WAYNE, John

(1907–1979)
   Born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, John Wayne, nicknamed “the Duke,” is for many the name most associated with movie cowboys. A star University of Southern California football player, he turned a summer job as general laborer on the Fox Studios lot (given to him by Tom Mix) into a long career spanning from 1926 to 1976. Early on he made friends with director John Ford, who became his mentor, and began playing bit parts in Ford’s movies. His first starring role was in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail(1930), which, however, did little to promote his career. Throughout the 1930s he starred in dozens of low-budget movies, mostly Westerns. He even starred in some as Sandy the singing cowboy, though his songs were evidently dubbed. The high point of his B Western career was probably his appearances in the quality lowbudget Three Mesquiteer series. Few of the B Western cowboy stars ever made a career transition to A Westerns, but in 1939, John Ford gave Wayne the role of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. This film has occasionally been considered Wayne’s best, and it probably was the best Western he was in, whether or not it was his best acting. The Ringo Kid’s sudden appearance on the road to Lordsburg—standing in the middle of the stage’s path, holding his saddle and gear, thumbing a ride—became an iconic image of John Wayne. He played opposite Claire Trevor, who, along with Maureen O’Hara, became one of the few female stars associated with Wayne during his career. Thereafter, he worked both higher-budget Westerns as well as lower-budget films for Republic. But on the success of Stagecoach, Republic placed him in its most ambitious Western ever, Dark Command (1940), in which Wayne costarred with Roy Rogers. Again, Wayne excelled in the ensemble cast. World War II, though, made John Wayne a true American movie star. While he continued to play in a few Westerns, his pro-American, patriotic war films developed his persona as a hard-edged, uncompromising warrior, unafraid to take any chance, legal or not, ethical or not, so long as it ensured American victory. The combat films made both during the war and in the years immediately following were action packed and, as Richard Slotkin has pointed out, were essentially Westerns in plot, characterization, and mood. With the war over and the United States flush in the midst of a booming economy, audiences were ready to celebrate its victory by revisiting the myths of the past, and John Wayne filled a vital cultural role with the Western roles he assumed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Angel and the Badman(1947) moved Wayne’s career solidly back to Westerns. It was the first film he produced with Batjac, his own production company that was involved in most of his future films. Quirt Evans (Wayne) is the badman, a recovering outlaw of the persona closely associated with Wayne. The agent of the badman’s recovery is a Quaker family—utterly pacifist, utterly nonviolent—and the young daughter (Gail Russell) in particular takes care of Evans. Here Wayne, in his own film, presents the triumph of masculinity in a complex dilemma facing the outlaw: not only whether to return to his past or to accept a Quaker nonviolent life out of love, but how to survive in a world incompatible with nonviolence and yet respect and save those ideals.
   Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) began to move Wayne into more mature roles. Tom Dunson (Wayne) was the father-older brother figure for Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift). Their rivalry for masculine superiority results in one of the great fistfights in the history of Westerns. The fight begins with mutual rage but ends with an almost homoerotic embrace in total exhaustion as Tom acknowledges that Matt is now worthy of his manhood. John Ford called on Wayne once again, this time to transfer his role as combat officer in war films to cavalry officer in the West in Fort Apache (1948), the first of Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, followed in 1949 with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and in 1950 with Rio Grande.
   The usual attack on John Wayne’s acting ability is that he developed one persona and never changed, his own private personality eventually merging with his film personality so that when John Wayne acted, he always played John Wayne. There is much truth in this assertion. While the young Ringo Kid in Stagecoach was a refreshing new character for Westerns, the Ringo Kid had grown up by the 1950s and was becoming little more than a cliche. One reason antimyth Westerns dominated in the 1960s is because of Wayne’s domination of the genre in the 1950s.
   But with John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Wayne would extend his acting as far as he ever would extend it. He played Ethan Edwards, who comes home to Texas from the Civil War. This character is the classic Wayne persona, but that persona changes beyond anything seen in other Wayne films. The Comanches attack the homestead and kidnap Edwards’s two young nieces, so he sets out in pursuit. The quest lasts years. One of the girls is found dead, naked, brutally violated. Edwards becomes obsessed. He pursues the evil Chief Scar (Henry Brandon), knowing he has taken Debbie (Natalie Wood) as his own. At the end of the quest, when he finally finds Debbie, thoroughly Indian now, Edwards’s racist rage has consumed and destroyed his character. He looks on his niece with sheer hatred at what she has become and starts to kill her because she is no longer white. Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) struggles to stop Ethan’s hand, barely succeeding. Then Martin is the one who kills Scar, not Ethan. John Wayne really did become another character in The Searchers. In other films—even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) — John Wayne always played John Wayne. In True Grit(1969) and The Shootist(1976), John Wayne has simply grown old. In The Searchers, however, though he walks onto the screen as John Wayne, his character turns into an obsessed, maniacal Indianhunter intent on saving a white woman, a character not seen in any of his other films. As with Stagecoach and Dark Command, some of Wayne’s best later films are ensemble films. Rio Bravo (1959) is one of his lighter films, perhaps the closest to comedy he ever came. He played the town sheriff holding a prisoner who has lots of family and friends trying to break him free. The only help Wayne’s character has is his old deputy named Stumpy (Walter Brennan), the town drunk (Dean Martin), and a teenaged gunfighter(Ricky Nelson) itching for action. Complications multiply with one misstep after another. Wayne usually let John Ford or others do the directing of his films, but he had long been passionate about developing a film based on the Texas battle of the Alamo in 1836. The Alamo (1960), a big-budget affair filmed near San Antonio, Texas, proved to be a doctrinaire film that audiences even then saw (rightfully so) as heavy on Americanism at the expense of history. Wayne himself played Texas hero David Crockett, who at one point proclaims, “Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat—the same tightness a man gets when his baby takes his first step or his first baby shaves and makes his first sound as a man. Some words can give you a feeling that makes your heart warm. Republic is one of those words.” Because Wayne associated himself so much with the movie and its message of America first, his reputation in the American mind began to change from being a top box-office Western star to being an exemplar of American conservative patriotism. While The Alamowas not a box-office failure, its critical reception was a severe blow to Wayne. As in the past, when Wayne needed to renew his appeal, he returned to John Ford, this time with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another ensemble film with Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin. Stewart is the real star as an eastern lawyer who insults Liberty Valance (Marvin) and is called out onto the street. He can barely shoot, but by sheer luck he guns down the killer. He becomes famous and builds a political career. Only years later does he find out that Wayne’s character had been in the shadows that night and had protected him, killing Valance. Consistent with his character, John Wayne remained in the shadows of this excellent film.
   Early Wayne films followed the common low-budget-Western practice of keeping the star’s name for the character’s name. Thus, in his early B films he nearly always played a character named John, or occasionally Tom, Wayne. Wayne’s case illustrates a common feature of the star persona in that while his performance character, as well as his real life character, was nearly always referential to frontier days or to Western times, in reality, his character was referential only to films of the West, only to depictions of history, not to authentic time or place. This merging of star persona with the actor’s real person was responsible for both the greatness of John Wayne and the decline in his critical reputation after his death.
   While some of Wayne’s best films came out of the 1960s, his image as an all-American hero took a beating during this period. Westerns themselves were undergoing profound change as they began questioning the values that Wayne found most dear. He had not changed, but his culture and his favored movie genre was changing. Adecade earlier, when Senator Joseph McCarthy searched for communists in Hollywood, many stories of heroism emerged as members of the film community resisted McCarthy and his minions, often at great personal cost. Wayne, however, worked with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in helping purge Hollywood of communism. He had publicly complained that High Noon (1952) was un-American. So when American culture became divided over the war in Vietnam, Wayne felt a similar urge to advocate patriotism and American values. The quintessential Western hero tried once again to parlay his reputation as a soldier into a combat film on the Vietnam War, The Green Berets (1968). But Wayne was too old by now, older than any real person could possibly be in combat in the real war. His performance proved embarrassing and a blow to his reputation from which he could never recover, and because the war had become so unpopular by he time the film was released, the American public could not accept its premise and thus could no longer accept John Wayne.
   During this same time, his health was failing as he entered a 15year battle with cancer. His public service commercials fighting cancer showed the all-American hero as frail and failing quickly. Anatural sentimental nostalgia gave Wayne’s career one last boost with his only Academy Award for his role in True Grit, a film about an aging bounty huntersearching Indian Territoryfor the murderer of a young girl’s father.
   John Wayne’s last movie was a deliberate farewell to the public. The Shootist(1976) depicts the story of an aging gunfighter who discovers he is dying of cancer. The cast included friends who had acted with Wayne through the years: Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, and John Carradine. Wayne died of cancer three years later. For many, his death in 1979 signified the end of the classic Western era. No other actor, save perhaps Clint Eastwood, continued the long line of Western actors identified primarily as symbols of the Western cowboy hero. Fortunately, the association of Wayne’s death with the demise of the Western has proven unfounded. John Wayne became more than just an actor of Western movies. He is a perfect example of how a star persona can be transferred from screen to life. His Congressional Medal honored him for representing the ideals of American military heroism, though Wayne never actually served in the military. For many, he came to represent the great ideals of the “American” character. Unfortunately, by the end of his life, he had, for many more people, come to represent unquestioning patriotism and all that was corrupt about the American character. Unfortunately, his political reputation too often clouds our judgment of his role in establishing the classic Western film as a major film genre and a major cultural force in the 20th century.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Wayne,John — Wayne, John. Known as “Duke.” 1907 1979. American film actor who played tough heroes in Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), and True Grit (1969), for which he won an Academy Award. * * * …   Universalium

