tyrant. After Dunson and Matt have fought themselves into the ground in Red River, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) comes up to them: 'Whoever would have thought that you two could have killed each other?' she chides, and the loving father-son relationship is re-established. 'Come on Debbie, let's go home,' Ethan (Wayne) says to his niece instead of killing her as he had set out to do in The Searchers, and it was Jean-Luc Godard who pinpointed the secret of Wayne's appeal when he wrote:

    'How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?'

Elizabeth Taylor was near the mark too when she said in that Congressional Medal plea:

    'He is as tough as an old nut and soft as a yellow ribbon'.

Wayne was capable of an extraordinary gentleness and chivalry and Ford was early to spot this when he cast him as Ringo, an outlaw who treats the whore Dallas (Claire Trevor) like a lady, in Stagecoach (1939). True, he was more accustomed to giving a girl a slap on the behind - most often Maureen O'Hara ('She's a big, lusty, wonderful gal ... my kinda gal') who as the shrewish colleen of The Quiet Man (1952) warrants a playful smack and as the wife in McLintock! (1963) a thrashing with a shovel, but tenderness often undercuts his chauvinism. O'Hara seemed the only female capable of bringing out the erotic in Wayne - caught bare-legged with him in a graveyard during the thunderstorm in The Quiet Man she charges the air between them with sexual electricity - despite his having made three films with Dietrich. In Three Godfathers (1948) and The Alamo Wayne also showed a familiarity with babies and toddlers, but those scenes are best forgotten. Tenderness and warmth are an acceptable part of the noble savage's make-up; allowed to be maudlin Wayne was embarrassing to watch.

Ford's Stagecoach had caught the right mixture of gentleness and toughness, and even gives a glimpse of the uncertainty in the Wayne hero. The opening shot of Ringo twirling his rifle over his arm saluted his arrival as a star, but in fact Wayne was already a well- known face, albeit in B pictures.

Shooting to stardom

He was born Marion Michael Morrison in Winterset. Iowa, in 1907, the son of a druggist who took the family West to Glendale, Los Angeles, when Marion was nine. In 1925 he won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California where the Western star Tom Mix saw him. Mix offered him a job shifting props at Fox and there Wayne met John Ford who employed him as a herder of geese on the set of Mother Machree (1927). He appeared as an Irish peasant in Ford's Hangman's House (1928) and received his first screen-credit as Duke Morrison for a bit-part in Words and Music.

Then Raoul Walsh found him, changed his name to John Wayne and made him grow his hair long for the part of the wagon-train scout in the epic Western The Big Trail (1930). However, the film failed and despite a studio build-up, Wayne was consigned to B Westerns at Columbia, Mascot, Monogram (for whom he made a series as Singin' Sandy beginning with Riders of Destiny in 1933) and eventually Republic on Poverty Row. But he kept in with Ford and was finally bullied by him into a starring career that lasted for forty years.

By the Sixties Wayne had become an American institution, too formidable for the good of his films except when working with Ford or Hawks. The long-awaited Oscar came for his portrayal of Roogster Cogburn, the one-eyed war-horse in True Grit (1969), but it was a tribute to Wayne's long career than to that particular performance. With his last film, The Shootist (1976), man and myth became inseparable: the movie begins with a sequence of clips from old John Wayne movies, a requiem for the character he is playing - an ex-gunfighter dying of cancer - and for himself.

The giants shadow remains

As movie stars go John Wayne is pretty well indestructible, being the survivor of some two hundred films. Even the uncovering of the darker side of his image seems to inflate him all the more, as did the cancer he subdued for so long. 'I hope you die,' Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) shouts in rage at Ethan in The Searchers. 'That'll be the day,' Ethan grins back. Like Ethan, Wayne endures and is here to stay whether he is wanted or not: a dubious American hero but undoubtedly a remarkable screen presence.

John Wayne Dvds available @

Gallery :: Film Posters

You won't be surprised to know but the company with the most varied of John Wayne repro. film posters is amazon. There are a vast array of his posters there - far, far more than here.

They come in various sizes and usually work out to be less than $10 per poster which I don't think is too bad. You get an unusual and beautiful item to hang on your walls and I bet your friends won't have it.

Here, occasionally, you will find an original poster from the time of the release of the movie. They are obviously far more expensive but if you have the money they are worth it as they are works of art in their own right.

John Wayne Film Posters available @


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