  • Wayne, John — [ weın, dʒan ] a U.S. actor who played strong brave men, especially in COWBOY movies made between the 1930s and the 1970s …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • Wayne, John — orig. Marion Michael Morrison born May 26, 1907, Winterset, Iowa, U.S. died June 11, 1979, Los Angeles, Calif. U.S. film actor. While a member of the University of Southern California football team, he worked summers at the Fox Film Corporation… …   Universalium

  • Wayne, John — (1907 1979)    Born Marion Robert (later Mitchell) Morrison in Iowa, actor John Wayne grew up in California, and after two years at the University of Southern California in 1927, he began working in film studios as an extra. In 1930, he appeared… …   Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era

  • Wayne, John — • УЭ ЙН (Wayne) Джон (наст. имя и фам. Мэрион Майкл Моррисон, Morrison) (26.5.1907 11.6.1979)    амер. актёр, режиссёр. Учился в ун те Юж. Калифорнии. В кино начинал с кон. 20 х гг. каскадёром. Первая значит. роль в ф. Большая тропа (1930), за к… …   Кино: Энциклопедический словарь

  • Wayne, John — ► (1907 79) Actor cinematográfico estadounidense. Fue el prototipo del hombre del Oeste, rudo y viril, a la vez que romántico y algo irónico. Películas: La diligencia (1939) y Río rojo (1948), entre otras. * * * orig. Marion Michael Morrison (26… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Wayne, John — pseud. di Morrison, Marion Michael …   Sinonimi e Contrari. Terza edizione

  • John Wayne — bei einem Australien Besuch im Dezember 1943 John Wayne (* 26. Mai 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, Vereinigte Staaten; † 11. Juni 1979 in Los Angeles; geboren als Marion Robert Morrison, später umbenannt in Marion Michael Morrison) war ein US amerik …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • John Wayne — Wayne en The Challenge of Ideas (1961) Nombre real Marion Robert Morrison Nacimiento 26 de mayo de 1907 …   Wikipedia Español

  • John Ford (cinema) — John Ford Pour les articles homonymes, voir John Ford (homonymie). John Ford J …   Wikipédia en Français

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